I’m always suspicious of books that base the bulk of their structure or content on a more famous author’s work. For a long time, it struck me as lazy and would almost instantly turn me off of the book. Fortunately enough for me, author Gaven Extence was discreet enough to keep any of the overly obvious ties to Kurt Vonnegut far enough inside the novel’s plot that I already felt too committed to quit. And even then, I was reading this at the request of my mom, so I doubt I would have anyway.
I’m very glad for this because it taught me the advantaged gained from books written in homage to a different author. The Universe Versus Alex Woods gave me a much stronger appreciation of Vonnegut, an shaving a different perspective on his works was enough to get me itching to reread my favorites (Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, for what it’s worth). After getting through the book, I honestly found myself wishing there had been more of it, perhaps with the book club meetings. It felt strange and almost sloppy to devote that much time to establishing a book club, only to skip over all the meetings but the last one, and the last one serving only as a platform for Mr Peterson’s speech and subsequent decision. The book club plot felt like a loose end that never wrapped up properly.
Still, even after the fact that it’s homage to one of my favorite authors and and even ignoring the striking comparison of Mr Peterson to one of my favorite books, despite these biases the book was still pretty cute. Much more than that, I can’t say, but it was definitely a cute read of a hard subject.
My biggest criticism, and one that not only lasted throughout the novel but actually grew, was with the main character. Alex is a cute character, for sure, with a fun anecdotal-filled personality and story, but he came across very stilted and one sided. The whole bit about he meteor came through as clever, certainly, but a bit forced, as though maybe the author came up with that idea as a separate piece and really wanted to work it into the novel. I suppose you can find some argument for it in a “lighting only strikes once” theme throughout the book, but even (especially) on the last page I was wishing the book has been a whole lot more about Mr Peterson than Alex Woods. Alex Woods, despite the role he plays in the story’s arch, just never seems to experience any bit of character growth. That which seems to have changed in him is merely him finding a way to incorporate a previously unknown element into his already well-established framework.
Tying Vonnegut and his war-based writings into a novel that ends no contradiction in staunch pacifists making a case for assisted suicides and the right to die with dignity was the author’s strongest accomplishment by far. I think I will probably have the greatest appreciation for this book when I find myself having hard conversations about these topics with my children and can share this book with them as a resource. Throughout the book I kept writing down whole blocks of text to quote later on, and most of it was from Mr Peterson. It is his character that shared so perfectly my favorite message from then book, and one that I think a lot of people around the world need to take to heart right now.