Adolescent turmoil often persists into adulthood, which creates a confused and troubled world. Such is the major theme of Dan Josefson’s novel That's Not a Feeling. In this particular work, readers and characters alike find their world reduced in size to a unique school for troubled youths in New York State. The occurrences there mirror the problems of life in general, and so it is that the novel is a microcosm of larger themes.
The school’s bizarre rules and operational procedures make it a frustrating and confusing place not only for the characters but also for readers. The school is a blend between a boarding school and a mental institution, and perhaps that blurred distinction is partly why its procedures are convoluted. Regardless, the school seems representative of the needless complications that plague all institutions, be they cultural or educational, and this strange setting creates a surrealism that parallels the memories adults often have of their own adolescence. The story centers on Benjamin, who is the most recent teenager to attend the school. Apparently, like many others, he is deceived into taking a tour and is subsequently abandoned there by his parents. This is one of several metaphors woven into the novel’s context. The sheer oddity of events suggests more depth to the work that even the most casual of readers will likely notice.
Once at the school, Benjamin meets the people who comprise the faculty and student body. Josefson introduces the reader to an endless parade of troubled students and neurotic faculty, so many that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all and their various relationships, all of which are fraught with complications and peculiarities. As the plot progresses, some of these characters—both students and faculty—leave the school for various reasons and are replaced by others, increasing a character count which already seems too high. The perception of people constantly coming and going is reminiscent of the countless people one encounters during a lifetime. While essential to moving the plot along, it also serves as yet another metaphor for the constant changes of life. Some of the teenagers adjust to the abrupt knowledge of life’s changing nature better than others, and Josefson captures the essence of adolescence by showing that individual experience is unique even when united by commonalties.
The way in which the characters embrace their circumstances blends a substantial amount of humor with the presentation of serious issues. This style makes the humor dark, as it is a coping mechanism for the character’s problems, and overall may really be no better than other self-inflicted coping mechanisms. For example, cutting—a disturbing affliction that plagues many young people—is addressed in the novel. While presented as a serious issue, the prevention of it is taken to the point of absurdity when the girls are forced to do ridiculous and demeaning things to determine the thief of a razor blade. In another scene, a new faculty member is hit with a shovel, which emphasizes the disturbed nature of some of the students and serves as a comical symbol of our society’s tradition of hazing people new to an organization. The story presents the challenges that come with change and reinforces Josefson’s seeming message about life: that existence is comically absurd, confusing, and complicated. This dark humor is far from comforting but relieves the awkwardness created by the characters’ confusion.
That's Not a Feeling’s unique narrative style is a credit to Josefson’s writing ability. While most of the story is told from Benjamin’s perspective, there is a constant shift between first and third-person narration; however, even in the third person, there is a sense of Benjamin’s presence. The entirety of the narrative is influenced by him and thus is compromised by his individuality. Benjamin’s consistent description of scenes between other characters shows a narrative bias that creates curiosity about the truthfulness of events and intrigues the reader. The story includes brief flash-forwards in certain parts, showing that time constructs and deconstructs the truth, and Benjamin reveals that some details come to him through the other major character, Benjamin’s friend and pseudo-romantic interest, Tidbit. She is responsible for several details that comprise the story, even though they are told to the reader through Benjamin’s voice. Nevertheless, Benjamin describes several scenes where neither he nor Tidbit is present, which forces the reader to question the validity of his story.
The narrative style emphasizes the atmosphere of surrealism and confusion that Josefson insists upon presenting. However, the presentation is so consistent that it becomes redundant, and the characters become less intriguing and more annoying. As the novel concludes, there is a palpable sense of chaos at the school and nothing seems resolved, so that the reader is left wondering at the meaning (or if there even is one). Surely this ending is a deliberate reflection upon life, but Josefson has accentuated this point throughout, and the story would benefit by leaving readers with a fresh idea.