Books

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

An attempt to reach an older demographic with the book makes it a bit of a hard one to pin down, since its hyper-surrealism is probably best suited towards undiscriminating young boys.


I Am A Genius Of Unspeakable Evil And I Want To Be Your Class President

Publisher: Razorbill/Penguin
Length: 303 pages
Author: Josh Lieb
Price: $15.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-10
Amazon

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in November 2007, their actions shut down much of Hollywood and the television industry. That pretty much left Josh Lieb, an Emmy Award-winning writer and Executive Producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to his own devices. With a ton of free time on his hands, Lieb took to penning a young adult novel with the unwieldy title of I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. Already, it has proven to be a successful and lucrative venture for Lieb as the title has sold to MGC/Warner Brothers for a film deal worth about $1 million.

The story concerns one Oliver Watson, Jr., who is a seemingly “ordinary” 12-year-old boy in Omaha, Nebraska, who sleeps through his classes and is considered by his peers and his dad to be fat and lazy – a kid who, in turn, probably loves his mother’s grilled cheese sandwiches a bit too much.

It’s all an act, however, as Oliver is really the third richest person in the world, and hides behind various shadow organizations and corporations to build his personal wealth. He has his own personal blimp, and has even built secret antechambers into the bowels of his school so he can personally spy on his teachers and classmates. He even has henchmen who go about blowing tranquilizer darts into the path of anyone who blocks his way.

Things change for Oliver when someone nominates him to be class president. He initially doesn’t want to run, but changes his mind when his father, who is the president of the local PBS affiliate, makes an off-hand comment about the joys of running for election. Since Oliver has nothing but contempt for his father, he changes his tune and decides to run – resulting in a book that is one-half the movie Election and one-half William Gaddis’ J R.

While this is clearly a humorous young adult novel filled with all sorts of jokes about farts, boogers and underwear, the publisher seems to have an eye on capturing a more mature market as the book comes with blurbs from adult entertainers like Jon Stewart and Judd Apatow. The book is also filled with “adult” references to Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Thomas Pynchon and Vladimir Nabokov, which are probably bound to go over the heads of its middle-school readership. Oliver even cites Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band as his very favourite group, which seems a touch odd, considering most 12- year-olds probably don’t exactly know the words to “Ashtray Heart” off by heart. (I would personally pin a medal on any 12-year-old boy or girl who knows who Captain Beefheart is, let alone listens to him.)

That attempt to reach an older demographic with the book makes it a bit of a hard one to pin down, since its hyper-surrealism (which is reminiscent of the young adult fiction of Daniel Pinkwater) and hyperbole is probably best suited towards undiscriminating young boys. It’s a hard book, sometimes, for an adult to swallow – even if one were to buy into some of the pseudo-magic realist elements or the notion that the narrator may be hallucinating the entire story.

For instance, Oliver claims at one point that he remembers being born, and learning English from the nurses in the maternity ward. (Really?) Then there’s the question of the blimp he rides around in, the secret lair he has constructed beneath his bedroom, and the henchmen who go around behind the scenes and do his master’s bidding. Wouldn’t someone notice that some guy is about to blow a dart at a would-be bully as Oliver makes his way to class? Wouldn’t his parents somehow stumble upon his secret lair at some point? Wouldn’t someone question what a blimp is doing on the Omaha skyline? It all seems too rich, and too much.

And yet for its middle school readership, Lieb does them a bit of a disservice by interjecting the text with funny asides in the form of footnotes. (I’m not sure how many 12-year-olds want to read a book with 118 academic-like footnotes in it.) The novel is also somewhat metatextual in that it comes with (poorly Photoshopped and somewhat unnecessary) pictorial illustrations to augment the actions on its pages, and also boasts transcripts of key conversations that our hero isn’t present for. (The transcripts come from Oliver’s spy network.) It’s as though the book is trying to be more than just another young adult novel by trying to reach beyond its audience, and be something bigger and more important than it actually is.

Still, there are some instances where Lieb hits the mark with some acute observations in the human nature of adolescents, such as this passage:

Girls are idiots, too, but boys are a special kind of idiot. A girl, for instance, will vote for a boy in an election, or go to a movie that’s about a boy, or buy a book that features a boy hero. Boys are much less likely to return the favour. They can’t wrap their feeble minds around the idea that this girl might have anything in common with them. It’s like they can’t recognize girls as human beings.

However, the book seems to push-and-pull between its intended audience, and never quite makes up its mind to who its target reader is: a boy or a full-grown man. It suffers as a result. In the end, Lieb gradually lets its pre-teen demographic win by easing up on the footnotes in the last half of the book, and by offering a particularly rote and predictable ending. The novel, in fact, just ends, leaving a number of subplots unresolved, such as Oliver’s personal meddling in a relationship between his English teacher and another teacher in the school. (Oliver prods his English teacher by leaving personal messages typed onto his cigarettes, which is yet another whopper that’s tough to swallow.)

In short, its hard to really appreciate I Am A Genius… , even though it is mildly funny on a sophomoric level. Perhaps the best advice one could give is to wait until the movie comes out… on DVD. At least that way one could presumably skip over all of the footnotes and, who knows? the movie might have a better handle on whom it is that it is actually speaking to. Presumably, tween boys, not their fathers, who happen to like Judd Apatow and Jon Stewart an awful lot.

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