A pair of trim new novels confirm what you may have suspected all along: Girls focus on relationships; boys are obsessed with sex.
First, let’s talk about those horny guys. That revelation about young men comes from Daniel Handler, better known to millions of children as Lemony Snicket, his pen name for a darkly witty collection of books called “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Last month, Handler ran an ad — I mean, an essay — in the New York Times claiming that the way to encourage teenage boys to read is to give them books with lots of sex. Among the titles he devoured as a teen was Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which may tell us all we need to know about the usefulness of Handler’s advice for teachers and parents of reluctant readers.
But, as promised, he has now supplied us with “All the Dirty Parts,” a novel engineered to send young men into orgiastic fits of literary arousal. As a former English teacher, I hope he succeeds, but I doubt he will. Filth simply isn’t the precious commodity it used to be. In the 1970s, boys pursued pornographic material in an economy of erotic scarcity. My friend Jamie Dickie kept a moldy copy of Penthouse Forum in a stump in the woods. That situation involved complications that would strike today’s teenage boys as akin to making ketchup from scratch every time they wanted fries.
Now that the entire catalogue of pornography is accessible on every cellphone and laptop, Handler’s novel isn’t nearly filthy enough. And — major buzzkill — it’s an ironically pious tale.
The narrator is a high school stud named Cole who has a racy reputation. “You don’t treat them like people,” a sophomore girl tells him. “You don’t care that people think it’s sleazy.” But Cole rejects that characterization. “I’m on an adventure,” he explains. “You don’t see a movie and say, well now I’ve seen a movie. You see different ones. You try them and keep trying.” Besides, we have to understand that everything arouses Cole: “If you rumple my hair and leave your hand for a minute on my neck. If you sit and put one of your legs up on something even if you’re in jeans. If you lick something off your finger.” For poor Cole, the world, along with the infinite resources of the Internet, is just a series of fortunate events.
All his adventures — straight, gay and solitary — are conveyed in the novel’s spindly structure, not so much impressionistic as elliptical. With most of the narrative flesh stripped away, we’re left with just snippets and moments, dialogue and thought freely mixed and undifferentiated. (News you can use: The dirtiest parts of “All the Dirty Parts” can be found on pages 12, 22, 58, 75 and 95.) Still, despite the novel’s laconic form, it’s clear that Cole is moving from website to website, girl to girl, and experimenting with a closeted buddy when no one else is available. Along the edges, we catch glimpses of parents, teachers, homework and sports — the marginalia of a life focused on one organ.
That his Lotharion ways eventually bring him low is not so surprising — after all, even creeps can get their hearts broken. But what’s strange is that Cole enjoys so little pleasure along the way. Where’s the thrill of sexual passion? The earth-moving excitement? The mind-blowing arousal? For some reason, despite all the sexual mechanics, “All the Dirty Parts” includes none of the good parts. Handler says he hates all the finger-
wagging moralism in most YA lit, but if you’re a certain kind of uptight parent, this may be just the depressing and joyless novel you want your horny son to read. Good luck with that.
On the distaff side, Claire Messud gives us “The Burning Girl,” a kind of teen companion to “The Woman Upstairs,” her 2013 masterpiece about adult female friendship. While Handler’s novel is trimmed to steamy scraps, Messud’s is flush with contemplation about the effects of time and class on young people’s lives.
Her narrator is a girl named Julia who’s been best friends with Cassie since the beginning. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her,” Julia explains in the foreboding opening pages. “Both only children, we said that the other was the sister we never had.” For years, the differences between their circumstances are invisible to them both, or so Julia imagines. It doesn’t matter that she has a mother and a father, who make a nice living, while Cassie’s mother is a widow struggling by on a hospice nurse’s salary.
But as they get older, such conditions do matter, a lot. Julia says, “I was treated as a kid with a bright future and Cassie, well, she wasn’t necessarily not going to have one, but her path would be different than mine.”
This is the sobering story of a girl becoming aware of those divergent paths and the degree to which parents, culture and, yes, money can at least partially inoculate a young woman from the snares of adulthood. “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” Julia says. “You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.” As Julia rises higher into her own bright future, she barely registers her friend veering away. Until it’s too late.
If you remember the fevered fury of “The Woman Upstairs,” you’ll be surprised by the muted, reflective voice of “The Burning Girl.” Julia views her adolescence through a scrim of remorse. It’s also a shock to learn that she’s supposedly a junior in high school; she sounds 35. The plot, despite its thriller gloss, seems captured in amber, cloudy and still. Julia keeps turning over events, trying to comprehend the end of her “defining friendship,” the failure of her own compassion.
“Everybody wanted a story,” Julia says, “a story with an arc, with motives and a climax and a resolution.” If “The Burning Girl” demonstrates anything, it’s that the sorrows of adolescence don’t fit that familiar archetype.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
On Sept. 2, Claire Messud will be at the National Book Festival in the Washington Convention Center.
P.S. Claire Messud’s “The Burning Girl” reminded me of Mark Slouka’s sad and gorgeous novel “Brewster.”
By Daniel Handler
Bloomsbury. 134 pp. $22
By Claire Messud
W.W. Norton. 247 pp. $25.95