Letter Essay #4 – Gutowski

I recently read the 342 page novel Mosquitoland by David Arnold. Published in 2015, this humorous novel was “one of the most talked-about books of the year,” said Teen Vogue. Arnold is a goodreads choice awards winner of Best Young Adult Fiction, as well as author of Kids of Appetite and The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik. When I read Mosquitoland, I was in somewhat of a reading rut. I couldn’t get excited about books I picked up, and I needed something new. When a friend suggested Mosquitoland, I’ll admit I was a bit desperate. (I mention this only because I feel as a reader, you should be aware that anything in this Letter Essay that seems a stretch of too-good-to-be-true aspects I describe are probably just that. Please excuse any overexcitement you find in the following paragraphs and know that while I truly recommend reading this novel, it might not be as good as I make it out to be. What can I say? I was starved of a good story.) However, Mosquitoland turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in awhile, and I flew through it in under a day.

In the novel, the protagonist, Mim (an acronym – or as Mim would call it, acroname – for Mary Iris Malone) is a “nonconformist” of our ordinary world. Suffering from both mental illness and the splitting of her parents, Mim is stuck living with her father and his new wife, far away from her beloved mother. Already feeling misunderstood, Mim overhears a conversation about her mother being sick. Without thinking, she boards the first Greyhound bus to Ohio. She knows that her mum needs her, and nothing’s going to stop Mim from getting to her.

On the bus, Mim encounters an old woman named Arlene. Wriggling her way into Mim’s heart with phrases like “Très chic, non?,” Arlene and Mim become fast friends. Then, unpredictably, the bus skids, flips, and crashes. Trying to make sense of the wreckage, Mim discovers that Arlene didn’t survive the accident. Though shocked, giving up is not the style of a Mim. Our protagonist preses on.

However, Mim notices a strange man in a poncho on the bus who seems to be eying her. During a stop for gas, Mim finds herself cornered by Poncho Man, who… is a creep after all. Before he can take advantage of her, Mim thinks – or really, pukes – her way out of the situation. Damaged, she decides not to report Poncho Man, however much he would deserve it.

Then, as if my magic, Mim finds herself in the town of Independence. She realizes this was where Arlene was headed, to visit her nephew, Ahab. She was going to deliver a special package to him, a box that Mim had grabbed, as if her subconscious knew she would finish Arlene’s Objective. Mim makes it her mission to find Ahab at all costs. Mim soon makes another friend named Walt, a homeless boy on the street with a big heart. Since the world’s a small place, the two find themselves running away from a dangerous situation right into the people Mim had been trying to locate: Ahab and his boyfriend Albert. Mim is able to give him Arlene’s box.

However, just as one bit of action slows down, another picks up. Mim previously noticed a boy on the Greyhound bus she took to Independence (one that she was intrigued in for reasons she probably wouldn’t want me sharing with you), and he turns up just as Mim is trying to get back on track to get to her mother. It turns out, Beck is the perfect third companion for Mim and Walt’s quest.

As the trio deal with other bumps in the road on their travels to Ohio, they grows close, forming bonds that will last a lifetime. Finally, they arrive at their destination. However, as Mim begins a (fruitless so far) search for her mother, she runs into Kathy, her father’s new wife, who has been desperately searching for Mim since she went missing. Here, it is revealed to Mim’s friends that Kathy is pregnant, the reason why Mim hates her so much. With everything out in the open, Kathy confesses that the reason Mim had lost contact with her mother is not because Mim’s mother had not been stable enough to keep the connection. Mim’s mother is suffering from clinical depression, and doesn’t think she wants Mim in her life. Mim and Kathy go inside, and bonds between all three are not mended, but they are at least a step closer. Mim and Kathy leave Mim’s mum with a liquid goodbye, and find that Beck and Walt have left the same way. Not exactly a happy ending, but a promise that there might be a future for relationship between good people. That’s what a Liquid Goodbye is, it seems.

One thing Arnold did best was symbolism. While there were many key symbols important to this story (Arlene’s box, Mim’s mother’s lipstick, Beck’s camera, Uncle Phil the truck, Dr. Mukundi’s bear…), there are two that stand out from the others. The first of these is Mim’s War Paint, after which the novel is named. Throughout the book, Mim uses many things to keep her calm and sense of identity. One of these is using various liquids to create her “War Paint,” which she realizes is a mosquito, on her face. It gives her strength in times when she needs to be strong, and is part of what defines her characteristics as “a Mim.” It, as we can tell, becomes central to the story and symbolizes Mim finding her true strength at last. The other that I found to be important is the journal that Mim carries everywhere with her. Mim starts the journal right as she leaves her home in Mississippi. She addresses these letters to “Isabel,” which the reader is led to believe is Mim’s aunt. However, in the end, it is revealed that the letters were actually to Mim’s unborn sister, to be named Isabel after Mim’s father’s sister, who commited suicide (it’s a lot to follow…). The journal becomes a coping mechanism for Mim. At first, it is her way of coming to terms with her mental illness and way that she should learn to live with it. It also becomes her way of coming to terms with her sister. The reader reads these journal entries as the story progresses, and learns about Mim’s past through them.

“The truth is, reasons are hard. I’m standing on a whole stack of them right now, with barely a notion of how I got up here.

“So maybe that’s what this will be, Iz: my Book of Reasons. I’ll explain the whys behind my whats, and you can see for yourself how my Reasons stack up,” (pg. 8).

I found that the entries were not only reflections of Mim’s life, past and present, but a way to see below the surface of her thoughts into who she is. I related to her character in this way, because sometimes, what you are thinking doesn’t give you answers about who you really are. It is only when Mim writes as honestly as she can that she and the reader sees what she believes and who she is, something I think relates to many of our lives as well.

Another aspect of this story that is huge in its impact but doesn’t require a lot of explaining is the humor of the story. Arnold made Mim’s character so incredibly funny (not to mention witty) that it became one of the key parts of the book. As I’m sure many readers will agree, reading Arnold’s humor was by far my favorite part of the book. The author also had a way of writing humor that was different than a lot of other novels that I have read, making it interesting and new. He made Mim’s voice quick and witty. The jokes were well orchestrated in ways that would be impossible to believe any character could come up with all of them in such short time, but hey, with Mim, it’s got to be possible.

“I swear the older I get, the more I value bad examples over good ones. It’s a good thing too, because most people are egotistical, neurotic, self-absorbed peons, insistent on wearing near-sighted glasses in a far-sighted world. And it’s this exact sort of myopic ignorance that has led to my groundbreaking new theory. I call it Mim’s Theorem of Monkey See Monkey Don’t, and what it boils down to is this: it is my belief that there are some people whose sole purpose of existence is to show the rest of how not to act,” (pg. 264).

While this is not a great example of Mim’s wit and humor, I do think that this excerpt represents her voice very well (there weren’t many specific examples of the humor of the book, but it was such a key part that I had to touch on it). These words, however, do display how much thinking Mim really does. She is very metaphorical in her descriptions, which also are, when Arnold combines them in his perfect way, very funny. Whether humorous, thoughtful, or otherwise, there was not a single section in this book that felt boring. Every sentence Arnold wrote had purpose, not only to progress the plot, but to grasp the reader’s attention until the very end. It truly was unputdownable.

Lastly, the thing that made this book so good was simply the characters. I would certainly argue that Arnold followed the formula of: good characters = good book. Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared if all of the characters in this book just sat around and sipped tea for 300 pages. I would probably still read it. I really like it when authors put time into their characters’ pasts. I definitely believe that all of the characters in this story have been places before the story picked up, especially the main ones; they aren’t just blank canvases that exist purely for the purpose of telling this story only to go back to their blank lives after a happily ever after.

“Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy,” (pg. 6).

This quote doesn’t exactly focus on any characters in particular (well, aside from maybe Mim herself) but it does explain one of the themes surrounding character in this book. All of Arnold’s characters are multidimensional, and they all truly do reflect that no one is entirely good on entirely bad. We see this in almost everyone one of the characters in the novel, except for maybe some of the more innocent ones such as Walt. Much of the book is about understanding that people are never going to be perfect, and they are never going to be a person you can easily hate either. Truth is, most people go around trying to live good lives, but make mistakes that can’t allow that to be possible. Mim had to understand that her mother was not perfect all the time, just as she had to realize that Kathy and her father were not all bad. They didn’t want to make her life miserable. In fact, they were trying to protect her. Arnold used his characters to provide meaning to the story, and developed them so they would be interesting to the reader.

Choosing a quoted passage from this book was hard. Seeing as Mim talks to the reader – or really talks to herself – every paragraph or two, there were a lot of good options of both description and advice that I wanted to use. I eventually settled on this one, not because it is a final compilation of everything Mim learned on her journey and all of her great life advice heaped into one paragraph (though those would be good things to reflect on), but because the thing I loved most about this book (I can’t seem to say it enough) is Mim’s voice.

“Remember that, Iz. Be a kid of honesty. Wave it like a banner for all to see. Also, while I’m thinking about it – be a kid who loves surprises. Squeal with delight over puppies and cupcakes and birthday parties. Be curious, but content. Be loyal, but independent. Be kind. To everyone. Treat every day like you’re making waffles. Don’t settle for the first guy (or girl) unless he’s the right guy (or girl). Live your effing life. Do so with gusto, because my God, there’s nothing sorrier than a gusto-less existence. Know yourself. Love yourself. Be a good friend. Be a kid of hope and substance. Be a kid of appetite, Iz. You know what I mean, don’t you? (Of course you do. You’re a Malone.) Okay, that’s all for now. Catch you on the flip side.

“Blimey, get ready.

Signing off,

Mary Iris Malone,

Your Big Sister” (pgs. 323-324).

This is Mim’s voice. It’s probably what she’d tell you if she met you on the street, or a different version of it anyway, depending on her mood. It’s the advice she’d give, her hello, her goodbye, maybe her metaphor for bigger things than life, because she believes there are definitely some of those.

Finally, finally, I rate this book a nine out of ten. If you couldn’t tell, I really liked it. The author kept me really engaged, the characters were elaborate and the character arcs were there, the story was fast-paced, and there were symbols and themes everywhere. This was a book that made me think, not too hard that I was forced to stop reading, but enough that I loved the book. I strongly recommend this book, and I think it will become one of my all time favorites (if only because it made me look harder for better books like it).


Catie Gutowski

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 thought on “Letter Essay #4 – Gutowski

  1. Nicely done, Catie. I really liked the passage you chose and how you identified what the author did to give that character a unique voice. That is one of the hardest things to do as a writer – and being a writer yourself I’d suggest other than continuing to read really good writing you should continue to observe and listen to people carefully; writers are always studying people, because people and life are their subject. (That is poorly written; I’m sorry.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *