Seventeen and Turning Into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie by Scott Erickson

Well, there’s a clickbait book title if I’ve ever seen one!  Especially for me, who suddenly sits up and pays attention whenever the word Mormon appears onscreen—in particular when secular humanist zombiepaired with the prefixes ex- or non-.  I just happened to find this novella while lazily perusing Amazon’s humor category, and once I saw the title and weighed in the fact that it was free, there was no going back.  I had to download it.  So, obviously, I did.

Concept:  B-
The premise here is pretty straightforward.  Janet is slowly turning into a zombie and her strict Mormon father has, due to her self-identification as a secular humanist, decided to ship her off to a Minnesota camp for troubled youth.  There, she meets a surprising number of Swedes, including the handsome if lunkheaded Sven, with whom she falls in love.

As far as plot goes, that might not sound that interesting.  But it’s all in the delivery.  See, this is basically the written version of a Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer spoof, except it’s a little cleaner, a little cleverer, and seems to have no particular target in mind.  It’s a very nonspecific parody.

The Execution:  C+
There’s plenty of goofiness to be found here, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the characters and the plot isn’t particularly engaging.  Of course, the plot really isn’t intended to be the focal point, as it merely serves as a setup for more jabs at melodramatic teenage whirlwind romances and more mockery of tired storytelling.  There are several solid running gags that never fail to elicit a chuckle and there are a few running gags that run their courses too soon and tend to elicit a rolling of the eyes.

Every time Janet mentions St. George, Utah, though…prepare for a laugh.  Every time.

The book’s saving grace is that it very obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously:

It had been sunny all morning, but suddenly the skies changed to overcast as the clouds moved in from the North.  If clouds could talk, they would have said, “Hey, we’re clouds from the North, eh?  It’s aboot time we got here.  Good day, eh?”

(They were Canadian clouds, get it?)

It’s all quite clearly tongue-in-cheek.  So when the narrator spends a surprising amount of time discussing whether Janet is better at ambling, meandering, or walking, it comes across as endearing instead of just plain weird.

The Writer’s Voice:  A
I’d be willing to bet that Erickson had a blast writing this, cackling with glee to himself as he inserted a mostly irrelevant commentary on a classic film or an amusing and unnecessarily detailed description of a high-quality fishing rod.  The fun shines through and it makes Seventeen and Turning into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie a light, breezy read.  The self-aware jokes and the intentionally cheesy dialogue and the general absurdity of it all make for an engaging narrative, even if the actual events on the page aren’t particularly riveting.

The X-Factor:  D
I was kind of disappointed.  There wasn’t a whole lot of talk about the zombie thing.  It came up a few times, but it was kind of an everpresent but unaddressed plot point for the majority of the story.  There wasn’t a whole lot about secular humanism, either—in fact, there might have been more Buddhism involved.  And there was next to nothing about Mormonism.

The Mormonism thing bothered me because it was cursory and not well-researched.  The rare bit of Mormon dialogue is inauthentic.  There’s also a mention early on of someone’s Mormon parents attending a weekend prayer conference in Las Vegas.  As someone who spent 20 years as a Mormon and has never heard the term prayer conference thrown around in Mormon circles, I found that to be somewhat inaccurate.  And I realize that this is just one line in a whole book and not even an important aspect of the story, but considering that the word non-Mormon in the title is what drew me to this in the first place, it was kind of annoying to find such little treatment of the religion and such a poor depiction of it.  Although, at one point, someone says that Joseph Smith “got horny so he decided God told him it was cool to have multiple wives.”  So there’s that.

I suppose it’s not really fair to call a title that poorly represents the content of the book the X-Factor, but without it, there isn’t much of an X-Factor.  There’s some good stuff and a little bad stuff, but there isn’t one aspect of the book that really stands out to me as the distinctive wild card…other than the fact that its name led me to expect something quite different from what I got.

The Epiphany:  C+
Seventeen and Turning into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie is certainly a hilarious novella.  I feel like I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about it and I think maybe those negatives have been given a disproportionate representation in my review.  But I think that might all stem from the fact that what I read wasn’t what I’d expected based on the title.

It helps not to take the book seriously and it probably helps a lot if you’re going into it with the intent to find some solid humor instead of fascinating characters or a complex plot.  Not every piece of fiction has the same aspirations.  This one aspires merely to make its audience laugh, and I think it accomplishes exactly that.

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