Hu­man frailty is the heart of Chris Colfer’s ‘Fan­fic­tion’

Ac­tor’s teen novel feels a lit­tle forced, but its aim is true

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - JALEESA M. JONES

There’s some­thing about putting peo­ple on pedestals when they’re just try­ing to stand on their own two feet. There’s al­ways a risk they’ll fall and re­veal them­selves to be hu­man. Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fan

fic­tion (Lit­tle, Brown Books for Young Read­ers, 304 pp.,

out of four) is a story about that fall.

The ac­tor’s teen novel fol­lows four col­lege-bound friends as they gear up for a cross-coun­try road trip, their last hur­rah be­fore life in­evitably takes them on sep­a­rate jour­neys.

We are in­tro­duced to Christo­pher “To­pher” Collins, a smart kid whose ties to his mother and brother keep him teth­ered to his small town of Down­ers Grove, Ill.; Joey Davis, a preacher’s son and as­pir­ing ac­tor thrust on a pub­lic stage by his fa­ther’s call­ing and com­pelled to hide the fact that he’s gay; Sam Gib­son, a born de­signer who longs to change the re­flec­tion in the mir­ror and chan­nels that yearn­ing into art; and Moriko “Mo” Ishikawa, a cre­ative writer who finds sanc­tu­ary in sto­ries when she can’t find it un­der her fa­ther’s roof.

All dream of a life be­yond the sti­fling sub­urb of Down­ers Grove. One hit tele­vi­sion show takes them there: Wiz Kids.

For­mer Glee star Colfer, who also writes the best-sell­ing kids’ se­ries The Land of Sto­ries, knows this ter­ri­tory well and mines his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences to de­scribe the fan­dom be­hind Wiz Kids.

Top-lined by child star-turned-Hol­ly­wood-bad-boy Cash Carter,

Wiz Kids has re­in­forced the group’s un­der­stand­ing of be­long­ing and he­roes. It’s why To­pher sends an email invit­ing the world-fa­mous ac­tor on their trip, though he would have never imag­ined the ac­tor would ac­tu­ally join them.

Nor could he and his friends imag­ine that the real Carter — a rough-around-the-edges, weed-smok­ing cynic — would stray so far from their ro­man­ti­cized vi­sion. But that is the heart of Colfer’s point: Our he­roes are just hu­man.

Un­for­tu­nately, the heart stops there. With its stilted nar­ra­tion and self-con­scious di­a­logue, there’s not much room in Fan

fic­tion to just let the char­ac­ters be, to let them stand on their own two feet — in all of their color, com­plex­ity and con­vic­tion — and trust that read­ers will get it.

The re­sult? Other­wise au­then­tic mo­ments that feel forced and real-life strug­gles that don’t hit home nearly as hard as they should. In­stead of show­ing char­ac­ters’ anx­i­eties — about their gen­der, their sex­u­al­ity, their eco­nomic re­al­ity or their ro­man­tic one — Colfer ex­plains them to di­min­ish­ing ef­fect.

Still, in a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate where peo­ple like the teens in

Stranger Than Fan­fic­tion feel un­der threat, per­haps it’s good that such sto­ries are be­ing told at all. They give space to start a con­ver­sa­tion — one that can go be­yond the con­straints of 304 pages.

MATT WINKELMEYER

For­mer Glee star Chris Colfer’s tale fol­lows four teen friends.

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