Two quotes I’ve come across in recent weeks sum up something I’ve been trying to capture about youth in House of Zealots. It’s a particular sense of aliveness I thought all of life would have, but which I now fear dries up. I was writing about something I was experiencing when I started the book in 2002, but now I have to look back and write about it from a distance. Ian McEwan said this in an interview on the Book Show regarding the difference between his early writing and mature writing:
I was young, reckless, I had a kind of reckless pessimism which I think you can afford first of all when you’re young and before you’ve had children. You don’t care what happens to the world, you just want to stir it up. You don’t mind a revolution. I wouldn’t even have minded much a nuclear war. I really wanted things to shake up.
He’s exactly right; it’s how I felt for a time. Anything to make a dent in the world. It’s what Leo in House of Zealots wants to do.
And there’s a slightly different mood, but a related one, that Don DeLillo beautifully describes at the end of Underworld:
I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did thing slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.
Nick, the character talking, becomes a middle-class, middle-aged man with sadness in his heart, but none of the anger, the readiness and the danger. In a sense the novel is an archaeological dig, taking us back from his present self to the youth that lay behind, as the chapters go circuitously backward in time. How did the boy who shot a man become a manager of a waste disposal company? How do any of us who once were young become what we are now?