A boy who is pure of heart

Saw this passage from Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation on Twitter a while ago and am struck by how economically it manages to pack the greatest number of highly offensive assertions about cross-age relationships into the smallest number of words:

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So the story is, in point of sheer literal fact, about a young man being judged immediately and harshly by a group of older women, and yet it manages to present itself as a story about a young man who is evilly judging the women. How? What did he do that was interpreted as his ‘alertness to any sign of compromise’? We are not allowed to know. His actions are presented almost solely through evaluative, abstract language, in terms of the women’s interpretation of them. The only concrete examples we have of his EVIL JUDGINESS are that he held himself ‘stiffly’ and didn’t laugh at the women’s jokes: the passage also makes it very clear that this group of women are profoundly invested in their identity as all being the same age, but the writer doesn’t allow the suspicion that it might be difficult for a younger man to relax in this company to soften the judgement.

What I love best, though, is the woman ‘who is dabbling in being young again’, which in five words manages to assert that no-one could ever like someone younger than themselves as a separate human individual, only as a way of returning to one’s own youth, and also that this must be ‘dabbling’, as relationships with a ten-year age gap are necessarily short-term. I’m also intrigued about the actual ages involved: is a woman of 35 really no longer ‘young’,  desperately trying to recapture her ‘youth’ of ten years ago, possessed of many concrete achievements, and marked by many compromises? (I wasn’t, and I don’t think any of my friends were, but maybe that’s just me/us: maybe everyone else spent the years between 25 and 35 achieving frantically and ageing unhappily.) But on the other hand, if she’s 45, then I think the problem is more with a 35-year-old man who presents as a ‘boy’ and hasn’t achieved anything yet than with the age gap per se. (Jenny Offill herself is 46 and published her first novel at the age of 31 and her second last year, which doesn’t really shed any light on the matter, except that it takes her 15 years to write a book, into which you would think a ten-year age gap could fit comfortably.)

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