I’ve been thinking a lot about historical fiction, because I’ve recently read two books set in 2003.
I said before (though I’m not sure if I explained it well) that the intentional dated-ness is one of the things that really worked for me in SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH: we know, if not “the end” to that story, more than the characters do. Walter Dean Myers doesn’t have to show us Birdie learning that there are no WMDs, because we know; it makes his belief more poignant.
(And actually, this makes me think that a very powerful story could be written that goes farther in this direction, and doesn’t have the characters experience the kind of disillusionment that Birdie does undergo in that story. This would really exploit the asymmetry of knowledge between the characters and the readers. Anyone have a good example of a story like this — doesn’t have to be about Iraq?)
More recently (by which I mean yesterday), I read Peter Cameron’s SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU. Emily and I have talked a few times about books set in New York, about which we’re bound to have strong opinions one way or the other; this one rang true to me. Partly that’s because, while it’s set in a far wealthier slice of New York than I usually intersect with (and an eminently parodiable one at that), it just happened to hit the details of my own haunts. This passage made me sit up and cheer:
I wouldn’t become part of the evil empire that is NYU if you paid me. (NYU has single-handedly ruined most of the Village, including the dog run in Washington Square: they built this huge building that casts its shadow over the park, so that areas of the dog run are perpetually in shade.)
I went to NYU, and hated it (great profs; lousy place), and they have ruined big chunks of my neighborhood, and they are an evil empire. Sing it, Cameron.
But besides my own personal joy at seeing my enmity printed in bestselling book form, what I think worked about Cameron’s portrayal of New York was its specificity. When he described the protagonist’s feelings about a specific intersection I’ve walked by hundreds of times (LaGuardia and Houston), I couldn’t remember the details he described from my own wanderings, and I lacked the same associations this character had, but I got it. Not just because the narration was describing the city, but because the way this character described the city made me understand who he was. His character was bound up in it being precisely downtown New York in 2003, and vice-versa. That’s why it felt like New York, not like name-dropping New York.
I can’t get behind this mode of storytelling — this retelling of our own recent past — unreservedly: I saw, for example, that David Levithan’s new book is set on and after 9/11, and I cringed. I’ve had enough of that, thank you.
But in general, I’m intrigued by setting YA books so distinctly in a time we’ve just been through. Compare it to, say, Sarah Dessen’s studied timelessness: her characters are barely digital (keep in mind, I haven’t read her two most recent). I feel like a lot of YA authors are living out their own adolescences in their books, or some warp of their adolescence with their lives now. But contemporary teenagers’ lives aren’t necessarily the intersection of universal teenage angst plus, say, cell phones the way a thirty-something author might use them.* Like, how does it change teenage dating that everyone has a cell? I was extraordinarily privileged to have my own phone line in high school, and let me tell you, my high school dating life was different because of it.
My point is, there’s something else being portrayed in books like Dessen’s, that’s sold like it’s some universal adolescence, but it isn’t (and I’m sorry to always use Dessen as my punching bag, because I love her books, but they are also to me the best representatives of a category of book I can’t quite wrap my head around, or understand why I enjoy so deeply). The “timelessness” is really an experience that never quite existed for anyone: it’s, perhaps, what teenagers living in the ’80s would’ve been like in an altered reality that made pop culture more like today’s (or more cynically — especially since many of the lead characters and love interests in these books are more emotionally mature than half the adults I know — it’s what Gen X women, not just the YA authors but the growing number of adult women YA readers like me, project backwards to reimagine adolescence). And I wonder if the girls who are attracted to Dessen’s books are exactly the girls who are most inclined to try to fit their lives into some idea of what universal girlhood looks like, if that’s part of their appeal.
I’m not getting anywhere thinking more about this… opinions?
* And because I am, to my great surprise, an aspiring demographer, I will tell you that this phenomenon — where the experience of being a particular age at a particular time is something much more specific than just the effects of the age (universalized to any time) plus the effects of the time (for people of any age) — is called a cohort effect. UnderageReading: puzzle over book, name-drop tv show from fifteen years hence, snark, define jargon, call it a day.