Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Build a Girl: Assault on Cynicism

You don't pick up a novel about a teenage girl who attempts or reinvent herself and expect it to be a cautionary tale about how cynicism is exhausting. But here we are — and it's the main reason I really dug Caitlin Moran's filthy, funny coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl.

Johanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl living in small town in England. When she makes a terrible gaffe on live TV after winning a poetry contest — she does a regrettable Scooby Doo impression, which doesn't sound that bad at first, but in the scorching cauldron of the teenage world, it's all but a death sentence — she's forced to reinvent herself in such a way that she thinks will protect her from the emotional gauntlet to which teenagers are subject. So she decides to become Dolly Wilde, a slutty goth cynical music critic.

It goes well for awhile, but then, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong. It's often said that the measure of good novel is that its characters learn something, are able to change, and therefore readers learn along with them, this novel has that in spades.

Dolly/Johanna sleeps her way through the early-1990s indie rock scene, while using her poison pen to totally eviscerate all the silly new bands she's actually relyingson for her next sexual escapade. All the while, she cultivates a crush on a singer/songwriter named John Kite, who sort of becomes her spiritual guide through her burgeoning adulthood.

But then, the predictable comeuppance. And soon after, Moran gives us a page-and-a-half rail against cynicism that is absolutely shiver-inducing for its insightfulness. It's something EVERY teenage should be forced to read. Here's a taste:
“For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas…Cynicism is, ultimately, fear...And of course the deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel through a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never sacred to say ‘Yes! Why not!’”
Man, I love that. And I really dug this novel — it's another novel that's rather waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. But it's worth the trip.

(Side note: There's a scene in the novel where Dolly/Johanna goes to review a Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's mid-1992, about a year Pumpkins had released their debut album, Gish. And she actually goes backstage, and briefly talks to D'Arcy (the bassist) about how she thought the show went. And Moran tells us that Johanna finds out later that D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha were in the midst of a breakup, and drummer Jimmy was starting his heroin habit, and singer/guitarist Billy was deeply depressed. And if you've read this blog for any measure of time, you know that Smashing Pumpkins is my favorite band of all time, and seeing them as characters in a novel damn near blew my mind.) 


  1. I have a strict no-buying-books in the two months before Xmas policy. I may actually break it for this book.

  2. I loved this book. One of the best of the year for me.

  3. Loved this book's take-down of cynicism -- and this from a fairly cynical person.

    1. I hear you - I used be. But as she says, it's so EXHAUSTING being cynical all the time. She's right! ;)

  4. This book was read almost entirely in one sitting. Awkward, hilarious, heart breaking and so very clever. Dolly is a lot cleverer and funny than I ever was as a teenage, but this book captured the desire I had at that age to run into the world and swallow ever new experience whole. Even when it gets you in trouble.
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