Growing Up

Another synchronicity. I came across a recent National Geographic piece on the “teenage brain” just as I was reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant. The convergence of article and novel—catalyzed by the fact that I have a seventeen and thirteen year old in the house—got me to thinking about adolescence.

I’m a college teacher and a few years ago I was a regular chaperone on January trips to Beech Mountain with the skiing class. Along with three or four days of free skiing I would drive a van. I remember very clearly on one of those long Sunday drives home an epiphany. I tuned in to the chatter from the back and noted that its theme was the future: plans for the weekend, the spring, the summer, internships, travel abroad, graduate school, one’s twenties, thirties. A simmering stew of exuberant potential. And there I had been, combing through past eras in my own behind-the-wheel reveries. It was the moment I officially realized I was middle-aged—a distasteful pang. Everything about their lives was yet to be. An accumulating snowdrift of mine had already been.

The National Geographic article, by David Dobbs, summarizes recent research on the brains of this interim class of people. A picture emerges of adolescents growing into their newly sophisticated mental organs like someone with a brand-new Maserati he thinks he does, but does not, know how to drive yet. Adolescents are drawn to novelty, risk-taking, and their peers, and are not particularly encumbered by caution. The neural branchwork of their brains is still forming—these charming pre-adults have yet to fully invent their own realities. In time, their brains will work faster and more efficiently, but at the expense of flexibility. And at their age they need the flexibility: they are on the threshold of one of life’s most difficult transitions—moving out of the nest and into that real world they’ve heard so much about, where they will need all the skill, luck, and chutzpah they can muster. Adolescent harebrainedness, if it doesn’t kill you, gives you an adaptive edge. By expanding your contacts, your interactions, your predicaments—through all forays from your comfort zone—you are enlarging your possibilities. Your neural artistry has a bigger canvas; your reality is greater. I can buy that. At the very least it helps me answer the question, applicable in multiple instances in my young life: How could I possibly have been that stupid?

I used to be annoyed by sportscasters referring to some player as a “future Hall of Famer.” Same with people who are constantly announcing they can’t wait till Friday, or summer, or their senior year, or whatever. It seemed a robbery of the present moment—which is all there is, right? Wrong. “Do” keeps inseparable company with “have done” and is outweighed by it exponentially. The former changes to the latter with the same sure finality that “is” becomes “was” with a person’s last breath. Immediately and universally. Everything we do, we instantly have done, and not only must we endure that Keatsian melancholy, we must endure the weight of anticipating having done it. We spend a lot of time imagining where everything comes from, but less on where it’s all going: into a state where all the primary experience has been realized and there will be nothing left but a vast shadowy tribute universe peopled by universe reenactors.

Lately my thirteen-year-old daughter has been trying to get me to watch all the Harry Potter movies with her. I’ve held out – shrinking more from the prospect of the time-investment than the subject matter. Let me say here that I harbor no snobbery toward this material. What Ms. Rowling has done is extraordinary, and I’m sure if I were thirteen I would have inhaled the books and movies as greedily as my daughter. You have only to look at the lines of teenagers to know Rowling is a good storyteller doing what good storytellers do: giving her readers what they want. And what they want is an alternate reality. This is true for readers up and down the spectrum. As Nabokov said, “Great novels are great fairy tales.” I use the word “storyteller,” not “fiction writer”—for storytelling has passed largely into the world of film, leaving fiction writers to do a number of other things, for select audiences, who, as a rule, don’t find themselves in lines. Of course I’ll make my best effort to be thirteen and watch the movies with my daughter; the bonding time with her is most important. I am touched by her painful longing for another reality, as she comes to me with tears in her eyes wanting to have, to keep that world—because this one just ain’t cutting it. If only all writers could leave their readers in such a state. I am impotent to remedy her humanity. We all have this desire; for adolescents it is a need.

Here’s the worst thing about life: you get used to it. The older you get, the more numb it gets. It is no longer easy to change your mental architecture. You’re stuck with yourself. Yeats put it rather well: “Who could have foretold that the heart grows old?” And Coleridge wrote a famous ode lamenting maturity, that of things that once moved him he can only say: “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!” And science has the charming concept of entropy. Alas! No wonder the idea of rebirth or enlightenment informs all religions. It’s hard to accept that after all the potential, all the promise, all the hope, we simply wind down to prisoners of our memories, with no chance for parole.

Maybe for a writer, or anybody, this is good. To end up on a promontory, like the gods, with a view of the whole landscape, able to see all the pieces, their connections, picking and choosing which era to visit like someone strolling through a rich bazaar, remembering, but no longer feeling the emotions, all primary experience having been digested by the universe and excreted as a participle. They call this wisdom.

It’s only natural to resist it. God save us from the wheelruts of our own brains!

Which brings me to Palahniuk and Rant. The first thing to observe about this book is that it is ingenious and great fun to read. Palahniuk has performed a number of writerly tasks very well: created vivid characters, particularly the main one, devised an inventive use of voice to propel the story, engineered a gyre-like narrative style that allows the story to accrue something more with each pass, like a cotton candy machine, the film City of God, The Sound and the Fury, and many another clever novel, holding the reader in a process of unfolding discovery. And he completely reimagines the idea of eternal life. The second is that it is not only the attempt of a middle-aged man to recreate the adolescent spirit—it is about recreating the adolescent spirit. Shock and outrage and fabricated mayhem are the tools—and they do provide the obligatory buzz. You’re in Chuck’s world, baby. But he’s right. If it takes snakebites and rabies and car-crashing to imitate the sensation of potential, so be it. Or just yelling at the top of our lungs. We’re all from Middleton. We’re all Nighttimers. Books like Rant are a scream.

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Illustration by Nicholas P. Rougier via Wikimedia Commons, used under a GNU General Public License.
John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!