By Colin Herd.
Grow Up, Ben Brooks, Canongate, 2011
Ben Brooks is a writer who genuinely excites me. His previous books Fences (Fugue State Press, 2009), The Kasahara School of Nihilism (Fugue State Press 2010) and An Island of Fifty (Mud Luscious Press, 2010) blew me away with their starkness, minimalism and the way he handles form: sort of violent, loving and experimental all at once, as though his fiction was into role-play, on a leash, faux-barking, pretending to be poetry.
Brooks’ latest novel, Grow Up, has just been published by Canongate and it’s a completely different sort of novel. It has in abundance the characteristics of a ‘coming of age’ novel or a bildungsroman. It’s heavily character-driven, told through the first person narration of Jasper Wolf. Jasper is a 17 year old aspiring novelist and A-level student who divides his time drinking, doing drugs, having sex, comforting his self-harming best friend Tenaya, speculating that his stepfather is a murderer, plotting what he calls “The Georgia Plan” (an attempt to seduce a crush at an end of exams party) and trying to make a fool of his therapist by telling her he’s (a) a white supremacist, and (b) in a homosexual relationship with someone called Sebastian. He’s egotistical, indulgent, self-obsessed and at times kind of unbearably cruel, insensitive and thoughtless. He’s also sometimes caring, considerate, loving, and sensitive, intelligent and sweet.
The voice of Jasper (deadpan, intelligent, bored, a writer) owes something to the (kind of emptied out, beaten-up or diluted by late consumer capitalism) narrative voices in ‘K-Mart Realist’ novels and newer interpretations of that style by writers like Tao Lin and Zachary German, but it lacks something of the spareness, the close-to-the-knuckle depressiveness of their characters. In comparison to the weird, lonely desperation in Lin and German’s books, Jasper is arrogant, spoilt, conceited, over-privileged and very English; in its crusty, cocky humour, I was reminded most of Amis’ The Rachel Papers. I don’t really mean any of these adjectives as criticism; I mean, I think it’s actually a remarkably honest portrait of adolescence, it’s just a queasy read in some places, as I guess you’d expect:
The café Ping drives us to is a plastic, kitcheny type of place, with stained mauve tabletops and badly laminated menus. The waitresses are all foreign. They talk in hurried landslides of hard letters. It is sexy when pretty girls speak ugly languages.
‘I’ll have the Earlybird Breakfast, please,’ I say to the waitress.
‘Uh, the Earlybird Breakfast?’
I hook my lips around the words as though I’m giving head.
‘Eh? I no undersan’.’
I flap my arms like wings and then gesture towards my mouth. She smiles. Jonah and Tenaya laugh. In the end I point it out on the menu.
It’s good I guess that Brooks doesn’t shy away from the casual offensiveness of well-off and smart-arse teenagers, but it does get a bit cloying after a while. Here’s how Jasper answers a question in a Facebook questionnaire:
3. When’s the last time you wanted to punch someone in their face?
this is gay
And here’s how he coaches himself one evening at a party:
I promise myself I will masturbate if no other girls turn up. This will ensure that I do not plump (sorry) for a fat girl who I will later regret.
I found the smugness of all this utterly believable but difficult to stomach.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the novel are in the way it riffs on and ramps up generic conventions. It wears its subplots and red-herrings on its sleeve. Narrative devices are left as naked as the characters are at their post-exams party, running around intoxicated in a field of cows. There’s the subplot of the supposedly murderous step-father which is lifted (a) from Freud, (b) from the 1987 movie The Stepfather (or its 2009 remake) (c) from Hamlet etc etc. Then there’s the female best friend, who turns out to be the ideal romantic partner for the lead, which is lifted from countless teen TV shows. Meanwhile there’s an ironic and emptied-out assertion that ‘I am Holden Caulfield, only less reckless, and more attractive.’ All of these youth culture clichés and conventions are bricolaged together smartly. It’s a dizzying, numbing mix, like watching the TV channel Trouble for a few hours.
The most chilling part of the book is the culmination of “The Georgia Plan”, a shocking (because brushed off so nonchalantly by Jasper and others) rape scene. Sneaked in between a lot of sex, drugs, kisses, innocent naked outdoor games and drunkenness, this scene is in fact remarkably frightening and effective. All the more so because Jasper doesn’t draw attention to it, except in a tongue-in-cheek and ironic sense, saying that his novel has what he wanted it to: “a sort-of rape scene (sorry again, Georgia).”
The more I come to think about it, the more I come around to Grow Up. I spent much of the reading experience frustrating and exasperating at the novel’s indulgence, but given the book’s title – and the kind of ghoulish fancy dress empty-headed clown skull on the cover – I guess that’s sort of the point. But I can’t get over the privilege and thoughtlessness that underpin the novel. I couldn’t find the book itself likeable at all. From this point of view, it’s the most challenging of Brooks’ books to date, but give me the others any day of the week.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 20th, 2011.