Alice has been Etgar’s girlfriend for two years, which is nearly 20% of his whole 15-year-old life, which is why Ben Brooks’ funny, disgusting, uplifting Lolito opens with his hero feeling utterly bereft that Alice is spending this school break in Antigua, with her father, and not ‘motionless in her bed, watching CSI: New York and eating cubes of blackcurrant jelly’, per their usual habit. Alice and Etgar are painfully young and old at the same time: their sex life is untrammeled by their parents, but coloured by porn: one moment they’re rubbing cream on each other’s acne; the next, experimenting with golden shower.
But Alice’s absence is not the only thing bothering Etgar. Through some sleight-of-hand impersonation on Facebook, he learns that Alice has kissed another boy — not ‘raped with kisses’, but willingly: he is heartbroken. Left to his own devices in this very dark place, not just by Alice, but by his parents, who have travelled to Russia to watch his uncle marry a bride procured online, Etgar turns to the only friend who won’t let him down or push him unduly to overcome his anxiety: the internet.
The reader need not possess a higher degree in English Literature to extrapolate from the title what happens next: the main events of Lolito are nothing that you can’t read about at least once a week on the Daily Mail website. But while the plot may not be brand-new, there is a certain freshness to Etgar’s narrative, though this one is often squalid with lashings of porn and piss, spunk and shit. This isn’t beginner’s luck: Brooks may be marking his 22nd birthday in 2014, but with Lolito he is five books deep in his ouevre. For the most part, he’s in control, and it shows. When Etgar strikes up a conversation online with Macy, a much-older woman, it is easy — if unexpected — to accept that she believes, as he tells it, that he is a mortgage broker in his early thirties. Preparing for a webcam chat, Etgar attempts to mask his age:
By rolling my shoulders forward, tensing my neck and pushing out my jaw, I make my body look more substantial and alluring. It still doesn’t seem particularly alluring. It seems upsetting.
Lolito is not the first book to challenge us to query our sexual double standard: is the seduction of a teenager by a much-older person still the same seduction if the young person is male and the older female? But it also challenges behaviors that have come to seem like second nature: dividing his time between having sex and staring at screens, Etgar may seem to live a sophisticated lifestyle in contrast to those of teenagers of the previous generation — the innocent AOL messaging in Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine comes to mind. Like the family in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for Etgar, everything in life is made hyperreal and not real at all by the media; in doubt, he always prefers a screen. “What if neither of us go first, we just climb under the duvet and watch David Attenborough?” he suggests, when things with Macy start to resemble something that he hasn’t seen in any kind of porn.
Brooks is not always consistent: there are dud moments that jar the otherwise-enchanted reader into noticing that there’s a touch of inauthenticity about this narrator, unless he too is destined for literary greatness at a very young age, surely the only thing that could explain (for example) a cool aside to Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands by a child who describes everything in his life in tedious detail but never once mentions that he reads the Guardian. But these slips are small: for the reader who persists in spite of them, an unsettling conclusion is a worthwhile reward.