Tag Archives: boyhood

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

31 Aug

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.