Reviews 2013

Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism

Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism. Alison Waller. London: Routledge, 2009. 220 pages. £85.00 (hardback).

In this study, recently released at a more affordable price in paperback, Alison Waller explores the concept of adolescence as it is constructed in the Anglophone young adult fantastic novels released during the last four decades of the twentieth century. The construction of adolescence is examined predominantly, but not exclusively, through the framework of developmental theory and individualism which Waller finds most influential of the twentieth-century conceptualization of adolescence. Waller represents her examination of "adult attitudes towards adolescent identity" (1, emphasis original) within the proposed genre - teenage fantastic realism - which Waller enables readers to identify and relate to aspects of the genre throughout the four chapters of the volume. Each chapter deals with aspects of adolescence such as development, individuality, empowerment and spatiality. Waller’s argument is built with reference to over 100 works of young adult literature, and although many of these works belong to the genres other than fantastic realism, they helpfully illuminate the points Waller is making.

In the first chapter, Waller examines the construction of adolescence as a state of growth represented in the narratives which include metamorphosis, invisibility and time-travel. The second chapter is concerned with the character’s individuation and the plurality of selfhood exemplified in the fantastic tropes such as ghosts and doppelgangers. The third chapter considers the construction of adolescent gender (dis)empowerment presented as female witchcraft and male superhero’s special powers. In the fourth chapter Waller focuses on the teenager’s ambivalent virtual freedom in the cyber-space and its potential danger to adolescent identity. Waller engagingly suggests that fantastic devices metaphorically represent different aspects of teenage identity which form “ideological perspectives embedded in literature aimed at young people” (2). For instance, animal metamorphosis can be rendered as an escape from or a glimpse into the adult world (an imaginative resistance to the protagonist’s subjection to parental authority); journeys into the future exemplify the character’s progress to the next stage of development, and conversely, travelling back in time expresses the protagonist’s regression; initiation into witchcraft is interpreted as taking on responsibilities, entering society and accepting its restrictions. Even literary devices of the fantastic – such as doubling, fragmentation, disappearance and dissolution, which may initially seem to undermine individuality – are considered to exemplify the adolescent’s changeability and, thus, are not read by Waller as threatening the character’s identity.

At first sight, it may seem daring to bring together the modes of uncanny, gothic, grotesque, supernatural, science fiction, magic realism, speculative fiction, and put them under the umbrella of fantastic realism. Nevertheless, Waller justifies such overarching term by the need to approach young adult fiction with an open mind to its ideology rather than limiting her enquiry with strict terminological distinctions. In her definition of the genre, Waller argues that, unlike fantasy, “fantastic realism’s main concerns and focus remain at least equally located within a contemporary realist narrative” (19) and unlike “communal atmosphere” (55) of magic realism or pure fantasy, in fantastic realism the protagonist experiences the fantastic individually. Waller’s bold decision to explore the construction of adolescence within the fantastic genres is obviously motivated by the fact that the fantastic itself features characteristics which shape the very adolescence: dynamism, instability, and transition.

Even though, at times it is challenging to understand Waller’s argument on what distinguishes fantastic realism from other associated genres which are defined in a similar opposition, by providing this highly debatable juxtaposition she tries to emphasize the importance of the self and identity of the adolescent in her proposed genre.

By using the framework based on ideas rather than definitions, Waller is able to provide insights into how the construction of adolescence and fantastic realism intertwine, and in doing so she also reveals many characteristics of realist teen fiction. For instance, in the discussion of the adolescent transformation, with reference to Maria Lassén-Seger’s point on metamorphosis as ‘temporary glance into the world of adults’ (46), Waller discusses how animal mutation can symbolically represent teenager’s normal physical changes as well as abnormal developmental models. She effectively supports her view taking the case of two novels by Melvin Burgess: Tiger, Tiger (1996) and Lady, My Life as a Bitch (2001). In the first novel a physically weak protagonist turns into a powerful tiger which suggests his positive development into a mature adult. By way of contrast, the protagonist’s unwillingness to develop according to society’s expectations is portrayed in the experimental parody novel Lady, My Life as a Bitch, where the girl enjoys the sexual freedom of a dog’s life and finally prefers to remain in the form of an animal. “Given that metamorphosis in children’s and young adult’s fiction is most often presented as a temporary stage . . . Lady transgresses by leaving adolescent Sandra in animal shape” (51). Waller illuminates how metamorphs can either succeed or fail within developmental framework suggesting adults’ anxieties about the adolescent’s progress.

Curiously, in the context of this study the term ‘adolescent self’ can be read as almost a synonym of the ‘fantastic self’: adolescence is presented as a state of unexpected change, a desire for unlimited possibilities, uncertainty, and mystery. Waller is surely right when she asserts that it is for these characteristics the adolescence seem ‘other’ from conservative, static and conventional adulthood. For this reason, the fantastic constructions of the teen characters not only allow to reveal aspects of adolescents’ inner world such as imagining they are someone else, fantasizing, egocentrism and inclination to feel extraordinary, but also imply adults’ fear of this ‘otherness’ and their desire for didacticism and control.

Waller convincingly illustrates the potency of the fantastic tropes to metaphorically represent adults’ views of and concerns about adolescence: “Despite the innovatory form of many teenage fantastic realist novels, the values invoked by them are often conventional or even reactionary, however, and display anxiety about adolescents transgressing what are considered to be their natural boundaries” (195). Therefore, this study testifies to the potential of the fantastic to offer insights into the representation of how “adult discourses aim to shape adolescence through fiction” (52) which not only encourages to explore further adolescent themes in fantastic literature, but also offers links between teen fiction and other discursive fields.

Olena Yarova
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden