Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.
The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.
Me and You explores these themes surrounding the struggles of adolescence. The novel’s narrator, Lorenzo, must interact with misunderstanding parents and teachers, a dying grandmother, and his druggie, twenty-three-year old half sister Olivia, who unwelcomingly becomes his fellow cellar-dweller in her attempt to get clean. While the fast-paced narrative is compelling, the driving voice of the novel, in its often awkward and nonsensical structure, becomes a frustrating obstacle.
Lorenzo’s thoughts are often clunky and nonsensical, with verbose phrases like “The Dalmatian had begun barking at its owner because it wanted her to throw it a stick,” “In a trance I felt my legs as stiff as tree trunks walk me into class,” or “I yawned and in my pants and T-shirt went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.” These are particular stylistic problems that are most likely due to the quality of the translation. This leads to an overall failure of an effective narrative voice, as it ultimately creates a portrait that lacks surprise and nuance, where Lorenzo slips through the pages like a ghost – a virtually faceless figure easily interchanged with any “normal kid with problems,” a description of himself that he explicitly rejects. There is so much potential that lies within the setting itself, (the abandoned cellar), but even that fails to form a concrete image in the readerly imagination as it is denied the kind of attention it deserves, the description lasting for only a page of an unfocused catalog of objects, the most interesting being a blonde wig without a back story.
Unfortunately, I also fail to see where Ammaniti adds anything new to the all-too familiar teen-boy coming of age narrative. We see the testosterone when Lorenzo “pushed Giampolo Tinari off the wall,” and we watch him contend with his heterosexuality: “With one hand she covered her boob. And her legs looked like they were never ending. I shouldn’t even think about her. Olivia was fifty per cent my sister.” We are then shown the bonding of two unlikely outcasts as Lorenzo is given a crash course with reality when he discovers Olivia’s ugly addiction, a relationship that, alas, feels unnatural. While the narration aligns the reader with Lorenzo’s thoughts, we somehow escape from feeling in any way close to him, or even close to caring about him, for that matter. His self-reflective thoughts on his hyperbolic end-of-the-world problems work ironically to make him – the outcast – just like everyone else who has ever been fourteen. While it may be Ammaniti’s point about the mind of adolescence versus reality, I remained unaffected. By the time I was finally moved by the direction the narrative takes, around a page or so from the very end when the flashback comes back around to the present time, it was “too little, too late.”
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