Handbook for Mortals: Chapter 0: The Fool

The first thing we learn about Zade, our protagonist, is that

I’ve always envied those with normal lives

and goes on to tell us that her life has never been normal, and that she’d give anything to be normal. I’m not going to lie; I probably wrote something like this when I was 15, but in my defense, I was was suffering from clinical depression, and also I was 15.

I’m sure most people would envy me, but some days I think I’d trade places in a heartbeat.

You know how Harry Potter lives with abusive relatives before being whisked away to Hogwarts? And how Katniss is always on the brink of starvation? YA characters often start out in relatively shitty conditions because it automatically gives them motivation to pursue their grand adventure, and also because it automatically makes them sympathetic. Hell, even Bella of the Twilight series had her whole life uprooted and moved to a shitty little town.

Basically, my point is that a character complaining that their life is enviably (though nonspecifically) unusual isn’t a good way to get readers on their side.

You might expect Zade to launch into a scene depicting her non-normal-yet-enviable life, so that her circumstances are more clear to the reader, but nope, we get more contemplation on the nature of desire.

Isn’t it true we always want what we can’t have? The grass is always greener, so to speak. Of course, if you really checked out the other side, you’d probably find out that the grass is Astroturf—fake and brittle and lifeless.

Besides the point that this little paragraph adds nothing to this little introductory section that also adds nothing, and besides the point that “the grass may be greener but it’s astroturf” is a pretty played-out metaphor, I also want to point out that eventually, when Zade goes off on her Grand Adventure, she has the time of her life and frequently celebrates how normal it all is (despite the fact that it’s not. At all). So in Zade’s case, the grass is not “always greener” and it is not “astroturf.”

Zade tells us that she’s decided to spare us the details of what exactly it is that’s so unusual about her life, instead opting for starting on the day she left home.

Which makes me wonder why she didn’t just start there in the first place.

But then she just continues on with her monologue:

I knew I was choosing a path, and hoped it was the right one.

Really? She hoped the path she was choosing was the right one? Glad she specified that.

Either way, I knew that once I made my choice that was it. I couldn’t double back and try again. It was to be how it was to be.

Because once you leave home, you can never come back. This might actually hold water if she were given some kind of ultimatum, but [spoilers] she doesn’t.

I personally believe some things in life are chosen by Destiny and some things are your choice. You have options in most situations, but there are certain paths that you have no choice but to go down.

She still hasn’t begun the story, but instead I guess we get more of Lani Sarem’s personal views on predetermination and free will. She goes on about how struggling against capital-D Destiny is futile, etc etc, and is then generous enough to counsel her audience about their ultimate lack of agency:

My advice? Don’t fight it. Destiny will always win. I’m pretty sure Destiny doesn’t play fair, either, but I don’t think that even matters here.

WELL, THEN WHY IS THAT IN HERE?  Why is Lani/Zade giving advice? If she wants to write a novel about the futility of fighting destiny, then show us situations in which the protagonist fights her destiny and fails. But that’s not even what this book is about. This entire little tangent is irrelevant.

Then Zade talks about how some memories stick with you forever for another paragraph, which is another theme that is never mentioned again. But it’s just meant as a segue into the actual story; you can practically feel the Microsoft Movie Maker Ripple transition that will undoubtedly be used in the film. And finally, after 463 words, we have finally arrived at the first scene.

We learn that it is July, and that it is overcast, and, not even a full sentence into the first proper paragraph of the story, we learn all about Zade’s hair:

the wind that blew swiftly through my blonde hair. It also spun about the chunky pieces on the lower half of my long hair, which I had dyed to be a multitude of fun colors. Today they were pink, purple, blue, and a turquoise green, but I have a habit of changing the colors frequently. My perfectly cut bangs stayed mostly unaffected by the wind except for a few squirrelly pieces.

These are the important details, folks. As you’ll soon realize, Zade is a cancerous mass around which all other characters revolve; the only other works I can think of that are so blatantly portraits of hilarious narcissism are “My Immortal” and “Pale Fire”. But then, I’m pretty sure it’s intentional in both of those. The narcissism on display here is almost certainly not.

Then we get to go back to the weather, which feels like a thunderstorm, and Zade tells us at length (200 words!) that she loves thunderstorms.

I’d lived in that one-horse southern town my whole life, practically a quarter of a century.

So our protagonist is about 24 years old, but this novel is being sold as “young adult.”

Zade tells us that “Old people” say that Centerville, was the capital of Tennesee for day but then Andrew Jackson changed it. Here are Zade’s thoughts on the matter:

I guess it’s true, though I’ve never really been able to confirm that, nor do I guess it really matters.

Hey, Lani, I’m going to give you a quick and dirty editing tip: when you find yourself writing something along the lines of “but that doesn’t matter,” consider deleting whatever immediately preceded those words.

My mother is the area tarot card reader and spell caster.

She makes it sound like an official position.

People come to see Zade’s mother when they want their fortunes told, and I’m not sure why Lani thought that the audience wouldn’t infer this on their own. People in Zade’s town think her mother is the devil, but Zade points out that there are all sorts of prophetically-inclined people in the Bible. You can tell that Lani probably argued about this a lot when she went through her Wicca phase.

Zade laments the hypocrisy of the townsfolk, and alludes to the fact that her family actually is ~magic~. She tells us that her family’s weird reputation made it so that she had no friends growing up.

It’s hard to be looked at not for who you are but for what people think you are.

So, to get this straight, the townsfolk don’t want their kids to play with Zade because they think she’s magic. But Zade actually *is* magic. So the assertion that Zade is looked at “not for who she is but for who people think she is” is wrong. She is magic, and she is looked at as magic. She can complain about not being given a chance, but the way her complaint is phrased makes it sound as though she actually doesn’t have any weird powers.

Zade takes a step off of her porch, and breifly describes the house before getting sidetracked into her own appearance again:

My well-worn and once brightly colored (but now badly faded with dirt spackle) Converse high-top sneakers made a quick tapping noise on each step. I had just replaced the laces on them so at least they looked somewhat decent. My favorite high-waisted Levi’s dark denim skinny jeans—ripped in all the right places—made the swishing noise as I lifted my legs and my perfect flowy Lucky’s top that I wear far too often billowed around me.

I guess one of Zade’s powers is some kind of narrative time-dilation, because it takes her 151 words to say “I stepped off the front porch”

I rarely think this, but I wish a photographer had taken my picture at that moment as the outfit and the background and I may have produced a cool-looking photo.

I like how Lani makes sure to say that Zade “rarely thinks this”, because even she can tell that Zade is giving the impression of being really, really into herself.

And then she tells us in 79 words that her house is an old plantation-style manor. “Gone with the Wind” is name-dropped.

And as she’s putting her bags into her car, we get our third description of Zade’s appearence.

 People tell me I’m pretty all the time, beautiful even. I’m not sure I see what they see. I think I’m more of a cute, average-looking girl. I’m slender but I do not believe most would say skinny. Not “hot-girl skinny,” at least. I have long legs that are toned but I think my thighs are too large and I do not have a thigh gap. My arms are kinda flabby and while I do have an hourglass figure I have always felt my butt is a little too big and my face is a bit too round.

Just so you know, there have been about 270 words devoted to describing Zade’s appearance so far. I am going to keep a running count, because I am now genuinely curious how much of this book is literally just descriptions of the author.

And if you have any doubts that Lani Sarem hasn’t just described herself: here is a Google image search of “Lani Sarem”.  According to her Model Mayhem page (which, of course she has), Lani is 35 years old, which is 10 years older than Zade is meant to be. And I’m not saying 35 is old, or anything, but it’s not 25. I’m interested to know if the studio will even let her play her the part of Zade, since Hollywood generally hates women over the age of 30. I’m not sure if I’m rooting for her, because fuck Hollywood’s misogyny, or against her, because fuck her unethical attempts at achieving stardom.

Anyway, as Zade leaves her house, her mother, Dela, chases after her, and tries to convince her to stay.

Even when she was in a hurry she never looked like she was rushing or running but instead floating gingerly.

“Floating gingerly” is an odd combination of words. I’m not sure if “timid ghost” was the image Lani wanted to conjure up in our minds, but that’s my first impression of Zade’s mother.

I am my mother’s daughter, an exact replica. Pictures of her when she was my age look like they are of me. She still looks younger than her years, though.

I’m guessing Lani wants to play her in the movie as well. To be fair, it would help keep production costs down.

Zade confronts her mother, and expresses that she doesn’t want to spend her life in a shitty little town reading tarot cards, and Dela expresses incredulity at this. Zade takes a moment to be mildly conflicted.

A big part of me loved the place and being there with her. It was comfortable. And, as much as I wasn’t always completely accepted by everyone in the town, I still belonged.

We have yet to be shown that Zade’s life isn’t “normal.” Besides the fact that her mom has a kind of weird job and she’s not the most popular girl in school, her life sounds ridiculously unremarkable. But we were also told that her life’s been crazy, and I’m just not getting that impression at all.

Zade thinks about her childhood some more, and sees where she wrote her name in the concrete of the driveway. It’s written backwards, because:

Due to my dyslexia, I could write things perfectly—but I wrote them backwards. It wasn’t till I was nine almost ten I could write the proper way without a lot of thought.

So obviously (1) that’s not how dyslexia works, and (2), this is obviously setting up something later where her ability to write backwards will come in handy, right?

Nope. It’s never mentioned again.

Zade thinks about how her mother could never understand her desire for a normal life. She imagines her mother quoting  Dr. Seuss

Why try to fit in, when you were born to stand out?

Aside from the unnecessary comma, I think is is another instance of Lani Sarem getting all her favorite quotes from inspirational image macros. I swear, she probably owns at least one piece of home decor that says “Live Laugh Love”. My bet is on a throw pillow.

Also, I cannot find a source for Dr. Seuss actually saying “Why fit in when you were more to stand out”. It, like the C.S. Lewis epigraph, appears to be wrongly attributed.

Zade’s response to the pseudo-Seuss quote is this:

“Why would I want to stand out? People who stand out get things thrown at them. People who stand out get called names and shoved into lockers. If the people who don’t stand out are too cowardly to do any of the previously mentioned options then they just awkwardly whisper about you—the people who do stand out—as you walk by.”

“Why would I want to stand out?” asks the girl with technicolor hair.

I wonder what Zade is going to be doing once she leaves her shitty town? It sounds like she wants to go to a big city and just totally blend in, right? I could totally see her wanting to just get a 9-5 job as a receptionist, not make waves, watch Netflix everynight– you know, normal stuff.

Zade’s mom also wonders what Zade will be doing, and asks her.

Zade gets all shifty, and bites her lip, and says she has an audition.

“You’re going to audition for that show?”

Yep. Zade, who doesn’t want to stand out, has aspirations of being a performer of some kind. It makes total sense, if you’re Lani Sarem, I guess.

Zade says she doesn’t know what’s been keeping her in the shitty town for so long, and her mother said that she “had her ways”. What these ways are, we never find out (even though Zade seems to know what she means by this, so I supposeit has to do with magic). The two argue some more, and it’s all very emotional.

Zade says this line you can tell Lani was proud of:

“No. You haven’t ruined my life, Mom, but you also have to let me go live it now. I need to–” I choked, unable to finish.

but then they hug and I guess all is well because their conflict is never brought up ever again.

Zade gets into her car, and whaddya know, the perfect song starts blaring on the radio! It’s “Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks, and the lyrics are eerily appropriate. So appropriate, in fact, that they are included in the text:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about

Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out

To find a dream and a life of their own

A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow

A young girl’s dreams no longer hollow

It takes the shape of a place out west

But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

She needs wide open spaces

Room to make her big mistakes

She needs new faces

She knows the high stakes

Yep, this song is going to be in the movie, or at least Lani really wants it to be.

Even the “high stakes” reference was perfect, considering that I was headed toward Las Vegas. I had a long road ahead of me—and an even longer road when I got there—but it was what I knew that I needed to do, without any doubt.

And we learn that the show Zade is going to perform in is in Las Vegas. I am so confused about Zade’s motivation for leaving. She’s leaving her comfortable small town where she feels she “belongs” (even if she is a bit of a weirdo), and is going to perform in a show in Las Vegas, that most normal of cities, because she wants a “normal life” and doesn’t want to “stand out.” Seems legit.

Anyway, you can also tell that as Zade drives off into the West, the camera is going to zoom out while the Dixie Chicks song plays, and then the title card is going to fade in as the camera pans up toward the sky. Maybe there will be a magical road trip montage while the opening credits roll.

But that’s the end of chapter 1–I mean, chapter 0. Next time: Zade auditions for the big magic show and meets many people with one-syllable names.

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