Strange brew

Love and art are the twin redeemers for the hipster heroes and heroines of Francesca Lia Block's young adult novels.


Polly Shulman
October 13, 1998 11:59PM (UTC)

BY POLLY SHULMAN | Francesca Lia Block writes young adult novels so far out of the
mainstream that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Association of
Suburban PTAs had banned them from information centers across America.
Her youthful heroines and heroes rarely spend much time in school, and
they're too busy singing in rock bands, surfing, having babies out of
wedlock, communing with ghosts, taking photographs, driving around Los
Angeles in vintage convertibles and living happily ever after to bother
with homework.

In "Weetzie Bat," the first in a series of five novels about an extended
L.A. family, the eponymous Weetzie rubs a magic lantern and asks the
obliging genie who emerges to provide her and her best friend (a boy
named Dirk) with true lovers and a living space. Dirk gets a cute surfer
dude named Duck, Weetzie gets a filmmaker named My Secret Agent Lover
Man, Dirk's grandmother leaves them her house and all is bliss until
Weetzie decides she needs a baby and My Secret Agent Lover Man refuses
to oblige. Without telling him, Weetzie sleeps with Dirk and Duck one
evening -- her lover, she reasons, is sure to love the baby when it
appears, and the child will have the advantage of three fathers. To
Weetzie's surprise, My Secret Agent etc. storms out when she tells him
she's pregnant. Eventually he returns, agreeing to accept the baby,
Cherokee, as family. Soon after, another infant girl appears on the
doorstep -- she's the result of a brief affair My Secret had with a lanky
Wiccan while he was gone. Weetzie takes her in and names her Witch Baby.
And despite some setbacks (such as when Weetzie's father dies of an
overdose), they all get on with the business of living happily ever
after, as the genie promised they would.

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Stories like this may not be wholesome; they are, however, the stuff
cult classics are made of, and Block has a passionate following among
hip critics. A new novel -- "I Was a Teenage Fairy" (as in thumb-size,
supernatural person with wings, not homosexual) -- and a one-volume
edition of the Weetzie Bat books are sure to swell the numbers of her
fans. The Weetzie collection, "Dangerous Angels," charts the development
of this remarkable writer from an enfant terrible a decade ago to a
brash yet delicate master.

Many readers will be enchanted by the glittering atmosphere Block
creates. Here, for example, the younger generation of Weetzie's family
has a jam session: "Witch Baby sat at her drums, her
purple eyes fierce, her skinny arms pounding out the beat; Angel Juan
pouted and swayed as he played his bass, and Raphael sang in a voice
like Kahlua and milk, swinging his dreadlocks to the sound of his
guitar. Cherokee, whirling with her tambourine, imagined she could see
their music like fireworks -- flashing flowers and fountains of light
exploding in the air around them." Other readers (including me) may
find Block's relentless lyricism as irritating as a neighbor's wind
chimes, especially in her earlier books. Her hipness -- or as Weetzie
likes to put it, "slinkster cool" -- can also grate. The characters are
all glamorously beautiful, and she provides each of them with at least
one, more often three or four, talents and creative pursuits. They
dance, sing, sew, act, film, paint, write poetry, declaim it -- they try
their hands at every imaginable artistic endeavor (except writing young
adult novels). Not even minor characters escape: The homeless boy Duck
picks up when he's exploring his homosexuality, for example, is an
aspiring furniture designer. But irritable readers who stick it out for
two or three novels will be rewarded when they reach the later
books -- swirling yet meticulously structured collages of resonant symbols
and passions we've all felt, particularly as teenagers.

With her trust in the twin redeemers art and love (especially at first
sight), Block is as romantic as her more traditional colleagues in the
juvenile fiction business. Yet she also understands that actions have
consequences, a rare insight for a romantic. "Weetzie Bat," the first
novel in the series and the weakest, is a fantasy in an old-fashioned
sense of the word -- a wish-fulfillment story. In its first sequel, "Witch
Baby," Block acknowledges that parents' unconventional lifestyle choices
can be hard on their children. Perhaps because My Secret Agent Lover Man
is ashamed of his behavior when he conceived Witch Baby, he and the rest
of the household haven't told her that he's her father, so she feels
like an outsider in her "almost-family." Partly for that reason, partly
because of her witchy nature, W.B. stomps around like a preteen from
hell, taping dismal newspaper clippings to the walls, cutting off her
almost-sister's hair in the middle of the night, stowing away on Dirk
and Duck's romantic trip, even outing Duck to his mother. Before she can
settle down into the brooding artist she's meant to be, she has to meet
the love of her life, an illegal immigrant boy named Angel Juan, and
discover her true parentage. Because of the choices Weetzie and My
Secret made while pursuing their own happiness, Witch Baby will always
have a fierce, dark side. Though a bitch to live with, she's touching
and easy to identify with.

"Weetzie Bat" and "Witch Baby" are structurally something of a mess. In
the third book, "Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys," Block gets the
structure under control. With the grown-ups away on a trip, the kids
start a band, unleashing magical (and sexual) forces they can't quite
handle; Block ties the whole thing together by giving each band member
an enchanted, symbolic costume accessory. Her technical mastery stands
her in good stead in the fourth book, "Missing Angel Juan," which is my
favorite by far. Witch Baby is beside herself with grief when Angel
Juan, now her boyfriend, goes off to New York to find himself. "You're
always taking pictures of me and writing songs for me but that's not me.
That's who you make up. And in the band, I feel like I'm just backing up
the rest of you. I've got to play my own music," he tells her.

Witch Baby, of course, can't let him go -- she flies to New York to find
him. Block perfectly captures the hallucinatory loneliness of a first
breakup as Witch Baby wanders around the cold city looking for clues,
camps out in the empty apartment where Weetzie's father once lived,
forgets to eat. Her "almost Grandpa" Charlie, the ghost of Weetzie's
father, steps in to take care of her. He leads her around the city,
makes her eat, even gets her to take photographs (she's been too
depressed for art) by becoming visible only when she looks at him
through the camera.

Surprisingly, Charlie and Witch Baby have to teach each other the same
lesson: how to let go. Charlie regrets the quasi-suicidal overdose that
sent him out of the living world too early, and his remorse keeps him
hanging around Manhattan in the form of a dancing blue light. By taking
tender care of Witch Baby, Charlie atones for having been a
less-than-perfect father to Weetzie. He also gives Witch Baby confidence
that she's loved, which is what she needs before she can stop clinging
to Angel Juan.

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Block rearranges some of the most successful elements of "Missing Angel
Juan" in her new novel, "I Was a Teenage Fairy." Both books feature a
smartass, tough-but-sensitive adolescent and a supernatural companion.
In "I Was a Teenage Fairy," though, these are a single character: Mab, a
tiny, winged person whom the human heroine, Barbie, finds in the garden.
Here, photography has sinister overtones -- Barbie, a model, is molested
as a child by a photographer who wields his camera as an instrument of
power. Barbie's mother, a frustrated model herself, has pushed her
daughter into a career she hates.

Friendless, with an absent father and an all-too-present mother, Barbie
needs a pal like Mab too much to outgrow her when she reaches the age of
reason. "Even though she is past the age of imaginary friends, the
friend she might sometimes think is imaginary is still with her. The
friend has not aged at all; maybe their life spans are different, maybe
she is just so small that no one would notice her aging, maybe she is
just too vain to allow for wrinkles. She is walking along the girl's
arm, balancing a box of cigarettes on her head." Mab is
delightful -- touchy and full of attitude like Witch Baby, but wittier. "I
could put you in my purse," offers Barbie, trying to talk the fairy into
coming to a party with her. "Oh please," snaps Mab, "what do you think I
am? An eye pencil?"

Barbie's world, it turns out, is full of people who can see fairies.
It's a dubious distinction, pointing to an uncomfortable familiarity
with neglect and abuse. But fortunately, since this is a Block novel,
the damaging past can be overcome and a more-or-less happily ever after
arrived at: All it takes are love and art. Like Witch Baby, Barbie has
to face the right end of the camera, using it to tell her story. A bit
mushy? Maybe, but not more than most adolescents. I suspect Block is
following her own advice, transfiguring her pain into slinkster cool
art -- and a good thing, too, for glitter-hungry, rebel readers.

B O O K _ I N F O R M A T I O N:

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DANGEROUS ANGELS: THE WEETZIE BAT BOOKS
| BY FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK
| HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS, 478 PAGES

I WAS A TEENAGE FAIRY
| BY FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK
| JOANNA COTLER BOOKS/HARPERCOLLINS, 160 PAGES


Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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