Lolito is Ben Brooks’ fifth novel, and as the literary-alluded title suggests, it’s about an adult relationship with a child. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but it kind of is too. It’s this kind of moral tightrope walking that propels 15-year-old Etgar Allison’s narration forward, with all of the humor and classic coming of age-ness you would expect in a 21st century story of love and growing up.
After finding out that his girlfriend, Alice, has cheated on him, Etgar turns to drinking. He then meets mother-of-two Macy in a chatroom, pretending to be a thirty-something mortgage broker. They engage in some pretty awkward cyber sex before deciding to meet in person and spend an entire weekend in a London hotel (financed from Etgar’s inheritance from his deceased grandmother). Mediating the intensity of an adult world without all the emotional tools is tough, and is the seminal crutch of bildungsroman and teenage narrators everywhere, from Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar and to Clay in Less Than Zero. And like the young narrators before him, you get the feeling Etgar isn’t telling you the whole story.
The seed of doubt in the narrative comes from the fact that he is so young. And you can’t really belittle the relationship he forms with Macy either. You can, but you can’t at the same time. That’s what makes this novel so interesting. Both characters find a certain solace in each other from their shared loneliness. You can’t help hearing a little voice in your head saying, “Etgar is being used for a romantic escape with a much older woman.” The affection itself isn’t wrong, just like the feelings of loneliness aren’t morally questionable—but who is the object of that affection and those feelings is the problem.
It’s this back and forth that makes everything in the novel seem disjointed. But I can’t help feeling it’s also part of the charm. At the same time you can argue Etgar isn’t a reliable narrator, he is also still just a kid and is being taken advantage of. There’s no denying that. However I still though find it touching in a very sad and disturbing way.
Mr. Brooks’ comedic delivery gives this sadness with a humorous pang that makes the book an enjoyable read. Weaving Etgar’s interactions with the Internet into the narrative is something Mr. Brooks also does well, especially, as a means for Etgar to cope with his loneliness. For example:
“I click on Alice Calloway. I open her photo albums. Berlin 09: Alice wearing the red dress with miniature horses on it. Alice holding a coffee mug the size of a baby. Alice outside the Reichstag, pretending that an inflatable hammer is her dick.”
The Internet plays a pivotal role in bringing both Macy and Etgar closer together, while still being a reason for their isolation. I think that that is a central theme throughout the book that the loneliness we all feel is simultaneously quelled and proliferated through our relationship with technology. It’s a tricky solipsist point.
Like the ethical dilemma at the heart of the novel, it’s hard to distinguish the objective truth. It’s hard to do that in life as well. We all feel the same amount of sadness and loneliness and it brings us closer together in our search to quell those feelings—be it through the Internet or books or the occasional drink.
Despite this being an enjoyable read, at the end of it, the main conflict that drives the book is an adult relationship with a child and that is a VERY, VERY bad thing.