Butter

Butter

Today’s novel covers a few very difficult subjects – bullying, obesity and suicide – and so I just thought I’d just take a moment to say that this entry is not going to analyse any of these. This is a blog for reviewing young adult novels, not engaging in ethical debates, and so I will by trying my best to tackle Butter as objectively as possible, leaving my personal views at the door. I will also warn you that, as the ending of this novel strongly colours my view as to the effectiveness of its message, there will be spoilers in this review. You have been warned.

Butter was first published in 2012 and is Erin Lange’s debut novel. The story is narrated by the titular character – a sixteen year old boy who is witty, intelligent and plays the saxophone like a pro. Unfortunately for Butter, few people know these things as they are unable to see beyond his 423 lb frame. Having grown so large that even the bullies at his school no longer target him, he has resigned himself to living out the rest of his life alone.

After a particularly distressing day at school, Butter finally comes to the decision that he will kill himself and decides that he will go with a bang. Setting up a blog under the domain name butterslastmeal.com, he posts that he will eat himself to death live on the site on New Year’s Eve.

The next day, Butter arrives at school to find that he has become an overnight sensation. Everyone seems to have seen his blog and are excited to learn whether or not it is a hoax. Popular kids who have never spoken to him before now seem to want to be his best friends and he quickly discovers that people are even making bets as to what he will eat and whether or not he will survive.

This surge of popularity allows Butter to experience a world he never has before, yet as the death day approaches he realises that he has gotten himself in too deep. Now he is stuck with a terrible choice – to live knowing that he will never achieve such popularity again or to follow through with his threat and end his life.

I have some highly mixed feelings about this novel and so I suppose I should start by telling you what I liked about it. Butter is an incredibly memorable story and it does cover some important themes that you do not often see in a novel of this type.

Cyber bullying is a relatively new phenomenon and, because of this, it is often forgotten about. When many people think of a school bully, the first thing to pop into their mind is the Nelson Muntz type – the huge thug who beats up nerdy kids for their lunch money. What people forget is that these days every teenager has a mobile phone and access to the internet. Victims now can be targeted at any time and any place and, sometimes, words can hurt an awful lot more than punches.

At first, Butter does not even realise that he is being picked on. He is so lonely that he mistakes any kind of attention as being good, not fully appreciating how ghoulish his fellow students are. Although the reader can see from the beginning that they are just having fun at Butter’s expense, the novel’s greatest tragedy comes from the fact that Butter is entirely duped by them. For the large part, his school splits into two groups – those who actively egg Butter on and those who passively watch and yet do not try to stop him. There is an important lesson to be learned here with regards to how complicity is just as bad as active bullying. At the end of the day, any one of the other students could have alerted the school authorities to Butter’s website but they did nothing and, in doing so, allowed it to continue.

However, my first point of contention in the novel arises from just this. Everything just seemed a little too over the top. I am capable of suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy a novel but it does have its limits, particularly when it comes to reading contemporary fiction. In a school full of goodness knows how many hundreds of kids nobody gives the game away to an adult. No one lets a single thing slip, or feels any pangs of human compassion. This even includes the few girls who show concern towards Butter – one even asking him if he needed help at one point. While I know that peer pressure can be a huge influence on a teenager’s behaviour, I refuse to believe that an entire school could be peer pressured into turning a blind eye towards a potential suicide. It just seems implausible.

The level of disbelief for me was stretched even further by the ending. After Butter fails to end his life, there are no repercussions for anyone. No students are punished, any anger or upset towards Butter is brushed away in a sentence and even Butter, himself, does not seem to grasp the enormity of what he has just done. It is handled with all of the delicacy of “well, my suicide attempt has just failed. Oh well, back to my life then” and this just set my teeth on edge. No. Just no. This is a teenager’s life. If he is in such a bad place that he can be pressured into killing himself, he surely would not immediately bounce back after he fails. To me, this was just a shade too unbelievable and removed any power that the ending might have had.

I am also torn between whether or not I like Butter as a character. I do feel some sympathy for him in that he is a caring and articulate person and yet is still routinely discriminated against for his size. Yet he does not help himself. Butter complains that no one sees the inner-him, yet he is constantly judging others based on their appearances. He is bitter that his friend Tucker has lost a lot of weight, yet we never see him make any effort to lose weight himself. On top of this, he even actively stalks one of his classmates.

For me, his treatment of Anna made him a very difficult person to like. While it is true that Anna had her flaws (as noted above, not even she saw fit to alert the authorities until she saw Butter’s live feed), she did not deserve to have her heart broken so brutally. Butter sets up a fake online profile, pretending to be a college student and dating her online for a number of months. When Butter finally reveals his identity to her, she is repulsed by this. Although it felt like the author wanted us to still feel sorry for Butter, as once again someone is discriminating against him due to his weight, this seemed to woefully gloss over the larger issue. Butter lied to her. He pretended to be an entirely different person and utterly shattered Anna’s hopes when he revealed to her that this man had never existed. This is a disgusting way to behave and it made it very difficult for me to like Butter at all.

As our experience of the supporting cast is tinted by Butter’s jaded world view, most of the other characters come across quite flat. We learn a lot about Anna because Butter is so obsessed with her, but most of the rest just feel like cardboard cut outs. Almost all of the students in the school blur together into one hateful mess and the only other characters that are given any time to develop are Butter’s parents and Tucker.

Tucker, I felt, was the character that formed the best counterpoint to Butter in the novel. He was an overweight boy who persevered and thus is now well on his way to being a normal size. While Tucker did not appear much in the story, the impact that his success had on Butter revealed a lot about both characters and I really did like the way that this was presented. Although Butter always viewed Tucker in a negative light, it was clear that Tucker was doing everything right and really did care about Butter’s wellbeing. Through contrasting Butter’s attitude with Tucker’s, it’s clear to see just how badly his negativity affects his view of himself and the world around him.

Butter’s parents were presented less effectively. I get the whole idea that his father was too ashamed to look at him and his mother tried to make up for this by stuffing Butter full of comfort food (though why you would do this to your diabetic son is beyond me), but this never really seemed to have much impact on anything. This may well be a personal thing but I’d have liked to seen a little more background into how this strained relationship came to be. It’s not as though Butter could have become so big overnight. If some more focus had been placed on how the pressure placed on him by his father to become an athlete had driven him to eat more, perhaps I would have felt a little more sympathy towards Butter.

Anyway, this review is getting long so I’ll wrap up. While Butter is a very unique and certainly an unforgettable novel, I did feel that it lacked any kind of emotional investment. I could not feel fully attached to Butter because of his jaded nature and questionable behaviour towards Anna and felt that the premise was too exaggerated to be believable. Yet the novel does touch on some very important topics. It is vital to remember that bullying does not have to be physical to have a serious effect on someone’s well-being and Butter does well to stress the dangers of cyber bullying.

While not the best novel that I have reviewed for this blog, Butter is fast moving and a relatively light read and so is worth a look at if the subject matter tickles your fancy. I would, however, strongly advise that you do not read it while you’re eating.

Butter can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: Coming Soon on Arkham Reviews | Arkham Reviews

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