The Reader — A Review

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

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It was 2004, the end of the first day of my second year of college, and I’d spent the evening rushing to finish my story, printing, making copies, smelling the toner on the paper, in love with the words I’d written, terrified to let anyone see them. Crossing bridges between redwoods to get to my Creative Writing class in the lamplit September dusk, I was too preoccupied with my own story to even consider what I was about to read from the other students.

In retrospect, a lot of it was predictable. The dozen or so white guys trying their damndest to write exactly like Chuck Palahniuk, the kid who workshopped a thinly disguised Star Trek fanfic in which he Mary Sue’d himself into a typo-ridden orgy with the entire Enterprise crew, and so on.

And then there was Traci Chee. She wrote a bizarre fable set on the lip of a giant pot of hot oil—a fucking behemoth of a pot. I was infatuated with her prose immediately.

Yesterday morning I finished Traci’s debut novel, The Reader, and I’m still holding that dreamy fuzz around my head in which I’m still half living inside the book and it’s still living in me, tossing me calmly in the rhythm of its storytelling, undulating like gentle waves at sea. It’s a feeling that’s particularly apt for The Reader, a Young Adult adventure novel about a girl with a book in a world where the ability to read is a terrible power, restricted at all costs.

Yes, The Reader is YA fiction, even though Traci’s previous published output, like her short story collection Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, is very much not. Traci often deals with the highly experimental and incredibly surreal, drawing from Calvino and Borges, Danielewski and Eggers, and when I first heard that The Reader was going to be a “genre novel,” I was worried.

It turns out, I shouldn’t have been.

The Reader deftly wrangles genre tropes like “the special teenager” and “the jolly pirate” as compressed bullets of storytelling, setting them up quickly to expand within you or subvert later. The precise surreality and metatextual glee of Traci’s earlier work find themselves in The Reader as well, and are in fact excellent ingredients for a great Young Adult story, paired to the genre’s effusive sincerity and exuberant sense of adventure.

Because The Reader is a Young Adult story, its metatextual devices — hidden messages, blacked-out words, smudged pages and the like — lose the pretentious sheen of “serious” experimental fiction and are allowed to simply be fun. It’s a love letter to every book you’ve ever loved, and to the feeling of getting lost in the book you’re currently reading. It’s stunning.

And for me, who registered my membership card for the Traci Chee fanclub years ago, it’s finally an opportunity to swim delightfully through Traci’s prose for 400+ uninterrupted pages, allowing her to tell a big story, a full story, her way.

The Reader is the first book in a trilogy and Traci’s sitting on a three-book deal with Penguin, because every once in awhile the world works the way it’s supposed to. Traci always worked harder and wrote smarter than anyone else in our Creative Writing program, her sentences always the most considered, her revisions the most daring. Majoring in writing fiction required a level of commitment to the craft of writing that I struggled to keep up with in college, and have struggled to match since. For Traci, I always got the feeling that it was nothing new, and it was exactly where she belonged.

The Reader is a fantastic debut and I couldn’t be more happy with the book I just read or the success of my friend. I can’t wait for the next one.

Buy The Reader on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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