Returning to carefree adolescence might sound like an exciting and sexy proposition – parties, kissing, no hangovers, no debt – but wasn’t most of that time spent in utter boredom? Wasn’t being a teenager tedious with brief, if intense, highs? The rules, the expectations, the parents, the fact you’re not a child and not yet an adult, the constant sensation that you are always missing out on something.
As I recall, those pimply years comprised extended periods of school and do-nothing days with the occasional freezing night spent watching older lads talk to girls. But I’d argue it was within that tiresome fug that the lasting stuff occurred, and many of our treasured teenage memories resulted from nothing particularly exciting happening: bored, you did something mad with your mates. Or you did something mad to yourself. Or you sent something mad to somebody else in a hope they might feel the same. Or you let a horse into a house party.
In my debut collection of stories, Pure Gold, I have characters that do all of the above. As a writer, I’m fascinated by the age between 12 and 20, when your emotions are at their most fraught and melodramatic, when every relationship is the most important relationship, when insecurities rule over reason. Below, I want to suggest 10 other works that explore how the sublime can arise from the dull reality of being a teenager.
1. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
In McCullers’ novel we meet tomboy Frankie as she experiences the overcooked summer that marks the beginning of her adolescence. The plot is simple: a brother is to be married, a wedding is to be attended, and Frankie dreams of joining her brother and his wife on their honeymoon. While this whimsical yearning sets the story in motion, the book is most interested in picking at the stifling frustrations of growing up: of being paralysed by the encroaching adult realm of sex and freedom.
2. Passion by Alice Munro (2004)
When I think of Munro’s best stories, an image seizes me before any plot or memorable character. A man making a ketchup sandwich, a young woman dining naked before a man. In the case of Passion, there is a wine-coloured convertible. Our protagonist, Grace, is too poor to attend college and is working a summer gig when she meets Marcus. They begin a relationship. Later, she meets Marcus’s older half-brother, Neil, a doctor and alcoholic, whose invitation to pull the slip on Marcus in his convertible Grace accepts without hesitation. A terrible betrayal, but the sort inevitably made at such an age when the stakes are high, but they don’t feel so. Or better: the pleasure and respite from the dull present matters much more than any fallout.
3. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (1997)
This is an odd comic because nothing happens in it and still you can’t help but turn the page. Following two cynical teenagers, Enid and Rebecca, we witness their pranks and spontaneous adventures, we see lunch dates, we catch glimpses of home and sex life, and that’s it. Even the plot twist, a sudden treacherous action, is left understated. I have never read a book that better portrays the rhythms of flippant conversation between teenage besties: how it bleeds together, how it cruel it can be.
4. Atlantic City by Kevin Barry (2007)
A pool table, a pinball machine, and young bucks posturing: there’s the whole plot of Atlantic City. Nothing eventful happens, but everything of small-town youth is distilled within it. Characters? Well, we have the boisterous fella whom everyone gravitates around. The nervy youngsters happy to be near the fun. The girls in the corner who will decide if the night is a success or not. When I first read Atlantic City, it felt like a door had been booted open. Arguably, it is the work that has sparked the last 15-plus years of invigorating Irish writing.
5. Extraordinary Little Cough by Dylan Thomas (1940)
A story of bigger boys, stolen sweethearts, and the period right before boundless youth gives way to working for a living. Our narrator recounts a trip to the Peninsula, where he and his pals intend to camp for two weeks: a break from cloying mothers, a chance to be manly and search for sunbathing college girls. Of course, these plans fall apart. It is a hilarious story, but what makes it special is how forensic it is on the tiny humiliations of adolescence. Also, it contains the most accurate description of hormonal love: “Jean clapped her hands like an actress. Although I knew I loved her, I didn’t like anything she said or did.”
6. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Poor aul Holden, eh? The quintessential sulky teenager who is already bored with life. The story of his striking back against the phonies while meandering around New York is well known. While not Salinger’s finest work – I’d have Franny and Zooey above it – it is a brilliantly sad and nuanced portrait of a troubled and traumatised, and kind, soul. And how good is that scene with the sex worker Sunny?
7. Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy (2011)
Healy was a master, and this is testament to his singular talent – a novel that embraces teenage boredom to build a compelling story about community and love. Narrated flatly by Philip Feeney, or Mister Psyche as he is nicknamed, it lets the reader experience his daily life in all its chores and routine. Haunted by a recent tragedy, Mister Psyche is a peculiar narrator – invested in life and simultaneously numb to it, devoted to his girlfriend but devoid of sexual urges – and, in general, this is a peculiarly eerie novel.
8. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore (1994)
A darkly funny novel, with a dual narrative split between the narrator Berie’s failing marriage and her all-consuming friendship with Sils in the summer of 1972, when they were both 15 and working in a theme park called Storyland. Think chain-smoking teenagers dressed as Cinderella. Amid the palpable nostalgia of this novel lie questions of girlhood and the adult pain that is tangled up with it. And among Moore’s sugary paragraphs, there is one that sums up the novel’s bruised heart: it is about a dinner party when Joni Mitchell’s Little Green plays. All the women attending remember their lonesome teenage selves, begin to sing along, start to embrace one another. “All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.”
9. National Institute by Alejandro Zambra (2015)
A four–chaptered story about a prestigious pre-university school in Chile. Each chapter explores the mundane nature of education and what it does to teenagers. I want to concentrate on the third chapter. It is here the narration breaks into a relentless list of banal remembrances from school before becoming focused entirely on Pato Parra, who, it is abruptly revealed, killed himself in “June or July”. We all have that one horror story from when we were teenagers, an event that was out of sync with the rest of life. That car crash. The passing of that friend’s mother. Never have I read this warping phenomenon so achingly depicted.
10. Honoured Guest by Joy Williams (2004)
This story is an examination of long-term illness and how it stagnates the life of both the person who is sick and those around them. In this instance, a teenage girl and her terminally ill mother. There is so much simmering below the surface here, but it is the bravery of the teenager, Helen, that captivates. She is trying to get on with things in the small way a teenager can (‘“I have a test today, Mom,” Helen said’). She is trying to figure out death by soliciting advice from a friend who has seen how cremated ashes are returned.