Thursday, April 17, 2008

Posh, Lucy Jackson & Snow Angels, Stewart O'Nan

And the gloom goes on!

I loved both of these books, but DAY-UM! Worlds o' hurt in each one of them.

Posh is the story of several characters whose lives revolve around the elite Griffin School, a private New York high school, filled to the gills with the teenagers of the rich and famous, rife with all the problems that lie under their glossy veneers. Initially I thought it was going to be a sardonic satire that was going to make me laugh grimly at the foibles of the self-important and arrogant. In a way, it did. Please, having taught at a school similar to Griffin myself, I could see parents I have dealt with in the sketches of minor characters, parents who come to complain to Kathryn "Lazy" Hoffman about their daughters giving blow jobs to boys during a house party, off campus, on a Saturday night, expecting the headmaster to be able to actually do something about it. Because god forbid they actually parent their own children, right?

Reminded me of the mother at the school I taught at who actually barred my way from mailing a deadline to the yearbook company until she had a chance to review the quality and quantity of prom pictures that highlighted her daughter.

Or the father who wanted to know why his son received a B+ instead of an A- on a paper and was actually waiting for me, in my class room, when I arrived, expecting me to go line by line through the paper with him---while my class waited.

Or the parents of my student who, for a home work assignment, simply downloaded and printed out Spark Notes, complete with graphics and advertisements, and handed it in as his own work. They took me all the way to the Dean of Students complaining that the zero I gave their son was unfair because when I told the class they had to summarize the three chapters they read for homework, I didn't specify that their summaries had to be in their own words. And the piece de resistance? The Dean agreed with them (they gave buttloads of money to the school), and I had to give the kid an actual grade for his "work".

But Posh is more than just a satirical look at these self-absorbed lunatics. It begins with a loss almost too painful to bear and ends with yet another loss that is a sucker-punch to the gut, even though you could see it coming a mile away. We tend to write off the rich and fabulous as simply that and Jackson's book shows that, if you scratch just a bit below the surface, they are much more. Rife with vulnerabilities, they are far more complex than you'd think by looking at them in all their Neiman Marcus'd glory.

O'Nan's Snow Angels takes you to a completely different world, to lower working-class, small town dysfunction. Told, for the most part, from the perspective of Arthur Parkinson, a teenager stuck in the midst of his parents' divorce, it's the story of relationships unraveling and how those involved cope. Or can't cope. And the extremes they go to when they can't make their lives work outside the realm of those failed relationships.

I clearly loved the misery (this seems to be what I love about literature), but I had a hard time loving the characters. Perhaps that's O'Nan's purpose, since they are all, in some way, very responsible for their own bitter unhappiness in life. But I was only able to wrap my heart around Arthur, mainly out of pure pity for his plight and the stoic way in which he attempts to deal with it all.

He was perfectly drawn as the mortified teenager who so does NOT want to hear his mother prattle on about all of his father's faults and cannot bear to hear his father talk about his new girlfriend, but can't bring himself to tell either of them to shut the fuck up about it. His stoicism and the "too-much-information" he endures at the hands of the very adults who are supposed to protect him highlight how selfish grown ups can be when faced with their own little personal tragedies.

In a 6 degrees of separation twist, he is also entangled in the dysfunction and tragedy that befalls his former childhood babysitter who is dealing with a violent and estranged husband. As if dealing with his parents' maelstrom isn't enough, his connection to Annie is beyond heartbreaking.

While the lives of adults around him shatter, he attempts to forge ahead in his first romantic relationship, the one shining hope in this story that love can conquer, if not all, at least some.

So, now I've taken a bit of a breather from the tragic misery and I'm reading hysterically funny misery, in Jen Lancaster, Bitter is the New Black. Only half way through it, but it is one of the funniest books I have ever, ever read.