Coming of Age in Modern Dystopia

The bildungsroman as living historical document.

FOR decades, books like The Bell Jar, The Outsiders, and The Color Purple have helped readers make sense of the unsteady lurch into adulthood from their comfortable place in the canon. But what does it mean to come of age in modern dystopia, alongside the contemporary parallel forces of the Internet and globalization?

Three books released in 2016, Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage, Natasha Stagg’s Surveys and Tommy Pico’s IRL, are contemporary takes on the traditional bildungsroman. The coming-of-age novel of this generation is an experimentation of form and a blending of modern themes of growing access to information and audience with the perennial questions of personal development and self-discovery.

Joni Murphy’s debut novel, Double Teenage, explores the friendship between two schoolgirls, Celine and Julie (named after the title characters of Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating), who grow up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Their natural curiosity about the world around them leads to the seeking out of information that often causes severe mental harm, the Internet providing them with an immediate archive of self-destructive possibilities that earlier iterations of young protagonists could only have dreamed of.

This fascination with knowing “the truth” in all its grisly details foreshadows our modern era where we find ourselves deeply emotionally impacted by our newsfeeds before we’ve even had breakfast.

While in school, the girls get their news from their parents, classmates, gossip, local newspapers. In a nod to the fantasies spun by their mothers in the name of protecting their daughters from life, Murphy refers to New Mexico by its nickname, Land of Enchantment. The heroines may not always have all of what are often mistakenly referred to as “the facts,” but their disposition is affected nonetheless. They are sad girls looking for escape from the violence that surrounds them; they are smart girls looking beyond the fantasy stories their mothers tell them in an attempt to protect them from it. Celine and Julie turn to coping mechanisms both deemed healthy (theater, theory, intimacy) and toxic (drugs, casual sex, and self-harm.)

In the face of the influx of information about the horrors of the world, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. After learning about the concept of “disenchantment,” Julie tells Celine “Just fuck it.” “What?” Celine asks--“Just… everything.” Julie replies with all the frustrations of youth and disillusionment about adulthood. Living on the border, violence against women overlaps with violence in the name of protection and security. Donna Beth, the older girl from the theater Celine and Julie are in awe of, is murdered along with her mother Guadalupe by Guadalupe’s estranged husband, a U.S. border patrol officer. Celine and Julie are confronted with the barbarity of this through the dissemination of news and analysis: “Pages swarmed with words. The girls felt so manic and depressed, raging and invisible.” Coming of age is a conflict between a desire to know what’s going on in the world, and a fear of what the knowledge will do to us. We never see the protagonists give in completely to hopelessness; instead, they set about adulthood as a game of trying to survive.

Protagonists in bildungsromans often grapple with love and transience, learning the painful lessons of life’s unpredictability and unreliability. Murphy’s contextualization of Celine and Julie’s vulnerability against the backdrop of Tiqqun’s Theory of a Young-Girl reinforces the power and precariousness of the young hetero woman post sexual revolution. Celine, having moved to Chicago, grasps for intimacy as a way out of her own head. She flings herself at Brendan, her first great love. To the outside world, the curation of her and Brendan’s relationship on social media appears so real, so happy. A theme echoed in all three books is our newly acquired ability to edit and curate our personal lives and its impact on how we view others, how we view ourselves, and our often harmful impulse for comparison. “Who is your handsome man?” Julie asks half-enviously, and yet Celine’s happy relationship is an illusion, even to herself. After a trip to Toronto, the sweet torture of having access to a lover’s email reveals to Celine that she is not Brendan’s only paramour. After unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation, Brendan callously declares, “I’m not sure I’ve ever really respected you. You let me fuck you on the first night.”

Julie finds little reprieve after abandoning the theater, shifting from major to major, state to state, country to country, friendship to friendship, lover to lover. The Internet arrives, and so with it the ever-increasing exposure to the injustices of the world. The jarring images from Abu Ghraib have a detrimental effect on Julie, which allows Murphy to explore the contemporary question of what the constant exposure to images of extreme violence is doing to our psyche. Overall, it seems social media wields a negative power over Julie, especially with her unhealthy tendency to actively search for information that will upset her. In the face of the state’s brute power, which views bodies as numbers and numbers as disposable, it seems pertinent to consider the major side effects of our constant sharing, re-sharing, and oversharing.

Oversharing is a central theme to Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, which takes readers through a twenty-something’s journey from small-town strip malls to the bright lights of L.A. From a dead-end job gathering data at the local mall to a life of Internet fame, Colleen’s future is shaped by numbers on a screen. The suburban residents, who have the time and motivation to subject themselves to consumer surveys at the local mall, are wooed with promises of samples and miniscule payments. In order to claim “main household shopper” status and the ability to complete the survey, participants must select the income range of $40,001 to $50,000. Whether this matches real life earnings or not, “[t]he numbers sounded like fantasies, their remoteness making them easier to accept.” The poor are allowed a fantasy of affluence while the state mines their data.

Dreams of celebrity as an escape from a mundane life is a tale as old as time, however the online world of blogging, vlogging, and gramming affords young people a greater proximity to its realization. Colleen’s days are spent gathering data at the mall, and her nights are spent growing her Internet following. In between the mediocrity of daily life and moonlighting as an almost-star, she experiments with various iterations of her sexuality. From unwanted male attention to the exhilaration of requited desire, Colleen flits from guy to guy until she catches the attention of semi-celebrity Jim, who belongs to her same blogosphere. Stagg keeps details of their meeting opaque, a reflection of the mysterious ways in which Internet fame happens. As their mutual numbers begin to skyrocket, Colleen abandons strip mall suburbia for the flashing lights of L.A., where they can finally be together, in real life--but little about their time together is real. As more and more of our relationships are forged online, the state of adulthood is riddled with questions of how well we can ever really know and trust people, and whether our feelings for them are real or manufactured.

Colleen soon discovers that being known isn’t to be free of the jealousies and insecurities that are part of getting older. In fact, these are magnified by the intensity and immediacy of a social life unfolding online. Relationships change and feelings for others are molded by what is seen on social media feeds. One misinterpreted Instagram pic or tweet can end a relationship. “When did he have enough time away from me to be alone with her long enough to take all these pictures?” is something Colleen demands of the reader after developing an overpowering obsession with fellow web celeb Lucinda, who is rumored to be sleeping with Jim. Colleen frantically refreshes Lucinda’s feeds, searching for evidence of their relationship, flaws in Lucinda’s character, who knows--the grips of obsession don’t follow logical lines. Here, Stagg alludes to the kind of presence these two girls might have, “Lucinda is just like me. She is alone in her bedroom, taking selfie after selfie, relating to the world as if it is a soft, sexist thing.” The vapid engagement with new media from a vaguely feminist standpoint feels very familiar and is part of what disenchants Colleen with this sort of celebrity. The era of the celebrity as spokesperson for social issues is upon us, and it’s necessary to ask ourselves if we’re listening for the right reasons.

Scrolling through social media feeds in his Brooklyn bedroom becomes part of Teebs’s identity formation, the narrator of Tommy Pico’s IRL. Far from his childhood in the Viejas reservation in Southern California, Teebs becomes wary of the performativity of the online world, questioning the insular nature of his contacts’ lives where his feels so expansive, encompassing the entire span of U.S. colonial history. In the space where Real and Internet Life collapse onto each other, Teebs confronts contemporary narratives surrounding queer and indigenous identity while seeking comfort in the many distractions the online world provides. There is a delicate balance between the two: the former making the latter a near impossible task. Teebs exhibits a disdain for the unthinking behavior of others, a common characteristic of the Bildungsroman. The lack of self-awareness of his community is displayed as he zooms past statuses about wanting soup or minor, hollow mentions of suicide. Teebs refuses to coddle or comfort his online friends, determined not to let stories of suicide linked to colonial oppression, lack of access to resources, and violence enacted on indigenous people go ignored. The realization that the scope of information online is in fact limited, leaves Teebs with the specter of lost knowledge--archives in his cultural identity that will remain empty. “Kumeyaays knew / a rounded Earth based / on the curve of stars / or didn’t, I’ll never know.”

Woven through Teebs’ mourning for what has been lost to the past, is an unapologetic declaration of self in the present. If coming of age is an assertion of identity, Pico does so both through character and through form. His writing references both pop culture and political theory in equal measure. Humor runs alongside defiance. The English language is a tool of colonialism: “language is a living / history class… conquest hardwired / into lingua franca.” As a rebellion, Teebs employs all the language he knows, shaking of the yoke of formalized storytelling. The theoretical, the academic, and the poetic intertwine with slang, Internet shorthand, invention, and in-joke. Teebs enjoys Sontag and Sonic the Hedgehog equally, and views reality TV as being as important as documentary. There is critique alongside an understanding for the need for escapism; while Teebs wants to call out the superficiality of certain conversations, he is also aware of why they happen.

The tension felt in all three books, between frustration over the difficulties of adulthood and a desire to find joy in life, is ever-present. Teebs’s quest for amusement leads him to Muse, the central love interest of the book. Yet the love story is anything but traditional, filled with all the markers of modern romance: sexting, misinterpreted G-chats, Grindr matches, consummated and unconsummated flirtations with other men (the latter being Jesus for whom Teebs’s feelings are too pure to fuck). Accessing Muse is viable only due to the opportunities that dating in the Internet age affords us--a world where our options are at once limitless and unattainable, as is the illusion of consumer choice under capitalism. “Crushing / on muse is compatible / with the Internet / in the sense that / Internet is comprised / of possibility.” Teebs’s desires are fueled by constant online reminders of Muse’s presence, raising the question of whether Muse is even real, “Don’t fall in love / with Muse, duh! Muse is / embodiment of abstract / concept.” Distraction in romantic obsession cleverly blends with the traditional invocation of the Muse, the inspiration for the narrative’s revelations. Pico’s epic refuses the genre’s impositions, asking why the coming-of-age novel cannot be a poem instead.

The bildungsroman doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, with contemporary writers still eager to probe that delicate space between childhood and adulthood. The process of coming of age hasn’t changed all that much as we continue to grapple with questions of love, knowledge, and identity. Indeed, the scope has widened, with protagonists facing new challenges with communication and sharing information, but also an increasing cast of storytellers are finding an audience for their words. In a recent New York Times essay, Tony Tulathimutte argues against an idea that any one novel can be considered “a voice of a generation.” As identities are complex, non-monolithic things, there can be no one generational voice as “the desire to universalize... feeling, and declare that any book speaks for everyone, ends up shortchanging both the novel and the generation.” Contemporary authors are experimenting with theme, form, and language to place the universality of the aging process against the ever-pressing need for explorations into the individualities of our experiences, and the bildungsroman is stronger for it. These stories are a testament to our times, and as the realms of fiction and nonfiction blur--as genre itself collapses--we can see these as not just stories, but historical documents mapping out contemporary existence.