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REVIEW: 'Lolito' by Ben Brooks

04/08/2013 00:27 BST | Updated 03/10/2013 10:12 BST

In light of the recent teacher/student scandal, one wonders as to why exactly Lolito's release date has been brought forward from December to August. But perhaps far from a cynical publicity manoeuvre, it seems in this, Brooks' fifth book, he has prodded and realigned certain notions of 'adult' responsibility, to the point where it might actually be a good time for a book like this to come out.

In Etgar Allison, Brooks has reified the arbitrary zone where people are judged to cross over and become 'responsible' people, and puts inside his ultramodern teenage protagonist a host of conflicted ideas on innocence, loneliness and human desperation - all with comic, stylistic aplomb.

Etgar is fifteen. His girlfriend Alice is holidaying in Antigua. While she is away, he poses as her on Facebook and chats to a friend. He finds out Alice was definitely fingered by another boy at a party. He does not take it well. Handily, Etgar's parents are also away, in Russia, visiting Uncle Michael who has purchased for himself an Internet bride.

So, alone, into despair Etgar silently drifts, drinking from morning til night, wallowing until he "has suffered considerable loss of motivation, energy and interest in his usual pursuits (Wikipedia, YouTube, Kurt Vonnegut)." He gives up doing anything apart from yield to his constant heartache.

The initial (and lasting) self-pity will eventually give way, both for Etgar and for the reader, as his relationship with Alice is retrospectively intertwined. But first, he talks to her on the phone:

"'Etgar, please.'

'Sorry.'

'I'll let you finger someone. Anyone you want.'

'I don't want to finger anyone. You're the only person I want to finger.'

'Then finger me.'

'I don't know if I want to finger you any more.'

I hang up. I feel like a serious man in the emotional climax of a film that ends with teary defeat. I wish this was in a film. I wish I was sitting on a sofa watching the film with Alice and eating Doritos and laughing. I'm not. I'm in the middle of a cold field with a stupid dog. There's nothing in the sky. There's no one else here."

Forever accompanied by his loyal dog, Amundsen, Etgar gets drunk. He visits a chatroom. He poses as Herman441, a character he soon evolves into a twenty-six-year-old London mortgage broker. In one chatroom, he meets Macy; single, attractive, mother of two.

There are other 'people' there, sharing around a video of "a chimp sat on a flat, dirty island of straw in its zoo enclosure. It's holding a frog in its hands and raping the frog's mouth."

Etgar has seen this video before.

"I try to think of a joke that will endear me to the group. A simple, bad joke that will make a woman think I'm the kind of person worth pressing her tits against a camera for.

Herman441: froggy style.

Stud40: lol

Corin19: haha

Macy1: hahahahahaha

Missyeti: skullfuck

Macy1: I am laughing

I type more things and other people type more things. We talk about sexual positions and types of porn and types of tea and how to record audio from YouTube videos. We are bored people with nowhere to be and nothing to do. It is fun and it means I don't have to think."

Although mostly played for laughs throughout, and, from the naively surreptitious manner in which Etgar conducts himself online - chatting about things he thinks a businessman mighty busy himself with (he "owns a briefcase and knows the rules of golf") - there is at the same time a constant, warming compassion for the needs and desires of both these unstable characters.

While Macy still doesn't know Etgar is only fifteen, she appears wantonly open, completely vulnerable, and dangerously at his mercy. She masturbates constantly for him, as does he - Macy with her dildo, and Etgar with his sock. Having both been abandoned (or at least feeling like they have), they use each other as walls to post their needs on. Macy, the weak, desperate adult, and Etgar the weak, innocently devious youth.

In an interview, Brooks once said he wouldn't feel comfortable, at his age (he was 19), writing about characters older than he. But with Lolito, in capturing something of the timid loneliness and despair we all feel at one time or other, and, by revealing these as universal experiences, reducing us down to frightened, needy babies, he artfully bypasses any such limitations while still being able to deliver comic empathy:

"I try to imagine being permanently tied to two miniature humans who require constant amusement and affection. I picture myself lightly holding a roll of yellow tape, walking between trees, testing the strengths of various low branches."

It is not simple; Etgar and Macy are two characters both young and old, simultaneously. They are grey areas: Etgar surrounded by alcohol, drugs and gore; and Macy putting the kids to bed before manning the dildo.

To illustrate Etgar's 'maturity' - or, more accurately, his lack of 'naïveté' - Brooks details the constant feed of otherwise shocking/disturbing/pornographic imagery which our modern Etgar so blandly observes.

"I wonder what will be open on my computer when I die. Probably the Wikipedia page for death or 4OD or a chat window with someone I will never meet. Probably Alice's photo albums. Probably interracial porn."

With absent regularity, he watches strangers die. Then he watches strangers fuck. Then he watches animals fucking other animals in the face, and so on. None of it can shock. None of it can surprise. At one point, he does a boxer-shorts extraction of paracetamol from co-codamol to get to the codeine, then eats it.

But at the same time we are constantly reminded, with markers set about him, that Etgar is young; he observes that Macy's nails are "the colour of Ribena", he drinks from "my Forever Friends mug", he references Harry Potter. The holocaust, to him, is a Daniel Craig movie.

With both of these sides, he is the fuzzy area that the law cannot arbitrarily draw a line through. And rather than being merely an unbelievable creation - or birthed from a writer simply applying an older voice to a far younger character - Etgar is a credible narrator because the conditions of his existence are already here. How long could his innocence last?

Upon his parents' return:

"I spend the day in bed drinking water. Drinking for four days without stopping has made me tired and psychotic. I watch four episodes of Community and read some of Cat's Cradle and watch a video of a man suiciding on webcam. Macy isn't online."

Etgar veers from Faces of Death to Paul Rudd, Parks and Recreation to Mondo Cane. He exists on the cusp of an endless dissociative wave where "the best way to escape in your head isn't to think about things that aren't real" but "to think about things that are and then imagine them happening to people who aren't you."

As Etgar pushes forth his false relationship with Macy, until they are ready to meet at a hotel in London and reveal that he is a fifteen-year-old boy, we learn more of how Alice came to be such an important part of his life. In some of the book's strongest passages, we see a culmination of his real-life experiences with these females and which, without both, he would not reach his realisation:

"The reason I'm calm is because of being honest, I think. I'm not having to hold and remember made-up things like being a mortgage broker and living in London. If you lie to people then you expect people to lie to you back. That is why I pretended to be Marie. I shouldn't have pretended to be Marie then me and Alice would be lying in her bed watching the porn musical of Alice in Wonderland and drinking rum screwdrivers. Being dishonest makes me anxious, but I mostly want other people to not tell me the truth."

Soon, Etgar's parents discover what has happened with Macy. He wakes up to policemen in his bedroom. And this is where the real thematic twist emerges - of the familial bond in a crisis, specifically with his dad.

In contrast to the absent father of Grow Up, Brooks creates a family unit both authentic in the necessary distance they grant one another, and one also strong when called upon. His father, previously detached and devoid of emotional response, removing himself to the toilet whenever feelings are discussed, becomes Etgar's mirror of personal growth.

At first, his dad, regularly suggesting since he was nine that Etgar might be gay, "doesn't know how to react to male humans who are scared of things. He thinks that being scared is for women, gays and the under-nines." Until later Etgar makes a connection:

"I have never seen Dad fight and I expected it to be more impressive. I'm not disappointed, just surprised. I expected hard, swinging punches, and spit, and knuckles webbed with teeth. I think, maybe the reason he's sad that I'm scared isn't because he doesn't understand it."

But again, the matter is confused. Father and son behave as equals, joking like school friends about euthanasia, big tits, and inappropriate touching; again, the grey areas. It only adds to the novel's power, too, that once Macy is discovered, and during the subsequent proceedings, Etgar turns sixteen in what is a genuinely gripping and funny finale.

But before all that, Etgar has his revelation. He appears to reach 'maturity' in the final break up with Alice. He writes her a letter and delivers it face-to-face:

"Her eyes are wobbling. I want to step forward and grab her head and put it against my head. I know I won't do that. I know we'll grow taller and further away and we'll be adults and this will be a tiny corner of our lives that gets forgotten except for certain days under certain lights when it rises like a hot-air balloon from endless forest."

It is flourishes like these, and countless others, that deliver in Lolito a credible, often exquisite work sure to court at least a little controversy in its depiction of ageless (im)maturity. And though there may be some hot debate on the topic at the moment, Lolito won't ever become a tiny corner forgotten.