Books

Californium: Another Story of Adolescent Angst -- With Guitars

Californium is a Frankenstein’s monster of coming-of-age stories, its many moving parts borrowed and reassembled from stock, clichéd characters and plot devices.


Californium: A Novel of Punk Rock, Growing Up and Other Dangerous Things

Publisher: Plume
Length: 352 pages
Author: R. Dean Johnson
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-07
Amazon

The idealization of adolescence viewed through the filter of punk rock has, at this point, become something of a literary, coming-of-age cliché. With an ever-expanding field of contenders, it’s one that requires an extra something special for these types of novels to stick out from the pack. From Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Himelstein's Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing and nearly all points in between, it’s well-trod territory running short on original ideas and plot points.

It’s easy enough to see why it’s such a popular lens through which to view the disheartening adolescent outsider’s desperation to fit in with a group of people perceived as being popular, or idealized versions of "teenagedo", if you will. Yet these aspirations are often found to be ill-conceived for a multitude of reasons, one of which is the simple fact of lacking any sort of basic connection, both interpersonally and even in basic interests. It's often through these social misfits and outcasts that a revisionist take on adolescence is undertaken by nostalgia prone writers.

While this can be an effective approach if undertaken with finely detailed, nuanced brush strokes, those who attempt to paint a bigger picture tend to get lost in the stock clichés of lesser storytellers. Such is the case with R. Dean Johnson’s Californium, a story of adolescent angst that borrows liberally from television, film and literature to create stock characters who prove to be little more than amalgamations of their predecessors.

Protagonist Reece Houghton finds himself on the other side of the country, his family having left New Jersey in the wake of a personal tragedy, searching for a sense of self. Pining after the unattainable girl next door, making friends with the class wise-ass and coming under the spell of the brooding, emotionally unstable punk named Treat, Reece begins a personal journey of self-discovery that finds him navigating the often choppy waters of high school society. Coming to his own conclusions about friendship, family and punk rock, Reece follows a fairly rote path of teenage realization over the course of the novel’s fairly predictable arc.

Yet there’s a reason these types of novels have proven so endlessly appealing: the characters are relatable, often believable to a fault, and afford readers the chance to see themselves in what are often glaringly obvious character flaws. Add in the nostalgia factor and a host of period-specific pop cultural references and you’ve got the makings of the literary equivalent of click bait. It doesn’t hurt that, thematically, Californium borrows from myriad pop cultural tropes and references associated with the adolescent outcast searching for an identity and hoping to fit in with the cool crowd.

The trouble begins with the Houghton family’s unspoken tragedy, the genesis of which revolves around the absent Uncle Ryan. His shadow looms large over the story, serving as a sort of spiritual guide through which Reece attempts to parse out his problems and concerns through letters addressed to the absent uncle a la The Perks of Being a Wallflower diary-style approach.

Along with this is a stereotypically strained relationship between Reece and his parents, notably his father, who goes by the nickname “Packy”. Having moved across the country from New Jersey to Southern California, theirs is a move of desperation, an attempt to make a new start following a breaking of a familial bond eluded to throughout that leads to the nuclear family's troubles.

With the story unfolding from here, all the requisite stock characters are present: the goofy, sex-crazed best friend; the unattainable, ultimately flawed older girl; the female best friend who clearly pines for the oblivious protagonist who, in turn, realizes what's been going on all along too late; the older, wiser spiritual guide through whom the protagonist develops a greater sense of self; and the troubled peer who ultimately seeks redemption following a personal triumph over tragedy.

Reece then is the typical teen struggling to find himself as he leaves behind a clearly established childhood self in which he enjoys baseball and spending time with his father and uncle and struggles to find a defined sense of adolescent self. While he constantly strives to present himself as perhaps more mature than he actually is, he still falls back on a series of decidedly childish games, one of which involves sneaking about a neighborhood wall in a game referred to as Berlin Wall.

Seeking acceptance, he and his friends begin establishing a word-of-mouth mythos surrounding their punk band, DikNixon. While the group itself exists on an admittedly rudimentary level (as all good punk bands should) with lyrics liberally copped from Neil Diamond songs, their real world existence is predicated almost solely on the unfounded basis of rumor and speculation. This shows the impressionability of adolescents and the speed at which the lines between fact and fiction blur. When all else fails, print the legend.

In this, Californium is a Frankenstein’s monster of coming-of-age stories, its many moving parts borrowed and reassembled from stock, clichéd characters and plot devices that propelled earlier, better works to broader cultural acclaim. Johnson's story, while certainly well-told and engaging, ultimately can't help but feel hollow due to its liberal appropriation of existing narrative threads. While many of the themes afford universal, blanket application, they strive more to check the requisite boxes than engender the characters with any sort of real emotional heft.

Adolescence is easily one of the most difficult periods of anyone's life. Yet in this struggle exists a rich literary traditional from which many great works have been drawn. With its emotional minefield and interpersonal complexities, adolescence often helps shape or at the very least lay the foundation of who we will ultimately become. It's a time of frustration, euphoria, depression and childlike glee, caught between the personal and social freedoms of childhood and the complexities and social intricacies of early adulthood. Johnson’s Californium manages all of this and more, but it ultimately feels like a pale imitation of its more profound predecessors.

5

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image