Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

Television and YA books both have to negotiate the dangers of The Lesson; both forms have a strong tropism for morality tales, but that has to be fought as much as possible to avoid becoming something dull and treacly and Very Special. Josh Lieb is a TV writer/producer who's just published his first novel for young readers -- which means either he's firmly experienced with fighting off those urges, or that he has twice as much pushing him to make I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President into the world's edgiest Afterschool Special. Luckily, Lieb is more interested in being smart and funny -- or perhaps in combining both of those things to be a smart-ass -- than he is in being uplifting.

The genius of the title is one Oliver Watson, secretly the third-richest man in the world (behind his lackey, Lionel Sheldrake, the patrician-looking face on Watson's empire), a super-genius, and a fiend bent on world domination (inasmuch as he isn't already dominating the world). But the public face of Oliver Watson is a chubby, dull, harmless seventh grader in Omaha, Nebraska's Gale Sayers Middle School -- and that's just how he wants it; to be considered ordinary and harmless as long as he's a minor.

Through an unlikely series of events -- driven by Tatiana Lopez, the Meanest Girl in School, and by Oliver's burning desire to show up his "Daddy," the manager of the local public TV station (this is the Lesson, I'm afraid: that even a world-dominating genius just wants to be loved and respected by his father) -- Oliver decides to run for class president. And Oliver Watson doesn't do anything by halves; if he's going to run for class president, he'll win, and he'll crush the opposition.

Oliver's voice drives this novel -- drives it like a ten-ton semi-truck of sarcasm and bile, highballing down one of those poker-straight Nebraska highways way above the speed limit. There's not a whole lot of plot, and even less conflict, since Oliver can steamroller just about anything and get whatever he wants in the world -- so the real question of Genius of Unspeakable Evil is about what Oliver does want, and how much the things he wants are in conflict with each other. Luckily, Lieb stays in control of Oliver's voice the whole time, muscling it straight down that highway to the inevitable conclusion.

The Lesson does become too heavy-handed, but that's outweighed by all of Lieb's baroquely inventive details -- the mercenary battles in the parking lot of the school, the theft of a rare Boba Fett figure from an African dictator, Tatiana's work as Oliver's campaign manager. (If Lieb comes back to this setting for a sequel -- and I expect he will -- he'd be well served to do it in Tatiana's voice the next time around; she's at least as evil as Oliver, vastly sneakier than he is, and doesn't have the crutch of wealth and power to fall back on, let alone Oliver's pseudo-secret identity.)

And what's most important is that Genius of Unspeakable Evil is ridiculously fun to read -- Oliver's voice drives it forward, and he's immensely great company for a few hours, the world-slaying wish-fulfillment lord of everything that we all secretly wished we were (and secretly thought we rightfully should have been) as kids. Oliver Watson is gleefully evil, and that glee is catching.   

1 comment:

nojay said...

It sounds a bit like the concept of the Barry Ween comics by Judd Winick. Barry is the smartest person (and then some) on the planet at 11 years old. He's rich ("Six words -- computer hacking and swiss bank accounts") but the money is a means to an end. He doesn't want to rule the world, just survive puberty. Foul-mouthed and very funny, recommended.

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