I’m afraid you’re going to hate me for this. I’m afraid you’re going to write me off as another one of the uncaring phony adults who populate Please Don’t Kill the Freshman. But even though I wanted to – maybe because I wanted to so much – I couldn’t fall in love with your book.
I’ll admit, when I first heard about you and Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, I had a chip on my shoulder. What near-thirty writer wouldn’t, hearing about a fifteen-year-old girl who earned a six-figure advance after her novel was plucked from obscurity (it was first published as a chapbook by Portland’s Future Tense Press) by the literary gods at HarperCollins and launched into wunderkind stardom? “It’s all gimmick” I thought, and dismissed you sight-unseen.
But then I received my advance copy and started to read, and my opinion changed. Because the fact is, Zoe, you can write. Oh, it’s true that you’re not yet in the same league as the grand masters of the language. (You know who I mean: those authors who, after months of merely entertaining prose, you pick up and remember like a revelation, like sex after a long dry spell, exactly how much can be done with a sentence, with a phrase: Stegner for example, or Woolf, or Nabokov.) No, I won’t say that you changed the way I view the English language or anything like that, but still – for a fifteen-year-old. For most forty-year-olds, you can write kid. (And of course, here’s another twinge of envy: that no matter how I delude myself, I know that I probably couldn’t have done this at fifteen. Probably won’t be able to do this at thirty. But I know that these are mean and uncharitable demons – and really, I’m happy for you: that you exist, that you gave us what you did.) You write:
4/24 – Seven weeks left of this building. I am frightened. Very frightened. Sometimes the entire world scares the crap out of me. I still feel vague and cryptic. Season finales for all my favorite TV shows. The never-ending purr of lawn mowers in my neighborhood. More reasons for fear. Some of my friends are driving, smoking pot, piercing their lips. I vaguely remember finger painting with tempera paints when I was seven years old. Sometimes the cycle of life makes my fingers twitch and wrists ache. A wad of dictionary pages grows larger in my stomach. I fear driving. I fear senior prom. I fear graduation. I fear college. I fear relationships. I fear life. I curl up in the fetal position on my bedroom floor, the one in the first house I lived in, the one with the elephant painted on the wall.
I started to read your book, Zoe, and my opinion changed as did my hopes – and maybe here’s where the wanting to love your work too much comes in. Because, like many avid and serious readers, I’m a little jaded. We want something new, something amazing and previously unseen out of each new book that we pick up, another Joyce, another Fitzgerald – the bar gets higher and higher. And many of us, I at least, have the (romanticized) sense that probably this something, when it comes, won’t come from a literary critic or a college don, one of the usual suspects, but from the margins: a hobo-prophet, a manuscript found on some dark alley of the internet, a biracial-transgendered-neoconservative-lesbian-saint. A fifteen-year-old-girl.
(And writing this, I’m suddenly struck by a kind of pity for you, Zoe. After all, given its marketing and its author, who will be able to read PDKTF as just a book, rather than as a novelty item? Maybe only other fifteen-year-olds. Of course, maybe that’s all that matters.)
So I settled in to read Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, and here’s what I found:
PDKTF is a highly autobiographical novel, in the form a journal written – unsurprisingly – by a high-school freshman in Portland, Oregon. The book begins with a rush; from the first page and its list of dramatis personae, you feel the ache and pull, the staggering narcissism and deeply-felt beauty of something that I, for one, had almost forgotten: what it’s like to be a teenager.
Recently, re-reading some things that I wrote in high-school, I had the humbling experience of realizing that the words I once thought expressed my inmost self were, to be blunt, so many paragraphs of melodramatic bullshit. The problems that I wrestled with in my writing seemed, from the lofty vantage of twenty-eight years, strangely empty and ludicrous: questions that now almost failed to make sense, so much has their urgency left them.
And this is the problem both with being a teenager and trying to write about the experience, Zoe: that to most people over the age of, say, twenty-three, the conflicts that define a teenage world no longer quite signify. The feeling of struggling to create an identity as an adult, and at the same time longing for the suddenly-idealized “lost innocence” of childhood. The insistent clamor of hormones that amps up every emotion and makes the grownup world seem unbearably flat and complacent.
Although Please Don’t Kill the Freshman is full of incident – a male classmate of Zoe’s is raped, Zoe falls in love and comes out as a PoMoSexual (she shuns the terms “lesbian” and “bisexual”) – most of the book is focused on the world inside the narrator’s head and her struggle for self-definition. And Zoe, with your poignant directness you powerfully convey the ache and longing of being a teenager, a feeling that has eluded many more experienced writers. With a force that had me cringing at times, you bring what adolescence means first-hand to life.
The novel is episodic, with very little narrative tension or arc. It’s more about tone and feeling than events: some sections of PDKTF take the form of letters to an absent friend and others are mere fragments, more like poetry than prose. And although your writing is never transcendent, Zoe, it is often pretty, consisting of a barrage of images conveyed in short, clipped bursts.
Despite its successes however, somewhere near midway through the 292-page length of PDKTF, Zoe, your book begins to show its limitations, to repeat itself and lose its footing. And I may be wrong, but I’m thinking these limits spring from the same obvious fact that makes you so successful at telling the teenage experience: your age. Because the simple fact is that (usually) there’s only a limited amount of experience and insight that comes with fifteen years. At fifteen, there’s a lot of living to do yet before an individual – or an artist – is fully formed. In this way, PDKTF winds up feeling like too many pages spent harping on the same few themes – a repetition that, in the end, comes to nothing. Because of course, Zoe, you don’t offer any conclusions, any real answers or even progress. Of course: you’re fifteen years old. You haven’t found the answers yet yourself.
Obviously, Zoe, you have great potential as a writer. You don’t need to be told this, I’m sure, but the fact remains. The fact also remains that while PDKTF is an interesting novel – the perfect ticket for anyone looking to remember the urgency and agony of teenage life – it’s not a great novel. It’s juvenilia (inevitably, right?). With both all the good and all the bad that label implies.
Ms. Trope’s book is available for purchase at Powells.com.
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.