September 11, 2014

American Adulthood

A.O. Scott’s essay “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” is a pretty thought-provoking piece about patriarchy and America’s self-image, and worth reading:

From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.” Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn (fig. 4), he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’ ”

The essay touches upon so many facets of a multi-faceted problem and philosophical movement that, to a certain degree, it’s hard to know how to respond: my brain is responding in several different ways, lots of no’s and yesses. I don’t particularly like recasting patriarchy as a monarchy, and claiming that America has always had issues with it – those two don’t follow – nor do I like the association of the death of the patriarchy with the upswing of immaturity. But its thoughts upon responsibility in fiction and the decline of the Great White Man are quite interesting to me.

I will say that the subject of adolescence has been on my mind recently. Not too long ago, it was brought up to me that City of Stairs was a unique fantasy, in that it did not feature an adolescent character coming into and exploring a strange world, much like, say, Narnia, or even Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. The idea of choosing an adult already immersed in the world, it seemed, was a strange one.

I had to bite my tongue, because my response was probably overly curmudgeonly: the very first thing I thought was, “I’m writing books for adults.”

And that’s not entirely true. The Troupe was a bildungsroman set in a “man on the run” sort of story, so it’s a double-whammy of adolescence. And City of Stairs contains a lot more zip-wowee than some of my other books: I definitely wrote it to be a fun book first, serious book second – whatever those terms might mean. (Or, perhaps, one is masquerading as the other – make your pick which is which.)

But what AO Scott doesn’t touch upon in his essay, is what I think the current American phobia about adulthood is about.

Perhaps we are rejecting patriarchy, perhaps that’s so. (And if we are, we’re doing it quite slowly.) But are we really rejecting responsibility as well? What are we rejecting, when we reject responsibility?

Well, think about it. Buying a house means that you will probably be living in it a long time, meaning that you will have to make long-term plans for caring for it. Investing in a 401k means accepting that you will, at some point, get old. Having kids means living a life knowing that, at some point, these people will have lives beyond yours.

To be responsible is to understand that time will change for you, whether you like it or not.

To be responsible, in other words, is to accept that one day you will die.

And that’s really what all this talk about responsibility and adulthood dances around: the man on the run and the rebellious adolescent all have better days ahead of them. The arrested-development man-child always has the option of just opting into a better life when they choose. These scenarios never really examine an option when life has passed you by, your better days are behind you, and you cannot go on to greater things.

Being responsible means understanding that one day these things might happen, and you need to plan accordingly – now. To put future pleasures ahead of present ones means understanding that one day you might not have a future at all – and this is exceedingly terrifying to modern Americans.

Aren’t Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos all, in their hearts, shows haunted by death? Don Draper, Heisenberg, Tony Soprano – are these not men who lived their lives in defiance of, or in terror of, death itself? Aren’t all three of these bad-men protagonists childishly rebelling against this idea, against accepting that this is coming, and instead reject responsibility and demand for more, more now, not later?

When one says adult, our national subconscious often defaults to an image of a middle-aged white man – are we not exploring our own fear of death by examining how these avatars of supposed-responsibility react, or fail to react, to the inevitability of their futures? And when we see them fail, do we perhaps say to ourselves, “Well, if they can’t do it, no one can,” and pull the blankets of adolescence up over our heads, and attempt to desperately dive back into childish pleasures?

If the piece says anything – and it is a rambling bit, with some non sequiturs – it seems to suggest that a re-examination of responsibility is due. Without the Great White Man standard of authority – which, as we increasingly see now, was corrupt and entitled – upon which we depended for so long, we are now being forced to come up with a new version.

So – who will fill the gap? What will fill the gap? To me, the question is – how we will, culturally, come up with a new mode of responsibility? And how will we reconcile ourselves with death in the 21st century?


I don’t want to pull a Cormac McCarthy here and say that all my books are about death. But they kind of are. They seem that way to me, at least. You can tell it’s on my mind a lot.

And I’m not sure I can examine death from an adolescent perspective. To me, to understand death, one must take on the responsibilities of another’s survival, to under that another person depends on you: this could be from the point of view of a leader, a parent, a spouse, or a friend. Once you do this – and, to me, this is not a glamorous, dramatic process, not when examined truthfully – you’re not an adolescent anymore, but a fully-fledged adult.

And I don’t think a true examination of death can be done from dramatic, life-and-death scenarios, which seem so common in adolescent fiction: hurling yourself in front of a bullet sometimes seems much easier than taking care of a terminally ill relative or child for months or even years. To accept death means curbing and changing and – and here’s the key word – compromising all of your subsequent actions and decisions. And maybe I’m not reading the right material, but it seems rare to see a character who compromises the remainder of their lives, perhaps living a life they ordinarily would not wish to, in order to do the responsible thing.