Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could have been a great book.

This is starting out very much like my review of The Fault in our Stars:

The Fault in Our Stars is a great book.

The most popular book review I’ve ever written, other than the one that was about sexy Sleeping Beauty

If they hadn’t been published in the same calendar year, I’d think that Me and Earl was a direct response to TFioS. Both Me and Earl and TFioS feature cancer, friendship, high school, inappropriate authority figures, sex, and, I think, oblique references to Infinite Jest? I covered the parallels between TFioS and IJ in my review of the former. In Me and Earl, parallels include the inclusion of a filmography, references to a brain fungus and, most directly, a film that “caused an actual death” so I don’t think I’m imagining this.

(In fact, a cursory Google search reveals that Andrews is making his directorial debut with a film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, so now I’m convinced!)

Wondering what DFW would make of two of his biggest fans writing acclaimed YA novels

Whether written by a David Foster Wallace fanboy or not, when it comes to contemporary YA, I find it really hard to suspend my disbelief. Not about the plot, but about the maturity and articulateness of the teenage characters. From my review of TFioS:

I struggled with the dialogue at times. Hazel and Augustus are clearly of above average intelligence and confidence, and I can suspend disbelief, because let’s face it, a realistic portrayal of teenage speech would be unreadable, but, I will never believe that the words “existentially fraught” came out of a 17 year old’s mouth.

That TFioS review again
None of this nonsense in Me and Earl

Jesse Andrews has done it, though: In Greg Gaines, he’s written a teenage boy without the depth, empathy, thoughtfulness, or vocabulary of an Augustus or a Davis (that’s the poor little rich boy of Turtles All the Way Down, who says things like “Life is a series of choices between wonders” and “We are both astonishments, the closest thing in the known universe to a miracle.”) In contrast, here are some choice Greg quotes:

For the purposes of this god-awful book, I have to talk briefly about girls, so let’s see if we can get through that without me punching myself in the eyeball.

Greg Gaines

The Greg S. Gaines Three-Step Method of Seduction

1. Lurch into the girl’s bedroom pretending to be a zombie
2. Go in for a fist pound
3. Suggest that you habitually masturbate all over pillows

This is more of an interior monologue and makes more sense in context

“I want to come here,” I said . “You’re my friend.”
Then I said, “I like you.”
It felt ridiculously awkward saying that. I don’t think I had every said those words to anyone before, and I probably never will again, because you can’t say them without feeling like a moron.

While visiting Rachel in the hospital
Out of the mouths of Gregs

And we haven’t even got to Earl yet.

I also very much appreciate the realistic portrayal of high school dynamics. Not the overplayed, not-as-funny-as-he-thinks run down of various high school cliques that opens the book, but, for example, the unremarked-upon, casual homophobia that permeates Greg’s high school experience:

JUSTIN HOWELL
clearly relieved that it is not a jock or gangbanger or anyone else who will immediately call him a faggot

A lot of the book is written a film script, hence the NAME IN ALL CAPS

To be clear, I’m not saying this is okay or ideal, but it’s absolutely true, and not often portrayed in YA. When I was in high school, boys calling each other “fag” and pronouncing everything “gay” was endemic, and I can’t imagine it’s been eradicated in the 13 or so years between my senior year and Greg’s.

This leads us to the movie, which I also watched, and which sadly erases most of the “realness” as well as the crudeness of the dialog, of which Earl is a master. Early on in Greg and Rachel’s doomed friendship, Greg has to cancel plans with Earl, and:

“Hey, Earl, I can’t watch Alphaville today.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I’m sorry man, I have to hang out with this girl from, uh – this girl from synagogue.”
“Wha-a-at.”
“She’s -“
“Are you gonna eat her pussy?”

It get’s worse (or better) from there. This scene viscerally reminded me of overhearing a group of boys after school, intensely debating who has the best “cock-sucking lips” (candidates included Natalie Imbruglia, among some actual girls – yes, it was the 90s) and the point is: high school boys are horny and disgusting and because they’re still essentially children, they can’t decide if they want to have sex or still kind of think it’s gross, so this is indeed the way they talk.

So it sucks that the movie had to take all that out, presumably to nab a PG-13 rating. I choose to believe that an extremely random reference to Pussy Riot in the film is a shoutout to Earl’s iconic line of questioning.

And a criticism I have to levy against both book and film is the dearth of technology. While Andrews is an Xennial like me, his characters are digital natives, true Millennials, and for Greg to, for example, CALL Rachel rather than text her at the beginning of the book is ridiculous. A guy like Greg would have been SO extremely online, even if he was my or Andrew’s age. Believe me, I knew guys like Greg in the 90s. I didn’t hangout with them IRL, but I talked to them in chat rooms.

So after all this, why is the book just “okay”? While Me and Earl avoids some of the common YA pitfalls, it exemplifies others, like gaping plot holes and a lack of depth. WHY does Greg’s mom insist that he befriend his sort-of-ex girlfriend (explanation never offered)? WHY is Greg so hell bent on resisting all cliques and friends (explanation is kind of offered, but doesn’t ring true)? There’s potential in each of these scenarios that’s never explored. The realism and risks that Andrews takes make for a YA book that got my hopes up, but didn’t quite go anywhere, in the end.

Me realizing this book didn’t reach its potential

Oh, I guess I didn’t spend much time on the romance aspect – because neither does the book. The movie sort of pivots towards Greg + Rachel at the end, and while it “worked” (I sobbed), I felt cheated. I wasn’t crying because of Rachel dying or the doomed-almost-romance, I was crying because no one ever made me a film in high school, or thought I was that important, or changed their life because of me. Which is petty, and made me feel petty. The whole point of the book is that Greg doesn’t do that or think that, and Rachel dies without suddenly becoming important and isn’t revealed to be a secretly special and talented dream girl, she’s just, a girl (what was with those cut-out books?)

Let’s not even get into the fact that Rachel is supposed to be plain and Greg is supposed to be overweight, cause, nope

All that said, I am very excited to see what comes next for Mr. Andrews, both in terms of his DFW adaptation, and this:

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4 comments

  1. annelogan17

    Ok well, I’ve never heard of this book or movie, but I generally avoid YA like the plague, and based on this review, you know exactly why! haha Also, I don’t want to be reminded of being a teenager, because teenage boys are literally the worst.

  2. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2019 | Reading in Bed
  3. Rachel

    I nearly made it through this entire review thinking this was something I did not need in my life, but then I saw that gif of Olivia Cooke and now I think I need to watch the movie because her performance in Thoroughbreds was one of my favorite things ever. Damn.

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