It’s not in the nature of a sci-fi comedy blockbuster to shift boulders in your soul. But with his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green pulls it off.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’s synopsis reads like your average, of-the-cultural-moment romp: Protagonist April May, recently graduated from an art school and languishing in a job at an “aggressively shitty” startup, stumbles upon a 10-foot-tall metal sculpture that looks like a cross between a Transformer and a samurai. She calls up her YouTube-savvy friend, Andy, who races across the city to meet her and get the scoop on the installation before anyone else. April is ambivalent to be on camera, but Andy insists that her visible arty-ness will be more believable, so she agrees. She dubs the robot sculpture Carl, conducts a faux-serious interview with it and then goes home, leaving Andy to edit and post the video on his own.
When she wakes up, the world has changed: Carl sculptures have appeared all over the world, and while people everywhere have been documenting them since their sudden arrival, April and Andy’s video was the first to break the story. The pair has gone viral, and they’re so in demand that April is able to quit her job within days. She becomes the face of the Carls. She becomes the face of humanity. And being The Face, it turns out, is…challenging.
So far, so zeitgeisty. Like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? before it, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing keys into the precise nodes of modern (white, upper middle class, culture-obsessed) anxiety. In 2018’s case, this means being Extremely Online. In the novel’s case, this means a combination of hipsterish philosophizing on the role of art in our disruption-is-progress startup culture, a bit of YouTubers Are Not Your Friends 101 and an existential breakdown over manufacturing authenticity (for art and for fun). Plus, obviously, Transformers as aesthetically badass loci of textual analysis and cultural criticism. (Yes, that is Green as a special guest discussing online personas and authenticity, good eye.)
It’s a lot for Green to tackle, but this barely skims the novel’s premise. To go into more detail, though, would spoil the gut-punch of the Carls’ true meaning and how April, Andy and the world react. It’s safe to say that April’s world grows larger as An Absolutely Remarkable Thing progresses, and in so doing, the novel introduces deeply human themes. There’s an escape room-esque puzzle element that brings the whole of humanity together. There’s a race for ideological survival between optimists and isolationists. There’s hope. And there is, in the end, a gigantic mystery that Green leaves wide open.
Green’s unique understanding of how communities function is the key to how every wild detail of this novel works so well. While he hasn’t stumbled across his own network of mysterious Carls, Green is a terrific cultural communicator who has found his own measure of fame via YouTube popularity that occasionally verges on virality (you might recognize Green and his brother John as the Vlogbrothers), so he has first-hand expertise in this central aspect of April’s story. But he also possesses a voracious curiosity about the universe and humanity’s infinite potential, all of which comes through on every page. The result is that April feels real in a visceral way.
To this end, I recommend tracking down the audio version of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, narrated by Kristen Sieh and Hank Green. Sieh’s April, gravelly-voiced, acerbic and young, is perfect, driving the believability of Green’s creation home. Green, despite sounding no different from his Vlogbrothers and Dear Hank & John persona, is exactly right in the role he plays—although to tell you that role here would be a spoiler. So read the book in print if that is all you can or want to do, but audiobook fans shouldn’t miss this stand-out of the form; residing in April’s head is an experience that adds valuable depth to the work.
When a book deeply changes how you understand the world, it’s challenging to communicate that change to others. But I’m lucky to have been changed by a book that has done the work for me. At the end of the audiobook clip embedded above, in which April has just discovered New York Carl, she tries to articulate her reaction to it like this:
How do I explain how I felt about it? I guess, well, in New York City people spend 10 years making something amazing happen, something that captures the essence of an idea so perfectly that suddenly the world becomes 10 times clearer.
Especially in a place like New York City, a kind of absolutely remarkable creation like Carl can be taken for granted. But while that may be true not across all of pop culture, there are still a few exceptionally remarkable things that rise above the rest of their absolutely remarkable peers. In the pages of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, April’s discovery of New York Carl is one of these exceptions; in the real world, Green’s debut deserves to be another.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.