The troubled mind of a boy sent away
English writer Max Porter’s new novel, Shy, takes on an unconventional and bold form as it describes the churning of a troubled teenage boy’s mind over a few intense hours.
The story feels like a coming-of-age indie movie - and somewhat reads like it too – as a teenaged boy called Shy deals with severe mental health problems and feels ostracised by his family and society. The mood is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with a correctional school backdrop and 1990s drum-and-bass soundtrack.
Set in the ‘90s in England, Shy is sent away to the aptly named Last Chance School. Shy has “sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his step-dad's finger, but it’s been a while since he’s crept,” the book tells us.
After Shy hears about the school possibly being sold and transformed into luxury housing, he decides to escape. On his way from school’s confines to the edge of the outside world (and eventually practically back in), Shy rides a mental and emotional rollercoaster.
Porter uses a highly experimental method to translate his perceptions onto the page.
The first striking aspect is the book’s typography, which varies depending on what is being told. The structure swirls between current narration, describing the past, sharing someone else’s words and revealing Shy’s thoughts. The novel also plays with formatting and spacing to render the teen’s mood.
If tension is building, sentences will run on forever without any full stops and with the help of endless commas. The boy’s multi-layered night terrors are described in an intentionally confusing manner. Have you ever had to flip back and forth between two pages to track a sentence? Porter has tried to keep the reader engaged and anchored in the action with these stylistic features, and the prose reaches a poetic quality at times.
It’s like flipping through radio stations that each tell us about his family, his friends, traumatic memories, nightmares, and current experiences. We learn that our protagonist is more sentimental despite what he lets on. After we are sucked into the turmoil, the ending is disturbingly touching.
Despite its innovative prose, the text starts to feel slightly tiresome and repetitive. Thankfully, the book is relatively slim and stops a few pages short of being rambling.
Overall, this stinging little novel is a dark, escapist experiment that is worth plunging into.
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