Beyond the Pale: Susan Nussbaum’s ‘Good Kings Bad Kings’ Infuses Life Into “Sick-Lit”

Welcome to a place where romances are played out in hospital waiting rooms, and teenaged angst is supplemented with impending death—or, at least, disfigurement. It’s called “sick-lit”, and it’s become a literary powerhouse. With roots in YA, titles like The Lovely Bones have helped the genre transcend into the adult space.

In this iteration, playwright Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings (Algonquin) tells the story of “the complicated and tough lives inside the walls of an institution for juveniles with disabilities,”—a description that does an incredible disservice to the honest and bright novel Nussbaum has written, casting it into the world of throwaway “sick-lit”.

Nussbaum’s characters are the stars of her show; she introduces roughly half a dozen narrators, but not once do they fall prey to the treacly self-indulgence found in the worst of the genre. Readers will quickly find empathy for them, instead of sympathy for their hardships. Yessie, a fifteen year old just out of juvie, illuminates this herself when she wonders if “they just look at my cleavage or my wheelchair. I hope it’s my cleavage.” In the novel, she’s hardly defined by her disability, and her chapters are bright and full of wickedly funny insights. When she first arrives at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, she describes the rules of the facility, saying “Next thing you gots to do is you’re not allowed outside the damn building without passing another one of their bullshit tests. […] I was raised in the city. I grew up in the Puerto Rican ghetto. I think I know how to walk out a damn door. Anyway, I passed that lame-ass test too.” Nussbaum—while never letting readers forget about her characters’ chairs—would rather have us looking at their cleavage.

John Green, as the author of one of the most successful “sick-lit” novels, The Fault in Our Stars, has been the shining example for others on how to portray the voices of ill and dying teenagers: staccato, hyper-realized, precocious wit (“Do you realize how rare it is to come across a hot girl who creates an adjectival version of the word pedophile? You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.”). As Green says, in an interview with The Atlantic, “my interest as a writer is not in reflecting actual human speech, which, of course, does not occur in sentences and is totally undiagrammable.” And that’s certainly true, especially when authors (and characters) are dealing with Big Questions, but if these novels were any reflection of reality, quirky zingers must be oozing out of hospital lobby walls.

Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. Gilmore Girls practiced the same kind of fast-paced, razor-sharp dialogue for seven seasons, and John Green’s books are wildly successful.  However, Nussbaum’s first-person multi-character approach favors honesty of expression and constructs characters that might just be actual human beings. Take, for example, Michelle Volkmann, the Whitney-Palm recruiter, whose job is filling beds at multiple facilities. After quitting her job, she says “I just don’t want the kind of career where you have to do things that—whatever. That you don’t think you should do. If that’s possible.”  Sure, that quote won’t end up on Tumblr, and perhaps she’s not the most polished of narrators, what she is, and what all of Nussbaum’s characters are, is most important: painfully, vulnerably, beautifully human.

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