In Praise of MA (Middle-Aged) Fiction

Rebecca Steinitz

Reading what we might call MA (Middle-Aged) fiction, it’s easy to see how YA (Young Adult) fiction has become so popular among not-so-young adults. In the face of characters burdened with troublesome children, aging parents, failures of love and marriage, professional frustration (or even more frustrating professional success), depression, cancer, and obesity, who wouldn’t want to read about wizard school, interspecies romance, and youthful triumphs over dystopian regimes?

So what does MA fiction have to offer? It is older and wiser. It recognizes that eventually you must leave your childhood, and your beloved brothers and sisters may or may not accompany you. It traffics in dreams deferred and dashed, but holds on to the possibility of older, wiser dreams. It is, more often than not, the fiction of privilege, for it is largely the already fortunate who have the opportunity to maintain their dreams till middle age. It acknowledges that some never find their way; or find it briefly, then lose it; or find it, hold it, and are nonetheless lost. It knows that loss haunts even the wildly successful, blissful, and enlightened. In short, MA may not distract us, but, as in the three recent novels discussed here, it recognizes, consoles, and sometimes even inspires.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was one of this summer’s most highly touted novels. Tracing the long-term trajectory of a set of friends who meet at a creative arts summer camp in the waning months of Nixon’s presidency, The Interestings has a historical and emotional specificity that will resonate with its target audience of readers the same age as its characters. If mentions of Etan Patz and the Moonies, AIDS and protease inhibitors, the rise of financial culture and the collapse of Drexel Burnham Lambert, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Prozac, 9/11, and autism sometimes seem arbitrarily inserted as zeitgeist signifiers, they nevertheless capture the evolution of a certain sphere of East Coast privilege over the last 40 years.

Like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway and Prep’s Lee Fiora, Jules Jacobson is the longing, observant outsider drawn to this sphere. A gawky Long Island public school kid, she is initially intimidated by the New York City teens who populate the “little utopia” of Spirit-in-the-Woods “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.” Rapidly, and to her surprise, she becomes part of their self-named circle, The Interestings, an appellation at once ironic and earnest. Wolitzer captures both the artsy ’70s milieu and the self-absorbed self-aggrandizement of talented (and not so talented) teens.

Then they grow up; some make it and some don’t, for a variety of reasons. Widely recognized genius Ethan Figman, an amalgam of Simpson’s creator Matt Groening and TED conference–founder Richard Saul Wurman, with a philanthropic touch of Bill Gates, is named a Teen to Watch Out For by Parade magazine and hits the big time in his 20s with the animated series Figland, originally created at Spirit-in-the-Woods. Ethan marries his camp girlfriend, the elegant and diminutive Ash Wolf, who, with the support of adequate talent, family wealth, and spousal fame, becomes a noted feminist theater director; Ethan and Ash rapidly amass cash, real estate, repute, and respect. Meanwhile, their best friend Jules, recognizing her minor talent, but also her minor means, gives up her dreams of acting, becomes a therapist, and marries a devoted but depressive ultrasound technician, the one significant character who did not attend Spirit-in-the-Woods.

For Jules and her husband, Dennis, in contrast to Ethan and Ash, “Mostly, the years were just ordinary or mildly disappointing.” If talent and background are two determining factors, character is another: Ash’s brother Goodman commits a crime and disappears, while another camp alumnus, Jonah Bay, scarred by the abusive exploitation of his musical talent by one of his famous mother’s folksinger friends, rejects the arts altogether and retreats into professional and personal reserve.

As Wolitzer charts and analyzes these disparate paths, she nails both the hunger of middle-aged envy, which feeds on the grass that looks greener as well as on the grass that actually is greener, and the blindness of middle-aged nostalgia. Ethan and Ash’s idyllic success proves not so perfect. Ash’s idealizing commitment to her lost brother, and the myth of innocence, warps her life and perhaps his. Jules discovers that you can’t go back to camp. And yet, even as The Interestings reveals the losses of middle age, Wolitzer’s novel also presents its gains, as, entering their 50s, the characters discover and rediscover new possibilities and pleasures, finding ways to move forward instead of looking sideways or back.

Shriver’s novel addresses the questions: What would you do for your brother? What do we do to ourselves?

In Big Brother, Lionel Shriver takes the nostalgic middle-aged brother-sister dynamic to an Antigone-meets-Flowers-in-the-Attic extreme. Jazz musician Edison Appaloosa is Pandora Halfdanarson’s big brother in more ways than one: older and adored, he arrives at her Iowa home for a two-month vacation between gigs, hundreds of pounds heavier than when she last saw him. Edison has lost interest in the piano and appears interested only in food: he eats most of a family-sized casserole and a pecan pie the night he arrives; cooks a mountain of pancakes, a foothill of toast, and a lake of eggs for breakfast the next morning; and is soon inundating the household with groceries, and doing little else. As Pandora and her family face the increasingly literal “elephant in the room,” Big Brother addresses the questions: What would you do for your brother? What do we do to ourselves?

Whereas Edison can’t stop consuming, Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, an artistic but unprofitable furniture maker, is “consumed with control,” a “nutritional Nazi” with a “stringent diet,” who enhances his claim to asceticism with compulsive bicycle riding. An only child who offloaded his meth-addicted first wife, he has no understanding of the sibling bond to which Pandora clings. Meanwhile, Edison lies in a recliner, smokes incessant cigarettes, and can’t stop talking about his once-upon-a-time jazz triumphs. “If this was a duel, my husband was the sheriff, my brother the outlaw,” says Pandora.

And what of Pandora? Slightly overweight and the only professional success of the bunch, she is the media-touted owner of Baby Monotonous, a trendy company that makes gift dolls who look and speak like their recipients (one iteration of the novel’s insistent doubling). Pandora is also resolutely, if unconvincingly, nondescript: “I didn’t hold many opinions … I loved being dull,” she insists, in one of many such protests that eventually register as too much. Her “life otherwise ordinary by design” is in part a reaction to growing up in Hollywood as the daughter of a minor, now has-been, celebrity, the self-named Travis Appaloosa, star of Joint Custody, a television show about a divorced family whose children have mirrored and haunted Edison and Pandora throughout their lives. Pandora is astute but preachy, intriguing but repellent, the kind of character who reminds us of Claire Messud’s disgusted response to an interviewer who asked if she would want to be friends with the heroine of her most recent novel: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

Eventually, Pandora moves into an apartment with Edison to help him lose weight, prioritizing her brother over her husband, which Fletcher, among others, frames as a choice of affection, bordering on romance. Reviewers have honed in, understandably, on Big Brother’s cultural topicality, and yet, although Shriver and Pandora devote much attention to obesity, it is in some ways the most unenlightening aspect of the novel. On the one hand, Edison is fat because he has failed: he starts overeating when he is forced to sell his piano. On the other hand, “it’s always been something”: he has dabbled with heroin, can’t stop smoking, and becomes as compulsive about losing weight as he was about gaining it. But Pandora also contends that food itself is the issue. “Food is the idea of satisfaction” she asserts, but it has a “near-total inability to deliver.” This is a have-it-every-which-way argument. Edison’s professional troubles may be the stuff of middle age, but his unceasing, unsatisfiable desire is, according to Lacan and other philosophers, the human condition.

This is, perhaps, the novel’s most powerful analogy with middle age: we never know what will happen, and we no longer believe we can.

The characters in Shriver’s novel struggle incessantly with the vagaries of desire: Travis endlessly attempts to resuscitate his dead career, Fletcher is addicted to resistance, and Pandora herself tries and fails to withdraw from the entire struggle. “Did anything at all in life deliver a proper payoff?” she asks, and “No” seems to be the only answer Shriver offers. And yet, if desire and dissatisfaction are the human condition, why have contemporary Americans fallen prey to food? Big Brother is studiously sociological about what it’s like to be fat on an airplane, in a chair, or walking down the street, but offers little in the way of sociocultural analysis.

It’s impossible to address the question of redemption in Big Brother without giving away its plot, but anyone who has read Shriver’s other works can surmise that anything that seems certain is not. Still, this peculiar but compelling novel has its grace notes: the connection between Pandora and Fletcher; the unalloyed sweetness of their daughter, Cody; the bracing precision of Shriver’s prose, especially when it hits the edge of poetry (“the baffling flatness of success”; “the telltale pastel effects of dairy products”). Shriver’s gift for refusing narrative predictability is perhaps Big Brother’s most powerful analogy with middle age: we never know what will happen, and we no longer believe we can.

Lucy Ellmann’s Mimi also emphasizes the unpredictable, but has little else in common with Big Brother, being spun from ebullience and full-on social critique. Mimi is the most unsung of these novels (6 Amazon reviews in the US and 25 in the UK? Travesty!), and also by far the funniest, to the point of laugh-out-loud hilarity. The story begins on Christmas Eve with middle-aged despair: plastic surgeon Harrison Hanafan, having just broken up with his dreadful heiress girlfriend Gertrude, slips on the ice on Madison Avenue, and in the wake of a resulting sprained ankle realizes:

 

that I would never ascend Everest, or abseil down the Empire State Building, or fly to the moon—not soon anyway. I’d never be asked to pitch for the Yankees, never carry a bride across a threshold (unless quite a diminutive bride and a very straightforward threshold), I’d probably never be President of the United States and/or a matador, might never manage to possess a fully equipped toolbox, or conquer athlete’s foot once and for all, and my castration complex.

 

With that, the reader is plunged into Harrison’s full-on midlife crisis, self-conscious penchant for lists and rhetorical excess, and relationship with a trio of powerful women: the megalomaniacal Gertrude; Mimi, the “wacko broad” who picks him up off the ice and soon reappears as an irresistible object of desire; and his sister, artist Bee, who spends the whole novel in England, available to him only by phone and memory, and thus is literally the voice of reason, affectionate ridicule, and long-term emotional connection.

It’s difficult to write about a funny novel without draining it of humor, especially when the novel so effectively braids humor with horror, nostalgia, genuine emotion, and just about everything. Suffice to say that, from Harrison’s initial descriptions of Gertrude, his apartment, and his “life’s work”—an ongoing List of Melancholy—to his final triumphant return to his old high school as a surprisingly revolutionary graduation speaker, Mimi is indescribably and delightfully absurd.

Yet alongside its silliness, Mimi is also the most political of these three novels. If Big Brother raises the social crisis of obesity only to retreat into the psychology of its individual characters, Mimi resolves its character’s individual crisis by exploding a fundamental social structure, or at least creating a rousing proposal to explode said structure. Harrison’s incipient feminism is visible from early on in the novel: he is disgusted by the casual misogyny of his colleagues and the cultural misogyny inherent in practicing plastic surgery in 21st-century Manhattan. But under the influence of Mimi, who preaches the importance of female pleasure and the power of prehistoric women (really, it’s funny!); Bee, whose Coziness Sculptures represent a convincing feminist emotional aesthetic; and Matisse (just take my word for it), Harrison decides—and plausibly so—that the world’s problems boil down to men oppressing women. His answer is “The Odalisque Revolution,” whereby men will give women everything, and everyone will be happy. It certainly works for him, and as a large-scale solution, it doesn’t seem half bad.

Now I come to the obligatory penultimate-paragraph disclaimer, for it must be noted that each of these books has its flaws, just like their collective middle-aged cast of characters, not to mention us readers. The Interestings can be portentous, persistently foreshadowing its characters’ futures and over-salting its pages with knowing uses of the conditional, as in “much later it would be clear that they couldn’t have been expected to know what to do, or exactly what to feel.” If just about anyone but Lionel Shriver had written Big Brother, the novel’s insistently explicit moral and metaphorical dualisms might seem a shade overwritten, but given Shriver’s consummate control—and penchant for narrative manipulation—it seems likely she wrote them exactly as she wanted them. Mimi, it must be said, wanders: though always entertaining, it sometimes digresses to the point of appearing to abandon plot altogether, though eventually plot takes over and does not let go.

MA was around long before YA (see: Persuasion, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch) and its contemporary popularity (see Telegraph Avenue, May We Be Forgiven, The Woman Upstairs, NW) suggests that it will persist alongside and perhaps beyond its younger relation. For one thing, most young authors eventually become middle-aged. For another, if the dreams of youth eternally entice us, those dreams—of acceptance, love, and triumph—are strikingly repetitive. In contrast, MA is, as the title and last word of Wolitzer’s novel assert—“interesting.”