High school is hard; ﬁtting in carries such undue importance that being different is the equivalent of a societal death rattle. Those left out are ostracized from the general populace, ridiculed and alienated from that which they want to belong. Senior Jeremy Knowles is one such kid on the outside looking in. He wants what all seventeen-year-old men want – recognition, respect, a girlfriend – yet instead ﬁnds himself on the receiving end of bullying, intimidation, and scorn. It’s a depressing existence, one which writer Elaine Will explores in painful detail in her new release Look Straight Ahead.
Set in an ordinary Canadian town, Look Straight Ahead chronicles Jeremy’s tenuous time in high school and the ensuing mental breakdown that follows. A gifted artist, Jeremy’s shy demeanor and low self esteem leave him vulnerable to the taunts of his classmates. When he reiterates this abuse to his parents, his pain is continually misunderstood and brushed aside. This emotional cocktail of neglect eventually manifests itself in a psychotic break, as Jeremy becomes overwhelmed by visions and paranoid theories.
It’s a sad spiral, but Will never allows the book to fall into tragedy. Instead, she shows Jeremy’s descent as a gradual deterioration of self, something that while dark can ultimately be reversed. While initially I felt the pacing was too slow and plodding, I soon came to appreciate the subtlety to the story. By rolling the narrative out slowly, Will allows the reader to see the cracks as Jeremy loses his grasp on what is real and what is imagined. The author does a great job of making Jeremy feel authentic. His issues, however slight, are given life because they’re his issues. We’re given open access to his thoughts and his dreams, ultimately allowing a true connection between character and reader that makes the events that transpire that much harder. We see the where and why, and, much like Jeremy, are powerless to stop it.
Will also does a nice job connecting Jeremy with his art, using the medium as both a shield and a source of strength. When Jeremy goes on medication to help balance him out, he ﬁnds that his ability to create has become stunted. In this instance he is presented with a choice – to be whole in mind or to be whole in self. Will gives this scene true weight, as for Jeremy the feeling of losing that which makes him unique is more terrifying than any psychosis. This theme of identity is prevalent throughout the book as Jeremy is faced with who he is versus who he thinks he’s supposed to be. Puzzle pieces appear in many of Jeremy’s dreams and fabrications, a ﬁtting metaphor for a broken mind. The pieces to a complete self are there, and Jeremy spends the course of the book working to ﬁnd how they ﬁt together.
Jeremy’s struggle with mental illness is given further clarity by Will’s focus on those around him. As Jeremy explains, there’s nothing physically wrong with him, and with no tangible problem to target those closest to him are left unable to comprehend. Most notable in this is Jeremy’s father; his abrasive, confrontational approach is jarring until you realize that he truly doesn’t know how to get through to his son. His inability to understand, no matter how badly he wants to, showcases the disconnect between the afﬂicted and those who care for them. Though overlong, Will takes a tough subject and tackles it head on, the result an emotive and thoroughly engrossing tale.
Whereas the writing is solid throughout, the art is a bit of a mixed bag; simply put, it’s not for everyone. The book at times invokes a Sunday cartoon-like simplicity, while at others is truly inventive and visually engaging. It’s obvious that Will possesses a keen sense of design, which makes the inconsistent artwork a bit maddening; it’s almost as if she’s trying out new techniques with every page. Still, this discordant vibe actually lends itself well to the narrative as it aptly represents Jeremy’s continually shifting moods. His decline is rendered in a way that manages to evoke the feelings as he feels them. Dark, scratchy inks surround him when he’s overcome by panic, yet the euphoria of his moments of “enlightenment” are heightened by rich color. This disparity carries into Jeremy’s visions, as the usual clear cut layouts give way to increasingly abstract design.
Also worth noting is Will’s skill as a storyteller, particularly in the scenes devoid of words. One instance has Jeremy recreating himself using nothing but a pencil, the sequence beautifully realized and remarkably poignant. Though the art isn’t my cup of tea overall, I admire Will’s fearlessness in telling her story, her way.
Look Straight Ahead navigates a difﬁcult topic in a way that is sensitive to those it represents, yet direct to the realities they face. It’s not overly preachy nor is it overly sappy, and while the resolution wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, I nevertheless respect the note on which it ended. Elaine Will proves a true talent, the book a testament to her ingenuity and ability. Look Straight Ahead is an involving look at a real world problem, and Jeremy Knowles the perfect vessel in which to give it life.