Doing It

Somebody described this book to me as ‘shag, shag, shag’. Actually, there is far more snogging than shagging, and there is much more talk about shagging than there is actually ‘doing it’. Moreover, there is almost as much blushing as there is snogging, and far more anxiety, frustration, sexual failure and emotional insecurity than there is triumphant penetration. Certainly it is gross, disgusting, filthy – pick your obscene adjective – but it is never merely prurient. It reminds me, superficially, of those toilets-and-farting books that 8-year-old boys find so thrilling, only that the boys have grown up (a bit) and they are now obsessed with a different set of bodily functions. But there is this fundamental difference: the toilet books depend on shock for the frisson of delight they cause in their young readers; whereas Doing It, though deeply shocking and well stocked in the frisson department, is a far more challenging enterprise. It challenges its adult readers with its flaunted sexuality and it challenges its teenage readers to emotional engagement and to the kind of reflection on their own lives and values that many a worthier novel fails to provoke. Its ultimate message is: Lots of sex won’t make you happy, folks – and though you can have a lot of fun finding that out you will also experience a great deal of pain. This book is a serious and compassionate study of the teenage condition as it is lived in our highly sexualised culture, by youngsters caught in hormonal overdrive and in deeply dysfunctional relationships with adults; it is far more serious than, for example, the equivalent from my own youth, Portnoy’s Complaint. The ending is surprisingly conventional: not quite a pairing-off of couples on a Shakespearean scale, but certainly a clear affirmation of emotionally stable and monogamous boy/girl relationships based on mutual regard as the ideal. As a novel, it is a tour de force. It is hilarious and thoroughly absorbing, fantastically well observed and emotionally astute and it has a cast of engaging, vulnerable, confused, brash, revolting, delightful and utterly convincing characters. It is Burgess at his brilliant best. Not recommended for those over 21