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Some More Books: Part 3

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Dear D______,

9am, Los Angeles.

Hi, it's James. Not feeling so great. Just overwhelmed. I'm at my place in L.A., but I've just been around the world for this Oz press tour. Berlin, Tokyo, Daytona, Moscow, London, and back and forth between L.A. and N.Y.C. a few times, sometimes within a 24-hour period, and three or four times within a 72-hour period. I also went to Austin just now for a little, probably 12 hours, to show one of my students' projects, Tar, based on the poems of C.K. Williams. I am beat. I have been reading and writing a bunch and seeing what I can of each city, but the press drains one. Especially because it's my face that gets projected out into the world, so it seems as if I want to do all this press, and then people criticize me for being overexposed. And it's a children's film, so I am asked a specific kind of question, over and over and over: "Did you learn magic?" "Any funny stories from set?" "Did you feel a lot of pressure doing a prequel to such a beloved film?" "If you had one magic power, what would it be?" To the last one I always say that I would hope for the healing touch so I could help sick people, but if I've been asked it a bunch in one day, I usually say, "I do have a magic power; it's X-ray vision." Then they usually blush or move onto the next question.

I'm very happy with the film, and the other film I'm in that came out right after, Spring Breakers, but all the press has been a lot. I'm about to go to Hollywood Boulevard, to get my star on the Walk of Fame. It's a big honor but also surreal. I really never expected this.

***

Teddy Wayne's novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine tracks the faltering tour of an 11-year-old pop singer in the mold of Justin Bieber. It is a first-person account from the boy, so the story is filtered through his limited worldview. This kind of funneling through a child's perspective is not new, the most famous being Holden's incomparable persona in Catcher in the Rye, but usually the young person's perspective is just that: young and inexperienced. In Wayne's novel, one of the most salient aspects is the way that this young mind has been shaped by his unique position as a pop star.

I'm sure that almost every Bildungsroman involves the forming of the protagonist's identity through a struggle between the influences of his environment and his own burgeoning sense of self, and his determination of right and wrong on his own terms. But in this coming-of-age story, the circumstances are unique. He became a celebrity before he was even a teenager, so he is going through the regular trials of growing up -- puberty, redefining his relationship with his parents, becoming interested in sex, learning to socialize in a larger context -- at the same time as he is being pressured to carry an extremely public career. He is being asked to do a job that would be hard for an adult -- maintain a composed public persona while being scrutinized every day of his life -- while he is still learning about who he is. The result is that his persona, and even his veridic self, are being shaped in concrete ways by his career because his career is his life -- a phenomenon that compounds the confusion, because his career is exploding during such an important formative stage.

The situation is exemplified by the confused conflation of his mother and manager. He can no longer distinguish motherly love from career guidance; each has become the other. And, for that matter, she can no longer distinguish the two because her son has become her ticket out of working as a small-town checkout girl in a second-rate supermarket. And, of course, this is all a way to talk about the more universal phenomenon of coming of age in a digital world where we all look at each other in closeup and are hyper-aware of how we present ourselves to one another. Two ways that Wayne shows the encroaching influences on young Jonny Valentine are to infuse Jonny's thoughts with a hyper-awareness of his career and public image when most kids are only thinking about being picked for the fifth-grade dodgeball team, and to show the way his inner vocabulary and trains of cogitation are hijacked by words and phrases taken from the sources around him.

Just as Holden Caulfield's personality is revealed by the way the loss of his brother and his implied breakdown are discussed with a faceless therapist, Jonny's personality is framed and shaped by his experiences and struggles on his tour. He has teachers of many sorts: His mother is the overall guide for his career; his school tutor gives him lessons about slaves which are used as a parallel for his situation as a product manufactured by a label; his singing and dance coach teaches him about how to present his onstage persona and his music so that he sells the most records and tickets possible. The result is that he hardly has a choice about how to behave; he knows that he loves singing and dancing, but now that he has achieved national fame, he needs to be aware of a whole host of things that no teenage boy should need to be conscious of: He worries about his carb intake to the calorie, he has to face the snarky reviews of his work by critics three times his age, he has to sing songs that are written for him, and he isn't allowed friendships with children his own age because he is always on the road or because his friends before fame aren't considered cool enough to fit with his manicured persona. The closest he gets to a relationship is an arranged, phony paparazzi-style photo shoot with a young female pop star to make it look as if they're dating and, finally, a blow job from a chubby groupie who doesn't even like his music -- she just wants the story.

The wedges within this façade of tween stardom are his tutor and his own efforts to find his dad through the Internet. His tutor gives him an essay question about the pros and cons of slavery for both the masters and the slaves, an obvious prompt for Jonny to question his own situation, and his father is someone from outside his career-oriented circle who might be able to show him something of a real life away from the lime light. But unfortunately for Jonny, even though he can see the cons of his position as an artist who doesn't control his own art, or even his own life, the pros of a career filled with fame and fortune are too powerful to countermand. And the father, who holds the most potential to give Jonny some unconditional love, turns out to be a recovering drug addict who has sought out Jonny in order to get some of his money. So Jonny is not to blame for retreating into the warm safety of stardom at the end; it's the only place he gets positive feedback, and isn't stardom what everyone wants anyway? Why should he give that up for a life of drudgery and dreaming, where one is just as empty and shaped by outside forces to the same extent? Of course he will choose his career over a self-motivated life, because at least while he's famous he gets good food, girls scream for him, and he can play video games all day.