Fatal Fourway: Best Teen Angst Novels

The Bell Jar –  Anna Burzlaff

No awkward teenage girl’s journey to adulthood is complete without a reading of The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath’s novel has two functions. First, it allows for deep insight into mental illness and Plath’s own psychological state and second, it reminds those misanthropic amongst us that there is in fact someone more miserable and disturbed than we are.

It is also the ideal accessory for any angst-ridden teen. Combined with skinny jeans, and a look of utter and hopeless despair, carrying The Bell Jar around is going to pave a teenager’s path to hanging out with youths who have asymmetric fringes and are still convinced that Courtney Cox killed Kurt Cobain.

I don’t want to get too light hearted about the book as it is a serious work of literature that seriously explores mental illness, and all that. Boring! Essentially the whole point of The Bell Jar is so that you can look troubled, and angst-ridden, and hang out with those cool kids who skate at Central Bank. 

The Catcher in the Rye is so clichéd at this stage if you attempt to talk about Holden Caulfield you’ll be greeted with a host of scowling disaffected youths. Admittedly you may only see one half of their scowl due to the asymmetric fringe, but you’ll feel its full force nonetheless.

The Bell Jar on the other hand is the true stamp of alterity. Plath’s tale of deep psychological burden and perturbing mental distress is almost 100% guaranteed to make you one of the group. You may even all end up painting one another’s nails different colours and running around parks shouting “conformist” at people. Kids these days!

 

Perks of Being a Wallflower – Aoife Valentine

If you’ve only seen the movie version of Perks of Being a Wallflower, you’re missing out. Having had a revival of sorts with the film release late last year, the book may have gotten lost amidst all the people arguing over whether Emma Watson really can play any character other than Hermione Granger (she can, if you’re interested), but it’s one you need to pick up, and definitely the one you need to pick up ahead of any of the others on this page.

Seemingly inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, it’s got a similar premise only it’s well, better. I mean, Perks actually has a decent plot, for one. And while you’ll find the Bell Jar hugely depressing, Perks deals with mental illness in a way that resonates so easily with so many teens, despite Charlie’s problems stemming from fairly specific incidents which only a minority could really relate to. It’s also not told in that condescending way that so many teen books are, looking back, which means you can read it at any age without feeling like you’ve borrowed your little sister’s English homework.

And that’s part of makes this book so special: its authenticity and its reality. As a teenager, it’s inspiring and magical, and Charlie’s letters to an anonymous friend give it a voice that few other novels can really match. It’s jam-packed with every emotion under the sun, the same as any angsty teen usually is, and the issues it tackles are pretty timeless. Making stupid mistakes and falling in love with the wrong people because you don’t know any better, and at the end of it all, we’ve all been Charlie at some point, standing back from the chaos, trying to make sense of it all. And it doesn’t get angstier than that.

 

The Catcher in the Rye – Conor Barry

Well, this one was easy. I win this week by default because two of the three other choices, Perks and The Bell Jar, wouldn’t have even existed if J.D. Salinger hadn’t written this cultural icon. In fact, it’s not just these two books that have been heavily influenced by Salinger’s pondering mini-epic, but literally every piece of fiction since. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but for a book where essentially nothing happens, its cultural impact is both amazing and spectacular.

The novel follows red-hatted teenager Holden Caulfield as he wanders the streets of New York, declaring some people phonies, and generally not getting up to much apart from being confused and angry about his life, all in his unique youngster vernacular. He feels isolated from both the worlds of adults and of children, and is stuck in an emotional limbo, not knowing what to do apart from converse with disinterested prostitutes and judge everyone in sight.

The popular complaint against the book is that the 17 year old protagonist is irritating, self-obsessed and full of angst. But what these critics seem to have forgotten about this 17 year old is that he is, in fact, 17 years old. You may think most of Holden’s opinions are immature, which is completely fine because why should you have to agree with him? Part of the appeal of the book is rereading it, your opinion of Holden changing as you yourself grow up.

Also, thanks to the J.D Salinger lack of trust in the film industry, there’s never been a film adaptation, so your brain can imagine whatever kind of angsty teenage adventure you like without Hollywood’s glossy version encroaching on your brain-thoughts. It’s a book that’s great when you’re a teenager, but even better as an open-minded adult.

The Diaries of Adrian Mole – Emer Sugrue

If it’s angst you’re looking for, it doesn’t get angstier than 1980s Thatcherite England, and the angstiest fictional teen of them all was Adrian Mole.

The first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ , introduces us to the tragic every-boy, as we follow his painful progress through puberty in a hilariously relatable way. While most teen books have their protagonists and their friends facing all kind of dramatic situations such as drug taking, unplanned pregnancy, suicide or hiring prostitutes just for a chat; Adrian’s life is charmingly mundane. The plot doesn’t come from events around him, but his interpretation and understanding of them. The main things going on in Adrian’s world are his tragic belief in his intellectualism, the baffling antics of his family and his all consuming love for an pretentious girl called Pandora.

While being a clever and funny book in its own right, the lasting brilliance of Adrian Mole is that is captures the both the awkwardness, the dullness and the solipsism of teenagers. Who doesn’t look back at their teen self with mortification? We were all benignly stupid at that age, not able to focus beyond the misery of a crush, or how to marginally reduce the number of pimples plaguing your face.

Adrian is the everyman. Unlike other teen books where the main character is either popular or a crippling loser, Adrian is just normal. He has a few friends, he gets a girlfriend for a bit, and there’s a guy who picks on him a bit but not too badly. He doesn’t become a wizard, or date a vampire, he just goes to school and stuff. He lives the same normal teen life we all lived, he just managed to do it hilariously.

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