The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ is a peculiar sort of a novel. Its interest does not lie where the reader might expect.
In theory, Diary is, as the name suggests, a (comedic) epistolary novel, formed from the diary entries of a young boy navigating adolescence in England in the early 1980s. Taken as that, the reader will very soon develop an objection: Adrian Mole is not a teenage boy; Adrian Mole is a wholly unbelievable character written by an author who was evidently never a boy, and had not been a teenager for some time, and had largely forgotten what it was like.
Adrian is, in fact, whatever age the plot demands. Sometimes he feels in his late teens – although maybe kids in the 80s were just more adult in some ways. Much of the time, however, he feels rather younger, because, and this is the key area in which the reader may struggle to suspend disbelief, he has a mental age of maybe five. I’m in close contact with a child a few years older than that, and: nope, she has a far, far greater ability to understand the world than Adrian ever displays. Sure, she’s ignorant of some areas where Adrian has some rudimentary knowledge; but Adrian consistently displays a complete inability to deduce even the most mind-numbingly obvious things that no self-respecting child over five or six would be oblivious of.
He’s also painfully inconsistent. At some points we’re seemingly meant to take seriously his intellectual pretensions – his voracious reading, for instance – but at others he not only fails to in any way learn from what he reads (or otherwise observes), but even fails to learn rudimentary facts about the world that an even vaguely informed teenager could not be ignorant of. At some points, the plot demands us to accept Adrian as an exemplary pupil, at least by the standards of his school; indeed, he displays extravagant virtues that seem hard to believe of any boy his age (even if he does moan about it); yet the rest of the time, he’s both a moron and a boy utterly devoid of empathy or consideration. It would be nice to assume that this is simply clever writing, skillfully demonstrating the inconsistencies of the human heart; but honestly, to me it just reads like an inconsistent author driven from one side to another by the demands of the moment.
Certainly very little understanding of the male teenage experience could be got from this – while the usual traumas and anxieties are there, it all feels third-hand and formulaic, and utterly predictable. Everything is larger than life – which generally means it is much smaller than life.
Nor is there much of a plot; some things happen, and eventually the book ends, at a fairly random point in time. That is, I suppose, valid – but it feels less like a novel that’s setting up some point about how life goes on, how life doesn’t confirm to narrative arcs, and more like an author who started writing, continued writing until she got bored, and then stopped.
So as a novel about a teenage boy, it’s largely a failure. [As a novel about the 1980s, its striking characteristic is how much the 1980s look almost exactly like the 2010s just without social media.]
Stop thinking of it as a novel, and stop thinking of it as about Adrian. Think of it, instead, as a standup comedy routine – the Jack Dee, miserable deadpan recitation of petty domestic tragedies. Adrian, to be honest, is maybe the least interesting element – he works best as a window onto the world. It’s an irritating and inconsistent and manipulative window – at times, his suffocating and improbable idiocy makes this almost into The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (in that his authorially-imposed selective idiocy makes him as much a baffled external observer as ASD makes the protagonist of that novel). But it’s a window that provides us with some surprisingly magnetic comedy.
While the epistolary structure feels ill-suited to what little plot there is – stories constantly being interrupted – it comes into its own as a delivery mechanism for jokes. The jokes are generally predictable and familiar; but Townsend’s comic timing is often superb, as a series of entries, divided naturally in the reader’s head by amplifying pauses, hammers home a point or delivers a cruel twist, all to make Adrian a little more miserable. The brevity of most of the diary entries, and the lack of much in the way of overarching structure, help make the book weirdly compelling in places – just one more entry!
And yeah, sure, I’ll admit: brazenly manipulative though it is, it’s impossible to avoid some vibration of the heartstrings, as the child’s miseries pile up, leavened by occasional moments of respite or human decency.
So overall, it’s actually a little bit charming, once the gears have gotten going and you’ve pushed pass the silliness of the character. It’s a novel that’s a childhood favourite of many people, and it’s not impossible to see why – the ideal age, I suspect, is “old enough to feel superior to Adrian, but young enough not to realise that a well-trained blancmange is superior to Adrian”. For more I think it was about 8 or 9, although I know for some people it’s older than that. For anyone past this window, <i>Billy Liar</i> is both funnier and more poignant.
In the end, I’m left thinking… despite initial skepticism, it turned out well enough that I’ll probably rustle out my copy of the second book in the series and re-read it in a dull moment sometime. But unless that’s very much better than this, I won’t be going out to buy the other six volumes after that…
Adrenaline: 2/5. Technically, there were moments of tension.
Emotion: 3/5. It does play on the heartstrings now and then; but too superficially to really hit home.
Craft: 3/5. Her novelistic craft of character-building and plotting is poor; but her comedic craft of setting up farcical situations and having them unravel at the right pace is solid.
Endearingness: 3/5. Some bits were a pleasure to read; other bits, a chore.
Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD. It starts out ‘bad’, and spends a lot of time in ‘bad but with redeeming features’, but overall, pehaps aided by nostalgia, I’ll call it ‘Not Bad’ in the end.