‘Teardown’ by Clea Young

41Q2SQZJrcL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Reviewed by Josh Rioux

The central characters in Clea Young’s debut collection Teardown are all “adults,” in the sense that they all seem to consider themselves to be hovering somewhere in relation to that concept, hyper-conscious of the space they’ve cultivated between themselves and whatever they imagine adulthood to mean. It’s something like how Thomas Hardy’s characters may have conceived of honour, or Dostoevsky’s of grace. A sort of private impossibility, secretly, shamefully disgusting. Young is too competent to put it in their mouths, of course. Adulthood in these stories comes coded, as in life: as babies, home decor, relationships that can pass as stable or even one’s ability to rebrand an experience as a lesson just because it hurt, as though you can will pain into growth just because you think you’re too smart to spin your tires. And they are smart; they know filling the house with IKEA won’t make them whole, the same way they know they’re supposed to want whole and not IKEA. Teardown isn’t about characters who are growing up; it’s about characters who are desperate to convince themselves they are, which makes the collection an indicting read for anyone taking stock of how well they’re turning out.

Take Tova, our hero in “Split.” Tova worries if her inverted left nipple will be able to produce milk for a theoretical baby she clearly doesn’t want. Her husband Jed is a domestic rock star, one of those guys who cooks for the potluck and swoops down on friends’ toddlers like he’s only got until bedtime to prove he’s that one-in-a-million, you’re so lucky – or, at least, that’s how Tova has decided to interpret him. At her friend Alannah’s house for dinner, she takes the girlfriend time Jed’s toddler-wrangling allows to nurture the wounding Alannah’s new-parent life has inflicted on her, observing all through such a tense lens of disdain that you practically feel your eyes slitting just reading it:

Tova studied Alannah as though she were a course subject. They worked in glorious tandem behind that cramped deli counter, serving the line of aproned workers from the grocery store wanting their lunch, and fast. But here, in Alannah’s home, they’re out of step. Or Alannah is. Tova studies her with the same intent, not to emulate Alannah this time, but to catalogue her decline: she’s restrained, hunched. Where is her old, rough grace?

Alannah had been the risk-taker of the pair, the alpha, the one who told club stories about gropey douchebags with a smoke hanging out of her mouth, who complained, pre-spawn, about a boyfriend who didn’t spank her once in a while. The transformation lands hard for Tova, whose adolescent peevishness feels like a way of buttressing herself against “adulthood.” She takes Alannah’s new life as an indictment of her own and, simultaneously, the smell of blood in the water, and, in true beta fashion, she snatches the position of strength, savouring the resentment. On the porch together, retreating from the house in a way Alannah surely intends to feel conspiratorial, she offers Tova her special-occasion cheat of a cigarette, a symbol both of the presence of her old self and a reassurance to Tova of the same. “‘No thanks,’ Tova says, for no reason other than to deny Alannah’s offer.”

Unequal pairs of women, and that special blend of awe and resentment carried by the one who watches the one who does, figure frequently in these stories. In “Lamb,” Laura, a waitress just out of the nest, falls under the spell of Patrice, a more assertive type who seems to need an audience for her sociopathic radiance. The relationship both captivates and torments Laura in a way that echoes a friendship from her early teens, where she was drawn out of her introversion by a girl from another school who led her on a series of escalating pranks, for which they were eventually caught. Afterward, the friend abandoned Laura, an early heartbreak that, recalled, drives her to abandon Patrice when her behaviour climaxes in a bizarre attempt to put their chauvinist boss in his place. In the immediate aftermath, Laura muses, “I knew I’d never see her again, but felt nothing of the crushing loss I’d suffered when Serena stopped calling on me. Certainly I was naive, but a person can learn.” This story suffers from its implausible climax, but it’s interesting to note how growth is again represented as a competitive rather than collective experience, something that, whether gained or resisted, is done so at the expense of peers.

Laura’s rather neat framing of her experience as a life lesson feels manufactured in a way familiar to anyone who ever had to force a personal essay in high school about a theoretical growth experience they hadn’t really earned. This technique of reframing past pain as a lesson for the present returns in “Juvenile,” where a random encounter between high school exes Mia and Pete leaves both parties shuffling to deal with unresolved feelings around what was an extremely one-sided and manipulative relationship. The encounter stimulates both old feelings and old behaviour in Mia, and she is caught shoplifting, a service she had provided Pete during their time together. When Pete attempts to cover for her, a seeming first ever gesture of generosity on his part towards Mia, she rejects it, confessing to her act as a way, she seems to feel, of final separation from Pete. Significantly, the choice feels too motivated by anger to represent any true catharsis, instead registering almost as an act of spite directed at her old self, a bitter response to the memories dredged up by the encounter, behaviour which mires Mia in her past as opposed to demonstrating the distance of maturity. The suggestion here, more direct than in “Lamb,” is that maturity doesn’t happen just because we know it should.

This complex relationship with memory returns in “Desperado,” where thirty-something Madeleine Internet-dates with a fever (one could speculate) born of too much Facebooking of other people’s family photos. Madeleine ends up on a date with Dylan, an aging man-boy whom she comes to believe she met once before in her early teens, when she received a first taste of fickle male attention playing pubescent third wheel to his princely younger self and her sparklier girlfriend. The memory cuts in messily, bringing along with it other, more recent disappointments in men, activating them like bacteria, her state flushing quickly from a sort of flirty vibrancy to what becomes literal illness by the end of the story. Although she is convinced he’s one and the same, Madeleine has chosen the site of that initial encounter—the friend’s father’s trailer in the woods—for this present-day date, which sets up her insistence on interpreting her encounter with Dylan as a painful echo of past rejection as an invitation to the reader to wonder to what degree Madeleine is authoring her own suffering. Of all the stories in Teardown, “Desperado” feels the richest and most layered, discovering in Madeleine a true mystery of self in contrast to the often planned-feeling inner conflicts of some of Young’s other characters.

“Ursa Major” and “Firestorm” both feature characters reflecting on their experiences of feeling rejected by individuals, and in both stories the harbouring of hurts leads to destructive choices that have consequences for loved ones. Toward the end of the collection, the use of memory flashbacks to trigger personal revelation begins to feel less like a motif and more like a device that Young leans on a little too routinely. In this way, the tightness and discipline of her structures at times work against the power she is able to generate with her genuine insight. Of these memory-oriented stories, “Firestorm” feels the most organic and powerful, the memories recalled serving to explain the behaviour of the characters rather than to force an arc. Having said that, the only story that feels like an actual misstep is “Congratulations & Regrets,” which morphs unexpectedly in its closing paragraphs into a letter addressed to another disappointing friendship. The adrift narrator is booted from a shared apartment in favour of a boyfriend, only to wind up in a co-op house with a woman grieving the death of her baby, leaving her bitter, resentful, and a square peg at her work aiding a midwife. Spoiler alert: The story changes gears in its last 300 words to tack on a happy ending for the narrator; she becomes a successful baker who also blogs her gifts to the world, Goop-like, is in a thriving relationship, and seems in general to be constructing a life calculated to drive friends insane via social media.

People from all around the world message me with questions I seem to have answers to. Substitute this for that, make it vegan, gluten-free, kid-friendly. I take photos of my yard, my garden, sometimes of my gumbooted feet treading the small paths I’ve carved between the beds, and most recently of my bakery, currently under construction.

I’ve read this one a few times, and taken straight, it strikes such a false note—this girl blossomed into Instagram divahood by the revelation of another’s suffering—that it makes a lot more sense as a complete fabrication on the part of the desperately unhappy girl of the previous 9/10ths of the story. The completeness of the vision of millennial bliss—the gardens, the vegan baking, the blending of entrepreneurship and family (she even names her baby after the co-op woman’s lost child, for Pete’s sake)—is on the nose to the point of satire, which makes me want it to be intentional, especially since there is much to be said of the impact advertising the developments of our lives on social media has on our conception of what growth is, how it should look and feel.

Struggling parents, or parents-to-be, serve as the other major through line in the collection, with “Teardown,” “Chaperone” and “New World” all dealing in various ways with the horror of landing in a role that can feel almost divinely constructed to throw one’s graceless failings back in one’s stressed-out, baggy-eyed face. “New World” features a mother in that most desperate phase of parenthood: two years in, a child acting out a woman’s role strapped with dynamite and a lit fuse. She goes to a club with younger relatives and receives a faceful of shame from herself for being neither youthfully free nor properly parental, swiping at her disintegrating identity. She is painfully real, as is the dad buying beer for his shithead teenage daughter and her friends in “Chaperone,” whose act is all the more pathetic for being motivated not simply by a desire to seem cool to her, but to feel he is somehow connecting with her as a peer—being genuinely real with her—and thus able to hold onto the scraps of the cool and authentic self he no doubt painstakingly constructed throughout his teens and twenties. This is the direct consequence of our culture’s inability to articulate a model of adulthood that can separate the behaviour of maturity from the corrupted economic signifiers and destructive societal roles we equate with adulthood.

In the final story, “What Are You Good At, What Do You Like To Do?”, the job-hunting narrator is accused of not being serious in narrowing her focus:

I could truly visualize myself in any one of those roles – life coach, radio dj, marine biologist – and I believed that the talent it took to perform them might switch on inside me, given the chance.

“That, right there,” Randy said, “is the problem with your generation. You believe in switches and chances.”

The narrator, unnamed, ends up led by a unicyclist who seems to be attempting a Before Sunrise-type seduction to an indoor art instalment of lanterns lain out into some sort of mandala or maze, where people silently walk in a way suggestive of ritual. It’s a scene doubtlessly based on an actual “scene,” and without throwing careless shade on a group of hardworking and skilled artists, the whole thing feels deeply hipster, in both the earnest effort and the utter lack of context. It’s an empty ritual, and the effect is not lost on the narrator, who notes, “I hadn’t purged anything. I didn’t feel renewed. But the room smelled sweet, beeswax sweet, terrifically so.” As a capper to this collection, the story distills much of the sense these characters have of lacking a way forward, a guide through the woods of adolescence to whatever is supposed to lay beyond. In place of the elders swooping in and revealing to us not only how to move on, by why, we ape ritual, take up diet trends and hobbies, change jobs, try to make new stories out of our old ones. It’s all honest, all forgivable. Young’s formal accomplishments here are strong, but the true power of these stories lies in how she zeroes in on the desperation particular to a generation arriving at that moment when the weight of that ego tips the scales from mostly pleasure to mostly suffering, with no roadmap for how to move beyond.

Freehand | 192 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1988298016



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