by Rainbow Rowell
Once in a while, I encounter a book that seems to have been written just for me. Fangirl is one of those books. It had been on my radar for quite some time and I’d just not gotten around to reading it. One of my colleagues is moving house and very kindly gave me her extra copy, and I am very glad she did!
Fangirl opens with Cath and her twin sister Wren starting their first day in their college dorms. Wren is the more adventuresome of the two, and had previously insisted on the two of them not sharing a dorm room. Cath, entirely introverted and socially awkward, is naturally horrified by the very thought of living with a perfect stranger, and vows to become as reclusive as possible so she doesn’t have to interact with anyone. Pain avoidance. I totally get that. Cath is a talented writer and has chosen creative writing as her major. The problem is that Cath lives in fandom, and only wants to write fanfiction. While she has written tens of thousands of words and has a huge internet following, that won’t cut it in her creative writing courses, and Cath has a long way to go to prove herself to her professor. Interspersed with class drama and roommate drama is, of course, the requisite boy drama. It does not read like a high school, young adult, emo fic at all, for which I am excessively grateful. It is a nicely written coming of age novel, featuring a young woman I readily identify with. Maybe I never emotionally evolved past college. It’s entirely possible. Whatever.
I get Cath. I know what it’s like not to want to interact with other humans, or only those humans who understand your fandom. I know what it’s like to be so into a fandom that nothing else seems all that interesting, including real life, because fandom is real. And that is what people who don’t dig fandom don’t understand. As Cath states, “They were just stories, but stories weren’t just anything” (p. 122). If you are into Star Trek, for example, you understand that those people are real; how else can Captain Picard stand toe to toe with the Borg or the Romulans or any other scary as shit Bad Guy and not flinch, and yet want to run screaming from a little kid? That right there is a real, human reaction, because he’s real. Simon Snow is real to Cath, and to the fan base in the book.
I also understand her because I know what it’s like to want to hole up within your fandom because it’s easier than going to a party where you know you’ll just be socially awkward, even if you know people there. People, beer, party, boy, party, beer, people, shut down! Or if you do go, you just end up being quiet because that’s safer than talking, just in case you say or do something totally weird, only you don’t know it’s weird because you are socially awkward! Trust me. It’s a lot less painful just to avoid that altogether. The only time human interaction is not entirely painful is when you are immersed in fandom, or are at a fan-based convention of some kind. Why? Because geeks are tolerant and inclusive. There might be some major nerdrage over who is a better captain – Kirk or Picard – or fist fights over the last special edition Tardis replica. But no one would ever mock you for having the argument in the first place, or wanting the Tardis replica. Rather, once the nerdrage cools, friendships will be forged over steins of Romulan ale and all shall be well. Geeks are just better at accepting the quirks, and being tolerant.
I loved the way Rowell wove in bits of Cath’s “fanfic” into the actual novel, as well as bits of the Simon Snow novels upon which Cath’s fandom was based. It was so fun to see the differences in Rowell’s “real” story, in the “canon” Simon Snow story, and the fandom stories that Cath penned herself. It was a lovely tribute to the authors of fanfiction, which is so often overlooked or mocked as not real writing.
The overarching yet subtle theme of writing and authorship throughout the novel gave many actually gorgeous elements to the story. One of my favorite moments of the book was near the beginning, the first day of Cath’s creative writing class. Her professor asked why do we write, and the students were firing off their responses. Cath’s responses were thought silently to herself, and they are all thoughts I’ve had myself as I try to write. To disappear. Yes. To be someone else, someone who no one knows. Yes. This. So much this. And the fear of the writing process. There was a lovely discussion Cath and her professor had about the writing process and how it is frightening, a battle for every word to create something out of nothing.
One final moment that really connected with me was the midnight release party of the final book in the Simon Snow series. Of course I don’t care of Simon Snow per se. He’s made up just for Fangirl. But he is representative of Harry Potter, of the Dragonriders of Pern, of Star Trek, of Battlestar Galactica, of Dr Who, of all the fandoms we create for ourselves. Cath and Wren cried when they received their copies of the final book in the series. They couldn’t do anything else, because there would be no more for them. Certainly, other fandoms would come. Their Simon Snow fandom would keep going. But it would fundamentally change. Once they cracked the pages of that final novel, once they came to the end, of the last chapter, there would be no more new canon material. It was over. Fin. And that always hurts, in a visceral way that only a true fangirl (or fanboy) can understand.