There is a safe, respectable debut novel hidden inside the much more unsettling and much more compelling one that Dan Josefson has written. Like Josefson’s, the safe version would be narrated by Benjamin, who, after a series of failed suicide attempts, is forced by his parents to enroll in Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for “problem children” run by the charismatic, tyrannical, dying Aubrey. (Aubrey is so bent on controlling his students’ emotional and psychological lives that he makes a list of feelings; anyone who claims to have a feeling not on the list is told that “That’s not a feeling.”) The difference is that the safe book would be a book about Benjamin.
Rather than show us the school through Benjamin’s eyes and chart his journey, this book keeps forgetting about him. Or rather, Benjamin keeps forgetting about himself. He is writing about the school fifteen years after he left it; he wants to “lay something down between myself and the things that happened there, even if it’s just a screen of words,” comparing himself to an insect who covers itself in foam as protection from the sun. Covering oneself in foam does not exactly sound like the most promising of therapies, and over the course of the book we come to suspect that Benjamin is really just trying to evade his past by telling other people’s stories.
Not that the stories Benjamin tells are necessarily true. Benjamin builds what he writes from rumors, the confessions of liars, and what must be a fair amount of pure imagination (one of the cobbled-together English classes at the school focuses on unreliable narrators). Roaring Orchards is supposedly a community in which honesty builds strong relationships, but all anyone learns is how to deceive and manipulate everyone else. Students are divided, in ascending order of obedience and willingness to police/torment each other, into New Kids, Alternative Kids, and Regular Kids. (A line typical of the book’s superb grim humor: “Some New Kids have been here forever.”) Lifelong harm is being done to them all, but the kids who don’t run away—or who run away and come back—are almost frighteningly adaptable, and create something approaching a conventional, ho-humly hellish teenage life. Arbitrary, draconian punishments with terrifying names such as “ghosting” are domesticated into quotidian high school tortures.
The teachers, paradoxically, are in much bigger trouble. For the most part they are not brainwashed acolytes, and in fact tend to see through the headmaster-cum-cult-leader Aubrey, but are much too cowardly to stand up even to the school’s worst abuses: “They all hated working there, and they all stayed for what they believed were bad reasons. They made fun of the kids, and they made fun of the place, but they rarely said more about it than that.” One of the saddest characters in the book is a “dorm parent” (a kind of non-teaching teacher) named Ellie, who knows that she is far too smart for the school, and that she has “left her real life behind somewhere”; Roaring Orchards seduces her with a life that requires nothing of her, a “life that would burn like paper.” We sense that a worthwhile life is not in store for her, but her fate still manages to surprise us.
Nobody in this world is as cowardly as the parents. The novel’s centerpiece is a spectacular sequence set on Parents’ Sunday. If we don’t yet fully understand how Aubrey exerts so much influence on teachers and students who often seem contemptuous of him, a glimpse of him in this environment instantly reveals the secret to the school’s success. He tells the parents that the school restrains their “problem children” physically and mentally because children crave “being held. Being held responsible.” Parents must spend most of visiting day at an adults-only cocktail party because Aubrey tells them children must see “there are certain things that are appropriate for us that are not appropriate for them.” Leave your monsters to me and go get drunk: the parents love this message. A scene within this sequence, in which Aubrey cajoles a parent into acquiescing to the solitary confinement and even starvation of her daughter, is handled with such subtlety and ferocity that it single-handedly establishes Josefson as a serious talent.
When a cataclysm forces Benjamin to finally become the focus of his own story, the effect is thrilling. He and his love interest, the fetchingly damaged Tidbit, make their big move; what happens is not what we want to happen or expect or to happen, but it is absolutely what would happen. We start to understand why Benjamin feels compelled to write about this place so many years, and why he has been so reluctant to write about himself.
In some ways, Josefson’s work is more unsettling than many classics of the mental-health-institution-that’s-really-a-prison genre such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s Not a Feeling has no heroes. Here, the institution and the individual are co-conspirators.
The novel is not without flaws. Just a little more detail about Benjamin’s post-Roaring Orchards life would have gone a long way towards anchoring us in his perspective. The large cast of characters can get wearying, making the novel feel more diffuse than necessary and sometimes leading to ungainly sentences such as “It took Aaron, Roger, and Jodi to pull William off of Gary.” And Tidbit never quite transcends her manic-pixie-dreamgirl stereotype. But overall, it’s difficult to read this novel and not feel challenged, moved, devastated, and excited for Josefson’s next book. Is that a feeling?