Review of Enter Title Here by

Book cover for Enter Title Here

Not sure what motivated me to add this to my to-read list at some point, but I did, and my library had a copy, so here we are. Enter Title Here is a metafictional novel about an extremely ambitious, driven, single-minded young woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. Rahul Kanakia asks us to consider the current ways in which we rank, judge, and evaluate students in the American education system, and whether “meritocracy” is the right word to describe what’s happening. For all that this is a book about systemic issues, however, it is as ruthlessly focused on Reshma’s downwards spiral into abject nihilism as Reshma is on getting into Stanford AT ALL COSTS. The result is a novel that kind-of-sort-of works, a novel that exists in that liminal space between “thanks I hate it” and “oh wow this is fun.” Love it, like it, despise it, Enter Title Here definitely has relevant comments on our current society and the types of people we are creating within it.

Reshma Kapoor is an 18-year-old set on getting into Stanford, doing pre-med, then becoming a doctor—not because she wants to be a doctor, but because it’s the “safest” way to guarantee she will make good money and therefore be “set” in life. Prior to the start of the novel, Reshma and her parents won a lawsuit against her private school for changes it was making to its GPA calculation that would have cost Reshma her top spot, and thus damaged her chances at Stanford. Despite this triumph, Reshma feels she needs every edge she can get. So she’s decided to write a YA novel about a ruthlessly ambitious girl who does “normal girl things” for a month and the changes her ways, and then she’ll sell the novel to a literary agent and use that agent’s recommendation as part of her application package. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, of course.

Trigger warnings in this book for: racism, abuse of prescription drugs (study pills), discussion of suicide/suicide ideation, and negligent therapy.

Let’s start with the obvious, that which you might glean from a cursory reading of my summary or the book jacket: Reshma is an unlikable character and an antihero to boot. Kanakia is himself quite ambitious with this combination, because it demands a lot from the reader to be able to sympathize with her. She doesn’t get better through the book, either, although there are certainly moments of hopefulness, moments of morality, moments where she realizes she needs to stand on some kind of bedrock of principles. Don’t expect much schadenfreude from watching Reshma hit her nadir either. If anything, the absolute sense of hopelessness Kanakia cultivates in those climactic chapters made my skin crawl in a very uncomfortable way.

See, I read this book as a parable about how we need to be more careful about the messaging we send to children in our society. There’s a really interesting passage narrated by Reshma early in the book:

Because my parents don’t understand that in America it doesn’t matter how hard you work. What matters is that you learn all the tips and tricks and do everything in the right way. And you know why? Because white people know that if hard work was all that counted, then my family would destroy them. We would own this country.

Mmm, yeah. That’s the social commentary I’m craving in my YA books (or, indeed, books in general). Enter Title Here is not a spectacular story, in my opinion, yet it has these little gems scattered throughout. This takedown of meritocracy occurs after Reshma reflects on how hard her parents worked to becomes the best of the best in India, a country with orders of magnitude more people than Canada or the United States. So this is a salient point that we white people often forget in our discussions of the so-called merit-based system we have here: there are probably more smart Indian kids in total than there are kids in my country, Canada. Just statistically speaking.

The novel in general spends a lot of time discussing the inherent unfairness and inequity of the systems Reshma is caught up in. As opposed to someone who tackles these systems from a social justice perspective, however, Reshma prefers to manipulate or try to game the system. She thinks she can play by the rules so well that she transcends the rules. Kanakia’s theme, then, is that this is an illusion, that the inequities of the system will always find a way to bend the rules to beat you down if you get too good at playing the game. It’s important to not that the proximal cause of Reshma’s downfall is not racism per se—though it’s in the mix—but her own hamartia, developed through years of nurturing herself into the perfect study machine. Whether or not Reshma’s ethnicity plays into a stereotype here is beside the point. The racial dimension is an enabling factor in Reshma’s position in the game. But more pertinent is her lack of healthy relationships with … well, anyone.

This is probably the most tragic element of the book, at least for me. Reshma makes very inflammatory, off-hand remarks that had me shaking my head—things like how there’s no point to reading for pleasure! Lol. Kanakia is quite good at manipulating our emotions in this way, creating this dualistic mode of reading Reshma as simultaneously worthy of pity and yet also revolting in a way. There’s a little bit of the “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling at play as well. I excelled at school, was at or near the top of my class depending on how you measure those things (we didn’t have GPAs). I didn’t have much of a social life or do the things that “normal” high schoolers often experience—and most of that I don’t regret missing out on anyway. Yet I was never as callously amoral as Reshma. I had empathy that she lacks. And I refuse to believe this is an element of her nature. Yet we can see it doesn’t come from her parents and it doesn’t come directly from friends, so it must be a combination of messages Reshma received growing up.

Of course, in order for Reshma’s brokenness to be narratively satisfying, we need a redemption arc, yes? Enter her novel, which is the novel you’re readying—kind of. The story is metafictional in that, being written in first person, we are reading some draft of the novel Reshma references within the novel—because she’s writing a novel about a girl like her who’s writing a novel about girl like her. Savvy? Good, I’m not repeating that.

I liked and loathed at alternating times aspects of how Kanakia handles the meta element. In general, I adore metafiction, yet I’m also very judgmental about it. I like the asides that Reshma tosses us, her casual cynicism about the process (“how hard can writing a novel be? You don’t even have to do research!”). The therapist who is obsessed with writing terrible mysteries himself and becomes a kind of meta-commentator on Reshma’s novel-writing process is funny, yes. But as my trigger warnings above indicate, I found it a little bit insensitive in general to the whole idea of therapy and what a therapist should be. Dr. Wasserman is not a good therapist. True, Kanakia lampshades this by the evidence of his increasingly diminished client list and his deepening obsession with plot diagramming on whiteboards. Yet in a novel where mental health is such a significant motif, this playing off of therapy for comedic effect worries me, because therapy is an important and often crucial element of treating mental health issues. Reshma needs a good therapist, not a comic relief character.

My final critique centres on Reshma’s friendships (or lack thereof) with people like Alex, Chelsea, Aakash, and George. As Kanakia lampshades a few times, Alex’s storyline could be better. There’s something missing, something incomplete, in her portrayal. The same goes for the others—Kanakia uses them all as foils for Reshma rather than fully-developed additional main characters, and it’s frustrating. Reshma’s deteriorating relationship with Ms. Ratcliffe is another example. The teacher seems to morph into whatever archetype is most needed by the plot at that moment. I keep comparing this book to other YA novels with similar motifs and finding that this one measures up short, mostly in the department of characterization.

(Holly Bourne, ok? I’m thinking of Holly Bourne right now. Just go and read her books. Don’t walk, run.)

Enter Title Here gave me goosebumps and chills sometimes. It made me angry other times. There are some moments of redemption, some moments of growth. Reshma has learned a little from her experience, I suppose. I don’t regret reading this book, yet I don’t really recommend it either, unless this specific subgenre (that is, “overachieving teenager obsessed with getting into an elite school”) floats your boat. It’s not that it doesn’t have good and meaningful things to say about our society—it just doesn’t quite unify those comments together into a truly remarkable narrative with memorable, dynamic characters. This is a novel that, like the novel it contains, feels like a palimpsest of various drafts, and it never quite achieves a more sublime state.

Engagement

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