The Universe versus Alex Woods

The Universe versus Alex Woods

Sometimes it’s really easy to recommend a book to someone. If I was asked endorse a horror novel I would probably suggest that you read Lord Loss, while if you told me that you preferred science fiction I would suggest The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go. The appeal of this novel is a lot harder to quantify.

The Universe versus Alex Woods was first published in 2013 and is the debut novel of Gavin Extence. It is a coming of age tale told by the titular character who relates the most important moments of his life between the ages of ten and seventeen, particularly in relation to his friendship with a cantankerous war veteran named Mr Peterson.

The novel begins as a seventeen-year old Alex is stopped at Dover customs and is found in possession on a large bag of marijuana and an urn full of ashes. Alex then proceeds to explain the series of events that had led up to that moment, beginning with the fateful day that he was struck by a meteorite. The incident left Alex scarred and suffering from epilepsy and soon led to him being  bullied at school.

It was during a particularly unpleasant run-in with these bullies that Alex first met Mr Peterson. Although the two of them got off to a rocky start, they soon began to bond of over a mutual love of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Through this friendship Alex soon found that he was viewing the world in a very different light and began to develop his own beliefs towards religion, mortality and the importance of his existence within the Universe. All of these slowly shaped him as a person and helped him to confront the difficult decisions that his life threw at him.

As you may have noticed in the above paragraphs, The Universe versus Alex Woods is incredibly difficult to summarise as a whole. This is, in part, because of the unusual way that the book is written. Alex provides the story with a very unusual voice – keeping events in a concise chronological order but often meandering in his descriptions. Alex views himself as being logically minded, though it is questionable from the reader’s perspective whether or not he has been left slightly brain damaged by the head trauma he received as a child. As a result, Alex explains absolutely everything within the novel, even when it seems unimportant. From the plots of Kurt Vonnegut novels, to the meaning of tarot cards, to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Alex devotes a lot of time towards sharing facts that he has come to learn with the reader.

I can see why some people would not gel well with this literary style. At times, there were details within the novel that I thought could be removed while leaving little impact on the story. It was not until I was close to the end of the tale that I realised that this was entirely the point. Every little event of Alex’s life could be isolated from the story and would still be able to sustain itself as a vignette in its own right. Vonnegut believed that every sentence in a novel should either reveal character or advance the action. Although Extence isn’t entirely successful in this regard (Alex does have a tendency to techno-babble) he does make a noble attempt at adhering to this guideline.

As random as they seem at a glance, every little glimpse that we have into Alex’s life is connected. Although it was not immediately clear, each event that Alex chooses to describe was significant in leading him to the moment of his arrest. In being struck by the meteor, he developed epilepsy. In developing epilepsy, he became a target of the bullies in his school. In being chased by these bullies, he met Mr Peterson. Looking back on the story, the way that every aspect of the tale connects with no loose ends is actually incredibly beautiful.

The tone in which Alex’s story is presented is also absolutely perfect, remaining incredibly touching throughout. Although it is not laugh-out-loud funny, it sustains a light wit through Alex’s naïve statements and the absurdity of some of the situations that he finds himself in. It is through this brevity that it manages to prevent itself from ever feeling too depressing. The second half of this novel explores the ethics of euthanasia – a very difficult subject for many to think about. Although Alex is initially against the idea, believing Mr Peterson to be depressed about his diagnosis and just not thinking clearly, through introspection and the belief in the absence of an afterlife that he has cultivated through his reading of Vonnegut’s work, he begins to see that death is a certainty but the process of dying does not have to be frightening or painful.

Although the death of Mr Peterson is naturally still very sad (I freely admit that it, and the quote from Slaughterhouse-Five that accompanied it, did move me to tears), the author does not present it as being an upsetting moment. The act is never sugar-coated for the reader but is still presented with the utmost respect and because of this it is a very beautiful moment that perfectly encapsulates the strength of their friendship.

Of the characters within the novel, it is naturally Alex that we become the most attached to. Although reminiscent of Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Alex is never expressively stated to be autistic. He does, however, certainly feel as though he is on the spectrum. He is high functioning yet has some strange habits, takes everything he is told literally and does not really seem to comprehend the feelings of others. At times, he can feel like an alien trying to understand humanity, yet there is an innocence and childlike enthusiasm to him that makes him incredibly endearing. He sometimes acts selfishly, as any child does, but he learns from his mistakes when he sees how they hurt people and gradually develops as the story progresses. By the end of the story, Alex is clearly an adult in every sense of the word. Although not a hero in the conventional sense, there is no doubt that his final actions in the story are the bravest that any seventeen year old could perform.

His relationship with Mr Peterson is also highly complex and does not develop smoothly over the course of the story. Like with any relationship, the two of them have their share of good times and bad, sometimes failing to see eye to eye but always resolving their differences and coming out stronger. There are other interesting relationships in the novel – such as Alex and his “kind of peculiar” mother – yet none are as moving and memorable as that of a twelve year old boy, an elderly Vietnam War veteran and their shared love of Kurt Vonnegut.

In conclusion, The Universe versus Alex Woods is one of those novels that are difficult to recommend. I expect that some readers will take exception to its slow pace, fragmented plot and Alex’s disconnected narrative voice. However, I personally found it to be an exceptionally well written and deeply philosophical read. It succeeded in remaining uplifting and touching while still exploring some incredibly controversial themes. If you are looking for something fast paced and exciting it is not the story for you, but if you want a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading you should certainly read this book.

The Universe versus Alex Woods can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: 1st Anniversary! | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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