“I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.”
After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.
So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.
Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, “Mosquitoland” is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.
The story: Mary Iris Malone, or Mim, is a seventeen year old who’s been uprooted from her hometown of Ashland, Ohio and sentenced to move to Jackson, Mississippi along with her new stepmother and father. When she finds out that her mother is sick back in Cleveland, she sets out on a journey to find her.
Honestly, I’m looking at what I wrote there and it doesn’t say anything about what this story is really about. It’s about spontaneously letting things happen to you. About trusting the right and wrong people. About mental health and easy and hard solutions. It’s about the bad and good things that happen when you try to fix things alone and apart from the world, and how much it matters to have people around who love you.
Mim at the beginning of the book is a sarcastic, tough, and scared teenager with a lot of resentment for the world and her lot in life. She’s hard, she’s alone and she’s fraught with desperation and the cockiness of being smarter than most of the people in the room, but not having the experience to have great judgement. I fell in love with Mim about two seconds after I started reading her story because she is honestly the most real teenager I’ve read in awhile. Her cockiness makes for some pretty amazing thoughts – clever, sometimes hilarious, always insightful if a little depressing.
Mim is also a storyteller. The novel alternates between chapters in first-person from Mim and letters she’s writing to “Isabel”, an unknown family member.
(Every great character, Iz, be it on page of screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one of the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.)
There are quite a few passages like this in the book – passages where Mim sort of pulls back the camera to a wide angle, showing that she understands the tropes of typical storytelling. Mim’s voice is always matter-of-fact, like she’s telling the truth straight out. But the way she tells her stories and writes her letters shows how much she’s using those tropes of storytelling to try to make sense of her own life. This is her interpretation of the story; only by writing it down can she create sense out of what seems senseless or cruel or horrible about the world around her.
Mim’s stories are complicated by the fact that she has hallucinations. At the beginning of the novel, Mim is being medicated for the hallucinations, and as the book continues, we find out that there are opposing views of whether Mim should be medicated at all. I found this part of the book particularly true to life, and Mim’s sometimes-ambivalence, other-times-resentment towards the drug is so authentic to my own experience taking SSRIs. That is to say – in some ways, Mim feels better when she doesn’t have the hallucinations, but at other times, it seems like she’s almost fighting the drug itself, wanting to see more of what she learns in those visions.
Because what she learns in those visions leads her to connect with herself in weird and wonderful ways. One of these ways is Mim’s ritual of putting “war paint” on herself using her mother’s favourite lipstick. Mim uses this ritual as a way to ground herself in her goal of finding her mother and remind herself of who she is in this world. She’s a warrior who fights for what she believes is right – but, like I said, what is right to her is obviously not necessarily right to everyone else.
It’s in the learning, in the magical balance of all of these elements, and a series of episodes starting on a Greyhound bus and ending up in a truck named Phil that Mim slowly discovers the truths that she needs to know to engage with the world again. And don’t get me wrong, not every adventure she has is a good one – in fact, there’s a lot of bad and dangerous out there that she has to deal with, but I loved how honest David Arnold was about the kinds of things that a girl like Mim might encounter taking a Greyhound across the country. Not everything is pretty and perfect, and there were moments that were downright ugly, but everything serves to teach Mim something about herself.
I read Mosquitoland in two days – I found Mim’s voice so distinct and compelling, and my connection with her was so strong that I was on the edge of tears for two-thirds of the book (and laughing in the other third). I was with her when she jumped in a giant mud pond. I was with her when she put on her war paint. I was with her as she discovered a world that can sometimes be harsh, seedy and frightening, but can and will bring you light if you let it.
Kick-Arse Secondary Characters: Have I spoken about the secondary characters yet? So funny, so real, so alive. Something about Arnold’s descriptions and characterizations completely spoke to me, from the unexpectedly sweet old lady sitting beside Mim on the bus to the horrible Poncho Man to Walt, the friend with Down’s Syndrome who is wise in his own ways, to the beautiful and perfect and sometimes-not-so-perfect Beck. I fell for these characters so strongly, I almost cried when they had to go away – even the bad ones.
Wise and Effervescent Writing: There is no doubt that every word in this book was thought about and mulled over – the way the writing was strung together was charmingly insightful, strange yet beautiful. Anyone who loves great writing will appreciate this book, but anyone who gets feels and chills from emotional and unique writing will FREAK OUT like I did over this book. A couple quotes:
“People just can’t help themselves when it comes to quotation marks. As if they’re completely paralyzed by this particular punctuation. I guess it’s really not that big of a deal, but it does seem to be a widespread brand of easily avoidable buffoonery.”
“For a few seconds, we lie there, not talking, just taking in the sheer distance and scope of the stars. I think about how quickly things have changed for me. But that’s the personality of change, isn’t it? When it’s slow, it’s called growth; when it’s fast, it’s change.”
“There are times when talking just pushes out the tears. So I float in silence, watching the final touches of this perfect moonrise, and in a moment of heavenly revelation, it occurs to me that detours are not without purpose. They provide safe passage to a destination, avoiding pitfalls in the process. Floating in this lake with Walt is most certainly a detour. And maybe I’ll never know the pitfalls I’ve avoided, but I can say this with certainty: a sincere soul is damn near impossible to find, and if Walt is my detour, I’ll take it.”
Book Theme Song:
I’m cheating here and just posting a link to the author’s fantastic album that he wrote specifically for Mosquitoland – I went through a ton of songs, but nothing works quite as perfectly as this.
The Final Word:
Mosquitoland is refreshingly funny, insightful and quirky – it reads like an adult fiction book, but with the pacing of a YA book. This is a book that needs to be savoured and read again and again. I can say a thousand things about it, and a thousand more, but honestly, you should just read it because no matter what I say, I will never be able to capture the experience of reading this book – it’s absolutely a journey, and one you should take as soon as possible.
MOSQUITOLAND is out now in bookstores. Have you read ityet? (If not, what are you waiting for?) Are you into contemporaries with quirky characters? Do you like road trip books like I do? Let me know in the comments!