What if the X-Men, instead of becoming superheroes, went to therapy? That was the publisher’s hook for The Infinite Noise, and it definitely hooked me in. The X-Men franchise does a great job of showing how mutant powers can isolate people, and can cause them to experience discrimination and fear from a world that’s largely non-superpowered. Lauren Shippen ups the stakes in this novel by setting this experience within high school.
Caleb Michaels is a super empath, which means he not only senses what other people are feeling, but actually experiences the same feelings himself. That’s a tough enough condition for any human being, let alone one who is surrounded by all the heightened emotions and angst of high school. Fortunately, he comes to befriend Adam, a classmate whose presence can somehow make Caleb’s experience of his powers more manageable, and eventually the teens fall in love.
I love The Infinite Noise’s depiction of mental health. Caleb’s power means he experiences a range of very intense emotions, and it’s difficult for him to distinguish which feelings are his own from those of other people. Rather than simply becoming all angsty about it or turning vigilante as many superhero narratives go, Caleb instead sees a therapist, Dr Bright, who specializes in treating Atypicals (people like Caleb who have superpowers). While Caleb’s powers are certainly unusual, his experience of being overwhelmed by emotions is something that I think many readers may be able to relate to, and I love that Shippen shows us how a good therapist like Dr Bright helps Caleb manage his condition.
Adam also lives with depression, and because of Caleb’s empathy, we see how a depressive episode can feel, from the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the condition. This chapter felt very real and raw, and I love how Caleb’s response is simply to be with Adam and ride out the episode with him.
The romance between Caleb and Adam is really sweet. I love the tension created by Caleb’s reluctance to tell Adam about his powers, and by Adam’s insecurity over Caleb’s feelings for him. I love the openness and honesty in the conversations Caleb eventually has with Adam, and also in the conversation Caleb has with a girl who has an unrequited crush on him. Caleb’s responses feel remarkably mature for a high school boy, and perhaps that’s an offshoot of his power of empathy.
The Infinite Noise is the first book in the Bright Sessions series, which in turn is based on a podcast by the author. It’s this connection that ends up weakening the book for me, and possibly for other readers who haven’t listened to the podcast. There are characters and plot threads that are sprinkled throughout the story, but end up not really going anywhere, and I figure that’s because their role ties into the larger Bright Sessions universe rather than within this novel itself. For example, late in the book, Caleb and Adam meet a couple of Dr Bright’s other Atypical patients, one of whom seems really shady. The other, non-shady patient ends up befriending Caleb and Adam, and helping advise Caleb a bit on living with Atypical powers, but their role ends up being fairly minor. And the shady character all but disappears after a single scene, which is too bad because their personality seems far too intriguing for a mere cameo.
Another plot thread that turned out somewhat disappointing is the suspicious link between Adam’s parents and a villainous organization that experiments on Atypicals. There’s a lot of build up about this connection, and a lot of set up for Caleb and Adam having a forbidden romance because of it, but this plot point ended up not having as significant a payoff as I expected. Again, it felt like a seed being planted for the larger universe, and possibly a reference to a familiar villainous group from the podcast, but it falls short within a standalone.
Overall, I enjoyed The Infinite Noise, its sweet romance, and its depiction of empathy, emotions and mental health. Even the elements I thought fell flat will likely delight fans of the podcast who are more aware of their larger-scale significance.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.