BY JON PILL
‘Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.’ – Douglas Bader
Christmas came and went. 2016 came and went. I hope it came and went well. I have a horrible feeling 2017 will be a time of reaping what 2016 has sown. But it also looks like it might be pretty good for you and me on a professional level.
As you guessed in your letter, I have been fiddling with the odd reading list for the coming year. You asked a bit about what guides my instinct re reading. I’m not sure I have a very interesting answer to that. I am rarely coming to a book cold, years of Google, Wikipedia and long conversations with book mad friends like you means I have a general sense of who and what out there will fit my given needs.
Plus my reading lists are almost always for a purpose, however broad. Catching up on the classics, research for the novel, sometimes its just: read more stylists, more plot, more nonfiction, more James Bond novels.
There is a certain amount of the should’ves on my lists, but I don’t know how sophisticated a gut instinct is needed to know one should have read some Dickens if you want to be a writer.
Your other question re teenage reading is a little more interesting, and one we’ve discussed several times. When you’re a teen you’re in that weird tension of wanting to be part of the group and to be an individual, different. If one of those things wins out you end up as either Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez or Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. Or that nerdy kid or the janitor. Or something*.
The compromise of being a goth or hipster or whatever is to belong to a little group that dresses funny. Same-same but different.
My cod-sociological theory is that the angst canon of books teenagers read is a way of revelling in that specialness. The Molly Ringwalds opt for manifest destiny as their reason for being weird, so Harry Potter and Star Wars for them. The Ally Sheedy’s are more likely to have a copy of Camus poking ostentatiously out of their pocket. Or as in my case Chuck Palahniuk. Judd Nelson didn’t read very much at all, I suspect.
For me the books that I read and reread (along with Michael Crichton’s whole oeuvre) were: American Psycho, Fight Club and The Beach. All in some ways were aspirational wish fulfilment. All three are books about outsiders who exercise power (and often violence) in their own sphere. It probably doesn’t hurt the appeal that they all get laid and enjoy freedom from authority (it is no coincidence that the British boarding school produced the inventors of the concentration camp).
What is also odd is that they are all also about mentally ill characters. And I do remember having a very romanticised notion of what it meant to have poor mental health. Think of the pop culture crazies like Donnie Darko and Hannibal Lector dictated my images of madness at the time. Being a teenager is often to be locked in several forms of mental breakdown anyways: , a barely developed sense of empathy, constant crises of identity and purpose, or else monomania and narcissism. or persecution complexes, anxiety, insecurity, paranoia, body dysmorphia, mood swings, sexual obsession and perversion, your average teenager is a grab bag of pages out of the DSM and Dr Levick’s notes on penguins.
The nihilism and existentialism (both in the most vague and colloquial sense) in the Ellis and Palahniuk reflected, and probably intensified, my personal philosophies at the time and that the books reflected and reinforced my dislike for those who feel entitled to authority.
I don’ know exactly how much I saw myself as Patrick Bateman or Tyler Durden (though it would not be beyond my cognitive dissonance to have seen myself as both), but I enjoyed for those years a total condescension and contempt towards all people everywhere. And although I was a very shy child, and am a pathologically anxious adult, in my mid-teens for a few years I felt very little shame or self-consciousness at all. It was around then that I was reading those books.
I still like those books. I haven’t read them in a long time, but their film versions have jogged my memory from time to time. But I like them for completely different reasons**. Where I used to admire Bateman, I feel pity instead. What was revelled in as wish fulfilment as revel as a teen reads as a satire now. Nice flat, expensive suits, and taking what he he couldn’t buy at the end of a nail gun, everything seemed perfect back then. Now he looks desperate and trapped. The horror isn’t in the gore, its in the empty relationships and impersonal flat.
These books are no longer my favourites. But they are still interesting as much because of my personal history with them as anything else. That as a writer is something that is probably impossible to account for in your readers. But interesting to ponder.
I’d be interested to hear about your own teenage readings. But I also wonder if there are any artworks in whatever form, that you’ve had a similar revisions or reversals of your feelings about a text or play and what they were?
The Breakfast Club
* P.S. I know and also don’t care that the movie was about how they’re not all that different you and I.
** P.P.S. I deliberately avoided talking about The Exorcist, because I could write a whole bletter just on that. Every time I have watched that film, it has seemed to be about something totally different. But that is because the film has so many ambiguities, and so much of the story happens off screen that it allows for interpretive shift. They all feel like natural readings of that movie. American Psycho, on the other hand, I find hard to imagine missing how unhappy Bateman clearly is. Which I definitely did at the time.