Don't believe the hype
When was the last time young people adopted a new work of fiction as their own? Was it really Douglas Coupland's "Generation X," which came out in 1992? I know some folks in their late teens and twenties who make a little noise about "Jesus's Son," "Bastard Out of Carolina," "American Psycho" and "High Fidelity," and a few literature majors are wearing out the bindings of "Beloved," "White Noise" and "House on Mango Street." (A few more, bleary-eyed but astonished, haul around the 1,100 pages of "Infinite Jest.") But there hasn't been a new book with any real cultural force among the young since Coupland's first novel, which gave kids the shock of recognition: a book can be as legitimate a mirror of their lives as movies are. Now comes "Lila Says," a little novel with all the hallmarks of a breakthrough book for the young: a story about threatened, seduced innocence; a sensitive, deeply yearning male narrator; an outrageous and mercurial female character; prose that's lean and lyrical; contemporary references that place it firmly and squarely in the zeitgeist; and a hell of a lot of inventive sex talk. But the publicity surrounding the novel's release may turn off people who may smell the rat of intensive marketing, keeping them from discovering this slim little beauty."Lila Says" comes to us from France, where it was a best-seller for two obvious reasons: one, its sexual explicitness and two, the mystery of its authorship. According to the publisher's note that prefaces the novel, the manuscript was "hand-delivered to us in person by an attorney acting on behalf of the author, Chimo, whose name appears in the text and who wishes to remain anonymous." It was hand-written with a Bic pen "on two red school notebooks with quad-rule paper." A page of the unknown author's hardscrabble scrawl is provided in facsimile as a frontispiece. The editors place careful footnotes in the text, explaining that this is where the first notebook ends and the second begins, or that we have a "confused passage, much of it crossed out, printed here word-for-word." The editorial tone is so straight-faced and "tasteful" you immediately think, hoax! (It's a tone that's been parodied from Fielding to Nabokov.)So, of course, all of France--much of Europe, in fact, since it's an international best-seller--is asking: Who is Chimo? Is he really a 19-year-old Arab noble savage from the Parisian projects who penned this bottom-dweller's urban tragedy in a few spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling? Did Chimo, after writing this harrowing, sexy story really "wait for the post office to open and send this [manuscript] off tomorrow where I don't know," as he says in the novel's final lines? Or is "Chimo" (he or she) a savvy novelist with formidable ventriloquist's skills who's trying to get the ear of a publisher? Me, I'm going to pass on the question, because, one, I'm certifiably gullible in the face of a good con, and, two, because I read "Lila Says" in (by the way, a wonderfully fluid) translation--which obscures the vital evidence. I only wish the whole question of authorship hasn't been made so big a deal.Because it doesn't really matter. When the publicity falls away, when the mystery ultimately gets revealed (which of course it will), "Lila Says" will either be the authentic expression of a talented and sensitive naif, or it'll be a sophisticated representation of the authentic expression of a talented and sensitive naif. Either way, it's evocative, often-heartbreaking writing."Lila Says" is, among other things, a triumph of voice. On the one hand, its generic familiarity is sort of amazing: Chimo, an Arab kid living in the slum of a Parisian housing project, sounds almost exactly like an American kid from the inner city. (This you can get not from the translation but from the facsimile page in French.) His references are to running shoes, rap, HIV and Magic Johnson; he knows Hollywood gossip (like Stallone's penis size) and watches Baywatch; he knows 12 ways to pick up extra change (among them, "help clean up graves," "sell your cum to a sperm bank," and steal purses "with or without a razor blade for the straps"). He's also been deracinated by ghetto life: Islamic tradition means nothing more to him than project girls wearing scarves around their heads to protect themselves from male predators. On the other hand, his longing to break out--from the grinding boredom of hanging out with Mean-Eyed Melie or Slick Mouloud (granted, the French can't do gangster names), from the exhausting contemplation of the brick wall that seems to be his future--is urgent and soulful. He has discovered one way out: writing. A first novel about a kid discovering he's a writer is by now beyond cliche, but Chimo's innocent, frustrated dedication to his craft is fresh: "The locals, girls and guys, white or not, they're happy with their piss-poor language, with their yeahs and their ciaos, their okays shits faggots bitches assholes and motherfuckers, going around in circles in their word cage like a hamster wheel. Me naturally I sweat myself silly trying not to write like they talk . . . but I'm not sure what I'm doing. . . . You always feel you're sailing right by a green island you can't get close to, better guarded than the Bank of France, an island stuffed with wonderful fruits, words that people pick for themselves and feast on, it's like digging your hands into treasure in some paradise, but not you, never you, you just keep slaving away in your galley, lean into it row you little scumbag how come you're raising your head, don't you look over there or listen to those beautiful songs, get your nose down or I'll break your fucking face." What frees Chimo's writing is Lila, the 16-year-old blond white girl who lives with an aunt as insane as the mother in Carrie. Lila scurries around the projects on a man's bike and disappears for two or three days at a time when a stretch limousine comes to pick her up. Lila has an angelic face, a gutter mouth, an exhibitionistic streak so wide it seems to take up the entire spectrum of her personality, and she has singled out Chimo among all the slum's losers as the focus of her allure. On the playground, she tells him to stand at the base of the slide so she can flash him, pantyless, while she slides down. Riding double with him on her bicycle, she flashes him again, then gets him off with her hand while they cruise down the street, whispering while he's coming, "Don't let the bike fall over, though." She tells him about how much she wants to watch herself in the mirror, or better yet, on video, while she gets fucked. She asks Chimo to procure a video camera. Chimo--entranced, terrified and with nothing else to look forward to--feels like he has no choice but to do her bidding: "Besides Lila, I don't see anything I want. Besides Lila, I don't see anything."Chimo is full of a youthful romantic nihilism, but it's not postured; his attitude emerges forcefully out of the ghetto life that's created him. Lila starts out like an awkward male fantasy, then deepens, though probably not enough for her to break out of the fundamental opacity of her characterization. The novel at first seems to move toward the dreary and by now predictable ground of sexual apocalypse, with Chimo discovering the crazy sources of Lila's sexual obsession in a mad violent coupling, but it wisely veers away from that. The ending is mad and violent, but the violence isn't Chimo's or Lila's; it's the entire project's as it explodes into riot and a final release of its collective frustration. The novel spills into melodrama, yes, but it's lively, memorable melodrama.While the book is constantly foregrounding its awkwardness ("Now I have to explain some details about what life is like around here"; "I'm telling the end quick no writing over, I can't write for very long") it's really pretty elegantly done. Chimo writes a fine rush of a sentence and turns up metaphors that are evocative without being precious. Finally, it brings the impoverished conditions of slum life fully to bear on a young man looking for liberation through love and language. That's a fine feat for any novel, no matter who wrote it. "Lila Says" by Chimo, Scribner; 128 pages. $20 hardcover.