Mary Iris Malone, AKA Mim, is Our Heroine for the 947 mile journey from Jackson, Mississipi to Cleveland, Ohio. Were she not the narrator of her own story she would be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of someone else’s. She would be Alaska or Tiffany were the narrator male and straight and incapable of seeing the infinite complexity of people until it was too late. But she IS the narrator of her own story and as a result we are introduced to the full-throttle nature of her intricacy as a character. Her glorious qualities, her tragic flaws, and her ever elaborating list of personal struggles. I won’t say Mosquitoland is just about mental illness but it is absolutely not-not about mental illness. It is not-not about home and identity and the Young Fun Now. It is one of those truly great YA novels that is about the unspoken things and the “topics of substance and despair” (Arnold 4) we tend to avoid. And it is a novel that isn’t afraid to say “I am not okay” (3) and then reply “yes […] you are” (311).
A few months ago I wrote a review for All the Bright Places and I am not proud of it. The book enthralled me and had a strong impact on me but I felt wholly ill-equipped to properly talk about it. I still have those same reservations, this sense that I want to try to have a discussion about something but I might not have the necessary knowledge to discuss it well. What I failed to realize when reading All the Bright Places and what has come to me more easily after reading Mosquitoland is that both novels offer the simplest way to approach the topic of mental illness. You approach those who have mental illness, first and foremost, as people and not diagnoses. And you come to them with love. Mim encounters several characters on her journey to see her mother in Cleveland that have mental illness and several who don’t. Some are heroic and some are villainous but they are all multidimensional. As Mim puts it, “The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all” (6). Mosquitoland isn’t about characters with mental illness. It is a novel that has characters with mental illness. And that is an important distinction.
Mim is a wickedly smart, funny, and medically complicated character. She applies lipstick war paint in bathrooms, she up and commits to a 947 mile trip to Cleveland half on a whim and half on a plan, and she’s blind in one eye from looking into a solar eclipse. And between her first person narration and her letters to someone named Isabel she brings fervent life to the novel’s happenings and characters. Her voice, so fully of wit and sarcastic cynicism, lends itself perfectly to the frequent topics of “substance and despair” (4), which are the cornerstone of the novels premise. Mim opens up the narrative with an entire chapter dedicated to the singular statement “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay” (3). And then, as her journey progresses, we learn through her letters to Isabel about the Reasons. Her Reasons both for her sudden journey to visit her sick mother across the country and the her Reasons for not being okay. For the first half of the novel Mim is basically on her own and we watch her mind weave its tale amidst a cast of tertiary characters both brilliant and despicable. Despite the presence of her accidental old dame friend Arlene during this half of the novel, Mim is alone on her journey. It is only when she meets Walt and, subsequently, Beck that her journey becomes one with companions. The novel shifts from exploring Mim internally, her relationship with herself, to externally, her relationship with others. Both characters melt her heart and the way she describes both of them breathes life into them so effectively you almost forget that they weren’t with her from the very outset of the novel. But despite the adorableness of Walt and the rugged handsomeness of Beck, Mim’s journey is not without its shady figures. This dark figures rarely hang out on the sidelines and Mim is often times more keenly aware of their presence than she is of the Good People she meets too. Mim carries a host of resentments and grudges and her journey seems to give her nothing but reason to justify that chip. Cynicism abounds! It is often refreshing to have her voice so many hard truths that seem all too apparent about the world but you find yourself hoping as each mile ticks down on the road to Cleveland that from all of the cynicism the Walts and the Becks of the world might be able to show her something else.
In some ways, Mosquitoland is a classic road-trip YA novel. The intrepid teenager sets out on a daring cross country mission armed with nothing but her wits, her sass, and her “high top footwear of such dazzling flamboyance” (18). And of course nothing goes quite according to plan. Often times Mim’s journey is violently interrupted. But throughout there is the sense, and one which Mim embraces, that these detours and interruptions are an important part of the journey. After all, without those detours and the resulting harrowing moments Mim might not have met Walt and Beck. These are not consequence free actions of course. An event from earlier in the novel involving Poncho Man haunts Mim in more than one way for the rest of her journey. What makes the road-trip of this novel unique is the sense of a running away from something as much as a running to something. From start to finish Mim is on the road, never in a place of security or rest. As Beck describes it later, “Ultimately, [Mim is] trying to […] figure out home” (241). And this search for home, this quest to reclaim some lost sense of place exemplified by the counted down miles to some fantastical destination where everything will be right again, is evident throughout the narrative. Between Mim’s flashbacks to her mother, building that relationship for us through memory in all of its unreliable shades, and the lack of flashbacks to her stepmother the story becomes more than a road-trip narrative. It is a grail quest. Mim is on a mission fraught with dragons across a land travelled by a few white knights all in search of some mystical and intangible object: home.
Mosquitoland probably won’t leave you in tears, its not that kind of YA novel. But who knows, I’m not trying to dictate the kind of experience you will have. But it is a novel that feels weighty. Heavy with the world and the struggles that life brings. It is a visceral mental journey for the reader as much as it is a gruelling physical journey for Mim. But once the wheels get turning on the Greyhound bus that takes her out of Jackson, Mississippi you become as caught up in the forward momentum of the ride as Mim does. There are 947 miles to go from page one of this book, but that doesn’t mean the story is going to carry you across them in a straight line. The story, as Mim discovers, is in the detours not the distance travelled.
Arnold, David. Mosquitoland. New York: Viking. Print.