Monday, January 22, 2007

BOOKS: Kids These Days. Also, Kids Those Days.

Despite his respectable vocabulary, young Master Sam’s penchant for one-word sentences, combined with his obsession with all things vehicular, means that our conversations tend to be limited in range. Here’s a typical mother-son exchange you might overhear if you followed us on one of our daily walks:
"That's right, it's a car."
Yup, it's a blue car."
Uh-huh, that's a van."
You're right, it's a white van."
I see that. It's another van."
I know, it's another white van."
That's right. Two white vans."
And so on. If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu right now, it’s probably because this conversation is hearkening you back to the glory days of the Algonquin Round Table.

I always knew that eventually there would be some generational divide in how Sam and I communicate, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I was thinking about this when I was midway through my third novel of the year.

Girl, 20
by Kingsley Amis (#3)
Say you’re in your early twenties, and your dad is a bigshot author. And then say your dad writes a novel all about how the youth of today are a bunch of obnoxious, disaffected, self-serving, two-dimensional, totally unlikeable nihilists. Older folks aren’t much better, what with their own obsession with youth and their hypocrisy and all, but at least they’re presented as having real souls and feelings and their own brand of charm.

How exactly do you take that?

You could whine and kvetch. "Daaa-aaad. That’s so not true! We totally care about stuff… such as… well… STUFF, and stuff."

You could give him the cold shoulder and refuse to make eye contact with him when he hands you your annual tuition cheque.

Or you could rebut with your own novel, one that doesn’t try to paint exactly a rosy picture of young people, but instead presents a protagonist who is obnoxious, disaffected, and self-serving, but also strangely likeable and charming, and possessing of at least three dimensions.

I am talking, first, about Kingsley Amis’s 1972 novel Girl, 20, and, second, about his son Martin Amis’s 1974 novel (his debut at age 25) The Rachel Papers, which I re-read last year and which was very much on my mind as I recently read Girl, 20.

Understand me. I liked Girl, 20 a lot, I really did. It’s caustically funny, and the narrative is extremely finely executed. The narrator is Douglas Yandell, a pompous 33-year-old (ages are important in this book) music writer, but the novel’s main character is Sir Roy Vandervane, a famed fifty-something composer whose obsession with youth leads him into relationships with younger and younger women. His latest female companion is Sylvia, a seventeen-year-old who is so egregiously horrible that, while funny, makes you wonder if Amis Sr. is really trying to convince us that people like this actually exist. Douglas is a sort of skewed moral compass through whose eyes we witness Sir Roy’s debauchery. The cast of characters also includes Penny, Sir Roy’s 21-year-old daughter, whose vast ennui may attract Douglas, but which makes any reader of sense want to give her a solid face slap. And so on.

While none of the characters in Girl, 20 are presented as exactly being the apex of goodness and solidity, the older folks are at least afforded glimmers of sympathy. Contrast this to The Rachel Papers, in which, again, none of the characters, young or old, are bastions of niceness, but at least each gets his or her moment of sympathy.

Now, obviously, this entire back-and-forth debate between father and son about the callowness of youth, and the relationship of this callowness with that of youth's elders, could be all in my head. (There's a lot of stuff in there. Much of it is specious.) But it makes you think, doesn't it?

When this theory first occurred to me -- that Amis the Elder wrote his novel, which pissed off Amis the Younger so much that it pushed him to write his first novel in response -- my next act was to wonder about the first meeting between father and son after that. Two words: AWK-WARD! But perhaps not. When you think about it, it's kind of cool, isn't it? That a man would write a story, and that his son would write a story back? I can imagine it as a fond (if acerbic) dialogue, an extension of an affectionately antagonistic lifelong relationship.

Did I just write that? Man, parenthood is making me soft.

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