Ancient Themes, Modern Story Told in 40
- Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Author: Travis Thrasher
Travis Thrasher’s 40 is Ecclesiastes for the iPod generation, unafraid to ask the big questions and package them inside a creepy what-if-you-knew-you-were-going-to-die yarn.
The themes are ancient while the specifics are modern. It is a novel whose worth derives not from a clever premise or a seat-edge plot, but rather from Thrasher’s willingness to savor the questions which have plagued mankind since the Old Testament, questions like what happens when your high school dreams come up short, is this all there is, and, perhaps most compelling, are the things of God really better than a life of wealth and power? It is a novel that dares the audience to hang around for 400 pages of soul-searching, rambling musings on the human condition from the novel’s protagonist Tyler Harrison, and delivers.
When we meet Harrison, he’s stuck in a middle-age rut, a 39-year old Chicago music producer who’s reached a ceiling of sorts in his life and career. He’s estranged from his parents, especially his aging father, a Christian author whose specialty was the theology of hell. Harrison is a success, but not to the level he’d dreamed. Then, he meets Matthew, a character we assume to be an angel, who informs Harrison he will die on his 40th birthday (hence the novel’s title). Matthew then takes Harrison on a bizarro It’s a Wonderful Life tour, showing him all the times in his life he should have died, but for the intervention of heaven. Harrison doesn’t get the message and runs away from his destiny, seeking comfort in a sinister DJ named Ellis while he throws the ultimate pity party.
The novel’s plot isn’t its strong point. Thrasher allows plenty of space for things to unfold. Once he’s gotten the message from Matthew, Harrison spends most of the novel drifting, which doesn’t make the middle section a page-turner’s dream. What is worth considering, however, is the novel’s contemplative core. In the midst of the massive word count, Thrasher finds room for many compelling observations about purpose, redemption, faith, music, hell, community, technology, and numerous other topics. In that way, 40 will appeal most to those in the same demographic as both Thrasher and Harrison: middle-age men. In its “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality”—to borrow a phrase from Donald Miller—I would imagine fans of Blue Like Jazz or Anne Lamott would find much to digest here. Music junkies likewise will have a field day. Thrasher is uber-contemporary and uber-trendy in his song and album allusions. Reading the novel is like scrolling through an iPod; each chapter is titled after a song, with Radiohead, U2, Coldplay, and Depeche Mode dominating. He even references Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album, released less than nine months ago.
What it all adds up to, however, is more than the sum of its parts. Were it simply a novel about succeeding in the ridiculously arbitrary world of popular music or about finding out you were going to die nine months from now, 40 wouldn’t be terribly noteworthy or original. But, by ambitiously telling both stories, Thrasher has cooked up a delicious dish. We’re captivated as much by Harrison’s time in the studio with pop sweetheart Nicole Lawson as we are by the gritty, graphic encounters Harrison has with his guardian angel Matthew and various other supernatural beings on his journey. Thrasher has built a reputation on providing Christian readers something more original, substantive, and genre-bending than much of what is on shelves, and 40 doesn’t disappoint on any of those counts.
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