Shades of grey – Paul Vincent Rodriguez’ “The Tale of Darvin the Nerd”

Description by the author / blurb (taken from here):

“Wait, I feel a duh coming on,” was Darvin’s favorite method of insulting less intelligent fairies. His father always said “if it’s not right, it’s wrong” which made Darvin’s world very black and white. He was not a total nerd but still suffered the wrath of the school bullies until he and his posse stood up for themselves. But his over confidence would land him in a worse spot – trapped in a dog kennel by an equally smart human boy. Darvin’s attempts to talk his way free are useless so he spends his time in prison exploring all the technology available to us humans. He is exposed to advertising and social media and email and begins to see the many levels of gray that dominate human life. Darvin becomes friends with a human and is angered when the boy comes home from school with a black eye courtesy of the school bully. Darvin promises to help the boy get revenge but realizes that the bully doesn’t have it so good either.

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Review

Harry Potter has shown once and for all that novels need not be small to convert television freaks to book nerds. I remember reading that J.K. Rowling was told in her first rejection letters that her book simply exceeded the scope of a children’s book. Wrong they were.
„Darvin the Nerd“ is just a small book and it was meant to be such to attract those who shy away from heavy tomes to reading. I think this is an unnecessary move. If the tome glows with its own magic, it will attract everyone and dispel no one. And „Harry Potter“ could precisely attract an adult audience as well because it offered what a book requires a certain length to offer: a long-stretched story arc and character portraits that are progressively completed along the arc.
 

Harry Potter“, though, does not make for the only recipe there is. The other one readily known is epitomized by “The little Prince”. I first read it in my mid-teens, at a time when I was close to call anything below the scope of „The Lord of the Rings“ a lightweight story – and yet, the little Prince stroke me to the heart. The beautiful red rose the Prince searched for with his enchanting persistence seemed much like the Blue Rose of romanticism to me – the symbol of the impossible distance Novalis and others dreamt about; the longing for what cannot be caught; the longing for the longing.
The Little Prince“ is so successful with the adult audience because it strongly resonates with a deeply rooted existential desire – be it called love, friendship, home, or, with the journeying ardour of the mid-teen’s mind, ‘the Blue Rose’. In my idea, „Darvin the Nerd“ is not the typical kids’ book. It’s true that the topic on the surface, bullying and the estrangement towards one’s own environment, is a vivid concern mostly of the teen years. The text is smooth to read, the sentences come in proportions easily manageable, and yet the vocabulary is not artificially limited as so often happens in the typical kids’ book. The writing is splendid and easily flowing and mature at the same time. But what principally makes me think of the book as aimed at a wider audience is the humour. The humour in „Darvin the Nerd“ is benign, yet often surreptitious. When Darvin’s remarks and thoughts are twisted by their habitual ironical quips, his humour really shows its delicacy – it’s not as obvious and glaring as the painted face of a clown and the blasting of red balloons in a circus performance. It’s likely that kids would have difficulties in fully grasping the funny shades of some of his comments. Just two examples:
You don’t have no wings,” Joseph observes to Darvin. The latter replies: “I think the correct verbiage is ‘ain’t got no wings’, you moron” – which, of course, isn’t proper English either.
Darvin reflects on his experiences with the Internet: “I was really surprised at how much, what I would call ‘inappropriate material’, was readily available (…) I simply chose to ignore it – or at least most of it.” A child would rather not imagine the hint of a sly grin flickering on Darvin’s lips that I see when reading this.

As this little book can entertain both kids and adults on a different level, it’s not the typical kids’ book. The same holds true for „The little Prince“ and „Harry Potter“. Thus, here I’d call the typical kids’ book the story that doesn’t include a level which can be especially appreciated by an adult audience. Of course this still can be questioned – but I confess I’d have a hard time investigating a presumed philosophical or existential depth in, say, „Winnie the Pooh“.
Typical kids’ books are plethora and there are countless ones much more entertaining than „Darvin the Nerd“. Thus, in defining it into the category I do, I’m not putting too high demands on the booklet, to the contrary, I try to do justice to its unique qualities.
Apples shouldn’t be compared with pears and „Darvin the Nerd“ should be judged by the standard it best fits in with. The author says the book is suitable both for teens and tweens. The recommended age group knows no upper limit, it’s explicitly 10-16+. The author says his fairy tales offer a leisurely read for those parents who want to understand the issues of their children better. That’s what the author says about his work; the wider audience is unequivocally aimed at. That much suffices to determine the work’s category.

Again, viewed in this category, there’re many better books than „Darvin the Nerd“, mostly because the story doesn’t really match the category it tries to fill in. The concept doesn’t work out.
Either, within that category, there are books that develop complex story lines or even elaborate whole words – like Harry Potter – or else there are books that neither depend on story line nor character building but live by the existential feeling they convey or the ‘message’ they carry. Given its small scale, „Darvin the Nerd“ belongs to this latter sort of works, perhaps best represented by „The little Prince“.
The impression is confirmed by the fact that I can write this review with almost no reference to the content – because the content, almost up to the end, is given away in the blurb. Likewise, the reader gets to know Darvin but the format of the novella determines that what he gets to know about him remains limited. The author acknowledges as much in the preface, but still, he strove at “maintaining the messages each [fairy] thought important enough to share”. Clearly, the novella doesn’t stake its impact on the storyline, but on the message it brings to expression; the message finally shapes the question of whether Darvin will escape from the allegorical cage his narrow philosophy of life has enclosed him in.

Thus I’d further argue that what the story presents as essential about Darvin is not the existential feeling the story relates him to, but precisely the ‘message’, the philosophy he lives by. Darvin, though he struggles through moments of estrangedness, never has been the outsider. He has friends, loving parents and he’s capable of dealing with adversities. His childhood is more troubled than his youth but his group of fellow nerds never leaves him and once he finds his own way, there is a point in his youth he even believes ‘he has it all’ – including the perfect girlfriend. Before a quarter of the novella has gone by, Darvin has defeated the major bully of his life in a bare-knuckle fight. Therefore, the estrangedness of the outsider as an existential experience does not define „Darvin the Nerd“. To claim that, given the limited elaboration of the experience, would be like claiming that “longing” could be the central theme of a Little Prince who only time and again thinks about his read rose but else is consumed by other preoccupations. No, the central theme of „Darvin the Nerd“ is the message of his lifestyle: everything sums up to the technical dichotomy of one and zero, either right or wrong, either black or white. His parents are engineers and Darvin thinks in the pattern of an engineer, amplified to undue proportion by his genial mind and his intolerance towards fallacies in logic and mental slowness.
The nerd theme reappears at a later point, when Darvin shares in the life of his temporary jailor, the human boy Joseph. But now the theme really reveals itself to be of lesser importance, because it serves to bring to fruition the central message of the novella: that Darvin has been wrong, that there really is no black and white. Bullies often act the way they do because in their own lives they themselves are the bullied ones, and the nerd estranged to most of his peers is not always just the victim. Darvin realises as much, because when the boy catches him in the cage, he really has been caught by himself, by his own vainglory, the steadfast faith in his superiority. And it needs the reflection within another overachieving mind for Darvin to come to terms with the mocking showiness of his intelligence. „I’ve never done anything to hurt anyone,” Joseph reflects in anguish. “I don’t make fun of people, like you do.” – “Like me?” Darvin responds with surprise.

It is, thus, the tolerance for shades of grey that constitutes the central point of this story. Undoubtedly, this is a powerful message, but the story falls short of the impact of „The little Prince“ and other standard-setting books of its kind because it doesn’t really explore the message – it rather seems pasted onto the events, like a thin film of finish. Several parts of the story pass without reference to it and the reader wonders what they might be good for – as when Darvin discovers what a laptop is and falls for maniac searches on the Internet.
The link between the experience of enstrangement and the message is also not as tight as the link between the struggles of the main character and the message should be in order to give the message the central place it needs to occupy within the category the story has been defined to belong to.
To be sure, if one is the genius of a mind, fetishises rationality and is close to disdain emotionality as mental retardedness, then one is prone to be blind to the power of inter-human or inter-fairy-contact and prone to rationalise the world into the zero-and-one pattern of the mathematical spirit. The link is there, but it really is fortuitous and could be construed from the perspective of countless other life situations. A vendor of hamburgers might classify the citizens of his town in good or bad according to whether they like eating his hamburgers or no. In fact, it’s rather difficult to conceive of a life situation from which could not arise a perceptual black- and-white scheme. But for the link of message and existential experience to be powerful, it should be immediate, emotionally charged and almost pre-reflective. National, cultural and religious differences spontaneously come to my mind. When one finds oneself placed in the context of such differences, it’s not only easy to associate them with black-and-white thinking, but, and this makes for the iron link, it’s almost impossible to dissociate them from it. „Darvin the Nerd“ is a long way off from the pinnacle of the standard works of its category because its message does not blaze from within – instead it’s projected onto it by a flimsy light.

Still, apart from the criticism done so far, „Darvin the Nerd“ is pleasant to read. At first I was sceptical whether the shortness of the book would allow for any kind of projected storyline to be fulfilled. However, Darvin’s experiences as a debut tooth fairy, which end in his imprisonment, really connect to a representation of an important episode of his life. The stretch into the past, into his youth experiences, and the glimpses into his further life of a tolerant appreciation of inter-fairy relatedness – they convincingly frame the main episode, so as to better explain why Darvin’s experience as a tooth fairy was of pivotal importance in his life line. Besides, the fight with the bully, the introduction to the tooth fairy profession, Darvin’s tripping into the trap, and, finally, his disconcerting insights into the troubles a bully oneself suffers – they all provide for engaging scenes that tie the reader to the story.

But the highlighting quality of the novella is the charm of its humour. In reading through the story many a time I was tickled into a warm smile. Darvin’s reflections, and the rejoinders of those around him, are dancing with light funniness. It’s the humour of the non-obvious kind, the one so endearing to me. “Let me ask you a question. Do you like eating solid food?” Darvin asks Joseph’s younger brother; and a silent giggle stirs in my chest, and I like Darvin for who he is.

It is, plain and simply, a nice book – no more, but no less.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon Germany  (paperback)
Link to Amazon USA (paperback)
Webpage to the bookseries “Tales of Fairies”

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