As Promised, “How to Build A Girl”

HTBAG If there’s one book it feels right to write about while drinking and listening to music, it’s Caitlin Moran’s How To Build A Girl.  Part High Fidelity, part raunchy coming-of-age story, How To Build A Girl might be the book I took most pleasure in reading in 2014.  Drawn heavily from her own life experiences, How To Build A Girl is the story of Johanna’s teenage struggles to extract herself from an impoverished life in a small English town by becoming a music journalist and escaping to London. Best known for her work as a journalist and feminist–you may know her from her book How To Be A Woman, this marks Caitlin Moran’s first foray into fiction.  I suppose I ought to mention that this is not a YA novel, though it’s about a girl from the time she’s 14 until she turns 17, which is not to say teens wouldn’t devour it.  Their parents, however, might take issue with the amount of sex and masturbation within its pages.  What else is on the mind of the average teen, though?  Johanna is overweight and oversexed and her primary concern from page one is losing her virginity.  Alongside this urgent mission, though, we get to know a girl who is smart, caring, poor, and incredibly awkward.  Her father is out of work on disability and her mother busy caring for a brood of children, leaving Johanna few options but escape through academia.  After winning a poetry contest, which involves a very embarrassing t.v. appearance, she decides to reinvent herself.

“I just don’t want to be me anymore.  Everything I am now is not working.   …And so, I just…start all over again.  I have read, many times, the phrase ‘a self-made man,’ but misunderstood what is meant.  I presumed it was describing not a working-class boy made good in industry—smoking cigar, in slightly overshined shoes—but something more elemental and fabulous instead.  Someone mage-like, who had stitched themselves together out of silver gauze, and ambition, and magic.   ‘A self-made man’—not of woman born but alchemized, through sheer force of will, but the man himself.  This is what I want to be.  I want to be a self-made woman.  I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see.  I want to be the creator of me.” (65-66)

And who doesn’t want to be someone else at some point in their life?  What teenager isn’t searching for an identity, a calling, or a community to be a part of?  At one point Moran states that the work of your teenage years is invention and reinvention.  This is the heart of the book, which given its title is stating the obvious; however, it is one of the first times I’ve seen this topic tackled so directly.  Johanna is aware of her method yet ignorant of her madness, making it impossible to tear your eyes from her as she manufactures an outer transformation and strives to match her insides to it with mixed success.  She dresses in black, dons a top hat, and flirts with joining the goth crowd before settling on becoming a music journalist.

“This is, apparently, terrible writing.  The music press is, obviously, some manner of Versailles, filled with decadent, lace-cuffed dandies trying grandiloquent nonsense about hardworking musicians in bands.  These are puffed-up fop parasites, riding on the mighty back of the noble rock beast.  Lollygaggers, poseurs—petit-maitres riffing toss late into the night, making no sense, making the world an infinitely worse place.  These people are, really no better than scum.   And I think: I love this stuff.  I could do this.  Fuck writing a book about a fat girl and a dragon.  I could be a music journalist instead….This is what I’ve been waiting for.   This is my way out.” (79)

And she does it–not with immediate success and not without repercussion, and all the while we watch Johanna with an almost morbid fascination as she hurls her new self, dubbed Dolly Wilde, at the world.  The world, it turns out, remains a hard place, but not nearly as hard as living through adolescence.  Johanna/Dolly is soul-crushingly hilarious and she gets into some truly outrageous predicaments with equally outrageous people.  Packed with 1990s pop culture and parties where the reader can relish being a fly on the wall, How to Build a Girl never fails to entertain, though it remains grounded by working-class issues and the trials of self-discovery.  You never stop hoping she’ll catch a break or stop screwing up because she pours her entire being into this dream, but it’s not until she pours Johanna’s soul into her Dolly Wilde persona that she finds herself on solid ground.

The first book in a planned trilogy, the following books will focus on new chapters of Johanna’s life.  Moran gives the following breakdown by title and theme:

  1. How to Build a Girl: Bad Sex, Masturbation, & Pop Music
  2. How to Be Famous: Creativity, Class, & Money
  3. How to Change the World: Forms own political party at 30

Was How to Build a Girl the best written book I read last year? Nope.  But it was the most fun to read.

Want to hear Caitlin Moran in conversation?  Take a listen to interviews on Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week? (skip to the 29 minute mark) or The New York Times Book Review Podcast.

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