Falling Through the Cracks: Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling
Soho Press, 2013
Reviewed by Courtney McDermott
“That’s not a feeling,” is a common retort heard in Dan Josefson’s novel of the same name. Set in a therapeutic boarding school called Roaring Orchards in upstate New York, the troubled teen residents are constantly asked to define their feelings to a staff that is exhausted in a school on the brink of collapsing. Josefon’s title is perhaps a nod to the ubiquitousness of declaring one’s feelings in the ever-presence of social media.
Roaring Orchards is a microcosm for our society—where hierarchy and competition, limits and boundaries, exhaustion and routine, all exist. Aubrey, the eccentric, ailing headmaster, has constructed a school with its own language and hierarchy—New Kids, Alternative Kids, Regular Kids. Specialized terminology peppers the pages—fibs for functioning intimacy blockers, for example—and punishments come in the form of verbs—sheeted, skirted, popped, cornered, roomed. In many ways it’s less like a school and more like a socio-political experiment, and everyone is part of a system, Josefson reminds us. As Aubrey notes at one point, “I tend to think of what I do as essentially the work of a political theorist.” This book could serve as a study of systems: why is it that everyone craves to leave Roaring Orchards, and so few do? Even the runaways always make it back, and often of their own volition.
Josefson’s book is relevant in the conversation around over-medicated kids—one in which therapists are as popular as celebrities. The book is itself a form of therapy; Benjamin—a sixteen-year-old with two failed suicide attempts under his belt—is a recent addition to Roaring Orchards, and also the story’s narrator. He records the classes, the fights, the runaways; he details staff relationships and screw-ups. He is telling this story so he can “lay something down between myself and the things that happened there, even if it’s nothing but a screen of words.”
Words are sometimes all the students have (unless they are ghosted—an extreme form of the silent treatment), and yet it is through actions that they begin to emerge. Talking, then, only gets them so far. Josefson displays the uselessness of words through Benjamin’s rage as he swings an ax at the power box. He further explores the banality of words through Tidbit—Benjamin’s pseudo-love interest—a quirky, perpetual liar who bites people. When asked why she is at Roaring Orchards, her story is always different. Josefson reminds us that why these kids are there is not important, but rather what the school does to prepare them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, few seem to leave or improve. As Josefson comments in an interview about his location when writing the book: “I was in school, writing about a school, and plotting, in both senses, an escape.”
Josefson wrote this book while in graduate school in Las Vegas, and then while living in Romania, Massachusetts, Brooklyn. Though more mobile than his characters, who seem trapped at Roaring Orchards, he spent time teaching at an “odd” school, which “was the impetus and catalyst for the novel.” Benjamin is a unique vehicle through which to relay the story because he so often does not describe his own part, which lends a sense of emotional disconnect (fitting for a teenager who has attempted suicide twice and was dumped at this school by his parents). At times this narrative technique seems like a cheat; Benjamin operates in this novel much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, a narrator who narrates the lives of people vastly more interesting than he. This narrative technique at times felt forced. Because it often read as third person, when Benjamin does appear in the narrative, he announces his presence in a way that reminds us too overtly that he is still there.
In some ways, Josefson’s debut serves as a wake-up call for parents—the only ones who can escape their children’s difficulties. If parents can’t raise their own kids, and the schools can’t prepare them for the world beyond, then what is the result? Are they all destined to be sheeted (a form of punishment in which students wear only sheets, their clothes taken away), running through the woods, too afraid to bolt?
In contrast with the more prim and privileged boarding schools found in books such as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, That’s Not a Feeling balances humor, pain and secrecy to reveal a fresh, honest portrayal of the host of teens who fall through the cracks, and the adults who are following suit. It is a fractured coming-of-age novel where no one quite comes into their own, and Roaring Orchards is the one place they feel safe to feel lost.
Courtney McDermott’s short stories and essays have appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Daily Palette, Found Press, Italy from a Backpack, A Little Village Magazine, The Lyon Review, Raving Dove, Sliver of Stone, and Third Wednesday. She also writes book reviews for NewPages.com and various journals. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the Country of Lesotho, her first collection of short stories, inspired by her experience, will be released by Whitepoint Press later this fall. She has her MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in the Boston metro area.