WORSE, by Jennifer Ziegler
A 12-year-old boy solemnly explains a piece he just read aloud at a high school Lit Club meeting. “I should mention that I wrote this article when I was much younger,” he says. “One day I felt unusually funny.” The entry he refers to comes from his “Masterpiece,” a personal lexicon, which he began when he was 9, which contains unusually thematic lists of words — words made up, say, entirely of state abbreviations (to deserve, me-mo-ri-al), or its “false antonyms” (such as origin, which, if you see it as originshould be a synonym for deodorize).
You know the personality type. Fussy. Superior. Unintentionally hilarious. He’s the kind of kid that is never unusually funny, for the conceivable reason that he’s always funny. He’s Young Sheldon without the physics. He likes to correct those in authority who say “show off” when they mean “whistle”. He is so insufferably cocky that in school his name, William Orser, has been omitted to the nonexistent word “Worse” by common consent, just to drive him insane.
The background to this obsessive junior logophilia is a disaster at home: Worser’s mother suffered a stroke. Formerly a professor of rhetoric, she now has zero words at her disposal. Just meaningless syllables that her shocked and frightened son can’t or won’t interpret. It turns out that after his father’s death, Worser and his mother bonded mostly through sophisticated puns and laughter at “uneven” sentences in college papers she was reviewing. Since the stroke, he only has to play word games.
Today the house is also different. His well-meaning Aunt Iris (a true saint) has intervened, her presence insulting to Worser in every way. She addresses him scandalously as ‘potato’. She loves purple and has two “partly feral” cats. She harbors the absurd belief that the spaces between words are just as important as the words themselves. Even more disturbing is that she encourages his poor mother to dance around and do finger painting – as if Constance Orser weren’t a woman whose greatest joy was the Sunday crossword puzzle in DailyExpertNews.
Funny, clever and compassionate, Jennifer Ziegler’s “Worser” is a brilliantly constructed account of a journey to self-knowledge. There are also several peripheral characters to enjoy, my own favorite being Worser’s affable high school friend Herbie, an original thinker whose every throwaway comment (like “Your aunt is a good person”) made me have an affectionate “Oh, Herbie!” in the margin. Many people are nice to Worser, especially a gruff bookstore owner who isn’t quite suited to his profession: “Do I look like a catalog of cards?” But above them hovers the underappreciated Aunt Iris, whose cats seem like a burden, but whose sincerity is never doubted.
Will Worser ever realize that his mom just needs a hug? Will he come to understand that their past word-based relationship was pretty bad parenting anyway, as a symptom of her colossal grief over her husband’s death?
It is always cathartic to see someone’s wall come down. Worser is very young to have built so many, and the demolition is painful, but when he finally starts to use common human words in simple sentences (instead of “I’ve decided you might have a point that I need new clothes “), dare to hope he stands a chance.
Lynne Truss is the author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” and “Talk to the Hand”, as well as Constable Twitten’s mystery novels.
WORSE, by Jennifer Ziegler | 256 pages | Margaret Ferguson/Holiday home | $17.99 | From 8 to 12 years