On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.

 

First published by The White Review.

How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.

 

First published on The Bookseller.

The Millennial Story

A little while ago, I found myself smiling at a book that had just arrived in the post. ‘Hello Alex,’ the front cover said. ‘What’s standing between you and success?’ That must be the name of the protagonist. I allowed myself a moment to enjoy the feeling of synchronicity that comes with finding that you share a name with a fictional character. (Imagine, someone writing a book that was really about you, the partially fulfilled promise of all novels, only ever glimpsed through the leaves.) I turned it over and looked at the back. This is what the back said:

 

‘Perhaps this is you, Alex.

Perhaps you spend more than you earn.

We know.

Perhaps you still live with your parents.

We know.

Perhaps those ignored bills and reminders have become threats and court summonses.

We can help.

 

Because this was an advance copy, sent out for review or endorsement, I found myself playing along with the idea that the cover really had been printed especially for me. I had a quick flick through the book, but I couldn’t find any characters called Alex, which was disconcerting. I looked at the back again. The shoutline read, ‘What do you do with a generation who’ve had everything, but still can’t grow up?’

By that point, the novelty had worn off and I felt, if not queasy, at least a little offended. After all, I live in a society where only I am allowed to say who I am. I don’t have any court summonses! Who does this book think it is?

Of course I read it. The book was called The Transition, the debut novel by English poet Luke Kennard. The publishers’ marketing ploy was clever, but what I really wanted to know was why it should have bothered me, what there was to prove about me or my generation.

The book follows Karl and Genevieve, a couple in their mid-thirties who are still struggling with the demands of adulthood. ‘Both she and Karl worked damn hard all week then collapsed, exhausted, and spent all weekend either asleep or streaming complete seasons of American dramas to get back to full strength.’ After Karl is taken to court for his debts, revealing a ‘private Ponzi scheme’ of credit cards, he is offered either jail time or a social program called The Transition designed to turn the couple into proper adults.

Set in the near future, the book explores two differing stories that are being told about my generation. In crude terms, the first, told by Millennials themselves, is that we are a lost generation whose opportunity for independence was stolen from our infant clutches by our parents, spent on second homes, holidays in the Seychelles, cars, jewelry, and so on. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the financial crash, there are no prospects for ‘generation rent’, who own no capital and have no opportunity to increase their earnings. ‘I think there’s something wrong which the Transition isn’t going to fix,’ says Karl at one point. ‘Maybe I don’t even want to be on the tiny winning side so I can start bleeding my contemporaries dry, so I can rent out my airing cupboard to a couple of young professionals.’

The second story, told by the generation that have come before us, is one of unfounded ambition, entitlement and narcissism: selfie-taking Little Emperors who, growing up in the social media echo chamber, see nothing in the world except themselves, writ large. (Time magazine has charmingly called this the ‘Me Me Me Generation’.) Yes, early life can be tough, but that is why young people should put away their smartphones and knuckle down – they might find employment, if only they made their ambitions more realistic. The Transition is designed for ‘a generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it.’ University had become a playground for emotionally laggard narcissists; graduates sloped around their parents’ homes, eating their food. When they finally obtained jobs, they spent all their disposable income on computer games and bicycles, unable to plan adequately for home ownership or a pension. In their parents’ day, it was the norm to settle down in your early or mid-twenties with children, but today Millennials coasted through seemingly the entire decade as if waiting for an undefined cue that would prompt them to finally take responsibility.

What neither of these interpretations dispute is the idea that we are taking longer to grow up than any previous generation. Ours is the first generation in recent history who are likely to be worse off than our parents, with bleak prospects for earnings and home ownership. If this had ever been in dispute, the financial crash of 2008 seemed to cement our prospects, and we started to see it filter through to fiction in post-crash films. Where once the bildungsroman was a reassurance that growing pains always fall away to reveal a fully-fledged adult, the genre now seems a troubled one, plagued by the question of whether young people will ever grow up. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by grow up. If you tend towards Margaret Thatcher’s apocryphal view that ‘a man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus, can count himself as a failure’, we can dismiss a huge swath of the world’s major cities. If, however, it now involves being more figuratively equipped for adult life, we might well ask what a modern toolkit might look like, and what it’s equipping us for.

 

***

 

The bildungsroman can be traced, in faint pencil, back to the birth of the novel and the Enlightenment, to Tom Jones, to Candide and Young Werther (his youth inseparable from his essence). The term earns a mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1910, but it really only begins to become a significant genre after the Second World War, and wasn’t adopted as an English word until the second edition of the OED in 1972. Even then, it was rarely used, still seen as a borrowed word, and didn’t appear in the two-volume edition.

Colin Wilson was one of the first to attempt a serious definition of the bildungsroman in English, in his book The Outsider, which he wrote by hand in the British Museum Reading Room, spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. In the book, which drew strongly on existentialist philosophy, he wrote that ‘the Bildungsroman is a sort of laboratory in which the hero conducts an experiment in living’, perhaps because adolescence is the time that it is most permissible to question society and its norms. On the one hand it is like the crime genre, but with the dead body swapped out for the main character’s living self. How did it get here? Who was responsible for it? What was the motive, who the culprit? In the coming of age story, the main character must solve the mystery of their own life, red herrings, clues, dames and all. On the other hand the bildungsroman resembles science fiction, with the protagonist having arrived in a strange, alien world, ours, to undertake an arbitrary mission, but the real intrigue is in understanding the unspoken rules, the invisible forces at work, learning the codes and customs of the subtly hostile natives.

Of course, much depends on who is telling the story. It is rare that an author or filmmaker is actually coming of age as they craft their work; books like Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan or The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger have proven the exception, rather than the rule. Until the nineties, it was common for films to be filtered by the nostalgia or fears of the generation that preceded them, perhaps mistaking personal for worldly decline. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young (2014) – about a middle-aged couple’s sense of being usurped by younger, happier Millennials – opens with an excerpt from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, inviting the audience to poke gentle fun at the paranoia of the older characters:

 

Solness: The funny thing is that I’ve become so disturbed by younger people.

Hilde: What? Younger people!

Solness: Yes, they upset me so much that I’ve sort of closed my doors here and locked myself in. Because I’m afraid they’re going to come here, and they’re going to knock on the door, and then they’re going to break in.

Hilde: Well, I think maybe you should open the door and let them in.

Solness: Open the door?

Hilde: Yes – so that they can just gently and quietly come inside, and it can be something good for you…

Solness: Open the door?

 

In contrast to most recent films, the early bildungsroman was defined first and foremost by this focus on generational conflict. What did these new cinema-going kids want? asked silver-haired, cigar-chomping execs. Why, they probably wanted to see themselves, doing all those horrid, ill-advised things they did. It’s no accident that the genre took off at the same time that the cultural concept of the teenager reared its spotted head, an era of blue jeans and motorcycles, when young people, for the first time, had relative independence and money, especially in contrast to the generation who had grown up in the war. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) seemed genuinely subversive. In the former, Marlon Brando goes around with his motorcycle gang and mainly just hangs around a jukebox, sometimes talking with the local cop. Once or twice he negs a girl. The latter is pitched in its original trailer as a ‘story that daringly meets the challenge of today’s most vital controversy!’ But for all that the main character is painted as a terrifying new species, he’s pretty much the responsible one: generally respectful to his elders, he doesn’t start fights himself and when his parents suggest they quietly skip town after he gets mixed up in another young man’s death, he’s the one who suggests it would be better to stay. The real menace that the teenagers posed to public order lay in their economic independence, represented by clothes and more importantly by vehicles. Brando’s rebels band together in a motorcycle club; the leader of the local gang challenges Dean to a ‘chickie run’ and kills himself with his own car.

A more dangerous vision of young adulthood appeared in the era of A Clockwork Orange (1972), adapted from the 1962 novel, and in Bill Grundy’s disastrous interview with the Sex Pistols (1976), but this idea of feral adolescents had already started to turn kitsch by the time The Warriors (1979) was adapted from the eponymous 1965 novel. (It’s worth noting that the Warriors themselves stick to their code of honour. They are not guilty of the murder that has forced them to flee.) What was most subversive about this generation as a whole, the Baby Boomers, was not, as it first appeared to be, drugs, free love or a predilection for violence, but the size of its voice, the sheer demographic advantage in coming of age en masse in the era of postwar reconstruction, the trente glorieuses. If monogamy arises in nature as a response to resource scarcity and a greater investment in one’s offspring, this was the first generation for whom it became economically realistic to divorce and start a second family, or to have children by multiple partners.

 

This fear was turned on its head with the arrival of Generation X, when people began to worry about the dangers of the exact opposite problem: that of economic dependence. Where the Boomers had seemed to grow up and become independent a little too fast for their parents’ liking, the Boomers’ own children seemed allergic to adulthood. But

the worst effects of the problems faced by GenX – fractured families, scarce and uninspiring jobs, student debt – were unexpectedly deferred by the rise of the internet, which drove a long boom from 1991 through to 2007, with a blip around the relatively mild dot com bubble. GenX was the first to grow up with home computers, and the new tech boom enfranchised the whole generation with economic growth, careers and home ownership.

But just as the internet provided the last great economic boom, it began to restructure our social world. Where once the city had been a place for flânerie or alienation, it now became a site of network density. The internet’s great revolution was not, as it first appeared, one of turnover – indeed, it has become increasingly obvious that many industries will have to work hard to prevent the internet’s natural tendency to decimate turnover through sheer abundance – but of connection. Today, anyone in the whole city might pick you up in their cab, bring you food, rent you their spare room or go on a date with you. We all share a record collection. We talk about whatever is trending. Our social worth is quantified according to our centrality to the network, the number of nodes following us, our reach.

Crucially, our social world no longer crystallizes in adulthood in the way that it has for previous generations. We seem to be refashioning ourselves as a hive, which is why Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) has stood the test of time as a perceptive film about learning to co-operate with a group of strangers, where its animated rival Antz (1998), with its abominable misspelling betraying a cack-handed attempt at GenX snazziness, remains a weak defense of the sovereignty of the individual. The film can only perform its most basic plot function against the straw man of Cold War tropes about totalitarianism, and even then is undermined by Woody Allen’s neurotic and incapable protagonist, who makes a very good argument for never entrusting anything important to individuals. The truth, which Pixar has always seen, is that the currency of the new generation is social.

 

***

With 1.86 billion active monthly users – over a quarter of the world population, and over half of all internet users – Facebook’s membership base is comparable to a major religion, except that it has built this following in the space of thirteen years, and its engagement rates are better.

If my generation has a great success story, this must be it. And yet The Social Network (2010), a campus story recounting the founding of the company, is cast as a classical tragedy. ‘You don’t get to 500 million friends,’ says the billboard, ‘without making a few enemies’. Mark Zuckerberg’s tragic flaw, in Aaron Sorkin’s rendering, is classically ironic: he has created a vastly successful company which makes it easier than ever for the world to socialize, and in pursuing this vision so ruthlessly so he has lost his best friend. It’s as if Zuckerberg is cast as a ruthless Tamburlaine, where the god he is offending is society itself, spurning his relationships for the abstract ideal of social connection. (‘You’re not an asshole, Mark,’ says his lawyer. ‘You’re just trying so hard to be.’)

If growing up were only a matter of becoming an economic stakeholder, being self-sufficient, fulfilling wild ambitions and forging progress, this would be a story of triumph. But the film ends with Zuckerberg in a dark room, occupying a single chair at a twelve-person table, refreshing a friend request to his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, over and over, while floating captions reveal how many millions of pounds the real Zuckerberg paid in various settlements to the people he knew at university.
At the other end of the spectrum, no one is accusing Frances Ha’s (2012) twenty-seven-year-old protagonist of success. She might be trying very hard, but she’s getting nowhere (and occasionally falling back from her starting point). She and her circle all have high-flown ambitions – to be a ballet dancer, a publisher, a sculptor (here we see Adam Driver in one of his many iterations as the embodiment of lackadaisical Millennial entitlement), a writer for Saturday Night Live – but in the here and now, they are either living off parental loans, boyfriends in less glamorously unpaid careers, or, like Greta Gerwig’s Frances, improvising from one day to the next. When Frances gets a tax rebate, for instance, she invites someone she has just met out for dinner. But the restaurant doesn’t take debit cards, and she doesn’t have a credit card, so she has to find an ATM (‘I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet’). It takes her so long that the restaurant is empty by the time she returns, and her arm is mysteriously bleeding.

Frances has a puppyish quality that seems to confirm the narrative of the immature Millennial who is technically an adult but not yet a real person. She may be twenty-seven, but as another character puts it, she seems ‘like, a lot older, but less grown up.’ Somehow she is physically ageing without getting any closer to being an adult.

Many of the characters are prone to talking in declarative sentences. ‘We are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex any more’; ‘I have trouble leaving places’; ‘I’ve been fired like a million times. Makes you cool’. It is as if they are trying to conjure themselves into existence, unrecognized for their ambition, or their output, constantly moving apartments, or even countries, dating a blur of one-night cameos. There is nothing in their lives to anchor an identity, and so they stake claims to their own personal characteristics, even if they are negative.

It’s a sad film, at times, but Frances’ enduring friendships give the film a warmth that is missing in The Social Network. For a generation that doesn’t have much to boast about, friendship has taken on an importance that used to be reserved for romantic partners or family. Frances Halliday lives with her best friend, sleeps in the same bed, holds her hair back when she is sick – they are the sexless lesbian couple. Theirs is really the conventional arc of a romance plot: they misunderstand each other, they fight over an imposter (Sophie’s boyfriend), they give each other the silent treatment, and finally, after much consideration, they pluck up the courage to say, ‘I love you’.

In the end, Frances doesn’t become a dancer, but she does choreograph a show. She isn’t settled down with a family, but she ends up with a modest income and a rented apartment. She tentatively re-connects with a male friend who she actually, it begins to seem, quite likes. The way she is growing up is open-ended, ambiguous, less marked by work or material accrual than the gradual maturing of her social relationships. It is engineered to read like a happy ending, but it is still a qualified one, a sort-of happy, sort-of ending.

 

***

 

When I was much younger, I used to love watching The Karate Kid (1984). What I loved about it was its simplicity. Daniel, a scrawny young Mediterranean kid, keeps getting picked on by bullies. A wise old mentor, Mr Miyagi, takes him under his wing. Miyagi seems to have all the answers. He sets Daniel to tasks like car washing and fence painting that seem hopelessly boring and pointless – in a word, adult. Daniel can’t see how these tasks could possibly relate to his real dilemma, the malevolent masculinity of older boys. But it turns out that the bullies and the car waxing and Daniel’s lack of a father are all part of the same rite of passage. The film culminates in a big karate tournament, in which Daniel has the chance to prove everything he has learned.

I used to find the film so reassuring. The world is full of half-explained violence, and the adult world obsessed with seeming irrelevancies, but Karate Kid promised that adults did basically know what they were doing and that there would come a time when all would be explained. Uncertainty only existed in the mind of the child, and if he was patient, and willing to be taught, that fretful state would be resolved. Karate Kid made it feel like, when it came down to it, growing up was as simple as kicking someone you don’t like in the head.

These days, I feel torn. It seems too neat to me, not to say disingenuous, to use stories to promise certainties that the world won’t deliver. It teaches people to feel cheated or, worse, guilty, if their life doesn’t follow the prescribed course. And yet stories by their very nature resolve – there seems to be something immovable and universal about the impulse to tie up loose ends in narrative. The modern bildungsroman is dogged by this problem. Everything we know seems to suggest that growing up and entering the adult world is more open-ended now than ever, but we want to tell persuasive, satisfying stories about it. Most genres have an ending baked in: you catch the murderer, kill the monster, get married. (If it has a big franchise attached, you do all three, like The Hero’s Journey with steroid-veins.) Genres are bounded by their conventions, but the bildungsroman is a genre whose ending expands, rather than resolves, possibilities; it is not a neat bow, but a door opening onto a breathtaking panorama of the wider world. In a more traditional society, there might have been an initiation or rite to mark the passage from child to adult – leaving home, getting married, winning a karate tournament – but today we understand growing up as a sliding scale, not a line to be crossed, and in any case, at the end of it all, we might end up single in our childhood bedroom. Broadly, the goal of growing up is to roam at large in the world, not free of problems but capable of dealing with them when they arise. As endings go, it’s hardly the stuff of confetti-throwing and victory parades.

I am not the first person to wonder whether it is possible to write a story about growing up today that is also true to life; one that shows adulthood is really about embracing uncertainty and compromise, about learning not to be too dogmatic or rule-bound. But I did try to write one anyway. Glass (2015) was published by Serpent’s Tail as my first novel, and various critics picked up on it as a ‘coming of age tale’, a ‘tale about growing up’ or a ‘tale of young manhood’. But all of them skirted around the fact that it quite self-consciously doesn’t live up to the expectations of the genre. The reviewers were generous about its other faults, and perhaps it was in this spirit of generosity that they didn’t dwell on what might have seemed like a failure of craft. But it wasn’t a spoiler: at the start of the book, I write quite explicitly that the main character is dead.

To me, this seems like a pretty big deal. It’s a book about a quirky young man trying to become an adult, and instead of becoming an adult, he fucks everything up and dies. Maybe it’s just me, but I would say that constitutes a bit of a dilemma. I was separating the form (coming of age) from the content (a catastrophic failure to reach adulthood), because I felt that the principle conflict of young people in the modern age was in trying to reconcile the social complexity and moral relativism of late capitalism with our inherent need for clear codes of behavior. Uncertainty does not only exist in the mind of a child – uncertainty is rife in the world, and merely most apparent to the child, who has not yet learned to ignore it. How can you possibly act with moral purpose in a globalized world, when simply wearing clothes and eating food are morally dubious? The answer of neoliberalism to any moral question is, ‘It depends.’

My hope was that the reader believes they are reading a story about a world where you simply have to learn the rules and follow them, preferably without thinking, but that this simple and alluring fiction is overtaken by the reality that life in a developed, cosmopolitan society is difficult, complex, hard to read, its codes shifting and contingent; that really the only lesson to learn, if there is a lesson at all, is that we must proceed with empathy and good faith, if we are ever to progress beyond the comforting binaries of static, xenophobic, ritualistic, traditional societies. That might be what I believed, but even arriving at that conclusion didn’t lead to narrative resolution, and so I had my protagonist continue blindly on in his quest for absolutes. In a perverse way, he gets his wish – a parallel of the certainty demanded of the writer by the reader. After all, his ending is about as final as an ending gets.

 

***

What might it look like for a modern bildungsroman to fulfill its obligation to structure and still address the confusion of social codes and the ongoing battle over social norms that characterizes adulthood? It’s a tricky question to answer definitively – perhaps almost impossible – but there are two recent films that stand out for their attempt: Boyhood (2014) and Moonlight (2016) both follow the subject’s personal experience of growing up; they each open up a world where society is always shifting underfoot; their endings are really beginnings.

Boyhood is the closest thing we have in film to a cohort study, a story of growing up told while growing up. Throughout his career, Linklater has been preoccupied with marking rites of passage and the passing of time, often focusing on adolescence, and using the real-world passing of time to show life in motion, in contrast to the time-void of Hollywood. He used this innovation brilliantly in the Before Sunrise trilogy, shooting each film ten years after the last, so that the real antagonist is time itself. Each film is shot in long takes, delimited by a single day, and subject to the time that passes – again, in real time – before the next film comes out. The characters will be ten years older when we next meet them, and so will we.

In Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins uses three actors to stage three key periods in the life of Chiron, a boy growing up black and gay in Miami. Jenkins turns the limitation of having to swap actors into a strength by structuring the film in three acts, mimicking three different film stocks and showing us three very different iterations of Chiron’s life, each marked by an experience that will define the next act of his life. He has three names – Little, Chiron and Black – so that even in the world of the film, he presents three different versions of himself to the world.

Boyhood was shot over twelve years, so that we watch the main characters (and their actors) grow up and get older. What is most fascinating about the film is that its parent characters, Olivia and Mason Sr, are still growing up, too. Parenthood was not planned, for them, nor had they settled into the stability expected of adulthood (indeed, they took a step back towards the social fluidity of adolescence by becoming single again). As Mom puts it: ‘This is the reality. I am a parent. That means responsibility. I would love to have some time to myself. I would love to just got to a fucking movie… I was someone’s daughter, then I was somebody’s fucking mother.’ This kind of enforced binary between childhood and adulthood refuses to admit the possibility of growth into adulthood.

Mom moves back in with her own mother, and returns to college to complete her studies. Dad, on the other hand, turns up to take the kids for a day in a Pontiac GTO (another model of which turns up as a symbol of adolescence in Dazed and Confused), handing out presents and refusing to return them at the appointed time and place. In fact, his character begins as a cliché of poor parenthood. He swears, he smokes (and his kids hate the smell), he badmouths their mother. A couple of scenes in, he claims to be taking actuarial exams, but that doesn’t seem to fit with the lifestyle that we see – when the kids stay the night, they come home to find his flatmate stoned, with drug paraphernalia littering the coffee table. These are two parents who seem to love their children very much, but for whom the best you can say is that they are not yet fully independent and responsible.

There are, in fact, adult adults, ‘real people’, in the film. A visit to Mason Sr’s family home shows us a traditional couple. As part of what Linklater has referred to in his own life as a ‘redneck bar mitzvah’, Mason Jr’s grandmother gives him a personalized Bible, and his grandfather a shotgun. This older generation lives in a smaller social world; the grandparents are characterized by their pursuit of tradition, which is to say static codes and certainty. They did not need to take a long time to grow up, because the world they were growing into was clearly defined.

There are no conventional parents in Moonlight. Chiron’s mother is an absent addict who believes that the boy ‘can take care of hisself’. In one early scene, she encourages him to find something to read instead of watching TV, but not long after that we see the young boy coming back to an empty house, heating a pot of water on the stove and pouring himself a bath, looking impossibly alone with washing up liquid running down his head. Chiron’s first clear role model is the drug dealer, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, who – again unconventionally – is a kind, wise and apparently peaceful man with a stable home and partner. He gives the young boy a pep talk about his place in the world, telling him that ‘there are black people everywhere… We was the first people on this planet… [but] at some point you gotta decide for yourself who you be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.’ He even takes Chiron out to the sea and teaches him to swim, cradling his head as he lies back in the water: Juan the Baptist. But nothing is simple: Juan is selling the rocks that Chiron’s mother is addicted to. In the second act, Juan is absent, and there is no need to explain what will have happened to him, as a black male selling drugs in Miami. Later, there is passing mention of a funeral.

The two stepfather figures that appear in Boyhood have all the external trappings of adulthood. Both are vocal supporters of self-reliance. The first, a college professor, subscribes to the old vision of masculinity. He has his own house and car. He likes a drink, he preaches the importance of playing a good game of golf and decries computer games. He has Mason Jr’s long hair shaved into a buzz cut. When challenged on his drinking, which is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, he slams his wife’s head against a wall. He throws his glass tumbler across the room in a fit of rage during dinner. His codes of behavior are not adequate for the complexity of his world, and the only partially effective responses in his arsenal are anesthetic and physical control. When Mason’s mother leaves to get help, he even takes the children’s cell phones, as if to simplify and restrict the social situation.

The second stepfather also subscribes to a traditional masculinity, having served in the military. He fulfils the role of breadwinner working for a private security firm, and he too can be seen with a beer in his hand more often than the viewer might feel comfortable with by this point in the film. He doesn’t understand why Mason Jr doesn’t treat him with more deference, and he doesn’t understand Mason’s teenage experiments with nail varnish. ‘Last summer it was earrings, now the nails – you got a purse to go with all that? … When I was in high school, having a job, being responsible, being able to afford a car, that was cool.’

If this interpretation seems too pointedly psychological, it’s worth noting that Mason’s mother lectures at university in developmental psychology, as we can see from the blackboard in the background of one scene, where she has chalked up notes on John Bowlby and attachment theory. One of the few times she directly addresses growing up with her daughter, she asks, ‘Do you want to be a cooperative person, who’s compassionate and helps people out, or do you want to be a self-centered narcissist?’

It seems that the way we mature and the place that we begin to carve for ourselves in society is intimately tied to our gender roles, and this is what Moonlight explores so well. The film plays off the tension between the conflicting codes of being young, being black and being gay, carving out what is still a sliver of overlap between the three. Chiron’s life is simply not represented elsewhere in popular culture, and we feel his struggle for self-definition keenly. When ‘Little’ Chiron asks Juan what a faggot is, Juan is (according to the filmscript) ‘unprepared and unequipped to answer’. He finds a neutral way to explain that it is ‘a word used to make gay people feel bad’, but gropes for consistency in his code of behavior, attempting to clarify that ‘you can be gay but you don’t have to let nobody call you no faggot’.

Chiron has to negotiate the choppy waters of his first sexual experience as a teenager, but also as a gay teenager, and as a black gay teenager, categories which too often appear mutually exclusive (certainly when it comes to popular culture). There is no precedent for Chiron, nor are there rules of engagement for him to learn, and as he and his friend Kevin sit together on the beach, the tension is unbearable. Both know what they want to happen, but getting there seems impossible. They smoke a joint together for Dutch courage. Their dialogue is so mawkishly coded-but-deniable as they laugh at nothing and hit each other on the arm, looking out to sea. ‘That breeze feel good as hell, man,’ says Kevin. ‘Yeah, it do,’ says Chiron. ‘Hell, shit make you wanna cry,’ admits Kevin. Chiron looks across at his friend, takes in his face. Their speech edges closer to the unsayable. ‘I wanna do a lot of things that don’t make sense,’ says Chiron. Having negotiated to this point, they are home dry – they kiss and tug at belts.

Later, Chiron’s circumstances force him to revert to type: he ends up in jail, beefs up, gets metal fronts for his teeth and ends up dealing drugs, like Juan. But a phone call out of the blue from Kevin offers him a bridge to the version of himself that has been lying dormant. Moonlight seems to offer one life – that of sexual freedom and even the suggestion of family, with mention of Kevin Jr – as an antidote to a life with money, a house and a car, but devoid of love. The old way versus the new way. Left balanced on the decision that will determine the course of this implied fourth act, we are left in no doubt which he will choose. A two-act tragedy has become a three act romance.

In some ways, Boyhood, too, is the morality tale of a young Millennial rejecting obsolescent notions of masculinity in favor of a more fluid, socially intuitive model of adulthood. The reason his second stepfather doesn’t understand the nail varnish is that, in his day, it would have been precisely the sort of thing that marked you out as unfit for normative adulthood, the adulthood of economic bread-winning. By contrast, the most important victory of the closing scenes, for Mason, is the ability to fit into a mixed group of young men and women, quickly forming strong bonds in the new social world of university. Mason treks with them out into a wild landscape, suffused with possibilities. This ending, too, is really a beginning, almost daring us to imagine the sequel.

Mason has grown up so much, but he hasn’t finished. We are beginning to understand development and maturity as an ongoing process, accelerated in our mid-late teens, but continuing in adulthood as we meet the challenges of an evolving culture and attach greater importance to social intelligence. Mason Sr really does become an actuary in the end; he grows a daddish moustache and trades in his GTO for a minivan. ‘What’s the point?’ he laughs, when Mason Jr asks him about growing up and about life in general. ‘I sure as shit don’t know. But neither does anybody else, okay, we’re all just winging it.’ With this, as with Moonlight, the lights come up, and you leave the cinema, and only as you start to walk do you begin to realize the events that have brought you here, and the enormity of the life that is still laid out before you.