If “The Catcher in the Rye” were written today, the publishing insider’s joke goes, it would be categorized as a young adult novel. The YA market — along with that of its publishing twin, “New Adult” — is burgeoning. To officially qualify as YA, a book only needs a kid narrating and some hardship to overcome: bullying, gender confusion, maybe a vampire loose in the neighborhood.
Mona Simpson’s captivating sixth novel, “Casebook,” does have a child as its focus, but it is most decidedly adult fiction in its approach. As in previous works, Simpson’s aim is to lyrically capture the time between childhood and adulthood, as fleeting and delicate as the golden-hour light that filmmakers chase. She also mounts a challenge to the way contemporary parents coddle their children — and how quickly parents’ goals for their children degrade in the face of parental unhappiness.
The hero of “Casebook,” Miles is only 9 when he begins his career as a spy. Miles may be chubby, but he can still sidle under his parents’ bed to install a walkie-talkie, so he has eavesdropped on his parents’ plans to separate before they announce their intentions.
They’re hardly the first couple in Santa Monica, Calif., to split up. In fact, Miles’s best friend, Hector, has divorced parents of his own. But that doesn’t keep the precocious boys from feeling befuddled and betrayed by their new domestic arrangements. When Miles’s mother, Irene, a mathematician, embarks on a long-distance romance with Eli, a charming, enigmatic divorcee, Miles and Hector ratchet up their domestic espionage.
At first limiting themselves to crude wiretaps and drawer-ransacking, the enterprising boys eventually hire a private investigator. What they discover about Eli shocks them and leaves them unsure what to do with their knowledge. Their plan for getting even with Eli involves some clever hijinks with rescued animals — unwanted cats and dogs that, like the boys themselves, find themselves the blameless victims of changing family circumstances.
Simpson has been drawn to child narrators since her first novel, “Anywhere But Here.” In that novel, too, a complicated, charismatic mother is seen through her child’s eyes. In many ways, “Casebook” could serve as a contemporary retelling of “What Maisie Knew,” Henry James’s novel about how a divorce changes another bright child’s consciousness. James was particularly interested in the way that a naive narrator becomes a vehicle for “shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension.”
So Miles does well at parsing out the changes in socioeconomic status that the divorce wreaks, as well as the position of his moneyed, but not that moneyed, California family: progressive private school, no TV on school nights, no junk food. But these rules begin to unravel after the divorce, with his mother’s attention diverted by passion and his lawyer-father, inattentive in the best of circumstances, trying to buy him and his twin sisters off with presents. He sees through his parents’ attempts to keep the kids’ lives stable when the adults are barely stable themselves. “All of a sudden, it seemed our family had been lying. We’d been trying to be this great divorced family when really our lives, like the lives of any kids who were the products of failure, were coming out worse. Like being illegitimate. Or adopted.”
Adopting a child’s point of view is a difficult literary challenge. It’s easy to get it wrong. A child can seem overly cutesy and winsome or, on the other extreme, unconvincingly worldly and articulate. One strategy to avoid these missteps is to have the narrator be older and wiser when he tells the tale. This is the route that Jane Hamilton took in “Disobedience” (2000), a novel that also concerns a teenage boy’s obsession with his mother’s love life and some cyberspying. But Simpson wants to show us Miles maturing in front of our eyes, yodeling between mystification and sharp insight — sometimes within the same scene.
She shows his rocky growth from fourth grade, when he occasionally utters a line such as “My stomach grew fur inside it,” to married adult, the author of a successful autobiographical comic book who can nail the atmosphere at a fancy restaurant: “The air felt thin, prosperous, with a stable, old sacred-day light.” She also lets him deliver an excellent argument for what domestic fiction can teach us when he declares, “The Cottonwoods curriculum dwelled on the massacres of the Native Americans and devoted disproportionate units to the Holocaust. We’d read Anne Frank’s diary and both volumes of Maus. But until yesterday, I didn’t really believe that a person I knew could be evil.”
As in past works, Simpson knows her California terrain intimately and nails its denizens’ pretensions with sly humor. But the real subject here is a boy’s loss of innocence. As Miles says about the death of his illusions, “Our life didn’t feel as pure as it had been last year at this time . . . and almost nothing felt as right as at Little League when you were nine and the ball landed hard in your mitt.”
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel was “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.
By Mona Simpson
Knopf. 318 pp. $25.95