In her fourth novel, Katzenjammer, author Francesca Zappia crafts a surreal and frightening world that parallels the innate horrors of high school. This story of subversion and sleight-of-hand trickery is difficult to discuss—or forget.
Cat and her classmates live at School. They don’t know why. No one can remember when School’s doors and windows went away. Cat has lost her face, her eyes and even her real name. The class president is a life-size porcelain doll; Cat’s best friend, Jeffrey, has a cardboard box for a head. Some students wander the constricting halls, alone and unmoored, while a few others rule over private domains in School’s underbelly.
The tenuous equilibrium between School and its students is broken when the class president is found brutalized in the courtyard. More broken bodies follow, and the students’ fear grows. Someone—or something—is killing them, and they can feel the clock beginning to tick. As Cat desperately searches her memories for answers, she circles around truths that are too unbearable to look at directly. But to find the way out of School, Cat must face the thing waiting in the shadows of her mind.
Katzenjammer is a postmodern nightmare, a David Lynchian spiral of terror. Absurdist body horror mingles with slasher-film suspense, and the consistent suspension of reality gives the novel a disorienting, dreamlike quality. Yet Katzenjammer‘s potency is undeniable. Cat’s memories are frequently as disturbing as her new reality. “We all take from each other. We take and take and take,” Cat says of her peers. It’s a cynical view of adolescence, but it will strike true for many teens. Zappia makes no effort to shroud her novel’s darkness. Visceral, bloody and cruel, it almost dares the reader to look away.
Katzenjammer is not a book for every reader, and Zappia includes a series of content warnings on the book’s copyright page: “School bullying and violence, mention of eating disorders, and scenes of gore, blood, and death.” Although she’s not the first YA author to depict school violence and its aftermath, she writes brutality with a frankness that’s virtually unmatched. Teens so often go ignored by their parents, their teachers and people in positions of power. What Katzenjammer ultimately offers its teen readers is the feeling, finally, of being heard.