What is it about the form of the coming-of-age novel that attracts, excites and moves us?
According to Megan Whalen Turner (who evidently was the most vocal author on the panel), people like to believe in change, transformation and self-discovery. Many successful coming-of-age novels, she said, end with a general spirit of optimism and the protagonist's successful move from childhood to adulthood. Humans are naturally attracted to hope, she said.
I do not disagree. But this can't be true for every novel in the coming-of-age genre.
Sure, there are many coming-of-age novels that embrace optimism. Melinda from Speak stands up to the guy who raped her. We are left with the sense that she's learned to "speak" up for herself: a successful transition. In Looking for Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel play one last prank in honor of their dead friend and turn in spotless final papers wrought with meaning. Ponyboy does them one better -- he composes an entire novel (The Outsiders) in memory of Johnny. Harry defeats Voldemort. These endings (well, at least the first two) close naturally and beautifully. And for some people, that's how their coming-of-age experience ends.
But I've found that a good number of authors embrace the real instead of the ideal. (At least, if they believe that great art imitates life and not the other way around.) By the end of Huck Finn, even after Jim is released from chains and celebrated as a hero by all the white folk, slavery still exists in America. Huck's father was a terrible father and now he's dead. Tom will only continue to selfishly manipulate Huck.
In the instance of Mockingbird, Boo Radley comes out of the house and saves the Finch children -- but Atticus still lost the trial. Holden Caulfield lands himself a stint in a mental hospital. Esther Greenwood attempts suicide. Humans die. Problems perpetuate. And though the author has embraced the real instead of the ideal, the public still embraces the novel. What gives?
1) The protagonist's lesson learned, though painful, deeply resonates with our own experience. We gravitate toward the strength of the bond between author, protagonist and reader.
2) We enjoy and value an accurate portrayal of common human experience. Reality can sober and excite, simultaneously. Reality can also give us an understanding of problems in our world. The best of these coming-of-age novels will propel us to find solutions to these problems.
3) The beauty in ugly or unwieldy truths moves us to a posture of compassion, bewilderment, awe, or another powerful emotion. And to feel is to live ... right?
4) We find the sharp, unresolved edges of a realistic novel more comforting than a novel that wraps up cleanly. We don't like to get our hopes up.
(I'm sure some author somewhere has been able to transmit these ideas with succinct profundity, but I have yet to unearth their writing. Please send the name of that author my way, in the event that you know of their writing.)
These four speculative ideas bring me to a final question:
Which type of coming-of-age novel has more staying power, the one that has embraced optimism or the one that remains consistent with reality? Or, is the ideal vs. real argument irrelevant to the success of the novel?
Images in this post are courtesy of bagelwhore, droo216 and kitsuneii @ deviantart.com. Thank you for beautifying my blog!