Matt Greene’s 2014 debut Ostrich tells the story of Alex, an intensely likeable 12 year old on the cusp of turning thirteen. It’s a heartwarming (and heartbreaking…) debut that reminds us of all of the dramas that adolescence brings. In today’s featured book blog the author Matt Greene reveals his top five fictional teenage storytellers – and you can tell us yours by tweeting @arealmattgreene and @CBBookGroup.
Matt Greene, author of Ostrich
“When being chased by a bear you needn’t outrun it; all you need do is outrun the slowest camper. It was with this advice in mind that three years ago I sat down to write my first novel, Ostrich. At the time I was twenty-six years old, just over twice the age of my narrator Alex. Writing a novel was something I had always wanted to do. I had spent much of the past decade trying my hand at various different writing disciplines, from short stories and sketches to plays and film scripts. All of these I (perhaps naively) considered myself qualified to write. The novel, however, was different. One day I imagined I would be ready to write a novel. This day would only come when I’d accrued a sufficient amount of wisdom and experience – probably some time in my thirties.
In many ways, it’s easier to write a book from the perspective of a precocious twelve year old than, say, a Nobel-winning astrophysicist. (As a rule of thumb, I find it helps in writing to be at least ten per cent cleverer than your most intelligent character.) This may have partly guided me in my decision to have a pre-teen narrate my first novel but, crucially, it was not what sustained me. There’s a reason that so many of my favourite novels, films and TV shows concern themselves with adolescence, a time when you understand the world so much better than it understands you. The chasm between knowledge and wisdom is never more pronounced than in your teens. By, say, fifteen, your intellectual faculties are basically fully developed and there’s a tendency to think you’ve outgrown your ignorance. There is no one more worldly than a hormonal adolescent who’s never left the home counties, and yet at the same time, as though your skin still has a few layers left to grow, there’s a vulnerability to your teenage years that matches anything you’ve experienced before and outstrips anything you’ll experience again. I believe at thirteen I had a worldview far more certain than the one I hold now. I also believe that it was no less valid for the falsehoods on which it was based. The chance to recapture the conviction I felt back then was a large part of what sustained me through writing Ostrich and it’s also part of what I look for in my entertainment. Below are five of my favourite fictional teenagers.
1) Hal – Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace Lexical genius, tennis prodigy and drug addict, Hal Incandenza may only narrate one chapter of DFW’s plus size masterpiece but it’s the first and, if you ask me, the best. When he tells us that he has opinions, which (for reasons way too complex to summarise here) he’s unable to express, Hal (ironically enough if you’ve read it) gives voice to an entire age range.
2) Frank – The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks Adolescence is, in many ways, a time to try new things. Or, as sixteen-year-old Frank puts it when he tells us how he’s killed three people: ‘It was a stage I was going through.’ So begins one of the braver coming-of-age stories you’ll ever read. Not so much remorseful as (very) mildly embarrassed, Frank encapsulates the view that the first eighteen years of your life are somehow non-canonical.
3) Berie – Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? – Lorrie Moore Technically I’m cheating (don’t worry, it’s about to get a whole lot worse) since Lorrie Moore’s second novel is actually narrated through Berie’s recollection of her childhood in Horsehearts – in particular her teenage summer job at a theme park called Storyland. Still, it remains my favourite study of teenage friendship, which, like first love, provides the yardstick against which all future relationships must be measured. A sadder, funnier, more beautiful book about the compromise of aging you will struggle to find.
4) Vernon – Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre Vernon Little is a man beholden (get it?) to no one. Falsely suspected of a high school massacre and on the run to the Mexican border, he might just be the ultimate teenage outcast. Less a study of tragedy than alienation, VGL proves how lonely it can be to live your life at odds with the prevailing paradigms – or as anyone who’s read this deserved Booker winner will doubtless prefer, powerdimes.
5) Lyndsey – Freaks & Geeks – Paul Feig See, I told you it was going to get worse. Yes, I’m being a traitor to my medium and yes you have to suffer through Seth Rogen learning to be Seth Rogen, but Linda Cardellini’s Lyndsey Weir captures the conflict of adolescence as well as anything I’ve ever read. From the death of her grandmother to discovering The Grateful Dead, Lyndsey’s journey manages the rare trick of being both painfully familiar and endlessly illuminating.”
Ostrich is now available in paperback and ebook from Weidenfeld & Nicolson. You can follow Matt Greene on Twitter at @arealmattgreene.