People with whom I’ve discussed certain works of English literature have probably heard me say that “I’m just not all that into ‘angry young man’ fiction.” I will often follow up by complaining that there seems to be no similarly canonized literature about angry young women.
While my latter point is true, and remains problematic to me, I realize that labelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye “angry young man” fiction is a bit of a misnomer. The characters aren’t angry, per se, but they are hopelessly lost. And they make terrible decisions, the consequences of which are often more damaging to other people than they are to the decision maker. (Then again, maybe the angry young men aren’t the ones in the books themselves, maybe they’re the ones reading them. But I digress.)
Of course, both The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye are great books. They really are. You should read both of them at least once in your life, and yet…and yet…
There’s a certain cultural thing these books have become part of, erroneously I think, and I just don’t get it. There seems to be a group of young Salinger/Fitzgerald fans (in the age group of my peers, generally) who laud these books as Bibles for the truths they tell about the irresponsible, self-inflicted misery of privileged living (which a lot of angsty Millennials from middle class backgrounds relate to), and yet, paradoxically, seem to use these same novels to excuse their own flakiness and lack of roots or connections to the world and people around them. If you recognize that what makes The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye so good is also what makes them so sad, I can’t see that you would consider Jay Gatzby, Holden Caulfield, or even Nick Carraway to be role models for living. Unless of course, you actually wanted to be sad. In which case, you’d be well on your way if you emulate these miserable heroes.
But are we really so lucky, really so privileged, that we must purposefully seek out unhappiness and instability in order to feel alive? Have I missed out on a great piece of my generation’s growth by experiencing only the unavoidable misery and instability that came my way naturally? If so, I don’t get it.
Maybe I’m just stuffy as hell. I recently went to see Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan were great, Tobey Maguire, as usual, was not). Before the previews the cinema was playing advertisements, most of them aimed at millenials like myself (because we buy SO MUCH STUFF), and one of them was Mini Cooper’s NOT NORMAL commercial. Basically, says the coaxing manifesto of the voiceover, normal is safe, but “normal can never be amazing”. Grey sterile images of office cubicles and dry toast with marmalade make way for beautiful twenty-somethings hula hooping in the dark, making art, and kissing in elevators, all to loud rousing music and the smooth British voiceover man as he champions the “not normal”. And somehow, these beautiful people (who are WAY too cool to have anything “normal” like a job) can afford to drive Mini Coopers.
I have no problem with crazy hula hooping club parties, making out in elevators, or even Mini Coopers, but the message here (“Who would ever want to be normal?”), like the message of most advertisements, is way off. Even sexy Mini-driving DJs eat toast sometimes. Even people who “seize the day” by getting it on in a crowded elevator have jobs, most of those jobs are “normal”. Mini Coopers don’t pay for themselves, and NO ONE gets paid just to be an awesome thrill-seeking hipster. Survival necessitates at least some bending to the normal demands of life (food, shelter, transport). Sure, “normal”, by definition, can never be exceptionally stupendously mind-blowing, but it also won’t be war-torn, diseased-wracked, starving, homeless, or abused. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m okay with normal, and because of this, I am not invited to Mini Cooper’s party, the wild binge-drink/heart-break/art-make that is their version of “not normal”. And I guess that’s too bad.
I always wanted to go to a really amazing party. I really wanted to be part of that “let your hair down” crazy time, I wanted the romance of waking up in my car in a strange place, of stolen kisses and superficial heartache brought on by guitar-strumming boy wonders, summers that last forever, mud in my hair, and the Zombie’s “Time of the Season”. But when I was old enough to go to parties, I was disappointed. I felt like a fool and a phoney, self-consciously swigging whatever beer I could get someone to buy for me (regardless of its taste or temperature), talking too loudly, laughing too loudly, making “fun” this big show we all had a part in. It didn’t look like what I’d imagined, there was a lot of eyeliner and hooded sweatshirts and stupid fights. It didn’t sound like what I’d imagined, most of the music in the mid-2000s was really shitty. It was nothing to make a celebrated subculture out of, and I felt cheated.
I still feel cheated. I wasn’t at Woodstock, I was never part of the Pepsi Generation. I never lived in a house where all our glasses were mason jars and the weed belonged to everyone. I’ve never done anything really debaucherous. I’ve never really REALLY been out of money (because rather than being “not normal” and spending the last of my line of credit on turntables and a Mini Cooper I got a temp job in admin instead). I’ve never felt responsible for nothing. I’ve never sought out misery or insecurity or instability for the sake of it–I’ve always run back to solid ground when I could find it.
I never said, “eff this” and wandered the big wide world aimless and nursing my whiskey soaked blues. I never kept company with careless people (if I could help it). I never hated my family or their values, I never broke a heart if I could help it. I chafed against the system, but I never really rejected it. I loved the long loose dresses, but I never was a bohemian. I’ve never even cried on a fire escape.
And I never held up a battered paperback of Catcher in the Rye that I carried everywhere and said, “This book, man. This BOOK. It’s like the story of my WHOLE LIFE,” and set my eye on a future that was always moving away from, and never coming back to.
Huh. I wonder what it is I missed?