So I think the first chapter nicely sets the tone of Benji’s coming-of-age, which will not play out as a series of plot-driven events, but as a gradual realization of life being different from what it was before. And I think that is pretty much what happens when you find yourself in adolescence.
This chapter also seems to outline some themes that will be important to Benji’s character arc. I thought I’d do a very rough outline (one that is very much subject to revision) of these themes so we can try to think about how they develop throughout the novel.
First, I think there’s self-discovery, or the recognition that you are your own self. For example, Benji has realized that he and his younger brother, Reggie, are “two brothers going off in different directions.” Benji talks about how, previously, he and Reggie came as “a matched set.” They were known as a unit: “Benji ’n’ Reggie, Benji ’n’ Reggie.” They were joined at “that spot on your self where you meet the world,” which is, I think, a well-put way of writing about the line between your sense of self and that of the rest of the world. Benji didn’t know who he was without his younger brother; he didn’t know where his personality ended and where his brother’s began. But now he’s becoming his own person.
I find Benji’s typically teenage melancholic self-examination very humorous: “Aren’t we all just ants under the magnifying glass, really?” and “Is this the passing of our days, so much Pixy Stix dust falling in an hourglass?” The callow sort of existentialism mixed with youth-specific references (burning ants under a magnifier, Pixy Stix) makes me laugh.
Then there is, of course, a preoccupation with girls. I think the roller-disco party is a scene full of activity, even if mostly neurotic mental activity. I found Benji’s analysis of his skating with Emily very charming. Like most adolescent boys, Benji hovers around the Asteroids machine. When Emily suggests they go out on the rink, Benji worries that his friend Andy will take “revenge as Dungeon Master.” The whole scene communicates that moment when friends who are of the opposite sex are no longer just friends but this whole other category of people with an unknown potentiality: “I squeezed her hand twice in some kind of weird code and she squeezed back” and “We were out there forever. How does one measure infinity in a roller rink?” Then Benji realizes Reggie isn’t there: “This was no threesome, I was alone with someone else.” It’s a new world for Benji Cooper, a world where he is just himself and where girls exist and might even know that he exists.
In this part, Benji says: “Frankly, I took our moment of closeness for granted (this will be a running theme) and if I had known that that was the most girl contact I was going to have for many years, I would have taken a souvenir.” I’m also curious to see how his taking closeness for granted will play out in the rest of the novel.
Last but not least (and maybe not even last), there is the theme of double-consciousness and race. There is much that happens in Benji’s life to remind him he is different, whether it’s a stranger asking if he and Reggie are African princes, that he’s the only black kid at school, or his statement that “every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro.” The group of “Famous Black People” that he should know is interesting to me because I think it’s something that makes him feel like he isn’t black enough. Here is where W.E.B. DuBois idea of double-consciousness comes in, “‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…One ever feels his two-ness,’” the state of having a foot in two worlds.
As Benji says, he and Reggie are black kids with beach houses. But no one would ever ask him if he was an African prince in Sag Harbor, and in this way Sag Harbor is a place where he belongs. But Benji is also learning how things become more gray as he grows older. Sag Harbor is also a trap (“We took the bait year after year, pure pinned joy in the town of Sag Harbor”), perhaps promising rejuvenation and renewal but falling short at the end of the summer. When people leave the city for Sag Harbor, they are asked, “How long are you out for?” as if granted a leave from prison. Benji says, “Earlier, I described Sag as a kind of trap, but the place also attracted the language of freedom. I don’t know which is worse, the trap or the prison. Either way, you’re stuck.” So Sag Harbor is a trap, and the city is a prison, but he’s stuck either way. All this, I think, is to show how Benji is trying to find where he belongs or is home.
The introduction to Benji’s friend NP unearths even more layers surrounding the issue of race. NP’s nickname was “shortened to NP because the adults gave us trouble when they heard us using the word n[…]. For understandable reasons.” But Ben realizes they are hypocritical, too, as he has heard them use the word to communicate familiarity and also to “distinguish themselves from those of our race who possessed a certain temperament and circumstance.… There were no street n[…] in Sag Harbor. No, no, no.… But we all had cousins who…you know.” Race is certainly a big issue, so I am interested to see how it will be addressed in a humorous novel about a teenage boy.
Oh, and here’s, I think, another thing related to the whole notion of identity: I was struck by Benji’s last sentence in Chapter 1: “There was that one variation of out, Who else is out?, which is the most important out of all.… We needed to know, Is it just you and me or is there another to save us from each other?” It made me think of the ways in which we sometimes grow out of people (friends, family members) but want to hold onto these connections. It also made me think about what or who Benji might need saving from. The rest of the novel will tell!
What are your thoughts on these themes? Do you see other themes or other examples of the themes I’ve been thinking about? Do you have any favorite moments? Can you relate to Benji? Your thoughts, questions, and comments are welcome!