Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Two (Adolescence)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Sometime during middle school, an elderly lady neighbor in our apartment complex delivered to me a brown paper shopping bag filled with books. I think she said (perhaps I heard this secondhand) she thought some of them were a little too young for me, and some of them were a little too old, so hopefully the result would be just right. I wish I could remember all the books in that paper bag, but one of them was The Cricket in Times Square, an utterly charming book which now feels like a relic from another century (which, I guess, it is). Another was The Hiding Place, which I still feel guilty about not reading. A third was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3, a mass market paperback with a forest green cover and solemn white lettering belying what lay within.

Adrian Mole, I learned later, is a figure of common cultural knowledge in Britain, but basically unknown in the States. He is a hapless, mediocre, fussy, middle-class boy from the Midlands with aspirations toward being a writer. Many books and stories about Adrian exist, all written with unmatched wit by Sue Townsend, who has written a handful of other lovely novels (her Rebuilding Coventry is one of the nicer books I ever remember reading).

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole was my first real exposure to British wit, and it was formative on my sense of humor. It was also my first exposure to the inside of a teenage boy's head, a place I found sexually foreign but emotionally familiar. I can't even number the ways this book spun me into particular directions in my adolescence: it's the root of a crazed Anglophilia that lasted until I was out of college, it made me generally less afraid of boys (and so I gravitated to them as friends), it taught me a slew of British slang that, still, no one I meet seems to know unless they are British themselves. Worse luck.

A strange way in which Adrian Mole mattered to me has to do with my status as an only child. I spent a lot of my time alone in my room, reading, as I grew up. I spent plenty of time with my parents, too, and I did things with other kids, but what I remember best is the inside of this or that bedroom. I wasn't socialized in the same way kids with siblings are. And I often felt alone around girls, because what they talked about baffled me. Lip gloss? Lisa Frank? Adrian helped me fill that gap. A lot of the books I read were about protagonists alone in a crowd, and Adrian isn't an exception, but he talked to and mingled with a variety of people. Too, he himself was so different from the people I encountered regularly that he helped me start to understand the wideness of the world. Perhaps unfortunately, he contributed to my notion that enjoying that wideness in one's room alone with a book is nicer than going out and enjoying it firsthand. But let's pass by that.

I had no idea who Woody Allen or Philip Roth were.
Today, I think both comparisons do Adrian a disservice. 

Carrie performed some of the same tasks as Adrian Mole, but it also checked off a lot of firsts. It was the first book I remember reading that was written for grownups rather than kids. It was the first novel I read that wasn't straightforward narrative; it includes news clippings, fragments of songs, trial testimony, letters, etc. to tell its story. It was the first book that didn't feel like it was talking down to me. It assumed you understood, rather than helping you along. I loved it for all those reasons.

I was fascinated by Carrie's depiction of girl-puberty, which was far more honest and interesting than what I got from other sources. (My parents get an A+ from me in how they dealt with sex, but Carrie is more graphic, and therefore more helpful, than anyone could have asked them to be.) Plus, in any horror novel, the stakes are so high that the story is going to be gripping, no matter how old you are.

I don't know when I read Carrie. I must have read it before I was ten, because I know I found it in the wardrobe that stood in the living room of the house I no longer lived in after age ten. But I don't have any memories of it more specific than that. Younger than ten seems too early to read Stephen King, but that's how it happened, and I don't feel traumatized.

Certainly I was young enough that the story-machines in my head were still in assembly. I had the hero's journey from Star Wars, and Carrie offered me a revenge narrative/misunderstood loner character study. Potent stuff. Carrie demonstrated alienation, which I had precociously started to feel, as a consequence of being an only child and moving from place to place as often as we did. Carrie also alleviated my solitude, even while showing hers to me. Yet, in the book, she is anything but appealing; she is ugly and slow and whinging - and then murderous - and it's only easy to pity her until you actually have to be around her. So she was a strange figure for me. I knew I wouldn't like her in real life, but I felt sorry for her on the page, and I understood her very well. She wasn't like Lucy Pevensie, someone I could project myself onto and love, but she was no antagonist.

Carrie (either film) IS NOT Carrie (the book).
Read it before you talk to me. I'm so serious about this. 

Nothing can convince me that Carrie is a bad novel, although I see a lot of its failings now. The scene between Carrie and Tommy, when he asks her to the prom, always pops up when I think about the novel, because it's one of the least consistent-to-the-rest-of-the-book scenes I can think of in any book I've ever read. Adrian Mole has aged even better, because when I was so young I didn't get how dreadful Adrian's poetry is, and now it's much funnier.

The sexuality in both books sticks with me as critical, and formative. But the language does, too. Both books possess a style that you can't substitute without the book falling apart. The next two books are the same way: sexuality matters enormously, but so does language.

Gee. I wonder why these books meant so much to me.

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