When we meet Jonny, he can’t sleep; he turns on the light to play The Secret Land of Zenon.
In this first sentence of Teddy Wayne’s novel, Jonny might be any eleven-year-old boy.
But even while listening to the background music for Zenon, Jonny recognizes the audience-loyalty retention strategy at work.
And readers immediately recognize that Jonny — who is wired after the show that night and itching for some of Jane’s zolpidems to help him sleep — is not a typical eleven-year-old boy.
In The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Jonny was born Jonathan Valentino, but he has become Jonny Valentine, a Beiber-esque figure, professional heart-throb and crooner who rose to fame via online vids and savvy management.
(There has been a lot of chatter about this novel, and I’ve always wondered why everyone seems to compare this character to Justin Bieber, but the epigraph is Justin’s: “I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.”)
The novel portrays both the public and private worlds of this character, and because they are often in conflict, the story makes for compelling reading.
“I kept looking over at the kids behind the glass windows of the doors, which was unprofessional camera protocol, but I couldn’t help myself.”
There are many times at which Jonny is aware of the conflict between his personal desires and professional expectations (e.g. he wants more fries but must consider his waistline), and there are many times in which he can’t help himself (e.g. he looks over at those kids, eats more fries).
But this theme is most memorably embodied in the scenes in which Jonny realizes that his professional identity has fundamentally changed him.
When he realizes that there are aspects of Jonny Valentine that have completely engulfed Jonathan Valentino, Jonny’s situation touches readers in an unexpectedly poignant way.
“If I went back to school, and a celeb came to visit, I’d be one of those kids behind the glass. Except I wouldn’t cram my face up against it like they were doing. That’s one of the ways I could never really be like them again.”
Just as Jonny is both innocent and worldly and his songs are corny and golden, the experience of being a celebrity comes with great reward and great cost:
“I got under the covers. It had that feeling of being too big, like it was an ocean and I was a stone someone skipped in it, where you watch it carefully at first to count how many times it skips, and then it sinks, and you pick up the next stone and forget about the last one.”
(This passage stands out because the language is simple and the idea contained therein straightforward, but Teddy Wayne shifts the voice mid-stream to include the audience — in this case, the reader, “you” — which reminds us that Jonny is as much about what “we” made him into as anything else.)
Jonny is part savvy marketer and part sharp-tongued pre-teen:
“I felt rested the next day, zero percent damage, my voice was back in condition, and I had an A-plus workout in the hotel gym in the morning with Jane, where we competed to see who could do more crunches and had less stomach chub. I won both, but it’s not fair because Jane’s a woman and she was turning middle-aged the next day.”
Jane is Jonny’s “mom-ager”, and the way in which Teddy Wayne sketches their complicated mother-son relationship is believable; the reader is both frustrated by and sympathetic to this woman who was, not long ago, a supermarket cashier, who loves her son but occasionally finds her desire for his success to be in conflict with her genuine affection.
The author discusses “entrepreneurial narcissism..one of the defining features of our age” in an NPR Interview with Jackie Lyden, and the ways in which childhood and marketing intersect make this idea that much more pernicious, revealing the “cracks in the facade” of our society.
Could be that that makes it sound more complicated than it is. Anyway, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is simple stylistically; the few figurative phrases used do suit an eleven-year-old boy’s perspective:
“The sky was the color of a mouse and matched the highway and all the buildings. The outside was like an animal that changed its color to blend in.”
For in many ways, Jonny is still like other kids, although the stage upon which his achievements play out is globally visible:
“When you can do whatever you want vocally and everyone is the stadium knows it, it’s like getting the invincibility potion in Zenon.”
But at an age in which the question of identity is inherently slippery, Jonny struggles to spot the line between Jonny and Jonathan, to figure out what actually makes him happy and what makes him successful (and whether those two states can intersect):
“She reminded me of the girl in the hospital who said I sounded sad when I was singing about happy things. Everyone sees what they want in songs, the way Walter said they do with fortune cookies.”
Further complicating his efforts are the changing relationships in his retinue of staff (his choreographer is getting older, simultaneously reminding the reader of Jonny’s own sell-by date and the delicate balance required to gain and maintain new demographics) and fundamental questions regarding his father (it seems that Jane might not have told the truth about him).
Despite the glittery cover and the timely topic of celebrity (er, “entrepreneurial narcissism”), The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is a traditional coming-of-age narrative:
“I jumped to a new level in Zenon. The land was mine to explore, all mine. I could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, no one stopping me, nobody else around, over the tall mountains and through the deep forests and into the dark dungeons. Just me.”
In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus on the NYRB podcast, Teddy Wayne discusses having created a Twitter account for Jonny Valentine (ironically @TheRealJonny) and being unsure whether some of his young followers can distinguish between the fictional and the authentic.
Jonny Valentine, too, falls somewhere between: a savvy, damaged, resilient, triumphant 11-year-old boy who lives on the page, the pop charts and in some readers’ and listeners’ hearts.