The Same Old Same Old -- Yeah!
“The state of man: inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.”
How people “feel about things” is the grand obsession of our contemporary culture. From the rants of C-Span’s Washington Journal telephone hotline callers, to the current crop of tabloid TV talk shows with their seemingly endless supply of unhappy guests wanting to bare their emotions, to the perpetual thrusting of microphones in the faces of catastrophe sufferers so they can tell everyone “how they feel” about what’s happened (the only possible answer is “terrible” or synonyms of such, of course), the New Millenium person is inundated 24/7 with feelings.
Adolescent angst has carved out an important niche for itself in this psychology-oriented scheme of things. Rebel Without a Cause,
, The Graduate and the still controversial novel Catcher in the Rye were groundbreakers in the genre in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we moved onto the super-cool Brat Pack flicks and more recently to the cutting-edge dark extremes of movies like American Beauty and Donnie Darko, the latter of which takes teen angst to hitherto unimaginable levels of cosmic significance.
In the first half of the 20th century, when our grandparents and great-grandparents ruled the roost with their post-Victorian iron fists in velvet gloves, nobody gave a damn about what young people (or anybody else either, come to think of it) were feeling. And if the kids, who were supposed to be seen but not heard until they reached adulthood, bubbled with their hormonal turbulence up to the top of the family stew like an indigestible piece of meat, there were always tried-and-true answers to their problems.
Like, say, a big dose of castor oil (all bad moods were caused by irregular bowels). Or taking long walks in the fresh air (vigorous exercise in the great outdoors cured everything.) Or doing more chores to keep idle hands busy. Or military school. Or reading more of the “great books” to lift the self-absorbed mind to higher planes of thought.
Hmm, I could really warm up to the last remedy
While Teen Angst doesn’t exactly break any new ground or give any new insights into an already well-covered subject, it is noteworthy for two reasons. First, its young author, Ned Vizzini, seems to be something of a journalistic phenomenon, having come to the attention of none less than The New York Times, who published a piece of his in its Sunday magazine section when he was 17. This is enough to make us old-dog journalists and everyone else sit up and take notice.
Second (and more importantly), this book is funny. Really, truly funny. Imagine a high school age Garrison Keillor on grass and living in Brooklyn, and you begin to get the picture.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re 16 or 65. You’ll laugh out loud at this stuff. It’s how you feel right now if you’re in the vicinity of Vizzini’s age. Hell, it’s still how you feel right now, even if you’re in the prime of life and madly successful, when you wake up at 3:00 A.M. and realize the only person you’re kidding with all that impressive-sounding fluh you toss around is yourself.
Vizzini starts with junior high and takes us through his high school experiences in a series of short, punchy, wry essays. It’s all there, all the horrors we recall from our own trek to adulthood . . . the zits, the tests, the hormones, the summer job, the in-crowd (and the out-crowd), the first date, the first love, the prom only this time around, it’s him, not us, doing the suffering and he’s doing it with such good humor that we wonder why we took it all so seriously when we went through it (and why we didn’t wise up sooner and write about it all in a clever way and get a book contract out of it, like this kid.)
This is a guy most of us can identify with. His family is too cheap to take vacations to nice resorts, so they drag him to weird (and inexpensive) destinations every summer like Binghamton, New York and Allentown, Pennsylvania in search of something resembling a tourist attraction. He can’t dance to save his life. He throws up on his first date with the girl of his dreams. The pants of his martial arts outfit fall off while he hops around in karate class. His best friend is every parent’s nightmare: a boy who thinks he’s a vampire and has a weapons locker where he keeps his collection of knives and nunchucks.
In junior high, he and his vampire buddy start a band named Wormwhole that plays “alternative” (they hope) music:
I provided percussion (I banged some drumsticks together) and Ike played acoustic guitar. . . . We recorded two songs in Ike’s bedroom, “Pants in the Mall” and “Lumber.” They were both instrumentals because there was no way I was banging the drumsticks together and singing at the same time. Ike was a terrific guitarist. For one thing, he actually had an instrument. . . . He could even tune [it]. He couldn’t play chords, but who needs them?
Wormwhole was an alternative to alternative [music]—our music was so alternative it would blow your mind. First, we had no amps. Only conformists use amps. Second, we have no vocalist. Everyone’s got a vocalist; our lyrics were telepathic. Third, we have only two songs. Why write more? Fourth, parents, teachers, and (conformist) youth hated us—so we must have been good. Fifth, look at the name! Who knows what it means?
This book is just good plain fun to read and I honestly can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. Let’s face it, angst is a part of the human condition. It doesn’t wait to strike us in our teens, but starts from the moment we become even the least little bit self-aware in early childhood. When my son was two years old, I put him down for a nap in his crib and was summoned back to his room moments later by a bloodcurdling scream. “What’s the matter?” this panic-stricken mother screamed. My little kid screamed back at me, “I don’t like my ceiling!” Now there’s angst for you, rearing its head in toddlerhood. And it certainly isn’t any better since that kid of mine hit puberty. He’s 17 now. I need say no more.
And it may never get better or go away, no matter how old a person gets. Angst is with us all our days. I recall my father, after he retired from a long and successful career, looking at me wistfully and saying, “I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”
Oh, God. This is what we have to look forward to? Angst at 65?
Yeah, probably. Thanks to modern medicine and technology, we’re living longer and longer. That’s more years for angst to find new (or old) ways to torment us.
Teen Angst is a slight, whimsical book about nothing much important. Statistically, 99% of what we worry about amounts to absolutely nothing in the long run.
But that’s the essence of this book’s ironic charm. As Agatha Christie said about something or other, “It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.”