The Universe Versus Alex Woods is the second book I’ve read this year to prominently feature Dignitas – the assisted death organization located in Switzerland. The use of this institution made perfect sense in the JoJo Moyes tearjerker, Me Before You; however, Extence’s story does not benefit from the inclusion of Dignitas. Really, by the time it shows up in Alex Woods, the plot is beyond resuscitation.
Gavin Extence’s novel starts out interestingly enough. Our protagonist, the eleven-year-old Alex, is struck in the head by a chunk of falling meteorite at his home in the British countryside. While he somehow survives the ordeal, the head injury results in the onset of epilepsy. Alex then meets a crotchety old American named Mr. Peterson, and the two bond over a mutual respect for Kurt Vonnegut.
I was following along just fine at this point, but just as suddenly as that meteorite bashed into young Alex’s skull, this book unexpectedly morphed into a steaming piece of shit.
Strange plot twists begin occurring at an alarming rate. These events are random and awkwardly executed. Hours after completing the novel, I am still trying to decipher what it all means. *SPOILERS AHEAD* Shortly following the vehicular murder of Peterson’s dog and the formation of a Vonnegut-themed book club, Peterson is diagnosed with an incurable and progressive neurological disease. He wants to die and Alex volunteers to help. All the while, Alex’s mom, an overprotective fiend from the time of the accident, mutates into an essentially different character. She eagerly accepts the fact that Alex all but stops attending school to take care of Mr. Peterson. Then a girl is thrown into the mix, but nothing comes of it and her inclusion serves no purpose other than to further ignite my rage. I think the story might span several years, but my attention began to waver so I really can’t be sure.
Extence devotes a substantial amount of time to discussing Kurt Vonnegut. I may or may not have read Slaughterhouse Five at some point in high school. The fact that I cannot remember anything about it suggests that if I did read it, it had no lasting impact. Maybe I should give Vonnegut another shot. Maybe an ounce of familiarity with the author would have made all the difference in my interpretation of The Universe Versus Alex Woods. I doubt it. A protagonist that survives meteorite shrapnel seems like enough to squeeze a book out of – paired with assisted suicide, though, the concept translates into a virtually unreadable novel.