How It Feels To Float
by Helena Fox
Published April, 2019
I want to write an essay about Helena Fox’s remarkable Young Adult novel How It Feels To Float but I find myself distracted by the way that both reviewers and Young Adult literature advocates commonly talk about YA. I don’t want to talk about this book like that.
Let me explain: more than any other genre YA books are likely to be judged on their relevance and relatability. YA is valued for its ability to speak to, to dissect, to make present, to make clear, to smash over your head the issues that really matter in young people’s lives. YA fiction, particularly when it’s in the literary or realist vein, is undeniably good at this. Reading Matters. Reading Changes Lives. Find yourself in a book. I’m borrowing the slogans of a few youth literacy organisations here. They are all correct but also equally problematic. Reading does change young people’s lives. We all know that a great book can make you see yourself for the first time. It can make you understand that you are here and alive and that the world is a bright and shimmering place that you have every right to belong to. On the other hand, all these slogans can be a limited lens for reading YA. The problem here is that we risk taking YA as a supplementary form of reading material, something that extends on say, a brochure you might find about mental health at your GP or teenagers giving each other sex tips on Snap Chat. We concentrate on it as a social good – and not a literary good.
How It Feels To Float is a ‘big issues’ book that takes mental health as its primary subject but I’m much more interested in talking about why it’s the kind of YA I love, the shape-shifting, genre-blending, fragmentary, wildly experimental, literary kind. It can be hard to find books like How It Feels To Float, mostly because I’m not sure that we believe they exist. Literary critics generally orient themselves towards adult literary fiction. In this space critics are conditioned to look very deliberately for complex and interesting textual practices because this is what primarily guides their judgement of these texts. In YA we look for issues, themes, the ability to make young people want to turn pages and read on. We often don’t allow these books to enter the critical space – which means it’s hard, even when you’re looking closely, to notice their formal playfulness. The fact that I’m even being allowed to write about YA in the SRB is significant and unusual.
That’s not to say that all YA is big ‘L’ literary fiction or even that it’s all worthy of longform criticism. There is loads of rubbish in this field – but there is also a lot of terrible adult literary fiction. The difference is that YA books are deemed inferior in critical value as a bloc, so to speak. Adult literary fiction is allowed differentiation.
This probably has something to do with the way that YA emerged as a category of literature relatively recently. Critics mostly credit S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) as establishing the YA genre because it was the first book written, produced and marketed for teens. How do we know it was for teenagers? Because, as the original blurb on the back of the book states, This is a book that delves deeply into the issues that young people face. In her landmark 1980 essay, ‘Looking Backward: Finding The Classic’, Linda Bachelder argues that YA should be taken much more seriously precisely because the genre had begun to tackle issues and ‘subjects of real depth’.
Many of the most well-known writers of ‘big issues’ books in YA are also writers who produce work that is stylistically innovative and structurally challenging. The US YA novelist Jacqueline Woodson is a great example of this. In interviews she has repeatedly lamented that critics pigeonhole her work as ‘issue-related’ because it tackles weighty topics such as race, class and sexuality. Although these issues are important in her work and her honest and authentic voice is also important to her legion of readers, critics often fail to consider the way that her formal decisions allow her to convey the lives of her characters. She often writes in blank verse and uses fragmentary forms such as vignettes – and this allows her to explore the gaps and silences around trauma, to approach what is difficult to articulate.
Though her subject matter is sometimes confronting, Woodson’s books aren’t difficult to read or understand. Neither are those of her contemporary A.S King who, in my mind at least, is the Queen of experimental YA. All of King’s novels are characterised by complicated time schemes. Characters who lived long in the past show up to have dinner with characters who live in the present. Her sentences do interesting things with enjambment, her narrative structures are often anything but linear. Like Woodson, King shows us that sophistication is not the same as difficulty (although the two may sometimes overlap). These authors use unconventional forms to explore contemporary political issues. If sophistication is a measure of a book’s skill in bending means to ends then the best YA writers are sophisticated, not necessarily difficult. Maybe that’s why we mistake them for not being ‘literary.’
In the Australian context we have an array of ‘big issues’ YA which also incorporates high literary or experimental features. The surrealist world of Leanne Hall’s books or the verse novels of Sharon Kernot are good examples. And of course there are Sonya Hartnett and Margo Lanagan whose work is highly metafictive, intertextual, dark, complex, literary and every single other term that might be used to describe the kind of adult novels that win all the high ‘L’ literature awards. The debates about whether Lanagan or Hartnett are actually writing YA speaks to the inability of so many critics to grasp that literary YA might exist, that it might even have a cult following among actual young people.
I’ve digressed a bit but these are all the things that How It Feels To Float got me thinking about. I’m wondering if trying to enter the book with a focus on its literary playfulness will allow me to do it justice. Undeniably this is a big issues book. The story centres around 16-year-old Biz, who hasn’t recovered from her father’s suicide, which occurred when she was seven, and who is now contending with her own spiralling mental health. Another issue: teenagers trying to get their heads around the complicated terrain of sex and sexuality. Biz has recently kissed her best friend Grace, who was forced to leave town after being slut-shamed for having sex with the local hot boy; Biz is also attracted to boys sometimes and her developing love-interest might be gay himself.
How it Feels to Float has already been well received both overseas and in Australia – it’s already won and been shortlisted for a slew of literary awards. It would be easy to centre the discussion around its content and many of the reviewers have. What’s probably even more significant about its treatment of mental health and sexuality is that the book deals with these issues through the lens of teenagerdom. Biz is dealing with many of the same things adults do but she lacks adult agency. She lives in her mother’s house and has to abide by her rules. She has very few ways to support herself. And most significantly she doesn’t have enough experience of the world to have confidence in her knowledge of the way it works and what that means for her.
The thing is that the issues How it Feels to Float explores and the experimentation it employs are constantly rubbing up against each other: it’s the clever innovations with the written word that make this book a deep dive into the unsettling world of a teenager who is rapidly losing the plot. Biz is walking her way through the world on the very blurry line between sanity and insanity. From the opening pages of the book Biz’s dad is there, sitting on the edge of her bed. He’s a little bit blurry – understandably for someone who is dead – his text is presented in direct dialogue in order to emphasise his real presence to Biz. Her text is presented in internal monologue:
‘You need to stop,’ he says.
What? I squint at him. He’s blurry.
‘The thinking. I can hear it when you breathe.’
Biz’s silent discussions with her dad are presented as something akin to dreaming while awake. The tangible world, the imaginative one and the dreamscape sit side by side in this book. It’s in this otherworldly space where Biz describes herself as ‘floating’ that she is able to reconstruct the story of her life on her own terms by collecting and examining small experiences from her personal history. She ‘plays’ with them inside her own head and in small fragments of text across the page as she reimagines their significance in dialogue with her father.
In those moments when Biz’s anxiety is at its greatest, the stress fragments the lines of text – sentences are cut in two, words are squished together, internal and external dialogue compete, often for comical effect. After Biz kisses her best friend Grace, Grace sets herself the task of trying to find Biz someone who might be more into kissing her than she is – but it all becomes a comedy of errors and anxiety because neither of them is sure exactly which gender Biz is into kissing:
‘Biz, are you biorallthewaygay…I was thinking of who might be good for you instead of me.’
I feel the movement of the stars and I can hear the echo of all the black holes consuming everything—
and then, just like that, my head clears. It’s Grace. Just Grace. (Look, Biz.)
Here she is, her hand still warm on my arm. My best friend.
(Come down to earth, Biz. Everything is going to be okay.)
Biz talks to herself, she talks to her father, she even talks to the ocean. In her seaside town of Wollongong, water, with all the associated imagery of redemption and renewal, dominates the landscape. Early on she almost drowns herself but is pulled from the ocean by her maybe-boyfriend Jasper. The ocean often grounds Biz between her real and imaginary world in a comforting and knowing way; later in the book when she is caught up in the waves, laughing for the first time in a long time, she sees her father in the distance.
At the end of the first section of the book you know things have become really bad because Biz’s father no longer visits her. ‘He fades out. Leaving only the idea of him. The idea of his eyes, staring, before they vanish.’ The layout of the text after this happens emphasises his absence in pages that are left blank or sometimes only contain a few words or a sentence, thus making the silent space more tangible, feelable and viewable by the reader – and that’s what makes it so affecting. In the nothing space of a page almost absent of text everything that Biz cannot articulate is apparent. This is followed by pages of short list poems all starting with ‘It feels like’: Each one of these is a small fleeting examination of the difficulty of articulating what happens when someone is swallowed by grief and trying to climb out of it by grabbing onto those everyday things that might ground them in the physical world again:
You miss the bench by the fence. You miss the walk from the lockers. You miss the talks by the pool, in the hammock, at night, on the phone, the screen blinking blue light.
As she tries to access mental health services Biz is crushed by the absurdity of simple everyday questions:
I have been sent to a clinical psychologist and she has asked me other questions. Not: are you itchy or are you sleepy or are you getting fat or sad or thirsty.
More like: Elizabeth, how are you feeling?
Where do I start? Because It’s the wrong question, I think.
I don’t feel. There is no feeling here.
Ratio of questions my psychologist has asked me to the ones she had not
It’s when Biz enrols in a photography course, and meets the charming, funny 80-year-old Sylvia, that she discovers photography as a notetaking and seeing form. The photographs that she takes with her father’s old SLR speak to her. They tell her the stories of the things that she photographs:
Here I am. Here are voices, ribboning out from rectangles of paper.
Hi. I am listening. Welcome.
The photos keep whispering in my bag, on the car ride home… So I guess the stories are just mine?’
The photos allow her to see, notice and converse with the world around her again and she tries to harness their power to capture and reinvent moments of time by photographing things that were important in her personal story. This culminates in Biz convincing Jasper to go on a journey to regional NSW, photographing all the places that her father lived in a journey to understand him better and by implication herself.
In the climactic scene of this journey they end up in Temora, a place of flies and brown and grey brick boxes of homes. An unfriendly taxi driver drops Biz and Jasper in the driveway of what was once her father’s home. She takes photographs of the house and a deeply traumatic fact about her family’s history is casually revealed to her by its new residents. She wakes up the next day suffocating on her own anxiety. She looks over the photographs and they literally speak to her from her father’s point of view. They are presented one by one in a single chapter and there is no segue to ease the reader into this strange place:
A PHOTOGRAPH OF A LIVING ROOM:
I am a boy. I am five and my name is Stephen Grey.
I bump off the couch and onto my bum and Mum laughs.
She’s wearing her dress with red flowers, the one she kisses Dad in.
Over the course of the chapter the stories the photographs tell become more abstract; they show how the small objects and places of our past hold our personal stories and our histories:
A photograph of the house:
I am room, I am step, I am window.
I am roof, I am wall, I am house.
I see how he and she touched each other and stopped touching each other. I see the boy at doors, listening…
The voice and stories these photographs throw up are infinite and, for Biz, overwheming. They show how, as Susan Sontag argues, photographs have the power to reinvent, reimagine, collect and rewrite the past. Biz collapses under the weight of all those stories and the pages of the book are viscerally taken over by her conflict:
DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD? DAD?
The word and the question mark are repeated over several pages as we wait for Biz to come up for air, to find the right story to tell herself and to be transformed by the photographs she has taken. Ultimately taking photographs teaches Biz that art can be transcendent because it teaches us that life is what happens when you take the time ‘To be in this place, in this moment, under this sun, for as long as you can be, for as long as you can get.’
How It Feels to Float is ultimately a lesson in how to sit with words and images, how to watch them literally float and fragment on the page – and how that can make you feel everything a book has to say so deeply it hurts.