But there’s something a bit off about Gunnar’s disease, and his obsession with it. There’s something off about the Ümlaut family, in general. There’s even something off about Kjersten, Gunnar’s older sister, who starts dating Antsy in the middle of all of this. But Antsy can’t put his finger on it. When he has dinner at the Ümlaut house early in the story, there’s a palpable tension when Mr. Ümlaut joins them at the table. Antsy assumes that it’s due to Gunnar’s fast-approaching death, but he’s confused as to why no one in the family (other than Gunnar) seems willing to talk about it.
Antsy learns, as the story moves forward, that the family’s problems extend far beyond a son who says he’s dying. And just as the Ümlaut’s collective problems begin to boil, Antsy’s own life-and-death family crisis emerges.
All of this is told in Antsy’s familiar, energetic, and flat-out hilarious voice. Schwa is one of my favorite books, and I generally, unless it’s part of a trilogy or series, dislike sequels. I put off reading this novel for some time for that reason, but I’m glad I finally did. This sequel works for me for several reasons. First, the Bonano family is great—especially Antsy—and is definitely worth spending more time with. Second, this story stands on its own. It’s not following a formula from the first book, simply inserting Gunnar and his problems where the Schwa was in the last novel. And finally—and most importantly—Shusterman, I think, successfully expands on a theme—a current—that runs through both of these novels. Language. And meaning that comes from it.
I mentioned, a moment ago, Antsy’s great voice, which—of course—is all about language. And there are several language-related jokes that pop up throughout both of these books. I mean, in this one, we have the Ümlaut family. An umlaut, of course, is that little two-dot symbol above vowels that represents vowel fronting or raising. The U in the family’s name has an umlaut, giving it the oo sound. The same symbol, incidentally, appears in the author’s last name on the cover of this book (but is not in the author’s name IRL). Similarly, a schwa, from the first novel, is an unstressed neutral vowel (or the symbol—ə—that represents it). And a schwa appears in Shusterman’s last name on the cover of The Schwa was Here. Clever. It doesn’t end there, though. Throughout the novel, Gunnar spews 100% made up quotations, supposedly by famous people, making us question the importance of which words are said by whom. And in chapter six, Gunnar asks Hakeem Habibi-Jones, “Doesn’t your culture ululate for the dead?” When Hakeem indicates he has no idea what that means, Antsy quips that cultural traditions are lost in hyphenation. Later, in the same chapter, when Ansty asks Gunnar if his sister likes him, they quibble over whether it’s Like with a capital L or like in italics, because the meaning apparently hinges on that distinction.
Shusterman plays with language and punctuation throughout, toying with the meanings of words, punctuation, and structure, and challenging us to understand how we come to those meanings and what our understanding of language says about us. I’ve heard it said that language is like a culture’s DNA, and I think that idea comes through in these novels. Moreover, the understanding of language in this novel is through the POV of an adolescent. Presumably Antsy’s learning about language in school in a concrete, academic way. He learns that in real life, language is nuanced. And meaningful.
There’s larger, more obvious symbolic references throughout the story, like the Steinbeck project that Gunnar and Antsy create, using herbicide to make a dustbowl of the Ümlaut’s backyard (and half of the yards on their street). Or the name of Kjersten’s favorite band—NeuroToxin. Or the very disease Gunnar claims to have—a disease in which he’s poisoned by the air he breaths (or, figuratively, poisoned by the house he lives in, the family that surrounds him). All of these things are important, but, I believe, secondary to the focus on language.
The importance of language is most obvious when Ansty’s family faces its major crisis of the novel—his dad’s heart-attack. When the doctor approaches the family in the waiting room, his first words to Antsy’s mom are “your husband has an acute blockage of the—” Antsy doesn’t hear or care about the rest. He focuses on the word has. Not had. His dad is. Not was. Present tense. Not past. His dad is alive. Such a simple distinction, but in that moment, it’s all that matters to Antsy, to his family.
Shusterman has done good work here. It’s a fun novel with some darker undertones, and a playful and healthy dose of language that challenges readers to think about the words they read and speak and the meanings behind them.
Recommended for boys ages 12-15.