Problems in the Novel II
My new research proceeds apace, as I seek out novels either tagged “YA” or about young adults which are neither Vampire Hearts Boring Girl or Topical Problem Addressed – I doubt any YA publisher would have taken The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, but then fortunately for the author Vintage did. Amazon sent me to it after I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, another good one.
It’s a really good book, as much for its construction as for its plot. It’s about two HS loners who form a friendship over their shared nerdgeekery (comic books, sci-fi, the usual) which is tested when one shares the secret that he doesn’t sleep – that he can’t sleep. Complications ensue, both from that secret and from “female trouble.”
One thing I’m doing more of that I never did before is pay attention to structure in what I’m reading – I’ve always been an “intuitive” writer, making a summary judgment on the whole of a book I’ve read and relying on manic steam to propel me through my own novels, which of course is also why my endings have so often been disappointing. And I really love the way that author DC Pierson unfurls both the details of the protagonists’ family lives and the nature of their social retardation. I think we all know that bad writing front-loads all information: “Suki the sexy Homeland Security agent peered intently at her monitor as the Predator XRASDF propulsed towards Burkaburkastan. She had fought long and hard against both the male-dominated culture of the agency and the iron will of her Tiger Mother to get to this day.” Pierson’s book made me accept the protagonists’ existence as is, without the nuts and bolts of mom and dad and how they lived and what mom and dad did for a living coming into the story except as needed. Pierson has both kids’ parents vaguely working in software/computers, a nerdity of their own which may explain their remote/disengaged place in the story – not quite Peanuts-level wah-wah voices, but close, because they are essentially irrelevant to the story. (If they were important this vagueness would be a distraction – I mean, how does a kid this nerdy not know more specifics about what a parent does “in computers”?)
Best of all, I love the way he justifies the isolation of the protagonist – a passing mention proves that he’s not hopeless, that he had friends in middle school but they moved away, and now, cliqueless, he’s alone and at sea in high school. And the casual, throwaway tone of his awareness of his social hopelessness made me laugh more than once (probably because I see myself there). Thinking about how his new friend and a girl in their class had gone through a whole fall-in fall-out cycle before he knew the other guy, he probably correctly guesses how his new friend’s own maladroitness screwed it up:
…I can imagine it so accurately because I was then (and I guess I am still) in my own world of misreading people, reaching out to them in an awkward, overplanned way that blows up big-time, then retreating back in to my just-me existence, while they go around telling everyone what a tard I am.
That’s me. And Caroline. But I have to make her seventeen because at that age it can be funny but at my age it’s just sad. Pierson’s shown me how well you can set the pitch/tone of that self-awareness, knowing when and how and why you’re doing it wrong and how all that knowledge doesn’t do a damn thing to fix it.
Pierson is in his mid-20s, I’d guess from his college graduation date of 2007 in the credits, so I can take his high school experience as contemporary reporting – what doesn’t change, hasn’t changed from my time to his, is the nature of teenagers. They’re still passionately quick to attach, just as quick to stop feeling the attachment, burning with the desire to connect and burning with agony when that desire is thwarted or, worse, finds that its fulfillment is an illusion. They have poor impulse control, lashing out at family and friends and taking every rough patch as a vendetta-worthy betrayal. They make impulsive decisions with so little awareness of consequences that there’s nothing to block crazy acts. Kids, in other words, are still kids – what I have to do is go back and remember how it was for me, and write that. The things that are different now are all enumerated in this book – Ritalin, Columbine, the “zero tolerance” mentality that sends you to juvie for a plastic spork on campus, the “good school” obsession of kids and (more so) parents. But I knew all that – what I needed to know, and this book confirmed, is that the feelings, the nature of the experience, haven’t changed that much in the last 30 years, that the lives of freaks and geeks are still pretty much as they were.
I do feel the book coming closer – I know, 2.5 years into the project and here I still am. I’ve finally acknowledge that I need a creative support system; I want to take a college-level writing class but the quandary is that I’m too old and experienced for 101, but because I never got a degree I’m not qualified for Masters program-level courses. There’s a writers group here in town that meets in a couple of weeks, which I’m going to have to check out. The book is, basically, starving for lack of the oxygen of other people’s interest in it, an interest I know I can generate if only I can get through that barrier between me and “other people.”