Friday, November 06, 2015

Book Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I reviewed the movie made of The Diary of a Teenage Girl a couple of weeks ago. It packed enough of an emotional wallop that I immediately ordered and read the book. I have to say, good as the movie was, the book is a more substantial work of art. It's more harrowing than the movie, and the book is more gritty than the gritty movie.

In my opinion, Minnie, the central character, is one of those magical characters of fiction, like Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, who is more vivid than the people you know in real life. The book is based on author Phoebe Gloeckner's actual teenage diary, though Gloeckner has always insisted that it is a novel, rather than a memoir or autobiography. Her daughters offer a contrary view: "No, that's you, Mom."

I've become a slightly obsessive Gloeckner fan. Whatever the extent of the parallels with her protagonist, and they are extensive, the author is clearly an highly original character herself. Not that it's in any way relevant to this review, but I have to note that she attended the same university in Czechia as another original, Luboš Motl, AKA The Blogfather.

Like the movie, the book is the story of fifteen year-old Minnie's affair with her mother's boyfriend, and her subsequent descent into a perilous world of sex, drugs, and sordid despair. At the start of that affair, Minnie had never even been kissed. If this sounds like the premise for a porn movie, well it could be but isn't, though the book doesn't shy away from explicit sex.

What makes this book high art is the protagonist's penetrating intelligence, the absence of parental love or guidance in her life, and her struggle with her own sex drive and moral confusion. While the movie has a somewhat conventionally happy ending, the book is more ambivalent, giving her only some sense of her own autonomy and ability to construct her life.

The book has an unconventional structure, being built partly of ordinary prose in the guise of diary entries and partly of graphic novel elements. Gloeckner is a cartoonist, art professor, and medical illustrator as well as a writer. The first paragraph:

I don't remember being born. I was a very ugly child. My appearance has not improved so I suppose it was a lucky break when he was attracted by my youthfulness.

Well, of course, it wasn't lucky at all, but tragic. Moreover, despite her self-description, both protagonist and author are described by more unbiased observers as beautiful and possessed of incredible personal magnetism. (For the author, we have pictures.)