21st Century Boys: Coming-of-Age In Contemporary Literature


Following the publication of Johann van Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1787), countless young men inspired by the classic Bildungsroman began imitating in the novel’s protagonist , the sentimental young man who claimed that “I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything”. If Werther’s statement is sincere then his heart is also the source of his overemotional disposition and suicide. I don’t intend to analyse the entire history of the Bildungsroman/coming-of-age genre here, but to focus on how the contemporary ‘coming-of-age’ novel is markedly different from its predecessors.

In Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909)a novel much-loved by Nabokov and once widely read among American and international youth, we come across a working class lad who yearns for the affection of the educated upper class; this is the crux of maturation. The eponymous protagonist approaches the world in a similar way to young Werther. His object of affection, a young woman of upper class extraction, “lent wings to his imagination […] gigantic figures of love and romance, and […] heroic deeds for woman’s sake”. This sentimental and ecstatic personality, who wears his heart quite proudly on his sleeve, leads once again to great inner turmoil and, as in Goethe, a suicide which takes place during a state of emotional turmoil.

For whatever reason, sentimentality and an overemotional disposition fell out of fashion in the latter half of the 20th century, and has been replaced in the 21st with a young protagonist (usually male) whose turmoil is not of the heart but the head. We see this in three popular contemporary British novels, Richard Milward’s Apples (2008), Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine (2008) and Ben Brooks’s Grow Up (2011), although American equivalents are readily available.

In each case the protagonists of these coming-of-age novels are young British males from working-class or middle-class backgrounds. Goethe’s Werther, as I have mentioned, is liable to act in overdramatic manner, and this can be attributed to his heart overruling his head all too often. In the three novels I’ve listed the opposite is the case. All three show symptoms of autism, or related mental disorders, where mental turmoil has replaced the turmoil of the ‘heart’.

Jane Housham, reviewing Grow Up in the Guardian, notes that Jasper’s (protagonist) incessant stream of mundane, non-sequiturial thoughts can be interpreted as a sign of “autism”, and references another contemporary C-O-A novel, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, to support her case. The ‘alt-lit’ ‘genre’ to which Brooks has been assigned (not wholly involuntarily) is often discussed with reference to autism, to an overdependence on thought and an emotional numbness.

In Milward’s novel we are presented with a protagonist whose first move is to “shut the door seven times or else my family dies”. Adam clearly suffers from O.C.D., recounting incidents where he has come to the point or urinating himself in public because of his compulsion to open and close doors and curtains a specific number of times. At one point however the protagonist tells his audience “if you ever get the chance to lose your virginity, you should grab it”, suggesting he’s more of a lusty, hearty character than we’d imagined.

However, when presented with an opportunity to lose his virginity with an attractive girl practically cornering him into having sex with her, he is immediately cock-blocked by his overactive mind: “my brain was like a ball of string unravelling and I couldn’t move”. His instinct in this case is not of the heart but the head, his only thought when encountering the “tropical fish” between the girl’s legs is that “when I pulled the lips open I knew I’d have to shut them numerous times”.

The third novel, Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, focuses on the thoughts and deeds of young Oliver Tate. Much like Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s popular coming-of-age novel Looking for Alaska, who is obsessed by words, particularly those uttered by great minds moments before they expire, Tate’s life is also dominated by words. Now this in itself does nothing for my case, but the role this obsession with words does. Tate says early on that “my internal organs are made of stone […] I have been dead for years”, and like Jasper and Adam, Oliver is also a man of the head. When his girlfriend Jordana informs him of her mother’s medulloblastoma (brain tumour), his first reaction is to say “That’s a very long word”, to which she replies “Oliver, she’s not on Countdown -she might die.” As the style of Ben Brooks’s Grow Up facilitates such a neurotic, disconnected character, so too does Dunthorne’s novel, which is written in first-person-present. Written in this way, the action in the novel is often suspended while Tate becomes lost in thought or describes the scene around him in such meticulous detail that it’s hard not to see describe him as a neurotic (albeit a very funny one).

This shift in coming-of-age literature from the man of feeling to the man of thought is in my opinion primarily down to two things. The first is the nature of modern childhood, in which an obsession with technology has resulted in a decline in traditional means of communicating, namely human interaction IRL. It’s notable that the first line of Dunthorne’s book mentions the “modem playing bad jazz as my mother connects to the internet”.

Oliver is a member of the first generations who had access to the internet, and spends much of his time emailing or consulting Jeeves about his parents’ marital problems. This idea of youth emotionally numbed by technology was popularized in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1986 novel Less Than Zero, in which we find its characters sat paralysed in front of MTV or computer games at numerous points, and the protagonist Clay either visiting his therapist or attempting to feel emotion.

The second thing which has contributed to this change is the hyperconsciousness apparent in much of postmodern literature; perhaps clearest in the work of David Foster Wallace and more recently with the work of Tao Lin and his fellow alt-lit writers. Emotional rants have been replaced with dry, metacognizant (“thought about thought”) self-analysis, in which characters do not have many emotional outpouring to trace to their heart, especially since these outpourings are now viewed as lame, embarrassing, and rather cheap. Characters in contemporary coming-of-age novels are more like self-decoding computers, endlessly questioning and investigating their own thoughts and observations, the spotlight fixed on their minds.

Whether this change in coming-of-age literature is for better or worse isn’t up to me to decide, although I do think it says a lot about the nature of contemporary childhood in a technologically-dependent age. In The Smiths song Still Ill, Morrissey asks “does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?”, and perhaps it’s best to conclude as he does that “I don’t know”.

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