For any reader looking to find a book with an interesting array of characters this summer, I would recommend going to your local bookstore and buying A Matter of Life and Death or Something, a novel by Ben Stephenson. However, if you are looking for a book that you just cannot put down, I would not recommend this book at all.
A Matter of Life and Death or Something is about a 10-year-old who finds a black and white notebook in the woods behind his house. Arthur finds out that the notebook belongs to a mysterious person named Phil, who is writing down the events of his very troubled life, and detailing his complicated relationship with a woman he calls E. One particular page, the infamous page 43, scares and mystifies Arthur so much that he decides that he must investigate and find out who Phil is. The entire story is told by three narrators: Arthur on his quest to find out the truth about Phil and about his place in the world; Phil and his bizarre descent into craziness; and the trees who watch them all.
Arthur is witty, and observant, and funny without even meaning to be. He will make you smile with the way he describes his feelings, the way he observes people and their behavior, and the way he tells you about his friends and family. Stephenson perfectly masters the way to write such a young child as being insightful and funny. Watching Arthur’s growth as a person and his confusion with how the world is so weird is entertaining.
Phil and the trees, on the other hand, are not at all like Arthur. The trees narrate the actions of the characters in an annoyingly poetic way that is just really unnecessary. I wished someone would burn the trees. Phil’s character is just as hard to read because Phil seems to be spiraling into depression, and ultimately the end of his life. In his notebook he writes of inane things like his cat, and as you progress through the book his writing becomes increasingly difficult to understand. Words are crossed out, his ideas are jumbled, and his complicated relationship with E becomes tiresome. For some reason, he always speaks in the third person, making his problems sometimes incomprehensible. I would imagine that we are supposed to sympathize with Phil and understand the unraveling of his life, but I found no sympathy for Phil. Instead, I began to hate Phil, and this made reading his long chapters very hard, confusing and boring. There is a point in the book where Phil’s character becomes so detestable that you no longer care about him.
I do not know if this was Stephenson’s intention. The lack of passion for Phil does not come from Stephenson’s lack of writing ability because he writes beautifully for Arthur, and his concept of finding something in the woods and trying to figure out where it came from is, while cliché, very different. The story has so much potential, but Stephenson loses himself with his poetic lines, his unlikeable characters, and his need to make incomprehensible remarks about life and the universe.
A Matter of Life and Death or Something could be a great book, but I’m afraid that if it wasn’t for Arthur, reading this book could just be a matter of life and death.
A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson, D&M Publishers
I am Luca Brown and I’m 15 years old. I am an avid reader from Montreal, Quebec, and I am a student at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. My interests include environmental issues, politics and TV comedy shows such as Modern Family, 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live.