Jeanne Ryan’s debut Nerve channels The Hunger Games’ emotions to lower-stakes ends

Jeanne Ryan’s debut Nerve channels The Hunger Games’ emotions to lower-stakes ends

With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them. 

Book: Jeanne Ryan’s Nerve, published September 13, 2012

Plot: Shy, mousy Vee enjoys her job doing makeup and crew work for her high school’s plays, but she frequently feels upstaged by her leading-lady best friend. So on a whim, she accepts an online challenge to compete for followers at NERVE, a website that invites people to send in web videos of themselves performing increasingly risqué or dangerous dares. Her awkward first video earns her a small fandom, an invitation to try something more elaborate and win a terrific prize, and a partnership with Ian, an amazingly attractive guy with his own fervent online following. As the dares escalate, she feels more and more pressure to continue competing, for the fun, for the prizes, because of Ian’s desperation to win NERVE’s big weekly competition, and eventually because it becomes physically dangerous to back down from the latest challenge. But each new dare becomes more perverse and emotionally damaging. As eager voyeurs pay to watch Vee and Ian suffer, they have no clue how far NERVE will go.

Series status? Billed as a stand-alone novel, though the ending openly invites a sequel or series, with the immediate situation resolved, but the larger problems untouched.

YA cliché? Nerve nestles into a lot of current young-adult-novel clichés. The protagonist is 1) a teenage girl 2) who narrates in first person, revealing all her inner turmoil and weakness 3) but who has some special, hard-to-define quality that makes her stand out from her peers 4) even though she’s vaguely awkward and down on herself, yet 5) the magical fantasy guy who enters her life not only doesn’t seem to notice, he apparently instantly falls for her. Atop all that, Nerve seems solidly inspired by The Hunger Games. The stakes are lower, in that Vee and Ian aren’t initially forced to compete for their lives; they’re vying for prizes ranging from hard-to-get designer shoes up to a full college scholarship. But as the competition gets more serious, they do actually seem to be in mortal danger, while competing with other people and being watched by a bloodthirsty audience representing a corrupt, morally bankrupt system that is perfectly willing to devalue their lives in order to provoke drama. And while the book doesn’t hugely play up the Hunger Games love-triangle aspects, Vee is somewhat caught between the lovesick buddy she has to leave behind for the games and Ian, who possibly isn’t in love with her so much as pretending for the cameras to boost their ratings.

Bad sign: “It’s not like you have to be the girl with the dragon tattoo to dig up personal data on people,” gripes that lovesick buddy, Tommy, when warning Vee that the people behind NERVE know too much about her and can use it against her. It’s one of a small but jarring handful of efforts to make the book feel of-the-moment, as when author Jeanne Ryan puts her protagonist in a True Blood T-shirt. But cultural references age quickly and poorly, and with Nerve, they’re just stiff. 

Good sign: Ryan communicates that her book takes place a little ways in the future, or in an alternate future, without spelling anything out, or artificially explaining the technology that makes NERVE’s methods possible. She just has her characters using their net connections in ways that aren’t quite plausible today. The technology is there, but Nerve’s characters use it faster and more comfortably than currently possible, with a teenager-y obliviousness that implies long familiarity. In the process, Ryan sets readers’ expectations for a thoroughly wired, web-savvy world without falling back on exposition or setup. For that matter, she only barely explains NERVE and its place in her characters’ lives; they take it as part of the landscape, and Vee never pauses to insert her own editorializing about the site or the system. She just reacts to it, which increases the pace of the book.

Young-adult appropriate? Ryan has said Nerve came out of her interest in how her nieces interact with the Internet without expectations of privacy, and certainly a generation that’s thoroughly familiar with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will find this book realistic enough in design. Vee is a plausible enough teenager as well, just self-conscious enough that she doesn’t stand out next to her more dynamic friend Sydney, but capable of doing highly embarrassing things once peer pressure kicks in and she starts focusing on the fun of being daring, winning peer admiration and approval, and acting out while maintaining a certain “someone else made me do this” distance from her own morals. In terms of style and content, Nerve is more aimed at teenagers than older readers. It isn’t preachy or disapproving, and it doesn’t read like a cautionary tale; it’s a believable enough extension of the world around teenagers today, at least until the dramatic climax. Sex-and-violence-wise, it’s basically PG, with more feints at both than actual action.

Old-adult appropriate? Stylistically, Nerve is on the simple side for adults, but it has a great premise in terms of its unpredictable escalation and breakneck speed. Once Vee gets started on her dares, the main action of the book takes place over the course of one dizzying night, and it’s easy to believe the characters would behave in an increasingly reckless fashion as fatigue, triumph, and excitement trump all other concerns. But the condensed action also means the book whizzes along at a tremendous, thoroughly enjoyable clip.

Could use less: Specifically sexual dares. It’s clear that NERVE is pushing as many prurient buttons as possible in order to keep viewers tuning in, and that the shadowy people behind the site are specifically baiting Vee with sexy dares because she’s inexperienced and gives off a particularly innocent, easily discomfited vibe. Still, so many of the ones she faces are sex-focused that the book takes on a mildly lurid vibe. It’s harder to challenge people with smart psychological insight, and the book could stand to take that tack more often.

Could use more: Explanation of what’s going on with Ian, who often turns into a personality-free dare prize of his own. Given Vee’s lack of experience and her obsession with being seen as desirable, stoked by an uncomfortable experience at the beginning of the book, it’s clear what she’s getting out of being paired with a smoldering mini-hunk who urges her on and validates her every move. It’s much less clear whether Ian is authentically smitten with her or is playing for the cameras, given his hinted-at past and his determination to win. More depth for him—or at least more intimation that he might not be exactly what he appears to be—would go a long way toward jazzing the book up.

For fans of: Untraceable, FearDotCom, Series 7: The Contenders, The Hunger Games, and other horror stories either expressly exploring the queasy voyeurism behind reality shows, or the psychological vulnerability that comes with loss of privacy.