It's probably obvious by looking at my earlier posts that I don't believe that a literary work's success hinges on its subject matter. In my life, I have loved books about everything from unicorns to the apocalypse, and found fault with ones whose heroes run the gamut from magicians to hermaphrodites. I also have loved a lot of books with child or teenage narrators. For several years, my favorite novel of all time was Steven Millhauser's masterful Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, a vision of childhood hallucinatory in its accuracy, purportedly penned by a pre-teen with a Nabokovian vocabulary and a covetous, lonely soul. I already told you how I feel about The Catcher in the Rye, a book all-too-often undervalued by adults precisely because of its appeal to the young. And Huckleberry Finn needs no endorsement from me to demonstrate its self-evident weight and significance (the ending is lousy, though).
These books -- and there are others in their company -- could easily be classified as YA because of their characters and subject matter; the edgy parts of any of the three have nothing on today's reads, where rape, violence, murder, S&M, substance abuse, promiscuous werewolves, pregnancy, and relentless texting are giving parents panic attacks, or driving them to Borders to buy copies of their own. Yet I would argue that, despite the subject matter they chose, Millhauser, Salinger, and Twain's novels are in fact not members of the genre they resemble. Here's why.
Let me offer, for your consideration, the following theory. The young adult novel is about a flirtation with independence -- a journey that has its roots in the tradition of children's books, akin to the voyages of Max in Where the Wild Things Are or the title character in The Runaway Bunny. In the young adult novel, the protagonist visits the grown-ups' world, but he does not stay: sometimes chastened, sometimes changed, he returns at the end to his childhood for a little longer, usually with a greater appreciation for it now that he knows what's in store. In the young adult novel, there is, beneath all the chaos, a profound faith in order and authority. Though the protagonist may feel at sea, there is in the end someone -- or Someone -- to take charge, if only he'll let them.
Big Bunny is watching you.
Young adult novels can do beautiful, brilliant things: Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a delight, for example. But there are two things they cannot do (and this goes for young adult movies too). First, they can't intelligently and honestly investigate the inner lives of their older characters; this would make these folks incarnate, fallible, and as such would undercut the whole enterprise, like seeing Jesus on the toilet (eww). Second, as much as they may imbue their teen or child characters with precocious wisdom, this wisdom must always have clear limits, beyond which adult authority endlessly stretches. The child narrator, regardless of his worries or his crimes, must always lack some essential perspective that, when finally grasped at the end, returns him to his rightful place in kid-dom.
The thing that makes a book about a young person part of adult literature, in my opinion, is that the protagonist in question knows just as much, if not more, about what is going on than the adults surrounding him do; that he, in fact, is pointing out truths about grown-up culture that grown-ups can't or won't face. When, given a choice between submitting to what he believes is divine law and following his own judgment, Huck Finn actually rejects God ("All right, then, I'll go to Hell"), he also marks the novel that contains him as a whole different kind of journey than the roundtrip represented by the children's stories noted above. In adult books about children, the child-characters ultimately face the potentially terrifying reality that no one knows what the hell they're doing, that the world is unjust, that some mistakes cannot be undone, and that nobody but Nobody is in charge. They may wish they could relinquish their independence in the end, but there's no going back. They can't rewind the tape.
This is all a long way of leading into what I'm going to talk about in my next post, the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a highly original, tenderly poignant, inventively constructed book that I would nevertheless place squarely in the genre of the Young Adult Novel. The book fascinated me for a number of reasons, but perhaps most of all because of what I saw as the schism between the reach of its formal ambition and the thematically inhibited, even precious way it approached certain questions of character, death, and survival. I have many more thoughts on it, but for the time being just let me say it's well worth a read, even if it has some growing up to do. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be watching the Muppet Show.