The setting of Stuck in Neutral is the "cool" and contemporary Seattle, Washington. The occasional details ground the story in reality, such as Shawn's house being about a mile from the Seattle Center with the Space Needle and even closer to the "grunge capital of the world." The beautiful, high-tech, and sophisticated nature of the setting add to the appeal of the place for Shawn and make it a believable place for his father, a well-known writer and activist, to live. A smaller town without the advantages of Seattle would make Shawn's story a bit less realistic. His father would not appear on TV just anywhere, for example.
Nevertheless, another setting for the story would be possible. Shawn lives a solid middle-class life in a nice neighborhood, with his mother who is divorced from his father and his older brother and sister, and he attends school for the disabled. The story could take place in any state, city, or town in the present. The situation of the characters is universal. Seattle just seems to be an area the author knows well.
This brief novel has a number of poetic qualities that add to its creative leap, which is the effort to imagine what someone like Shawn may be experiencing. First of all, the narrative poem about Shawn, written by his father, is quoted throughout the story at the beginning of each chapter from chapter 5 on. The images in the poem help convey Shawn's disability: "his arms and legs are overcooked spaghetti" and his father's reactions: "I can't look at myself" and "Shawn and I are alone. We are disappearing." Shawn, it turns out, has a poetic flair, too. His use of metaphor is very effective. For example, Shawn describes his seizures when he was young as a washing machine that gets out of balance or a chain saw when the chain breaks and gets caught up in the gears. The imagery Shawn uses to describe his later seizures is also vivid: "As the room finishes its swirling, the blue haze lifts and colors become sharp and clear as crystals." The poetic qualities underline Shawn's sensitivity and love of life.
Shawn's lists are also an effective poetic device, a kind of free verse. He is given to listing what gives meaning and joy to his seemingly empty life. For instance, he enumerates "Ken Burns's Baseball, Mom's Charlie perfume, Cindy's laughter and her smile, the blood that time on Paul's hands, and all the times I heard his laugh and the thump of his feet as he ran up the stairs, the ring of the telephone, the snap of a drum, the morning paper hitting the porch." The rhythm of these lists carries one along, just as such concrete memories carry Shawn through life.
The humor Shawn demonstrates is another important device that keeps his story from sinking into sloppy sentimentalism. Shawn jokes a lot about his own condition as well as the ways other people sometimes react to him. Shawn jokes about being able to be around when his sister's friends sleep over, about being the only genius in his class, and about how people speak louder to him. Shawn's black humor humanizes him and makes his situation more bearable somehow. For example, Shawn recounts how he learned what it meant to be called a "vegetable."
The first couple times I heard people saying that, I could not figure out what they were talking about. Humans turning into vegetables? It sounded like a horror movie. I wondered, Exactly what kind of vegetables were the people becoming? If it was a redheaded guy, did he turn into a carrot? If it was a cranky Republican lady, did she become a turnip? A gay person into a pink grapefruit? And what kind of people became avocados? Zucchini? Summer squash?
The voice of Shawn is realistic overall. His grammar is not always perfect, he uses slang, he recounts realistic dialogue, and he is honest and funny as a normal teenager would be.
(The entire section is 999 words.)