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From Barnes & NobleTeenage Wasteland
This is not a book about Y2K. And it's not a sweeping saga of past wars or a 700-plus-page literary epic. There's no hype here, no movie tie-in. This is a short, twisted, idiosyncratic English tale originally published in 1996 and more recently published in the U.S. by the Dalkey Archive Press. Because of its experimental nature, it is the kind of book most large American publishers won't take a chance on, yet it's a novel that beams with a rare originality and force rarely seen on any bestseller list. Billy and Girl, the fourth book by the London-based writer Deborah Levy -- and the third to be published in the U.S., following Ophelia and the Great Idea and Beautiful Mutants -- follows the disjointed plot line of a warped brother and sister, who wend their way through their teenage years without parents. It's a story that satirizes everything from supermarkets as a kind of one-season Eden to daytime talk shows like "Jerry Springer" to Freudian psychoanalysis.
From the first sentence, the hook is set, and you're immediately drawn into the wild, weird world of Billy and Girl. The first five sentences are so sinfully enticing that the publisher actually chose to emblazon them on the front of the book: "Soon all the kids in England will be pushing up daisies. That's what Girl says every night before I go to sleep. Girl is my sister and I'm scared of her. She's seventeen years old and got ice in her veins. Tonight she reads me my rights." This is the voice of 15-year-old Billy, who goes on to explain that five years prior, their abusive father burned in "the biggest barbecue south London had ever seen...and the most splendid thing he ever did in his life." Their mother took the fall for the fire and was forced to separate from the children, whom she left in the hands of her father. Rather than taking care of them, he resorts to sending money for food every so often. Which is fine by Billy and Girl, who can't stand his lame jokes. Billy says, "It's not good for the young mind to have to endure the wit of the senile."
Deborah Levy explains why she wrote this book: "I had become a mother for the first time and found myself thinking about parents and children and what we need from each other. I was also influenced by many news stories in the UK at the time -- reports of children who ran away from home and parents who abandoned their children. It seemed to me that we never heard these stories from the children's point of view. The personal challenge to me in writing this book was to find a way of making dark and troubling material as comic and surreal as human life often is."
Billy and Girl is a character-driven novel. Billy is a boy consumed by hurt, studying to become the world's foremost psychologist so that breasty blondes will lie on his sofa and tell him their problems. The book he's writing is called Billy England's Book of Pain. But Billy also wants to be famous, an actor on television commercials and a spectacle for daytime talk shows. Girl, on the other hand, with her peroxide hair, wears silver loafers, chain-smokes menthols, and is always anxious for cocktail hour. But she's also consumed with finding their mother and attempts to do so by playing a game she calls "Mom Check." Going door-to-door in family-looking neighborhoods, she knocks and then scrutinizes any motherly-looking woman unlucky enough to answer. Levy explains, "I know a woman who gave up her baby for adoption in the early 1950s. This made her very morose and depressed all her life, in my view. She told me that she imagined one day her son would find out where she lived, knock on the front door, and shout, 'Hello, Mom.' The way she said this made me hold my breath. I knew I was going to use it one day."
Girl's fantasy about finding their mother takes her to the mega-supermarket FreezerWorld, which is packed row to row with potential mothers. She is somehow soothed by the freezer bins full of stiff and frosty foods and the soft voice of the store announcer saying such things as: "When you cut a FreezerWorld strawberry cheesecake, be sure to make a wish. Goodnight to all our loyal customers, may all your wishes come true." Yet it is a stock girl named Louise (which is also Girl's real name) who attracts most of Girl's attention. From behind stacks of canned goods, she watches FreezerWorld chief Mr. Tens correct Louise's technique of unpacking frozen herring. Girl feels a special bond with Louise, though they've never met.
When Billy decides he wants to take his pain across the Atlantic and appear on American talk shows -- "We'll give them our pain and they'll give us their cash." -- he and Girl, with the help of Louise, rob the FreezerWorld's express line till for the money to make the trip. The job is pulled off with barely a hitch. Though Hollywood fortune and fame never come, a transatlantic phone call does. It's from their assumed-dead father back in England, saying he saw an artist's rendering of them printed in the newspaper. What Billy's father secretly tells him on the phone makes him say things about Girl like: "I'm scared of her," and "[she's] got ice in her veins." Upon their return to bloody old England, the mystery surrounding their lives begins to reveal itself through a series of high-adrenaline events that begins with Louise wanting her cut of the FreezerWorld take and ends with a kidnapping that almost turns to homicide.
While Billy and Girl received high praise in Levy's native England, she believes American readers will understand it better than the Brits did. "I have this feeling that Americans might tune in more to the humor. Although some bad things have happened to Billy and Girl in their lives, I never wanted them to be victims. I wanted them to be clever, thoughtful, stylish, sassy -- have insights into their situation. The British middle class has trouble with this idea because of our class system. They just don't feel comfortable with working-class kids being perceptive in literature." Billy and Girl...welcome.