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London: Atlantic Books, 2002.
£9.99, 250 pages, ISBN 1-84354-071-1.
Université de Rouen
Hunter S. Thompson is quoted
on the very cover of Twelve: "Nick McDonell is the real
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 giftswit,
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 earlyI
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? 
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
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