Home is a Four-Letter Word

Douglas Stuart hails from the other side of Sally Rooney’s auto-fiction tracks.

But hold on, Stevie Boy. Can we really be sure they’re explicitly writing about themselves?

Of course not. But similar to how Rooney’s literature seems to chronicle her life as she moves through it, Stuart’s new book Young Mungo returns to the terrain of his autobiographically-resonant debut Shuggie Bain, filling in the gaps through a refracted story. Like Rooney, he changes the character names from book to book(s), but the overlaps are legion.

For example: Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo share a unifying theme that doubles as the latter’s organizing principle, dictating its narrative structure.

Like Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo alternates between two timelines. Shuggie focuses predominantly on the titular character’s childhood, positioned as his recollections while he struggles to locate his path later in life. Though “older” Shuggie is far from happy, the book’s structure affords readers the comfort of knowing that he weathers the trauma of his flash-backed upbringing, which should be a relief for those scared he won’t persevere through adolescence in one piece.

Young Mungo also alternates between two timelines, but this time, they’re more directly connected. One storyline is about Mungo on a camping trip, while the other details the events leading up to him being on the trip with these foreboding men. Given the dangers he faces in both plots, and their temporal proximity, Mungo is denied Shuggie’s structural promise of resolution and, frankly, survival.

But why exactly does Young Mungo structurally parallel its two timelines, bouncing back and forth between them, gradually building each’s narrative chronologically? Is there a relationship between the two besides “one led to the other?”

In short, Young Mungo traces its titular character’s arc, starting from the beginning of the end of his beginning, through to the end of his beginning

Both of Stuart’s books raise the question: should Shuggie/Mungo escape their unfortunate circumstances, even if it means “abandoning” their nearest and dearest at a sustained moment of need? What might Shuggie/Mungo sacrifice if they keep mulling it over, instead of acting on their own agency? What are the ramifications of either choice? Do they even know? Can they even know?

The camping trip microcosms these questions that pervade Mungo’s daily life on the homestead. It reduces the terms into a more manageable, bite-sized portion, but the questions remain relevant to both scenarios.

Throughout the camping trip, Mungo senses something’s deeply amiss. He dreams of fleeing, but ultimately opts to stick it out, mostly because he has no earthly clue how to venture out on his own. The repercussions of standing pat: basically, torture. And in the end, he finds himself in the exact predicament he would’ve been in all along: wandering away alone. Luckily, unforeseen luck aids his passage.

If he had decided to jump ship earlier, he could’ve saved himself from the trip’s eventual, almost inevitable misery. Waiting accomplished nothing except incurring more hurt on himself.

This truth applies equally to his domestic life. He sees himself as too young to make it out on his own; his family won’t survive his absence. But guess what, Mungo: there will always be reasons against taking the leap; it’ll never feel like the perfectly correct juncture. And what do they always say? No time like the present? As in the forest, the longer Mungo stays, the more his environment can and will corrode him. Obviously even dastardly experiences breed new insights and color our being, but that’s insufficient justification for tolerating them. We’re granted a finite duration on this spinning orb; while we’re here, joy is preferable to sorrow.

Just look at the rest of his family: the town’s darkness and decrepitude have already overtaken them. Though we should never give up hope on individual rehabilitation, his mother and brother are drowning in their surrounding turpitude, and his sister might be headed in their direction.

This “stay or go” theme is a part of Shuggie Bain, too; when Shuggie allows his mom to die, it’s an admission that tying himself to her forever will turn him into as much of a lost cause as she’s become. He cuts the chord to save himself and his life, attainable to him only if she’s no longer in the picture. Self-preservation can appear callous, but necessarily so. When it comes to two imperfectly flawed, mutually exclusive tracks, one must win out.

Both titles describe their titular characters with different qualifiers, which speak to their divergent approaches. Shuggie Bain includes his last name, because the book explores how his past (represented by his last name) shapes his identity (his first name). On the other hand, YOUNG Mungo specifies his youth, suggesting that it’s still early for Mungo. He still has time to change his life; he’s not fully grown yet; there’s still room for him to flourish…elsewhere, as long as he has the courage — and mercilessness — to leave his youth behind, in order to discover who adult Mungo can be, separate from his inherited confines.

In Shuggie Bain, Shuggie was faced with leaving the Bain behind to become himself, though the Bain of his life will always inform his person. Even so, he realizes the solution to his woes lies in letting his mother go. In Young Mungo, Mungo needs to be the one to go, to let go of the known evil of his birthplace, to embrace the unknown possibilities of his future.

A line from the book rather succinctly captures Mungo’s state of being throughout: “He was watching, he was waiting, and he was leaving all at the same time.”

And, a line from another book released on the same day — Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House — summarizes Young Mungo‘s message:

“The secret to a happy ending…is knowing when to walk away.”

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