Now that I’ve been convinced to read Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale this summer (see comments in my previous post–I have some persuasive blog readers!), I’m beginning to wonder: to what other gaps in my reading should I admit? Before I know it, I’ll have an assignment from myself to read the collected works of Anthony Trollope. I’m kidding…I hope.
Earlier this week, I mentioned my feelings on Margaret Atwood’s understanding of children. As I read on toward the end of Oryx and Crake, I’m no less impressed by Atwood’s handling of teenagers. As Jimmy grows into a young adult, he faces ever stranger family dynamics, and must handle abandonment and what I would argue amounts to neglect from his remaining parent. He turns, as one would expect, a bit surly. He brushes off adults’ superficial attempts at connection. He moves in an orbit unchanged by the gravity of the adult world around him.
But then Atwood does something brave. She doesn’t gloss past Jimmy’s teen years with the “gee, that was an uncomfortable age” gesture a lesser writer might take. We all know books that act as though all teenagers do is mope and brood, and I imagine we all skim those texts! Instead, it’s Jimmy she focuses on. Jimmy in his ugliness (and he has ugliness to spare) and Jimmy in his potential. Jimmy in his hurt and in his attempts to heal.
I find it amazingly refreshing to see an adult writer dig back into an age all adults have traversed but few want to talk about. Just as parents think their teenagers are know-it-alls, I imagine teenagers are tired of their parents’ being know-it-alls about them. As I said before, discovering what it is to be a human is a process. If we elide the human experience between childhood and adulthood, or make and ironical wink-and-nudge of it, we miss much of what’s formative about our younger years.
And just as I argued before that young children have a great deal more of the feral in them than parents readily admit, I’d argue that teenagers have a lot more good in them than their parents feel they do. Sure, brooding is a part of teenaged life, but it’s certainly not the whole. There’s excitement, infatuation, hope, and enthusiasm. What seems clear to me is that teenagers aren’t getting joy out of the idea that one one understands them; I think it’s frequently the adults who get some kind of validation from thinking as such. Kids in time of change are basically tossing cobwebs, hoping the filaments catch and anchor on some kind of sticky surface that will hold them for a moment. Some adults tend to be unsticky indeed.