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Book Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

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"Everyone in this room is connected, except Norah – she’s the kind of statue they don’t ever make, a statue of someone totally defeated".

Norah Silverberg meets Nick O'Leary at a club in downtown Manhattan. Nick is stuck in his usual emo-depressed state due to his recent break-up with Tris, who had inspired him to write beautiful songs. Norah comes from a bad relationship with a very politically-oriented boyfriend, Tal, whom she's dumped about five times in the last three years.

Nick can't stand the idea of confronting his ex-sexpot Tris approaching him with a new boyfriend, so he turns to this girl Norah, whom Nick had been contemplating previously at the bar, and asks her if she'll concede to be his five-minutes girlfriend. Norah concurs to it only because she wants to check out Nick's straightness as a confirmation of her earlier analysis of this attractive musician from Hoboken (who auto-describes himself as a random bassist in an average queercore band) and to peeve Tris, her mate in the Sacred Heart school.

Nick's bandmates are gay and ironic, Dev from a town in Jersey called Lodi (idol in reverse) and Thom from South Orange. Nora's best friend Caroline is feisty, with the long caramel hair, the big cherry Tootsie Pop lips and a promiscuous behaviour.

The story of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist belongs to the young adult genre, although its appeal is universal, since it explores the search for real sensations and everlasting nights in a mix-tape narrative allegory. It's told from alternative simultaneous views by the writers Rachel Cohn (Gingerbread, Cupcake, You Know Where to Find Me), Norah's bi-polar voice, and David Levithan (Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List, Realm of Possibility, Boy Meets Boy) who adopts shy Nick's voice. In the first chapters we can receive a wrong impression by the characters, because the first brushes are a bit harsh, in an intoxicated atmosphere of clubs crowded with frantic doped teenagers, and the boy and girl could come off as self-absorbed and narcissist music geeks. "Sweat, malice, and hunger pour from me" are some of Nick's first thoughts on set. After their concert, he only can think of Tris' infidelities: "Three weeks, two days, and twenty-three hours ago. And she’s already with someone else. All of the songs I wrote in my head were for her, and now I can’t stop them from playing". These constant negative thoughts turn Nick more broken and void by the minute. It's almost as if initially Nick and Norah were written as two obsessed indie passengers whose purpose is to fill their null soundtracks of their respective mute lives.

"He’s working the ironic punk boy–Johnny Cash angle too hard to be a ’mo. Jersey-boy bassist with Astor Place hair who wears torn-up, bleach-stained black jeans and a faded black T-shirt" is the accurate analysis of Nick by Norah's intensely radiographic girly mind. Her boyfriend Tal and best friend Caroline have made her believe she's possibly frigid and she expresses her fear of being the Tin-Woman in a exhaustive series of internal monologues throughout the novel. She is horribly confused expressing her sexuality with boys, auto-defining herself as a "horrid bitch from the planet Schizophrenia", although she's actually a Jewish valedictorian princess from Englewood Cliffs, a record company CEO's spoiled daughter. Norah had only kissed Tal and Becca Weiner from summer camp until this Saturday. Norah is a lonely creature who only trusts her archive of My So-Called Life episodes as a guide to her romance record.

(We must remember that romance heroines in the literature were princesses, duchesses, or other ladies of the court; "Romance" originally referred to the vernacular French language called romanz. In the 12th century, literature written down in romance was intended to distinguish from official Latin literature. So we could say this romance genre started as an alternative variety, the same "indie" stream Nick and Norah try to rout out.)

Norah often feels trapped because she's hesitating applying for Brown University and her undesired future with Tal, who made her awful playlists filled with YMA Sumac crap and belittled her on a regular basis.

The descriptions of the concerts, mosh pits, communal hardcore energy, and reactions of the underground punk scene are realistically dirty and deafening, allowing us feel the giddiness of sliding into a gigantic pulsating wave from a loud station, fulminating our ears and shrinking our stomachs. I liked the references to random Weezer fans, the hint of dialogue from the film Heathers and memorabilia of rock classics — not very beloved by Norah — as well as to the Beatles, Patti Smith or Lou Reed.

Cohn and Levithan avoid gracefully ribald situations typical of punchy punky teen romance scenarios. Instead, they pen a wonderful vérité representational portrait of insecure personalities plagued with low-esteem and erotical euphony.

In chapter three Nick's romantic side unfolds: "When Tris passes by me it's like the world is no longer 3-D. The third dimension falls away, then the second, and all I'm left with is one dimension, and that dimension is her".

In chapter seven, Nick confesses: "I am liking Norah". "I'm liking that I have to earn her smiles and laughs".

There are various passages that are of high erotic voltage (being the most graphic the intimacy they find in the hotel Marriott's ice-room), with fervid advances between Norah and Nick, as in a scene in the small room to the side of the Ladies Room, which is probably one of the saddest make-outs I've ever read. Nick stops Norah's lustful inexperienced flirting and he realizes he just can't do it (despite his heat) because he sees the unsmiling look in Norah's eyes.

Feeling rebuked by Nick, Norah distances herself from him, misunderstanding his reaction, and looks for advice from Tris. Caroline would have tipped her but she's too drunk (Drunkzilla) and taken care by Nick's gang. The track on list now could be appropriately "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (The Smiths), as Nick broods: "Fuck her for getting in that cab. Fuck her for fucking with my mind. Fuck her for not knowing what she wants. Fuck her for dragging me into it. Fuck her for being such a fantastic kisser. Fuck her for ruining my favorite band. If I had my guitar, I might be able to make some change. But instead all I have are the songs crashing together in my head. They’re all sad. They’re all bitter. And they’re all that I have".

Norah is also falling apart inside the taxi at the moment the station plays a Merle Haggard break-up ballad. "Happy endings don't happen" – she resents, while an equally tortured Nick is regretting his lack of confidence: "It's not enough to be sitting alone on a sidewalk writing a song for a girl if you don't have the guts to at least try talking to her again". But an amusing phone call will change the separated route of our protagonists, when they meet again in an Ukrainian afterhours restaurant in the East Village, Veselka. In this place both play to have a "formal" first date, eating borscht, confessing their shared fondness of B-sides tracks and the obscure band "Where's Fluffy?".

Thereafter, Nick begins to see Tris as a past girlfriend, a Hot Topic mall hussy who wears slutty short leather skirts, mass-produced “vintage” Ramones T-shirts, yellow leggings and who likes to be a party girl. He's wised up after getting over Tris' betrayal. It's relevant that later Tris is humanized to the point that the readers begin to care about her real intentions and discover she's not the groupie-fatale epiphyte they think. She tries her best to not cause more pain. "I want to — but I can’t — hate her", Norah discloses.

Norah's impressed with the explanation Nick offers her about her Tikkun Olan conversation, and his straight-edge philosophy totally clicks with her: "…the real punk goes down now with a straight edge: no alcohol, no drugs, no cigarettes, no skanks. The real punk now is the only punk left after all the madness: the music, the message".

The intertwined descriptive style of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist never loses its consciousness of the occlusive threats around the night in N.Y., but manages to wrap them with sunny smiles. On the edge of Times Square the rain lightens Nick and Norah's hearts: "she is so fucking beautiful, the way her mouth is uncertain about whether or not to smile".

Instants so lyrical as this one fixate us in such a hypnotic state we won't see the train coming into the subway, or the turnstiles. We're wandering, just as Nick and Norah, walking down Seventh Avenue, not knowing if we’re going to the subway or walking all the way back to the Lower East Side…

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About Elena

I'm Elena Gonzalvo, a Catalonian freelance writer, and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My blogsite is http://jake-weird.blogspot.com
  • Marissa

    i love this bok and movie<3!

  • http://jake-weird.blogspot.com kendra

    thanks, Marissa!

  • http://soundcloud.com/dprobeats D-Pro

    I loved this review!