Friday 17 May 2013

Laura Rereading: 'the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with'

Before rereading: 'Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot' - Independent on Sunday

After rereading: 'Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot' - Independent on Sunday

Ah, Prep. This is probably one of my favourite books of all time - which is not to say I think it is one of the best books of all time, but it's one of the few I can count on for a purely pleasurable reading experience that is also intellectually and emotionally challenging. I'm not 100% sold on Sittenfeld as a writer - I liked her other two novels, The Man of My Dreams and American Wife, but thought they could have been stronger - but in this debut, she selects her greatest strength and zooms in on it. As she chronicles Lee Fiora's four years at an exclusive American prep school, 'Ault' (rumour has it that this school is the model) I've never read anything that is so funny, accurate, and painfully nostalgic about adolescence. Indeed, Prep is so quotable that it's possible to open it on almost any page and find yet another astute observation. Take this from p.277, when Lee discovers that her best friend and roommate, Martha, has been made senior prefect, and is too jealous to congratulate her immediately: 'By the time we met up again, she'd be able to hand her reaction to me as a tidy package: a single square of lasagna in a sealed Tupperware container as opposed to a squalid kitchen with tomato sauce spattered on the counters. And I wouldn't have to be there while she got it in order.' Or pp.125-6, where Lee forms a crush on a boy, Tullis, imagines how they will get together and how their relationship will develop, realises that all the other girls have a crush on him as well, and then remembers that he already has a girlfriend - all in the space of a single song he performs: 'oddly enough, early the next week, I did pass him in the mail room, at a time when it was quiet, when I could have said something about his performance without feeling self-conscious, but instead I said, and I felt, nothing at all.'

If this makes Prep sound episodic, that's because it is. Some critics struggled with this aspect of the novel - at times, it can feel like a collection of gossipy detail with nothing more substantial behind it - and indeed, its greatest flaw is that you're never quite sure what Sittenfeld is trying to say. The ending of the novel seems to gesture at the restrictiveness and privilege of life at Ault, how all its students have indeed been trapped in an ivory tower for four years, but this jars with the universally recognisable experiences that Sittenfeld explores. My adolescence took place in a British comprehensive school, but I certainly empathise with much of this material. Putting that aside, however, Prep triumphs in two such significant ways that I feel able to forgive it almost anything. 

Firstly, Sittenfeld is brilliant at investing very ordinary events with the significance they hold for those who live through them. It's incredibly difficult to handle an adolescent girl's first, inconsequential, relationship with the seriousness she does here without seeming melodramatic, but I think she succeeds. Secondly, her handling of memory and nostalgia - something which also struck me in American Wife - is continually spot-on, culminating in this memorable passage after a fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night at Ault: 'As the alarm blared, it was so cold and most people weren't wearing coats. Some of the girls around me had started howling up toward the sky, like wolves... Jean Kohlhepp said - she wasn't crooning, she said it plainly - "I just want this to be over with." Narrating ten years later, an older Lee comments, 'Now I think, Jean. Jean! You got your wish. The fire drill is finished, but so is everything else. Did we believe we could pick and choose what passed quickly? Today, even the boring parts, even when it was freezing outside and half the girls were barefoot - all of it was a long time ago.'

So far, I might have written this review after my first reading of Prep, so what did a second (or, rather, third or fourth) read add to the novel? This time, I found myself thinking much more obsessively about Lee herself; how reliable is she as a narrator, is she irredeemably selfish, do other characters see her the way she sees herself? On the surface, Lee is a relentlessly observant and honest narrator; this may be why some reviewers have found her irritating or self-centred, although to me, she simply expresses what most of us whitewash over, in adolescence and in later life. However, I don't think this translates into her being a reliable narrator; although she endlessly records social detail, and probably is honest about her own desires and motives, it seems unlikely that she accurately reads the other characters, given some of the events of the novel. One particularly distorted thread concerns her relationship with Cross Sugarman, her long-term crush, and somebody who noticed her and enjoyed her company from their very first year at Ault. In Lee's head, Cross is far too popular to pay any attention to her as a possible girlfriend, even though they have a sequence of interactions over the years, and she suspects that he knows he likes her. However, when he comes to her room one night, they do embark on a relationship of sorts. Lee doesn't seem to question why Cross takes the initative like this - although she thinks 'it seemed like the unlikeliest possibility in the world' and, reading, I began to use this small disjunction to try and get a handle on what Lee's narration does in Prep.

While Lee is an unreliable narrator, Sittenfeld does not use her in the same way as, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro manipulates Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World. Ishiguro's skill is in allowing the reader access to an analysis of the situation that his protagonist is unable to understand; we easily follow the romance between Stevens and Miss Kenton, for example, even though Stevens remains stubbornly obtuse about it and phrases any information in the language of 'being a good butler.' Ishiguro's concern is with how his characters relate the stories of their own lives, and in examining their layers of self-deception, so he has to allow us to see where they went wrong. In contrast, Lee's narration bars us as well from gaining an accurate reading of the social life at Ault. We can try and imagine what she might look like from Cross's point of view, or from Martha's, and we realise that there must be students for whom Ault is not a complex network of power struggles, but we cannot get out of Lee's head to gain any purchase on this for ourselves. I think this is an important and deliberate narrative choice. Unlike Ishiguro's novels, this is not primarily a book about self-deception, but about the experience of remembered adolescence; the atmosphere that Sittenfeld so carefully creates, such as Lee's heated passion for Cross, would evaporate if we were allowed to see outside it. What is particularly interesting is that the twenty-eight-year old Lee who narrates the novel doesn't comment, either, and indeed, tells us very little about what has happened to her since Ault, although we learn the fates of a number of her classmates.

Near the end of the novel, when Lee feels she is about to leave Ault in disgrace after describing her problems with the elitism of the school to a journalist, her friend Martha tries to console her: ' "I don't want you to remember it like this. Just because it's the end. I mean - the end isn't the same as the most important. What you should remember is stuff like - okay, how about this? That Saturday morning in the spring when we got up really early and rode bikes into town and ate breakfast at that diner next to the gas station. And the eggs were kind of undercooked, but they were really good... That morning, that was what our lives were like at Ault." ' Ironically, therefore, although I found the ending of this novel unsatisfying, that has hardly affected my opinion of Prep as a whole, and perhaps that's why it's so re-readable; you feel you can dip into it at any point and re-enter a world. By structuring Lee's memories in this way, Sittenfeld taps into the way we remember, as well as what we remember, about being very young, and it resonates with me every time I read it.

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