If there's one thing I hate, it's a story about a kid who's too smart for everyone else in the room. Characters like that don't come off as inspirational to me. In real life they're charming — we need all the next-generation smarts we can get! — but on the page or screen they somehow just seem like insufferable little prats. It's not the intelligence I resent, but the smugness.
Penguin Highway is about a kid who is very smart indeed, and oh so very conscious of how smart he is, and the first remarkable thing about the story is how author Tomihiko Morimi managed to keep me from wanting to slam the book shut on him. Morimi does this two ways: by surrounding the kid with an intriguing mystery, and then by degrees allowing that mystery to become less important than the weather of the kid's soul.
Small town, big mysteries
The kid's name is Aoyama, and he lives in one of those perfectly manicured towns somewhere in Japan that bring to mind Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Aoyama is way above average: he observes, records, and theorizes with the diligence and patience of everyone's most idealist conception of a scientist. At first I wondered if he was on the spectrum — some of his behaviors and self-disciplines are reminiscent of high-level autism — but it seems more likely he's just a really, really smart kid who takes himself quite seriously.
At first there seems little in his life to truly confound him. His life at home with his mother, father, and sister is happy. His biggest problem in school is the school tough guy, Suzuki — although Aoyama easily puts Suzuki in his place by outwitting him, and it's clear Suzuki just has a soft spot for Hamamoto, the girl who likes hanging out with Aoyama and playing chess.
Then one day the penguins show up — whole waddling hordes of them, coming from nowhere and eventually disappearing back out into nowhere, too. Nobody seems to know anything about them, least of all the grown-ups — like Hamamoto's father, a scientist. But then one of the adults in his life slowly reveals herself to be central to the mystery of the penguins, a sassy woman who dotes on Aoyama and works at the dentist's office where he has his slowly emerging new teeth cleaned.
What's her story? At first she just seems like one of those adults who finds the company of younger people fulfilling. But then she entrusts Aoyama with a massive secret: she's the one who created the penguins. She can create them on demand — in fact, she can create most anything she wants, she just happens to really like penguins. She has no idea how this works, only that it's possible, and that Aoyama seems innocent, trusting, and intelligent enough to help her figure it out and not turn it against her.
Over the course of the summer, Aoyama's investigation of the mystery deepens, and his problem-solving chops expand aggressively to meet it. He and his friends trace back one of the paths of the penguins through the nearby woods (the "highway" of the title) and discover an unearthly sphere in a clearing that seems to defy the laws of physics. Its behavior, and the woman's powers (and her well-being) seem intimately connected in ways no one can explain. Strange creatures no one has seen before show up, devouring the penguins. And then Aoyama connects all the dots, not just to solve the mystery, but to save both the woman and the world around him.
More than kid stuff
My first encounters with Morimi's work were most likely through the same channels as other English speakers who find out about it: by way of the anime adaptations of his novels. The Eccentric Family, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, and The Tatami Galaxy were all brilliantly quirky and among the very best things to come out in their respective years of release. But none of Morimi's written work was available in English until very recently; Penguin is, as far as I can tell, the only other book we have of his right now aside from Night.
Night (and Tatami Galaxy) revolved around a college-age protagonist, and had a likewise adult sensibility. Penguin Highway is both about and aimed at a younger audience. It doesn't have the narrative games of Night (or Galaxy); it's as direct and straightforward as a ruled ink line on otherwise blank paper. I also think Morimi uses this to mislead us in the way all good fiction does: Aoyama's sincerity, forthrightness, diligence, and smarts are presented as such givens, that by the final quarter or so of the story, when we see all of them are only so much in the face of emotions he can only process and hold at arm's length so much, it comes as a bit of a shock. The real story here is not him solving a problem, but growing a little, coming to an understanding of himself, and how his emotions, his empathy for others, are at least as much a part of his problem solving skillset as his intellect and his habits.
One thing might puncture the feeling of this being for younger readers, at least more for English speaking audiences than Japanese ones: the way Aoyama dwells (if innocently) in thoughts of his older female friend's physique in a few scenes. I was not immediately put off by this, if only because I'm used to how Japanese media for younger audiences doesn't automatically have the same Puritan flavor as what we have here. (See: Crayon Shin-Chan.) This leads to the ending — an echo of something hinted at in the beginning — where Aoyama admits this woman (who, by the way, is never named; she's just "the lady") was essentially his first real crush. A story about Aoyama later in life would either be creepy or fascinating, depending on how intelligently it was handled. Here, what we get is spared from being creepy by Aoyama's sheer innocence as a person: we've seen all this through him, so we know his interest in the woman is not prurient. That said, I do wish Morimi had given her the dignity of actually having a name; she's the only one in the story who goes without one, and this particular element is preserved almost to point of illogic.
Too many stories about brilliant people get it wrong, because most of the pop-culture tropes about the nature of intelligence, and especially that dread word "genius", also get it wrong. Some of what we call genius is affinity for things most other people would find difficult, but some of it is also relentless, non-judgmental curiosity, the kind that finds failure just to be its own interesting experience. Aoyama's brilliance is not in what he knows but in how diligently he attacks problems, and also in that he's surrounded by good people who encourage and support such habits of mind, like his father and the penguin woman. Not everyone is this lucky.
When I was a kid myself (back in the Pleistocene) one of my favorite authors was and still is Daniel M. Pinkwater, creator of a great many books that could be described as High Weirdness For Kids Of Any Age. (His Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster Of Lake Ontario beautifully spoofed the quest for the Loch Ness Monster.) Penguin Highway is distantly reminiscent of Pinkwater in that it's about young people who come face-to-face with a universe that's bigger, stranger, goofier, and woolier than they ever dreamed. Pinkwater's kid protagonists had a lot of the same fearlessness as Aoyama, but with this book I think Morimi is aiming for something to the left of all that. Other people, and the person in the mirror, are the ultimate problem, and Aoyama's big lesson is that maybe they will always remain to some degree forever unsolved and unsolvable.