Monday, April 2, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE FUTURE OF US” by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (Penguin/ Simon and Schuster, $NZ21)

As it happens, I’m often surrounded by teenagers, their noses stuck in books hot off the press. A cursory examination tells me that what they’re reading is meant for them, not for adults like me. But I still feel interested enough to examine what is regarded as good reading for teenagers these days. And I think I’m open-minded enough to judge whether such writing works well in its own intended terms, as something for teenagers.

I would not judge it as I would judge a novel intended for adults.

In this spirit, I’ve been reading The Future of Us, an American teen novel which, according to publicity, seems set to become a big best-seller. The film rights have already been sold. It is written throughout in the first-person and in the present tense, which is apparently now the most common narrative voice in books for younger readers. The gag, however, is that it is written in alternative chapters by two high-school kids, a girl, Emma Nelson, and a boy, Josh Templeton. The Future of Us was written by a woman, Carolyn Mackler and a man, Jay Asher. According to interviews with them (easily accessible on-line), Mackler began writing Emma’s chapters and Asher began writing Josh’s chapters, but somewhere during their joint authorship this neat plan broke down and they intruded on each other’s territory to make the story more seamless.

Even so, one of the chief intended features is a story with clear female and male voices, meant to be equally attractive to teenage girls and teenage boys.

The story takes place over one week in 1996.

Emma’s mother and step-father have just given her a new computer with a new progamme on disc for her to fool around with. But when Emma, alone in her room, enters the programme, it comes up with something called Facebook and it shows her what her life will be like around about 2011, when she will be in her early thirties. As Facebook hadn’t yet been invented in 1996, Emma is mystified and at first thinks it’s some sort of gag. But when she calls in her neighbour and ex-boyfriend Josh, whose future life and connections are also seen on Facebook, the two of them become convinced that it is genuine.

They are seeing their future.

This looks just peachy for Josh who, in his early thirties, will be rich and married to the most gorgeous girl in school (and his elder brother will by then have come out as being gay). But it’s not so sweet for Emma, who in her early thirties, will be suffering a marriage break-up and a thwarted career.

Result? Emma will do anything to prevent her horrible future from happening and Josh will do anything to snare his promised dream girl  - without either of them telling anybody else about their shared secret knowledge of the future.

There is the obvious point that if you see your “future” and yet can change it, then it wasn’t your inevitable future after all, but simply a possibility. The authors are hot on the message that choices teenagers make here and now affect the type of adults they will become, and they lay this message on rather thick in the later chapters. They also suggest strongly that healthy young people are often better off not knowing, or not obsessing about, what they will one day be. Inevitably, this reminds me of Alexander Pope’s words in his Essay on Man:

            “Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
            All but the page prescribed, their present state.”

Given that this is a book intended for teenagers, I think it does the business. The story is engaging. Emma’s and Josh’s week-long antics to change (or preserve) their futures are amusing. Teenagers will doubtless howl with delight at all the 1996 time-specific references that pepper the text. Imagine a distant past when everybody thought it way-cool to watch Friends or Seinfeld! Imagine not being able to Tweet or chat on Facebook! Isn’t it a scream when, in the opening pages, Emma velcroes on a Discman before she goes jogging! How vastly amusing all these signs of distant antiquity.

Despite the joint authors’ best efforts, I think all the talk about relationships will make The Future of Us more appealing to teenage girls than to teenage boys. If you are a 14-, 15- or 16-year-old girl, however, this could be just the ticket.

Thus I fairly assess The Future of Us as a work for teenagers.

Speaking as an adult, of course, I have a rather different reaction. The American teenage culture that is reflected here (by two adult authors) is incredibly narcissistic, with kids constantly stressing about their appearance and what other people think of them and who is dating whom.

Such narcissism seems positively encouraged by the type of “studies” they undertake at this American high-school. It embraces such courses as Peer Issues, where kids discuss sex, their feelings, how they are supposed to react to one another and so forth.

The culture is also incredibly materialistic in terms of the ticking off of status items such as cars, clothes etc. Certainly the authors present ordinary Josh as a better person than the muscular high-school jock Emma longs for; and certainly ordinary Emma is a better person than the school’s apparent glamour-puss. But this narcissistic, materialistic culture makes me long for the type of high-school where kids are told to shut up, get on with real study, and stop feeling sorry for themselves.

Which is simply my age speaking and really proves that I am not the target audience for The Future of Us.

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