In David Arnold’s third novel for young adults, The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, we enter the world of Noah Oakman, high-school senior, competitive swimmer, avid reader, and budding writer. He’s a certified good kid, almost alarmingly lacking in angst and equally possessed of good taste in music. David Bowie is one of our hero’s heroes, memorialized in Noah’s daily attire of Bowie tee, navy pants, and boots. This uniform is both a tribute to the artist and an antidote to “decision fatigue.”
Noah is just quirky enough, sensitive in the best sense of the word, smart, and perceptive about his surroundings and himself. He feels, he tells us, “closest to my true self when I am somewhere between my friends and family.” Sometimes his insights are pleasingly sharp-tongued, as in this assessment of Iverton, the Chicago suburb where he lives: “Iverton, Illinois, is the personification of its resident youth: someone gave it the keys, a credit card, and no curfew, and now it thinks its shit doesn’t stink.” Nor is the overwhelming whiteness of Iverton lost on Noah, in part because his best friends, fraternal twins Alan and Val Rosa-Haas, are partly of Puerto Rican descent. Alan and Noah have been friends since they were twelve, when Alan came out to Noah.
For these three, the future seems bright and more or less determined: Noah will go to college somewhere in the Midwest on a swimming scholarship; Alan will go to DePaul; Val, a budding artist, will likely end up at the nearby School of the Art Institute. They are poised fairly comfortably on the cusp, going to house parties, lounging at the Rosa-Haas pool, engaging in friendly sarcastic repartee over Sonic burritos in the high-school hallways.
But things are not always quite as picture-perfect as they appear in communities of great privilege. For Noah, the trouble at hand is a familiar one to any soon-to-be high school graduate. “I’m afraid I’ve outgrown my life,” he tells another young Ivertonian, admitting that he’s not at all sure he wants anything to do with swimming anymore—or college, for that matter. “I want a new trajectory,” he says. “Everything—everyone—in my life is stagnant. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone. For all I know, everyone else is growing too, just in different ways, but—it’s like my life is this old sweater. And I’ve outgrown it.”
But while Noah contends with growing pains, bizarre moments begin to shake up his reality, causing him to question what he believes is true of the people closest to him. His mother’s face bears a scar he’s pretty sure wasn’t there earlier. Alan is hugely into Marvel comics—not DC, as was always the case before. How can this be? Disoriented and confused, Noah begins to isolate himself. Only his adoring younger sister, Penelope-she of the garish, candy-colored outfits and an obsession with Breakfast at Tiffany’s—seems to be her same old precocious self.
If all this sounds like a metaphor for growing up and moving on and out, Noah would probably wryly agree that his life has taken on a spookily novelistic turn. Suddenly, nothing is what he knew it to be. Everyone’s identity seems to be shifting rather than stagnant, oddly unfamiliar; and in turn Noah settles into a new disequilibrium, on the hunt for the solution to all this weirdness.
Arnold, a former Nashvillian and New York Times–bestselling writer, is also the author of Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite. As in these critically acclaimed novels, Arnold’s depiction of contemporary teen life here is heavily seasoned with dialogue in which teens have their say—in authentic, funny voices—about the absurdities of the now. They are smart, jaded, and open-minded; they are sometimes guarded, but always kind at heart. They are their own strange fascinations.
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.