April 19, 2018
(+++) GHOST IN THE MACHINE
WhatsHisFace. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
The always-reliable Gordon Korman serves up another heaping helping of standard middle-school angst with to-be-expected Korman humor, all in the service of a plot that is offbeat on the surface but really quite formulaic underneath, in WhatsHisFace. Korman is an expert at writing for middle-schoolers, always finding ways to complicate his protagonists’ lives (school and social), then over-complicate their lives, then eventually make everything come out just fine, so everybody is happy and the whole cast of characters (except, perhaps, some overbearing adult) is in better shape than before.
The formula creaks a bit in WhatsHisFace, though, because Korman goes rather too far into the fantastical. The title character’s actual name is Cooper Vega, but because his father is in the military and has to move every six months (a problem: that is not how military assignments work, although preteen readers are unlikely to know that), Cooper is constantly starting new schools in new towns where nobody knows his name or pays attention to him.
Well, they are going to pay attention to him in this town, for sure. It is named Stratford, because it houses a Shakespeare collection owned by a billionaire named Somerset Wolfson, who takes the overbearing-adult role here. Korman’s idea is that Cooper’s parents, to try to help him feel better about the constant moves, get him a super-special new smartphone that turns out to be, umm, haunted. And the ghost in the phone belongs to one Roderick Northrop, who died in 1596 and who wrote a play called Barnabas and Ursula on which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based. Shakespeare, you see, stole the idea from Roddy, who had just died of the plague, and now Roddy is back, in Cooper’s phone, learning about 21st-century life (including both the hip and hop of hip-hop) and generally complicating things. Oh, and Mr. Wolfson has the play that Roddy wrote, but he is keeping it secret because revealing its existence would somehow undermine the value of all the Shakespeare memorabilia that Mr. Wolfson has been painstakingly collecting for many years (this makes absolutely not a lick of sense, but, again, preteens will likely have no idea how ridiculous the whole thing is).
So somehow Cooper, called “Coopervega” by his friendly neighborhood ghost, has to negotiate the whole theft-of-ideas thing and also handle the everyday difficulties of being a seventh-grader. That means dealing with jock/bully Brock, who of course is cast as Romeo when the school decides to put on a play and chooses – what else? – Romeo and Juliet. And of course Cooper has a preteen-style crush on Jolie, the girl who will be playing Juliet opposite Brock. With a bit of unwanted help from Roddy, Brock is injured – just enough so he cannot play Romeo – and Cooper, who has been channeling Roddy just enough to be able to handle Shakespeare’s language with aplomb, takes over. And this eventually gives Cooper a way to make things right for long-dead Roddy, to the frustration of Mr. Wolfson; and Cooper even gets Jolie as a real-life girlfriend, at least until the family presumably has to move again.
In reality, Shakespeare did borrow much of Romeo and Juliet from earlier material, as playwrights often did in Elizabethan times. Whether or not Korman knows that is irrelevant – but adults (or young readers who get interested in the topic) will likely decide that Korman is playing a little too fast and loose with both facts and fancy. For instance, take the supposed date of Roddy’s death. Korman makes a point of saying that Roddy (the “real” author of what became Romeo and Juliet) died in 1596, presumably because Korman did enough research to know that the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s play dates to 1597. However, it is known that the playwright was working on this drama by 1594, and possibly as early as 1591. Oops. But of course Korman does not have to adhere to any sort of scholarship or truth in creating WhatsHisFace, and neither truth nor scholarship is his point in the book. It is simply another moderately pleasing, nicely paced middle-school romp that will please Korman’s many fans for a short time – and if it is not particularly memorable or likely to receive multiple readings, that is fine, since Korman will undoubtedly have another middle-school novel out soon enough. There is not the ghost of a chance that this will be his last foray into seventh-grade life.