The Extent of Loneliness: Lolito by Ben Brooks
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I once spent the night with a girl I met online. I was twenty-five at the time and had recently moved to a Vermont town so small it didn’t even qualify as a town — officially, it was a village. I worked the graveyard shift at a motel, and most of my nights were spent clicking through Facebook profiles of single women who lived within a hundred mile radius. I’ll admit, I felt a little creepy sitting there at two in the morning, the light from the front desk’s computer casting a blue, almost Lynchian light into the otherwise dark lobby, but my romantic options were limited. The women who frequented the one bar in town only flashed their tic-tac-shaped teeth at beefy locals, and the scene down at the food co-op often resembled a mixer at a nursing home, complete with free cups of organic prune juice and A Prairie Home Companion playing over the loudspeaker. So when I began exchanging suggestive messages with a woman from Jericho, I didn’t feel sad or pathetic or creepy; in fact, our cyber flirtation seemed perfectly reasonable, a mutually beneficial relief from our respective geographical, and emotional, isolation. And when, a few weeks later, we agreed to meet at a bar in Montpelier, the mere thought that, come Friday, another human would be waiting in a corner booth made me feel a little less alone.
The need to feel less alone is what drives Etgar, the fifteen year-old narrator of Ben Brooks’s Lolito, into the arms of Macy, a forty-six year-old teacher. The novel takes place over the Easter holidays — the British equivalent of spring break — while Etgar’s parents are in Russia to attend the wedding of his uncle to a woman whom he “found” on the internet. Thus, Etgar is left home alone, along with his dog, Amundsen, to drink his parents’ liquor, mourn the betrayal of his girlfriend, Alice (she gave a handjob to another boy from their class), and watch Titanic while wearing his friend Hattie’s panda suit. If this all sounds like an episode of the British TV show Skins, well, you wouldn’t be wrong. Both rely on the affect of grittiness for their appeal while simultaneously featuring teenagers who are as fragile as a Morrissey song. For example, early in the novel Etgar and Alice chat online about a snuff film they are both watching, a film in which one man is beheaded with a chainsaw and another with a bowie knife. The bowie knife, Etgar observes, “takes longer and involves less fireworks.” Later, after Etgar uncovers evidence of Alice’s handjobbing, he takes Amundsen for a walk and confesses, “Leaving the house is scary. I’m worried the sky will get too heavy and I’ll fall over.” What this disparity — the clear-eyed acceptance of real-life violence and the inability to endure a little heartbreak — really illustrates is immaturity.
A real, grownup trauma does happen to Etgar in the form of Macy, whom he meets in a chat room one hung-over morning. They exchange pics — Etgar wearing one of his dad’s suits, Macy with her “amazing nipples showing through the t-shirt” — and by the next day they are engaged in cringe-inducing cybersex. From the beginning, it beggars belief that Macy actually thinks Etgar is of legal age — during a voice chat, Etgar pronounces cabernet sauvignon “cab-er-net soh-vig-non” even though he claims to work as a mortgage broker — but Etgar is convinced that he has successfully pulled off the con. Two days later, Etgar is on a train to London, where he has booked a hotel room using money he inherited from his gran. If the novel has one central failing, it is that this trip occurs more than halfway through the book. Too much time is spent in a rinse-and-repeat cycle of Etgar waking up, drinking, watching a movie, feeling things, falling asleep, getting drunk with friends, watching another movie, feeling more things, and then falling asleep again. In contrast, the aftermath of the tryst is dealt with in two-dozen pages, though this is not exactly surprising — the novel, like most novels written by and for young adults (Brooks is twenty-three), flinches at drama and is more concerned with melodrama. The narrative voice itself is infused with this melodrama, and one of its more annoying tics is to constantly tell the reader how Etgar feels.
If the reader harbored any doubts about whether or not Macy is aware of Etgar’s true age, they are dispelled when she remarks, post-coitus, “You’re young.” And when she asks how young, we are told, “she doesn’t sound angry. She sounds curious and far away.” Etgar lies and says he’s eighteen, thereby granting legality to the proceedings. Macy then confesses she is a teacher with a husband and kids. This revelation doesn’t cause Etgar to immediately catch the next train home; in fact, all the honesty in the room seems to calms him, and for the first time in book he is free of all the acting and pretense that characterize adolescence. The most affecting, and disturbing, scene in the book occurs the following day, when Etgar and Macy take turns punching each other in the stomach (while they are both topless), and then they go and get tattoos of the outlines of the bruises. As Etgar correctly observes, “My skin will stretch and shed, but the edge of this bruise will stay the same.”
My internet tryst left also left a permanent mark, though of a different sort. Unlike Etgar, I woke up the next day to discover that my loneliness had only been replaced by other, more adult emotions — disappointment and regret. I remember lying in bed, trying to piece together the events of the previous night — driving to Waterbury for more drinks before heading north for a cheap, off-season motel in Stowe — and then rolling over to find a woman who looked even more miserable than me. Over breakfast, we both offered half-hearted suggestions about how to spend such a beautiful autumn Saturday, but afterwards we went to a farmer’s market, and there we both quickly realized that we were buying ingredients for two separate meals. We paid for our produce, exchanged an awkward hug, and then parted ways. On the bus ride home — I didn’t own a car and had taken a Greyhound to our date — I put on my headphones and waited for the loneliness to return. It didn’t, and it still hasn’t, though somtimes I wish it would.
by Ben Brooks