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The Nose from Jupiter

by Richard Scrimger

Suppose we took all the ingredients of the traditional young adult novel – divorce, bullies, frustrated romance, angst, personal introspection – and handed them to a little-known writer. Suppose the writer was a stay-at-home dad in a small town in rural Ontario whose previous effort at fiction was a poignant work about a homeless man in Toronto, written in a stream-of-consciousness narrative style. What’s the chance we might get a decent young adult novel?
So how did The Nose from Jupiter turn out to be so good? There’s nothing original here in terms of substance, just a humorous working-out of teenage woe. The book’s basic concept, that a tiny alien from Jupiter has taken up residence in a teenager’s nose, is about as silly as it sounds. The novel is filled with enough nose, snot, and sneezing jokes to make an adult groan, though these will certainly appeal to its preteen readers. And yet, somehow, the concoction works. The Nose from Jupiter is much, much better than the sum of its parts.
Maybe the reason is talent. Scrimger’s got it – in many different genres. He told his local newspaper that “good writing is fast writing,” a remark that would make J.D. Salinger cringe, but for Scrimger the technique certainly is effective. His adult novel of two years ago, Crosstown, was impressive enough to be nominated for the City of Toronto Book Award. A year later, Scrimger’s book of essays, Still Life With Children, appeared – a collection of newspaper articles and new material based on his five years as a stay-at-home dad, first in Toronto and then in Cobourg, Ontario. That book was full of wry commentary: “You work so hard to get everything right for the first child and, by the fourth, you take a halfhearted shot and then give up.” So Scrimger certainly knows how to write like an adult, and for adult readers; but can the same author write like a child … and for children?

Italicized Advice
The Nose from Jupiter answers both questions: yes he can. Scrimger takes on the voice of 13-year-old Alan Dingwall, bothered by a gang of bullies called the Cougars, attracted to a girl named Miranda, but really disturbed by a tiny alien from Jupiter who has taken up residence in his nose. The alien, Norbert, possesses a tiny voice (rendered in italics, a bit like John Irving’s famous Owen Meany who always spoke in CAPITALS). Norbert shouts out astute comments that add to poor Alan’s ongoing problems, but ultimately help him get over the predictable rough spots in teenage life.
Since the movie Harvey, the comic potential of a mostly invisible character has been realized in movies, on television, and in books. It is to Scrimger’s credit that he handles this convention so well, with such marvellous irony and a wonderful interplay between Norbert and Alan. Much of the humour is offered up by Norbert, the tiny alien who prepared for his earth mission by listening to k.d. lang. Near the opening, when Alan wakes up in hospital, he has a brief exchange with Norbert that gives an immediate sense of their relationship:
“Oh, hi,” I say. “Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
I’ve been busy.
“I thought you were in a coma too. Did you know that I was in a coma?”
No, really? I was in the garage.
“Say, what happened, anyway. How did I get knocked out?”
How should I know? I’m not a doctor.
Obviously Norbert is an imaginary friend with capital-A attitude, exactly the kind of attitude that Alan needs to deal with the bullies in his life, make the appropriate moves on Miranda, and even make a little headway with his distracted parents. Some of these resulting happy outcomes seem a bit pat, especially the miraculous conversion of one of the Cougars thanks to a little intervention by Norbert, but all come through with real charm. The Nose from Jupiter is the kind of book that will leave its readers of any age smiling all the way through.
What will be especially galling to many would-be writers, however, is that Scrimger didn’t have to go through the typical 25 rejections to get his first kids’ novel into print. A few years ago, well-known children’s author Claire Mackay was looking for some funny, new short stories for her anthology Laughs. She knew Scrimger’s mother and had enjoyed the author’s occasional Globe and Mail columns, so she called him up to see if he would write a funny piece for her book. Scrimger came through with “Norbert’s Nose,” a story that came to the attention of Tundra editor Kathy Lowinger. Lowinger called the author up and asked if he might want to write a longer book for young adults. After some consideration, Scrimger expanded his short story into a novel, darkening the vision as he expanded the narrator’s middle school universe.

A Natural Touch
In the movement from story to book, Scrimger’s writing has grown somewhat more sophisticated. The Nose from Jupiter is filled with sweet touches of humour, wonderful bits of irony, small shadings with just-the-right adjective to give a phrase that perfect touch. Scrimger has a natural talent – there are such people, after all – and it will be fascinating to watch how it develops over time. Apparently his next book will be closer to home: a young-adult novel about a family with four kids taking a long car trip. If the conventional wisdom is that an author’s first novel is disguised autobiography, Scrimger is taking a slow route back toward himself. When he gets there, that book might just be outstanding.