Teenagers from Mars
Peter Bognanni’s first novel mixes punk rock and the wild creativity of Buckminster Fuller into a tender and believable chronicle of teen sorrow.
The first best choice that Peter Bognanni makes in The House of Tomorrow is to allow his main characters to bond over track 5 on the skull-faced CD that junior-high kids know as Misfits Collection I. Why is this a good choice? The Misfits are, ah, not excellent. They’re goofballs with dumb haircuts; they aren’t especially funny. They’re clever but clunky. They’re menacing but not tough. Their hardcore songs sound like protracted belches and their basslines are out of tune. And yet Misfits walk among us. Hang around the halls of any junior high and you’ll see a Misfits skull cut from a t-shirt and safety-pinned to a jean jacket every time.
This skillful scene is a sign of Bognanni’s central aesthetic value, and the reason you may want to read his debut novel, The House of Tomorrow: because it’s true. The Misfits are a fact of teen culture and Bognanni should be lauded for revealing “Teenagers From Mars” for what it really is: a tender expression of adolescent yearning. (Keep in mind that the second line of this song is “the insemination of little girls in the middle of wet dreams.”)
Bognanni makes many such excellent choices in The House of Tomorrow. Refreshingly, he is not interested in street cred or the namedropping that can spoil a punk novel—Bognanni is interested in depicting adolescence as it really is. The House of Tomorrow concerns the gradual incorporation of Sebastian, our loquacious narrator, into a new family, the Whitcombs. In glimpses, we are given the hidden sadness of each member of this family: Janice, the mother and youth-group leader; Meredith, the promiscuous older sister; and Jared, the punk-rocking heart transplant recipient. In a series of moving scenes, Sebastian comes to understand the Whitcombs’ secret sorrows—or, rather, the sorrows they think they’ve hidden.
These sudden revelations of adult loneliness are the best element of The House of Tomorrow, and another example of Bognanni’s fidelity to the uncool truths of teenage life. Teenagers are often privy to intimations from their friends’ parents and siblings—a weird confidence gained from rides home and shared meals and run-ins in the bathroom. If, as a teenager, you spent time with a friend’s single mom, say, you may have been subject to an outburst such as this:
“We got married young,” she said. “For one thing. And I think that when you do that, it’s hard to tell if you’re really going to be compatible down the line. Sometimes you are. And sometimes it just takes one big problem to prove that you aren’t.”
She took a deep breath. “It also helps if you don’t marry a giant selfish baby.”
Sebastian’s own sorrows are depicted less convincingly. The reason he lives with the Whitcombs is that his mentally deteriorating grandmother has kicked him out of their home: a geodesic dome that’s become a minor tourist attraction in their small Iowa town. Sebastian’s education is steeped in the philosophy of his grandmother’s former lover, the real-life architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, and Bognanni begins many chapters by echoing Fuller’s own musings:
Something that is easy to forget about the universe when you live in isolation is just how full of motion it is. It’s in a state of perpetual motion, technically. The whole entire thing: going, going, going. Never stopping. At least that’s the way Fuller described it. He said the universe is always transforming.
These reflective passages are often as disarmingly direct as the above, and yet Sebastian’s (or perhaps Bognanni’s) insistence on connecting them back to Fuller is a literary conceit that gets in the way of the novel’s tight plot and well-drawn characters. Likewise, a subplot that involves transforming the geodesic dome into something called a Geoscope is thematically resonant but dramatically dull.
The concept of creation is all over The House of Tomorrow. Sebastian’s grandmother creates the Geoscope while Sebastian and Jared create the Misfits-covering band, The Rash, and readers are treated to a predictable Fuller = punk rock argument. However, creation shows up in subtler, truer places, especially the conversations between Sebastian and Jared Whitcomb, the transplant recipient:
“I got the beep, Sebastian,” he said. He rested a palm against his chest. “I got to live and have a band. Matthew from Minnesota didn’t get shit. So it’s got to be a good band, okay? And nobody is going to mess it up or stop it before we get there.”
Here is Jared working out the passionate ethics that smolder in the best punk rock; Sebastian, the geodesical intellect to Jared’s mercurial heart, also attempts to work this morality into his detached, Fullerian worldview. This Dionysus-Apollo/Calvin-Hobbes duality yields fine comic moments and embarrassingly earnest speeches. But beyond thematic unity, Bognanni wants to communicate the verbal dexterity and daring of teenagers—that first sense that conversation can be, in and of itself, a pleasurable activity. It’s a difficult thing to approximate, and Bognanni gets it down fairly well, especially once Sebastian starts to trade his awkward locutions and syntax for a more straightforward tone.
The House of Tomorrow isn’t London Calling or Pink Flag—but it is a welcome addition to the recent collection of punk rock bildungsromans such as I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Hairstyles of the Damned, and Ovenman. It’s as imperfect and truly pleasurable an achievement as the Misfits’ Collection I.