Darkly Comic, Filthy, Incredibly Awkward – Flatscreen by Adam Wilson

I imagine it has to be fairly uncomfortable being a first time author, especially in fiction.  With non-fiction (assuming you’ve done your research and everything is factually correct), usually the worst thing someone can say is that your writing is dry (or I assume this to be the case because I find much non-fiction to be tedious, if necessary, reading).

But for fiction… your audience is more subjective.  Someone who likes Francine Rivers will probably not enjoy Charles Bukowski.  And so, out of the gate, I’m going to warn you:  I really enjoyed Flatscreen, but if you don’t like books with drugs, sex, debauchery, or lots of crass language… you won’t like it.

Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “James, what do you mean by crass?  I’ve read a bit of salty literature in my time, dear boy, and I assure you that I won’t drop my monocle in surprise when I read a rude word or two.”

OK, well to weed you out as a reader I’m going to quote a passage below.  If you find yourself disliking this passage, you can definitely pass on the novel.  Here goes:

You’ve been warned!

“Wanted to say, ‘Father, have you ever licked butt cheeks in moonlight or sucked fat clit while Otis Redding comes crinkled with static over the radio in your 1968 Ford Sedan?”

OK are any of you still here?  I mean, I know I have few regular readers as it is, but… at least one of you stuck around through that, haven’t you?  Well good.  Now I can begin the review proper.

Flatscreen is an example of a slacker novel.  Eli Schwartz graduated from high school and has done very little since.  A townie of Quinosset, Massachusetts (a fictional, but very accurate Boston suburb), Eli does little more than sit around his house fantasizing.  What about?  Well, to give a short list…  Sex, drugs, movies, sex in movies, being a famous chef, sex with girls, drinking, sex with mothers, cooking… well, obviously, I could go on.

Eli narrates the novel like a less right-wing Rorschach (see: Watchmen) with a very stilted manner of internalizing his thoughts.  Often times, he’ll leave out pronouns (i.e.: “On the way home, shamed, still made of rubber, enjoying the cool air, saw Dan’s maid struggle with two large plastic grocery bags”) and it can often be tough to keep up with who he’s talking to until you adjust.

But the centerpiece of this novel is the humor.  The book is literally laugh-out-loud funny and full of lines and passages that I often had to read twice to get double my pleasure.  Eli is an awkward failure in every aspect of his life… no job, still living with his mother, and his only friends are the town’s drug dealer and the aging movie star who just bought Eli’s mother’s house, causing the Schwartz family to have to move into a duplex and become social lepers in the status-hungry suburb.

Awkwardness ensues for Eli just about everywhere.  He sends long, uncomfortable status messages to the girl he’s in love with (this week), gets high and passes out in the end zone of his high school’s football field (and no I will NOT spoil the true joy of THAT particular scene), and several wonderfully awkward sexual experiences that need to be read to be believed.

One of Eli’s main obsessions, besides women, drugs, and booze, is film.  He’s constantly recognizing aspects of his life in regards to popular film and, in the last third of the novel, constantly taking nearly every other chapter to give a new ending to his story… if only it were a film (there’s an indie ending, a Hollywood drama ending… the list goes on).

Another interesting aspect is that in the first two thirds of the book, just about every other chapter is a list of some kind that Eli has made up.  Sometimes, it’ll be questions for his father (as in the crass quote posted above), other times, he’ll give facts about his mother, backstory on his obsession with Latina women, or imagined dialogue between himself and  a love interest.  Outside of the constant awkwardness, these sections are the funniest bits of the novel.

Unfortunately for you, Flatscreen is not available yet.  My copy is an advance reader and the book itself won’t be available until late Feb\early March 2012, but please!  If you like awkward, dirty humor with a bit of a Horatio Alger (almost!) journey… pick this up when it comes out.  Make it easy on a first time author.

The Evolution Of An Author – Jeffrey Eugenides Part 1 – The Virgin Suicides

So every nine years, like clockwork, Jeffrey Eugenides releases another novel.

Why nine years? I don’t know. 1993 brought us The Virgin Suicides, 2002 saw the release of Middlesex, and just this year, Eugenides’ long awaited third novel The Marriage Plot hit stores.

Most people first heard of Jeffrey Eugenides because of the film version of The Virgin Suicides, adapted for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola.  You’re thinking to yourself… I’m just going to read the book and skip the movie… Film adaptations always suck.

Normally… Yes, you’d be correct.  But Coppola did it right.  So much of the book gets onto the screen unchanged and those closing scenes…  some of the most heartbreaking scenes shot on film.  The film is well worth checking out.

Anyway.

The Virgin Suicides was released back in the fat, happy 1990s.  Bill Clinton was newly elected into office, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and Betamax was a footnote in history, while DVD was just a few years in the future.  Ah, 1993.  What fond memories.

Some people will tell you that The Virgin Suicides is a story about five young girls who kill themselves.  On the surface this is true, in the same way that James Patterson is a writer.  Sure, on a technical level you’re right.  But you’re also an asshole.  Shut up and let me tell this, OK?

The book does deal with the suicides of the Lisbon sisters, but they aren’t the main characters.  In fact, what makes The Virgin Suicides a remarkable novel is the narration.  Instead of a standard first- or third-person narrative style, Eugenides instead goes with a classical  choral perspective, where the story is told by a mysterious “us.”

This unnamed “us” is the group of boys who grew up on the same street with the girls, the boys who went to school with the girls.  The boys, who are now grown men, are reflecting on that fateful year that the girls took their own lives.  Through memories, interviews, and obsessive hoarding of items from the Lisbon’s house, they try to cobble together some semblance of understanding.

And I bet you’re asking… Why did they kill themselves after all?  Surely after almost 400 pages, an answer emerges.  Ha ha.  Poor sod.  The book never explains why.  At least not with any sense of finality or certainty.

Was it their overbearing and overprotective mother?  The trials and tribulations of growing up as a girl in the madhouse of high school?  The systemic destruction of the environment?  The threat of nuclear war?

Eugenides is smart enough not to give us a knot to tie up our loose ends and the book is far better for it.  A ton of reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere complained about this missing bit of the book and…  If you finish reading the book and are disappointed by this, you didn’t read the book closely enough.

Similarly, I’ve read many complaints about the portrayal of the girls in the book.  Many claim that the way they act is not a good representation of the female gender, even taking into account that they are high schoolers.  Once again, anyone who comes back with this impression has missed crucial details in the novel.

Firstly, there is no answer for us, the reader, because the narrators never get an answer.  They sit, decades later, shuffling through the remains of family photos, old bits of clothing, and tattered memories without ever getting closer to any revelation about the experience.  They never even notice the disturbing aspects of their own obsession.

Secondly, the girls are portrayed the way they are through the novel because the entire story is told from the point of view of grown men remembering high school crushes.

Guys, think about that one girl you never asked out.  Girls, do the same, but with a guy (of course, gay or lesbian friends are free to think of the same sex as necessary).  Think back to middle school or high school and recall how much you idealized the person you were crushing on.  Now amplify that about a thousand percent and make sure not to change that idealized perspective for about thirty years.

The portrayal of the Lisbon girls is unrealistic because their suicides allowed the boys’ memories to become fossilized and unchanged.  Along the same lines (outside of brief snippets of diary entries), we’re never given the story from the girls’ perspective and any interviews the boys do with people outside of the “us” who narrate are cherry picked for the most relevant parts.  Of course the Lisbon girls are going to be characterized poorly.  They’re meant to be!

In the end, The Virgin Suicides is Eugenides’ strongest work because the turns of phrase are unforgettable, the portrayal of the boys’ obsession and the downward spiral of suburbia (a common theme for Eugenides) is intriguing and disturbing, and, with its unconventional narrative voice, a highly original novel of power and wit.  Read it, read it, read it!

So…  Once every nine years, Jeffrey Eugenides writes a new book.  Is the wait worth it?  Stay tuned to Parts 2 and 3 to find out.  When?  Well…  soon, hopefully.  Maybe?  But next, stay tuned for a review about the forthcoming novel Flatscreen by Adam Wilson