on 13 March 2013
Both the innocuous title of this book, `Call Me Jane', and the sweetly innocent cover-shot belie the crazy, teenage drug- and alcohol-fuelled world waiting for the reader on the pages.
There's nothing `plain' about Jane and if she is the girl-next-door at the outset, inexpertly applying make-up for a dance at the Y (youth club?), the death of her idol quickly metamorphoses her into a hardened teenage rebel when she changes school and begins to mix with the wrong crowd.
Jane's life becomes a dizzying diary of breakneck car-rides across town, late nights spent in smoke-filled dens, missed classes and endless inarticulate and inconclusive (but heart-felt) arguments about popular music, all lived out amidst a relentless regime of drug-taking and alcohol consumption. Jane and her friends are out of control, they live without obvious supervision or accountability of any kind, using drugs and alcohol under their parents' and teachers' noses and coming and going at all hours with no questions asked. Jane herself has the all-but unlimited use of her mother's car and uses it at her friends' beck and call to collect drugs, find aberrant boyfriends, and give lifts home to remote out-of-town locations, and these become the main preoccupations of her life. She is stoned or drunk for most of the time but her parents don't even seem to notice, let alone attempt to intervene. Jane finds herself on a chaotic path of self-destructive hedonism as party follows gig follows party, and voracious, continual dope-smoking and drinking leads to LSD in a spiral of hopeless, wanton addiction.
As a white-knuckle ride, as far as it went, the story was coherently written in a credibly lightweight, teenage `my diary' style. It kept my attention, but, as with white-knuckle rides, I was glad when it was over.
The prevailing timbre of this book is of relentless devil-may-care recklessness. My overall observation is that there is no light or shade within its tone. A voice of restraint or reason, some retrospective provided by an older, wiser Jane, even some moments of honest, clear-eyed reflection by the teenage Jane would have added depth and balance, but with such a limited range of nuance, the highs and lows all felt the same.
Jane has a large circle of `friends', whose zany names did nothing to help me relate to them individually, and who I felt lacked roundness. Equally manic in their unremitting decadence, they were all lost in the fug of smoke and alcohol, indistinct and interchangeable. I couldn't tell one from another and in the end I gave up trying. Their determined, unrelieved narcissism wore out my sympathy. It all seemed such a pointless waste.
Jane herself, as her name is designed to suggest, is a `nice' girl. She is clever - she plays chess - and beautiful although with a saccharine self-deprecation that doesn't realise it. But neither her niceness, her brightness nor her beauty make her sympathetic. She reduces herself to the lowest common denominator of her peers. Although clearly able to take her pick from the whole crew of boys, she allows herself to be drawn into a clandestine relationship with the boyfriend of one of the other girls. Against the otherwise profligate backdrop of her life I found her sexual prudery hard to compute, as well as the boy's interest; she never goes beyond `first base'. The story which unfolds out of the corner of the reader's eye while Jane is contemplating the end of her roach and necking in the back of her car is sad, but, surely, not unusual in the 1980s, and the scale of her self-reproach seems way out of proportion.
1980's youth culture with all its eccentric and - looking back on it, ridiculous - manifestations in fashion, music and lifestyle provides the nostalgic and well-researched setting for this novel. For Jane and her contemporaries - as, I suspect, for teenagers of any and every generation - it's a serious and important and self-defining time, but I worry that this thirty year old time frame will seem too ancient to today's teenagers, the writer's presumed audience, who might otherwise relate to the youth and hedonism of the protagonists and could undoubtedly benefit from the hard lessons of drug abuse from Jane's world. The central issue, incoherently discussed at successive parties and eventually concluded in a momentous play-off (whether the Beatles were better than the Stones) seemed to me to be an even older discussion, belonging in the 70s rather than the 80s.
The style is generally conversational, unadorned and fast-moving. Personally, I longed for some retrospection, some contemplative detail as respite. I'd like to have seen much deeper characterisation amongst the gang and an antiphonic point of view to the thoughtless teenage epicurism. Some of the prose has a sloppiness which goes beyond the teenage idiom of the narrator and there are places where a stringent editorial eye would be beneficial. There are some trails which were promising but which, in this novel anyway (and I know there is at least one more) turned out to be dead ends: the episode of the squashed frogs; the visit to the deserted farmhouse.
All that said, if you want a no-frills roller-coaster read, you couldn't do better.