Article published on January 12, 2017.
There have been quite a few narratives that have dealt with illness – specifically cancer – but Len Vlahos’s novel stands out amongst them. In a genre that is, naturally, overwhelmed by grief, Vlahos has turned the subject on its head – literally – to create a surprisingly animated and original tale shot through with glimpses of poignancy and heartache. But it is originality that is the keyword of this title, as he transforms the way not only cancer is dealt with in his narrative but even the way it is expressed.
Indeed, Vlahos takes the unusual, even radical, step of anthropomorphising his character, Jared’s, brain tumour, giving it a name – Glio, short for glioblastoma – and a voice. It is certainly an unconventional move, and I did wonder about the sensitivity of such an approach for some readers, but I think Vlahos manages to handle a very precarious concept with deftness and wistfulness and it is a really powerful and central element of the narrative.
Another unconventional move by Vlahos is in his approach towards Jared, who as the one struck by the brain tumour, traditionally would fulfil the role of lead character. Not so in Life in a Fishbowl, in which Jared becomes rather a bit-part player in his own life, not least because he offers himself up firstly to the highest bidder on eBay and then as the pawn in the game of reality TV.
As such, Jared’s life is largely taken from him, particularly by the TV juggernaut. And Vlahos uses a multi-character perspective, which includes Jared’s eldest daughter, Jackie, a TV exec, and several other outsiders, that recreates this sense of Jared’s loss of autonomy and subsumes his story of illness. Again it is an intriguing and unusual concept.
Taking the focus off Jared means taking the focus off his illness which allows the narrative to have an emotional breather as it were, not getting too lost in the melancholy of Jared’s situation, but Vlahos’s approach also serves to highlight the deficiencies of a world in which the personal plays second fiddle to the public, and nothing is sacred. Admittedly, by pushing Jared out of the frame somewhat, it disrupts the emotional intensity and connection that narratives of this kind usually thrive on, and in large part, arguably, depend on, but this story has been done many times before and Vlahos offers something different by injecting humour and lightness as well as cynicism and sarcasm into a narrative that is about much more than illness.
But he also manages to deliver that sentimentality in short, meaningful glimpses. Personally, I would have liked more of these and specifically more moments between Jared and his family to really give this authentic emotional experience to the novel, but the novel is so rich in many other ways, not least in terms of the range of voices and themes explored, and it depends on this originality for its power. And in large part it succeeds.
I have no doubt that readers will be talking about this novel a lot, and it is one that I would recommend to reading groups in particular for the wealth of material worth discussing. Although the book is packaged as YA, it doesn’t feel like a typical YA read and I would encourage all readers, adults and teens alike, to give it a go. In many ways I think it’s actually more suited to an adult audience. Without question, Vlahos has created something really unique and distinctive and whether you love it or not, it will be unlike anything you’ve read, and I suspect it will find many fans.
Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos
Bloomsbury 978-1408870631 pbk Jan. 2017