I often wonder if everyone else is going through their 20s like I am. In a fog of confusion, laced with a hope that one day soon your life will change into one of modern fairy tales: a deliciously quirky, non-traditional happily ever after. The internet is filled with these made up lists of ways to live a happy and fulfilled life, yet I wonder how many of us actually achieve anything close to that. We still feel like we’re waiting for our ‘real’ life to begin. Someone failed to remind us that it had indeed started 27* years ago (*insert your own age as appropriate). What’s funny (or maybe even not so funny) is that we’re not quite able to put a finger onto what it is we do want, all we know is that it isn’t ‘this’.
I stumbled upon Vanessa Jones’s book, ‘Twelve’, in my favourite charity bookstore, and it was the tag line that instantly caught my eye: ‘How should a young woman live now?‘ This is something that’s currently being discussed in the media through the publication of Sheila Heti’s ‘How Should a Person Be?’ and also through that TV show, ‘Girls’. Though the book is over 10 years old and could be described as being no longer relevant, I was curious to see how much life has changed for young women (actually, young people in general) since, if indeed it has at all. I found that it hasn’t.
Lily is the central character of ‘Twelve’, leading a life that she needs ‘constant respite from’. Her cyclical life of weekend-waiting depicts a restlessness that we all have, or at least I think we have. It is insatiable. It’s as though we were promised something, a multi-tasking life where you can have it all; a life that has actually turned out to be unattainable.
I believe this period of unrest in your 20s, where you’re plagued by inaction and a lack of motivation, is called a Quarter Life Crisis. Or just laziness. Whichever term suits you best.
I panic about my age more often than I should or is probably healthy. With the threat of 30 looming over me like a baby buggy armed with a breast pump, at this point in my life, most of my conversations are about this point in my life. In the movie version of my life I’d be immaculately turned out at all times, have all my sh*t sorted out, live in an amazing apartment that I own (despite working in a creative industry where you’re supposed to be grateful to work for a pittance of a ‘salary’), with a wonderfully intelligent boyfriend who just happens to look like a model, and a group of hilarious friends that would make even Carrie Bradshaw squirm with envy. And I’d be played by Kerry Washington. Naturally.
The reality is pretty much the opposite of the above. I have kinda funny friends; but that’s about it. So, like Lily and her friends Josh, Edward and Mary, I live in a state of perpetual confusion. Lily points out that we are at that stage of our lives when ‘we have almost completely let go of our dreams into the i-wish abyss. But not quite. Another year perhaps, two? At most five.’ There’s still this tiny window of hope that our dreams may miraculously come true, but it’s a very small window that reduces in size with each passing year.
This book is about nothing. Yet at the same time it’s about everything. About all those seemingly pointless but nevertheless heavy thoughts that are rooted in your mind. Vanessa Jones is very gifted at articulating the things those of us in our late 20s feel but have difficulty vocalising. For example, in the book, after much agonising, Lily and Josh decide to go to a house party, with Lily quickly admitting that ‘Parties and clubs and bars, they’re always incredibly exciting in advance, and such a good idea afterwards. But while you’re actually there? Somehow they make coming home such a relief.’
The truth of this remark is almost blinding. I’ve reached that age where going out clubbing is about as enjoyable as a pap smear yet I convince myself to do it again out of a feeling of obligation because these are things that ‘young people’ do: grind up against strangers in a dark, sweaty room. You allow yourself to briefly forget how tedious it was the last time and get yourself excited about the potential of the evening only to find yourself inevitably sighing with relief when you eventually make it back to your bed. It dawns on Mary that perhaps she’s ‘never been in the mood. Perhaps it has all just been an effort of will.’ Lily rightfully says: ‘It’s so solitary this. It’s not socialising at all.’
A contemplation on life in your 20s would not be complete without a mention of our love lives:
‘I have what most people have, the reason most people wish for love but which is, ironically, love’s biggest barrier: a longing to get, via somebody else, a different life.’
Sorry to be a mood-killer, but this notion of love being a ticket to a different life is what most people secretly hope for, even if they never say it. We place our happiness in someone else’s lap hoping they’ll look after it on our behalf. Feed it, water it when necessary. Take it out for walks on occasion. Maybe even have sex with it.
But before we get to the whole ‘love’ part, there is the self-induced punishment that is called ‘dating’. My God. Is it possible to be this jaded? We just go through the motions, and it’s all about tactics, strategies and risk; a business proposal. Lily’s friend Edward and his girlfriend Anna, take it in turns to chase one another, to be the interested party; reaffirming that old adage: ‘As soon as I haven’t got you, I want you, as soon as I have you, I can no longer desire you’.
Lily goes on a date with a guy called Colin who runs after her in a train station and gives her a piece of paper with his number on it. Initially she’s flattered, but doesn’t want to call him. But then she thinks, what would be the point of this incident if, after being asked what happened next, she replied with ‘Nothing’? Life isn’t simply handed to us, ‘memories are things you have to earn.’ So when Lilly decides to ‘earn’ this memory, she goes on a date with Colin and has a perfectly good time with him. But then two weeks pass by and she doesn’t hear from him at all. In true fashion:
‘for those two weeks I was not worth knowing. If I was pretty, it was only from afar; if I was interesting , it didn’t extend beyond an afternoon; if I was funny, not funny enough; if I was kind, so what? None of these things merited more than just one kiss from Colin.’
It’s funny how someone we don’t even know that well can define the parameters within which we define ourselves. We make them ‘[custodians of our personalities]’. But then Lily, like most people her/our age is an over-thinker. And over-thinking soon turns into negativity. This negativity tends to disappear as soon as the phone rings again, and we tend to start playing our part, again, the role we’ve always played in this plot. We go through the motions, dissatisfied because we realise that what used to keep us content when we were younger, no longer does the trick: ‘Luxury turns right turns given turns necessity. When I was younger I could have moved in with someone who lived in a barrel of water, but I have definite needs now, definite edges.’ We make our excuses and exit the stage, back to looking for another small part in what will likely be the same play. This is romance today.
And, of course, there’s also work. Stuck in an office job where she clock-watches in anticipation of the weekend, Lily comes to learn that the weekend is equally as disappointing as the week because it never amounts to anything: ‘The weekend becomes the week again. The excitement never manifests.’ Like her, we watch as our general joie de vivre is sucked out of us with each passing minute of the office clock. Discussing budgets and margins we betray the ambition of our youth and without realising, slowly switch from being anti-establishment and referring to the company as ‘they’ to conforming and referring to them as ‘we’ and their actions as ‘our’. They say it’s called growing up.
Tired of this, Lily’s friend Mary decides to spend time outside of the city, at a dead relative’s barn-house, and wonders if we don’t all live in London*(insert NY, LA, Paris or any other major metropolis that is crowdedly lonely) because we don’t have the imagination not to. Eek!, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of laziness. Perhaps Big City dreams are all cliche and no substance now? Or worse still, we’re too lazy to create that substance; it’s more work than we’d anticipated.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that those experiencing a Quarter Life Crisis are just miserable, self-absorbed and annoying, so introverted and irritatingly analytical of all life’s disappointments and failings. Josh reprimands Lily, wanting to make her see that she is, perhaps, the biggest obstacle to her own happiness:
‘But you spend your whole time looking for something new to excite you without ever building on what you’ve got. You want answers when you don’t even know what the question is. You’re after an easy fix.’
– Is this what is essentially wrong with us? Are we searching for something that doesn’t exist? Something that has been created through our mindlessly conscious absorption of popular culture, an amalgamation of untruths? There are no answers in ‘Twelve’ in the same way that there are no answers in life. I don’t mean to put an overtly negative spin on things, but maybe these days we’re too distracted to be happy. Or perhaps we have too much information to be happy. The more we know, the less we are satisfied. As they say, ignorance is bliss. If you were to refute this and say that knowledge only fuels our imagination, and that we are only limited by this imagination, well, Josh will tell you: ‘Some people say that the human imagination is limitless, but try conceiving a colour that doesn’t exist and you’ll see how wrong they are.’ (I’ve tried this and, yes, it is indeed impossible). I’m surprised that Vanessa Jones isn’t more of a household name as her articulation of obscure truths is often mesmerising in this book:
So do I recommend you read ‘Twelve’? Yes, if only to know that you are not alone in your constant dissatisfaction and that your obsessive questioning of all this meaninglessness is shared. ‘Then, in the end, all times become ‘that time’, one day this time will be no more important than that time is now.’ – In the end, none of this matters. As with everything, time allows these moments of seeming significance to fade into obscure insignificance: ‘But perhaps that’s what she’s learnt about the end, it’s meaningless until you’ve got there. And sometimes even then.’ And perhaps, like this book suggests, for people like me, it’s a process of elimination. A long process that will eventually result in the right course. So maybe we should all just try to be insanely happy in the mean time. Like this girl: