Labor Day weekend always reminds me of one of my favorite books, PREP, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read it obsessively over a Labor Day weekend many summers ago, barely doing anything else until I’d finished it. In graduate school, I met a writer named David Busis, and when he told me how much he loved the book, too, I knew that we’d be friends. In admiring the same book, we spoke something of the same language. When the two of us had a chance to take a writing workshop with the author, Curtis Sittenfeld, we were like giddy children all semester. Not only is Curtis a fantastic novelist, she’s also a great writing teacher, generous with her time and insights.
I asked David, who recently became a Book Country member, to write a blog post for us about what PREP means to him as a writer.
When I was teaching at a prep school, I asked the head of the English department if he liked Curtis Sittenfeld’s PREP. He complained that Lee, the main character, never changes. Actually, Lee grows up, but you can only measure the change by triangulating between yourself, the high school protagonist, and the adult narrator.
Like Lee, I experienced adolescence as a maelstrom of desire, a time when the most pedestrian feelings of rejection and loneliness sometimes seemed poetic and noble because of their intensity. Most of the things I wanted—a school prize, a girl, an invitation—seem unimportant, though they felt more urgent than almost anything else has since. I love the book for reminding me of that urgency.
Understanding Lee is like building a riddle. Who craves exposure and fears it? Who notices without being noticed? Who hides and makes herself public? One answer is a shy adolescent. Another is a writer. It’s no coincidence that writers and adolescents have something in common. Fiction, as Ethan Canin once said, is gossip.
For a couple years, I was working on a novel about farmers. I wasn’t a farmer—I wasn’t even an adult. I couldn’t imagine what real grownups actually thought about and did every day. The only compelling parts of the book took place in high school, and they were jerry-rigged onto the plot. I finally admitted that the novel was irredeemable, which felt wonderful. It was like confessing to murder. I waited serenely for the sentence.
The sentence was to get a job writing descriptions of menswear for a department store website. The work was satisfying and undemanding. I looked forward to Taco Thursday in the cafeteria. I got engaged. The struggle was over. This, I thought, is what it means to be an adult. When I started a new novel, I discovered that adulthood was both good and bad for fiction: good because I could “do” grownups now, bad because I had less time to write, and more financial responsibility.
At the end of PREP, the narrator says that reflecting on her time at prep school is like riding across a lake.
Sometimes, if I talked for too long, I’d be yanked beneath, into cold and weedy water. Down there, I could not see or breathe; I was dragged backward, and it wasn’t even the submersion that was the worst part, it was that I had to come up again. My present world was always, in its mildness, a little disappointing. I’ve never since Ault been in a place where everyone wants the same things; minus a universal currency, it’s not always clear to me what I myself want.
David Busis is a writer in Chicago.
What are you reading this Labor Day weekend? Share here.