The grown-up mind has a way of housekeeping the past. We take our old burning feelings and douse them with the wise water of now until we’ve convinced ourselves that we could never have really felt so much that way. I’m talking about high school, of course. Our number-one crushes, the plaintive want to be accepted by our peers and the burgeoning self-awareness that makes those feelings so potent and humiliating: This feeling is the subject of Josh Wagner’s latest novel, Shapes the Sunlight Takes.
It’s the second book of his I’ve read and reviewed for the Indy. The first was 2011’s Smashing Laptops, a work of fiction that read like an autobiographical travelogue through Missoula’s kind streets. That book really got to me, and maybe reviewers for The New York Times can keep a professional distance from their subjects, but this is Montana. Here, you write a favorable review, you’d have to go out of your way not to get drunk with that author later. The point is, I looked to like this book, but with an academic rigor reserved for a fellow writer, and I’m grateful he hasn’t put me in an awkward position. Wagner’s latest is more sophisticated than the last, with an attention to feelings and language that I’m inclined to describe as enviable.
The book stars a plucky 15-year-old named Lexie, who tells us about a stretch of time at the end of her freshman year of high school. She takes us to big-kid bonfires through the eyes of an invisible freshman. On the subject of fitting in, she says: “And I know it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter, you know?” Lexie’s best friend, Brooks, is a Hungarian immigrant and the subject of a reality TV show called “Life Swap” that was supposed to run for 15 years but has since lost interest in its subject. She works at a high-tech old folks’ home where the guests are computer hacking oracles. At one point she and her friends travel to Portland for a Rocks, Paper, Scissors tournament.
But it’s not all fun and games. Lexie and Brooks are blessed (or cursed) with peculiar glimpses into the future. They are the weird ambassadors of an increasingly magical world, or what New Age circles call “Indigo children.” Early on, Lexie receives a kind of psychic transmission with a clear vision. Brooks’ brother Derwin and pretty senior Mirielle—the girl to end all girls and the unfortunate subject of Lexie’s burning high school crush—are destined to come together and have a child. It’s a destiny that Lexie and Brooks feel inexplicably tasked with helping along to its completion. Getting the couple together drives the action and moves the story along.
And then there’s poor Lexie, who loves Mirielle so, so much. “I want to compose arpeggios out of her sighs. To play her like a live symphony, to make her body tense and relax, to shape the vocal chords around her breath.”
How often in life do our wants so unfairly conflict with our responsibilities and what can be done?
Wagner remembers what it’s like to be a teenage lesbian and does the dirty work of reminding the rest of us. I remember when I was 15; I wasn’t a lesbian per se but I had the realest of crushes on my gay best friend, so it’s pretty much the same thing. Back then I told myself to hold onto the feeling with clenched fists. I promised myself that as an adult I would be brave and return to this fraught time in my writing, a promise I have reneged on so thoroughly it’s ridiculous. Even dredging up the memory enough to write this paragraph is an unpleasantness I won’t soon return to.
We don’t give ourselves enough credit. I was smart, funny and wise, and so is Lexie. The first-person narration takes some getting used to at first. In the first chapter Lexie describes Mirielle’s eyebrows as a “reticulate anterior” and I’m thinking, “This teenager isn’t allowed to have a bigger vocabulary than me,” but by the end you start to believe that she really can think that big. As she puts it: “Everyone knows everything, all the time.”
Shapes the Sunlight Takes stands as proof that we have a true-blue writer in our midst, capable of prose that doesn’t exactly melt a heart as black as mine has become with age, but it at least reminds me that I did used to feel, a lot. And maybe still do, and maybe will again in the future, since it’s all the same and happening all at once everywhere and nowhere.
Josh Wagner hosts a book party for Shapes the Sunlight Takes at Stage 112 Sat., Jan. 24, at 8 PM with brief readings, plus music by Holy Lands, Scrapyard Lullaby and Dirty Birds. Free.