25 July 2011

The House of Tomorrow

Peter Bognanni (and every time I type this I want to type "Peter Bogdanovich") is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  His first novel The House of Tomorrow is set in Eastern Iowa - all the towns are easily recognizable even though he changes the place names.  The main character is a teenage boy, Sebastian, who has been raised by his grandmother.  She is a follower (read: devotee/acolyte/worshipper/disciple) of futurist and architect R. Buckminster Fuller and has homeschooled Sebastian following Bucky's philosophies of synergetics, efficiency, and sustainability - they live in a geodesic dome. 

I'm down for that.

Sebastian's life is turned up-side down when his grandmother has a stroke while a family - the Whitcombs - is touring the dome.  The mother takes Sebastian in during his grandmother's hospitalization, rather than turn him over to Child Services, and it is through Jared Whitcomb that Sebastian learns about being a teenager: smoking, girls, and punk rock (or at least Jared's version of punk rock). 

The characters in this book are very interesting.  Nana has an almost fanatical desire to isolate Sebastian so he can fulfill his potential.  Jared is a post-heart transplant teenager who has been sheltered nearly as much as Sebastian but tenaciously clings to his rebellious side.  Janice Whitcomb has reacted to her son's illness and survival and husband's abandonment by turning to God.  Meredith Whitcomb has donned a textbook teenage-tough-girl skin, hiding her hurt feelings and fears under a blase exterior.  Sebastian is a really bright kid, excelling in subjects like math and science, yet has almost no functional social skills.  When Jared decides that he and Sebastian should form a punk band (The Rash) to win the church talent show (as readers we know how THAT will go over, but Sebastian doesn't have a clue what talents are expected at a church function), Sebastian's worldview expands at an exponential rate.

This is definitely a coming-of-age novel but one of the mind, really, rather than the body.  Many ideas and paths are laid before Sebastian once he sees what lies outside of the dome.  Was his Nana right to keep him so sheltered?  Is she in her right mind when she checks out of the hospital and decides to paint the exterior of the dome in a representation of the globe (Bucky's "Spaceship Earth")?  Should Sebastian return to the dome and the life his grandmother set out for him in Bucky's image?  Is the fuck-the-establishment of punk rock the way to go?  What about school?  College?  What about girls?  Meredith is definitely an exotic species - the first girl Sebastian has ever interacted with - and he becomes a bit obsessed with her.

Definitely read this with an open mind as to philosophy.  I was ready too early to dismiss Nana's isolation of Sebastian (I feel very strongly that so much social deprivation does odd things to kids, they need some interaction with other kids, to run around and play, etc) but the very-generous sprinkling of Bucky's philosophy goes quite a long way toward explaining why she acted they way she did.

The House of Tomorrow is  B&N Discover New Writers pick as the winner of the Los Angeles Times 2010 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction

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