In Arin Greenwood's 'Save the Enemy', Absurdity Abounds

Huffington Post editor Arin Greenwood's second novel Save the Enemy (Soho Teen) references Ayn Rand, Nietzche and nihilism, Norman Mailer, and Thomas Pynchon — not your standard YA fare. And Save the Enemy isn't your standard YA novel. From the echo of Abraham Lincoln's famous quote in the title to the more than 250 pages of absurdity that follow, Greenwood aims to take YA to another plane.

Zoey, Greenwood's heroine, shares her name with a nuclear reactor, and it's her immensely readable voice that drives the story. For her senior year in high school, Zoey and her family move from Rhode Island to Alexandria, Va., to a rich boarding school, where she and her younger brother Ben are commuters. She has a crush on Peter, who boards at the school, she hates lacrosse, and she always carries a copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which has road trip themes that are relevant to Greenwood's story.

"A competitive roller skater would be exactly the sort of person I could really let loose with," Zoey says early in the story, giving readers hints about her personality.

Greenwood paints Zoey's family as realistic, but turned up a few notches. The story begins a year after her mother is murdered on the street, and their dog Roscoe she is walking, goes missing. Her father is an extreme libertarian and her brother is "on the autistic spectrum;" he won't let anyone touch him, except his late mother, and he at 14 reads The Wall Street Journal every morning.

Zoey goes about her days coping with her eccentric family, worrying about getting into college, and how to draw the attention of Pete before the moment she finds a cigarette butt in her toilet. She's certain that nobody in her family smokes. Then she gets a text that her father has been kidnapped, and she, her brother, and Pete embark on a madcap adventure to find him and the mysterious "J-File."

Along the way, through Zoey's retelling, we find out more about her mother and father. She did not get along with her mother, who is characterized as rude, even mean, and certainly strange, which strays from a traditional telling of a teenage girl who has lost her mother. In one instance, her mother makes her take prenatal vitamins after discovering Zoey has had (protected) sex, just in case. Jacob, her father, reads Zoey Ayn Rand — which she calls valuing "extreme selfishness" — as a bedtime story when she is 4, makes her spend her days learning to tie various kinds of knots, and practices "jiu-Dadsu" with her, a his homemade version of jiu-jitsu. Jacob is a man who strongly disapproves of government-funded military, but wears an Army jacket he bought at the Gap.

During these descriptions, readers are left wondering if these skills are just the work of a semi-madman, or if Zoey will actually put them to use.

Where Greenwood's novel is best is when it devolves into the absurd. Along Pete, Ben, and Zoey's trip to find Jacob and the "J-File," the novel gives readers a distinct feeling of a nefarious undercurrent to our everyday lives; running parallel to our day-to-day, that we only see once we become privy to it. This feeling echoes Pynchon's novella The Crying of Lot 49 — about a woman potentially uncovering a longtime feud between two private mail distribution companies, which also delves into the absurd and paranoia — with Greenwood even choosing to have an extended reference to a privately run postal service and a jaunt to a postal museum.

Save the Enemy includes an alpaca farm, a meteorite, many people with the same name, references to levitation — in fact it opens with a levitation image — and other, sometimes laugh-out-loud moments of pure silliness. Greenwood seems to be in on the absurdity. In an intense scene toward the end, two characters, possibly enemies, break into a fit of laughter — which likely mirrors how Greenwood aims for her readers to feel.

"Yes, that's my feeling. I'd like some explanation of. Jesus, P.F. Everything. Why is my dog here? Why are you here? Why am I here? Where is my dog?" says Zoey, before another character silences her. But then they both start to giggle, laughing harder and harder until they are both cracking up. A break of silence, and then they return to the action.

Save the Enemy is the type of novel that's layered in references, making it so that when reading about characters eating eggs three times, you start to wonder, "Why eggs? What do eggs mean?"

Despite moving at a breakneck pace, thanks mostly to Zoey's voice, the end of the novel slows — maybe too much. Greenwood does leave some elements unresolved, including some questions on character motivations, but they are not entirely important. And it's possible it just adds to the feeling of the story that some things are brought up but not attended to fully. It is perhaps open enough for a sequel, a main element in YA today, but Greenwood would be best to leave this unique work alone.

Image: Courtesy of Soho Teen