Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Coming of Edge Novel

For the longest time, you were attracted to coming-of-age novels.  Many of these novels seemed unstructured, threw young persons into some sort of dramatic crucible from which these young persons were able to effect a cure or solution. 

You believed you had the necessary qualifications.  You were young, unstructured, eager to roll up your sleeves and get at the work of effecting a solution.  If there were no inherent problem or difficulty, you would have been more than happy to cause one, which you would then solve.

Many of these coming-of-age novels were called picaresque, which was one of the earliest Spanish words you learned that had nothing to do with profanity.  A picaro is a rogue, which you were not but wished to be one.  

Many boys of your then age, which is the age before girls play a more significant role, long to be a rogue for the sheer imagined pleasure of it, after which, you would come to a greater plateau of senses by renouncing your roguish behavior.  You'd read Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons at least once by then and even at that age were able to see that George Minnifer Amberson was a quite negative specimen of a comer of age.  

Boys of your then age were more likely to be thought of as a rascal, which still has a nice sound to it and at the time was more within your grasp.  Rascals are more likely to sneak out at night, as you did, wearing a black oil skin rain coat and one of your father's Fedoras, pretending to be variously The Green Hornet, Bat Masterson of Wyatt Earp fame, or your own invention, Moe, the Magician.  

You were these individuals as the mood struck you, leaving letters in personal mailboxes, warning persons of your approximate age that their behavior was totally unacceptable.  

As you write this, you call one note written to a girl named Eleanore, in which you complained about the way her laughter at Saturday movie matinees was irritating and inappropriate.  You also threatened Miller's Drugs at Sixth and Fairfax with a boycott if they did not lower their ice cream prices. 

At the conclusion of bookish coming-of-age adventures, the young persons were generally thought to have arrived at some greater status point.  You were at first more interested in becoming the lobster in the pot, the young person in the crucible, the discoverer of the hidden treasure or secret map or solution.  But then experiences, disappointments, and continued reading led you to a return to rascality that has been your companion ever since.

Many of your favorite stories seem to you as active satires and ironic send-ups of coming-of-age, by which is often meant buying into a system that leaches the mischief and rascality out of the young person.  

Your favorite coming-of-age stories are the individual sequences in Twain's consistent take-downs in Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, in both of which he has at convention, propriety, and growing up by making delicious sport of these plateaus, offering you with each rereading an awareness of how likely it is that you are still, at your age, a naif, still struggling to be a reliable narrator and reader, but still missing clues.

Only last year, when you were preparing a lecture on memoir and you turned to Twain's Life on the Mississippi for what you considered some of the most splendid prose and evocation, did you realize the passage you were after could well have been a great humbug, based on Twain's own confessed tactic of distracting readers with figures and potential facts that were neither accurate not substantiated.

At times when your evening walk begins later than you'd planned and you are out on the streets toward the relative quiet and stillness of midnight, you hear the occasional chatter of a nest of crickets and if you listen closely enough, the mischievousness of coming-of-age stories, sending you little darts of reminders, causing you to think of Humphrey Clinker and Tom Jones, and even the poignant yearning of Holden Caulfield.  

These transport you to what you like to think of as the reverse coming-of-age stories, the anti-Horatio Alger adventures, the pointed, wry, probing of Flaubert and Sentimental Journey, and Sterne's Tristram Shandy.  But most of all, you think about and began to laugh at the rascally possibilities of one of the most mischievous coming-of-age novels of all, Gregor Samsa, Franz Kafka's protagonist in the stunning Yiddish Theater venture of The Metamorphosis, where, perhaps to get back at his father, Samsa turns into a large beetle.  Thus the coming-of-edge novel, your home all these  years.

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