Culture

Books

A voice of a generation

By Marta Skrabacz
Briohny Doyle’s ‘Adult Fantasy’ looks at the increasingly blurred definition of adulthood in the 21st century

Owning your own home is now considered an adult fantasy. Australia has the third most expensive housing market in the world. And yet Gen Y still aspire to be more than mere renters. “To have your own space. To be free of the rent grind. To put nails in the wall and plant a garden. To have a pet,” writes Briohny Doyle in her new book, Adult Fantasy (Scribe Publications; $29.99).

Discussions about adulthood have become exhaustively dreary. The pressure to achieve success in your youth – before hitting your 30s – has become intense. And the media cycle is relentless, seemingly obsessed with publishing articles about overzealous property owners under the age of 25, as if that proves anything. Doyle’s manuscript, exploring the transient terrain between 20-something and post-30, won the inaugural Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers in 2013 – it’s disconcerting to realise that these feelings about the failure to reach maturity have been brewing for half a decade.

Doyle has embraced the challenge of writing about the future and the experience of responding to it. Her debut novel, The Island Will Sink (The Lifted Brow, 2016), explored responses to ecological crisis and imminent apocalypse in dystopian speculative fiction. But the crux of Doyle’s rumination here is frustration: why has she “failed to come of age”? Like many, she hasn’t met the milestones set by her parents’ generation: she isn’t married, she doesn’t have children, she doesn’t own a house. These milestones, Doyle writes, are meant to constitute elements of a meaningful life. The majority of the people she interviews in the book, both older and younger, seem to believe this – that the transition from childless and single to married with children is the route to adulthood. But those milestones are each either just out of Doyle’s reach or not particularly relevant anymore. Combining personal essay and cultural critique, Doyle pulls apart the definition of adulthood. She tries to confront the societal changes, including (but not exclusive to) unaffordable housing, parental pressure caused by generational comparisons, and lack of interest in childrearing, that have shifted the goalposts.

The coming-of-age story no longer caters to just the teenage market; it’s an all-encompassing genre for anybody about to hit their 30s. One way her generation seeks identity is through subscribing to the marriage and parenthood package; getting hitched is a sure-fire way to tick a box on the list to maturity. Doyle examines the elements of the process – the proposal, the honeymoon, the engagement ring – as much as the end product. Marriage is not so much a journey as it is a fanciful performance of underlying love, and Doyle is ambivalent about it. But while she may not have many answers to what she does want, Doyle clearly identifies what she doesn’t want: a child.

Doyle teases out the anxiety-ridden desire to be both old and young, to be careless and to be secure in her future. Demographic development has been an effort to sell “popstars and sneakers, cigarettes and meal-replacement milkshakes”. The millennial market took their finite supply of youth and recognised it as a form of currency. However, her book suggests youth is also tantamount to making mistakes and generally “not having it together”. As one of the interviewees in the book says, “failure is a point of solidarity”.

Doyle attributes the changing attitudes around adulthood to general generational shifts. Interestingly, Doyle never suggests her parents’ separation is a reason for her own uncertainties around getting married. While intergenerational rivalry affects her relationship with her father, she describes the tension with delicacy and sadness. This tension finally comes to a head when her father is made redundant in one of the industries most susceptible to change: journalism. Suddenly, he’s forced to understand her struggle (and her generation’s).

Doyle’s voice is a mix of cynicism, wryness and impatient desire to shrug off the inheritance of adulthood and not give a shit. Nihilism mingles with paralysing self-awareness. She doesn’t pretend to speak for her generation, but her observational humour and emotional openness make it impossible for the reader not to relate to her struggle.

Doyle doesn’t offer a roadmap of any sort. It’s a messy guide. Rather she admits confusion and a general reluctance to define a response. So the message is clear: everybody needs to figure it out for themselves.

Marta Skrabacz

Marta Skrabacz is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne.

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