November 2010

Elizabeth Bachner



It’s been a hard few months, so I’m doing the things people do at these times. Friends treat me to spicy fruit salads with lemongrass and acai-pomegranate juice at the Vietnamese sandwich place, they take me to the Russian baths down near Wall Street, they get me tickets to the 92nd Street Y to see Lydia Davis read from her new translation of Madame Bovary. I ask myself complicated questions about chance and fate, and I give myself complicated wrong answers, about divinity and samsara and physics, about my frailty. I read Young Adult books.

In the beginning of Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover, a teenage girl in New Zealand, Laura, picks up a bottle of shampoo called Paris. There’s a picture on it, of a lovely girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, but the label is forced to tell the truth in tiny print: “Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.”

Just for a moment Laura had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find that she was not only marvelously beautiful but transported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu. Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the morning with chilly ears. These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another. You couldn’t really think your way into being another person with a different morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy.

A book can do that, though. The right book (or the wrong book?) can transport you from Paraparaumu to Paris, or from Paris to Paraparaumu. It can transform you into another person. At the very least, even the most ordinary book can change the morning you have ahead of you. So why am I choosing Young Adult books these days? Believe me, it’s not that I want to be twelve again.

The twelve-year-old me had different taste in fiction than I do. She loved nihilism and muscularity. Camus was her favorite, but she had a lot of patience for John Updike and John Irving and Elmore Leonard. Suburban Florida was her Paraparaumu. She clung to her books until her fingers turned white. If she showered one morning and woke up in my body, in my city, in my life, she would be really mad at me for complaining. She would be so excited by my apartment in the Village, where I can stay up as late as I want and not go to school the next morning. She would like my clothes. She would love being able to read whatever she wanted, watch whatever she wanted, order pizza at midnight and drink lots of coffee. I know she would think it’s terrible that I don’t wear lots of makeup, shop at Esprit, use mousse, and read Vogue. I bet, if she had a choice, that she would pick the guy I said No to today over the guy the adult me has been missing so much. But in general, she’d be grateful. She’d think I’d been doing a pretty good job. She’d feel like the shampoo worked.

There’s that line in Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory -- “Everything is as it should be. Nothing will ever change. Nobody will ever die.” Twelve-year-old me liked Nabokov as much as I do, or I like him as much as she did, but the moments of her childhood never really felt that peaceful. She felt more like Dolores Haze, before, during, after. It’s better now that I’m in charge, but still. There are rough months, times when I could use a little magic.

After that Lydia Davis/Flaubert reading, I was back in the cold world of Madame Bovary for a bit. And then I picked up Davis’s own novel, The End of the Story, and even though nobody offs themselves with arsenic or prussic acid, it was somehow a lot more depressing than the Flaubert. I read some French theory, and T.H. White’s book about falconry, and some cookbooks, but nothing gave me what I wanted until I started reading The Ultimate Teen Book Guide: More than 700 Great Books.

I don’t want to make a lot of wrong, sweeping statements about Young Adult versus Adult novels. I don’t know the details of publishing or marketing either kind of book. I assume that really great books fit happily into both categories. I know that many kids who read early and often become teens and then adults, bookwise, when we’re still preteen in other ways. In Young Adult books, even when characters are complicated and dark things happen, there’s usually some underlying possibility of rescue, of transformation or mercy. People are imprisoned, just like in adult books. People are betrayed. People die, sometimes from suicide. People get left, bullied, wounded, shamed. But in most of these books, there’s a young protagonist who has the potential to change himself and find power in the world, even after weathering hard times. Maybe this is because of the idea that tweens and teens are seen as not fully formed yet, still creating themselves, with huge lives unfolding in front of them. Maybe this is because many Young Adult books are written by grown-up authors who don’t want their tween and teen readers to lose interest because the book is so boring, or to lose hope and hang themselves in the garage. Sure, there’s something a tiny bit didactic and condescending about that, something to be said for authors (hello, Elfriede Jelinek) who brutalize the reader, with good reason. But during a rough month in Paraparaumu, it works. Or does it? I can’t tell for sure whether YA books are giving me a safe escape, or bringing me back into the dusty world of twelve-year-old me. They’re certainly providing time travel -- but hers, or mine?

The great thing about The Ultimate Teen Book Guide is that it recommends books the editors think teens will like, period. There are very adult Adult books, with dark sex and complex characters (my old favorite The Cement Garden made it in, recommended by William Sutcliffe), and there are books that would be fine for younger kids. There are trashy, light books -- there’s even a special feature on “pink lit” -- and heavy, hard books. It doesn’t try to define the genre or the age group. It’s just a book about why to read.

“When you find your own best books, which might be nothing like the best books for other readers,” writes David Almond in his introduction, “a kind of magic occurs. The language and story and your own imagination blend and react and fizz with life and possibility… Reading is a lifelong adventure... The wonderful book that you’re holding in your hands now is a kind of traveler’s guide.”

I read Margaret Mahy’s Alchemy, which has a complex and true-to-life mother-son relationship in it, and a romance where the boy is drawn to a girl whose beauty increases for him as he’s around her energy. I reread some Madeline L’Engle. I read Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Caroline Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things. In the Mackler book, which qualifies as “pink lit,” the fifteen-year-old protagonist -- named after Virginia Woolf -- has the scales fall from her eyes about how perfect her family is. She finds ways to stand up for herself, for her not-rail-skinny body. The day after I read it, I’m reading a list of banned books and am surprised, and sadly not surprised, to find it there. There’s no sex, but there’s a sweet scene that makes going to second base seem really fun and not shameful. Virginia is rewarded for her steps towards independence, even when they’re a bit rebellious. It’s empowering, and soothing. There are some nice quotations. John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” And Virginia Woolf: “I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it onto the hedge.” Maybe that Woolf quote isn’t so soothing or empowering, not in context. Maybe a hedge isn’t far enough away, if you really want to let something go.

I enjoy the Young Adult books, but not as much as I enjoy The Ultimate Teen Book Guide, which reminds me of all the different times I opened up a dead-weight pile of pages and it turned into a crazy dream or trip to a better city. It reminds me of reading so many of those books for the first time -- the ones that fell flat, the ones that fizzed into an explosion. It reminds me that there will be new books, new versions of myself with different mornings ahead of them, in as-yet-unimagined places. I’ll know them, I know them, the way the twelve-year-old me knew her future.

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” writes Nabokov in the opening lines of Speak, Memory. “Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)… (F)irst and last things often tend to have an adolescent note... Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much. I rebel against this state of affairs.”

One theme of The Ultimate Teen Book Guide, and most of the books inside it, and maybe books in general, is transformation. Books change us, and we change them. Susan Price talks about not getting Hamlet at first, thinking people pretended to like it just to seem intelligent, and then realizing she was reading it wrong, chopping the lines into nonsense. Once she started paying attention to the punctuation, it was a revelation. “How weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.” It perfectly articulated her teenage mood. “The drama, humor, and magnificent poetry had been there all along. I’d just been blind to them.” In recommending The Chosen, Janette Ralliston quotes Reuven’s father: “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given in life.”

Eventually, The Ultimate Teen Book Guide loops me back around to reading some adult novels. It reminds me why some of them were so good that first time I read them. It makes me expect some new book with thrill me, and heal me, and mutually love me, and make me safe. It reminds me that being full-grown doesn’t mean I have to be stolid, untransformable, bored, or dead. Beginning and ending things does not have to be teenage. Sometimes it does feel that way, though, in adult life -- that we’re trapped and embarrassing, like Emma Bovary, or the nameless protagonist of The End of the Story. That we’re getting Dear John letters tucked into the bottoms of baskets of apricots, written by rich men named Rodolphe who never loved us, who won’t even say goodbye in person. That we, ourselves, are unlikeable characters -- melodramatists, fantasists, narcissists, the hopeless. It’s never true, any more than any single story is ever true. When the story gets old like that, it’s time to hop in the shower. It’s time to find a new book, one that blends and reacts and fizzes with magic and possibility, in a great alchemical reaction with our own reading selves, at twelve, or at thirty, or at seventy.

I won’t give away what happens to Laura after she gets out of her shower, with unwashed hair, ready for her morning at school in New Zealand. I will say that she learns that you only get one changeover. You can never change back the other way, unlive a day or a month or a decade, unmeet someone, unfall in love, unread a book. Making a change is, according to a character called Winter, “Very hard, but not too hard. It changes you forever, but you are changing for ever anyway.” Is the change bad? asks Laura. “It can be, if people use it badly,” answers Winter. “But the same can be said of all human changes.”

And what about Paraparaumu? Quite suddenly, “Laura knew that… like a holograph, every piece of the world contained the whole of the world if you stood at the right angle to it.”

I can’t ever change back the other way, unlive a day or a month or a decade, unmeet someone, unfall in love, unread a book. But I can dump a pile of shampoo on my hair, and go out into today’s morning with cold, wet ears, and fly myself to Paris. I can order some crepes Suzette somewhere, or some other flaming dessert. I can crack open a new book and come out the other side. Everything will be as it should be.