Tuesday 24 April 2018

Books: The struggle to become a grown-up in your twenties

Fiction: Jonathan Unleashed, Meg Rosoff, Bloomsbury, 276 pages, ppk, €19.50, ebook €15.61

Adults are from Uranus: American author Meg Rosoff.
Adults are from Uranus: American author Meg Rosoff.
Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff

In Meg Rosoff's last book, Picture Me Gone, the main character was a 12-year-old girl peering nervously towards adulthood, not at all sure that she liked the idea of it. Now, the hugely entertaining Jonathan Unleashed features a man in his twenties doing the same.

According to John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, life essentially consists of playing a grown-up - but this is a feat of impersonation that Jonathan Trefoil just can't pull off. Not that he isn't trying. He's rented a Manhattan apartment, found a job at a small advertising agency and got himself "a not-unimpressive girlfriend". And yet, despite these trappings, "real adult life seemed to exist over there, somewhere as distant and unreachable as Uranus".

A long-established and award-winning writer for teenagers, Rosoff is known for her sympathy to the adolescent mind - and here she leaves us in no doubt about whose side she's on, or that Jonathan is right to be alarmed about becoming a grown-up.

There is, for a start, the "devastating, crushing triviality… of office life" and "the sort of things you were expected to do in exchange for money" - which, in Jonathan's case, mainly consists of writing such copy as "20 per cent off all pens!" for a stationery company. Occasionally, he does suggest more imaginative advertising methods, but his jargon-spouting client will have none of it. ("I'm thinking we cul-de-sac yesterday's work for the immediate now?")

Of course, Jonathan could just quit - but, as he points out, that might well mean leaving behind "emptiness, misery and self-loathing, only to find emptiness, misery, self-loathing and penury".

Worse still, his girlfriend is the kind of person whose idea of fun is to go antiquing - even though "the use of antique as a verb made Jonathan shrink like a salted slug". In one of many examples of Rosoff's talent for fiercely funny summary, we also learn that Julie's "belief system consisted of medium heels, a decent haircut and solid retirement funds more or less from birth".

Nonetheless, Jonathan seems reconciled to marrying her (even though he fears this will leave him "totally alone"). In 2011, Rosoff said that she sees herself primarily as a stylist interested in character, rather than a constructor of plots. She still is: while the novel fizzes with memorable one-liners and Jonathan's convincing puzzlement over how "normal people cross the huge gulf between childhood and adulthood", his route to salvation proves cheerfully implausible.

For one thing, it moves with suddenness from black farce to conventional rom-com. For another, it relies heavily on an dog who can apparently read minds.

If the ending does prove a little glib, it's definitely not glib enough to banish the fundamental melancholy of all that's gone before. Certainly, I can't think of many recent novels that show the same almost Joseph Heller-like ability to express abiding pessimism with such irresistible comic zest - or that provide such a jolting reminder of the irreducible weirdness of a blameless adult life.

Rosoff raises questions that possibly aren't as naïve as we generally like to think. Should we be so willing to accept compromised lives? And if we are, should we regard that acceptance as proof of our maturity? (Personally, I'm going for a "yes" in both cases - but then again, as Jonathan reflects when he decides to be more like Julie wants him to be: it's much less trouble that way.)

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