Why All the Long Titles? A Review of Olivia Wildenstein’s ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’

The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.

A novel that starts with an epigraph from Chuck Palahniuk is always going to be a winner for me.  While ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’ doesn’t share much else with the work of my favourite modern author, Palahniuk’s sentiment becomes particularly poignant later on in Olivia Wildenstein’s novel.

Duke is a sophomore in high school: popular, sporty as well as smart, heading for Harvard. With his pick of girls, he develops a fixation with Cora, or ‘Goth Girl’ as she is laughingly called by her classmates. The two have little to do with each other until Duke coincidentally meets her younger brother, Jaime, who is terminally ill.  I don’t want to say anything else about the plot; it’s easily accessible on your favourite book-selling websites and I enjoyed reading it without having paid proper attention to the synopsis.

‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti,’ apart from having a title which takes a preposterously long time to type, fits neatly somewhere between ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ (which, I think I may have mentioned, is HILARIOUS) and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’/’Extraordinary Means’/all books about terminally ill teenagers. Wildenstein’s book doesn’t boast the humour of the first of these, which I will not name again because it, too, has a really long title. What it does have is genuinely endearing and interesting characters. Duke sounds like he should be a cliche and not a particularly engaging one, but he is well-rounded and eloquent as well as sounding like a completely normal, if very privileged teenager. Cora is an enigma but not in the way that John Green writes enigmatic girls (manic pixie girl blah blah – do I always sound like I hate John Green? Because I don’t. I just don’t like his annoying female characters, which is much less judgmental); although, obviously, nobody who has ever seen ‘She’s All That’ or, in fact, any teen film ever, will be surprised that she’s amazingly beautiful under her monochrome make-up, there is much about her character that made me want to know more. And Jaime could easily have been an overly sentimentalised caricature of a heroic but doomed child, but actually he’s just funny and intelligent and it is entirely clear why a 16 year old like Duke would want to spend time with him.  The aspect of the story from which the novel draws its name is something I really enjoyed and found genuinely touching.

This book is a deceptively easy read, considering the subject matter, although it is worth pointing out that things don’t enter Depressing Young Adult Novel territory until quite late in the proceedings. There are numerous subplots, including Duke’s attempts to join an annoying-sounding society which is clearly just a fraternity for boys too young to go to college and men old enough to know better. Duke also has a comedy grandmother and amusingly realistic-sounding mother (even if they seem overly excited about developments in his love life).  His dad is a bit of a fun-sponge but, as we later find out, we has his reasons – although all fun-sponge parents probably say that, don’t they?

I read this in a day – basically by just ignoring my family for a few hours – and really enjoyed it.  Aspects of it reminded me of Michael Chabon’s ‘The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,’ in terms of how people use the idea of superheroes to comfort themselves in times of difficulty. ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’ is also something which I feel I can dangle in front of parents who are desperate to find something their sons will read, as well as recommending it to my students who already possess a strong love of reading. Aside from this, I have discovered that it is currently only about £3 to download onto a Kindle, which is a bargain if ever I saw one.

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