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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Absolute Beginners (1959) by Colin MacInnes

Book Review
Absolute Beginners (1959)
by Colin MacInnes

 In 2007, Viking Press published Jon Savage's Teenage, about the triumph of youth culture over the last two hundred years.  Titling the book "Teenage" was anachronistic, since he surveys back to the 19th century for the roots of youth culture, and the term "Teenage" was squarely coined in the 1950s to describe people between 16-19 living in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Absolute Beginners is the most direct example of what "Teenage" meant to the people who lived it themselves in London in 1958, which is when this book is set.

  Set before the mid 1960s triumph of rock and roll,  Narrated by an unnamed, 19 year old photographer, Absolute Beginners is a near sociological exploration of the various sets of youth culture in London in 1958.  The narrator is a sort of proto-mod, still listening to jazz.  He comes into contact with Teddy Boys, Yobs, Lesbians, West Africans and "adults" the last of whom exist in a world beyond his everyday experience.

  The plot is an early example of what you might call "teen drama" though written with the kind of sociologically informed eye that distinguishes it from something written by an actual teenager(MacInnes was 44 when he wrote Absolute Beginners).  Still, MacInnes fuses this incipient youth culture with the "angry young man" genre of 1950s England. 
   I'm not sure Absolute Beginners made a huge impression in the United States.  The copy I checked out from the library was a 3 in 1 edition of MacInnes' London Novels trilogy.  This is a sure sign of weak sales in the United States, the library doesn't even carry an independently published edition.

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