Cultural Narratives, Slacker Lives, and Pop Allusions: On Adam Wilson’s “Flatscreen”

by Adam Wilson
Harper Perennial, 336 p.

Can I curse in a review? I think I can curse in a review, so here’s my two word review of Adam Wilson’s debut novel Flatscreen: holy shit.

The love and gratitude I feel towards this book completely overshadows the jealousy it engenders. In books, part of what we love is to feel understood. It doesn’t entail simply stating truths about life, but achieving a delicate balance of playfulness and insight. Adam Wilson writes the story of Eli Schwartz, a lost soul, home bound, drugged out, desperate for connection. In an unpretentious manner, Wilson, through Eli, captures the voice of a large segment of our generation. I cannot think of a previous writer in the past few years who so ably captures what it feel like to think and speak as a person who grew up with TV as a best friend, with real memories almost wholly replaced by memories of movies, where our thoughts and our actual dialogue speak with the pace and tone of tweets and Facebook posts: allusive, elliptical, sharp, staccato, lacking pronouns, and always witty in an attempt to one up the next person; to speak so fast so as not to truly feel; to use language as a way to protect ourselves from thought. His ear, one to cherish for many years to come, picks up on every nuance of the muddled language of today. In perhaps one of the most pitch perfect satires of the bro phenomenon, Wilson captures a bunch of bros on their way to a baseball game:

I had a standing spot between two frat rats, each excessively side-burned, each with a goatee full of sausage crumbs, each tribal-tatted in the bulbous triceps region. ‘Hey guy,’ one said, as if the effort to recall the other’s name would be both painful and lame, a waste of Red Bull-enabled energy. ‘Ya, dude,’ his friend replied…’Ate these fuckin’ hot wings, dude,’ Bro A returned. ‘Like Satan took a shit in ya mouth.’

Wilson also displays the obsessiveness of a mind breast-fed on TV, movies, and the Internet, in which we watch other people pretend to live interesting lives. These images insidiously insinuate themselves into our mind, turning into the new cultural dialogue, but in a more troubling sense, our cultural narrative. Eli, endlessly makes references to cultural markers throughout the book that mimics, or prefigures his experiences. Wilson writes integrates this seamlessly through the use of the references in parentheses e.g. (Flatscreen 2012). Wilson deftly makes this point without the need to write any sort of essayistic aside through the use of certain tools. Eli, in his internal monologue, categorizes experiences through the TV shows and movies that each situation triggers the memory of. (But think about it, there’s some deeply disturbing about living a life in which your reservoir of comparison lies in remembering actors playing someone else’s life. In a sense, that represents two steps removed from any sort of real experience of life.) Additionally, Wilson deftly has Eli imagine different endings to his life story through the prism of how different movie studios would write it. It’s both a hilarious send up of the stale nature of movies, but also serves as a perfect tool to capture the sense of our generation’s lost imagination.

It pains me to think that Wilson will be pegged a comedic writer, or, that this book will forever be thought of, as one author comments, a slacker book to end all slacker books. These types of compliments does both the book and Wilson an injustice. Yes, the book exudes intelligent humor (the Kahn character, an elder mentor type in the vein of Einhorn (The Adventures of Augie March 1953), is a wicked, brilliantly comedic twist on the trope: a washed up, drugged out, former actor with a penchant for prostitutes), but large swathes of the book disavow humor, and even the humor used speaks more to a a British sense of humor in which comedy looks like the identical twin sibling of tragedy.  Similarly, I deign to refer to Eli, the unforgettable protagonist, as a slacker for numerous reasons. First off, the whole idea of the slacker genre allows for easy categorization, but blocks true understanding. Once we think of this book of a slacker novel, we approach it with certain expectations, certain limitations. Yes, Eli slacks off from life, but not in the way of the Dude (The Big Lebowski 1999), or in the way of Apatow characters (Knocked Up 2005), but in the way of someone, representative of an acute American situation in which he cannot overcome the sadness of life. Eli harbors no pretenses as to his singularity or to a Caulfield-esque ability (Catcher in the Rye 1951) to see through the bullshit of life.

Eli, in the vein of these numerous past characters, but most similar to Sam Lipsyte’s character Lewis Miner (HomeLand 2004), serves as a manifestation of a cultural disease. He stands between the unhappiness of his friends who try their hand at the American dream, but live unhappily from the despair of the working life, and the slacker life full of an onslaught of shitty TV, drugs, and a hopeful hookup with a partner which engenders boredom and a soul-slaying despair all its own. Wilson writes from an epoch of the post-American dream in which we know the hollowness of that promise, from a post-religious age in which Judaism (and religion as a whole), at least for most people, feels stale, at best a medium to show off rather than connect.

Like many of these narrators, what passes superficially as an ennui towards societal norms, a disgust for phoniness, for successful people, hides a deep sadness, an abiding mourning of the potential life, of life wasted. Wilson though, understanding his literary heritage, makes no pretense to create a character who cannot see through his cynicism into his sadness. In fact, some of the most moving, insightful parts of the book consist of Eli stating explicitly the plain sadness of his situation, shedding his cynicism and sarcasm to say, “Everything scares the shit out of me,” or “I want everything to mean something, or at least for something to mean something.”

Eli sees his pain, obsesses over it in fact, and simply feels unable to transcend his wounds. To other people, he hides behind cynicism, allusions to pop culture, snarky comments, and drugs, but to us privileged readers, he lays bare his sufferings, his intense desire, but shocking inability to actually connect to a real person. As a distinctly unreliable narrator, Eli provides unfair portrayals of his brother, but most importantly of his mother. His mother, a divorced, alcoholic, lonely woman with a fuck-up of a son, connects to her bottle, to her TV, and watches her son self-destruct in front of her eyes. Eli can barely acknowledge her humanity: she’s a decoration in his world, a source of pain, but not a person, until Eli finds himself in the hospital. There, for the first time, his mother gets to speak in a truly heart-shattering monologue that moved this reader to tears. In a deft, subtle manner, Wilson displays Eli’s epiphany about the actual humanity of his mother, through Eli’s ability, finally, towards the end of the book to name his mother. Such a small act signals such an important shift in Eli, and if you blink you will miss it, because humans don’t change, even in reaction to crisis, in an instant, but only over the slow drip of time.

Eli’s pain feels self-indulgent, purposeless, but judging this pervasive pain of our generation does little to abate the pain. We know ourselves to be the product of luxury, of the comfort bestowed upon us by the works of our parents, we know ourselves as self-centered, closed off to a world full of ills that need healing, and yet, we choose to focus on ourselves because we cannot feel past our own, unexplained pain. Ignoring it will only exacerbate the emptiness clawing at our lives. Eli lives in that emptiness, and though at the end, no huge epiphany awakens our protagonist, Eli starts to learn how to connect, and in a sense, that’s one of the main sources of meaning we have left.

At the end of the novel, as I put the book down, I felt unburdened. If some part of literature entails a conversation, an attenuation of the loneliness we feel despite our plethora of friends (David Foster Wallace 2004), then Wilson’s book, his ability to acutely capture our existence, what it feels like to live today, helps me breathe more freely to begin to think and feel with clear eyes and full hearts (Friday Night Lights 2007).

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  1. Nicely done.  I didn’t love Flatscreen, but I appreciated it for what it was.  And you made me go back and re-read the scene in the hospital with Eli and his mother.  You’re right, I missed it.

  2. I was cracking up reading the sex scene with the family friend.  It was an awkward laugh, but any laugh from a novel is appreciated.