The latest in what's sure to be a long line of novels focused on school shootings, Project X tells the story of two eighth-grade outcasts who think everything pretty much sucks. Hanratty and Flake have no friends apart from each other. They're ugly and have bad pants. They sit around listening to Great Speeches Of The Twentieth Century CDs, not because they're great fans of oratory, but because they're bored by TV, which sucks. Their parents seem cool enough when they're not checking in and barking orders from downstairs, but answering to parents more or less sucks by definition. Then there's school, which obviously sucksnot as an interruption or a diversion, but as the inescapable foundation that governs the whole of their in-all-ways boring and sucky lives.
Author Jim Shepard does an admirable job of evoking the teenage mindset. Hanratty and Flake make observations that flirt with understanding, but they know no world outside their own. They don't like their sleepy, average Vermont town, but they're too caught up in the immediacy of youth to dream of escape. Everything feels more and less important than it really is. Hanratty, the more sensitive of the two, has enough imagination to notice how "a girl in English stared at me the whole period like I was a fingernail she found in her whipped cream." But he's inspired and affected by nothing, not even an ambitious plan to exact revenge on a school that mostly deserves it.
Project X bears a striking resemblance to Gus Van Sant's film Elephant. The tone is ho-hum and matter-of-fact, and signs of homosexual churnings between Hanratty and Flake make equally unconsidered, arbitrary cameos. But unlike the film, which proved profoundly eerie in its flatness, the novel comes off as dowdy and drab. If anything, Shepard proves too good at adopting the stunted disposition of his characters. He avoids adding melodrama to the story of two boys too indifferent to divulge their true pain, but his conclusion about school violencethat it's both more and less complex than it might seembrings little to the table in terms of narrative or insight. Project X is sad and touching in spots, but it's too concerned with turning off feelings to translate deadness into something more incisive and alive.