There’s a patronizing old cliché, “youth is wasted on the young,” which has always confused me. What is really being said is that youth and vitality are a prize and young people waste it. That assumes that being young is actually fun. From personal experience, I can vouch for there being fleeing moments of satisfaction, smothered by a series of grandiose disappointments. Youth is teeming with professional or academic failures, emotional traumas, disastrous relationships and the burgeoning realization that mortality is right around the corner. Is it actually that great?
That question is at the heart of the visceral, compelling new novel, Action, Figure, by Frank Hinton, who is best known for editing the literature blog Metazen. It is not really known whether or not Frank is a man or a woman behind the online pseudonym and many of the characters in the book are in some way ambiguous in their identity. Frank and Lili are roommates in an icy, bleak section of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Each chapter is told from one of their perspectives, as they struggle with the common anxieties of being young and bored. Frank has just finished college and seems incapable of motivating himself to do much of anything, not even answer a very troubling e-mail from his mother. Lili is an outwardly positive girl with a knack for organization, and an emotionally distant boyfriend. She has built a model city in her bedroom out of everyday household items and spends much of the first half of the book marveling at her system. The two roommates find themselves drawn to each other for peculiar reasons, and their attraction comes to a head after a night of heavy drug use and drinking.
In between these alternating perspectives is a highly abstract story about an androgynous, blind prisoner in a war-torn, unnamed city. This is the only spot where the book loses steam, as these very lyrical passages interrupt a very concrete, well-paced narrative structure. At the same time, they illustrate a great many themes of Frank and Lili’s story.
Death and bodily harm lurk in corners all around the three main characters. Lili’s drug trip causes her to physically assault her boyfriend (who may or may not be gay), drool uncontrollably and stumble through town subsumed in a fog of chemicals. Frank seems to be decaying physically and emotionally under the weight of an unspoken guilt. The androgynous third character is blind, crippled and grief-stricken by the loss of loved one.
In a recent conversation, it became clear to me that youth to Frank Hinton is not a gift, but a mild curse of anxiety and stilted communication:
it’s so easy to just go out and party and get messed up and then come home and go on the internet for 7 hours and then sleep for 3-4 hours and then exercise and then repeat all of that. i feel like anyone who is in their 20s can satisfy any desire within 24hs of having that desire even if they put just minimal amounts of effort into it, and at the same time getting what you want when you want it makes you depressed.
My parents would often say to me, “David, you can do anything you want to do. Relish that, because you won’t always have that freedom.” The characters in Action, Figure, and countless real 20-somethings, encounter this existential crisis of choice. You are told to experience, to learn by doing. #YOLO. So many companies design ad campaigns around justifying making yourself happy, despite the consequences of acting upon impulse. We make mistakes as young people, but often the lessons of those mistakes are not assimilated into our lives.
but then you kind of forget right? i don’t know, i think i do. you say,‘i’m done, i’m not doing that anymore’ and then your mind takes over and you say ‘ok i’m going to do this and this will be it.’ i feel like that is the most human impulse.
i think that if two people can kind of relate to each other and sustain that in a playful way like frank and lili do then that is love, like, i feel like they are in love. it’s based on my own experiences so i sort of believe that it works. i guess that is hopeful, in that the connective tissue doesn’t always have to be these concrete things…
A complete interview with Frank Hinton and Dave Schilling can be found here.