Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Whatever You Are, You Revel in It: Notes from the Teenage Undeground by Simmone Howell

Sometimes it takes more than a cursory read to fall for a book. Sometimes it takes five hours of personal time navigating the public transit system of NYC to give it the undivided attention it deserves.

Bev named me after her favourite feminist, Germaine Greer. My namesake was brave and audacious, a sexual libertine, and an authority on Shakespeare. Umm...much to live up to?
Bev insists all that all smart girls have an inner Greer. I picture mine asleep under a rock or kidney stone.

Gem thought she and her unlikely trio of friends would rule their school, leaving the "barcodes" in their waste. Wild Lo leads the pack, slipping into different roles as easily as she slips into Gem's castoff wardrobe. Mira tests the limits of her newfound beauty, still as desperate for attention as the gawky preteen she once was. Gem, however, is in pieces. A little bit she owes to her well-meaning artist mother Bev, who's done her best to combine security with freedom in their nest. A little bit she owes to her father, a cipher who took off to the Bush before she was born and sends dubious haiku every holiday. A little she owes to the summer projects of the past, when she rubs oils into her chakras and lights candles and a cigarette to consult the I Ching.

Lo is inspired to lead the girls Underground this summer, imbuing their days with guerilla art, cinema veritee, and surrealist acts to sabotage their exams. Gem is exhilarated studying such muses as Warhol's Freaks and the second-wave feminists as well as working on the script for her first film, but Lo and Mira have other plans for their Happenings and Gem's hard work. Gracelessly figured into the equation is her video store coworker Dodgy, a film student in love with criminally bad movies and the sound of his own voice. While navigating the wreckage of her friendships after a hysterically bad first Happening, Gem's father decides to reappear, throwing another curve into the path. Ultimately, she transcends her obnoxious peers and comes into her own as a feminist, an filmmaker, and her own self--or at least has found the tools to do so.

I told them about Nico, the Teutonic blonde who front Andy Warhol's "house" band, the Velvet Underground. She looked like an angle and sang like a drone...In the Factory days she had a white suit and a black suit and that was all she wore.
And I told them about Brigid Berlin, who was fat and loud and funny...Her parents were society people, and everything she did horrified them.
And I told them about Viva, who studied art at the Sorbonne, and Ultra Violet, who had a thing with Salvador Dali, and Candy Darling, the realest looking man-woman ever. I talked nonstop for half an hour, telling Lo and Mira about all the beautiful freaks, finishing on Edie tickling her though with a scarlet ibis feather.
"These were women who didn't care!" I summed up.
How cool, not to care.

Sometimes I forget the urgency of teenagerhood. The elements that I found hair-tearingly annoying (Gem's inability to just ditch her friends at the first sign of betrayal, the endless quest to lose her virginity) are true to life for the normal teen who looks past what the media and her peers feed her. In morally bankrupt twentysomethings such as myself, it may inspire one to spread horrible, untrue facts to the young and gullible. ("If you don't lose your vees by the time you're 21, it'll grow teeth and eat all your best knickers!") After seeing Gem subdued time and time again by her rotten so-called friends and love interest, it was wonderful to see her come into her own with her family and new allies in the last act. The writing is crisp and fast-paced, with satisfying emotional depth and great observations: Gem describes the State Library as "filled with the perfume of knowledge," where Mira "finds it a challenge because it's rife with nerd boys" and Lo is "Our Lady of the Microfiche." Oh, all this and Gem's a hoot too.

Dodgy indicated the screen..."Edie [Sedgewick] gave film the best years of her life."
"Maybe it's a good thing. She wouldn't have remembered them otherwise."

Notes from the Teenage Underground
is a terrific first effort, carried by its unique angle and refreshing approach to feminism. (Gem is skeptical but open-minded.) I enjoyed it thoroughly, and can't wait to see what Simmone Howell comes up with next.

*Simmone Howell's Website
*Simmone Howell's Livejournal
*Interviews: at Pink World (especially good!), Up Close and Personal, Slayground (also very good!)
*Some of the films featured: I Love You, Alice B. Toklas; The Sandpiper, Midnight Cowboy, Three Coins in the Fountain


Little Willow said...

Thanks for the link and the comment! I appreciate it. Simmone Howell's next novel, Everything Beautiful, will be out in October. I had the opportunity to read it early, and I enjoyed it.

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