Tag Archives: novels

90s Boys, Part II

17 Nov

Part One is here.

While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.

It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away with it.

And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of generations of expectations.

Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself. St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.

The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project, but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other forms of impropriety become existential threats.

As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father, meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may prove an even more searing indictment.

I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle, at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society has to ponder.

The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price to learn the true nature of the world around him.

In Search of a Millennial Normal

2 Sep

Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.

If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.

Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.

Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.

Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.

As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)