I’ve recently finished reading one of those novels of adolescence. A pretty good one, too.
Reading it set me to thinking about the strategies that we employ to view our own past, and the way we turn the past into narrative.
It’s a given in this type of fiction that the narrator is passive. Experience is something that just happens to him. He isn’t living his life, he’s observing it, and from a vantage point of twenty or more years in the future. He’s not shagging flies in the outfield; he’s sitting on the bench, taking notes, and generating metaphors for use at some point in the future.
I would like to submit out that this kind of child exists only in fiction. Real-life children, even if they’re smart and bookish, are much more demanding of their environment than children in memoir-fiction. My memories of my own childhood are of an observant, quiet, mannerly, and bookish child— exactly the sort of boy we find in a novel of adolescence. But I was startled a while ago to find that none of my friends remembers that kid at all— they remember a Walter who was loud, active, commanding, even bossy. Though I remember myself as a quiet observer of my own experience, in fact I was doing my best to take charge of my life, and I guess everyone else’s, too. (I think I kept trying to fit my friends into the narratives I was generating in my head.)
I remember myself as being Amory Blaine, but apparently I more closely resembled Huckleberry Finn.
So I think I can confidently state that the passive literary child who observes his life without actually participating in it is a fictional convention without foundation in real life. It’s an example of a false voice. At best you can say that the narrator is looking back on his youth and remembering it wrong, but that isn’t an authorial strategy I’d recommend, or one that any writer is likely to cop to.
The voice found in bildungsroman isn’t that of the child, but the adult trying to recapture the salient points of his youth and work out exactly how he ended up where he’s at now. And where he’s at now is always a place both rueful and sad, otherwise he wouldn’t have to revisit his past in the first place. He’d have more grown-up things to do.
It’s odd, then, that I often find that the grown-up parts of these books tend to have a false ring to them. The past is distant, and that distance lends it a false authority. We choose what to remember, and we choose certain memories because they fit into a convenient pattern. The present is more uncertain, and when the narrative shifts into the present, the focus widens to include things that are inconvenient and unsettled. The narrative leaps from the past and settles into the present with a tinny clang.
Parents tend to disappear in these narratives (unless of course they’re inescapable and awful, and the whole point is to break free of them). The conflicts with peers, the formation of friendships, the stirrings of adolescence, and the betrayals of friends and lovers are much more conveniently portrayed if the narrator is somehow free of parental authority and wisdom. A parent who actually turns up at a convenient moment to give good advice would spoil everyone’s fun. A parent who’s in jail, or too depressed to leave the couch, or off committing adultery with an unsuitable partner, is much better fodder for fiction..
A convenient way to get rid of parents altogether is to set the action in a prep school. I would like to suggest that this is a bad idea. Writers who have themselves been to prep schools often find it irresistible to set fiction there, and nine times out of ten this is flat wrong. Prep schools are boring. They are all the same. They have been done. The average American public school, sitting in the middle of an entire, whole community, is much more interesting. If you’ve been to a prep school, allow me to counsel you to resist writing about it, unless by chance you’ve been to Hogwarts.
I think we tend to forget how loony a time childhood and adolescence actually are, and how even perfectly functional young people live detached from adult reality. I recall one writer describing his eleven-year-old as “an alien with a very thorough knowledge of popular culture.” I have yet to encounter a fictional young person who was as weird as I was at the age of, say, twelve, and though perhaps I’m an extreme case, I think the point is an important one.
I look forward to reading a book that captures childhood as a science fiction writer might capture a distant world.
Go forth and write it, reader. I have no inclination to do it myself.