Duncan is going through the teenage explosion at the moment. He is discovering the entire world simultaneously – novels, science, girls, music, politics. His world is a bewildering kaleidoscope of new ideas, new sensations, new meanings. Fifteen years old, and his world holds an infinity of possibilities.
His teenage is different from mine. I absorbed everything I could lay my hands on, mopping it up: but he wants to master it, to conquer it. Is this a boy thing? I read books because I wanted to escape to different worlds, he reads books because they are long (The Count of Monte Christo, 1400 pages) or have shock value. But whatever his reasons he does read them, he is amazed by them, he falls under their spell, he talks about them. “What’s a really difficult author to read?” he asks me. “Try Kafka.” I say, offhandedly, and a few weeks later he is insisting on reading yet another bit of Kafka to me, “Mum, you’ve got to listen to this.”
(I can’t tell him how much I loathe Kafka; next time he asks I must swear to him that Jane Austen is widely known to be the most impenetrable of writers; that it is a unique and highly regarded achievement to read all six of her novels and the juvenilia.)
He doesn’t just learn information, he wants to test it, to see if he can break it. There is no subject on which he does not have an opinion, often several opinions, the more outlandish and shocking the better. Next week he will have a different opinion, but he is not likely to have just accepted any given piece of information as settled fact. He will espouse every political shade of the spectrum, sometimes simultaneously, as long as he can provoke an argument. He is furious about quantum mechanics: how can the heart of matter, the truth about the world around us, be so weird, so incomprehensible? Watching television with him is a nightmare: he challenges every statement. (“How do we know his mum is dead? I bet he’s just saying that. Now there’s no way the judges can vote him off, even though he can’t f***ing sing!”)
Some weekend nights I let him stay up a bit later to talk. He’s a night owl – he loves that spooling out of conversations into the late hours. When he’s a student he’ll want to talk through the night with friends. I try to keep any arguments gentle, not too rough – I’m too old and tired for that. Anyway, I want him to learn how to argue, how to spar, how to disarm his opponent, not to bludgeon them over the head. But I also want him to think round and check his opinion is on solid ground, and be able to abandon it. That’s a good point, I say, but have you thought what would happen if…