Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne

youthRevolt

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.)

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

skintown

If a book is compared to Trainspotting on its cover, it has the same effect on me as when it’s compared to The Catcher in the Rye – I want to find out immediately if the comparison is apt. Besides, despite the predominance of originally English-language books in my reading list, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Northern Irish novel. And guess what, this is a Northern Irish novel that’s supposed to be like Trainspotting in some respects. I’ll get this straight right away – I don’t think Skintown is much like Trainspotting, but that’s fine because it’s a good novel.

The novel is set in a remote Northern Irish town in the 1990s, right around the time when the Provisional IRA announces the ceasefire in 1994, which, of course, doesn’t put an immediate end to hostilities, and there’s still a lot of violence going on between nationalists and unionists, and not just in faraway Belfast but right there in front of the pub door.

(Now it strikes me as very strange, official, remote and impersonal to talk about „hostilities” – as if hostilities were something that always happened to and among other people. McMenamin quickly makes it clear in vivid detail, though, right in the first chapter what such hostilities can look like.)

Still, we know (or remember) that young people will always be young people, so despite the turbulent political situation, the main character, catholic Vinny also lives the life of an average country boy, playing truant, being cool, and being a wannabe alcoholic, while sometimes dreaming about how one day he might find the woman of his dreams, or how one day he will move to Belfast or London or somewhere. (This is one reason, for example, why Skintown is very unlike Trainspotting – the characters here actually want to do something, and anyway, they’re still very very young and only beginner addicts, so they haven’t yet developed their attitudes of toughness and they don’t yet think that all is already lost.)

The story revolves around a once-in-a-lifetime drug deal. Vinny gets into this business by pure chance, and he needs to cooperate with the local protestant tough guys if he wants to get out of it alive. The story, by the way, seems quite accidental to me, as if its only purpose were to enable McMenamin to write as many scenes of drinking, hangovers, drug-taking and rave as he can – but I’ve nothing to complain about as he’s awesome at writing such scenes. Indeed, I’m with Vinny in every pub and party and rave and after-party, and I’m having a lot of fun.

And the way McMenamin paints the political background through the eyes of an almost-adult is also great. Again, what’s described in the news as „hostilities” or „atrocities” looks quite different in reality. It may be that you’re forced to be a gentleman and be the pretend-boyfriend of a girl you know so that she’ll get home safely in the car of two protestant tough guys who – perhaps not so gently – offered her a ride, and you’re scared brainless throughout the drive home because you know that the tough guys know that you’re a catholic and you’re fully aware of the possibility that they may beat the shit out of you after taking the girl home. And it may be that they really beat the shit out of you, yes, exactly you. (Just to be clear – I have no idea about McMenamin’s political or religious stance but it doesn’t matter – the novel is not about which side is good and which is bad.)

The only thing that distracts me sometimes is Vinny’s voice – I have a hard time believing that an 18-year-old kid like Vinny talks like this. Sure, he’s supposed to be really intelligent and perceptive, still, I can’t believe that at the age of 18 someone can express himself so lyrically, cynically, philosophically and wisely. Other than that – this is a good read.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

rachel

This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

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

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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.

True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole by Sue Townsend

trueconfessI have no idea how and why this messy and less-than-funny installment of the Adrian Mole series came to see the light of day (a wild guess: someone somewhere probably thought that it would be a good idea to publish a random something in between two “regular” books), but I’m not going to search the web to find it out, because I don’t think there’s any conspiracy in the background – something the importance of which I might have missed. I’m pretty sure that an average Adrian Mole novel is not as mind-boggling as, say, a novel by Thomas Pynchon, and a Mole novel can usually be understood without perusing a Townsend-wiki. I mean – I assume I understand this book. And since I understand it, I cannot but wonder: what the hell is this incoherent, cheap stuff?

The novel consists of three markedly different sections that aren’t especially good or coherent on their own to begin with, but when it comes to answering the question of how they are connected, I’m really at a loss. If I’m in a benevolent mood, I can say: very accidentally. And if I’m in more of a grumpy-critical mood, I can say: not at all.

The first part of the book mainly consists of excerpts from Adrian Mole’s diary, describing different eras of the protagonist’s life. A couple of these are more or less funny, but they never make me laugh out loud, which is strange, because I’ve been known to laugh a lot while reading the first two Adrian Mole books.

Then comes the second part: it’s mainly made up of the travel notes of Sue Townsend (or her fictional alter-ego): how she spent her time in Mallorca, how she went with a bunch of other writers to Russia, or how she experienced a totally random this-or-that. To be honest, Townsend isn’t particularly funny here – or perhaps she developed a sense of humor which I don’t find funny at all. Sure, I’m not into every kind of humor in the world, but as I said, I distinctly remember that I used to find her kind of humor very funny in the first two Adrian Mole books, not very long ago, and I don’t think my sense of humor changed that much in the meantime.

And then there’s the third part which features excerpts from the childhood diary of Margaret Thatcher, written in the trademark Adrian Mole style. Of course, Margaret Thatcher’s childhood abounds in different kinds of joys and moral difficulties than the childhood of Townsend’s immortal Adrian Mole. For instance, we learn that one of little Margaret’s favorite pastime activities is reading books about chemistry; or that she goes through a major crisis if she steals a single raisin from a bag of raisins; or that she condemns her mother because she works a mere 16 hours per day; or that on Mondays she says: “finally, it’s a school-day again!” Oh, yes, and we also learn that she already hates working-class people, and that she firmly believes that everyone who’s poor has only himself to blame. You get the point – she’s portrayed as an abominable workaholic/perfectionist/moral champion, and everybody in their right mind makes sure to steer clear of her. Well, okay. I admit that some of her diary entries are mildly (very mildly) comic, but in the end I don’t like this at all. It’s too cheap, too direct, and not at all witty. Townsend did a much better job criticizing Margaret Thatcher in the first two books of this series.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

submarine_penguin_coverIf the journalists writing for the Observer, the Independent, the Guardian and every other paper and literary magazine – from whose reviews someone somewhere selects all those quotes that fill the back cover and the first couple of pages of the average English-language novel – wouldn’t feel the need to compare every single coming-of-age story to the Catcher in the Rye, then perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to start all my posts about coming-of-age stories with saying: no, this novel is not the new Catcher in the Rye, either.

So, here we go: Submarine is not the new Catcher in the Rye. The atmosphere, the peculiar teenage-feeling and the humor are all totally different here, and this novel doesn’t feature that unique, unmistakable, poignant teenage angst which is characteristic of Salinger’s novel. And I hazard a wild guess: Submarine will never be a wildly quoted reference point in the genre of teenage-novels. (Speaking about coming-of-age stories set in the 1990s, I would say that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a better chance to become a classic someday, but I wouldn’t bet on this either – it’s a good book, but probably not timeless enough.)

Okay, now that we’re through with the obligatory „let’s compare this to the Catcher in the Rye” bit, I can finally say that Submarine is a very good novel. (Fortunately, it’s a proper teenage-novel, not some young adult book.) The protagonist is 15-year-old Oliver, living in Swansea. He’s not exactly a loser, but he’s not a hotshot either, and his major accomplishments are that he has a terrific ability to come up with conspiracy theories all the time, and that he has an awesome vocabulary. The story is about how Oliver tackles the „usual” difficulties arising in the life of a teenage boy: the first „serious” relationship and the first sexual experiences; the problems in school; the crisis in the family; and so on.

It’s possible to write well about these topics both in a serious and in a comic manner, and because Joe Dunthorne mostly excels in the comic genre, and not in the dramatic-traumatic-tragic one, Submarine isn’t the kind of book that punches you in the stomach (if you want a teenage-novel like that, I highly recommend M.J. Hyland’s novel, How the Light Gets In, which is an extraordinarily good book, and I mention it here exactly because it’s my secret mission in life to persuade everyone to read it). So, anyway, Submarine is not like this at all – I haven’t seen the movie version but if I made my own movie out of it, it would be a darkly and richly comic, (self-)ironic film because this novel is simply hilarious.

Oliver forever finds himself in burlesque-like situations (or he creates them for himself), and I can never take the conflicts of the novel too seriously. Despite all this, I don’t feel as if the author was (over-)simplifying the anguish of being a teenager – it’s more like that he writes about it with an irresistible charm and humor.

And I like his protagonist a lot. But it’s not only that I like him – I find his behavior authentic, I feel that it’s indeed possible for a 15-year-old boy to think and act the way Oliver does, and in general: I believe it’s possible for teenagers like him to really exist, and basically, this is all I need to be able to like a teenage-novel.

Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen

Child-WonderRoy Jacobsen’s novel smells not like Teen Spirit, but like a dismal council estate, and like change and growing up. The story is set at the beginning of the 1960s, and the protagonist is Finn, a boy about 10 years old. Finn lives with his divorced mother in a depressing, smallish apartment, until one day his mother decides to sub-let one of their rooms to earn some extra money. After a little bit of renovation, and after meeting a couple of less-than-desirable potential tenants, she finally finds a suitable person – Kristian. Kristian always pays in a timely manner, so that’s good, but according to the mother he’s still a rather strange figure: for instance, he owns a TV set but he never watches any programs; sometimes he speaks like a university professor, and sometimes swears worth than a street-kid; and even though he’s full of stories about his past jobs, no-one knows for sure what he does for a living now – and all this baffles Finn’s mother enormously.

Not long after Kristian moves in, the family circle is extended by yet another person – Finn’s half-sister, Linda arrives. Linda is the daughter of Finn’s father from his second marriage, and her mother is incapable of taking proper care of her, so Finn’s mother agrees to take the girl in. Well, if Kristian is strange, then Linda is even more so: she’s unbelievably slow and drowsy, she barely opens her mouth to speak, and for a long time she doesn’t make friends with anybody – all in all, she’s not like a typical child at all.

Because of the presence of Kristian (who considers himself something like a family member, and from time to time behaves like a husband and a father) and Linda (who doesn’t trust anybody, and requires a lot of care), and because of their sometimes legitimate, sometimes hardly understandable claims on Finn and his mother, the hitherto wonderfully harmonic and honest relationship between mother and son slowly begins to change. Old pains and hidden memories resurface (for instance, after years of carefully hiding the photos of her ex-husband, the mother finally brings herself to show the pictures to his son); the mother sometimes disappears mysteriously – to which her son reacts by shedding his customary role as mummy’s nice and obedient little boy, and he himself disappears for a while, and gets involved in a couple of violent pranks; and of course there’s the fact of Finn’s impending adolescence – he experiences the first schoolyard crush and the first disappointment, and all this naturally puts a distance between him and his mother.

The story is told from the (partly naive-childish, partly adolescent-adultlike) point of view of Finn (who is often very mature for his age), so it’s not surprising that a whole lot of events and details of the novel remain unexplained or inexplicable – since a boy of 10 probably doesn’t fully understand the importance of the things he witnesses or experiences, no matter how clever and mature he is. Of course, being an adult reader, I can usually understand the majority of the events Finn naively describes, but still – I often felt that it would have been good to get some more details to be able to understand what happens, and, more importantly, why certain things happen. Again, an example. The relationship between the mother and Kristian presumably goes well beyond what you would usually expect between a proprietor and a lodger, and their relationship is an important plot-line in the novel. Yet, apart from a couple of very vague hints, we don’t get to know anything about their affair, and this way it’s rather difficult to properly understand the nature and importance of their emotional outbursts and quarrels.

Certainly, I can understand (or rather: I can come up with an explanation) why nothing is ever properly illuminated here, and why the novel is so vague in terms of its emotional content. The reason for this is (or might be) that this book is mostly about the unbelievable complexity, ambiguity and inexplicability of human relationships and feelings – and Jacobsen himself seems to have decided to write a novel which is emotionally ambiguous and hazy. Yet – I would have been glad if he had tried a bit harder to explain the unexplainable.

Luke and Jon by Robert Williams

LukeJonWhen the mother of 13-year-old Luke dies in a car crash, his father – a talented toy maker – has a complete breakdown. He starts drinking, neglects his work, lags behind with the bills, and finally father and son are forced to give up their house and move to a derelict house somewhere in a small town off the map, because that’s all they can afford. In their new home, Luke and his father continue with their lives as it has been since the death of the mother: the father goes on drinking and does some odd bits of work in his workshop, and Luke uses art to empty his brain – he spends all his afternoons on the hills around their house and paints stone piles, and in the remaining time he either day-dreams about his mother, or worries about the approaching end of the summer holidays when he will have to go to school again, and be the „new kid” in the class, and endure all the unpleasantness of this situation. But then one morning Jon, a boy of weird appearance and behavior living in the neighborhood comes over uninvited and things slowly start to change. Luke and Jon strike up a friendship, and the constant presence of a third person seems to shake Luke’s father out of his apathy – and instead of drowning his energies and his sense of loss in alcohol, he starts out on a major new project: the biggest and greatest toy he ever wanted to create.

The novel crowds a surprising number of themes into a relatively small number of pages: the story, for instance, deals with the difficulty of overcoming the loss of a parent or a spouse, the way one can live together with someone suffering from a mental or nervous disorder, and also how mentally ill people are looked upon with a certain kind of fear and suspicion in general (as it turns out, Luke’s mother had manic-depressive disorder, and since she hadn’t been taking her medications before her accident happened, the authorities consider her death a result of suicide). Another important themes are school bullying; taking responsibility for others; and also the healing power of art and creation.

All this may seem a bit too much, but Robert Williams manages the multitude and seriousness of these topics well. Or, in fact, more than just well: the novel is basically serious in tone and it’s not shallow, yet it’s still an easy and entertaining read. Of course, if you feel like it, you can even learn from it – but fortunately not because Williams spoon-feeds you with good-for-everything solutions or great lessons. He simply shows how his characters deal with their difficulties, but doesn’t suggest that all their decisions are the right examples to follow.

Finally, the narrative voice is also worth mentioning: the narrator of the novel is Luke himself, and his lively, dreamy and very engaging voice and his sometimes truly child-like and sometimes surprisingly mature and empathic way of thinking make this a very a likeable book – both for teenagers and for adults.