Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne

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I have a theory explaining why extremely intelligent, precocious teenagers in possession of an intimidatingly rich vocabulary are so over-represented in coming-of-age novels. The reason, perhaps, is that the authors of such novels – in most cases not teenagers themselves – probably have no idea how teenagers talk in real life. However, by claiming that their characters are extremely intelligent (and so on), they provide an explanation for the strange phenomenon that the supposedly teenage characters use such complicated sentence structures and employ such exotic vocabulary that would put high-ranking members of the English aristocracy to shame.

And perhaps just as importantly: this can be a rich source of humor – using extremely sophisticated language is rather comic when the teenagers in question only ever discuss and describe a single, very mundane topic: sex.

Nick Twisp here doesn’t care about anything else, either – his main goal is to get to fourth base with the fantastic teenage goddess, Sheeni, but it would be a mistake to think that reading 500 pages about how a pimply, sex-crazed 14-year-old wants to finally lose his virginity is a boring ride. It’s anything but – C. D. Payne is a writer with incredible comic talents, and he takes all the possible miseries of a teenager’s life (the overactive hormones, mostly, but also the problems of a completely screwed up family, school difficulties, and so on) and goes on to write about them in a wonderfully absurd, morbid, insanely funny way.

Youth in Revolt is definitely not a melancholic coming-of-age novel, tackling the hard questions and doubts around human existence. And of course, why would anyone ever need to feel sad or hopeless? According to Nick, there’s certainly no reason to feel that way, ever. As he puts it: “Consider, if you will, the morning boner. What a metaphor of hope and renewal! How can anyone give way to despair when one’s groin greets each new day with such a gala spectacle of physiological optimism?”

By the way, if I stopped to think about all the horrors presented in this novel (various cases of sexual abuse and harassment; parents completely devoid of parenting abilities; deviant behavior patterns; leaving a horde of teens to their own devices; and so on), I’d probably consider slitting my wrists. Fortunately, this is not a novel where you have to seriously think about all this, or where you have to lament over the possible fate of hopeless and deviant modern youth. The youth depicted here manages just fine, and I’m having an awful lot of fun.

(The quote on the cover claims that this is the funniest book you’ll read this year. It’s certainly the funniest I’ve read so far, and I can’t imagine that anything will surpass it in the remaining few weeks of the year.)

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

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Have you ever read an Indian coming-of-age novel? I hadn’t, and I was interested what it’s like. And of course – The Catcher in the Rye is mentioned on the cover, which always makes me curious.

From this novel it becomes clear that growing up is just as difficult in India as in any other part of the world – at least for those who have the means to spend their time moaning about teenage- and young adult problems and doing serious soul-searching. (By the way, the protagonist here is well aware how lucky he is to be able to afford this, but this awareness only serves to deepen his misery – I’ll get back to this later.)

The protagonist of the novel, Agastya (for his anglicized friends and his anglicized self just August) is not exactly a teen: he’s 24 at the beginning of the story, and he’s just getting ready to start his year of training at the Indian Administrative Service. Literally millions of ambitious or lazy young Indians apply for a job at the I.A.S. because after the training, a permanent appointment is almost automatic, the job offers a comfortable (if somewhat boring) living, and it doesn’t involve a whole lot of actual work.

For Agastya, a youth accustomed to the Indian mega-cities, and to the world of English universities, it comes as a veritable (cultural) shock that he’s appointed to spend his year of training somewhere on no man’s land, in a town called Madna, where there’s no life, no entertainment, no taste, no fun. What’s more, Agastya isn’t an overly enthusiastic and motivated employee, so he spends most of his time smoking weed, masturbating, telling lies for fun, getting his acquaintances invite him for dinner, making up excuses for skipping yet another afternoon at work, and reading Marcus Aurelius.

For Agastya, the days and the people of Madna all become blurred – and for me, too, reading this novel. I don’t know if it’s because of the unfamiliar names but I only managed to remember the name and role of about five characters out of the dozens, and whenever someone appeared (again?), I panicked because I had no idea who that character was. I like to think this is the exact effect the author wanted to achieve – after all, Agastya is just as clueless during his year in Madna, and experiences similar panic whenever he meets an acquaintance or a colleague because he doesn’t remember what he lied to different people about himself and his past, so he doesn’t know what role to play with different people.

And of course the story is not the main point in this novel. The main point is Agastya’s lazy soul-searching and how he’s figuring out what path he should take. Agastya’s main goal in life is to be happy, but he’s clueless about everything. That’s one thing that he doesn’t know how to reach happiness – but he has no idea what would make him happy, either. Consequently, he just floats here and there, he’s unsettled and insatiable – yet, interestingly enough, he’s not completely self-centered.

Even though he beats the protagonists of all Western coming-of-age novels taken together when it comes to doing nothing and pondering existentialist questions, Agastya is aware of his privileged position and immense luck, and he’s truly ashamed of himself when he visits a hospital for people with leprosy or a remote tribal village, and sees how people live there. And it’s interesting here – in his case, it’s not necessary to admonish Agastya, saying “you should count your blessings and quit whining, people in the third world are starving.”

Agastya sees perfectly well that people right next to him are starving, and he’s sensitive to the misery of others. Still, his feelings of angst, cynicism, helplessness and vague unhappiness don’t evaporate because of this.

Besides the usual existentialist questions, here there’s a separate battle with being Indian. Agastya, for example, is the son of a Christian mother from Goa and a Hindu father from the Bengal, he receives an anglicized education, and then moves to a part of India where he doesn’t speak the local language – it’s no wonder that he has no real idea who he is and where he’s at home. And the example of others doesn’t help much, either: some of his friends moved to the US, some moved to Indian mega-cities, there are some who married English people – the one thing that’s certain is that they don’t know what to do with themselves, and what it means for them to be Indian, in India and outside of it.

But this here is not the usual, moody, Western kind of (teenage-)existentialism, but the extremely ironic kind: Agastya is constantly making fun of the Westerners who come to India to find themselves, and he’s also constantly making fun of himself because trying to find himself in the Western way is exactly what he’s doing.

And by the way, Western teenage novels rarely contain such childish, bawdy but somehow very entertaining humor as this novel. Agastya is reminded of sex by everything, and he makes devastatingly cynical, disrespectful or vulgar internal comments about even the most sublime topics or conversations – I haven’t had such dirty fun reading a novel for a long time.

(By the way, the author himself works at the I.A.S., so he has a pretty good idea about how things go in and around the office. And it might just be possible that he wrote this novel on the sly, during the Monthly Revenue Meetings. I wouldn’t be surprised.)

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve come across the name of Beryl Bainbridge several times in recent years, but basically all I knew about her was that no less than five of her books had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but she had never won the prize. Anyway, I thought it was time for me to read something by her and I chose this novel (which was also shortlisted for the Booker in 1974) because I liked its title and the story as well.

The novel is about two English women, Freda and Brenda who live in a flatshare together, and about a company outing. Freda – big in every sense of the word, confident, fearless – and Brenda – timid, quiet, sweet-tempered – are employed in a bottle factory run by an Italian company, where, apart from a single Irish troublemaker, all their colleagues are Italian. As you might guess, there’s a whole lot of sexual tension in the air between the Englishwomen and the Italian men. While Freda is trying hard to secure the charming Vittorio to herself (who is, by the way, frightened off by Freda’s amazon-like appearance and behavior), Brenda, on the contrary, is trying to get away from the attentions of Rossi, a pushy womanizer, but as she’s much too mild-tempered, she doesn’t succeed.

Accordingly, Freda and Brenda look forward to the company outing with very different hopes and expectations. Freda is sure that far from the rigor of the factory, during a nice picnic in the lovely, sun-spotted countryside, after a couple of glasses of wine she will finally be able to captivate Vittorio’s heart; while Brenda is only hoping that one way or the other she will manage to fend Rossi off. But neither one of them expects what actually happens on the day of the excursion.

According to the review quotes on the back cover, The Bottle Factory Outing is a comic masterpiece and Beryl Bainbridge is mercilessly funny. For a change I have nothing to say against these quotes as they didn’t raise false expectations in me about the novel. But I must add that this is not the kind of comic novel that will make you laugh your head off. Its humor is more like the humor of, for instance, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: that novel won’t induce roaring laughter either, but the absurd normality (or the totally matter-of-fact absurdity) of its plot and characters is so unbelievably, sickly funny that you cannot take anything seriously.

And this is also the case here. The characters are rather average English and Italian people, they don’t seem any special, and none of them induce excessive love or hatred in the reader. However, these lukewarm, everyday characters are capable of the most unbelievable, most bizarre acts: they go to a safari park with a dead body sitting on the back seat of their car; they try to shoot each other in the throat, but not because of some murderous intent – only because they feel that the other is talking too much; and they get surprisingly creative when it comes to deciding how best to get rid of an unwanted corpse.

Besides the hugely enjoyable blending of the everyday and the absurd, I must mention the descriptions of the novel’s settings: rarely do I come across such vivid, powerful, evocative depictions of rooms, buildings, scenery – the small and dingy flat of the main characters; the cold and filthy workrooms of the bottle factory; and the not-so-lovely and especially not-so-sun-spotted countryside are all depicted in such a way that I’m immediately drawn into the characters’ world and I have some great fun following them through all their bizarre wanderings until we get to the anticlimactic and really funny end of the story.

By the way, I have no idea if this is something of a „typical” Bainbridge novel, but anyway, I liked it and I’m sure I will read other books by her sooner or later.