Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Grow Up: Ben Brooks, May 17—26, 2013
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Grow Up is an intrusion into the life of a typical middle-class teenager, observing all aspects of his life in a piece which holds lots of promise but ultimately fails to deliver.
Jasper J. Wolf is the protagonist. 17, single and living with his mum and stepdad, he indulges in binge drinking, drug taking and thoughtless promiscuity while avoiding at all costs the parentally required revision for his exams. He is generally selfish, self-absorbed and unlikeable and has an exceptionally loose grip on morality. Somehow these traits become endearing and, in spite of yourself, you do find yourself sympathising with the twerp. He lacks the self-awareness and social aptitude that even an ordinary 17-year-old would have which makes him difficult to believe. Even though the writer is only three years Jasper’s senior, his level of maturity doesn’t ring true. Given that it’s all first person narrative, disbelief can be suspended and Jasper sweeps you up in the madness.
Supporting him is a bland assortment of cut-outs which serve little purpose. The most developed is Jasper’s best friend Tenaya who is recovering (or not) from a break up and has at least some depth of character. Jasper’s genuine but hopeless attempts to comfort her when he feels substantially out of his depth provide the most tender scenes in their awkward, clunky way.
The remainder of the gang – Jonah, Ping and Ana – are two-dimensional and dull and exist largely to show that Jasper has some friends and act as stock characters for him to kick about with.
It’s unclear what the story is about, beyond gate-crashing Jasper’s life for a while. Key plots include Jasper’s belief that his stepdad murdered his ex-wife, his master plan to seduce a classmate and him getting an ugly girl pregnant. While these are the most prominent storylines, none of them are afforded any urgency. The events unfold around Jasper, who doesn’t take much interest between developments.
While plotting and characterisation is weak, the themes of the book are much more clearly defined and better executed. Death is a recurring theme, both imagined and actual, explored speculatively and actually with varying reactions. This is part of the broader coming-of-age theme: growing up, leaving school and turning from boys to men. Both populate a larger theme of self-awareness and self-realisation.
Peppered with humour and poignancy, Brooks creates an authentic world which convincingly becomes home to the characters. Brooks may not know his characters individually, but he sure as heck knows their world. Their hedonistic, self-indulgent and debauched motivations are reflective of the experience of a proportion of contemporary teenagers, with just enough cultural references to acknowledge the whims of the Facebook generation without it becoming tiresome. Brooks writes in present tense first person using staccato sentence structure which creates a deliberately uncomfortable and awkward style, reflective of the characters themselves.
A frank, occasionally puerile and uncomfortable, romp through the mind of Jasper J. Wolf, Grow Up is humorous and daring. Strip away cheap gags and shock value, however, and you’re left with not a lot. For his age, Brooks shows great potential and needs to develop in key areas but for now he delivers an easy read with very little substance.