Someday This Pain
Will Be Useful to You
(By Peter Cameron. FSG; 240 pp., $16)
Before I Die
(By Jenny Downham. David Fickling Books,
336 pp., $15.99)
There’s nothing quite like branding a book for determining its worth. Check out those hardcover prices. If novels in question were shelved in the “Adult” section of the bookstore, rather than ghettoized in “Young Adult,” the cost of each would be jacked up by a good 10 bucks. It’s like buying clothes in the Juniors department. Sometimes, in order to get the truly good deals, the moms have to wander on over to the teen section.
If I didn’t have a “YA” son, I’d never have bothered looking over new titles in YA fiction during the past holiday season. And I’d have completely missed out on two of the most satisfying reading experiences in recent memory. Though radically different from one another in subject matter, each story has an effect that I’m always in search of but that I tend to find mainly in books written during previous eras — the feeling that you madly adore the narrator, that he or she is your new best friend, and that you’re finally no longer alone in the world.
In “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” 18-year-old Manhattanite James Sveck has been accepted by Brown University but isn’t at all sure he even wants to go to college. What he really wants is to buy a nice house in a small town in Indiana. When he’s not working in his mother’s trendy art gallery, he’s on the Internet checking out real estate in the Midwest. The people in his life keep finding ways to ask James, “By the way, are you gay?” His father is a hyper-successful lawyer; his mother is fixated on her most recent ex-husband; his sister is having an affair with her German professor; visits to his therapist’s office are “like going to the dentist, if you went to a dentist in a public health clinic in the Port Authority Bus terminal.” James’ only true love is his maternal grandmother.
“Someday” is not a plot-driven book. Its central questions are: 1) Will James in fact go to college in the fall? and 2) When will James come out? What fuels the story is his tragicomic view of the world and his place in it. James Sveck is Holden Caulfield for the 21st century, only without the fey preciousness:
“Mother Teresa wanted to be the best saint, the top saint, so she did the most disgusting things she could do, and I know she helped people and relieved suffering and I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying I think she was as selfish and ambitious as everyone else. The problem with thinking this way is that if you want to avoid this kind of ambition and selfishness you should do absolutely nothing — do no harm, but do no good either. Do nothing.”
Across the Atlantic, in an unnamed town in England, 16-year-old Tessa, in “Before I Die,” suffers in a more literal way. She has only a few months to live. Fighting leukemia, she faces endless tests and hospital visits, drugs with the usual excruciating side effects, the people closest to her in denial. Tessa, perhaps the most resilient victim, ever, of the Grim Reaper, compiles a “To Do Before I Die” list. Number 1 on the list is: sex.
Released from the constraints of so-called normal teen life, Tessa’s experiences and relationships become as distilled as an icicle melting in the sun. Lest you be thinking, who in the world wants to read a book about a dying teenager, listen to Tessa’s voice: “The usual suspects are here — the hat gang in the corner plugged into their portable chemo and talking about vomiting; a boy clutching his mum’s hand, his fragile new hair at the same stage as mine; and a girl with no eyebrows pretending to read a book. She’s penciled fake eyebrows in above the line of her glasses. She sees me staring and smiles, but I’m not having any of that. It’s a rule of mine not to get involved with dying people. They’re bad news.”
Yet here we are, involved with a dying person. Bad news. “When I was a kid,” Tessa reflects, after her first bout with sex, “I used to ride on my dad’s shoulders. I was so small he had to hold my back to stop me tipping, and yet I was so high I could splash my hands through leaves. I could never tell Jake this. It wouldn’t make any difference to him. I don’t think words reach people. Maybe nothing does.”
Words especially don’t reach people if they’re shelved in the wrong section of the bookstore or the library. Neither of these two authors set out to write a teen novel. Neither, in fact, actually has. The marketing decision to pigeonhole books about teen characters as “YA” makes no more sense than it would to create a separate category of “OA” (Old Adult) for novels by Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. Just because they write about lecherous old geezers doesn’t mean only lecherous old geezers are going to read them.
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