Project X by Jim Shepard

[4 May 2004]

By Sarah Tan

Welcome to Eighth Grade!

We’ve come a long way from Salinger’s literate portraits of petulant youth. There were The Outsiders, Molly Ringwald and the Breakfast Club, and in the 90s, 90210 was the zip code of rebellion. Teenagers showed disdain for authority and pretension while exhibiting their damaged egos and raging hormones by smoking marijuana and having pre-marital sex. But somewhere through the decades, teenagers stubbed out their cigarettes and traded fast cars for Kalashnikovs.

It has been some time since Columbine, but we haven’t escaped the tragedy of juvenile killers, considering Lee Malvo’s involvement in the Washington sniper killings. In the same line as the films Bully (Larry Clark, 2001) and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Jim Shepard’s novel, Project X, explores why suburban youth are impelled to commit such violent acts. His Edwin and Flake are a Harris and Klebold; a team of disgruntled youth wishing to take revenge on their mean spirited peers. The story is familiar. No real surprise lies in its denouement, but rather, it is the context of crime that disturbing. It is what takes place on the other side of the sidewalk that Shepard describes with real finesse.

Project X is read from the perspective of Edwin Hanratty, a fourteen-year-old eighth grader who vacillates between an acerbic resentment for the world and a flicker of an almost childlike hope.

Everybody’s in a group. Everybody spends all their time thinking about their group. Or how they want to be in a different group. It’s a big shitpile with everybody shitting downward, so you want to be high as possible.

Every so often people do nice things for each other but mostly you don’t trust anyone out of your group. That’s just the way things are.

Together with his only friend, Flake, Edwin spends his school days dodging denigration. A bloody nose, grazed knees and a crushed ego become painfully normal occurrences for Edwin and his parents. It is here, in the relationship between characters, that the teen lament “No one understands” takes root in Shepard’s narrative. Neither Edwin, his teachers, peers, nor his parents understand what is happening—and that seems to be the most heart-wrenching bit of it all. There is no one to whom you can point the finger and say: This is all your fault.

The timeline of Shepard’s novel follows the young duo up to the point where being picked on proves too exhausting for the pair, and they set out to unleash their bitterness through rounds of ammunition. The character formation in Project X appears to have been carefully construed to reflect a degree of guilty ignorance that we can recognise and yet are itching to vilify. In preparation to writing this book, Shepard carried out interviews with students and teachers at various high schools to, one would guess, get in touch with and hone into the adolescent psychology of youth today. The result is a discomfort that accompanies all work that confronts the vulnerability of human nature.

Edwin is probably Shepard’s greatest triumph in this novel; he creates a quietly vivid character that clings ferociously onto whatever self-respect survives humiliation. This seems to be the winning element in portrayals of suburban youth—that behind the normalcy, the apparent material homogeneity, what people crave is the development of real relationships.

Examples of the Internet, reality television, and even the American Idol TV series physically cashes in the desire for an all-inclusive participation into the lives of others. To engage oneself into a group, a single person, or a cause (as it is in this context), means being affirmed for person you are and the choices you make. It is a hunger that exists in every character in Project X. From the teachers who aim to understand their students, and parents who do as much as they can, which is sadly often not enough. Everyone seeks to have their intentions, ideas and emotions understood. Some vocalise it in groups or one-on-one, while others show it through action.

Shepard, based in Massachusetts, is a true contemporary writer. His other works, including Love and Hydrogen and Nosferatu, draw stories out of elements that exist in our current culture. Not only does he expand on current issues, but he also succeeds in digging deep to salvage that which is of human interest. Project X is a novel that reaches out and grabs you on several levels. It makes you reflect on personal actions and opinions, question the attitude of society and moves you to care a little bit more.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/project-x/