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With all the thousands and thousands of books put out each year, it’s a wonder there’s any overlap at all between what readers hold in their hands on any given day. I sometimes wish titles came with a tracker so I could remember how their existence crossed mine in the first place. Then I recall an incident not so long ago where I believed a mega corporation had implanted a brain chip in me, and that is enough to get me diving in after said wish penny.

I’m not sure how I discovered Dan Josefson’s ‘That’s Not a Feeling’. I picked it up assuming it was a graphic novel and for that I blame the cover panels. Imagine my surprise when I opened it and found not graphics and dialogue but prose. Words, words, words on every page. It probably took me longer than it should have to switch from graphic novel mode to novel novel mode, but I’m glad I did.

That's Not A Feeling by Dan Josefson

That’s Not A Feeling by Dan Josefson

Tidbit and the other New Girls are searching in the bushes for a lost razor when a car pulls up. Benjamin, our narrator, kicks out a back seat window as he realizes the drive with his parents was a one-way trip. Roaring Orchards is a live-in school for kids who can’t stay out of trouble. Ben’s entrance is not unusual in such a home; he’s put in the Alternative Boys dorm with other new or low functioning students.

Despite his outburst, it does take Ben some time to accept that he’s in the kind of place that can’t not change you. First he has to deal with what he did to get there:

…I understood that an iron gate had been shut behind me, that each passing day was another gate slamming shut, and that there was no way back and never would be.

Benjamin is looking back, telling the story of his time at Roaring Orchards through memory and fragments gathered from others who there there. The perspective is much broader than one character’s, and that is one of the ways in which this book is clever. Most of our time is with Ben, but we also get to spend time with his friend Tidbit, who wants out so badly she’s attempting to pretend to follow the school’s  program.

Housed in an old mansion, the school itself is a major character. Few on the staff want to be there, and none of the students do, but the place and its director, Aubrey, wears them down. The more time that passes, the more the program’s philosophies seem just as valid  as anything else, however cryptic. The rigid structure, intended to instill discipline, fairness and security, gives many an intense sense of purpose as they plot and foil one escape plan after another.

The problems of the Roaring Orchards and all of its inhabitants inevitably bubble up into a dark crescendo – someone has fun with an ax, someone gets over-enthusiastic with a pillow – and so this story goes racing toward its end without dropping pace. The students are not getting the kind of education they need by confronting each other on petty affronts and saying whatever the teachers and dorm parents want them to say. As troubled as Ben, Tidbit and their classmates are, you feel their constraint and want them to learn whatever it is they need to learn about themselves in order to function in this world. Josefson is able to show how difficult that will be for them to do because he write with compassion for his characters.

I do find it odd that this is labeled as adult fiction and not YA since the main characters are teens. The quality of the writing is high, but the same can be said for many YA books. My qualm is not with the book’s label, but the missed opportunity in reaching a smart, younger audience. I’d advise bookstores to misfile it in the graphic novel section at least.

‘That’s Not A Feeling’ is exactly what I want from meaty contemporary fiction. It’s refreshingly literary, but because the introspection is in hindsight, the scenes play out with all the bumbles and melodrama you may crave from other forms of entertainment. Ahem, reality television.

This is Dan Josefson’s debut novel and over night success, only ten years in the making. You can read about his path to world dominance publication in this Atlantic interview. Since he lives in my little borough, I may someday get a chance to ask my burning question: So…what happened to all the graphics? Did they fall out of the novel? Also, what are your thoughts on brain chips?

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