Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"All Grown Up," by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” (2012) was a bestseller, a sprawling family story. Her new novel, “All Grown Up” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) is a smaller and quieter book, focusing mainly on one character. That character, Andrea, narrates the book in a series of chapters that are almost like individual short stories, telling of different aspects of, and episodes in, the character’s life. They are not in chronological order; they skip back and forth from Andrea’s twenties to her forties, often going over the same ground more than once, from different angles. Although the focus is on one character, and the writing is straightforward rather than out-and-out stream-of-consciousness, I noted elements of a Virginia Woolf novel, “The Waves,” in the recursive style. Although there is mention of and attention to Andrea’s family members, friends, and work colleagues, “All Grown Up” is predominantly inward-looking. However, we readers are not allowed to learn too much even about this character. The closest we get is peeks into Andrea’s ambivalent-yet-close relationship to her mother, and her description of her beloved brother and sister-in-law, who are barely coping with watching their young, very disabled daughter die in slow motion. Andrea herself feels her life is going nowhere, yet doesn’t quite know what it is she wants. She has a decent job but doesn’t really like it. She has a fairly nice apartment in New York City, not an easy thing to find. She dates quite a bit, but doesn’t have a long-term partner or husband or child; she claims not to want these, and yet seems sad not to have them, and surprised to find herself forty years old without having acquired any of them. She has friends, but seems to be disconnected from them for long periods of time. She is an art-school dropout who rarely practices her art, yet spends many hours over many years drawing and re-drawing the Statue of Liberty, which she could see outside her apartment window until a new, tall building blocked her view. This latter sequence is surely symbolic of her own status in her own eyes. “All Grown Up” doesn’t have much drama, doesn’t really “go anywhere,” yet perhaps encapsulates what becoming an adult consists of for some people: not being dramatically successful, not dramatically failing, but being somewhere in the muddled in-between state where many people exist as their lives proceed in ordinariness (and that is if they are fortunate; I know the whole context is one of privilege). I applaud Attenberg for capturing this common condition, but I also have to say that reading about it is rather dispiriting.
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