Not long ago, I read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth for a class, and I read it hungrily, quickly, with my mouth open sometimes, with my eyes tearing up. It was her book of story-essays about girlhood, womanhood, friendship, and loss — and after I finished I was inevitably antsy to delve into In Zanesville, Beard’s debut novel published earlier this year. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl named Jo and her best friend Flea, self-proclaimed “late bloomers” trying to navigate the deep waters of high school, boys, families, and their relationship with each other. In some ways, it can be dismissed as a typical coming-of-age story. Everyone already understands what that means: teenagers discovering themselves, discovering sexuality and complexity in their lives, sloughing off childhood like a musty skin. It may be true that coming-of-age tropes are prevalent and typical — but I wonder, then, why are they (especially the well written ones) consistently so alluring?
I used to think reading them was a guilty pleasure — they were books for teens about teens, when shouldn’t I, by then an adult, have discovered more serious literature? But can anything be more serious or more beautiful than a Bildungsroman — an “education story” — at an age when education takes the strongest root and blossoms?
I couldn’t detach myself from In Zanesville, forcing myself to read slowly toward the end so that it would last longer. I wanted to stay engulfed in Jo’s rampant imagination, I wanted badly for things to turn out well for her. Here was a character more than a decade younger than I who was earnest, smart, and in many ways brave — and here I was, long having supposedly “come of age,” madly invested in this fourteen-year-old’s odyssey through the land of cheerleaders, detentions, decisions, alcoholic fathers, and escapes into the world of books.
I guess the simple explanation might be that I identify with Jo: that I too found solace in Louisa May Alcott and enjoyed my high school English homework, that I too felt adrift and small-chested amid a sea of cool girls and football players who would never look my way. I’ve identified with other fictional girls who’ve had dreams and felt out of place — Anne Shirley, Scout Finch, Jo March, The Virgin Suicides’ Lisbon sisters — though our circumstances could not have been more different.
A week ago, a new site called Rookie hit the Internet, billing itself as a website for teenage girls and a place for writing, photography, and art. It’s a side project of Tavi Gevinson, the fifteen-year-old fashion prodigy (profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine, etc.) behind Style Rookie, a blog she started a few years ago to post photos of herself in whimsical outfits as well as musings on clothes and designers, music and movies, books, and the general predicaments of a smart, young teenage girl.
She’s amassed an entire staff of writers and photographers (most of them older than her) to work on Rookie, which launched on September 1, under the monthly theme of “Beginnings.” It’s a site for teenagers about being a teenager — about the first day of high school, about clothes of course, and about dealing with girls, dealing with boys, and dealing with growing up — a sort of Internet incarnation of coming of age. Rookie is well written, charming, and earnest. And I think it’s remarkably interesting. I’m too old to be the target audience, but the posts strike me with the same sense of wonder and possibility as does In Zanesville — while also striking me with an inevitable sense of loss.
In another recent coming-of-age novel, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies (this one about boys, also riveting), two teachers are chaperoning a sophomore dance. One comes up to the other who is lost in thought:
“I bet,” she says slowly, “you were thinking of the dances you went to, when you were young, and wondering where all the time went, and what happened to all the dreams you had then, and if this life is anything like the one you wanted.”
Howard laughs. “Bingo.”
“Me too,” she says ruefully. “I suppose it’s inevitable.”
In a way, reading Rookie and all these books now is a lot like this sophomore dance. Not necessarily a good thing and not necessarily bad (after all, I’m fairly pleased with the way my life has turned out) — but just necessarily contemplative.
When I first began to read Joan Didion, I hadn’t yet moved to New York, but I’d just begun to live in North Carolina, far away from my childhood home in Texas. A college professor of mine showed me Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I stayed up all night reading it. And when I moved to New York a few years later, I read and reread “Goodbye to All That” in my small apartment, convinced that I, too, would experience the “mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three… the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” And I wondered whether I was old enough to also eventually discover “that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it,” which seemed awfully glamorous to me then, depressing, and incredibly grown-up.
In that immensely beautiful essay, Didion’s wonder at New York dissolves into disillusionment and despair. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more,” she writes. She writes about growing up, about moving somewhere new that isn’t home, about being a different person throughout different moments of her life, like points connected along a line, stretched across a graph’s axes. She writes about relinquishing the expectations conjured in a state when everything was deemed possible, when it comes time for the illusion of the Brooklyn Bridge to be replaced with the reality of the Triborough. In a way she builds up that very spell that all those coming-of-age novels so carefully cast — and then she breaks it. Beautifully. It is not the coming-of-age trope of teenagers, but it is a significant coming of age.
In an interview with New York magazine earlier this month about the start of Rookie, Tavi Gevinson mentions Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” citing a paragraph where Didion suggests we should “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”
Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio.
Reading a coming-of-age novel at the time of coming of age is one thing. (I owe much, for instance, to J.D. Salinger.) But perhaps the real magic lies in reading or re-reading it later, when it serves to remind us about the people we used to be. The teenage years are probably among the first where we are really aware of the people we are, and, later, the people we once were. Perhaps childhood doesn’t matter so much, except as an entity to leave behind. We read those novels and then we remember what we whispered and what we screamed, and we remember what we felt, then, at that age when it meant so much to feel.
Image credit: buradori/Flickr