The Beginners by Levi Rubeck

Levi Rubeck on the perils of adolescence in Rebecca Wolff’s The Beginners.

Wolff

As a thirty-year old man reading Rebecca Wolff’s The Beginners, I was surprised at how easily I was transported to those warped, timeless days of sexuality’s first stirrings. Sex, confusion, and a constantly evolving sense of self are a few of the major areas that occupy Woolf’s first novel, as well as the teenage cognitive processes. The book is sharp and articulate, unafraid to approach the highs and lows of human experience. And what is life as a teenager if not steeped in the extremes of humanity? Armed by her time spent with poetry and as an editor, Woolf explores nascent sexuality and the perils of intelligence by using language at the molecular level.

Ginger, the 17-on-18-year old protagonist, appears to have reached a higher personal clarity than I would have at her age. For a novel that’s thin on identifiable plot or action points, The Beginners is propelled at an engaging pace by the voice of Ginger, whose thoughts are the primary force of the text. This doesn’t necessarily make her reliable, of course. I was intrigued by her ability to read the situation evolving between herself and Cherry, her best friend, as they grew apart in the summer before their senior year:

Cherry dried the dishes as I washed them. We did not speak, had not spoken much all day. I felt we were at an impasse, though she could not be privy to it. The novelty of this private experience, of knowing something she didn’t, and wouldn’t, was both a pain and a pleasure.

Part of Ginger’s intelligence is her ability to assess situations with an ear for rationality. She has her reasons for demanding that she and Cherry engage this new, mysterious couple drifting about town, reasons of unimpeachable reasoning as far as Ginger is concerned. Her hometown of Wick is a bubble, and she a bubble within that bubble. She sees that Cherry wants to engage the other students of their school, to fill out her little black book as it were, and can no longer hide her interest in the temptations of boys. Ginger sees this, but cannot, or will not, address it with her closest friend. Instead, she insists that their paths are diverging, and that Cherry cannot comprehend this, but Ginger herself refuses to address the loss.

I almost enjoyed this disengaged time. I ran parallel thoughts continuously: How she must be missing me, and how elegant, to be free of all entanglements. A free agent, as my father referred to himself on those rare nights when my mother went out and he was left to fend for himself. Did I need Cherry? Did I need anyone?

Ginger is already familiar with loss, though. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more difficult to really access the feelings of youth, as what was once so overwhelming has become replaced by the weight of responsibility and the dawning perception of death. Ginger has been infected and prematurely aged by the utterly meaningless and accidental death of her brother Jack when she was a young girl. His brief story emerges through her like so many points of light that might give us insight into her motives and actions. Yet it is Ginger herself who seems at once both so clear eyed and obstinate in her refusal to acknowledge what is happening around her with regard to the Motherwells, the new couple in town with which she has become fascinated.

While Cherry is looking to branch out with other friendships, Ginger insists on retaining their chosen acts of childhood. Desperate to hold onto their rituals while spellbound by the frankness of Theo and Raquel’s relationship, Ginger is acutely aware of the chasm stretching between herself and Cherry. Is this the prerogative of intelligent youth, to be at once so engaged with the events around them and insistent on self-destruction? It’s lame to feel so squeamish while watching Ginger blow off her soda-fountain responsibilities to inoculate herself against her best friend while embracing the unbridled sexual chaos of these semi-adult strangers. But teenagers, and humans in general, are contradictions:

I never swim: not in daylight, but especially not at night, when there is no hope of seeing the bottom, of moving away from whatever dead body or body part of soft, rotted remnant one might be about to bump into with a bare foot or hand. There, in the dark, exposure is complete: one’s skin to the black water; whatever is in the water to one’s skin.

A rationalized fear of physical exposure contrasted with a more sinister emotional and sexual violation. These are the moments where I find Ginger’s voice most refreshing. It is the force behind this book where not much happens and magic is hinted at. There are scenes of graphic sexual intercourse, and through this discussion the difference between biological function and expressions of love emerge. She approaches Cherry, who needs Ginger as her best friend but annoys Ginger in a way that only an age-old best friend can:

As Cherry neared the end of her story I couldn’t help but hold it up for comparison against Theo’s approach to me, so different, and so differently received. It occurred to me that he had never once kissed me, there in the mill. I felt slighted, a hole opening in the fabric of the memory of that night.

Ginger slowly realizes that she is merely an object for Theo, with barely a scrap of desire attached. Theo and Raquel don’t really feel evil until we get Cherry’s side of the story, but even after our sirens as readers start going off, Ginger has to rationalize this world she has entered. For a young woman so well read and world wise, she is still a child, a beginner, slowly coming to terms with the idea that even through adulthood, we are always beginners. Like the interior of the mill, which is revealed to be far less than the castle she imagined, Ginger slowly realizes how static and emotionless Theo’s desire is (not unlike the magazines underneath the sink at her work) as she is engaged in her final sex act with him:

He did the rest, using my mouth as a sort of socket, a vault, a hearth. It was a poor collaboration. It was repetitive and convulsive. He was fucking my face.

Ginger finally begins to distinguish sex acts like face-fucking with minimal (or nonexistent) emotional investment from sex acts which are conduits of love. She isn’t necessarily unfamiliar with power, since she was the dominating force in her relationship with Cherry. But once that was challenged, she let Cherry go, seemingly without any remorse. We start to sense that Ginger is surrounded by ghosts: her dead brother, this dying relationship with her requisite best friend, the ethereal parents, and finally the Motherwells. Her disconnection is palpable, and she succumbs to the loneliness of it, transitioning between worlds in her own highly intelligent yet still imperfect way.

These are terribly large and important distinctions, and the limits of Ginger’s self-awareness become clear as we follow her down this path. It’s easy to dismiss the parents as absent, Ginger as manipulative, and the fiction as unrealistic, but the power of this book lies in the honesty of the narrator, despite herself perhaps. These thoughts and feelings are familiar, as we’re never too old to forget the difficulty in navigating our emotions as well as our friends’ and lovers’. Before we go on telling teenagers how to go about it, it’s worth taking account of our own batting average, and stressing the importance of communication throughout all relationships. And of course, it’s important to remember that intelligence isn’t knowledge, no matter how much Ginger has read.

Levi Rubeck is a poet from Wyoming working in the Journals division of MIT Press. You can find him online at dangerhazzard.com.

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