Sunday, November 12, 2023

Actually Super, by Adi Alsaid

After enduring the past few years of social turmoil, high school senior Isabel despairs that the world more full of bad than good.  In response, she has withdrawn and become obsessed with a chat forum called "Actually Super" where members report sightings of real-life superheroes.  These "supers" are people with secret supernatural powers and devoted to using them for good.  The evidence is scant and no one can point definitively to one of these supers, but Isabel is hooked.  Losing herself in the search for these defenders of humanity, she drops out of school and sets off on a tour of the world to find them.  The road trip that ensues takes her from her home in Michigan to Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Argentina, and finally Mexico.  Her search  is as much spiritual as geographic, opening her mind to the true potential of humans to be both good and bad, and revealing unexpected truths about our longing for superheroes in a world of uncertainty.

Ostensibly a spectacular road trip, this fascinating spiritual work about what ultimately makes us good and bad is a strikingly original work.  I was drawn in by Isabel's grasping for meaning and value in a world that has grown so cynical and distrustful of such searches.  When I was growing up, there were a number of popular novels that combined good storytelling with philosophical exploration -- where a fantastic journey led to enlightenment (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The World According to Garp, and Illusions amongst others) but that style of novel writing has largely fallen out of fashion.  Alsaid, whose previous work (Before Takeoff) was about the Rapture taking place at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is a bold enough writer to dust off this old form.  

The result is a book that, while set in the current day, becomes timeless in its universal search for meaning.  It could not occur at a better time.  We know that the past few years have been particularly hard on the mental health of young people. In our age full of cynical politics, climate change, pandemic lockdowns, and short attention spans, Actually Super speaks to recapturing meaning and appreciating the small kindness that we can all do -- the ways we can all become superheroes.  A book like this calls on the reader to set aside the harmful messages and look for goodness instead in the little things that make us so similar to each other all around the world.  It's an inspiration and an unforgettable read.

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