Posted on June 1, 2016 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Other Normals by Ned Vizinni
Here be spoilers.
When I was in high school, I spent exactly one afternoon playing Dungeons and Dragons. My character died in the first 45 minutes after falling into a pit of lava and, upon learning that the dungeon master didn’t believe in “do overs,” I never played again. My decision to abandon role playing games (RPGs) wasn’t so much about my character’s premature death as the realization that these games just weren’t my cup of tea. Yet most of my close friends still game and although I never pick up a dice, I know a lot about their culture after living on its periphery for years. Thus, I was excited when I came across The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini, a young adult novel with an RPGer as the protagonist.
The story is told from the point of view of Peregrine “Perry” Eckert, a 15-year-old from a troubled family. His mother and father separated a while ago and have relinquished most of their parental duties to their divorce attorneys — both of whom they married after the legal proceedings were over. His older brother has ambitions to be a rock star and apparently believes that acquiring an alcohol addiction is a prerequisite for this career choice. Despite their obvious dysfunction, Mom, Dad and Bro all consider Perry the strange one because of his obsession for an RPG called Creatures and Caverns (C&C). That’s not to say Perry doesn’t have some valid issues. He vacillates between being very self assured and pathetically insecure, particularly when it comes to issues of puberty and sexual maturity. These topics play a distractingly pivotal role in the book, with author Vizzini using penis size and lack of pubic hair as a kind of, uh, barometer for Perry’s development over 100+ chapters.
Despite his outcast status and shameful lack of body hair, Perry eventually befriends another RPGer named Sam who’s closeted about his love for C&C. Sam only agrees to play the game if it’s done secretly in an empty stairwell at the high school. Considering how RPGs and nerd culture are very mainstream these days, depicting Perry and Sam as being paranoid about their interest seemed odd. Even when I was in high school in the 1980s, my friends never hid their love for RPGs. In fact, they were often in-your-face about it, seeing their hobby as that thing which set apart from, or even above, the ordinary teen rabble.
In The Other Normals, however, interest in RPGs is treated like a drug addiction. Perry is ultimately carted off to Camp Washiska Lake for the summer where he’ll learn to be “normal” by paddling canoes and weaving baskets. As you can imagine, this does not go well. During his first hours at camp, he’s soundly thrashed by a bully, besotted by a beautiful girl, and is spirited away to an alternate universe by Mortin Enaw, the co-creator of C&C and a fantastic red-skinned creature with a prehensile tail. Vizzini spends a lot of pages building Enaw’s “world of the other normals,” but like the aforementioned obsession with pubic hair, this material is often inconsequential as it neither advances the plot nor expands the character relationships. Once we’re in Enaw’s realm of evil overlords, fearsome creatures and pervasive magic, The Other Normals devolves into a cliche fantasy novel with a very predictable ending.
During the first part of the novel, I couldn’t decide whether the author was depicting RPGers as he knows them to be or as he suspects them to be. During the second half, I couldn’t decide if I was reading a parody of sword-and-sorcery novels or an uniformed replication ala Stephanie Meyer’s “vampire” novels. Whichever is the case, The Other Normals is sadly neither authentic nor satisfying.