Inspiring Young Readers
The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold
I have to admit that it took me a while to tune into this very complicated story - but then I am probably not the intended audience. Perhaps if I was a very intense sixteen year old full of anxiety about moving away from home to college, I might have felt a bit more immediately involved with the eponymous character. But I soon warmed to Noah, albeit in a maternal way as, like many teenagers, he agonises about what he should do with his future and tries to steer himself away from the influence of his parents and teachers. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dustin Hoffman in the famous scene from ‘The Graduate’ when he is surrounded by gushing adults who want to lure him into a future working in plastics.
There is, however, a different tone about this story because Noah’s parents are terribly nice and understanding and try not to be too pushy. They are also remarkably patient about his lack of decisiveness about which scholarship college place he might accept. He is obviously a very bright kid but, rather to his own surprise, has excelled at competitive swimming in recent years and so this is seen to be the obvious route for him to take after finishing High School. Central to his dithering is that he has feigned a serious back injury as an excuse for escaping being defined in this way and I have often wondered if this might happen in real life when the novelty of being very good at a sport wears off.
When the story opens, Noah is beginning to feel oppressed by the lie itself and is thinking about how and when he needs to come clean. He has a very close friendship with his gay friend Alan and his twin sister Val and the three teenagers spend most of their free time together basking in reliving happy memories, making vague plans for the future and good- humoured wisecracking.
Noah is a self- proclaimed eccentric who is, amongst other things, obsessed with David Bowie. He has twelve versions of exactly the same clothes which he wears every day, including a Bowie tee shirt. The ‘strange fascinations’ in the title of the book is from a Bowie song and refers to four things that he is already curious about at the beginning of the story. The first is that he compulsively watches a Youtube video called ‘ The Fading Girl’ which is a piece of art composed of daily self- portrait photos taken over a period of forty years. The second is the need to track down a comedian known as ‘Pontius Pilate’ who once performed at his school and dropped a mysterious photo which Noah has kept. The third is his need to know more about an elderly man with a goitre who lives in his neighbourhood and goes walking every morning. The fourth is to know more about the strange life of Mila Henry who is his favourite author. I know nothing about her work but her website tells me that she wrote four influential books that are ‘among the most analysed, mimicked, banned, and beloved of all time’.
As the story unfolds he gets the chance to find out more about all of these fascinations which together with being beguiled by various co-incidences and patterns between historical events, give his life some curious structure. He can’t make sense of the everyday stuff but at least he can hold on to these.
The pivotal moment is when, after getting very drunk at a party, Noah is lured into an experiment involving hypnotism by the decidedly odd Circuit Lovelock and his attractive sister. He escapes but nothing seems the same after this so that Noah can’t quite distinguish what is real and what isn’t. For instance, why has his mother got a scar that he has never noticed before? And why has his soporific dim pet dog suddenly become alert and almost intelligent? His precocious ten year old sister, Penelope who has her own unlikely obsession with the film ‘ Breakfast at Tiffanys’, seems to be the only constant relationship. He spends some enjoyable time with her, realising along the way that he needs to pay her more attention.
‘It’s exhausting being you‘ says Alan to Noah over half way through the story and I was relieved to know that it wasn’t just my opinion.
I am not terribly good with keeping track of time travel / parallel worlds in stories at the best of times and so struggled to keep up with what has clearly been a very disturbing experience for Noah.
There are plenty of cultural references to music and film throughout the story which I recognised and enjoyed. However, this seems a little strange as I am in my sixties and I can’t help wondering how many teenage readers would get them. It was these references to popular culture I could recognise that kept me reading to the end - along with the affirmation of family life and caring parents which I think is rather unusual in a book of this kind.
Towards the end, Noah and his mother have a heart to heart conversation where she explains that she and her husband have tried their best to guide their children through the ‘maze’ of life and to prepare them for various pitfalls, not always successfully.
Mature and philosophical as he is, Noah is very happy to take this advice - what a good boy.