The launch of Lizzie Skurnick books, an imprint devoted to re-releasing weird, wonderful, lost YA novels (All of a Kind Family? Out of print!?!?) made me remember with a lurch of delight that there was a time when all YA was weird, or at least it seemed like it to me, lounging on the carpet by the carousels at the Wellesley Public Library, as an early teen in the mid-80s.
Those carousels -- the wire kind that housed five or six different books in a section, so you had to dig through -- were always stuffed with the bizarre, the sexual, the thought-provoking, the horrifying.... And oh, how I loved them. There was the House of Stairs, by William Sleator, about some kids imprisoned inside a house like an Escher-painting of endless stairs, who were forced to be cruel to each other in order to receive automated cans of meat. There was Michael McDowell's Blackwater series, the incomprehensible but fascinating story of a flooded town. (I've tried to re-read this as an adult, and it still makes no sense). And one of my favorites, the sci-fi Fire Dancer series, by Ann Maxwell, who is now better known by her romance pen name, Elizabeth Lowell. Fire Dancer was about a young refugee girl whose home planet had been destroyed, who had nascent flame-thrower powers, and a massive "Bre'n," bearlike protector, with whom she was eventually supposed to mate. But since the elders of her world were gone, there was no one to tell her that, and the Bre'n was forbidden from doing so by cultural taboo. So she kept getting horny/angry/confused and burning off all her clothes, which would make her fire-veins itch, and the Bre'n had to rub salve all over her without confessing his own feelings, which would lead to more horniness and confusion.... Maybe I am revealing too much of my early sexual imprinting, but that shit was hot.
I can't imagine any of those books being published now, and it is in this spirit that I'm going to review Bennett Madison's wonderful, strange YA novel September Girls, which isn't a tidy Hollywood-formula book, and is much funnier, for it.
(I just went and read the controversy about this book on Amazon, and maybe understand better why textured and unusual books are no longer published, since a good chunk of the commenters, presumably teenage girls, are offended and appalled that the narrator, a boy, likes to masturbate and mentions his dick. This gets at an essential difference between then and now, in YA literature; I read as an early teen to gain access to the unfamiliar, rather than be presented with a maximally likable world, which I think young readers are now trained to expect.)
But on to September Girls. The book is about a boy named Sam whose broken family goes to the beach somewhere in the Outer Banks for a summer, where, as it turns out, the hot, mean, beach-girl waitresses [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT] are actually mermaids. There is a plot focusing on Sam figuring this out and learning the mermaid mysteries, that was less compelling, for me, than the sensation of wandering into a YA Escher house where the mood and the tone and the details bring you somewhere new, and thought-provoking.
What I liked most was the ambiguity of experiences in this book. Here's how Sam describes the girls:
...they were everywhere and every one of them could have been sisters--all with hair somewhere on a spectrum that ranged from blond to blondest, all with full, glossy lips and eyes that floated an inch in front of their faces, suspended in deep pools of liquid liner. They traveled in pairs and threesomes, and they seemed to move as parts of a strange beach machine. Tossing their hair in slo-mo unison, drifting easily back and forth into one another's space as if exchanging bodies. They were just kind of weird. They reminded me of the clusters of jellyfish I'd spotted floating in the swells. But they were also really hot. Fuck. I mean really hot. I did my best to pretend they weren't there.
They're hot. They're also like jellyfish. They're beautiful and interchangeable and terrible and I, reading this, felt like I was learning something interesting and behind-the-scenes about what it feels like to be a teenage boy, afraid of girls and also fascinated by them. I loved that we were reading about a boy who is ambivalent about having sex, for reasons he doesn't quite understand. I loved the slangy realness of the voice.
I also loved that this book is the messy dark twin to the perfect books about perfect summers. On this beach the heat is sometimes "constant and slimy," and the fiberglass mermaid at the mini-golf reclines "in a way that was meant, I think, to be seductive but actually made it look like she had a problem with her spine." The girls read a women's magazine called Her Place, and name themselves after beauty products and shampoos.
Ultimately, September Girls is about transformation, that last, ugly molting into adulthood (by which I mean the 20s), when you don't know who you are yet, or what you like, and are too old to still be living with your parents, but too young to be alone, and are "trying to reach out to another, truer version of myself, across some kind of infinite and unbridgeable divide," as Sam says. You were a teenager, or a mermaid, an unfixed entity, and you can't stay that way, you must grow up, which involves a lot of bad fashion choices and collateral damage love affairs, and is painful, in its first steps, like swords in the feet.
As an adult, I liked it. I think if I'd read it as a teen, it would have been exactly the type of book to lodge in the brain and stick.