Aliens Find Each Other and Make a Home in Jonny Sun's First Novel
June 21, 2017
This article will contain spoilers. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, I’ll quickly just say this: I’ve read this book six times now. The first time being the second I received it in the mail because I couldn’t wait to see what Jonny had created. All the subsequent times have been because it is a book that is tailor-made for those of us with anxiety or other mental health issues who feel like an outcast to society. It has made me cry every time I’ve finished it. It brings the sadness in you to the forefront of your mind, and then passionately hugs your brain, ensuring you that you will be fine and encourages you to forge ahead. Go read it. Now, onto the actual review...
Jonny Sun has been a busy alien. I’ve been following his Twitter for the last four years and I can honestly say that it’s been fascinating to watch how Jonny’s use of a social media platform has earned him everything from an ever growing audience, connections with celebrities, to, most importantly, the opportunity to create the art that is constantly trying to escape from his brain. In addition to being an artist, Jonny is also a designer, architect, engineer, doctoral student at MIT, and a Berkman Klein fellow at Harvard - He’s also been passionately pursuing comedy on Twitter, writing plays that have been performed at the Yale School of Drama, Theater Lab, and Hart House Theater, and finally, on top of all that, he wrote his first novel, titled “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too - a book”.
Yes, that is the correct spelling and punctuation for the book (Or is it a graphic novel? Jonny Sun describes it in a press release as “a picture book the size of a novel”). If you aren’t familiar with Jonny’s Twitter presence, @jonnysun, here’s a quick rundown - He created a cartoonish caricature of himself named Jomny Sun. Jomny is an alien (or aliebn) who is confused about human language and interaction. This disconnect yields hilarious and occasionally touching thoughts that they share via their Twitter feed.
The character Jomny is also the main character of the book. They are an alien who has been assigned by their home planet to go to Earth and study the creatures known as humans. Jomny doesn’t find any humans. Instead, they find a large variety of other creatures and mistakes them all for being human. The supporting characters include the following:
• An egg that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it hatches and is in the middle of an existential crisis because of it.
• A bear that only wants to give love but can never give it because everyone is terrified of them.
• A tree that wants to leave, but can’t.
• An otter that is an auteur.
• Nothingness. (Yes, the all-encompassing void of nothingness is a character in this book. They are saddened by the fact that the other characters do not enjoy spending time with them and start to question their own existence).
• An introverted hedgehog that wants to be an artist, but is too insecure to ever actually create anything.
Jonny uses a minimalist, black-and-white, cartoonish imagery to show us these characters and what they have to say. The style and recurring themes reminds me of the drawings that would pop up occasionally in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. In fact, the whole project has a very Vonnegut feel to it, frequently dipping into cosmically dark humor (like when Jomny points at a skeleton lying on the ground and shouts, “You used to be a baby!” with a smile on their face). Jonny uses the writing style he developed through Twitter to deliver razor sharp, quick-witted dialogue (rarely longer than a sentence or two per page) that is at times strikingly funny and other times poignant and mournful. It is most astonishing when he is able to combine both of those vibes on a two-page-spread.
The book is full of moments that are internally very heavy and hard to face. It delivers harsh life advice directly and in a stoic manner. It begs you to explore these moments and dark thoughts with a focused eye to truly understand and celebrate them. Don’t just wade around in the shit of your mind - Instead, get a shovel and explore it. Even in very tough moments there are silver linings. If somebody is leaving your life and it’s wrecking you, then that just means you were so incredibly lucky to ever have met them. The fact that you will miss them means that you got to love them, and you should feel grateful in that regard.
This next bit is important and a big reason why I love this novel; whenever Jonny points out a nice silver lining like the one mentioned above, he will also be sure to hit you with a reality check. At one point in the novel, Jomny is about to leave a new acquaintance, when he says, “the harder it is to say goobye to sombody, the luckier u are to have met sombody ur going to miss” - that friend hits back with something we might not want to hear at the time, but contains a truth: “perhaps the only thing sadder than saying goobye to a friend is knowing that they will never be the same as who u remember them to be.” But don’t worry, it doesn’t stay too sad for too long, as on the next page that friend reminds us that “we internalize traits we observe in others as a way to honor and remember them. we are all living memorials.” The ups-and-downs of this novel are unlike anything I’ve read recently. It’s almost as if I can see Jonny, the author, going through waves of despondency and then pooling his intellectual and philosophical resources together to convince himself to think positively.
In a classic sense, “everyone’s a aliebn…” fully believes in the statement that everyone you meet has something of value to offer and something to teach you. Jomny wanders from character to character simply asking them questions and then - most importantly - listens to their answers. Seldom do we ever hear Jomny’s own personal beliefs in the matters that are presented to them. And as they ask other characters questions about their life, and Jomny watches as they vent about their own personal worries, we see the other characters start to slowly come to new conclusions and solve their own problems, subtly helping us realize the power of listening.
Jonny Sun has created something special. He’s made a novel that’s easy to read, but hard to fully comprehend. A book that consistently points out broad or global perspectives, but insists that your tiny life and the people you surround yourself with are just as important and deserve the same level of attention and care. It’s a children’s novel filled with striking commentary on the fear of being an artist - that also, surprisingly, soothes those fears with ease. By using the narrative choice of having each animal or object represent a different kind of person, and by showing us the inner workings and anxieties for each of these “people”, he shows us how we can all appear to be aliens to one another - but with enough love and genuine care, despite our initial differences, we can still feel like we’re home when we are around each other.
I will always recommend this book to anyone that I realize is an aliebn.
“everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too - a book”
By Jonny Sun
304 pages, Harper Perennial Press June 27 2017 $14.99
You can purchase the novel here.