APRIL 23, 2012
“THE REASON WEETZIE BAT HATED HIGH SCHOOL,” writes Francesca Lia Block in the opening line of Weetzie Bat, her strange and breathtaking 1989 Young Adult novel, “is because no one understood.”
In 1997, the reason I hated high school was because everybody understood too well. High school was a holding cell that separated us from the Real World, a Kafkaesque reality in which success, I was promised, was a result of filling out forms and remembering to bring your I.D. badge to your place of employment. The future was both terrifying and daunting: If I couldn’t even put together a decent physics packet, how was I going to survive? But one day, this girl in my math class, a skater-goth who was really into Tori Amos and The Sandman, mentioned a book called Weetzie Bat. “It’s about this girl who gets a genie and wishes for a boyfriend named My Secret Agent Lover Man, but My Secret Agent Lover Man doesn’t want a baby so Weetzie has a threesome with her gay friend Dirk and his boyfriend Duck and gets pregnant but no one knows who the dad is. I think you’d like it.”
Though I considered myself a literate kid, I didn’t really read that much. The few Young Adult books I had encountered were either cautionary tales in the vein of Go Ask Alice or depressing stories about teenagers who had been abandoned by their mothers. This Weetzie Bat sounded silly and insane and a little scary.
I decided to check it out.
The book is short — skinny enough to fit in your pocket, especially if it’s 1997 and you’re wearing J*NCO jeans with 33-inch leg circumference — and I finished it in one afternoon. Forty-five pages in, my mind was entirely blown. I had no idea books like this existed. Weetzie Bat didn’t feel like it had been written for kids. It felt like it had been written for me.
Weetzie Bat’s plot is both slight and convoluted, and skims along as breathlessly as my classmate’s off-the-cuff summary. After Weetzie gives birth to her daughter Cherokee (a “girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. Canyons”), an angry My Secret Agent Lover Man runs off and has an affair with Vixanne Wigg, a Jayne Mansfield fanatic who turns out to be a witch. The romance is short-lived and My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, but not before unknowingly impregnating Vixanne, who leaves the baby on the doorstep of the home now shared by Weetzie, Dirk, Duck, Cherokee and My Secret Agent. They name the child Witch Baby and decide to raise her together. Dirk and Duck break up temporarily after an AIDS scare (“‘It’s so sick,’ Duck said. ‘I nicked myself shaving that last night at home, and I saw my own blood and I thought, How can I live in a world where this exists – where love can become death?'”), but eventually that’s resolved too and they all live happily for a while. The book is followed by several sequels, most of which shift the focus from Weetzie to her family, and are now collected in an omnibus called Dangerous Angels.
Block paints Los Angeles in late-eighties’ Rococo: Patrick Nagel doing the Go-Gos in dayglo. In Weetzie Bat, Los Angeles is a city in which “everyone was always young and lit up like a movie, palm trees turned into tropical birds, Marilyn-blonde angels flew through the spotlight rays, the cars were the color of candied mints and filled with lovers making love as they drove down the streets paved with stars that had fallen from the sky.” Block’s prose style is impressionistic mini-maximalism; she blurs facts and focuses on gauzy detail, like an outfit comprised entirely of lavish accessories and no pants.
On the surface, the concerns of Weetzie Bat are not obviously teenaged. While the book opens with Weetzie meeting Dirk in Home Ec class (he’s drawn to her because she’s wearing a feathered headdress and pink fringed mini dress), the narrative breezes past high school and its attending issues. There is no tooth-gnashing over the prom, no John Hughes-y drama regarding preps and cheerleaders, no social politics. Parents are scarce and teachers are irrelevant. In fact, by the second chapter, it’s unclear whether Weetzie and Dirk are teenagers at all. They certainly aren’t going to school much, but no mention is made of whether they’ve graduated, dropped out or just aren’t interested. Instead, they’re cruising guys together in bars and punk clubs. After the discovery of a magic lamp — a gift from Dirk’s Grandma Fifi, who knows a thing or two about genii — they’re homeowners with quasi-husbands, contemplating children and negotiating the pitfalls of monogamy.
As tough as they are in their actions and personal aesthetic, Weetzie and her tribe believe in love and they aren’t afraid to say it. Even the noir-ish, depressive My Secret Agent, who balks at the idea of fatherhood because there are too many babies and nuclear accidents and “crazy psychos,” is known to get a little starry-eyed from time to time. Here he is, wooing Weetzie in one of the book’s most memorably swoony passages:
“You are my Marilyn. You are my lake full of fishes. You are my sky set, my ‘Hollywood in miniature’, my pink Cadillac, my highway, my martini, the stage for my heart to rock and roll on, the screen where my movies light up.”
In the Dirk-centric prequel Baby Bebop, Block fast-forwards to a future readers have already encountered to invoke the teenage fantasy that someone — not just anyone but the someone — is out there right now, waiting for you:
“When Duck sees his love he will know that the rest of his story has begun. It will not be too late for either of them. The sweetness and openness they were born with will come back when they see each other in the swimming, surfing lights … When they first kiss, there on the beach, they will kneel at the edge of the Pacific and say a prayer of thanks, sending all the stories of love inside them out in a fleet of bottles all across the oceans of the world.”
This sentimentality, especially in contrast to the book’s other trappings of coolness, appealed to cynical, 16-year-old me. Weetzie and Dirk are punks, and Block makes it punk to be unashamed of love: talking about it, pursuing it, and falling into it.
My sister and I read Weetzie Bat for the first time in our parents’ green Dodge minivan while we were supposed to be attending 5 o’clock mass at St. Camillus. The read was thrilling, but when it was over, I was sad in a way that felt cosmic and existential. Dirk and Weetzie had wished for a certain life and that wish had come true. They lived in a cool little house with their (hot) boyfriends and children and earned their living making weird underground movies. They wore kimonos all day and spent their time lounging under a fog of Jacaranda and glitter. By contrast, I was a frustrated teenager, barely getting by in school, living in the non-descript suburbs. Like Dirk and Weetzie, I wasted a lot of time hanging with creepy dudes in the hope of discovering something meaningful, but unlike them, magic was scarce and magical genies even scarcer. And where in the world was I going to find a boyfriend? I knew a few self-styled Weetzie-types at school, but there was no one like the hopelessly sexy Dirk. Dirk was like no other gay character I’d encountered in fiction, neither a stereotype nor a well-meaning reaction to one. Dirk was simply “the best-looking guy at school. He wore his hair in a shoe-polish-black Mohawk and he drove a red ’55 Pontiac.” Dirk isn’t particularly hung up on his sexuality; his “coming out” takes up all of half a page. He attends both punk shows and Jayne Mansfield film festivals. There were no Dirks anywhere.
My despair lasted the better part of the week.
Upon Weetzie Bat‘s publication, a librarian named Barbara Nosanchuk responded to the New York Times‘ positive review with a Letter to the Editor, decrying its evils thusly:
In Ms. Hearne’s review the inappropriateness of the story for 12-year-olds isn’t even hinted at. Instead we are led to believe we will be purchasing a whimsical romp. This book is not a lyrical fantasy, but a glorification of pathological neurotics. If people want to read and publish this drivel, it is their privilege, but we should not assist their exploitation by encouraging boys and girls to read the book.
Re-reading it almost 20 years later, Weetzie Bat still shocks me, but not for the reasons Ms. Nosanchuk suggests. The drugs and parties and underage, occasionally gay sex scenes are old hat in a post-Gossip Girl world. Instead, the edgiest thing about the book today is its utter weirdness, its refusal to hew to convention. It’s fantastical but not a fantasy, romantic but not a love story, a meandering 70-page-ish teen book about motherhood, partnership, and domestic life with lots of lavishly described scenery. This, in publishing parlance, is what they call a shelving problem. It’s too unruly, too hard to pin down, too much like Witch Baby, Weetzie’s not-quite-kid, hanging “in the room full of musical instruments, watercolor paints, candles, sparkles, beads, books, basketballs, roses, incense, surfboards, china pixie heads, lanky toy lizards and a rubber chicken … curling her toes, tapping on her drumsticks and pulling at the snarl balls in her hair.” Weetzie Bat eschews any stylistic or formal consistency in favor of just being itself, like one of those animals that can only be found in Australia or the Galapagos Islands.
So it’s disappointing to discover that I don’t enjoy Weetzie Bat as much as I had in high school. The characters aren’t as well-wrought as I’d remembered (Weetzie’s personality seems mostly defined by her charmingly wacky fashion sense and Dirk’s by a certain good-natured aloofness), the loose, almost plotless structure is sometimes frustrating, and the go-for-broke lushness of the prose, which had wowed me as a teenager, now just seems overheated.
Does that mean that it’s not as good as I thought it was? I don’t think so. Since that first read and now, I’ve grown up; I entered the Real World, and it wasn’t nearly as terrible as I thought it would be. I met some real-life Dirks and found them to be all-too real. If the world of Weetzie Bat no longer seems unattainable, neither does it seem as attractive. Rather than being a failing, this is wherein Weetzie Bat‘s small perfection lies. Great Young Adult books play on the desires and anxieties of a young person. Some things you learn, other things you forget. As a no-longer-so-young adult, many of Weetzie Bat‘s secrets, which seemed so apparent when I was sixteen, are once again obscure. The punch that once hit my gut now flies a few inches over my head. It’s me that’s changed, not the book. Every now and then, in re-readings, the book and its sequels draw their curtains back and reveal themselves to me. In those moments, I’m struck by a deep affection: a reminder of my sixteen-year-old self and a sharp, visceral memory of the things I’d wished for then.