In my first novel, Rockadoon Shore, a group of young friends disturb the living situation of an older farmer, who watches and becomes obsessed with them. Though they interact very little, and each doubt the impact they have on the other, what is clear by the end is that if they were to engage with each other, both would benefit. Malachy, the older man, has lived a large part of his life in certainty. The decisions that have brought him to this point in his life have acquired a sheen, a sureness in them gained by watching them from farther and farther away. It’s only when the young people come to visit that he begins to doubt. This doubt, having been ignored for far too long, will come to be disastrous for him.
Most of the book, however, is told from the perspectives of the six young friends. In writing about young people, particularly about those who are in that muddled zone between youth and adulthood, it can be very tempting to ask, how much do they know? How aware are they of the circumstances surrounding them, the forces that are operating upon them that they might not be conscious of, how well do they know themselves? The problem with this question is that it reduces youth down to a condition, to a distinct state assigned with a set of values marked by a plus or minus. The rebuke I’ve found to this approach is to ask instead, well, how much do they know relative to anyone else? How much better do older people know themselves?
Mary Schmich wrote in the Chicago Tribune, (later made into an excellent video by Baz Luhrmann, back when MTV was the devil), “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
She also wrote, “Respect your elders.” I’ve often found it hard getting these two thoughts to align. Age seems to give you a clarity about your own past, but using that very personal, very particular history to guide someone else can be a dodgy venture.
For a large part of my early life, I adhered to the notion of “Respect your elders”. As a teenager I was never very rebellious. I trusted the advice I was given. This was a smart choice, in many cases, and for a large part allowed me to avoid more serious incidents of criminal damage and mischief.
Into my late teens, however, I began to notice a gap between what I was being told and what I was experiencing. Advice I was given was proving to be wildly inapplicable to any real situation I was actually going through. “Be true to yourself” only went so far in a particularly violent game of Wall of Death in the school corridors. I was also starting to notice how people’s own conceptions of self bled into their advice, how tangled up in themselves they were and how that influenced the way they conducted themselves with others.
This led me to discount the advice of my elders. I’d be damned if they got special status simply for having preserved their lives longer than I had. I decided to judge advice and guidance on its own internal logic, rather than on the age of the giver. The minute an adult said, “I’ve been around longer than you have,” I was done. Falling back on your age was proof of the weakness of your argument.
It was only later, into my twenties, when I became closer friends with older people, that I softened a bit. I read more widely and had different experiences that taught me the amount of complication that can come into life, how messy everything is and how much what you think you know can change. But I still had a hard time taking advice. I’d always assumed people were stripped of doubt by about the time they were 25, that suddenly they became adults and lost all their vanity, their ego, their insecurity. However, the closer you get to that age you begin to realise that you never really just step over. You’re constantly reorganising and redefining yourself based on decisions you make, whether consciously or unconsciously. You’re never really finished learning, and so trying to guide someone else based on the path you’ve taken can be a tricky thing to do.
Many people are marked by uncertainty, in the world and in themselves. I’ve definitely always been a very uncertain person. There’s a manner in which you try to convince yourself that your flaws are actually your strengths, though, having said that, I do believe that uncertainty is a positive trait to have. It allows you to change your mind, to hold off, to choose the right path but stop on it before going too far. It keeps you on your toes, aware of other people, your own biases and inconsistencies. In the novel, there’s a lure of certainty for all of the characters, no matter their age, to say, “I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING”, but it’s actually this mindset that will allow them to sleepwalk through their own lives.
For me this was never a book about young people, or old, it was about how people in general are certain and uncertain in themselves, how they lie, how they listen, and how they can gain a clearer understanding of their own ways. This is a challenge many people must face, especially in these times, between doubt and certainty, about how much you know, and how much you need a guiding hand. To a degree you can only ever learn from something by actively experiencing it, and advice, no matter how good, will never fully capture that visceral experience. On the other hand, there are still those you can learn from, who can guide you or teach you, whether from your generation or another. You just hope you find the right balance.
Rockadoon Shore by Rory Gleeson is published by John Murray. It is reviewed in The Irish Times this Saturday by Houman Barekat and launched with an introduction by Gavin Corbett on Wednesday, January 18th, at 6pm, in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin.