10 February 2011

Wallaceblogging: Teenagers. They Think They Know Everything

To make a massive understatement, the field of YA literature was not in the '90s what it is today. As I recall the landscape it was populated with mostly series types -- your SWEET VALLEY UNIVERSITYs and 99 FEAR STREETs. I can't remember one particular tipping point at which I switched from those books to the general fiction/literature section of the bookstore, which is probably for the best because this isn't really about my reading history. The point I wanted to make was, adults' books furnished a glass wall to adulthood to which I could press my face and puzzle.

At some point the tide shifted and I went from a kid reading about grown-ups to a grown-up reading about kids. I never set out to do this, and it's still not a sizable portion of my reading budget but books like THE INSTRUCTIONS and THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY and, yes, INFINITE JEST sneak in. Certainly I've read others, that give me the opposite of the feeling I had when I was younger -- that I'm looking back and thinking "No, it was never like that" -- but those three, I found a lot of truth in despite my advanced (harrumph) age.

(On that score, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, which is actually a YA book, was exactly in the middle -- 50 percent "I can completely relate and that is authentic to high school as I know/remembered it," and 50 percent "That is not it at all." NICK AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST would probably be 52/48. And so on.)

It seems like a slight to point out that one thing INFINITE JEST does extremely well with its teenagers is hide their teenagerness from us; I would never describe it as "a high school book," in part because there's so much else going on. The contents of the boarding school do not fully remain in the boarding school, though the fact that many of the students are unaware of the outside world is typical. (Was it Hal who "discovered" the presence of the halfway house? How eye-rollingly true that is, that as much as you can try to take students out into The Community, that they see as little as they want to see. Not excluding myself from that designation.)

We only meet one high school student in Wallace's debut THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, and precocious Lenore Beadsman is kind of an outlier in the situation she's in. What I think separates DFW's treatment of the Enfield Tennis Academy students is that he rarely if ever does what I just did, treat them as a homogeneous group. He takes them seriously, individually. Either he knows or he remembered how infuriating adolescents find that kind of treatment, or else he just applied his maximalist jeweler's-loup-eye to them as equally as every other minor character in the book. But how did he remember? That's a question, among many, that I would have liked to ask and now won't.

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