Books

The Pit of Interesting

For the three summers between my eighth and tenth grade years, having taken the SAT in the seventh grade and scored high enough to qualify (I know, I know), I attended Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, a.k.a. “nerd camp.” The first year I went, it was mostly at my parents’ urging; they saw it as prestigious, as the kind of opportunity you shouldn’t dare pass up. But I felt fairly nervous about the whole thing, certain I would be alone and bored the whole summer.

Instead, that first year at nerd camp was the summer my world exploded. After three magical weeks of sitting on a muggy quad flirting and discussing life and art, I came back cursing like a sailor, feeling wiser, sassier, more confident, and more adult than my parents—or I—could have expected. That was the summer that changed everything. Like the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds who meet at summer camp in Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings, I was never the same.

Julie Jacobson is new to Spirit-in-the-Woods Camp in Belknap, Massachusetts, and she does not fit in. Surrounded by rich, bohemian, Anäis Nin- and Günter Grass-reading art kids, Julie feels hopelessly out of place and extremely self-conscious, awed by the new world being introduced to her, a far cry from the ordinary Long Island life she’s known thus far—her mother Lois (“a new, shaky widow at age forty-one”) and older sister Ellen (full of “surprisingly condemnatory opinions”) seem frozen in the Jacobson’s little house, unable or uninterested in pursuing anything beyond their mundane, blue-collar lives.

Having applied on an English teacher’s suggestion, Spirit-in-the-Woods accepted Julie on scholarship and she jumped at the chance to escape from another stifling summer at home. She spends her first few days at camp feeling “all wrong,” her skin blotchy, her recently permed hair too poufy, while the kids around her seem like “royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.”

Then, one night, inexplicably, Julie is invited to join some of the cool kids after lights out to share vodka and Tang cocktails mixed in paper cups (v&ts) and badly rolled joints. She quietly soaks in the brilliance, intimidated by the others:

[T]hey all seduced one another with greatness, or with the assumption of eventual greatness. Greatness-in-waiting.

There is glamorous, big-chested Cathy Kiplinger, a dancer who owns her magnetic power over the opposite sex. There is ethereally beautiful Ash Wolf, impassioned and kind, liked by all. They drop literary references of which Julie feigns knowledge; they flirt and banter. Cleverness and sophistication are the new waters she finds herself swimming in, and she falls in love with those waters, even as she feels she doesn’t belong in them.

She has never even heard of, let alone read Günter Grass, but “if anyone asked, she would insist that she too loved [him], although, she would add as protection, ‘I haven’t read as much of him as I would like.’”  Her mother is not “vigorous and youthful,” the way the Ash’s parents are, and she herself is “gangly… all wrong.” Julie knows that she is not like the other girls, not pretty enough, not—key, titular word—interesting enough to capture the imagination of beautiful, brooding Jonah Bay or hulking, virile Goodman Wolf, older brother of Ash. Julie’s so paranoid that her teepee-mates are going to realize their mistake any moment and ask themselves “What is she doing here?” that she plans to remain quiet and inconspicuous throughout the night.

But then, Julie has her breakthrough. “She didn’t even know what she was doing,” but emboldened by drink and distance and the magic of possibility that only a teepee full of blithely self-involved teenagers can possess, Julie opens her mouth and delivers a witty remark that earns her the approving nickname “Jules” from Ash Wolf.  She makes them laugh, and the joke is stupid, but the joke is enough. The deed is done. “She was Jules now, and would be Jules forever.”

Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit.

Irony is like a gateway drug for Jules; it opens her up to a world she hadn’t dared to hope she might ever be a part of, a world beyond the inevitability of Long Island life, where what you see is what you get, beyond the culturally impoverished existence to which she had, up to that point, been resigned. After all, irony is a luxury; only if your other needs have already been met can you bother to worry about being clever.

The group from Spirit-in-the-Woods dubs itself “The Interestings,” and after summer’s end, we follow them as they make their way through their last few years of high school, then college, and attempt to make a place for themselves in hardscrabble, 1980s New York City.

Jules doesn’t get to attend a prestigious college like the others; she’s stuck going to public school, upstate, where she has bad sex with drunk frat boys and calls Ash Wolf (who matriculated to Yale, naturally) regularly from a payphone in the snow, begging her to come visit, which she does, bringing her boyfriend Ethan along.

Homely, decidedly un-cool Ethan Figman was the one boy at Spirit-in-the-Woods who offered Jules Jacobson anything more than platonic attention. A scholarship kid like her, he was just as aware of his odd fit. But unlike her, he wasn’t broken up about it. He compensated for his lack of glamour by being useful: rolling joints, carrying luggage, offering himself up as comedic punching bag.

But the thing about Ethan—and the real difference between him and Jules—is that, while he’s nothing to look at, he is the only truly talented one of the bunch. Not merely interesting, his hand-drawn cartoons are so recognizably good to everyone that it comes as no surprise when he later becomes wildly successful. He is an artist in the truest sense of the word: gifted and driven by an impulse to create that is tied to the very survival of his being:

Stopping was death. Stopping meant you’d given up and turned the keys of the world over to other people. The only option for a creative person was constant motion.

Back at camp, before Ethan wound up with Ash, before he created the animated show Figland, he wanted Jules Jacobson, but she refused him. Why would underdog, social-climbing Jules who only wants to be interesting turn down the man with talent? Was she genuinely not attracted to him? Or was he not so attractive in those days because he was not yet a success? Why does Jules miss her chance and consign herself to a life defined by resentment?

These are questions that never get answered directly as Wolitzer jumps through time with her six characters, adding and subtracting spouses, lovers, and children, taking The Interestings all the way into middle age. Jules manages to create a life for herself, marrying a man who is “kind and good and not ironic” and they count Ethan and Ash among their closest friends. Jules finds fulfilling work, takes vacations, and becomes a mother, but she is never quite able to shake her self-consciousness, the tickertape of constant assessment of what everyone else has versus what she doesn’t:

Jealousy was essentially “I want what you have,” while envy was “I want what you have, but I also want to take it away so you can’t have it.”

Ethan and Ash have built a fabulous lifestyle for themselves on the power of Ethan’s earnings—several houses, luxurious vacations. Ash has found success as an artistic director in the New York theater world; Jules, of course, gave up her dreams of success as an actor. She knew she wasn’t that good, but she wonders—if she had the connections and money that Ash does, would she have become successful, too?

Here, the book settles in on the trappings of resentment. Jules knows that, in envying her friends, she’s being petty and small. But she seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to stop herself from making the same mistakes all over again. There is a block inside her that she cannot overcome. It’s ironic, then, that Jules’s line of work is as a therapist; she is able to provide perspective for others, but not for herself. This is the kind of existential suffering that comes when we as human beings wish things to be different than they are. Jules is unable—or maybe even unwilling—to accept the life that she has created for herself. Instead, she seems intent on casting herself as fate’s victim.

The irony that was a haven for The Interestings as teenagers becomes a kind of trap in later life: a fixed, stuck way of being. Plagued by irony, The Interestings feel more like movie characters than actual human beings: complex yet neatly drawn, and too cleanly divided into categories of “interesting” and “uninteresting,” “ironic” and “unironic,” “successful” and “jealous.” And just as the characters feel like movie characters, Wolitzer suffuses her scenes with just the right amount of environmental detail to make them feel like sets, to make this novel seem conscious of being a screenplay-in-waiting, and also, to make this novel seem to argue for life as a script, something one gets handed instead of something one writes for oneself:

As if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.

Interestingness, then, becomes a form of vanity. And when it does, irony bottoms out.

This bottoming out, though, is no surprise. Wolitzer told us it was coming right at the start, when introducing Jules and her soon-to-be-friends in that camp teepee on a summer’s night:

Soon, she and the rest of them would be ironic much of the time, unable to answer an innocent question without giving their words a snide little adjustment. Fairly soon after that, the irony would be mixed in with seriousness, and the years would shorten and fly. Then it wouldn’t be long before they all found themselves shocked and sad to be fully grown into their thicker, finalized adult selves, with almost no chance for reinvention.

In The Interestings, things happen, but nothing really changes, and, in the end, a character—in my opinion, predictably—dies. And the friends who once shared a teepee live on in my mind, still wandering around in their half-written lives, hoping that “interesting” will prove to be enough, even though they’ve already learned that it won’t.

Like Jules Jacobson, my summer camp experience was transformative; it’s impossible for me to separate who I am now from the weeks I spent there. But unlike Jules, I am not the same person as an adult that I was back then. Jules transforms herself into a version of herself in order to become part of The Interestings; she creates her persona, and then forgets that it was her own invention. And this is the tragedy of The Interestings, the trap of irony. My summers at nerd camp opened me up to a new world, but it wasn’t a world that I had to fake belonging to—it was a world where I could, for the first time, be myself.

Nishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at www.bluejeangourmet.com. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona, her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, was published in June 2013. She lives with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their son, Shiv, in a suburb of Houston, Texas.