I’ve worked in retail before, quite a bit, and here’s a secret: They do make fun of the stuff you buy. You try not to think about it. You tell yourself that they’re professionals. They’re just doing their jobs, and they don’t even care about you, but that’s not true. In their brains, they actually have a deep, complex relationship with you from the moment you enter the store until the moment you leave. And it’s all about hatred.
The thing about customer service is that hating your customers can be the only thing that gets you through an otherwise tedious, thankless day. Retail clerks hate you, purely and deeply, and your purchases only serve to justify and enhance that feeling.
What many people don’t realize is that when they hand over a pile of carefully-chosen literature to some bespectacled clerk who’s probably pissed off that he or she has a goddamn Master’s degree and, by all rights and if there were a God, should have gotten that design job in Chicago last year, they’re giving that clerk a lot of information and a lot of ammunition. There’s no way to win here. Just about everything you can buy says something bad about you.
The Da Vinci Code or The Kite Runner or any other major bestseller: You are not a serious reader. You maybe read one book a year, and probably don’t even get through it all the way. And if you do, it takes you two months.
Any well-known, densely-written classic (Moby Dick, Ulysses): You’re on some stupid self-improvement kick. You probably won’t finish the book, or if you do, it’ll take you the better part of a year.
Anything by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut: You should have read that book when you were 19 at the latest. And you’re a sucker because you could have gotten it used, anyway.
Anything by Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, or Haruki Murakami: You’re an asshole. Never come in here again.
Even with this insight, though, I’ve dared many of these purchases because I wanted the books enough to tolerate the embarrassment. But there is one genre that just never seemed worth the trouble, despite its enticement, and that’s young adult fiction.
It’s like the forbidden section of the book store, especially when you’re past a certain age, even more especially when you’re a certain gender. Still, as I pass it in the stacks, I can’t help but cast an illicit, peripheral glance at the colorful jackets, the intriguing titles, thinking about indulging my regressive side just a bit, just one time. Why can’t I?
I realize that all sounds a little creepy, but it’s not. Even when I was the appropriate age, I still wasn’t the right sex for YA fiction. Teenage boys are not easy on each other, and I couldn’t take the risk of someone finding a neon pink-jacketed paperback in my school bag. After all, I didn’t have a girlfriend to blame it on.
I feel that I’ve missed out on something, until just now.
The problem, though, is that it’s difficult for me to be fair to these books now. I’d like to see them as I might have then, when they would have had some applicability. Luckily, I’m very immature, and channeling my inner angsty teenager takes about three seconds of concentration. So to review these books, I’ve employed the teenage me—well, the teenage me as I’d like to remember him: a whiny simpleton. He will be having a discussion with the adult me.
The Perks of Being a Wallfower by Stephen Chbosky (MTV Books, 1999)
Teenage Charles: I seriously resent my life. Not everything in it, mind you, some of it is OK, even pretty cool sometimes. But there are a lot of things that I really hate. The good news is this: There is evidence that everything hateful in my existence all originates from a single, albeit powerful, source, so if I can eliminate that one source, everything will be fine. First of all, it almost always takes the same form: paper. Little strongly-worded notes left under my door, pea-green envelopes in my mailbox, and 4x6 slips that appear out of nowhere on the windshield of my car. Secondly, there’s a common vocabulary among the papers, highlighted by the overuse of one word. It’s always the same: “5-day notice,” “shutoff notice,” “overdue notice,” “third notice.” I get it, OK?
I wish I could feel infinite. I didn’t come up with that myself. It’s from this book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. The main character, Charlie, says that when he’s riding around town with his friends. “I feel infinite.” OK, that’s way the hokey, and so is a lot of the book, but it still seems to work for some reason.
Adult Charles: Maybe the reason it works for you is its total lack of subtlety. The writer makes it clear off the bat that DESPITE HIS SOCIAL INEPTITUDE, CHARLIE IS VERY SMART AND BEAUTIFUL, BUT VERY DAMAGED BECAUSE SOMETHING HORRIBLE HAPPENED TO HIM EARLY IN HIS LIFE. If you can’t guess what it is before the reveal at the end, well, you’re not quite as bright as Charlie.
Teenage Charles: The way the book works is, Charlie, who’s a freshman, is writing a series of letters to an anonymous “friend.” In the letters, which are sometimes uncomfortably frank, he just kind of describes what happens in his life during the year. At first, he’s lost his only friend, Michael, who committed suicide in the eighth grade. So Charlie starts off alone in the world (a wallflower), until he befriends a group of cool, older kids.
Adult Charles: Yes, pretty standard-issue “cool in a complex, arty way” kids here. They’re into the Smiths! And Rocky Horror Picture Show! They introduce him to new, exciting music; new, exciting sex and drugs; and the new, exciting thrill of sitting around at a Big Boy for 12 hours at a time. Blah.
At one point, Charlie makes a social misstep, dating one of them and offending her by publicly demonstrating how in love with her he’s not. He loses these friends for a while, gets them back, and eventually ends up in the hospital under psychiatric supervision. Chbosky makes sure to hit every teen cliche square on the head. Bravo!
Teenage Charles: Maybe point by point, it sounds like it sucks, but it’s actually a pretty decent book. Recommended.
Adult Charles: Very succinct. Very well-put. You kind of forgot the one glaring problem, though. The supposedly highly articulate Charlie, throughout the book, affects the tone of a wide-eyed 8-year-old. It’s manipulative in its deliberate over-adorable-ness. It feels like this character was designed by a focus group made up of girls from my high school drama club, and I’m ashamed that part of me fell for it. Verdict: crap.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins, 1989)
Teenage Charles: OK, so I’m on the phone with my dad the other day, and he goes, “You should have a blog. It’d be a good way for us to keep up.” I set that up to illustrate the following point: The idea of a life without parents seems attractive, and you’d think that it would work in teenage fiction, right?
But Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is just too bizarre. Completely unrelatable. I also think it’s trying to hard to be all “alternative” or something. The main character, Weetzie Bat, is introduced as “a skinny girl with a bleach-blonde flat-top. Under the pink Harlequin sunglasses, strawberry lipstick, earrings dangling charms, and sugar-frosted eye shadow she was really almost beautiful.” Come on.
Adult Charles: I, for one, loved this book, moron. It’s one part unapologetic, completely indulgent wish-fulfillment—there’s actually a genie in it!—and one part social criticism.
This book is the first of the Dangerous Angels series. Written in 1989, it generated some major controversy as to the appropriateness of its subject matter for a teenage audience. It’s understandable. The book is chock full of promiscuous sex, gay marriage, and very thinly-veiled references to AIDS. How this book retains its relevance and makes its mark as something truly innovative in the genre is that its characters and the author are entirely nonjudgmental. The only ethical agenda they have is maintaining their unorthodox family.
Teenage Charles: That kind of sounds like The Godfather.
Adult Charles: Yeah, except that was about Michael Corleone’s descent into sociopathy on his domineering family’s terms. This is about Weetzie’s ascent into adulthood on her own.
Weetzie Bat, the quintessential punk-rock dream girl whose mother is a loudmouth alcoholic and whose father is largely absent (parents are, at most, an occasional inconvenience in this world), is granted three wishes. She wishes for her best friend Dirk to find a “duck” (Weetzie Bat-ese for a boyfriend), for herself to find her “Secret Agent Lover Man,” and for them all to live in a house together. This happens in chapter four, and the whole book is only 71 pages long. But in the remainder, the characters have a child (through characteristically unconventional means), go through some serious heartbreak when both Weetzie’s boyfriend (whose name is actually My Secret Agent Lover Man) and Dirk’s boyfriend (whose name is actually Duck) take off for a while, and then come back for a nice Happily Ever After.
Teenage Charles: Until the next book, at least. There’s four more of these things in the series.
Adult Charles: Yep, and we’re reading them.
The Pigman by Paul Zindel (HarperTeen, 1969)
Teenage Charles: This book is really, really depressing at the end.
Adult Charles: Yeah, let’s not talk about it. Why don’t we recombine and get some cocoa? m