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All About Lulu
By Jonathan Evison
Soft Skull Press / ISBN: 978-1-59376-196-7
I've talked about this subject here before, but it seems to be one that comes up again and again at CCLaP, regarding how much of the incidental details of our lives influence what we think of any given book -- how old we are when we read it, what in life we've been exposed to already, what kind of mood we're in, whether we're single or in a relationship, etc. For example, as someone who came of age within the early-'80s punk/zine community of the American Midwest, I have been drawn over the years to plaintive quirky coming-of-age tales set amongst such people; but after two decades of them now, plus simply getting older and wiser and now worrying about a whole new set of issues in my life, I find my mind wandering anymore whenever tackling such contemporary tales. And that wouldn't be an issue if I weren't a book critic -- I would simply skip these books otherwise -- but since I am a book critic, and since I do like to do as fair and balanced of reviews here as possible, it's important for me to understand all these ways my own personal life influences what I think of a project. A novel isn't necessarily bad just because I in particular find large parts of it tedious, and only because of consuming a massive amount of similar projects in my past; that's my problem as a reader, not theirs as a writer, and it would be unfair of me to have it unduly influence my finished essay.
And the issue has come up yet again this week, after reading Jonathan Evison's novel All About Lulu; because as you can imagine, it's the exact kind of quirky plaintive youth-culture coming-of-age story I've been talking about, and sure enough I ended up liking it in general but finding large parts of it tedious, and indeed I am having a hard time now determining whether this is a legitimate problem with the general pacing or my particular growing intolerance for the usual tropes of this genre. It's a book I can safely recommend, and have no ethical problem doing so; but it's also one of those books for a select audience only, a younger audience who hasn't been exposed to as many of these kinds of stories yet, perhaps current students who like The Catcher in the Rye but wish a version existed full of their own generation's cultural references. The farther away you are from this type, the more problems you will probably have with this manuscript, although as mentioned I doubt that anyone would call the experience out-and-out terrible.
In fact, this is Evison's first-ever novel, put out by our subversive friends at Soft Skull Press (DISCLOSURE: I am personal friends with several of the company's staff members); it's the story of Will Miller Jr, son of professional bodybuilder Bill Senior, brother to twin budding teenaged musclemen themselves, with a biological mother who has died and a "step-girlfriend" who was formerly a family acquaintance, who has brought with her into the extended family her own teenage daughter, the Lulu of the book's title. And for sure, the entire first third of this novel is an extremely charming, very well-written account of young budding love (perhaps better described as a stomach-churning combination of lust, fear, admiration and frustration), told through a series of magical, awkward set pieces and late-night conversations, which like I said you will find either profound or merely well-done, depending on your own age and how many projects like this you've already been exposed to.
But here's the problem, although it actually looks like an asset to the story at first, and I'm sure was a big part of why this first-time novelist came to the attention of Soft Skull in the first place; that roughly a third of the way in, Lulu finds out something that immediately brings a halt to this budding flirtatious relationship she's been having with Will, news we know came from her mom and Will's dad together, news that we know somehow concerns the entire family, but that for some reason is being deliberately withheld from Will himself. And unfortunately, the entire remaining two-thirds of the book relies on this giant dark unknown secret in order to sustain both the plot and our interest; but I in particular was able to successfully guess the secret a mere page or two after it was first mentioned, something I never try to do on purpose which is why it p-sses me off even more when it accidentally happens anyway. And seriously, besides that running thread, the entire rest of the story is a sorta meandering look at how the young adulthoods of these two progress, presenting rather ho-hum anecdotes about rather drab lives, that just so happen to match up with the various pop-culture movements of the Pacific Northwest in the '90s and '00s.
Now granted, the origins of these literary problems becomes an interesting intellectual exercise if you stop and think about it; is it that I've simply read too many of these stories already, was able to guess nearly the entire plot well in advance, and was also not able to enjoy the smaller string of youthful developments that hang off this central mysterious question (for example, the whole string of philosophy term papers Will supposedly writes in college -- dear Lord, all those philosophy papers)? Will readers younger than me end up liking this book a lot more, precisely because they've never pondered the kinds of issues that are brought up in the second half? Or is this a more universal problem on the part of Evison himself, certainly a forgivable sin for a first novel but for sure the very definition of "weak second act?" Whatever the case, I have to confess that large parts of this storyline simply bored me, an even more frustrating thing because of the first third being so promising. (And as a digression, as I've mentioned here before, let me also admit that I detest the so-called "Forrest Gump" literary gimmick, in which a character just happens to be a witness to a whole string of rare and special events and communities over a certain period of history, and that this book is guilty of that in spades. "She's in Seattle dating a musician when grunge hits! Then after Cobain dies, she sobers up and becomes a slam poet! And then she becomes a feminist stripper! And then she goes on Prozac!" Okay, Evison, jeez, enough! Life is like a box of heroin-injected chocolates, I freaking get it!)
Ultimately All About Lulu has a lot more good things going for it than bad, which is why I don't hesitate to recommend it today, despite me thinking it a good idea to ask yourself beforehand what kind of reader you are when it comes to this kind of stuff. Like such previously reviewed books as Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned, Ben Tanzer's Lucky Man, and Monica Drake's Clown Girl, how much you like this novel is going to directly depend on where in life you yourself are at, not so much with the writing itself (although admittedly somewhat with the writing itself). It is at the least without a doubt a great literary debut, something that announces the arrival of a powerful new voice to the scene, an activity Soft Skull excels at; needless to say, I'm highly looking forward to Evison's next project.
Out of 10: 8.1