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The following review concerns Daniel Handler's novel The Basic Eight, which does not fall under the classification of children's literature.


Wild children

Gloomy, morbid, doomed and glorious, Goth kids frighten adults, but they're part of a grand -- and essential -- tradition of outsider audacity.

By Charles Taylor

When they were young ... they were the world's darlings. The world's opinion meant everything to them, even though they tried to pretend it meant nothing. Their town was even grayer and muddier when they pranced along the streets after midnight, and the rooftops bent to kiss their dyed hair ... The big boys at their school shouted things at them ... But those boys never fought them because they knew the twins were magic.
-- Poppy Z. Brite, "Lost Souls"

Or, as Amy Beth Graves reported for the Associated Press on May 10, 'A 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl was suspended for telling a teacher in a class conversation on the Littleton shootings that she could understand how someone who is teased endlessly could snap.'
--Greil Marcus, Interview, July 1999

Every time someone slammed them against a locker or threw a bottle at them, they would go back to Eric and Dylan's house and plan a little more.
--Littleton, Colo., teenager

August 5, 1999 | When I was in seventh grade, my best (and oldest) friend Steve did a book report on "The Exorcist." Fashioning a Linda Blair puppet out of an old Paul McCartney bubble bath container, Steve staged the book's big exorcism scene. The topper came when, out of a tiny tube Steve had attached to the doll, it vomited green goop he'd concocted out of flour, water and food coloring. His classmates were suitably grossed out, and the teacher, suitably amused and impressed, not only gave him an A-plus, she had him repeat the performance for her students the following year to show them what an A-plus book report looked like.

If Steve and I were in school today, it's very likely that same book report would get him pegged as a potential time bomb; that school officials would recommend counseling; that I, along with his other friends, would be asked to reveal what we talked about when we were alone with him; that his parents would be contacted about the suitability of what they let their son read and watch; that any teacher who praised Steve's report would, at the very least, be reprimanded for giving their approval to potentially damaging material; that the parents of other kids would protest that their children had been exposed to this display; and that Steve, for the rest of his years in the public school system, would be regarded as if he were a rabid lab rat who showed signs of wanting to chew through his cage. (God knows what would have happened to him if he had made his senior project today: It was a film about high-school life where, in one fantasy sequence played for laughs, a student shoots a teacher who bugs him. Now a successful commercial editor and happily married suburban homeowner, his favorite holiday is still Halloween.)

That's a paranoid scenario, but it's one that seems entirely in keeping with the sort of talk that has circulated since the Littleton shootings about the need to identify and monitor potentially troubled kids. And no group of teenagers have come under more scrutiny than the kids who've devoted themselves to living out a modern-day version of the Gothic sensibility. With their black clothes, make-up and attraction to daydreams of horror and decay, Goth kids have a knack for setting off alarm bells in conventional sensibilities. Combining a gloomy outlook with fashion that borrows from and combines elements of punk, metal and transgenderism, Goth kids could be voted by their high-school classmates Least Likely to Get With the Program. Tune in to any talk show hosted by Sally Jesse Raphael or Jenny Jones or Maury or Springer on the theme of "Troubled Teens" or "Make Over My Wild Child!" and you're sure to see a Goth kid or two among the assembled bad examples.

To the adults who look at these kids and envision the next Littleton, it doesn't matter that their behavior has the venerable historic and literary roots outlined in Richard Davenport-Hines' "Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin." Davenport-Hines has done a thoroughly researched job of tracing the history of the gothic style (even if, given his subject and his subtitle, it's duller than it has any right to be). He's very good on the subversiveness embodied by gothic, its implied and overt challenge to Enlightenment ideals, and there's even the odd bitchy bon mot to liven things up: for example, a swipe at "that monstrously self-absorbed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau." But (for me at least) there's only so many accounts you can read of English aristocrats who bankrupted themselves designing grand gothic dwellings before you want to move on to the juicier stuff. (If you want an idea of gothic's power to unsettle, to positively wallow in perversity, you'd be much better off turning to the chapter on "Wuthering Heights" in Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae.")

Today's Goth teenagers have a rough time of it. Consumers of a demonized culture who can't yet vote, their attempts to fashion an identity mark them as little more than naifs subject to all sorts of dangerous influences they are too impressionable to resist. Many of the artists who crop up in "Gothic" -- among them Salvator Rosa, Goya, Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley -- were demonized in their day. Reading Davenport-Hines' book is a reminder that, with the passage of time, society often sanctions the art it once condemned. It's hard to imagine the contemporary parent or teacher who looks askance at a kid reading the vampire novels of Poppy Z. Brite getting as upset if the book were "Wuthering Heights," though you could make the argument that both authors lavish perversity upon the page. "Brave New World" has long been part of high-school curriculums yet commentators have wrung their hands over teenagers' flocking to see "The Matrix," which grapples with much the same themes. I could list many more similar duos: "The Duchess of Malfi" but not "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; Poe but not Stephen King; Goya but not Giger; Mussorgsky but not the Cure.

I'm not saying that these pairings represent works of equal value (with the exception of "Buffy," a series capable of fulfilling the darkest, most glorious dreams of both Emily Brontė and Phil Spector); even Davenport-Hines acknowledges that much Gothic literature is schlock. But we're hiding behind cultural cachet when we divorce "Wuthering Heights" or Poe's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" from their own luridness, and when we do so, we separate their greatness from their power. In Daniel Handler's hilarious new novel "The Basic Eight" (a thoroughly rebellious take on teenage violence) a pop psychologist -- who, vampire-like, has fed her career on the blood of murdered schoolchildren -- notes that Edgar Allan Poe "took absinthe and yet is still a respected novelist and short story writer in America and elsewhere." That's the authentic voice of boredom triumphant, of the cultural value of "responsible" mediocrity that has been drilled into generations of schoolkids. In "Lost Souls" Poppy Z. Brite describes the voice (as heard by her protagonist, a kid called Nothing) this way:

In Nothing's English class the next day, Mrs. Margaret Peebles plunged her hypodermic of higher learning into "Lord of the Flies" and sucked out every drop of its primal magic, every trace of its adolescent wonder.

("Perhaps," Mrs. Peebles drones, "you can tell me about the rivalry between Jack and Ralph. What allows it to grow so bitter?")

Is it any wonder then that Goth, with its transgressiveness, its bloody visceral charge, its romanticized alienation and dreamy, languorous self-pity, holds such an allure for adolescents? In his prologue, Davenport-Hines makes the point that Gothic uses passivity as a tool with which to subvert the balance of power.

The suggestion that submission is empowering is often reiterated by Goth writers. Dominance and subordination ... provide one of Gothic's themes. So does inversion ... Gothic's estrangement from the dominant cultural values of every age produces both its protean qualities and the obsession of its practitioners with transgression: All Goth writers worth any attention are forever returning to that immortality which defies or subverts ruling authority, and thus provides power-systems' necessary dark antithesis.

For teenagers who feel themselves alternately ignored or put upon by those who have authority over them, what could be better? Goth provides, simultaneously, an outlet for teen rebellion and an invitation to wallow in teen self-pity. Like the punks did, Goth kids attempt to transform what they perceive as the ugliness of the world around them by co-opting that ugliness as a form of beauty that is itself an affront to conventional notions of what is beautiful. Goth's preoccupation with death and ruin intensifies in its young practitioners an awareness of youth as a fleeting state, perfect for kids who see themselves as doomed and glorious creatures. Cradled in the mind-set of Goth, each and every one can envision himself as a Grand Guignol Byron. And that, in turn, feeds into Goth's inherent theatricality, dear to the heart of adolescents' trying on styles to establish their own identities.

There's no use denying that, as teen styles go, Goth is, on the surface, more startling than, say, hip-hop style or mod revival style, or young lounge swinger style, or any of the others. But the assumption that it will eventually manifest itself in destruction or self-destruction is at odds with the warped romanticism that lies at the heart of Goth. "The way people are blaming Goth kids for this really upsets me," Elizabeth Elmore of the rock band Sarge said to me a few weeks after the Littleton shootings. "The Goth kids I know are all so sweet." As a lifestyle, Goth is too gloomy for me; I like my rebellion more aggressive than passive. But I think you'd have to be completely cut off from your own memories of adolescence not to recognize how luxurious gloom can feel, and how Goth's brand of sensual rot can feel like an outsider's lifeline amid the shiny happy people of all age groups. Writes Davenport-Hines:

Gothic's obsession with decay, and its tradition of political negativity, makes it at the end of the twentieth century an aesthetic of defacement. It produces graffiti -- sometimes uncouth, in other instances witty or intelligent -- defying or decrying complacently rationalistic social controls which, though ostensibly intended to restore an idealised humanist harmony, actually enforce a regime of trivialized sameness.

That "trivialized sameness" is the same atmosphere, the same mind-set, that a bewildering preponderance of educators, parents and politicians seem to imagine as the desired state of adolescence. This sanitized conformity is so far removed from the real experience of adolescence that it suggests that the people demanding an end to such "deviant behavior" simply don't like teenagers. The greatest collective temptation that faces each generation as it ages is that of heaping on younger people the head-shaking contempt that was heaped on you. You can hear that contempt when adults say, "Why is it that kids today ...?" in a tone emptied of any real curiosity or impulse toward empathy. You hear it in the jokes made about the music or fashions of young people, jokes that barely mask the incomprehension of the people making them. You hear it in the blowhard tone that ridicules young people's fears of the future (or their doubts that they'll have one).

Young people can be frustrating. Talking to them, you find yourself confronted with ideas and assumptions that experience caused you to discard long ago. But it's very easy to fall into the trap of finding young people shallow because their experience has been different, or narrower, than yours. As someone born toward the tail end of the baby boom, I find it easy to understand why boomers are so easy to hate -- again and again, among my contemporaries or those who are just slightly older, I see people who long ago severed their connections to popular culture, acting as if they don't need to be told anything about it.

Who during their high school years ever found themselves hassled by the weirdos? It was always the "normal" kids, often encouraged by the values of their parents or the status their popularity or athletic ability conferred upon them, who made life hell for their less popular classmates. And in a climate that worships the conventional, the clean-cut, the predictable, the easily assimilated, it becomes even harder to convince school officials of how popular kids abuse their status. The people who have set themselves so firmly against Goth kids and all the other kids who don't conform have yet to grasp that the suffocating perfection they present is the best argument for the styles they're decrying. That they seem to have the upper hand in the current political and cultural climate is frightening, more frightening than anything the Gothic imagination, for all its glorious history, could concoct.

salon.com | August 5, 1999

About the writer
Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.