Love is a UFO: Oscar Updike’s Incredibly Intelligent Observations on life, death and other freaky phenomena
I read the entire book in one day over several cups of steaming hot coffee because I simply could not put it down. There were several instances when I shed a few unwilling and embarrassed tears (I know I am a crybaby that way) despite myself. It was a privilege being a part of Ossie’s tumultuous teenage life (reading his emails, journeying through the post-it notes his mother leaves haphazardly yet strategically around the house) even for just this particular snapshot taken in time.
Dealing with Death and Stages of Grieving 101. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a psychologist and I (would like to think that I seem to) have a special way around teenagers which made this book really meaningful to me. The synopsis at the back of the book effectively captures the intricacies of the book that I would like to celebrate in this review-slash-QandA.
He’s got imagination.
He’s also got problems.
His father is dead, his mother is a member of the All Men Are Bastards Association, and his sister is a zombie. Getting through life is going to take some serious skills, like:
- How to defeat a plague of Stick-it notes
- How to impress a laughing psychologist
- How to focus on cricket when corellas are taking over the planet
- How to survive school when a cold sore is taking over his face
- How to stay cool when he is turning into a giant
- How to kiss a girl who can’t keep still
Ossie also has to learn the most important lesson of all… Life is freaky and love is a UFO
I like Ossie. I think if I were a wee bit younger (ok, yeeeears younger), he would be my kind of guy. He’s this talented young artist who does ultra-cool graphic designs. Saying that he has problems though would be an understatement. Apart from the ones listed above, he has a few more issues that I’d like to add to the list:
- He has an older sister who seems to have these massive mood-swings and whose word of endearment to him consists of one magic word: “Dirtbag” – pronounced with such loathing and teenage angst at that.
- His parents were separated (before his dad died, that is) – his father ran off with this Bjork-looking younger woman, who happens to be an artist (and to the horror of his mother) – someone cool enough for him to actually like and enjoy hanging around with.
- His mother – apart from joining a support group of equally angry women who enjoy bashing around the male species (in their absence of course) – has also internalized all the stages of grief and seems to believe that there is an acceptable and appropriate way of “letting it all out” and “releasing one’s emotions” in a psychologically-healthy fashion. Ossie’s inability to go through these in an orderly, sequential manner– in the expected time frame – is testament to his being odd and different and warranted an appointment to a professional (the dreaded psychologist) who can sort all these things out for him in a more effective way.
Love is a UFO has made me laugh uproariously while making me shed a few tears in the same breath. For a book that deals with such a heavy issue, it has highlighted one key aspect that in psychological jargon is called ‘normalizing the situation’ without trivializing the issue in the least. Ossie hated the fact that everyone seemed to treat him gingerly after his father’s death, as if he is about to break into pieces at any time (something that apparently would bring enormouscomfort and relief to his mother).
What made this book work for me is the powerful subtlety in the narrative – and Ken’s unique ability to get into the head of a teenage boy and speak the way he does without it sounding contrived in the least. The paints, the cricket fence, the lame jokes – all these made the memory of Ossie’s father vivid without overly-dramatizing his father’s death (while tragic, it does have its comic moments as all tragedies do). It is through these little elements and minuscule details captured through a teenager’s light-hearted (yet in certain turns, profound) perspective of daily life that allow us to go on and heal ourselves – or what the psychologist called Ossie’s ‘resilience.’ Definitely better than dealing with Stages of Grief 101 in a cookbook chapter-wise manner. Somehow, Ossie’s seeming-indifference and apparent-normalcy (despite the fact that he should be racked over by grief as stated in his mother’s manual) made everything more real and piercing in its felt truth.
Q and A with Ken Spillman
What was it like writing this particular book for you given its theme of death, dying, and adolescent angst/indifference? Was it difficult to write about a taboo topic in a YA novel?
When I reflect on the writing of Love is a UFO, I’m always surprised by the fact that it was so incredibly easy.
Did you expect it to have this kind of overwhelmingly positive response from your readers?
Yes, I think I did. The book just seemed a natural. However, I now know that the ‘clever’ title wasn’t so clever. I liked it, my (female) editor liked it, the Pan Macmillan marketing people (all female) liked it, librarians and teachers (mostly female) like it, girls like it. But boys don’t! There are very many boys who just won’t give a book a chance if it has that word ‘love’ in the title, and this has been reported to me by numerous school librarians. Despite the book having a male character, I think I may have reduced my readership by 40-50% by that one oversight. We were all just blinded by the ‘cleverness’ of the title!
What helped in making Ossie’s character real for you?
I’m not sure. He just spoke to me. I listened. When I think about Love is a UFO now, I see that I’m a little bit of Ossie, and a little bit like his father. I see a bit of my own mum in Ossie’s mum, too. She worked as a school psychologist and often made assumptions about me. She was often doing the articulating that she wished I’d do, and was often frustrated about the way I seemed closed to her.
Teenage Romances in the Unlikely Places. From an awkward, uncertain young boy who could not even say two words to his all-time-crushie Daniela (who happens to be a good friend of older-sister-from-hell) – Ossie has transformed into a tall, young man with his shoulders all straightened, his towering gaze giving him greater perspective about where he fits in the larger scheme of things – this, despite his laughing at the most unlikely of settings (his father’s funeral for instance). The reader gets to see him literally and metaphorically grow up as one flips through the pages of the book.
I enjoyed the email exchanges between Ossie and Tara (or Tazzz for short), the girl “who can’t keep still” – reminds one of the stuff that teenage romances are made of in all its charming ineptitude and raw genuineness of emotion that is painted over the surface in bright beet red for all to see. Check out a fragment of the email correspondence between Ossie and Taz:
Anywayzzzzzz…. About the movies. We can’t go this weekend because I’ll be staying at my aunty’s house. Dad’s working on a house in the country for a week (he’s a builder) so Mum’s going down on Friday and they’re going to stay at some health farm doing meditation and stuff. Dad could probably take us when he comes back next week, but I miss you and where do you live anyway? I could come over after school one day if it’s okay with your mum? Or we could have another hit, just me and you?
PS Scroll down for a question, but don’t answer if you don’t want to.
Do you have a girlfriend?
Yes let’s go to the nets (Monday would be good @ 4.30). No I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t even want one unless she’s you.
PS Scroll down for a question, but don’t answer if you don’t want to.
Why do you want to know if I have a girlfriend?
Tee hee. Score one for Ossie. Smooth.
Q and A with Ken Spillman
I was just personally wondering what made you so attuned to teenagers’ sensibilities – I know of course, that you are still fairly young (at heart[KS1] ), but could you share with us how you keep up to date with their distinct language, customs – basically the adolescents’ strange world?
Tough question. Yes, I’ve had teenage children. I was also a teenager myself! Professionally and socially I’ve always connected with kids and teenagers and can meet them at their own level quite instinctively. I read them well – body language included – and I think I listen well. I don’t think I even think of teenagers as teenagers, and that can be helpful. A teenager is a person, an individual, who just happens to be at a certain part of life where things tend to be in a state of great flux. Perhaps I can also relate to the world of a teenager– a lot of it is about self-expression, which is what I’ve always been most interested in.
It’s quite interesting to see these kinds of exchanges coming from a teenage boy’s perspective. Girls are fairly well-represented when it comes to articulation of deeply-felt emotions and budding romances – was it difficult to write this bit about the story?
Not really. Boys have inner lives and feel things very deeply. They tend not to articulate what’s going on inside as freely – girls practice a lot more with friends, whereas boys hold a great deal back. But Ossie’s articulation of his life in Love is a UFO is 99.999% internal – he’s says very little, and even with Sue it’s more of a questioning.
Ossie’s Voice – Distinct, Subtle, and Oh-so-Powerful. Similar to Ken’s other two
books which we featured in our Part 2 Interview, there is a distinct Aussie voice to the entire narrative. Yet for some reason, there is also a sense of familiarity with Ossie and the way he shares his story, as if he’s a long-lost nephew, with all his artistic eccentricities and his imaginatively-induced absentmindedness.
Like what I said a week ago, books “speak” to me – and I loved hearing Ossie (oioi01)’s subtle yet very powerful voice through the pages. Rather than needlessly obsess about issues, unresolved conflicts, the complexity of human relationships – he takes things as they are. Yet he is extremely reflective for a young boy – he just does not feel the need to catastrophize and be all fidgety and overly-anxious about things he could not change (it is the way it is) – which I find endearing, pragmatic, and sensible, really. The boy’s got a good head on his shoulders.
Q and A with Ken Spillman
Would you say that Ossie typifies the average young boy, particularly in Australia? What would you say to be the inspiration for his character, if any?
I’m not sure that there was an ‘inspiration’ for Ossie – my idea was simply to take an imaginative kid with a lively internal voice and then throw as many problems at him as I could. As you’ve said, we see him growing up through this particularly tough time, and I think we can see that his resilience is firmly rooted in his imagination and sense of humour. He’s not meant to typify, but instead to provide an example of just how tough and adaptable kids can be. Often, adults (like Ossie’s mum) think they need to guide kids through everything, but it’s more important for kids to be encouraged to be themselves, and to deal with things in their own way. Ossie’s lucky to have Sue, his dead father’s partner, and their discussions in the book are of course the deepest of all. It’s significant that, when Ossie does actually cry, it’s with Sue – she’s the one who is honest and direct with him, and non-judgemental.
If you were to write a sequel to the book of Ossie, say when he is in his early 40s, how would you describe him to be like?
Ossie in his early 40s would be a great guy, a funny and clever man who has done some amazing work in design, with a big interest in new platforms. Life tends to knock people around, though, and if I wrote a book about this time in his life I suspect it would be about his relationships – his marriage and children. He’d be wanting more from life. He’d be thinking back to his own father, and reflecting on his own role as a father, and worried that his kids don’t see him the way he wants to be seen. He’d do something about all this – something ‘out there’ but very, very positive. Hey… you’ve got me thinking now! Will I need to split royalties with you?!
Tell us a little bit more about Love being a UFO (I love the metaphor, by the way).
The thing about romantic love is that we’ll never really ‘get it’. It can’t ever be figured out, because it has a language of its own – just as aliens would. We may as well give up trying to understand that language, and instead just accept the presence of an alien and explore the new territories that love brings.
Thank you so much for your time, Ken. It has been truly our privilege to have you and your books featured in GatheringBooks. Looking forward to knowing more of your works in the future.