Teenage Dirtbag

Mansfield Press imprint, A Stuart Ross Book, kindly sent me a review copy of Mongrel after my post about author Marko Sijan's piece in CNQ. As I said in the comments to that post, I was honestly curious to see what the author of "The Gutter Years" would do with a longer, fictional format (which, of course, was the point of "The Gutter Years": get attention for the long-delayed novel). So thanks, Stuart.

Mongrel follows the lives of five teenagers, and their circles, who attend the same high-school in Windsor, Ontario. Each part of the novel is narrated by one of the five, and traces their interactions with each other. The Windsor of Mongrel is a dark, dirty, and depressing place. I've never been to Windsor, so I can't say for sure if this is accurate or not, though Alexander McLeod's Light Lifting seems a more realistic record of the place. Still, if you're stuck in a place of unhappiness as a teenager, things do tend to seem more apocalyptic than they actually are. The teens in Mongrel are very, very messed up. Several come from abusive or neglectful homes. School is ultra-violent, with no intervention from faculty.

I couldn't help but think of (the truly wonderful) Lemon while reading Mongrel and comparing their versions of desperately downtrodden teendom. In Lemon, though, you had someone to root for. Lemon faced a world much like the one in Mongrel, under constant threat of violence, amidst poverty and suspect parenting, but she was also a character you wanted to succeed. Lemon is a novel with real heart, and compassion. Mongrel feels more like pushing buttons and acting out, less from rebellion than implacable aggression.

Sijan is very adept at writing first person teenage narrative. The language through most of Mongrel is very juvenile, and veers often into needless "gross out" territory. But, that's fine. Actually, it works very well, for what Sijan is—I think —trying to do here. Teenage boys really are pretty gross, and they are very convincingly rendered here. There are also a couple chapters dedicated to female characters. The first, Sera, is pretty far up her own ass, which I totally buy. There are always plenty of those people in high-school who think they've got it all figured out already*. It's the hubris of youth. The other, Sophie, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, self-hating and anorexic. This, too, is convincing. The female teens in the book, by the way, are portrayed no better or worse than the males. Everyone is equally fucked up in high-school. Of course, they're all equally unlikeable too, and the reader is left without anyone to care about (again, unlike Lemon). That's not really a problem in itself; I'm sure plenty of successful novels are filled with jackasses. For this reader, however, an anchor for empathy is helpful. Least well-treated is Sophie's mother, who is depicted as taking home random men, and teen-aged boys (Sophie's classmates), for the purposes of anal-only sex. It's suggested this is a result of the trauma of her husband being not-secretly in love with her not-gay father. There's something really off about this characterization, though most of the parents in Mongrel are better written, and in some cases are the only locus of compassion and decency.

There's supposed to be some subtext in Mongrel about culture and class clash, and fitting in, but it gets drowned out by passages like
[...]she always had ten to fifteen zits on her forehead and chin, ripe whiteheads filled with pus, which I'd rub my face against when we were humping. When they'd pop, I'd lick them up.
She's all possessed with her left eye twitching and she wraps her hand around mine, and starts jerking me off. She pulls her eyebrows in like bat's wings and speeds up and it feels wicked so I tilt my head back against the wall and close my eyes and keep playing with her Zulu tits[.]
The message I get in the end, is that everyone is horrible, and will continue to be horrible through the generations. Parents fuck you up, no matter how good or bad they are to you, and you will propagate more fucked up kids in turn. As the books ends we learn Gunther, the pus-licker above, has impregnated Sophie. He discovers Sophie's condition after having anal-only sex with her Mom, then stealing into Sophie's room to find her barely alive, reading her suicide note... oh, come on. I'm trying here, but some things are just a bit ridiculous.

It will probably come as no surprise that I didn't like Mongrel. This book isn't for me, I am not its audience. I'm not sure who the audience would be, precisely.

*Surely, there are people of every age like this, and no one person has everything figured out. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that teenagers aren't too young to start on this game, though there is something about the teenage ego that still finds it hard to see past their own nose. HI, I AM AN OLD LADY. GET OFF MY LAWN.


Anonymous said...

If you are looking for an audience, you might try the same people who liked MTV's version of Skins? (I haven't seen the original British version, so I can't say if my criticism applies to it.) Although intriguing and sometimes very entertaining to watch, it was also very uncomfortable at times, because it almost seemed to make the problems these teenagers were having glamorous. "We have too many good drugs to do! How are we going to choose?" It was as if the writers decided to mix together every possible teenage transgression or issue, blend it into a paste, and spread it over several episodes.

In the end, we were left with no likeable protagonists, and it left me with the same message that you so eloquently expressed here: "everyone is horrible, and will continue to be horrible through the generations. Parents fuck you up, no matter how good or bad they are to you, and you will propagate more fucked up kids in turn." I really like the way you've phrased that!

Panic said...

I definitely wouldn't say this book is glamourising anything. It's just bleak, bleak, bleak. You'd never want to be these kids, or meet these kids. They are a worst-case scenario.

Jack said...

Would you characterize the point of this novel as "misery tourism"? As you point out, the underlying message seems to be little more than "Look how bad things can be! People are the worst!!" I'm wondering if maybe the audience for this novel isn't the same as JT LeRoy's books.

Panic said...

Hrmmm,maybe! I almost said something about Precious, but that book (like Lemon) makes you want a happy ending. (Though I think there's definitely an element of "misery tourism" in people reading Precious, I don't think that's the point of it having been written.) Mongrel doesn't make you want anything other than to not be around these people, ever. It's a very odd book, in that way.
I haven't read JT LeRoy (which is odd, actually), so I'm not sure if it's the same thing.

Jen said...

I haven't read the book, but the description of it - in particular the character of Sophie - sounds almost exactly like Eric Bogosian's play subUrbia. He had a character named Bee-Bee who was also a suicidal depressive with low self-esteem, ending up in a similar fashion to Sijan's Sophie. The backstory of Bogosian's characters was much more veiled, though - sounds like Sijan's book is the graphic version. I'm sure a reading of the two in tandem would show up all sorts of major differences, but in reading your review, it did strike me as similar. Just a thought.

Panic said...

Oh man, the book is called Push the movie is called Precious. D'oh!

Jen, yep, lots of exposition here. The self-hating girl character is pretty much mandatory, I think.