New York Times Editors’ Choice
One of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2012
Metaphor is a hell of a weapon in Dan Josefson’s debut, That’s Not a Feeling (Soho, 368 pp., $15.95), a troubled-young-folks-away-at-school novel more bright, dark, and hilarious than any half-dozen first novels all smooshed together. A likable monster named Aubrey rules over Roaring Orchards, a “therapeutic” boarding school in upstate New York. There, in batshit monologues, he convinces parents that their children are something like wily ol’ Zeus in a myth of the book’s own invention: Zeus came down to Earth, bursting with lusts, and tried to seduce a nymph, Aubrey says. The nymph’s dad, knowing the score, did the Ovid thing and transformed the nymph into a turtle, so that she can retreat into her shell at Zeus’s approach. Zeus than transforms himself into a toddler, approaches the turtle, convinces her he’s harmless, and then has a go at her swan-on-Leda style—except this time it’s infant-on-turtle, a coupling Aubrey has commemorated in statue form right there on the Roaring Orchards campus as a reminder: “Inside each of your children is a god,” he says. “It means we must be more vigilant, not less!”
The school, then, is the strangest of inventions. Josefson’s kids, though, are all-too real: cutters and runaways and addicts and suicides, presented with dry comedy and deep—if sometimes suppressed—feeling. Of poor Tidbit, a lost girl who seeks refuge in smokes and meth, our narrator (a student/patient named Benjamin) notes, “She had no idea what was wrong with her. Sometimes she felt whatever it must be was so large and diffuse she couldn’t get her head around it; other times it seemed it was some tart, nasty thing right at the center of her. Or not quite the center. Just off enough that she was always twisted and sweating and stumbling off in the wrong direction.”
Josefson applies that empathy to the school’s students, staff, and parents, all of whom come under Aubrey’s mad sway, and any of whose lives can become the focus of the novel—and of Benjamin, our sublimated narrator—at any time. The result is a funny, humane, egalitarian, and gently challenging book, one to quote and roar over, and one that gets better and stranger as it goes. – Alan Scherstuhl
“That’s Not a Feeling,” Dan Josefson’s mordant, cockeyed first novel about a boarding school in upstate New York, includes, as many fantasy novels also do, a hand-drawn map of his invented world. Downhill from the gym, we see, is the ski-lodge-like cafetorium, which sits just behind the converted mansion used as an administrative building, itself uphill from a swath of pine trees known as “the Enchanted Forest.” Josefson could have reasonably included a glossary as well, as his Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens comes equipped with its own abstruse vocabulary. Students are classified, almost like Grammy Award nominees, as Alternative, New or Regular. Teachers do not restrain students; they “wiggle” them. Yummies are forbidden, and fibs must be turned in; students who break these rules can be sheeted, skirted, cornered, ghosted or roomed, or have their furniture popped. That the school is coeducational has no relation to its bane of “intimacy blockers.”
Our guide to Roaring Orchards is 16-year-old Benjamin, whose parents have deposited him at the school after two suicide attempts. What led to those attempts is left unexplored, for Benjamin’s attention is mostly directed outward: at his fellow students, especially a girl nicknamed Tidbit whose troubledness derives from what she calls her “self-afflicting personality”; at his teachers, who amuse themselves by forecasting which students’ futures will involve serial killings; and at Aubrey, the school’s founder and headmaster, a grandiose, scarf-wearing figure who’s prone to baroque speeches and who seems, unlike Benjamin, pathologically incapable of separating his interior and exterior selves. (An address to his students includes an anecdote about falling asleep on the toilet.)
Just how Benjamin distributes his attention is worth noting. Josefson attempts a natty narrative trick by toggling between first-person and third-person omniscient narrative modes, so that after Benjamin recounts a scene of his own he immediately switches to accounts of concurrent (and thereby unwitnessed) events, with full-access passes to every character’s psyche. We’re with Aubrey, for example, in a session with his therapist, and alone with a teenage girl cutting her legs with a razor blade. “My story here . . . is based on what I saw and what I was told, by students and occasionally by members of the faculty,” goes Benjamin’s Woodward-ish explanation, but the shifting layers of unreliability can make for slippery, unsteady reading. It’s a self-afflicting narrative style.
Josefson’s deft, tempered prose style, however, supplies a measure of traction. It’s unornamented but never flat or blunted, so that the characters, not the sentences, heat the pages. Aubrey and Tidbit provide the most heat, albeit radioactive, and the novel attains a particularly sublime warmth when Tidbit and Benjamin engineer an escape from the school that involves sinking a rowboat in the middle of a nearby lake.
The philosophy at Roaring Orchards, which Aubrey calls an “enormous psychic mending workshop,” is based on strict routine, and the novel’s plot reflects that. Propulsion comes from fissures in the routine, from aberrations — escapes, mild episodes of violence, the comings and goings of new students and faculty members, a mysterious deterioration in Aubrey’s health, an allegedly remedial “ReBirthing session” that goes horribly wrong. In between there’s the constant untangling of the school’s rules and lexicon, exercises in absurdity during which Josefson tosses satirical darts at the (admittedly wide) target of psychobabble and therapeutic jargon. “Can you be sheeted and skirted at the same time?” one student asks, not unprofoundly. Embedded in that question is a deeper one: how to survive in a capricious world, how to push back against institutionalized irrationality. Boarding-school novels are invariably allegorical, and “That’s Not a Feeling” is no different; the absurdity of Roaring Orchards is the absurdity of life, compressed onto several rural acres. As Benjamin says at one point: “I couldn’t hold all the pieces of it in my head at once.” — Jonathan Miles
There is a safe, respectable debut novel hidden inside the much more unsettling and much more compelling one that Dan Josefson has written. Like Josefson’s, the safe version would be narrated by Benjamin, who, after a series of failed suicide attempts, is forced by his parents to enroll in Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for “problem children” run by the charismatic, tyrannical, dying Aubrey. (Aubrey is so bent on controlling his students’ emotional and psychological lives that he makes a list of feelings; anyone who claims to have a feeling not on the list is told that “That’s not a feeling.”) The difference is that the safe book would be a book about Benjamin.
Rather than show us the school through Benjamin’s eyes and chart his journey, this book keeps forgetting about him. Or rather, Benjamin keeps forgetting about himself. He is writing about the school fifteen years after he left it; he wants to “lay something down between myself and the things that happened there, even if it’s just a screen of words,” comparing himself to an insect who covers itself in foam as protection from the sun. Covering oneself in foam does not exactly sound like the most promising of therapies, and over the course of the book we come to suspect that Benjamin is really just trying to evade his past by telling other people’s stories.
Not that the stories Benjamin tells are necessarily true. Benjamin builds what he writes from rumors, the confessions of liars, and what must be a fair amount of pure imagination (one of the cobbled-together English classes at the school focuses on unreliable narrators). Roaring Orchards is supposedly a community in which honesty builds strong relationships, but all anyone learns is how to deceive and manipulate everyone else. Students are divided, in ascending order of obedience and willingness to police/torment each other, into New Kids, Alternative Kids, and Regular Kids. (A line typical of the book’s superb grim humor: “Some New Kids have been here forever.”) Lifelong harm is being done to them all, but the kids who don’t run away—or who run away and come back—are almost frighteningly adaptable, and create something approaching a conventional, ho-humly hellish teenage life. Arbitrary, draconian punishments with terrifying names such as “ghosting” are domesticated into quotidian high school tortures.
The teachers, paradoxically, are in much bigger trouble. For the most part they are not brainwashed acolytes, and in fact tend to see through the headmaster-cum-cult-leader Aubrey, but are much too cowardly to stand up even to the school’s worst abuses: “They all hated working there, and they all stayed for what they believed were bad reasons. They made fun of the kids, and they made fun of the place, but they rarely said more about it than that.” One of the saddest characters in the book is a “dorm parent” (a kind of non-teaching teacher) named Ellie, who knows that she is far too smart for the school, and that she has “left her real life behind somewhere”; Roaring Orchards seduces her with a life that requires nothing of her, a “life that would burn like paper.” We sense that a worthwhile life is not in store for her, but her fate still manages to surprise us.
Nobody in this world is as cowardly as the parents. The novel’s centerpiece is a spectacular sequence set on Parents’ Sunday. If we don’t yet fully understand how Aubrey exerts so much influence on teachers and students who often seem contemptuous of him, a glimpse of him in this environment instantly reveals the secret to the school’s success. He tells the parents that the school restrains their “problem children” physically and mentally because children crave “being held. Being held responsible.” Parents must spend most of visiting day at an adults-only cocktail party because Aubrey tells them children must see “there are certain things that are appropriate for us that are not appropriate for them.” Leave your monsters to me and go get drunk: the parents love this message. A scene within this sequence, in which Aubrey cajoles a parent into acquiescing to the solitary confinement and even starvation of her daughter, is handled with such subtlety and ferocity that it single-handedly establishes Josefson as a serious talent.
When a cataclysm forces Benjamin to finally become the focus of his own story, the effect is thrilling. He and his love interest, the fetchingly damaged Tidbit, make their big move; what happens is not what we want to happen or expect or to happen, but it is absolutely what would happen. We start to understand why Benjamin feels compelled to write about this place so many years, and why he has been so reluctant to write about himself.
In some ways, Josefson’s work is more unsettling than many classics of the mental-health-institution-that’s-really-a-prison genre such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s Not a Feeling has no heroes. Here, the institution and the individual are co-conspirators.
The novel is not without flaws. Just a little more detail about Benjamin’s post-Roaring Orchards life would have gone a long way towards anchoring us in his perspective. The large cast of characters can get wearying, making the novel feel more diffuse than necessary and sometimes leading to ungainly sentences such as “It took Aaron, Roger, and Jodi to pull William off of Gary.” And Tidbit never quite transcends her manic-pixie-dreamgirl stereotype. But overall, it’s difficult to read this novel and not feel challenged, moved, devastated, and excited for Josefson’s next book. Is that a feeling? — David Gerrard
Library Journal (Starred Review)
This remarkable first novel focuses on an autumn spent by 16-year-old Benjamin at an unorthodox upstate New York school for troubled teens. Suddenly on his own, Benjamin has to learn quickly to navigate the unfamiliar environment of the school. Aubrey, the headmaster, preaches a philosophy of taking responsibility, but exactly what this means and how it is to be implemented is as much a mystery to the teachers as to the students. Both groups are mostly biding their time and making do in a difficult and unpredictable environment, an environment held together mostly by the sheer force of Aubrey’s personality. But when Aubrey is diagnosed with cancer things begin to change. Meanwhile, Ben finds an ally in Tidbit, an equally troubled young woman, and they make plans to run away. VERDICT Funny at times, and more than a little sad, the book’s form perfectly mirrors Benjamin’s profound sense of dislocation and uncertainty. This is a powerful, haunting look at the alternate universe of an unusual therapeutic community. Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, North Andover, MA
The Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens in upstate New York is a troubled institution. Its founder and headmaster, Aubrey, resembles a cult leader, and while he insists that teens need structure and limits, interpreting his rules isn’t easy; the struggle to win privileges often pits the students against one another. Anchored by the slowly growing friendship between students Benjamin and Tidbit (aka Sarah), the story is told by Benjamin, in recollection, informed by what he says others told him, so it becomes both a first- person narrative and an ensemble piece (there are many scenes in which Benjamin is not present). This is not your usual coming-of-age tale. Aubrey’s arcane, arbitrary form of therapy (the book’s title comes from his list of seven approved feelings) and its attendant vocabulary evoke George Saunders’ eye for the absurdity of bureaucracy and his ear for jargon, too. There are also strong echoes of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But despite the dark humor, Josefson humanizes his characters beautifully. Their longing to connect, and their confusion at where they find themselves—students and faculty alike—is urgently palpable. The prose is matter-of-fact, even placid, and studded with perfectly phrased gems, a cool surface to a work that is rich in feeling. A wonderful and noteworthy debut. — Keir Graff
At first glance, Dan Josefson’s debut novel That’s Not a Feeling has much to recommend it: a curious title and neat cover art, not to mention a blurb by the late David Foster Wallace. But that’s only the surface of its appeal – the book’s pages are filled with characters that pop, prose that sizzles, and an emotional thermostat that’s precise enough to register even the most nuanced, difficult-to-explain feelings that are at the heart of what it means to be human.
One part Holes and two parts One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, That’s Not a Feeling takes place at Roaring Orchards, “a therapeutic boarding school tucked away in upstate New York.” The novel’s 16-year-old narrator Benjamin is brought to the school against his will by his parents after two failed suicide attempts. When he arrives, he’s introduced to the cast of characters that inhabit Roaring Orchards: students who bite, teachers who haven’t a clue what they should be teaching, and dorm parents who sometimes behave like the children they’re supposed to be supervising.
We follow Benjamin as he navigates this new and strange world where the students, divided and then traded amongst three sub-groups based on their behavior, are all medicated. Their behavior, like the school’s rules, is in a constant state of flux. It’s not long before Benjamin realizes he’s arrived in a place where the only capital “T” true thing is that everybody lies. Even Benjamin himself is unreliable. The story is told alternately through Benjamin’s first-person narration and from the perspective of an omniscient, third-person narrator. Benjamin recounts events he remembers and others as they were described to him by someone else at the school years ago.
That’s Not a Feeling has a real sense of story-ness to it. Josefson provides a map of the Roaring Orchards grounds on the first page to help orient and immerse readers in this darkly imagined school he’s created. In addition to its own landscape, Roaring Orchards has its own lexicon – children can’t have too many yummies or they might be sheeted or worse: roomed. Furniture and bad nicknames are popped. RO-bots might ghost a student if they hold on to too many fibs, otherwise known as intimacy blockers.
One of the novel’s most exciting characters is the dying and, at times, delightfully unhinged founder of the school, Aubrey. A flamboyant man of indiscernible motivations, Aubrey is the Krazy Glue that holds Roaring Orchards together, despite the external pressure of displeased parents and looming threats of litigation because of the school’s unorthodox methods. “Working on the margins of wisdom. That’s where I try to stay – if you’re on the margins, on the perimeter, you can keep all of wisdom there in front of you, quite a thing to see…” he says, during a rant that spans nearly eight pages. Almost Willy Wonka-like in his unabashed eccentricity, Aubrey also provides the story with some of its more overt intellectual and philosophical weight.
There’s an endearing honesty and earnestness found within the pages of That’s Not a Feeling, something that fans of David Foster Wallace and acolytes of the “New Sincerity” offshoot of contemporary fiction are bound to appreciate. That’s Not a Feeling, however, has none of the pyrotechnical flare of Wallace’s prose – the writing is tight and controlled, even detached at times, but never lazy. Though the language is mostly spare, unadorned, stripped down, Josefson hits on some really fresh, yet understated metaphors in the novel: “Her imagination was this dismal thing, a top-heavy flower always flopping over whenever she tried to grab it.” It’s not the language, though, that’s most interesting about That’s Not a Feeling. It’s the characters. They start fights, tell lies, run away, fall in love, sneak cigarettes and yummies, cry, wind-up and wind-down without warning, create friction, act out and constantly remind us what it means to be human in a strange world full of discrete moments of hurt and happiness, and rules that don’t always make sense. — Todd Petty
Most of the goings-on at Roaring Orchards School in upstate New York are not academic but instead personal and chaotic.
Josefson uses Benjamin, a new student at the school, as an intermittent narrator, though he also narrates events he couldn’t possibly have witnessed, so while we get his perspective on incidents at the school, we get a broader view as well. With two failed suicide attempts behind him, Benjamin has been placed in school by his parents, who drop him off and disappear—his first hint that life will start to be very different indeed. At Roaring Orchards he meets a plenitude of bent and broken students, most notably Tidbit, a buxom girl who’s attracted to most every drug. The most normative response that students have to the school is running away, and it seems as if they’re always being chased down and brought back against their will. The founder and headmaster of the school is Aubrey, who one day had an epiphany that students engaging in questionable behavior should not be expelled, and he found an eager cadre of parents who bought into this philosophy, for he was able to expand the school impressively after he put this policy into effect. Because it’s a school for “troubled teens,” Aubrey has instituted a number of strategies, many of them involving therapy but most of them questionable—like having students relive birth trauma, for example, or placing them in “alternative” dorms to isolate them for untoward behavior. We eventually find out that Benjamin is narrating these events of his adolescence from an adult perspective, and his visit to Roaring Orchards after Aubrey’s death and the school’s demise is particularly poignant.
Josefson writes vigorously and is well attuned to the upheavals experienced by adolescents.
School Library Journal: Adult Books for Teens
In Josefson’s debut novel, Benjamin narrates the events at a severely dysfunctional “school for troubled teens” in which he has been enrolled after multiple suicide attempts. The school is run by a leader of cult proportions named Aubrey, whose increasingly idiosyncratic methods are simultaneously resented and reveled in by students and teachers alike. What makes this novel stand out from obvious influences such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Viking, 1962) or Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story(Miramax, 2006), is Josefson’s radical experiment in unreliable narration. Benjamin describes events before he entered the school, events he could never have seen, and the innermost thoughts of several other characters, including their dreams, in vivid detail. Indeed, until the final two chapters there are scarcely any references to Benjamin’s own thoughts or activities, with only a few notable exceptions. In the face of the blatantly contradictory and strange behavior narrated, it is then left to readers to decide whether Benjamin is grossly exaggerating the capriciousness and violence of the school, because he could not as a teen understand the good it did him; or its positive attributes, in an attempt to ease his mind of the trauma that occurred there. Either way, despite the relative lack of material about Benjamin himself, the novel is clearly a portrait entirely of his own mind, and how he saw the world as a “troubled teen.” As such, it is an incredibly daring experiment in characterization, and one that will surely reward many rereadings.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Roaring Orchards, a boarding school in upstate New York for troubled teens, is the setting of Josefson’s debut novel, which is full of characters (both students and teachers), groups (Alternative Girls; Regular Kids), rules, and schedules. Josefson offers a map with every Roaring Orchards building labeled, a specific, defined (and confined) geography. He’s created a microcosm, led by the idiosyncratic headmaster Aubrey, a man with severe unspecified health and psychological problems who thrives on creating rules and bizarre special designations, and shepherds offbeat therapeutic activities like “psychic mending,” in which participants play a variety of individuals in a student’s life. Combine leader Aubrey with the rural microcosm and the feeling that those in charge are just as crazy as the individuals they’re in charge of, and it’s hard not to think of Animal Farm. Josefson writes with a similar ironic detachment to Orwell’s parable, but there’s no sense of authorial omniscience, just precise, detailed descriptions. Given the emotional issues of the students (and to a lesser extent the teachers), Josefson’s cool, measured prose at first comes as a surprise. But it soon becomes clear that the students—Lauren, who regularly cuts herself; Tidbit, who takes all varieties of dangerous drugs; sometimes narrator Benjamin, who has multiple suicide attempts in his past—are all emotionally disconnected from their inner turbulence and the style makes sense. A promising if not fully realized effort. (Oct.)
“That’s not a feeling,” is a common retort heard in Dan Josefson’s novel of the same name. Set in a therapeutic boarding school called Roaring Orchards in upstate New York, the troubled teen residents are constantly asked to define their feelings to a staff that is exhausted in a school on the brink of collapsing. Josefon’s title is perhaps a nod to the ubiquitousness of declaring one’s feelings in the ever-presence of social media.
Roaring Orchards is a microcosm for our society—where hierarchy and competition, limits and boundaries, exhaustion and routine, all exist. Aubrey, the eccentric, ailing headmaster, has constructed a school with its own language and hierarchy—New Kids, Alternative Kids, Regular Kids. Specialized terminology peppers the pages—fibs for functioning intimacy blockers, for example—and punishments come in the form of verbs—sheeted, skirted, popped, cornered, roomed. In many ways it’s less like a school and more like a socio-political experiment, and everyone is part of a system, Josefson reminds us. As Aubrey notes at one point, “I tend to think of what I do as essentially the work of a political theorist.” This book could serve as a study of systems: why is it that everyone craves to leave Roaring Orchards, and so few do? Even the runaways always make it back, and often of their own volition.
Josefson’s book is relevant in the conversation around over-medicated kids—one in which therapists are as popular as celebrities. The book is itself a form of therapy; Benjamin—a sixteen-year-old with two failed suicide attempts under his belt—is a recent addition to Roaring Orchards, and also the story’s narrator. He records the classes, the fights, the runaways; he details staff relationships and screw-ups. He is telling this story so he can “lay something down between myself and the things that happened there, even if it’s nothing but a screen of words.”
Words are sometimes all the students have (unless they are ghosted—an extreme form of the silent treatment), and yet it is through actions that they begin to emerge. Talking, then, only gets them so far. Josefson displays the uselessness of words through Benjamin’s rage as he swings an ax at the power box. He further explores the banality of words through Tidbit—Benjamin’s pseudo-love interest—a quirky, perpetual liar who bites people. When asked why she is at Roaring Orchards, her story is always different. Josefson reminds us that why these kids are there is not important, but rather what the school does to prepare them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, few seem to leave or improve. As Josefson comments in an interview about his location when writing the book: “I was in school, writing about a school, and plotting, in both senses, an escape.”
Josefson wrote this book while in graduate school in Las Vegas, and then while living in Romania, Massachusetts, Brooklyn. Though more mobile than his characters, who seem trapped at Roaring Orchards, he spent time teaching at an “odd” school, which “was the impetus and catalyst for the novel.” Benjamin is a unique vehicle through which to relay the story because he so often does not describe his own part, which lends a sense of emotional disconnect (fitting for a teenager who has attempted suicide twice and was dumped at this school by his parents). At times this narrative technique seems like a cheat; Benjamin operates in this novel much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, a narrator who narrates the lives of people vastly more interesting than he. This narrative technique at times felt forced. Because it often read as third person, when Benjamin does appear in the narrative, he announces his presence in a way that reminds us too overtly that he is still there.
In some ways, Josefson’s debut serves as a wake-up call for parents—the only ones who can escape their children’s difficulties. If parents can’t raise their own kids, and the schools can’t prepare them for the world beyond, then what is the result? Are they all destined to be sheeted (a form of punishment in which students wear only sheets, their clothes taken away), running through the woods, too afraid to bolt?
In contrast with the more prim and privileged boarding schools found in books such as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, That’s Not a Feeling balances humor, pain and secrecy to reveal a fresh, honest portrayal of the host of teens who fall through the cracks, and the adults who are following suit. It is a fractured coming-of-age novel where no one quite comes into their own, and Roaring Orchards is the one place they feel safe to feel lost. — Courtney McDermott
Read this in an apartment that has carpet in the kitchen. It’s a novel about a psychotherapy boarding school/cult. Its first person narration is mystically sneaky. You can touch all the characters’ knees under the table. The headmaster has a heartbreaking dream about his first wife. The plot gets dark and smart. Read this if once on the a bus you saw a glum young man in a camouflage jacket and orange cargo pants carefully holding what looked, to you, like a tinfoil-covered pie. Except a little head popped out of the tinfoil. And it looked exactly like the glum young man, except the head was wearing glasses and trying not to cry, whereas the young man had obviously given up. —Mike Young
Horn! Review’s All-Illustrated review at The Rumpus