By Jeff Walsh
"Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies / Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies" is not only the longest book title we're ever likely to review on Oasis, it is also the third book in Brent Hartinger's Geography Club series.
Reading this book, my thoughts kept returning to E. Lynn Harris, who had a very successful string of books that featured the same recurring characters. Every time you would open the books in his Invisible Life series, you immediately fell right back into step with that world and its inhabitants. Some people dismissed them as lightweight, but an ongoing series with a storyline of almost entirely black characters dealing with sexuality isn't lightweight by its very definition.
With "Split Screen," Hartinger continues the paths of Russel, Min, Gunnar, and Kevin that began in Geography Club, and continued in Order of the Poison Oak. While the first book was set in high school, the second book had the characters working as summer camp counselors, and Hartinger plays with setting once again for this third time around, having the gang sign on as extras when a horror/zombie movie is shooting in their town.
Beyond the zombie backdrop, the book is actually two books, one told from Russel's point of view ("Attack of...") and the other, once you literally flip the book over (each side having its own cover art, etc.), is told from Min's point of view ("Bride of...") about the same events and timeline.
Russel is still maintaining his long-distance relationship with Otto, who is about to come to town to visit over Thanksgiving break. Kevin becomes friendly with Russel again, and ends up as an extra on the movie, as well. Russel still has feelings for Kevin, but as long as Kevin stays in the closet, it will never work out between them. Min is horrified by having to be a zombie cheerleader in the movie, and Gunnar falls in love with everything do with cinema.
The two books show how people can spend a lot of time together, but there are still so many things that go on in their lives without the other one knowing about it. Russel will walk away from his friends after a conversation, but when told in Min's book, another exchange can happen when he's barely ten feet away that will lead to something that appeared coincidental from Russel's perspective.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a mystery or anything. I'm not a big fan of trying to figuring things out in advance, and I don't think there are huge rewards for people who look for areas where differences in their point of views will exist. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. For me, the pleasure was in just having these confluences appear when I read the second book, because it's really like life. Conversations continue after we leave, we are discussed when we're not present, and things prevent us from sometimes catching up with our friends as often as we would like. Our life is one big overlapping narrative, and most of it we're not aware of. So, it's a gimmick in the book, but one that mainly leads to pleasant epiphanies and knowing smiles when you see things from Min's perspective (I read Russel's book first, which I believe is what the publisher or Brent recommended).
Once again, Hartinger delivers a quick read that rewards your time. If I had any complaint, it would only be that by having two narratives covering the same ground, there is less available time to tell a more detailed story involving the characters. But that's only a minor quibble in this well-executed third entry in the Geography Club series.
If anyone is on the fence because they're not sure they want to read about the making of a zombie horror movie, have no fear. It's largely just a device to give the characters new ways to interact. Instead of Russel having to run into Kevin because they have a gym class together, and forcing the stagnant backdrop of high school life onto the characters, they get thrown together because they both need to get into zombie makeup for the next scene.
At its heart, it's still a story of same-sex relationships, friendship, second chances, the desire for intimacy, long-distance relationships, and first love... well, OK, and soul-sucking brain zombies, but mostly it's about the other stuff. Really...