By Katy Goodwin-Bates
When Katelyn Ogden blew up in third period pre-calc, the janitor probably figured he’d only have to scrub guts off one whiteboard this year. Makes sense. In the past, kids didn’t randomly explode. Not in pre-calc, not at prom, not even in chem lab, where explosions aren’t exactly unheard of. Not one kid. Not one explosion. Ah, the good old days.
Thus begins Aaron Starmer’s Spontaneous, a YA novel in which a seemingly normal high school in New Jersey suddenly becomes notorious as its senior class start spontaneously combusting. What starts as a few isolated incidents of random explosions soon begins a spate of unexplained tragedies, as the town mourns its losses, the media moves in and the feds take an interest.
It’s safe to say that Spontaneous pushes the limits of good taste, and I loved this aspect of the book. It’s not something I see often enough in literature as a whole, let alone in young adult fiction, which is becoming more fearless but maintains taboos about the extent to which you’re allowed to joke about horrific adolescent deaths. The first few victims come from ethnic minorities, leading to some speculation within the book about possible terrorism; a gay football player suffers the same fate and vocal crazies suggest divine retribution for supposedly deviant sexual proclivities. Mara, the novel’s narrator and main character, gives Spontaneous its biting humor and satirical bent, bluntly assessing first victim Katelyn’s Turkish background as “a pretty badass one. Their armies knew a thing or two about things that go boom.” When sexuality is brought into the kerfuffle, she reasons, “there’s nothing about being gay that makes a person more combustible. Most sane and reasonable people realize this.” Who doesn’t love a little skewering of the extreme right wing?
I loved the first half of Spontaneous. The snarky humour and darkly comic narrative voice amused me immensely, along with frequent consideration along the lines of “can you actually say that?”; I appreciated the boundary-pushing going on in the narrative, largely expressed through Mara’s dry tone.
I did that on purpose. I didn’t give you much of a chance to know Brian and then I was all, like, “oh yeah, side note, that dude exploded too.” I understand your frustrations. Because he seemed like a nice guy, right? He was. Undoubtedly. One of the nicest guys around. He didn’t deserve his fate.
Spontaneous took a couple of turns I didn’t find as engaging as the shocking opening; somewhat inevitably, a romance plot emerges from all the carnage, and, although Mara’s sudden inability to think about anything but her new boyfriend is probably the most realistic aspect of the novel, it felt superfluous to me. If we interpret this as a desire to see more teenagers exploding, I’m not sure what this says about me. Let’s not dwell on it. Another inevitable development comes in the form of attempts at explaining events; as the local community and national media speculate on the causes of the recent explosive events (I’m sorry. I had to), the reader can wonder along with them as to what’s happening. I’m not sure this is properly resolved, which I found a little frustrating, although not detrimental to my overall appreciation of the book.
As someone who actively seeks out more left-field fiction, particularly in my YA choices, I appreciate what Aaron Starmer is doing with Spontaneous. On some level, literature has to occasionally shock and, perhaps, even offend its reader in order to make an impact, and Spontaneous definitely achieves this. The book also shares common ground with some other YA novels I really enjoyed, like Lance Rubin’s Denton Little’s Death Date, Sarah Mlynowski’s Don’t Even Think About It and Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing: the first two in terms of subject matter and the last in its tone and approach. I can’t resist a snarky heroine; it’s a sickness. Spontaneous is not necessarily for the easily offended, but, if you’re looking for something subversive and surprising, look it up.