BRIOHNY DOYLE Adult Fantasy: Searching for true maturity in an age of mortgages, marriages and other adult milestones. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
We have arguably privileged lives yet we feel close to desperation – the paradox at the heart of Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy.
I grew up through the 1980s and 90s believing the mantra of you can do anything. As I hastily finished an undergrad degree, I had one goal: to move overseas. An actual career plan felt too conventional, and besides, I could do anything. I left my parents’ home on the Canadian prairies for the urban crush of South Korea, where I worked my first ‘adult’ job. Was I supposed to feel like an adult?
The brilliant career that I’d assumed would emerge as I followed my dreams turned out to be a succession of low-paid contract positions. My husband, several years older than me, has so far sustained a more traditional ladder-climbing career path. Despite this, he’d argue we’re still not properly adult. Our current rental place, filled with furniture plucked from the pavement, ‘looks like a student apartment’ he disparages – ironically, because we’re both grad students. But he had imagined something more for himself at 40 years old: his own home, a status-marking car, and if not children, definitely their furry alternatives. An inescapable cultural hum insists we should have achieved more, ticked more boxes. What’s wrong with us? We have arguably privileged lives; we feel close to desperation.
This paradox is at the heart of Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy, winner of the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Reading Doyle as a member of her millennial cohort (we’re a month apart in age) feels like an extension of every conversation I’ve had with my friends, my husband, myself. In Adult Fantasy, Doyle connects these ‘intensely personal’ private conversations about adulthood with debates taking place in the media and politics. The result is insightful:
Instead of asking why Gen Y are not replicating the models of adulthood we in the West have known for the last century, we could ask different kinds of questions. For instance, what would a society that doesn’t centre on traditional gender roles, the couple and the family look like? So, too, what would it mean to advance higher education to embolden curiosity rather than aspiration?
The catalyst for Doyle’s exploration is her 30th birthday, a touchstone she returns to throughout the book. These days, it’s okay for your 20s to be messy. You can, as Doyle did, as I did, work a lot of crap jobs, study, travel, try different things. Things change at 30. Your youth expires. If you don’t have things figured out by then, you probably never will. As Doyle summarises:
We live in a culture that idealises childhood and youth, and reduces adulthood to career and family, so naturally the move between the two can be a bit traumatic.
Her blend of memoir and journalism is ideal for an in-depth exploration of that transition and its challenges. Like me, Doyle finished school and rejected traditional career aspirations, though she did it straight after high school, imbued with a ‘petulant insistence on a commitment-free existence’. That same assumption resonates through her memories of early adulthood: you can do anything. So why not carve out a whole new way of living in the world? Like me, Doyle pursued postgraduate studies with little career potential (I studied genocide; she studied the apocalyptic imagination, which led to her 2016 novel The Island Will Sink). Like me, Doyle isn’t keen on motherhood:
I didn’t want a baby for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I could not spend the next fifteen years teaching someone how to get along in a social organisation that I felt extremely dubious about.
Many of her friends did the adult things, getting married, having babies, taking on jobs that left time for little else. Doyle describes the ‘fragmenting social world’ of her early 30s, her friends adrift on their own islands, once part of a solid land mass, and Doyle on her own slivered fragment in the middle, everyone drifting away:
I call out to a neighbour: ‘What do you think I should do?’ She shrugs, and turns to tend to her family. She’s wearing a big fuck-off ring and a wedding veil, which trails across the bowl of mush she’s feeding to her baby.
I nod emphatically, despite my own fuck-off ring. It doesn’t matter which island you’re on – they only get further apart. In a chapter called ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding Dress’, Doyle, who was engaged but never married, saw her best friend’s marriage as an announcement of ‘her adult status’. I got married in my best friend’s wedding dress, literally, but despite this we’re just as adrift. ‘Maturity, in some sense,’ Doyle concludes, ‘has to be about finding ways to make complex interactions work.’
That effort isn’t unique to millennials, of course, and Adult Fantasy acknowledges that, working to bridge the gap widened by generational sledging. Doyle highlights the specific challenges millennials face without trivialising those of previous generations. One uniquely millennial experience has been coming of age alongside the internet, ‘in an over-anxious time’, constantly comparing ourselves to curated versions of our peers. As Doyle points out, ‘It’s now the job of young people to design personal brand strategies and sell themselves to one another and to corporate backers.’ At the same time, all of us, of whatever age, are caught in a broader net:
It’s crucial, in late capitalism, that everyone envies everyone else, and spends money accordingly. Being unfulfilled is the foundation for aspiration. It is our economic responsibility.
Doyle juxtaposes the experience of her friends and family with the facts and figures on the casualisation of work, the corporatisation of higher education (Australia’s third largest export) and the debt burden that often comes with it. Even her father, at the tail end of a successful career in journalism, discovers the ‘hostile terrain’ of the labour market when he fails to reestablish himself after redundancy. Doyle recounts these personal events poignantly. In an attempt to make a ‘truly mature decision’, Doyle moves into a share house with other adult women, choosing to live apart from her long-time partner in order to revive their relationship. But unanticipated challenges arise out of further adult responsibilities – the possibility of having to care for her ailing father – and Doyle is forced to reevaluate. Living in a share house, she concludes:
… was a temporary fix at best. Where the hell would my dad go? What happened if my mother’s health suffered? And if I had to rent forever, where would I go when I was old?
Doyle successfully frames her search for ‘a meaningful adult existence’ in the context of the major issues faced by individuals in Western society today, and particularly by millennials. In doing so, she lays a consoling hand on the shoulder of others like me. Our struggle to carve our own unconventional paths through the milestones of careers, marriages, children and mortgages is perhaps the most conventional thing about us. As Doyle’s psychologist advises her, ‘You need to work out what’s important to you.’ Adult Fantasy isn’t a guide for doing so, but it offers a reasoned, heartfelt starting place.
Briohny Doyle Adult Fantasy: Searching for true maturity in an age of mortgages, marriages and other adult milestones Scribe 2017 PB 320pp $29.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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