Dark Young Adult Fiction Captures Rudderless Horrors of Contemporary Adolescence
The kids are not alright. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the third-leading cause of teen death in 2004. The nonprofit Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that 44 percent of the nearly 18 million American women who have been victims of attempted or completed rape have been under 18, while Psychology Today magazine finds one in five teens suffering from a mental illness and the number of homeless or runaway teens at over 1 million.
When not trying to extinguish themselves, teens are either starving themselves--up to 7 percent of teens, according to The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry--or attacking their own bodies: two large studies at Cornell University suggest that 15-20 percent of the study group had self-mutilated. And all these grim realities are mirrored, repeatedly, in recent young adult fiction (YA for short).
In Patricia Mccormick's novel Cut a teen girl loses it when she has to stop mutilating herself. The scary ghosts of Steve Berman's Vintage have nothing on being a boy rendered homeless by his own parents because he's queer, while Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival offers a child-abusing single Mommie Dearest for the '00s. Other popular contemporary YA novels focus on teen suicide (Ellen Hopkins' Impulse), rape (Sapphire's Push), and anorexia/bulimia (Julia Bell's Massive). For each of these titles, there are dozens more dealing with the same.
Deeply unsettling as they are, these "issues" novels usually end with solutions and uplift. But increasingly, there's a strain of teen fiction that goes further and darker, to greater illuminating effect, to produce what I'll call "dark young adult fiction": DYA for short. In DYA, most, if not all of those statistics are givens. What victories protagonists enjoy are either temporary, qualified, or dwarfed by the awfulness preceding them.
YA morphs into DYA in Blake Nelson's 206 Paranoid Park, where an unnamed, affectless teen enduring his parents cruel divorce wanders through a Portland, Ore., etched in decaying grays. The only thing that brings him pleasure is skating. And so, as night follows sundown in DYA, skating leads to an incident where a security guard is gruesomely sliced in half by a speeding train.
The rest of the book--told in a series of letters another character claims will be of therapeutic value--is a reverie on isolation and slowly losing one's shit. In the fatalist mode of a film noir anti-hero, the teen deadpans, "There's always some new program, some new plan to help kids . . . did any of it work? Not in the slightest."
Paranoid Park (recently filmed by Gus Van Sant) ends with a note of qualified possibility, but the question lingers: Why is its main character--and so many other DYA characters--so rudderless, so numbed out?
While accurately reading culture as it's happening is a sketchy enterprise, I can't help but notice that, just as noir's damaged protagonists exhibited symptoms of post-war malaise, DYA teens suffer from other psychosocial ambient stressors that Judy Blume's and S.E. Hinton's alienated kids never had to contend with. Relentlessly bombarded and pandered to by targeted hyper-advertising that co-opts and robs meaning from teen culture, young adults are encouraged to unquestioningly view themselves as conforming demographics.
As real face-time dwindles in favor of the electric loneliness of ad-rich social networking sites, teens vicariously "experience" every imaginable life trajectory in countless iterations on as many media platforms while actually experiencing nothing. Between media overload, tech-enabled isolation, and the reality behind those stats mentioned above, is it any surprise that DYA teens--and those reading about them, to whatever degree--experience a deep cynicism about everything and have trouble feeling authentically bad or good about anything?
And so, M.T. Anderson's satiric tragedy Feed (2002) posits a future where advertising and government have convinced teens that feeling nothing is synonymous with happiness, a delusional state facilitated by having the "feed"--a combination of the internet, virtual reality, and TV--implanted and playing in everyone's head 24/7. The oblivious hero Titus vaguely falls for the seductively subversive Violet. When Titus' friends break out in lesions and the feed answers back with the latest in designer lesion enhancement, Titus senses something might be amiss. As Violet's immune system rejects the feed--leading to her dissolution--she strains to imagine real things to do before she dies, while Titus numbly discovers that he's unable to respond to her suffering, to anything unmediated.
Scott Westerfeld's 2005 Uglies also has lesions in mind--literally. In a future where cosmetic-surgery culture and an Orwellian corporate state have merged, young people are mandated to submit to full-body surgery that renders them "Pretty"--or else. Turns out, the beautifying operation also causes brain lesions that result in mindless hyperconsumerism. By the end of Uglies--part of a series--resistance to becoming Pretty seems futile.
Media narratives fracture in Francesca Lia Block's blackly magical realist The Hanged Man (1994), the story of Laurel, who lives, significantly, in a house beneath the Hollywood sign. Incoherently suffering the immediate aftermath of her father's death, Laurel starves herself as self-punishment for someone else's crime of incest. We're never sure whether a new boyfriend is human or demon, while Tinseltown pedophile parties and reports of a child killer come off like hallucinated, stray movie plots that Laurel mainly ignores. As with so many DYA novels, Laurel's agonies are (somewhat) resolved by a dedication to create art out of them.
Ironically, one of the few DYA protagonists fully in touch with his world and feelings uses media to help detach himself from both--and so, Walter Dean Myers' 1999 Monster, where an aspiring Harlem teen filmmaker named Steve is on trial for his possible part in an accidental homicide. At night, Steve sits in his jail cell listening to other teens screaming as they're raped, terrified he'll be next. He copes by seeing his life as a film, and Monster is written in screenplay form. As Monster ends in unsparing ambivalence, a faithful Hollywood translation seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, every emo girl has a friend in Charles de Lint. Regularly combining urban settings, supernatural elements, and troubled girls in Doc Martens in a genre he's credited with inventing--dark urban fantasy--his most terrifying effort is 1992's From a Whisper to a Scream. It's about Niki, a homeless rape/incest survivor who thinks she's been called back to her hometown to recover, but it's really a supernatural child murderer doing the summoning. The book ends with a Boschian showdown with the beast featuring the ghosts of hundreds of raped girls, but Niki's victory is undercut by her vision of endless other girls being attacked by similar monsters.
Another bright light in DYA, Holly Black, opens Valiant (2005) with an unforgettably mortifying bit of Oedipal betrayal as Val, a suburban one-parent teen, catches her mother about to have sex with her boyfriend. Freaked, Val trains it to Manhattan and befriends some homeless kids living in filthy, unused subway lines and running errands for "faeries," who exist, invisible to humans, all over the city. (Black's "faeries" are akin to the grotesques of Pan's Labyrinth, which itself would be DYA were it a novel.)
Unlike De Lint, Black's best effects are small scale. Val's new life is marked by the pitiable "freedom" of committing petty larcenies and the ravages of her addiction to a supernatural drug. Often, magic just magnifies characters' frailties. Valiant, as per DYA tradition, ends with Val considering entering New York University's filmmaking school.
The 800-pound gorilla here is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, which has resulted in at least 56 YA novelizations and informed the current YA vampire boom in serials such as Melissa De La Cruz's Blue Bloods and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. But it's Kathe Koja's unnerving 2004 The Blue Mirror that throws the bloodsucker narrative into deep DYA with nary a fang or exposed neck.
Koja was one of the most poetic, disturbingly primal writers of the 1980s paperback horror craze, so her recent reinvention as a DYA author was a natural. The Blue Mirror tells of aspiring artist Maggy, who lives with her spectacularly useless alcoholic mother in a spiritually desolate suburb not that far from Paranoid Park. Maggy becomes erotically obsessed with androgynous, blue-lipped runaway Cole, who's attended to by a pair of girlfriend victims in various stages of spiritual decomposition thanks to Cole's soul-sucking ways. Maggy finally slays Cole, not with a crucifix, but with a superior bit of portraiture. The victory is tempered with the recollection of Cole's youngest victim, Jouly, who disappears from the narrative after suffering a devastating--if darkly witty--case of "exposure."
At the darkest end of the DYA pool floats old YA pro Robert Cormier's Tenderness (1998), which in its tale of a self-mutilating runaway teen's love for an incest-victimized, emotionally flat-lined rapist/murderer is a hope-free mash-up of every DYA concern, but the most bleak end-game extrapolation is Melvin Burgess' 1993 The Baby and Fly Pie. In the near future, London is walled off to separate the ultra-rich from poverty-blighted trash metropolises where "rubbish kids" sell castoffs and themselves for their "Mothers" (female pimps). Three orphaned teens discover a dying mobster who leaves them in possession of an infant, the daughter of a wealthy media patriarch, with a 17 million-pound reward on her head.
The three argue whether to cash in, hold the baby ransom, reap the reward, or to do the morally right thing by simply giving it back to the parents. The one who argues for the right thing gets shot in the head. Fini.
Even in its extremity and pitch-black metaphors, Burgess' book provides the core DYA function of assuring young adults that, no matter how bad shit gets, you're not alone, and that the old saw about needing the dark to see a better light is still true. That may not seem like much, but if these books are even slightly accurate about contemporary teen life, until people as clued in to young adult problems as DYA authors are address those issues, they may have to suffice.
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