Lolito (1 August 2013) by Ben Brooks
Lolito isn't as controversial, as shocking, as good or as bad as what I've heard and read about it had suggested. It's a story about a 15-year-old schoolboy who has an affair with a 42-year-old woman he meets on the internet. Kind of Tampa from the boy's angle, or - as the title suggests - a gender-swapped Lolita. However, Lolito's treatment of the subject matter is surprisingly tame. The boy in this case is Etgar, a funny and slightly strange teenager who suffers from a catalogue of anxieties. Reeling after (possibly) being cheated on by his girlfriend Alice, he poses as a twentysomething mortgage broker in an online chatroom and gets talking to Macy, who he assumes is in her mid-thirties. Etgar spends the majority of his time trying to escape from his feelings about Alice, and the story builds to a climax (no pun intended) in which Etgar and Macy agree to meet up in a London hotel.
There's something fascinating about the depiction of youth here and I suppose it's made more interesting - and 'real' - by the author's age (he's 21, and his first novel was written and published when he was in his teens ). These teenagers are a weirdly contradictory bunch who seem to act like adults but think like much younger children. Etgar is always wanting to hide under his duvet and isn't embarrassed about admitting he loves Disney films and chick flicks, plus most of his sexual fantasies seem to revolve around cuddling and motherly behaviour; yet he and Alice regularly watch violent snuff movies with the sort of bored casual interest that most of us reserve for adverts. The narrator and his friends seem so comfortable with sex and drugs you'd assume they've been familiar with them for many years (Alice has had two abortions already, and she's a year younger than Etgar), but their language and comprehension are stunted. Etgar talks about 'sexing' girls, never 'having sex', refers to the world beyond his house as 'the Outside', and ties himself in knots over Alice's 'betrayal' despite the fact that he regularly fools around with a female friend. He doesn't seem to see the contradiction here, and not because he's a typical Lad who thinks cheating is okay for a guy but not for a girl: his understanding genuinely doesn't seem to allow for that sort of complexity. This childishness is typical of all the teenage characters, but particularly Etgar, although he's also an intelligent, eccentric and humorous narrator.
While the general concept of 'the internet' is still often used as a gimmick in fiction and many authors haven't yet progressed beyond portraying it as some weird, unknown land, here a constant stream of digital white noise - from Facebook feeds and Google search histories to disturbing YouTube videos and porn - highlights how the teenagers' 'real' lives are inextricably linked with their online existence. As well as meeting Macy in a chatroom, Etgar receives confirmation of Alice's infidelity by hacking into her Facebook and messaging her best friend. Inane status updates merge with graphic porn video titles, as if to suggest the characters don't really distinguish between the two.
True to the immature mindset of its protagonist, Lolito doesn't really make any attempt to examine the motives and/or intentions of its characters. It remains unclear whether Macy is aware of Etgar's real age before coming to London, for example, and she certainly isn't portrayed as a predatory character. What you end up with is a sort of twisted coming-of-age story in which Etgar's 'relationship' with Macy is almost an incidental detail. We see everything through his eyes, and he's far more concerned with losing Alice: the chapters are punctuated by poems he's written about her, which veer from juvenile name-calling to desperate admissions of love. Although Etgar and Macy do have sex, it's barely described and isn't actually central to the interaction between them - in fact, it almost seems like an afterthought.
There are some issues here I would have preferred to be explored in more detail, something Etgar's limited understanding prevents. I felt it was strongly implied that Macy didn't and couldn't have children, despite claiming she did have them, and this was an intriguing plot thread which was never picked up. The reveal of Macy's real job also raises some interesting questions about her intentions and - if indeed she wasn't already aware of Etgar's age - what made her continue with the liaison once she met him. I was very interested in Macy and it would have been good to see some of this story from her perspective, or an outsider's point of view, but it says a lot about Lolito that that's very much not the point.
I'm fascinated by books written by inexperienced authors, which is why I really love reading first novels: and although Brooks has already notched up an impressive oeuvre, he's still very young and that shows in his writing. Lolito has echoes of The Juliette Society, the debut novel of ex-porn star Sasha Grey, in that it touches on some incredibly interesting, insightful, even brilliant subjects and ideas, but lags and trips up at various points and fails to capitalise on its potential, making it just average as a whole. I loved the author's spot-on depiction of the combination of boredom, ennui and innocence that characterises the state of being a teenager, and it's this - not the patchy plot - that has left me with a degree of curiosity about his other work. This may not be a brilliant book, but Ben Brooks is definitely one to watch.
Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with spoilers!) | Buy on Amazon: Kindle