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Nick McDonell
London: Atlantic Books, 2002.
£9.99, 250 pages, ISBN 1-84354-071-1.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Hunter S. Thompson is quoted on the very cover of Twelve: "Nick McDonell is the real thing… I'm afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine." Now there's a puffed up statement if ever there was any. I have deep respect for Thompson, whose classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) continues to delight readers. Whatever qualities Twelve might have, it can't really compare.

Richard Price, for his part, is quoted on the back-cover: "In Twelve, Nick McDonell displays a remarkable arsenal of gifts—wit, near poetic concision, a terrific eye and ear […]" I suppose I can agree with that. But he goes on to speak of "the Great Gift: the ability to tell a story, in such a way that, once engaged, the reader will find it near impossible to put the book down". I myself did not find it to be such a page-turner, quite frankly. The blurb also boasts that "Twelve captures the soul of the generation" and I'm tempted to endorse that, except I suggest "soullessness" rather than "soul".

The real problem of that book is as follows: if you haven't read any novel by Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis, you will enjoy it thoroughly, but if like me you've read all their novels and short stories, then Twelve will not give you the least impression of novelty. I am not implying in the least that McDonell has plagiarized his elders to any degree. But minimalist more or less postmodern seemingly-devoid-of-moral-stance fiction has been around for a while; as has fiction about bored rich kids living in Manhattan and taking drugs. Even Daniel L. Magida did it, in a very acceptable way (The Rules of Seduction, 1992). McDonell has been relentlessly hailed as the new Bret Easton Ellis, but he hasn't got the sheer genius of Ellis. When Ellis writes about a serial killing golden boy, drawing lists of designer duds page after page, or when he narrates the confusion of a manipulated supermodel, exploring the mechanisms of fame, he attains some universal truths and actively comments on our society. But McDonell's novel, although interesting, does not reach such levels. Admittedly, some passages may remind readers of Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987).

The impression you get is that he was a bored rich kid himself, who thought, "oh, why don't I write a novel instead of drifting from party to party and get stoned with my bored rich kid friends?" He looks very young (and good-looking) indeed on the page two photograph. He must be between eighteen and twenty-two, I'd venture. And who hasn't heard that his entire family is in the publishing / writing industry? Surely it helped, most people will surmise, even if they don't mean to be venomous.

Twelve is packed with cultural references (literature, music, cinema) and like Ellis's novels it mentions designer labels (though not quite so frequently). You are made to feel that McDonell has read his Greek, Latin, English and American classics, as well as people like Camus. The very first page mentions the film American Beauty, presumably to indicate that the novel covers the same sort of ground, and in a way it does.

White Mike, the principal character, is the only one who is clearly defined. The others remain deliberately and cleverly shallow. There are two boys who vaguely evoke Kevin Smith's notorious Jay and Silent Bob. The novel is composed of ninety-eight short chapters, which usually follow this pattern: in a chapter A goes somewhere where he sees B or talks about B, in the next chapter B goes somewhere where he sees C or talks about C, etc. Nothing much happens, really, in the traditional sense, but we are not dealing with a, say, stream-of-consciousness nothing-happens classic here.

McDonell often starts leading us down an attention-grabbing path, such as the definition / construction of young masculinity or femininity in contemporary America, but then he stops a little bit too early—I suppose it is quite deliberate, but it remains frustrating. Although there are fine self-contained passages, like this:

She hangs around with these three girls all the time, even though she knows she is much smarter than they are. They agree about certain fundamental things, and this holds them together. They agree about who is cool and who is not. They agree that it is okay to give blow jobs but not to have sex until, like, the time is right. They agree that they should never have to buy their own drinks at bars. They agree that chicks must come before dicks. They agree that they are all sexy, but each more so than the other three. They agree that the Hamptons rock and that their parents suck, even though, like, I tell my mom everything, but not everything everything, you know? [51]

Forty years of feminist struggle, an alleged sexual revolution, and this is where we are?! Sexuality could also have been explored further, I believe. I would have welcomed more scenes like the one where Jessica is prepared to have sex with Lionel in exchange for drugs (twelve, the new designer drug), however unoriginal. Twelve is extremely heterosexual, in a way Ellis's novels aren't. Indeed you find it hard to believe that in the circles the characters frequent in Manhattan in the twenty-first century there are no lesbians or gays to speak of. At the most there is a boy who is jocularly suspected of being gay because he ice-skates on his own, "without girls".

Twelve is very much a post-Columbine novel, though, and that is one of its strengths. It may lack the power of a Dennis Cooper narrative (see the review of My Loose Thread in Cercles), but you can tell that the writer is on the right track. He has a great ear for dialogue. Indeed for an early effort it is somewhat impressive, and it does make you wonder what his next move will be. Twelve is a best-seller anyway, so I dare say McDonell does not worry unduly about the opinion of disgruntled Ellis aficionados / literary critics like me.


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