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Matthew Quick, the North Carolina-based author who wrote "Silver Linings Playbook," published his fourth young adult book this week.
"Every Exquisite Thing" is a powerful, dark and engrossing look at conformity and rebellion, reminiscent of "Catcher in the Rye." But unlike that classic tale, Quick’s book also explores the consequences of non-conformity. It also tackles mental health issues rarely addressed in young adult fiction. Rather than a teen boy, his protagonist is a quirky, introverted and disturbingly self-aware teenage girl.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Quick about his latest novel.
On how he started writing about mental health, and writing truthfully
"I’m somebody who has dealt with depression and anxiety my entire life. But I never talked about it until I wrote Silver Linings Playbook. I kind of tricked myself into writing this book that I thought was about football and father son relationships, but I was surprised that subconsciously I was writing a book about mental health. My way of dealing with depression, anxiety in high school was repression. Much like Nanette, I tried to be this perfect kid. I didn't talk about my feelings, I pushed them down, I did what was I was supposed to do."
"Even into my adult years when I was teaching high school English I become this kind of character. My students just call me 'Q,' and it felt very much like every time I walked into the school, which is very much like the school Nanette attends, I put on this mask, I try to toe the party line and tell kids it’s really important to get a high SAT score even though I didn't believe that was true. I got very sick from doing that. It’s something that I did to get tenure, to fit into a community. As a writer I discovered I was finally able to tell the truth in my books and the way that I wasn't allowed to do in my personal life. That was really freeing. So Nanette gets this message, she kind of figures it out at 18, she figures out this secret that I didn't figure out until I was 30. You don't have to do what everyone wants you to do."
"My way of dealing with depression, anxiety in high school was repression. Much like Nanette, I tried to be this perfect kid."Matthew Quick
On the inclusion of teen sex in "Every Exquisite Thing"
"Well I think if you want to tell the truth you have to tell the truth. I remember very clearly when I was teaching there was a first year teacher that was teaching next to me. In the middle of one of my lessons she knocked on the door and was very upset. I went outside in the hallway and said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'I'm reading through these essays, and all these kids are having sex and they're writing about it in the most graphic ways.' I said 'Well, they must really trust you because they are telling the truth.'"
"When I've talked with young people, they have one face that they will put on for the people who don't want to hear about those things, and they are very good at it. I don't think that the book glorifies sex in any way, in fact I think it shows that there are consequences to kids having sex before thinking it out. I don't think it vilifies sex either, and I think people especially in suburbia could do well to have more frank conversations about sex."
On the contrast between characters Alex and Nanette
"I wanted there to be polar opposites for Nanette. On the one hand she has this society that tells her if you're a good girl you'll go to college and you'll become the American woman that everyone's supposed to be. And on the other hand you have Alex who is almost like this anarchist - he wants to take matters into his own hands, he's going to solve his problems with violence. It’s very seductive, especially for a young person, to think like that. But of course there are great consequences, and I guess what I want the reader to think about is, is there some middle ground there is there something in between going all in with your town or completely rebelling, like can we find some middle ground that's healthy?"
On the differences between Quick and Nigel Booker, the author of fictional book "The Bubblegum Reaper"
"There are many differences between myself and Nigel. I don't welcome fans into my home and I put up pretty strong boundaries, primarily for mental health reasons. I'm often kind of bewildered about how do I protect my own mental health and my own personal boundaries but also acknowledge them as human beings. What I see is that there's so many people out there that are hurting and their needs are not being met and I hope that literature is a way to get the job done to a point. Booker was kind of a way to explore the concept, if you will."
By Matthew Quick
The last lunch period before Christmas break junior year, when I arrived at Mr. Graves’s classroom, he was full of holiday cheer and smiling much more than usual. We had been eating alone together for months. But for that day, his wife had baked me a plate of Italian pizzelle cookies, which made me wonder what Mr. Graves had been telling her about me. The cookies looked like giant snowflakes and tasted like black licorice. We each had one, and then Mr. Graves handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper dotted with the white silhouettes of reindeer equipped with enormous antlers. I had never received a present from a teacher before. It seemed significant.
“Just a little something from one cafeteria avoider to another,” he said, and smiled.
I tore into the wrapping paper.
Inside was a paperback novel called The Bubblegum Reaper, written by Nigel Booker. The cover was taped to the spine, and the pages had yellowed. It smelled like an old camping tent that had remained slightly damp for fifty years. On the white front was one of those long Grim Reaper scythes with the curved blade at the top, only it was made entirely of rainbow‑colored gumballs—like someone had arranged them that way on white marble. The image was certainly weird. It both frightened and lured.
I opened the book to the first page.
The dedication read “For the archery pit.”
Bizarre, I thought.
I quickly flipped through the dog‑eared pages and saw that someone had underlined hundreds of passages throughout.
“I read that book when I was your age, and it changed my life,” Mr. Graves said. “It’s out of print. Probably worth some money, but it’s just not the type of book you sell. I scanned the entire thing and made a digital file a long time ago. And I promised myself that I’d pass my copy on to the right student when‑ ever he or she came along. It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us. Anyway, Merry Christmas, Nanette O’Hare.”
When I gave Mr. Graves a thank‑you hug, he stiffened and said, “No need for all that.” Then he laughed nervously as he gently pushed me away.
His doing that made me angry at the time, but later I sort of got why he was being cautious. He saw what was coming before I did, because he was an adult and I was still a kid.
I began reading that night.
The Bubblegum Reaper is about a boy who identifies himself as Wrigley because he’s addicted to Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum. He says it calms his nerves, and he chews so furiously (and often) that he frequently gets jaw aches and even “the occasional bout of lockjaw.” He never tells you his real name as you follow him through a year of high school.
Wrigley mostly observes his classmates, whose company he doesn’t enjoy, and talks about “quitting” all the time, only you really don’t know what he wants to “quit.” I Googled the book and there are theories online—whole websites dedicated to answering the question. Some people think Wrigley wants to kill himself, thereby quitting the human race. Some believe he simply wants to drop out of school. Some people think Wrigley’s talking about God and really wants to quit believing in a higher power, which I’m not sure I get, because the narrator doesn’t mention God even once. There are others who theorize that Wrigley wants to quit America and that the whole book is about communism, but again, I’m not sure I believe that, either.
The problem is that Wrigley falls in love with one of two identical twin sisters named Lena and Stella Thatch, only he doesn’t know which he loves. It happens because one of them likes to talk to this turtle that suns itself on a rock sticking out of the creek near the high school they attend. Wrigley names this turtle Unproductive Ted because it just sits on the rock all day long doing nothing but soaking up the sun. (I love that nickname so much: Unproductive Ted.) From behind an oak tree, Wrigley eavesdrops on the twin talking to Unproductive Ted about all her fears and worries and about something awful her father had done, but you never quite know for sure what that is. What’s certain is that this girl is on the verge of tears the whole time. Wrigley listens patiently to everything the girl needs to get out, and then once he shows himself and she realizes he’s heard everything, Wrigley immediately tries to comfort the twin by saying, “What you just said. All of it. I understand. I really do. I think the same thoughts—well, most of them—too.” She’s mad at first about “the spying,” but then she and Wrigley have this amazing talk about life and their school and how they can’t be honest “outside the woods” and about “just quitting.”
The tragedy manifests when Wrigley leaves her. On his way home, much to his horror, he realizes he didn’t ask for a name and therefore doesn’t know if he had this really intimate experience with Stella Thatch or Lena Thatch, which induces a crippling and nauseating anxiety attack—he actually pukes—because the twin kept saying over and over, “Please don’t tell my sister about this. Please! ” He realizes that he can’t ask one of the twins if it was her by the creek without risking betraying her confidence, because if he asks the wrong twin, it would “ruin everything.” It’s obvious that he can’t get out of his own way, but you feel really sorry for him anyway because in his mind it is an unsolvable problem that tortures him.
He spends months trying to figure out exactly which twin he spoke with and waiting for her to say something to him in school and worrying that maybe she’s waiting for him to make the first move, and he’s also worrying even more that she regrets their private conversation in the woods and never wishes to speak with Wrigley again.
Finally, after months of watching the two twins in the lunchroom, he decides that Lena is his twin, mostly because she sometimes taps her foot nervously when she speaks at the table full of popular girls, but he’s not exactly sure. Furthermore, Lena has begun carrying a handbag with an L stitched into it, which also seems like a very good sign. Maybe she’s sending him a signal about her identity, clueing him in, he thinks.
Wrigley decides to ask Lena to the prom, telling himself that if she says yes, he will know for sure that she was the one who confessed to Unproductive Ted. She does say yes but seems unenthusiastic about the proposal, which confuses him even more.
Wrigley rents a tuxedo and buys a yellow rose wrist corsage, and yet, just before he rings the doorbell at the twins’ home, he realizes that the twin he met in the woods would never want to go to the prom—he knows this because he doesn’t really want to go to the prom, either, and is only in a tuxedo to find out if he has the right sister. He couldn’t care less about any of the rest, or what he calls “pageantry.” The twin who talks to a turtle all alone by the creek would not love the Wrigley who attends the prom, because he is in a costume and is not being true to who he really is—the “plainly clothed Wrigley in the woods.” It’s so obvious, he thinks, and I agree. He cannot attend the prom. It would ruin any chance he had of a true relationship with the right twin.
Wrigley decides that he has failed before he has even begun, and so he doesn’t ring the doorbell but goes to the spot where he and the twin first spoke, thinking that the real sister might be there waiting and maybe they’d talk and end up kissing like at the end of a modern fairy tale. Instead, he finds a bunch of elementary school kids using sticks to spin Unproductive Ted around on the back of his shell, “his four legs cutting a cruel circle in the air, as if he were a turtle top.” Wrigley flies into a rage, grabs the biggest of the kids, and screams “WHY? WHY? WHY?” over and over again.
The elementary‑school‑kid ringleader says he was only having a little fun and they weren’t going to actually kill the turtle, so Wrigley sticks his gum in the kid’s hair, throws him into the creek, and says, “I’m only having a little fun, too, but I won’t actually hold you underwater until you turn blue and drown.”
Then he holds the kid’s head underwater until his friends start to plead for their buddy’s life, begging Wrigley to let him breathe again. When the half‑drowned kid resurfaces soaking wet, he gasps and begs not to be held underwater again. Wrigley lets him go, and the kids run away. Unproductive Ted bites Wrigley’s hand and removes a triangle of skin when our hero sets the turtle upright.
As Unproductive Ted makes his escape, Wrigley bleeds and drip‑dries and curses and waits for the right twin to show up, but she never does.
The parents of the kid he almost drowned arrive instead, and the father throws Wrigley into the creek and starts kicking water up into Wrigley’s face, saying, “How do you like being a bully now? My son is eleven years old and half your size. You’re a scumbag. A complete and utter embarrassment to the community. Why aren’t you at the prom, anyway? You already have the tuxedo on! It’s un‑American to skip the prom. Are you a pinko communist?”
Rather than explain himself, Wrigley strips out of his prom costume, swims into the middle of the polluted creek, where he knows “no one will follow,” floats naked on his back, and says, “Now I understand, Unproductive Ted, why you sit alone on the rock all day long doing nothing. I quit. I’m just going to float here forever and ever and ever.” And then the novel ends with Wrigley laughing maniacally as the stars begin to pop through the night sky above.
On the Internet, there are different theories about the ending, but the predominant thought is that Wrigley is rejecting conventional society—family, government‑run school, even his sexuality—to just be in that moment, floating unclothed in the creek.
Some say it’s a lesson in Zen Buddhism and that Wrigley maybe even experiences enlightenment. It felt like the story wasn’t finished, which upset me because I wanted to know what happened to Wrigley after he got out of the water. I even reread the book three times over Christmas break thinking I had missed something.
Excerpted from EVERY EXQUISITE THING by Matthew Quick. Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Quick. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on June 3, 2016.