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Admiring the Young Adults

September 21, 2010

Later note: I’m told I should include a spoiler alert because this post reveals the general nature of the ending of Beth Kephart’s new book. So be forewarned—although I think, from the book’s tone, any reader will expect the book to end as it does.

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Normally I don’t read young adult fiction. I tried the first Harry Potter and gave up after a page and a half because it seemed to me a clever compilation of tiresome old conventions. (Okay, so I’ve just offended 17 kajillion loyal Potterites. See if I care!)

My avoidance of young adult titles has nothing to do with my level of sophistication. After years of scanning school reading lists brought home by my kids, I admit that at heart I’ve always been a ninth grader. The tenth-grade lists get too intellectual for my taste. Besides, anyone who reads my own fiction can vouch for my immaturity. It’s just that, with so much to read—so much that I guiltily know I’m not reading—there’s no time for anything that doesn’t at least purport to offer grown-up insights.

But I was impressed when I read the new young adult novel Dangerous Neighbors and discovered that it dealt with a most adult theme, suicide. Not teen-angst suicide thoughts (which are serious enough), but a young woman protagonist who is profoundly depressed, carrying an adult load of grief about the death of her twin sister, for which she blames herself. From the outset of the novel, Katherine is determined to make amends by jumping into the blue sky from a point high above the earth.

Since the author, Beth Kephart, is a friend and marvelous writer who has published numerous memoirs and other works for big folks, the book’s vividness and delightful style were just what I expected; she brings the Centennial era startlingly to life. I’ve known, too, that recent books for teens offer edgy content. The surprise, for me, was the level of maturity with which Beth felt she could treat the theme without losing her audience. The book does have a happy ending, of course. Lovely young Katherine does not jump off the tower. Still, I’m thinking, if teens are reading about suicide, why are those of us in our supposed prime reading novels about tattooed, antisocial, obsessive, sexually casual computer hackers (see my previous post).

Note to self, and to other writers of so-called adult fiction: Grow up, wouldya?

Second note to self: The kid next door may know more than how to fix this computer. Say hello to him next time instead of grunting.

Vacation Technoreads

September 2, 2010

All current fiction must be historical, I decided some time ago. It’s a price we pay for technology.

What I mean is this: The details of our lives, the sights and sounds that give fiction its life, change so fast that anything written today will seem dated in a year or two. If that doesn’t sound obvious, take an example. A couple of years ago, a writer might have described a driver stopping to ask directions. Now readers will wonder why the GPS isn’t working, or worse, they’ll assume the driver is technologically inept.

Reasoning this way, I figure a novelist might as well date the tale immediately. If you’re writing today, place the story clearly in 2010, acknowledging that readers in 2013 will find it quaint.

So, picking up a quick vacation read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson—one of the few times I’ve managed to get to a bestseller within five years of its pub date—I was nonplussed to come across passages like the one below, when the heroine, punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, decides on a new computer:

Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.

Originally published in 2005, translation copyright 2008, and already so outdated that geeks might laugh. This confirms my argument, I suppose, though the excessive detail still makes the author’s point about Salander’s obsession, and perhaps will continue to do so 20 years from now. Maybe that’s another possible tack, then—wade so deep into the nitty-gritty of the characters’ environment that the reader can’t help but accept it as a world of its own, whether dated or not.

My “literary” opinion of Larsson’s mega-phenomenon? Its dense, driving plot, spiced with multifarious secrets, conspiracies, violence and sex, helped pass time on the airplane. Yet I didn’t care how the mystery turned out, and the characters developed so little that I feel no compulsion to read the other volumes in the trilogy. Until I’m stuck on another plane. (I do admit to a vague curiosity about what the dragon means.)

By the way, Larsson’s underlying assumption—that a girl with tattoos and facial pierces looks out of place in the workaday world—itself seems, by today’s standards, almost quaint. Maybe the Swedes are stuck on an old-fashioned twentieth-century airbus; if so, at least they aren’t being charged for luggage.