I did something last night that I hadn’t been able to do for nearly three months: I stretched out on the sofa and read for two hours. After listening to Terry Gross’s interview with Tom Perrotta, I picked up a copy of Little Children, his latest, which I realized last night is the first book I’ve read about people my age. And by “my age” I don’t mean 31-year-olds — there are plenty of those books out there — I mean a book about people born in the early-1970s, people who listened to Nirvana in college and who are now married (happily or not) and starting families.
One of the back jacket blurbs describes Perrotta as an “American Nick Hornby,” which seems about right to me, though I’m not sure yet if that’s a compliment or not. The last novel I read was High Fidelity, which, like Little Children, is filled with recognizable characters and recognizable situations. Both books are about relationships and the difficulties of maintaining them in this age of cynicism and irony. And both books are utterly devoid of inspiring prose.
That’s not to say that Hornby and Perrotta aren’t talented writers. They craft fine stories and have a knack for making the reader care for characters who aren’t particularly likeable. They’ve also discovered a language of pop culture references — a kind of Gen X shorthand that must make their novels excruciating reads to anyone over the age of, say, 55. I just wish that their writing were capable of surprising me as readily as it charms. A few cherry-picked examples from the first 150 pages of Little Children:
After Todd, a stay-at-home Dad, kisses a stay-at-home Mom whom he meets at the park:
He had a feeling similar to the one he’d had right before kissing Sarah, like his world had cracked up to reveal a thrilling new possibility. (52)
After Todd realizes that his marriage is in jeopardy:
They were heading for trouble, Todd understood that, driving toward a high cliff at very slow speed in a car with no brakes. (99)
So many of Perrotta’s observations of suburban life are so spot-on — I especially like the way that his lead characters absolutely adore their children while still resenting somewhat the life-changes they’ve caused — but the narrative voice never quite transcends the banality of the lives it is documenting. Maybe that’s the point. I doubt it.