Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles


This is such a heart-shattering and beautiful book. Which surprised me a bit – after all, this is supposed to be just another average coming-of-age novel.

In fact, it’s more restrained, more average than a lot of other coming-of-age novels I know: the main character’s, Vim’s family is just averagely screwed up (his parents only divorced and looked for new partners once, and Vim’s stepfather, for instance, isn’t a brutal child-abuser, but a totally normal and likeable man); Vim doesn’t suffer from any – diagnosed o undiagnosed – mental or physical condition (sure, his behavior is often morbid and obsessive-compulsive, he has some inclination towards self-harm, he’s very melancholic and alienated and clueless, and he’s full of teenage angst – but to all this I say [not cynically, but with well-remembered heartache]: so it goes); and his agonizing first attempts at sex and relationships, and his fears of growing up are all well-understandable and don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

The initial setup isn’t anything new, either: Vim’s just graduated from high school, he’s going to college in the fall, and in between graduation and college, there’s that weird no man’s land between being a teenager and being an adult – that scary, unsettling period when nothing is certain, where childhood has already ended but you have no idea yet how you’re supposed to play being an adult from now on, and whether it’s worth it, anyway.

The story (which is very fragmented and far from linear – I’ll get into this a bit later) is driven by two emotional forces. One is the hatred and bitterness Vim feels towards his father. His father quit playing family when Vim was still a baby, but he has a tendency to show up from time to time and explain why he was a bad father, and how he plans to be a better father from now on. Vim is less than impressed by his father’s bullshit, and he spends a sizeable chunk of his time pondering why and how he hates his father, and why he feels uncomfortable in his father’s company.

The main story-line is driven by Vim’s almost-hopeless attraction towards the girlfriend of one of his friends – towards Helene, who is way more screwed up than Vim. Vim’s feeling towards Helene is a mixture of teenage crush and lust, the „we don’t know each other but I’m sure you’d understand me” illusion, and the „I want to save you” syndrome, and this curious emotion deeply unsettles the boy’s heart and mind – which weren’t too peaceful to begin with.

All this, though, wouldn’t necessarily be special – a significant percentage of teenage novels deals with themes like these. What makes this novel special is Vim’s voice and narration.

As regards, for example, the fragmented quality of the novel I already referred to: the novel is only about 200 pages yet it has more than one hundred chapters. There are a couple of longish chapters, in which Vim really describes a particular event (a party, a night by the lake, a band rehearsal), but even these descriptive, story-telling chapters are chaotic and incomplete (probably because the events Vim narrates usually involve the consumption of alcohol, therefore Vim’s recollections are somewhat hazy). And there are dozens of micro-chapters (consisting of a single sentence, a couple of sentences, or a single paragraph), which are not directly attached to the main story-line, however, it’s from these chapters we learn the most about how Vim feels and thinks about life and the people around him.

Because on the surface (in his usual human relationships) Vim tends to act like a cynical and nonchalant teenager, and he also tends to react to events with an extremely tiresome, smart-ass kind of humor. As soon as he remains alone with his thoughts, though (which happens often, even during parties, band rehearsals, and so on), Vim transforms into a freely associating, emotional and deeply sensitive poet-brute, driven by rage and passion. The result of this transformation is a beautiful and tangled mess of self-expression which almost brings me to tears. Not because it’s so tragic or painful, but because it’s so precise: being a teenager can be exactly like this.

The atmosphere and poetics of the novel remind me of the music of the Smashing Pumpkins – say, like their song 1979, which – like this novel – always makes me feel that being a teenager is exactly like that. Even if my teenage years had been nothing like that.

And even though the Smashing Pumpkins is not mentioned in the novel (it could have been – the story is set in 1992), a lot of other songs and bands are, Vim himself also plays in a rock band, and the rhythm of the novel is very musical. And I can easily imagine Vim’s poetic and associative flows of words as the lyrics of a more melancholy rock band.

And I repeat: his voice – it disarms me.

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