canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mary Lou Zeitoun
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2002

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

I really wanted to dislike this book. On the front cover is a teenage girl in a Catholic school uniform with a cigarette dangling from her lip. The copy on the back cover reads, "It’s 1980 and Marnie Harmon dreams of John Lennon. Surrounded by disco, pervs and polyester she discovers punk on her forced march into womanhood." Beneath this is the author photograph -­ a late-30something, relatively matronly looking woman...punk as a descriptive word doesn’t particularly come to mind at all. I think, judging this book by its covers, that if one is looking for a prime example of sub-cultural appropriation, this has got to be it.

Yes and no. I’m not necessarily a proponent of the writing maxim ‘write what you know’ but it would seem Zeitoun wasn’t a punk. 13 isn’t really about punk at all. Marnie doesn’t start hanging out with punks until nearly the end of the book and she mentions The Beatles and Pink Floyd many more times than the Sex Pistols or The Dead Kennedys (one mention each). When Marnie does comment on the punk scene/lifestyle, it’s with this relatively obvious observation: "[T]he other punk girls all squealed and hugged each other when they met. Wow. I had never even seen people hugging each other when they met. Even boys. I thought punks were supposed to be mean" (p106). It’s difficult to label this appropriation when so little has been appropriated in the first place. Maybe I should blame the publisher for being sensationalistic and playing up the punk aspect to boost sales.

It is safe to presume that Zeitoun was once a thirteen year old girl, so in that regard her character Marnie seems to be a fairly authentic (if occasionally a touch too self-aware) teenage girl. Growing up in a desolate suburb of Ottawa, she hates her school and the popular kids, who just want to get high and/or make-out, she hates her parents, who want her to be safe and/or normal, she hates a lot of things. In fact she lists off the things she hates on the very first page: "I hated everything. I hated the suburb of Green Vista. I hated Ottawa. I hated my street. I hated my mother. I hated my ugly, white brick school" (p8), etc. etc. When she’s not detailing her various hatreds, Marnie fantasizes about escaping to New York, meeting John Lennon, and doing something, anything meaningful with her life.

I can’t say I really disliked 13, since it was a relatively entertaining read. Unfortunately, there are a lot of little things to nit-pick. The notion that the book is about punk, for one. The narrative neatness of the ending, for another, everything cheerfully and effortlessly tied up, was rather contrived. And, of course, there’s the problem that an authentic teenage girl doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting character. A lot of thirteen year olds are rather annoying and whiny ­- take above list of hated things, for example ­- and 13 does get overblown with teenagery angst at times. Zeitoun’s simple and straight-forward language, with the occasional sparks of humour, usually makes up for this. But sometimes Marnie is just too much and I found myself sympathizing with the adults rather than her: "I was just learning to hate even bigger" (p95). Oh, please. Grow up.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The Columbia Review. His poetry was earlier featured in The Danforth Review.







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