For the past several years, parents and educators have been struggling to convince their young male charges that the written word is just as exciting as “Grand Theft Auto.” In his first young adult novel, Brattleboro writer Peter Gould has devised an interesting strategy to that end. Write Naked opens with its 16-year-old-boy narrator sitting in a lonely cabin in the woods with a girl. They are indeed both writing. And naked.
It’s a teaser with the potential to do for prose what that Titanic scene in which Leonardo sketches Kate did for figure drawing — namely, launch a million adolescent fantasies. But let’s back up a bit and see how this naked tandem writing came about.
Gould’s narrator is Victor, a teenage hippie offspring who lives in a small Vermont town and likes to keep to himself — “fly under the radar,” as he puts it. Hence the use of lower-case “i” throughout his first-person tale. When a Vietnam vet offers him an ancient manual Royal at a yard sale, saying it’s “got a book” locked inside, Victor decides to liberate that book. He drags the old-school machine to his uncle’s abandoned cabin and gets tapping — but not before he’s heeded the advice from a book of his mom’s about communal living: “You have to be naked to write.”
Unbeknownst to the shy Victor, his figurative and literal self-baring is observed by the bolder Rose Anna, a home-schooled neighbor who also comes from a family with roots in a nearby commune. Though he flees when he sees her peeping, the two quickly develop a fully clothed rapport. Soon they’re sharing the cabin and their pages, in which Victor chronicles their relationship while Rose Anna pens an “ecofeminist fable” of a newt attending a summit meeting to address global warming.
What follows is a two-character tale of transformation, like Last Tango in Paris without the sex. (Anyone expecting a lot of nude writing, or nude anything, will be disappointed. Writing naked remains titillating but relatively chaste, like the erotically tinged poetry reading that lovers did in 18th- and 19th-century novels.) Gould portrays Victor and Rose Anna as distinct personalities but kindred spirits, both in their sensitivity to art and nature and their rejection of the shinier, trendier aspects of modern teenage life. Consider that one does his writing on a manual typewriter while the other prefers a 70-year-old fountain pen filled with her Wiccan grandmother’s homemade ink. No MySpace pages for these two.
Nowadays, many YA authors try to appeal directly to the mainstream of their demographic: Fantasy figures like the Gossip Girls sell better than the Holden Caulfield-esque loners who used to dominate the genre. (Even Harry Potter is, when you strip away the magic, an indifferent student and a pretty average kid.)
Gould, who clearly shares the countercultural allegiances of his hero’s and heroine’s parents, seems to have no interest in aiming for that mass audience. Write Naked recalls Ursula LeGuin’s 1976 stab at a non-fantasy YA novel, Very Far From Anywhere Else: Its characters are two unusual, out-of-step young people who find each other because they don’t belong with their peers. Educated by her mother, who’s still mourning an early loss, Rose Anna calls her family “out of sync with the whole country. In almost every way,” but she sees that as a plus. Victor worries that his little sister, who likes malls and soccer, will turn into an average middle-schooler instead of being “like Rose Anna — woodsy and all.”
It’s invigorating to hear an oppositional perspective in young people’s lit. But, like LeGuin in Very Far, Gould sometimes seems to be injecting the young characters with his own adult attitudes, rather than figuring out how those energies express themselves in a new generation. Take Victor’s explanation of why he prefers to write on the Royal:
Don’t get me wrong. i like computers. There’s not much i haven’t tried on a computer. i’ve done digital editing. i download some music. i like to check out webcams, i’ve played some of the games most of my school friends have. i’ve done some stuff I wish I hadn’t.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something in there is watching me, tracking what i’m doing, writing or thinking, 24/7. i know they do that. And even when i’m not online, just typing on a computer, i still feel connected to that whole world of plastic, electric circuitry, global corporations, shopping, advertising, pollution.
Would a kid think this? True, paranoia about the military-industrial-entertainment complex knows no generational bounds. But a teenager might also point out that the Internet is a welter of subversive fringe politics and copyright infringements, and that word processing gives sentences a fluidity — for better or worse — they never had in the age when each draft had to be laboriously retyped. When Victor and Rose Anna start lamenting that they missed the 1960s (“It must have been awesome”), it’s hard to say whether things have finally come full circle or whether this nostalgia belongs more to the author than to his characters.
While this preaching-to-the-choir aspect can be irritating, Gould gives Write Naked a plain yet expressive style that’s generally plausible as the product of an intelligent teen. (We also get to read Rose Anna’s fanciful ecofeminist newt tale.) The two protagonists have a friction — both intellectual and erotic — that’s lifelike, too.
Perhaps what’s most valuable about the novel is how it delves into a boy’s intimate life, acknowledging both the desires and the doubts and inhibitions. Victor struggles with the problem of wanting to get with a chick — a self-proclaimed feminist Wiccan, yet — without diminishing their meeting of the minds in any way.
Will actual adolescent boys take a break from Superbad-style jokes about wanking and Internet porn to read something like this? Hard to say. But some girls will undoubtedly eat it up — and perhaps want to start Write Naked groups of their own.