Two new coming-of-age stories I've enjoyed recently are Marisha Pessl's debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and British novelist David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. Both written from the close-in, first-person viewpoint of adolescent narrators who - by definition - care intensely about fitting in, they each cover just one pivotal school year, and end with final scenes showcasing a former "loser" in the narrator's world achieving the status of seer. The ability of the narrator to recognize this and more, signals her/his profound change. Both endings subtly mix familiar marks of our own adolescence with idiosyncratic tics that make the narrators seem like they're actually striking out into today's world. They walk off the last page with your faith that they'll triumph, whatever they do. They have now become friends, iconic young people like David Copperfield and Jane Eyre who will stick in your mind forever.
Another resemblance these novels have are the quirky voices of their narrators. In Pessl's novel, in particular, it is almost as if the writer sets herself the challenge of irritating the reader yet holding her/his interest in spite of it. Pessl characterizes her protagonist as a needy prodigy by giving her the habit of citing almost every idea she has. So, in telling us about someone she thinks is consigning himself to a living hell, (Inferno, Dante, 1300) follows. Many of the citations are made up, I guess to suggest that - like many adolescents - she's desperate. Even if they are of her own making, she constantly needs to prop herself up with authority-figures.
The only way Pessl held me through the first few chapters in this paradoxically arrogant teenager's head, was to strategically place the memory of finding a teacher's corpse on the second page, firing our curiosity. So you're then pulled through the book by the need to know why and how this teacher died while impatiently hacking your way through citations, trying to damp down your annoyance. "Yeah, we get it! You're wicked smaht; so what?" I kept thinking as I glazed over another citation. It's the same irritation that Virginia Woolf puts us through with her countless parenthetical interruptions, making us have to go back and reread the beginning of the sentence to connect it to its end.
Mitchell's narrator puts up equivalent barriers, except his are because of a disability, not intellectual arrogance, so we tend to be more forgiving. His thirteen year-old protagonist has a speech impediment, and his whole mission in life is to hide it from his peers so that he won't be the butt of bullying. He personifies the force that cuts off his throat on all words beginning with "S" and "N" by the name "Hangman." So he'll tell us something, with Hangman threatening him in almost every sentence, so that he has to find his way around the menacing trigger-words.
Both narrators, mercifully, suspend these quirks in key places: Pessyl when there's external action, and Mitchell in description. So they don't interrupt what the authors either hold dear or have to nail just right. Pessyl's examples would require whole scenes, but Mitchell's are short enough to give you a sample. His description of coming into a summer garden: "Roses brewed the air." An autumn vista: "A field in the distance was burnt flapjack brown. The field after that was the color paintbrush water goes." And on the week before a new school-year starts: "These last days of freedom rattle like a nearly empty box of Tic-tacs."
First-person novels tend to promote voice, and with such authentic adolescent voices as these, it would be tempting for the authors to rest on their laurels, having their teenagers come to some small inner convictions over the course of the story. But they've worked hard to polish and combine other elements, which give their novels a wider range of appeal. Pessl has constructed an intricate, compelling plot, and Mitchell, as you see above, makes imagery that reveals his narrator's gentle, aesthetic nature amidst the coarse, cruel world of adolescent bravado.