The Lost Boys Symphony: If destiny exists, can it be overturned?

The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew FergusonThe Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson

Henry, formerly a music student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has run away from home in search of his former girlfriend, Val. Henry’s always been different — listening to music no one else can hear, fixating on certain objects, and exhibiting odd behavior — but since their break-up, his mental and physical health has been on a rapid decline. One night, he sets off on foot for Manhattan, convinced that he’ll find her among the thousands of other NYU students, and that her presence will calm the turmoil in his mind. As he crosses the George Washington Bridge, however, he is overcome by a fugue state, and awakens in the presence of two men who claim to be able to help him put his life back together. Meanwhile, Henry’s disappearance causes Val to reconnect with Henry’s childhood friend, Gabe, and their initial emotional support for one another blossoms into a deeper connection which will have serious implications for all three of them.

Mark Andrew Ferguson does a good job, right from the opening prelude, of establishing Henry’s unreliability so the reader will assume that any abnormal occurrences aren’t really happening. Henry’s fear of a “bright spastic green low vibration emanating from the house across the street” and his joy when “streetlamps … showered him with orange and yellow sparks of congratulation” might seem ridiculous, but to Henry, they are as valid as his passion and talent for percussive instruments. I appreciated Ferguson’s treatment of Henry’s mental state: he’s different and troubled in a realistic way, and while impossible things happen in The Lost Boys Symphony, schizophrenia and paranoid tendencies are never treated with anything less than complete respect. Strange things happen to Henry, and he also has medical conditions which require medication; these are never equated by characters or the author himself. Magical abilities are not misdiagnosed or masquerading as mental illness, much to my relief.

This establishment of reality’s parameters will inform the reader’s reaction to the revelation of time travel via two men who claim to be “41” and “80,” future versions of Henry who have traveled back in time to prevent him from engaging in a lifetime’s worth of mistakes and self-harm. As far as anyone knows, Henry has run away from home, but 41 and 80 seem to have abducted and relocated him to a rural cabin in the Catskills, referring to him as “19.” (Henry questions whether he’s really in the cabin or dreaming, or possibly dead; I wish this ambiguity and its potential ramifications had been further explored, rather than jumping to absolute fact.) A fourth man, “29,” also comes into play later, touring with a rock band in the American South. Between 19, 29, 41, and 80, the layers of timelines and potential pasts/presents/futures became hard to keep track of, made even worse by the mental issues shared by all of the Henrys. Luckily, this only became a problem near the end, when the timelines were converging and doubling back on one another.

The Lost Boys Symphony’s chapters alternate between Henry (in various timelines and at various ages), Gabe, and Val. It was smart to include Gabe and Val as contrast to Henry: they keep the unreality in check, anchoring the text and preventing the vacillating timelines from becoming too unwieldy. They also help to provide context for how Henry’s behavior affects his loved ones, and to that end, I would have liked to see a chapter or two from the perspective of Jan, Henry’s mother; an actual adult’s viewpoint, especially as she’s struggling to come to terms with her son’s increasingly erratic behavior, would have been very welcome. Still, the growing relationship between Gabe and Val is well-written, and their feelings regarding Henry are appropriately complex; they each care for him in their own way and want to be good friends for him, but supporting him and making him happy while sacrificing their own emotional or mental health isn’t the right answer, either.

Henry’s chapters directly affect the next even though they jump around in time, while Gabe’s and Val’s chapters show the linear passage of time during his months of absence. There are some diversions to Gabe’s dreams and reminiscences of his childhood, which tend to derail the narrative just when the reader needs more information. Henry’s future selves also have conversations about things Gabe and Val will do, sometimes years before the events occur, which is an odd experience. This device sets up the possibility of predestination, which leads to the ending, wherein Henry simultaneously struggles against and embraces inevitability in a surprisingly selfish way.

The ending of The Lost Boys Symphony is the weakest element of the novel; Ferguson spends most of the preceding pages illuminating the choices each character makes to seek their own happiness and well-being, and then removes agency from Val in favor of letting Henry decide what is best for her. Gabe’s complicity further emphasizes that Val’s future is being decided for her without any input, which is an odd choice on Ferguson’s part, considering how much control and independence she was given throughout the rest of the novel. In general, the conclusion feels rushed, and certainly isn’t as strong as it could have been.

Still, The Lost Boys Symphony is compelling, and I applaud Ferguson for his even-handed treatment of Henry, his mental illness, and his loved ones. The novel is complex and deft, rich with sensory detail and empathy for characters whether they’re toying with reality or worrying about what course of study to enroll in.  This was a good debut effort, and I look forward to reading more from Ferguson in the future.

Published in 2015. After Henry’s girlfriend Val leaves him and transfers to another school, his grief begins to manifest itself in bizarre and horrifying ways. Cause and effect, once so reliable, no longer appear to be related in any recognizable manner. Either he’s hallucinating, or the strength of his heartbreak over Val has unhinged reality itself. Henry decides to run away. He leaves his mother’s home in the suburbs and marches toward the city and the woman who he thinks will save him. Once on the George Washington Bridge, however, a powerful hallucination knocks him out cold. When he awakens, he finds himself kidnapped by two strangers–one old, one middle-aged–who claim to be future versions of Henry himself. Val is the love of your life, they tell him. We’ve lost her, but you don’t have to.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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