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Limit and Change:

Where We Have To Go as Bildungsroman
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By Jon Eben Field

Immediately after I finished reading Lauren Kirshner's debut novel, Where We Have To Go, my thoughts drifted back through my life to rest in the difficult transitional years of my own adolescence. Adolescence creates specific problems for every person who traverses its thickets of strange relationships and stranger rituals. The experiences that initiated my own bumpy ride to adulthood were, oddly enough, based on my name.

Lauren Kirshner

Lauren Kirshner

When I was young, I was known as “Jon Eben.” This was the admittedly complex two-part name my parents gave me. When puberty was settling into my body, along with a hearty dose of bashfulness and insecurity, I felt forced into taking on a new name. On a playground, I tried to explain my two-part name to the kids who I hoped would become new friends. I was met with confusion. Quickly, they decided to call me, “Jon.” This name stuck with me through the foolish choices of my youth: drinking binges, fast car rides, parties and experiments with excess. I felt like I lived a double life. I was “Jon” with my friends and “Jon Eben” at home. “Jon” said and did things that “Jon Eben” would not consider. But eventually, this doubleness caught up with me. Life fell apart. Afterwards, I reclaimed “Jon Eben” as my name again. The decision helped to merge the pieces of me into an identity. I felt more in control of life and understood more clearly where I came from.

The memories that shaped my youth washed over me as I read Where We Have To Go. Kirshner's novel enables this type of reflection because of the verisimilitude of the fictive world contained within it. When I spoke with Kirshner about her protagonist Lucy Bloom, she pointed out that in the beginning of the novel, “Lucy doesn't feel like she has a voice, she's like wallpaper, she's seen as background at school and at home,” but towards the end of the novel, “when she begins telling stories and using the creative potential of stories, that is when she begins to discover her own strength.”

Canadian literary fiction has spawned many poor bildungsromans. In fact, the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, has been butchered by so many Canadian authors writing vaguely autobiographical fiction that some readers believe swearing off the genre in its entirety is justifiable. But in choosing to forgo novels that focus on the spiritual, moral and educational transformation of a youth into an adult, they are missing the possibility of great fiction from an integral moment in many writers' careers.

The bildungsroman is essential to the aesthetic development of writers (consider the range of the genre: from Goethe's Wilheim Meister's Apprenticeship, to Flaubert's A Sentimental Education, to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to Mann's The Magic Mountain, to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women and to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye). The genre describes the difficult, yet necessary movement from the relatively innocent perspective of adolescence to a more mature view of life. As narratives of identification, the protagonist learns who, how and why she or he is through selecting and rejecting what will establish her or his identity from a variety of experiences. The form is stylistically mimetic; the identity of the protagonist and the writer's voice are inextricably intertwined within the narrative. The aim is to educate the reader through the education of the protagonist. When the form works, the rite of passage serves as a remarkable transformation to which the reader bears witness.

Where We Have To Go

Lauren Kirshner's Where We Have To Go is a successful bildungsroman. The narrative arc of the novel allows Lucy Bloom to establish control over how she describes her life and family history. Lucy is a fascinating amalgam of idiosyncratic and conventional behaviours. Even at the outset, when she is only eleven years old, Lucy is aware of her family's strangeness. Her mother, Joy, buys clothes at the Salvation Army for Lucy that are unfashionable, but because Lucy does not want to offend her mother's aesthetic, she is somehow unable to say no. There are three mannequins that stand in the backyard of the Bloom house who wear seasonally appropriate and similarly gaudy clothing that Joy chooses. Lucy's father, Frank, is a sad character who spends his days working in a dismal travel agency. While passing the empty hours, he tries to understand the collapse of his “photography career” based on shooting Glamour Shots of beautiful women. He is always out of sync with his life; he either wishes to return to his glory days or to bet on a dream-like resolution of his problems in an ill-defined future.

Throughout the novel, Lucy is caught in a tug-of-war between her parents. The antagonism pulls Lucy in different directions insofar as both Joy and Frank require her to validate their interpretations of the marriage. This back-and-forth starts simply, but, as the tension in their relationship grows, Kirshner deftly shows that this battle is occurring in, through, and about language. The history of her parents' relationship rests in who gets to describe how and in what terms things actually happened.

Lucy learns the double-bind of naming and begins practice early in life. Whether she is describing herself, “Boney the bug eyes,” or “Lucy Phony Bloom,” her father's partner in adultery, “Crashing Wave,” her cat, “Lulu,” or her hamster, “Charlie Sheen,” Lucy understands that words have power to structure reality. Early in the novel, Lucy asks, “What if I like loneliness? What if I think it is beautiful?” The disintegration of Lucy's family as a result of her father's infidelity leads her to internalize isolation as a key element of her fraught emotional landscape. Lucy's focus on internal experience occurs because, in Kirshner's words, she “has learned to create an inner world that is much more reliable than the world her parents have created” in her family, and “although it is an escape, it is also an early way she uses to discover who she is. Her inner life and retreat into herself becomes important later [in the novel] when she starts defining herself.”

As Lucy grows, her social alienation becomes amplified. With few friends and little respite from the competing demands of her parents, she decides to monitor and control her eating. For Lucy, Kirshner says, stopping eating is a “conscious choice.” Kirshner noted that “a lot of the books about anorexia have shown girls being totally subject to the media and all sorts of ideological influences regarding how women ought to look.” She acknowledged that these forces do play a subconscious role in the development of eating disorders, but she also emphasized that “Lucy has a lot more agency than her friends and family, at this point in her development, imagine her to have.” Lucy exercises control over her own body because the world around her is dramatically unresponsive to her attempts to affect it. Though it inevitably leads her to an eating disorder clinic, Lucy reigns over her body through monitoring every calorie that she allows to enter it. At some level, Kirshner wanted to show “how something as self-destructive and heinous as anorexia is a personal choice.”

The cityscape of Toronto also plays a significant role in establishing the tone and structure of the novel. The Toronto of Kirshner's novel, though, is not the Toronto that exists today. Kirshner says, “I still imagine Toronto in the 1990s. Whenever I leave my house, I am always shocked at how different [the city] is.” Using her memory and sharp observational powers, Kirshner has deliberately reconstructed the Toronto of her adolescence as the locale through which Lucy's narrative flows. In our interview, Kirshner spoke about riding her bicycle through various neighbourhoods as she was writing Where We Have To Go. She would stop in meaningful places and make notes, but these notes were more often about what was no longer there than what was. Kirshner said, “In every moment in my development as a writer and as a person, Toronto has figured. When I wrote the book, I wanted to connect important parts of the city that corresponded to important turning points in my life with key turning points in Lucy's life.” Kirshner maps her own life onto a remembered city which then becomes the locale within which Lucy lives. She “tried to imagine [her] Toronto of the 1990s and recreate that world for Lucy.” The imaginative revival of a 1990s Toronto is possible, but also necessary because, as Kirshner sees it, “[a] vital part of the city has been subsumed by rapid development.”

Authors are frequently asked about whether their fiction is autobiographical. Although I did not ask Kirshner about this connection, when speaking about Lucy's development, she pointed out that she used her experiences as a “young writer,” as a “teenager” and as someone who is “compulsive about writing and wanting to document things” in Lucy's character. In reading, we are witness to the events that are “the real turning points in [Lucy's] life.” Lucy's transformation from a voiceless “wallpaper-like” character into a stronger and tempered young woman aiming to construct a life on her own terms is accomplished through Kirshner's prose in a very sophisticated way. Kirshner related a story from her own life that shows, in part, where Lucy's maturity emerges: “As a young person, I had a really bad stutter. I went through speech therapy for many years to get rid of it. One of the things that really helped during the years when I didn't feel that I had a voice was writing. I first fell in love with writing because it was a way to speak without being afraid. I tried to give a sense of that strength to Lucy.”

In a successful bildungsroman, the protagonist moves through a crucible of experiences and emerges with an awareness of who she or he is in the world. Kirshner's novel works as a coming-of-age novel because she draws on a deeply personal reservoir to move Lucy from her youth to the beginning of adulthood. The final stanza of Theodore Roethke's poem “The Waking” (1953) is quoted on a single page before the novel begins:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Roethke's final line beautifully evokes education. We can learn by going where we have to go. The task is recognizing what that where has to teach. In Kirshner's case, the where we have to go entails seeing the limits of belief, family, story-telling and self. Emerging from these defining moments of understanding is a strong, new voice that contains the possibility of change.

Jon Eben Field

Jon Eben Field lives in St. Catharines, Ontario and works as a writer, editor and teacher. He has published work in The National Post, PRISM international and Pulse Niagara. A passionate devotee of excellent music, Sichuan cooking and Flaubert, he is happiest when with his wife and daughter. He can be found online at:

www.jonebenfield.com

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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