By Todd Mitchell
Did you know there is no adjective form of the word “integrity”? Look it up. I was going to open this review with a declaration of how integritous we are here at Ensuing Chapters. Or is the word I’m looking for integrian? Integrilicious?
None of the above.
Nevertheless, that’s my silly way to introduce a serious (and seriously good) book with the requisite disclaimer: I have known Todd Mitchell, the author of the young adult novel, Backwards, for about three years, studied under him and served as his teaching assistant in a nonfiction writing class. It’s important to establish this up front, because this will be a glowing review, and I can say with all integrity that the praise is deserved, not spooned out because I know the author.
And with that out of the way, let’s jump to the end. Or rather the beginning. Sort of.
Backwards begins with a teenaged boy, Dan, dead in the bathtub from an apparent suicide. Standing over the scene is our narrator, a Rider (a kind of immaterial wandering soul) who isn’t sure where he is, who he is or how he got there. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he is experiencing time in reverse. We observe Dan’s suicide and his preparations, his daily habits and behaviors, and once we meet pre-dead Dan, it’s easy to diagnose his terminal condition.
I believe the clinical term for it is: He’s an asshole.
But as time bends backward, we pick up more and more fragments of Dan’s life. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s a teenager. Is that so odd? And maybe there’s something dark and vulnerable driving his bad behavior. Indeed there is, but he is also supported with love and encouraging voices, which he silences through self-deliverance.
This is a difficult book to describe, and I’m sure far more difficult to write. Mitchell, however, pulls it off. He taps a mainline to those cringe-worthy cafeteria moments when every little thing was life or death. High school was uncomfortable the first time, and doesn’t seem much better the second time around.
At least not at first.
The narrator, who is living Dan’s life in reverse, provides the wide-angle view that teenagers tend to lack. Actually, it’s a comforting vantage point, and if Dan could’ve seen his life from this perspective, he probably wouldn’t have ended up in the bathtub.
As I’ve often told youth groups as an addictions counselor: Teenagers aren’t stupid. Teenagers just do stupid things. That’s an important distinction, which becomes clear as we watch Dan try to make the right choices, but stumble along in that ham-handed manner that I recognize from my own high school memories. There are missed opportunities, mixed signals, mistaken intentions, the right words left unspoken and the worst ones screamed out loud.
That’s the beauty of Backwards. Though the time-manipulated narrative can be disorienting, we are grounded in the familiarity of Dan’s world. Sure, the fashion has changed, but the angst is the same as it always was and will be—and even that elicits a weird nostalgia. Even someone like me, who hated high school and all its cliques, will appreciate its stabilizing force within this chaos.
I also appreciate that the novel isn’t preachy. Of course, the message is clearly against suicide, but Mitchell isn’t talking us off the ledge with niceties. The truth can be vicious, and the author doesn’t recoil from the abyss. Through the character of the Rider, he digs into the horrors of high school and tries to come to terms with the trauma.
Is the Rider successful? The better question is, does it even matter? I’m not well-versed in literary theory, but at its core, Backwards, despite a dash of the spiritual realm, is an existentialist anthem.
Longtime readers know my affinity for existentialist anthems.
My point is that perhaps understanding your awkward years is better than changing them. By revisiting our past, we can be struck by how small everything looks in comparison. If only Dan could’ve seen what the Rider sees.
At least that’s the view from my early 40s. I’m not sure how a young adult would read it, but there’s no doubting the importance of Backwards for its intended audience. But I would argue that Backwards is as much, if not more, of a must-read for adults.
And I’d bet my integritude on that.