Stuff: The Life of a Cool Demented Dude (2004), by Jeremy Strong

I first read—and taught—Stuff shortly after it came out. My strongest memory of the reading experience is travelling up to Simon Fraser University on public transit, with the cover of the very obviously young novel displayed to the world, unable to keep myself from laughing aloud. Slightly embarrassing, given the artwork. I can’t remember now what it was—Pankhurst, the “radical feminist rabbit” (39); the “hearty farty” knickers (13); the adventures of Punykid—but regardless, I found it one of the funniest novels I had read in a long, long time. When the American ARC came into my hands a couple of years later, I was struck by the level of my disappointment in the cover art. I have since read through the American edition, complete with drawings, and been equally disappointed, as have students at both the elementary and the university level. Seb Burnett’s quirky illustrations in the British edition suit Jeremy Strong’s intelligent but ribald humour to a T; Matthew Armstrong’s have a much more “American manga” look to them, as if they are trying just that bit too hard to be cool. This does not do justice to Strong’s obvious intent, for—despite the novel’s subtitle—it is the geeky misfits who will recognize themselves in and take heart from Simon and Pete’s escapades.

Simon is “a fund of information, which is why everyone at school calls [him] Stuff. [He’s] full of it” (8): and very liberal he is with his information, too. Stuff is hilariously irreverent: intelligent yet immature, annoying to the adults around him yet completely comprehensible when we see the world through his eyes. His story is a combination of narrative, comic, and encyclopædic digressions that weave—or maybe lump—together to form a cohesive whole that only Simon and Pete, his best friend, can ever hope to understand. When a substitute teacher reveals the story of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley, the boys go about kicking rocks… and lockers… and each other… and “nobody else had a clue what [they] were on about” (54): “how life goes” (93) for teenaged boys. Of course, readers are privy to the strange convolutions of Stuff’s inmost thoughts, so we are privileged in our ability to follow. This becomes especially empowering when the tangential stories Stuff tells us—for example, his “Frog Experience” (8-9) or his “Short Note About Cuckoos” (92)—appear as random elements in the comic strip he is anonymously writing for his art teacher’s school magazine (and thesis project). The five episodes of “Punykid’s Battle with the Drooling Dorkoids” interspersed throughout Stuff’s narrative are both an entertaining graphic representation of the story as we have it so far and a cathartic experience for Stuff, who excises his teenage angst through his art, creating a world in which he might—if Skysurfer can save Punykid in time—just get the girl.  What to readers in Stuff’s school appear as random narrative or graphic elements, readers of the novel recognize as important aspects of Stuff’s teenage reality. The art teacher asks, “Whose that tubby little man who keeps kicking things?” (180), and we know the answer.

Between the laughter and the energy inspired by engaging with Stuff’s witty yet disconnected ideas, readers will find Stuff not only hilarious but exhilarating; I couldn’t put it down.

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