Waiting for Callback
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This issue’s cover illustration is from Elmer’s Little Library by David McKee. Thanks to Andersen Press for their help with this cover.
As opening sentences go, this has definitely got something: ‘I’m dressed as a spider, waiting to go onstage to impersonate a carrot”. 15 year old Elektra spends much of the novel waiting, mostly for the phone to ring. Even before that opening, there’s the echo in the title - Elektra is indeed studying Waiting for Godot at her all-girls’ school, a text which is quite a challenge for a Year 10, even though this is very much an RP/ M-C London world. If, as the Irish critic Vivian Mercier famously observed, Godot is a play in which nothing happens twice, then Callback is a novel in which inconsequential (but entertaining) stuff keeps happening at a fairly frenetic pace without going anywhere much. More to the point is how the tale is told by this writing duo of a former tax barrister mother and her A-level student daughter.
Elektra tells us she gets ‘high on drama’ and she’s a regular at the weekly classes of Act-up Children’s Theatre (ACT). Charismatic teacher Lens loves wacky impros (e.g. mime ‘going to the supermarket in the style of an animal you relate to on a spiritual level’ - Elektra unwisely opts for a bushbaby). Lens also writes snippets of intense script for a couple of class members to act out, which the others critique; this is drama as performance – as opposed, say, to workshops developing participants’ learning, regardless of onlookers. The first step towards the celebrity carpet in this competitive world is to Get an Agent. Elektra does just that, with the anxious support of Mum and Dad, which leads to many of the episodes crowding the book. She fails her first audition (a role as a dead schoolgirl), but does better with Squirrelina, the second most important squirrel in a commercial for Utterly Nutterly Nuts. Many of the callbacks she’s expecting follow auditions, but others are often from best friend Moss (with whom she falls out and then back in again when Moss’s focus is consumed by her geeky new boyfriend) or from achingly fancyable Archie at the ACT class. The Big One she’s longing for, though, is from a Hollywood director.
The dialogue finds its high-tension comic voice at once and never relents; it’s somewhere on the sitcom/romcom spectrum with maybe a touch of Outnumbered or a scaled-down British version of Fame or Glee without the pretension. The narrative wittily employs texts, emails, lists (‘Hot guys to play MY Romeo’ or ‘Roles which are Out of the Question – e.g. any role that involves more than kissing’), script extracts and Facebook; each chapter is headed by insightful gems from actor celebs – the likes of Jennifer Lawrence or Tom Hiddleston or even Lindsay Lohan.
Among all the girly (I’m sorry) conversations and confidences, boys are inevitably alien creatures sketched from the outside; ‘He was fit if you like the skinny, arty-boy vibe’ or ‘Clean T-shirt and some lemony soap or shampoo’ is about as far as it goes, and you’d guess the authors anticipate a largely female readership. The bubbling comic energy is that of YA Fictionland - not the daily grit of school and home - with the minor character caricatures readers expect and enjoy; Flissy the bitchy classmate, Mrs Gryll the Geography teacher who drops the mask to confess a lifelong devotion to Gregory Peck or Eulalie the eccentric French step-grandmother with the irredeemable English and a whiff of a scandalous past.
Just before the closing pages, Elektra confides that she secretly admires Godot. There’s something familiar about it: ‘Actually, they should have made it with teenagers - just substituted the tree for a phone and that’s about 90 per cent of my life. They could have called it Waiting for Something to Happen/Anything to Happen’. Then her phone rings from LA.