First breakups are hard. You binge eat ice cream, hide in bed for days on end, and eff a head teacher who you've met on the internet. Actually, that last one might only apply to Etgar Allison, the main character of Ben Brooks's bright novel Lolito (2013). Etgar is fifteen and home alone while his parents are holidaying without him (bit harsh) when he discovers that Alice, his girlfriend of several years, was not, as she’d claimed, “raped with kisses” by Aaron Matthews but rather had a drunken fumble with him. The news is devastating for Etgar and after a failed attempt at confronting Aaron Matthews, he retreats into hiding at home with his dog Amundsen, copious amounts of Nesquik tea, and a laptop for *cough* comfort. That’s when he meets Macy, a sexy blonde mother of two from Scotland, in a chat room. After telling her that he is a young mortgage broker, Etgar develops a relationship with Macy that mainly involves cyber-sex topped with a smattering of conversation. It is a lovely distraction from the pain of his betrayal, but things get tricky when Macy asks Etgar to spend the night with her in a London hotel. Is the fifteen-year-old ready for his Mrs. Robinson moment? The outlook is doubtful.
To get one thing out of the way from the outset, Lolito’s title, obviously, alludes to Nabokov’s supreme novel Lolita but the two works are comparable only loosely in theme (inverted here). There all comparison must end as Brooks’s effort is far less ambitious and sits, really, in a quite different bracket. This is no sleight on Lolito, however - its namesake is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century and there is no obligation to write at such a register. More importantly, Ben Brooks had barely outgrown his own teenage years when he penned Lolito (disgustingly, his fifth novel) and rather than going for the overtly literary, he has crafted an incredibly accessible book that will not put off readers of any age.
That set aside, let’s look at what Lolito is rather than what it isn’t. It is possible to read it as a coming-of-age story but I’m not sure the character arc is quite there to justify that. Rather, I think Etgar is more closely comparable to the likes of Holden Caulfield who gives us a slice of teenage angst in Catcher in the Rye without necessarily having to come of age within the narrative. Etgar is in a similar position, negotiating complex emotions in his burgeoning adult world where humans don’t always live up to expectations and truth is more than a moveable feast. His inner monologue is certainly reminiscent of the kind of angst that Holden Caulfield represented for an earlier generation but it was a less obvious comparison jumped out at me. Etgar’s odd, disaffected narrative put me in mind of Greg, the central character from James Rice’s debut novel Alice and the Fly. As the title suggests, the object of Greg’s affection is also a girl named Alice but more than this Rice’s character is also a teenage misfit who looks in at the social groups his peers form around him. Greg suffers with mental health issues, in particular a phobia and although it is never explicit in Lolito, Etgar could also be diagnosed with a number of mental health difficulties. My favourite would probably be some form of social phobia/anxiety with concomitant depression, although that sort of diagnosis could apply to many people going through their difficult teenage years.
For all that Etgar could be one of many teenagers you might meet in life, there is something that didn’t sit too well about him as a character - he doesn’t feel like a cogent whole but rather an amalgam of disparate parts. Here is someone who has been sleeping with his girlfriend since he was thirteen, regularly buys cigarettes and alcohol without ever being ID’d, but at the same time is clearly an underdeveloped (physically and mentally) teen compared to the few of his peers that we see, and he regularly speaks as if ignorant to a number of things which he must, surely, be party to by his age / with his experience. In many ways, this is the portrait of a character that is a jumble of both the boy he is outgrowing and the man he might become – of a pre-adult teen who is yet to even out the more jagged corners of their personality – but to me this nevertheless read as a little peculiar. I did, however, like the jarring disconnect between Etgar’s childlike nomenclature and the streams of sexual filth he occasionally spouts. No fifteen-year-old is the finished article and yet even as muddled teenagers most people can still be understood by some form of consistent logic, and it was this sense of wholeness that was missing from Etgar for me.
Nevertheless, Etgar works well enough to carry the plot along and I think there will be plenty of people – not just current teenagers – who see something of the loneliness of modern existence in the relationship that he strikes up with Macy following his breakup with Alice. Macy is just as lonely as Etgar, despite being married and the mother of two children; for each, loneliness comes in a different form and there is something touching about this but also tragic in the extent to which they will deceive both each other and themselves in order to engender some kind of connection. This was one of the strongest elements of the book for me, despite being hugely implausible (and thus, somehow, striking at a truth) and it is possibly the relationship I would have liked to see more of rather than the remnants of Etgar and Alice’s adolescent tryst.
Intriguingly, the copy of Lolito I read came with some impressive dustjacket quotations, notably from Nick Cave who describes it as “the funniest, most horrible book I’ve read in years,” and Noel Fielding who describes Brooks as a “magical imp who pumps out dark nuggets of poetry and makes you snort with laughter.” I’m going to be honest and say that I’m not sure these remarks bear any resemblance to the book I read – yes, it is amusing in places and I can see why it could be described as ‘horrible’ but there are plenty of books that beat it on both counts and leave Lolito looking a little pedestrian by comparison. Again, as with the allusion to Lolita, this is not necessarily a significant criticism of the book but rather a suggestion that these very impressive recommendations might be a little over zealous.
What Brooks does do well is create the sense of grubby suburban adolescence. He weaves the real and digital worlds around Etgar nicely without having the two separated markedly either by formatting or grammar. Take this passage as an example of the seamlessness of this: "I stare at my feet. I watch a video of a severely disabled person covering a Katy Perry song. I run a bath." It appears effortless but compared to many of the contorted ways of representing digital space I’ve seen, this level of simplicity is to be welcomed. In fact, simplicity is perhaps the best way of describing this novel. Characters, themes, and plotlines are reduced to simple, sometimes clichéd, minimalism. As a consequence, Lolito can feel superficial but it is also incredibly accessible and a novel that won’t put off any casual readers. This is my first encounter with Brooks and I am immensely impressed that he has turned out such a well put together novel at such a young age – it would stand up against most pieces of writing by novelists in their early twenties or younger and he is a talent to keep an eye on even if Lolito flatters to deceive.