Katzenjammer by Francesca Zappia

As the title implies, a reader should be prepared to be confused when reading Katzenjammer by Francesca Zappia. The novel takes the reader down a nightmarish path of distress experienced by the main character, Cat. While it is clear that Cat suffers from depression and bewilderment in a world that makes no sense to her, the reason for that distress is not made clear until the novel’s conclusion.

Through Cat, readers encounter a version of school that is unfortunately all too real for some students who experience bullying because of their differences. The dichotomy of us versus them is set out early in the novel. Readers meet Ryan Lancaster and Jake Blumenthal, two very different bullies who target weakness and exploit it. Once they find a vulnerability or insecurity—whether weight, skin conditions, hair styles, or eyes that look in different directions, bullies pick and taunt and tease.

We also meet Jake’s younger brother Jeffrey, who is self-assured, good natured, and a universal translator. Jeffrey can talk to nerds, jocks, theater kids, punks, and every other social group. From him readers can take tips for how to navigate the social hierarchy that often comprises school. A sweater vest-wearing individual, Jeffrey counters any taunting with positive energy and a smile.

A talented artist, Cat paints “surreal landscapes, twisting hallways, subtle gleams in the darkness like knife edges at night” (12). When her dad asks her to paint “something happy that Mom can put on the fridge. . . . maybe just one flower?” She responds: “There are no flowers where I live” (12).

While exhibiting immense empathy for those who are marked as strange or different, Zappia encourages us all to find the flowers rather than to focus on revenge. Even if helping a victim of bullying makes the ally a target, unless we speak or act in opposition to violence, we become complicit to it. When faced with such circumstances, we risk losing the self, the soul and our very identity unless we find a way to navigate the current of life’s river. Because violence leaves scars, we all need coping mechanisms—not only to save face but to find an identity worth living. Just as Cat must grow beyond being “that weird girl who does all the creepy drawings and has a lazy eye and wears black turtlenecks all the time” (115), we all must find our way forward.

Although Zappia’s novel is indeed a dark and sinister one—maybe even somewhat cynical—Zappia encourages readers to avoid becoming resigned. Because time, cruelty, and other forces beyond our control will always inflict consequences, we can’t give away our power. We give our power away when we become intimidated or let others upset us, when we get defensive, become submissive, or act against our own health and well-being. We give our power away when we care too much about what others think and not enough about what we ourselves think. 

Readers will hopefully come away from the reading experience realizing that although we can’t control what other people do or many of the things that happen around us, we do have control over our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we go along for acceptance or conformity’s sake, we act against our own best interests.

  • Posted by Donna

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