A day in the life of an academically brilliant 11th grade boy. I’ve seen Jesse Browner’s novel compared to The Catcher in the Rye and I suppose, on the surface, there’s validity to that. Teenage boy in New York City. Stream-of-consciousness. But Wes is very much a 21st century character. In fact, he’s very much a character of 2011.
One thing I’ve had on my mind lately is the presence of technology in literature (or in film, or television), and the danger it poses of making the story in which it appears quickly dated. Technology can either date a novel or help to place it securely in a certain time period, depending upon the way in which it is used. In this case, Wes would not have been a realistic teen without it. Like most New York City teens, his iPhone is an extension of his hand. He is constantly texting and listening to music. (At one point he realizes that Lucy–the girl he is sure is the wrong girl–doesn’t punctuate her texts. He does. What does that mean??) And the constant access to communication, private real-time communication, with his friends makes his social life very particularly contemporary. Lucy can reach out to him anytime — and wonder why he is not returning her texts. Because there are few reasons not to reply immediately in their world, within hours she knows something is wrong.
Wes feels the pressure of the expectations placed on an 11th grade college prep student these days. And that makes his life both very now, and more universal. There have always been pressures on young people coming of age. Wes’s pressures, and his riffs of existential angst, are certainly first world. But very real nonetheless.
The best reflection on this novel that I’ve seen is largehearted boy’s Book Notes — a series in which the author is asked to provide a playlist for his or her novel. Particularly suiting for this one.
Adult/High School–Wes wakes up in the middle of the night on the New York City’s Upper East Side after drinking too much at a party and losing his virginity to the wrong girl. He slips out and walks to his family’s home in Greenwich Village, in despair over his lost naiveté and the end of his chances with Delia, the girl he has been trying to impress for a year. How did everything go so wrong in one night? A junior at Dalton School, Wes helps care for his mother, who is wasting away from MS; despises his father, a failed novelist who lives in the basement apartment; and parents his beloved 12-year-old sister, Nora. Through paralyzing angst, Wes spends his Saturday writing an essay on War and Peace, taking his sister to the movies, cooking sweetbreads at his mother’s request (a seven-hour ordeal), finding time to walk the dog, and figuring out what to do about Lucy, who may not be the wrong girl after all. Slowly, Wes realizes that nothing is quite what he thought and learns to let go of some of the burdens he has been shouldering. His stream-of-consciousness narrative, tangents and all, often literary, is pretentious, selfish, immature, naïve…and somehow sympathetic and even charming. Wes wants to do the right thing, but has no idea what that is. He lives in his own head, and is much too academically brilliant for his own good. Recommend this one to teens likely to have patience with the philosophical ramblings of a most unusual teen.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City