Reading Hank Green’s first novel is like switching brains with your 23-year-old niece, then piloting the Millenium Falcon through the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs while playing Whac-A-Mole with “Call Me Maybe” blasting from the onboard stereo.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing—a riveting sci-fi mystery released September 25—is narrated by a 23-year-old graphic designer Manhattanite, April May, who somehow does not have a Twitter account, often thinks IN ALL CAPS, and becomes Internet famous after her YouTube interview with a 10-foot-tall Transformer samurai statue she stumbles across on a New York City sidewalk at 3 a.m. goes viral.
The so-called “Carl” statues have materialized overnight in dozens of cities across the world without any witnesses to their installation. No one knows how they appeared, why they appeared, or even whether they’re of this world. Yes, this is a sci-fi novel (Green has a biochemistry degree), but it’s also a mystery and a mediation on fame and celebrity.
April becomes the go-to source for TV news interviews, the princess of late-night appearances, and a coveted subject of magazine profiles as the discoverer of the first Carl. Yet she must also attempt to cling to her existing relationships and try to resist measuring her life in likes after she (finally!) sends her first tweet.
As a narrator, April is a notoriously unreliable, egocentric cross between John Green’s Margo Roth Spiegelman from Paper Towns, Mia Thermopolis from The Princess Diaries (she’s suddenly rich!), and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (the president wants April’s help solving the mystery of the Carls, but April’s not sure how much she can trust her).
As Hank Green explores the dehumanization of public figures through April’s eyes, it’s impossible to resist concluding that he has drawn inspiration from his own rapid rise to fame. As half of the YouTube Vlogbrothers duo and creator of the Crash Course video series with his brother, John Green (author of The Fault In Our Stars), Hank knows something about the subject.
The Green brothers’ YouTube videos have been viewed more than 2 billion times—more than Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” videos combined—garnering the 38-year-old Vlogger, musician, and now author an estimated net worth of $12 million (John has an estimated net worth of $17 million).
Hank’s characters compare Internet fame to “candy, Christmas morning, and a first kiss all rolled into one,” but also to feeling like “a small dog is eating my eyeballs from the inside” and “getting f****d by a demon.” One of them tells April: “This is not something that can unhappen to you.”
Yet while Hank acknowledged that he “leaned into” the parallels between his life and April’s during a book tour appearance with John at Butler University Sunday afternoon, he also stressed that he and April are not the same person.
“It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time that was seeded by a lot of personal experiences,” he told the Los Angeles Times in September 2017. “But it’s April’s story, and it’s been a pleasure watching her live her absolutely remarkable life.”
Hank Green said he was convinced of the positive potential of the Internet for his first 10 years of Vlogging (video blogging)—just as his protagonist, April, advocates for it—but then a few comments from viewers caused him to reconsider his “rosy” point of view and “really hit me in the self-worth.”
The meditations on fame, celebrity, and social media in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing can be cloying at times, and Hank is fully aware his novel might feel rant-y at some points.
“If April’s 750-word hot takes seem like they’d be a nice 4-minute video essay,”—a nod to his Vlogbrothers background—“well, that stuff’s in there,” he said. “It was my fallback for when I didn’t know how to say something any other way.”
His characters are forthright in their conversations about their newfound celebrity and social media savviness. “I can tell you care about what you post [on Instagram],” April’s friend Andy tells her. “You’re not fooling anyone. You’re a digital girl, April, in a digital world. We all know how to perform.”
In case you miss the moral, Hank hits you over the head with it by the end of each of the novel’s 25 chapters: The Internet is good. The Internet is bad. It can be both.
But the bludgeoning wasn’t only metaphorical at Hank’s Butler appearance on Sunday.
The brothers donned blindfolds, got up on the Clowes Memorial Hall stage, and whacked each other with inflatable baseball bats every time their opponent missed a question in a head-to-head trivia challenge. It was, Hank Green later explained, a metaphor for the world of the social Internet (“blindfolded people forced to hold hands hitting each other with baseball bats for being wrong about things that might not matter”).
“That’s the only way I could get John Green to do this—framing it like that,” he said.
While Hank’s Butler appearance was billed as a reading, he informed his audience at the beginning of the afternoon that the reading portion would only constitute “approximately 5 percent” of the event. He read only a single passage from his novel, and acknowledged that most people hadn’t yet read the book yet, as it had been released only five days earlier (though everyone in attendance would leave with a signed copy).
Enter: John Green. Wearing a bumblebee suit.
For nearly two hours, Hank and John discussed marine snow (gross), argon (it’s complicated), chipmunks in the house (NO!), pineapple on pizza (sometimes), and Hank’s affection for the Carly Rae Jepsen tune “Call Me Maybe,” a centerpiece of his new novel. At one point, Hank even whipped out his guitar and performed a rendition for the audience (the song was also blasting from the Clowes speakers before the show).
But back to that bumblebee suit. John performed a set about robots that was essentially a Crash Course video done live, narrated by Dr. Alfred Bumblebee, “just your average ‘History of Robotics’ college professor bumblebee.”
Because would it really be a Hank and John Green show if you didn’t learn at least one esoteric tidbit? (Here it is: The pronunciation of the word ‘robot’ wasn’t standardized until the 1960s, which meant many people up until then pronounced it “row-boat.”)
Dressed in a black zip-up jacket and tan pants, Hank is the quintessential nerd. He doesn’t look like someone who is worth $12 million. “I should’ve pulled my pants up when I was still behind the podium,” he said at one point, pausing to hike up his trousers.
But he, like his brother, is hilarious. If you’ve never seen one of their Crash Course videos, imagine Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter novels doing a podcast. Hank is George. John is Fred.
The biggest difference between their writing styles, John said, is that, in Hank’s book, “Many things happen. I was reading it breathlessly—I couldn’t put it down—My God! The number of things that happen!”
“In my books,” John continued, “Like, five things happen. Not just in one book, but in the sum total of all five of my books.”
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a roller-coaster ride through a Hieronymus Bosch-like world of butt-flavored bubble gum, a Magic Castle full of magicians, and weaponized grape jelly. The absolute absurdity of it all is endearing.
Case in point: People at Sunday afternoon’s show were cheering the announcement of a sequel to the novel they hadn’t yet read (which, judging by An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’s cliffhanger ending, won’t be too far in the future).
“It’ll be a little while,” Hank said. “But it’s coming, I promise.”