by Jake Wizner
Young Adult, 304 pages.
Random House Books for Young Readers (2009)
Disclosure: I love Jake Wizner. A lot. So when it came time to read CASTRATION CELEBRATION, I was a whole mess of fuzzy/nervous/excited feelings. I will try to leave my obnoxious crush on SPANKING SHAKESPEARE out of this review.
At a Yale summer program for artistic teens, Olivia and Max run into each other and can’t seem to separate again. While Olivia is there to nurse a broken heart and write a ball-busting, dick-shrinking play called, duh, “Castration Celebration,” Max makes it his goal to pursue her and win the girl that doesn’t want to be won. Their story is paralleled by Olivia’s characters, Jane and Dick, who fall in love, fall out of it, sing songs about Edward Cullen drinking Bella’s period blood and then fall back in love again. Much Ado About Nothing is another overarching parallel.
Now. There has been some hullabaloo about this book already (I’m lookin’ at you, New York Post) because of its sexual content. And when I say sexual content, I don’t mean ugly-bumpin’ porn scenes. I mean jokes about sex, penises, periods, vaginas, sheep-molestation, all of it. Some people are up in arms but this is exactly why it doesn’t really bother me… Wizner writes jokes. For a person with my sense of humor, the bawdiest sex joke won’t really make me blush. It’s harmless.
What struck me about CASTRATION CELEBRATION, as a book, though, is that it all seems like one big joke. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes… not. The whole hook/title/play-within-a-book idea feels like Jake Wizner riffing with himself, coming up with a funny concept and thinking “Wouldn’t that be a freaking hilarious book?” Sometimes, these crack-yourself-up moments lead to really awesome, funny stuff. Other times, developing a one-line inside joke into a book and then actually releasing it into the world can’t compare with the freshness and fun of the original idea. While a lot of CASTRATION CELEBRATION is funny, some of it strains to be so. Some of the musical scenes and songs are great, others feel like they’re trying too hard, like Wizner had a fabulous idea but got in a little over his head once he realized he’d have to develop it all the way.
As I think I’ve said before, I love Jake Wizner’s writing. I love it. His sharp characterizations and effortlessly hilarious dialogue in SPANKING SHAKESPEARE won me over. In CASTRATION CELEBRATION, though, I didn’t feel like the characters were as sharp as they could be. Olivia, Max and Zeke, Max’s roommate, are the standouts, while the others, especially Olivia’s gaggle of female roommates, blend into one another. And some of the dialogue — while it was fun and banter-y and random and totally captured the cadence of a group of hormone-drunk teens shooting the shit and trying for laughs — didn’t elevate all that goodness to the realm of interesting and compelling fiction.
That being said, the book really picks up steam after the first 75 or so pages. I think Wizner struggles a little to nail the tone of this book (which, believe me, I admire so much… a farcical, faux musical, bawdy romp comedy is a tough tone to nail) but finds the true voice of it eventually. As a book, CASTRATION CELEBRATION raised some really interesting questions for me. Can a person write the literary equivalent of Superbad or an SNL sketch and expect audiences to react to it the same way in book form? Even though the script-format scenes of the book are written for the stage, they read like they’d be better in a Judd Apatow film.
This is something I’ve noticed a lot in film/TV/advertising lately. It seems like the lowest common denominator has hit rock bottom since Judd Apatow, The Office, Will Ferrell and others soared to new heights of popularity. Now even Madison Avenue admen with bazillion dollar budgets are casting their version of The Office’s Jim and making him say random stuff/do some physical comedy because they think that’s what the public likes (see: those ridiculous Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld ads). It’s a really interesting phenomenon to watch, because most producers/advertisers/writers are totally clueless about comedy. Jake Wizner, on the other hand, writes excellent comedy. And there are some really funny parts to CASTRATION CELEBRATION. But did Wizner fit this story with the right medium? My gut says no. It reads more like a sketch or a movie. Though, who knows, that might just be the new synergistic format to reach older teen (and especially boy) readers.
CASTRATION CELEBRATION comes out May 26th, 2009. Order it today or pick it up for your grandma, pastor or therapist at your favorite local indie! (I know I’ve used this joke before, but I’m not nearly as funny as Jake Wizner, so gimmie a break!) Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.
For Readers: SEX!!!!! Did I just make you blush? Then you probably shouldn’t read this book. If you can handle a lion’s share of tasteless sex jokes, you’ll be fine. Older readers who are fans of comedy, sex, laughing, sex, smiling, sex, boys, sex, girls, sex, sex, sex and sex will enjoy this book. As with SPANKING SHAKESPEARE, cool kids who hang out with the drama nerds, artists, music geeks and otherwise party on the enlightened fringes of their high school societies will probably find more here than will those who loved PAISLEY HANOVER.
For Writers: I’m still convinced that writers who want to write older teen comedy need to add Jake Wizner books to their curriculum. Another cool thing he does here, as he did in his first book, is intertwine narrative chapters with a character’s “own” writing, in this case, Olivia’s play. This is a popular technique to showcase what a character is thinking, as witnessed by the journaling phenomenon. If you’re looking to add another layer of voice to your character, maybe think about featuring something “they’ve” written in between chapters of narration.