Whilst roaming about the Book Expo of America this year, I kept passing a booth advertising The Universe Versus Alex Woods. I was immediately put off by its cover, which too closely resembled that of last year’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (and I had no intention of reading a book like that for awhile), and its title, which sounded too much like yet another supernatural/superhero YA novel. Yet I eventually gave in and grabbed a copy, and I am so glad that I did.
Alex Woods’ journey, I came to discover, did not involve anything supernatural and did not resemble Harold Fry’s pilgrimage. Instead, we meet 17-year-old Alex being arrested by the police for some publicized crime that we, the reader, are not aware of and for being in possession of cannabis and a “dead body” (the body in question is in the form of ashes). This set-up combined with author Gavin Extence’s witty tone of voice and Alex’s matter-of-fact demeanor instantly hooked me into the book.
From there, Alex rewinds us back in time so that we can evaluate his extraordinary situation for ourselves. He takes us to when he was 10 years old and was hit in the head by a meteorite, forever altering his life. The accident left him with a brain injury that left him susceptible to seizures, further altering how he would grow up. As he matures and adapts to life, Alex has many incidents that lead him to the aging Mr. Peterson and a world of books by Kurt Vonnegut.
Extence has created a very compelling, if slightly odd, protagonist that is reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Because it’s a YA novel, many of Alex’s descriptions of things feel tedious to adults, but Extence finds unique and amusing ways to express how Alex observes and recognizes their purposes in society. The only time the novel truly feels tedious is in the middle when it seems that Extence has lost the thread of the main story, getting caught up in subplots and side characters. But he plants some moments of foreshadowing to ensure you that he knows what he’s doing.
I was completely taken by surprise by this novel. It’s charming, addicting, and ofttimes hilarious. Alex Woods is a character that I would eagerly read more of, even if just in the confines of this novel. Despite its grandiose—yet justifiable—title, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is an engrossingly compelling read.