November 24, 2013

Coming of Age (an Eternal Recurrence)

After reading an article in the Slate Book Review: So Long, Holden
High schoolers need a new Catcher in the Rye. Luckily David Mitchell wrote one
by Jessica Roake, I thought that this is a spark of the generational critique that I had felt should have sprouted around the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Cold War. This historical moment marked the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, about ten years before the calendar's mark and I reckon that we've been running on the fumes of Cold War aesthetics still to this day.

I've snipped, bolded and colored the portions of Roake's article that indicate a possible criteria for an epoch we have already begun to live into:

[I] imagined it so differently. I would hand The Catcher in the Rye to my students and watch it transform their lives. They would see themselves in Holden Caulfield, and J.D. Salinger's words would elucidate their own frustrations and struggles. They would write righteous screeds against phoniness, start keeping journals, and forever treasure their pored-over paperback. The book would blow the minds of teenagers seeking a pilgrim soul--a friend's voice in the wild of adolescence.

What I did not expect was shrugging boredom, the most feared of student reactions. I might as well have assigned Jude the Obscure.

The problem is that Catcher in the Rye is no longer a book for cool high school students. Catcher in the Rye is a book for cool high school teachers. Holden's painful, alienating realization--that in life, phonies abound and beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose--is a fundamental teenage anguish. Adults who remember this feeling share the book to say: I understand that this world hurts. Here is someone else who understands. Assigning Catcher in the Rye has long been an acknowledgement that the moody sensitivity of teenagers is actually-- despite its insufferability to older people--the correct reaction to the world.

Unfortunately, the book's reputation as the Great American High School Novel precedes it, and its popularity has been its undoing. According to Stephen J. Whitfield, author of a social history of Catcher,Salinger's once-shocking novel "may lag behind only Of Mice and Men on public-school required reading lists." Young readers need a new coming-of-age classic, a book that has yet to be discovered and co-opted by the culture, a book that shares Salinger's sense for adolescent heartbreak and anger while refreshing its midcentury references and voice, a jewel of a book that could feel like new. Happily, such a book has already been written: David Mitchell's 2006 coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green.


Enter Black Swan Green. To readers familiar with the epic scope and ambition of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell's most famous novel (and the basis for the movie), Black Swan Green is radical in its simplicity. While Cloud Atlas is all wild acrobatic feats of genre and voice and puzzles and mysticism, Black Swan Green is earthbound. Jason Taylor, its narrator, is a sensitive young stutterer and secret poet in Thatcherite England who recounts the personal revolutions of his 13th year.

There are clear nods to Catcher in the Rye in Black Swan Green. The sensitive boy at odds with his surroundings, personal and cultural shifts that both seduce and repulse the narrator, an idiosyncratic first-person perspective--Salinger's stamp is clear in Mitchell's novel, as it is in most coming-of-age novels written in the post-Holden era. But Mitchell pulls off the neat trick of providing the same emotional connection readers remember about Catcher in the Rye in a way that feels fresh and undiscovered. Through a shift in context, voice, and protagonist, Mitchell is able to elevate a very simple, classic coming-of-age story to the realm of greatness.

But it isn't as simple as updating the references. After all, like Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green is dated, and the slang and particularities of England in the '80s ("aces," the Falklands War, Adam Ant) take a bit of time to explain to young Americans. And it's still set in the privileged world of white boys (there are many great choices that broaden this perspective, among them Drown by Junot Diaz). But while it's set 30 years ago in a pre-Internet world, BSG, with its TV, pop music, movies, and suburban boredom, feels far more current.

More importantly, Jason is not just a contemporary kind of protagonist-- he's most decidedly not a Holden. As young David Mitchell was, Jason is a budding writer embarrassed by his sensitive literary proclivities and deeply ashamed of his stutter, an observer who wants to understand and belong to the world around him. Holden's cynicism and alienation from the world he inhabits have become a cliché; the sincerity and openness of young Jason feels fresh. He reads as real and naive, as immature as Holden is jaded. Instead of finding almost everything "sad as hell," Jason remains childlike in his enthusiasm for all the "epic" things around him, even as the events of his life become harder for him to process.

Both Holden and Jason are sharp observers of the cruel hierarchies and divisions in their worlds. "You ought to go to a boys' school sometime," Holden tells his shallow girlfriend Sally. "Everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together." The critique here is certainly a timeless one, but the references make it seem antiquated. Kids played bridge?

Jason spends most of Black Swan Green observing and untangling the same kinds of adolescent caste systems that Holden pillories. But Jason's voice feels timeless, specific, and poetic at once:

Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can't. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that's Jason Taylor. Even I don't see the real Jason Taylor much these days, 'cept when we're writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in the woods. Ankley branches, knuckly roots, paths that only might be, earthworks by badgers or Romans, a pond that'll ice over come January, a wooden cigar box nailed behind the ear of a secret sycamore where we once planned a treehouse, birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can't find if you're not alone.

Jason has breathtaking little turns of phrase throughout the novel, and he considers larger questions of art, justice, love, and death in profound ways. Mitchell stays true to the youth of his protagonist, though, and always grounds us when the narrative seems to be floating toward Cloud Atlas territory. Jason may be an extremely smart, thoughtful boy, but he is also a boy, and Mitchell's humor and pitch-perfect evocation of school dynamics keep the story from feeling false.

While both narrators are sensitive, Holden seeks to break with the constraints of his family, school, and small, phony world; Jason, on the other hand, spends most of BSG trying desperately to make his world fit together. He is full of unguarded, unabashed love for those around him, and Mitchell lets him show the vulnerability that Salinger buries under Holden's posturing. And as an added bonus, girls--long turned off by the complete lack of female characters with dimension, motivation, or depth in Catcher--get to be the most heroic characters of the book: a brilliant older sister, a mother awakening to her strength, an eccentric émigré countess (a character from Cloud Atlas), and girls powerful and terrifying in equal measure.

A harvest of criteria for a new age:

radical in its simplicity
childlike in enthusiasm for all
places you can't find if you're not alone
trying desperately to make the world fit together
unguarded, unabashed love
show the vulnerability
powerful and terrifying in equal measure

Posted by Dennis at November 24, 2013 1:40 PM


Thanks for this, Dennis... Very interesting. As the Dad of two ten year old boys this is hitting me at a good time. Happy Thanksgiving!

You're welcome and Happy Holidays to you Jeff!

Yeah, I'm fascinated by the topic. If being modern is to reconcile the things one is making with the times in which one is living, then such an ongoing reality check is incumbent on us all… and modernity, as such, is forever. Ultimately, this blogpost is a constructive critique of long-in-the-tooth postmodern aesthetics. I think that we have been walking eyes wide shut into a new century, and the resistance to self critique is so great that it is still to this day, embarrassingly unfashionable to utter the term "postmodern" in polite art world company.

It's a huge bonus for you that you have two boys to help you keep your hand on the pulse!

Here's an overhaul of the criteria for the new age:

-Earnestness: direct, unselfconscious and full on
-Vision, private , unique to each one of us
-Seek unity, heal schism, find out how all antitheticals fit together
-Love, full on love
-Let your guard down, one's vulnerability is the best fodder for art
-Courage: the good things are not always in one's comfort zone

More thoughts:

It's a question of risk. Whereas we once put others at risk (taking it to the man, question authority, truth to power, who is the oppressor?, various indictments of power figures…), I think this new criteria is about putting yourself at risk (to critique yourself, to expose yourself, to open up yourself… ).

The assumption buried in the old paradigm was that power was external, in the new: power is internal.

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