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'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' author back with a 'big' new novel

| Thursday, April 19, 2018, 9:42 a.m.
Author Jesse Andrews
Author Jesse Andrews
“Munmun” (Amulet Books) by Jesse Andrews
“Munmun” (Amulet Books) by Jesse Andrews

Jesse Andrews could have played it safe. The Schenley High School graduate wrote two sly and observant young adult novels, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “The Haters,” that were popular and critical successes. Andrews, who makes three appearances in the area this week, could have continued to write keen slice-of-life stories that appealed to his core audience.

Instead, Andrews' new novel, “Munmun” (Amulet Books), is about “money and power and inequality” in a dystopian world.

The premise is based on “what would it be like if rich people were huge and poor people were tiny,” Andrews says. “At first I thought it was a stupid gimmick. But instead it did end up having, I thought, a lot to say about the world.”

Andrews will appear April 20 at White Whale Bookshop in Bloomfield; April 21 at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley; and April 22 at Riverstone Books in McCandless.

Reminiscent of ‘Gulliver's Travels'

While “Munmun” is being promoted as a YA title in the U.S., Andrews is thrilled that his publisher in the United Kingdom is billing the novel as adult fiction. The novel is reminiscent of “Gulliver's Travels” and Margaret Atwood's science fiction, with a dash of Dickens. The main characters, Warner and Prayer, are siblings who are considered “littlepoors,” the lowest rung of society. About the size of rats, they are bedeviled by cats, have skin the color of “rubywine,” and often forage through trash for food. In contrast, the “bigrich” are a “hundredfeet” tall.

Andrews started thinking about the story in 2008, when the global economy was in chaos.

“The financial industry had ballooned to this really ungainly size and sucked up way too many smart, thoughtful, driven people,” he says. “ … A lot of the kids who I went to school with at Harvard, they got recruited by big banks, Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan and a lot of them were not even kids who wanted to go into finance. But the pitch was so seductive and it appealed to their competitive side. And away they went to lives that were totally reoriented by money, by capital, almost by some force of nature, the riptide of an ocean pulling swimmers out into the deep.”

American conceit

One of the ideas Andrews explores in “Munmun” is how size has become an American conceit. Whether it's huge portions in restaurants, behemoth SUVs and trucks, or palatial homes, bigger is almost always considered better.

“I think we fetishize size,” Andrews says, noting that those with more money tend to use and acquire more resources. “But I also wanted to play around with the idea that the bigger you get, the less access small people have to you, and in fact the more completely they disappear from your life. Your ears can't hear them, you can't see them. This is a phenomenon I've noticed with friends of mine who didn't even grow up rich, but once they make a lot of money and get to move to the really nice neighborhoods with the really nice schools, get considered for the really well-compensated jobs, everyone who's not living that life has completely vanished to them.”

Andrews developed a unique lingo for the novel. The U.S. becomes “Yewess,” logarithm is “loggerryhthm” and Toni Morrison, “Toneymoorison.” Words are run together – “youcandoit, unfinishedbusiness, lessandless” – in a singsong rhythm.

“The thing I love most about writing is hearing the voices of the characters,” Andrews says. “Especially the main character (Warner) who is telling the story in the first person. That to me is just candy to get to write in another voice. In this cased the dialect is strongly influenced by the fact that the character hasn't learned how to read or write. He's about 15, and it felt like a way of building that specific lack of access to education into the words themselves.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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