Friday, May 14, 2010
The Reading List: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
People give lip service to the junior high years being hard, but even so I think it's common to forget how genuinely hellish the passage from childhood to adulthood really is. Early adolescents are afforded a humiliating lack of even the most fundamental personal autonomy. When to wake up, eat, and sleep, what to wear, where and how to spend every hour of the day, how to manage one's personal space: all of these are subject to the strictest parental control. Even when one's preferences are ratified, the degradation of gratitude is implicitly expected, and one is always mindful that the luck might not run so well again next time. The essential tool that one uses to navigate the world and to arrange one's environment to one's liking -- I speak here of money – is always in ludicrously short supply. One's possessions are quite literally, by law, limited to those few square inches inside one's head, and even that little enclave of thoughts and knowledge is continually being probed, sounded, and assessed by all-too-savvy, if hopefully well-meaning, adults.
This abject condition is bearable if one is blessed with a good and stable home in which to wait out the misery among kind people who make clear their interest in your immediate and future welfare. But one is also forced, during this awful time, into a savage world occupied almost entirely by one's peers. In every junior high school across the land, there exists a social environment akin to the horrors of marine biology, where human animals whose sense of zero-sum social ranking has been fully activated but whose capacity for empathy, restraint, compassion, and the gentle art of letting things slide are still a few years from even starting to come online. The result, for nearly everyone making the passage, is a daily misery that would be simply unendurable to we adults who have pushed through to relative safety and forgotten much of the day-to-day trauma we endured, back then.
The Message of Hope
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is, I think, intended as a message of hope to young adolescents, particularly those of the female persuasion. It is a promise that much of what they are going through has been experienced by others, that it is endurable, and that the ride will, with luck, eventually even out a bit.
The first-person heroine, Margaret, is a remarkably well-adjusted young woman who works her way through five major issues, by my count, over the course of the book. She 1) is confused about religion, having been raised by parents who are lapsed, one from Judaism and one from Christianity; 2) is forcibly relocated to suburban New Jersey from Manhattan by a family move, and thus plunged into an alien social environment and stripped of a grandmother who is her closest adult ally; 3) is moderately freaked out about the physical changes she's expecting her body to start going through; 4) is trying to figure out how to deal with her emerging heterosexuality; and 5) is exposed to the ways that people tell brazen lies about themselves and conduct cruel campaigns of propagandistic slander about others in order to establish or preserve their place in the local hierarchy of social status.
Now it's certainly true that we adults generally spend plenty of time furrowing our brows over religion, proximity to loved ones, body issues, mating, and social infighting. All of us know quite a few other adults who wrestle with one of these themes as the central narrative of their existence. But on average, a healthy adult suffers far less angst about this kind of thing than even the happiest of early adolescents. We've made our choices, eliminated options, gotten used to a certain quantum of daily bullshit, learned how to avoid, glad-hand, or browbeat our more toxic contemporaries, or just found other things to worry about. So it's hard to really feel the impact of AYTG?IMM in the same way as an adolescent might. Reading it as an adult is like chatting with your neighbor the trauma surgeon. He seems like a nice enough guy, but kind of unremarkable; you are aware that he saves lives as a matter of course, but fortunately you don't require his specialized skills at this particular moment.
What I'm saying, I guess, it that this is a book skillfully written for young people of a specific age, and that it makes no sense for me to evaluate it as a piece of fiction when I am reading in early middle age. The Goodreads website, where I log my reading, will want me to issue it one to five stars, but I won't. I could give it one star, saying that it was simplistic and offered me no new insights into the human experience, but that would be foolish and kind of cruel. I could give it five stars as a book that, as I understand it, shaped a whole genre of young adult literature that actually addressed aspects of the young adult experience, but that would be a rating of its reputation, not its merit. I can't tell how good it is; I didn't get to it in time.
A few of you are thinking "yes, dumbass, and you're also MALE." It's a fair point. But males also -- this particular male, anyway, and I suspect almost all of them -- also go through puberty ravaged by insecurity about their physical sexual development. Now, whether the nightmarish worry and wondering about the adequacy of one's penis, about that organ’s humiliating ability to move and change form and betray your thoughts against your will; whether that is trivial compared to the wondering and waiting for breasts and menarche, I have no idea. I very much doubt it's worse, but neither am I completely sure it is a whole lot better.
Margaret, Then and Now
AYTG?IMM is -- if you will forgive the unintentional but acknowledged pun -- a bit of a period piece. Judy Blume is recognizably a progressive of the early 1970s. Clearly in tune with the concerns of young people, she however slips up a few times and lets Margaret notice details about her suburban environment (that the houses and trees, for instance, are all the same age) and about the intrusion of commercialism into schools (a presentation about menstruation is sponsored by a tampon company) -- things that, although of interest to adult progressives, would completely fail to register on a sixth grader’s cultural radar. The New Jersey town that Margaret lands in, too, is a broad caricature of social conformity, literally possessing a choice of a Protestant social club and a Jewish social club, one of which everyone is expected to attend unless they are, like one minor character, Catholics who exist on the margins of society.
I'm curious how popular the book is today. I imagine it must be read a lot, if only because it will have been placed before many or most girls by mothers and aunts and mentor figures who found reading it a revelatory experience back in the day. Does it still retain its power to palliate the process of adolescence in the information-soaked matrix that puberty is currently lived in? My guess is that it can still compete, at least among some readers, with the vampire crap -- "Young Adult Paranormal," I believe the genre has been branded -- that is so fashionable/well-marketed in the early-teen market sector of today. A few minutes on the Wiki can yield all of the information about puberty and adolescence that anyone could know what to do with, but a story about puberty and adolescence in which a character encounters something resembling the actual terrors found there, and shows hope of surviving the ordeal -- well, that must be an awfully compelling narrative to a reader of a certain age.