A Cigarette Lit Backwards captures all the chaos and misguided pursuits of contemporary teenage-hood. The novel is a parable of the ethics — the requirement of authenticity and the breaking of this law — of being teenage “cool.”
The plot itself is straightforward: Kat is a high-schooler in the early-middle 2000s. She suffers from occupying that middle rung of teenage society: cool enough to be unnoticed, not cool enough to be noticed by those who deign to judge others. She is every American child in that era: two parents who are successful in their respective careers — whatever they might be — a typical two-income family, part of a new immigrant class whose trajectories lack the tragedy of previous immigrant generations. Kat is white and middle-class. Her life is typical of the concerns of teenage girls of her class, her background, her community; her primary motivating desire is acceptance in the world of Cool. Casual sex, casual drug use, skipping classes, and going to concerts and underground shows are the means by which to achieve her dreams. (All hail, Ticketmaster, bestower of golden dreams and backstage passes. All Access and “Free” parking if you can afford it.)
Kat gets what she wants and predictable consequences ensue. But perhaps they are only predictable because I am the age Kat will be in 2022. The lessons of sex, lies, and the fallacy of music, drugs, and friendships have faded for me in a way that will likely fade for Kat as she matures as well. But in the turn-of-the-century world of A Cigarette Lit Backwards Kat has yet to discover how little all that matters: how sex, real or imagined, means nothing, how friendships forged in a fire fueled by drugs, infatuation, and the superficial markers of clothes, piercings, edgy haircuts, and tattoos — even forged in the trauma of drug overdoses — will fall away meaninglessly after college, after your 20s, after the hangover has cured.
Kat has not yet discovered how much she will owe in student loans. Everyone in Kat’s world has yet to encounter our morbid collective climate-change driven fate. They are just on the cusp of seeing gun violence and regular shootings in their school hallways. Have metal detectors been installed in her school yet? There is no mention of lockdown drills in the novel… A Cigarette Lit Backwards is a novel of the sunnier days of this era, before what lingered in the real darkness began to rise from a simmer to a roiling boil. This is the pre-politicized world of the 2000s, before BLM, before the election of 2016, before DACA and Dreamers, before shtuff got “real” (as if it wasn’t “real” before…)
Kat’s world is decidedly white. Appropriate for North Carolina — even in its progressive, liberal islands — where it is set.
As a historical fiction (if we can view the early 2000s as history already) the novel reflects the light-hearted, whiteness of the era. This was a moment of Britney Spears, N’Sync, and dance beats more than it was a moment of punk. Avril Lavigne — Canadian and cat-eyed — was the punkiest most 2000-era teenagers would ever get. Kat’s world in A Cigarette Lit Backwards is just ever-so-slightly darker than Lavigne’s. It is the world of wannabe punky Ashlee Simpson, just as she was caught lip syncing on SNL and tried to cover it up with a preppy little jig. Here is the punk of short, plaid skirts (held together with oversized diaper pins), rhinestone studded lip rings, and middle/upper middle class white-American, mall-lingering, Hot Topic goths.
I am too jaded, too 2022 for this novel. But it was light, funny-in-an-“ohmygod,wasIlikethat?Please,no” nostalgic sort of way; a pleasant read that was a reprieve from the typical stuff I usually read. For readers interested in taking a light-hearted trip back to the shinier world of the early 2000s, to your youth (or something like it), A Cigarette Lit Backwards will do it.