You will know by the end of the first chapter if you’re going to love Mosquitoland by David Arnold (Headline, 2015). It gives you a perfect primer to the style and characterization, the references and the themes, and should have you hooked from the start. I read the book when it first came out last September and I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy it so much a second time around, especially with my piles of unread books staring resentfully at me from the shelves, but I needn’t have worried.
Mosquitoland tells the story of Mim, who is traveling from Mississippi to Ohio to be reunited with her mother. Having been hastily relocated by her father without explanation, Mim has overheard enough adult conversations to know something is up, and she’s determined to find out what. Mosquitoland is part road trip, part detective story, and part family and teen drama. There is a pleasingly low-level degree of romance, with a questionably wicked stepmother reporting for duty too. Mim meets a variety of bizarre, sometimes creepy, sometimes wonderful characters, handling each of these encounters with her signature aplomb (which occasionally means “rudeness”). All the while, her progress towards Cleveland is tracked, giving Mosquitoland the sense of a travelogue or road movie.
“Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.” (page 6)
Can I preempt any complaints you might have on reading Mosquitoland before I move on to extolling its many, many virtues? Yes, there are at least two events in the book which are hugely over-dramatic and essentially unrealistic. Yes, I understand that not everybody is going to like Mim. For me, neither of these things is a problem. This is a novel, after all, so a little overblown drama is fine with me, and I love Mim pretty much unconditionally. She has great taste in music, with Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire, and Nick Drake all referenced. I’m a big fan of writers using musical references to provide context to their characters, and, with these mentions, Arnold gives Mim all a sense of delicacy and mystery which the narrator herself tries to hide. With the Elliott Smith mentions, it also means Mim could share playlists with Simon from Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and that makes me happy.
“What is so great about Mim?” I hear you ask. First, she is sensible. At various points in the novel, she is bewildered by homophobia and punches people who mock the disabled. This is the kind of girl I want in my corner. Aside from the central question of what has happened to her mother, Mim is also forced to confront questions about her own mental health, and this is handled in a truly engaging and sensitive way. Storytelling, through letters (the recipient of which is only made clear later on) or the first person narrative, is fundamental to Mim maintaining her grip on reality; as she says, “I’m going to write, and that way I’ll be okay” (page 64). Mosquitoland is a bildungsroman in the tradition of Great Expectations or The Catcher in the Rye, with Mim maturing and developing throughout the novel. Yes, I just compared Mosquitoland to the work of Dickens and Salinger and I’m not even sorry. Just wait and see what I’m going to hold it up against next.
“So…I’m sick. Supposedly. And Dad is worried. Obviously. I think he’s afraid of history repeating itself in the worst way.” (page 174)
In an effort to maintain her equilibrium, Mim frequently asserts who and what she is; for example, “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am empty, cleaned the fuck out” (page 59). Every time she does this, I am reminded of the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (“I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. I am Jack’s broken heart“) and both characters seem dependent on such declarations as a means of staying in one piece, mentally. With mental health being a concern of Mosquitoland, and the style being frequently anarchic, I also found myself thinking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; when Mim is told, “you’re quite mad, you know” (page 239) I can’t be the only person who recalls the Mad Hatter’s assertion that, “we’re all mad here.” As Mim meets more off-the-wall characters and begins to question what is even real, a surreal mood sets in, which echoes the zany journey Alice takes on her own magic mystery tour.
The main point of reference I can offer to lure you into reading Mosquitoland is to compare Mim to the eponymous protagonist of the film Juno. The sense of humor, use of pop culture references, and general air of lovable snark are all present in both works, both producing the same end result: fictional characters I would really like hang out with. Or name my children after.
You know that feeling you experience when reading something really wonderful, that little voice in your head saying, “Don’t you wish you could write something like this?” That’s how I feel about Mosquitoland. Reading it a second time has convinced me once and for all that it is, primarily, one of 2015’s most underrated YA books and, more than that, a really important book. Arnold’s representation of mental illness, in all the various ways in which it permeates Mim’s narrative, is key to the character’s idiosyncrasies, and it is these idiosyncrasies which make Mosquitoland so memorable.
Mosquitoland will be available soon at GPL.