Grow Up by Ben Brooks book review

By Becky Gardner

Last month Canongate published Grow Up by the nineteen-year-old Ben Brooks, calling it “the first great coming of age novel for the new generation”. With several of his books already published in America – albeit under the rather dubious heading of ‘experimental novels’ – this British debut marks a turning point for the ambitious young writer.

But there seems to be a widespread, almost wilful refusal amongst critics to look beyond – or within – the superficial crudeness of the world conjured by Brooks’ teenage protagonist. Grow Up is the story – or rather the hormone-fuelled, drug-addled ramblings – of Jasper J Wolf, a 17-year-old aspiring novelist who spends his days smoking, drinking and persuading girls called “tghtyngpussy” to flash a nipple on webcam. So far so unspectacular:  Brooks seems to have achieved the relatively minor feat of writing his own very typical life.

But Grow Up is not teen fiction, nor is it crude. This might not be quite the modern day Catcher in the Rye that Canongate wants it to be, but it is a far more complex literary achievement than seems to have so far been acknowledged. Written by a teenager about a teenager, the narrative is nonetheless injected with a maturity far beyond the author’s years. Brooks writes a teenage speaker more like Mark Haddon or DBC Pierre; somehow combining the sort of knowing perspective that can only come with hindsight with a voice that speaks from within the younger mind.

And so, despite what many critics have tried to claim, this is not the literary version of Skins or The Inbetweeners. There are certainly moments which could be drawn straight from a dimly-lit Channel 4 scene, most of which involve house parties and girls and culminate in bodily fluid-related slapstick. But Brooks doesn’t just rely on crude farce for humour; on drugs, sex and obscenity for impact.

Over-used as the phrase may be, the book will genuinely make you laugh out loud. Brooks’ sense of pace is impressive, he knows when less is more and throws in unexpected punch lines with impeccable comic timing. This is a writer very much in control of his material: one who knows exactly where he wants the laughs to come and knowingly provokes them with dry, deadpan humour. It has to be said he lets himself down a little with the occasional absurd stereotypes who flash through the narrative like Shakespearean clowns across the stage, offering moments of pure farce. The Religious Studies teacher is a born-again Christian; the stepfather uses nicknames like “champ”, and these two-dimensional characters add little to the narrative. But then Shakespeare’s clown moments were never particularly funny either, and for the most part Brooks’ quirky humour is well represented by the Mighty Boosh artwork adorning the front cover.

But there seems to be something more beneath this self-conscious performance, and this is what the critics have really missed. Jasper’s voice is at once poised, dry and wickedly funny, but it constructs its comic timing and shrewd observations from a near autistic combination of lists, facts and brief pedantic statements. This is not so much a glimpse of one boy’s internal monologue as a carefully honed stand-up routine – and one which represents a refusal to engage emotionally. Jasper is unfazed by a the suicide of a girl at school or the sight of the electric chair. With a refreshing lack of angst, his resentment of his stepfather manifests itself through his bizarre insistence that Keith is a murderer. It is an amusing and touching subplot which hints at the emotions concealed – or simply evaded – through Jasper’s constant act.

As the world that Jasper has built for himself slowly begins to disintegrate, Brooks’ sense of irony truly shines through. Julia – the vacuous, gullible counsellor – has in fact been looking beyond the act all along. The elaborate similes of the wannabe teenage novelist finally become so convoluted and absurd that Jasper stops himself and asks “What does that even mean?”

In an interview with the Guardian last year Brooks admitted that even if he stopped liking his own books, they were “good for picking up girls”. In such interviews the boundary between the author and Jasper often seems to blur, but there’s a lot more to Brooks than this shallow, provocative humour. Grow Up certainly has its flaws (Jasper’s social commentary can occasionally seem like the regurgitation of a middle-aged rant; tolerance, he tells us, is the plague of the modern world). But Brooks writes with irony, observation and self-awareness – a combination which makes this an impressive debut.

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