Morality Amidst Nihilism, With Comedy: A Review of Adam Wilson’s “What’s Important is Feeling”


What’s Important is Feeling
by Adam Wilson
Harper Perennial; 200 p.

In a conversation with author Adam Wilson, he conveyed that though he envisions himself as “a humanist in society he aims for nihilism in his writing.” This pithy and insightful phrase captures a deep desire of many writers in our environment: the desire for pure freedom. Most writers understandably chafe at the notion that you can place any limits on what fiction can or ought to do, and therefore see the moral potential of fiction as at best reserved for the very lofty and abstract – something like, “fiction allows us to foster empathy, to comfort the strange and estrange the comfortable” all ideas that in no way translate in prescriptions or any theory of necessary action for a writer. This also fits in with the sense that we’ve grown past the need to create movements or manifestoes of literature, of artistic movements because all of those attempts at systems inhibit the desirable playfulness of writing to explore the boundaries of life.

What then strikes me as strange is how damn humane and moral Wilson’s new collection of short stories, What’s Important is Feeling, feels to this reader. Wilson’s first effort, Flatscreen, a book I continue to adore, tells the story of a privileged white kid, lost, so caught up in his own neuroses as to totally lack an ability to connect, to create any type of intimacy with anything or anyone. The climax of the book, if it has any at all, comes in a quiet, small conversation between the protagonist and his mother in which the sad shitty kid finally realizes that his mother exists as her own entity with fears, vulnerabilities, hopes and desires that in no way can be assimilated into his own. One of Wilson’s talents lies in his ability to earn our sympathy for this supposedly narcissistic annoying privileged white male, but at the same time to lead them to some sort of moral realization of the existence of other people. Consequently, Wilson in this new collection picks up on this theme and thereby cements his status as a humanist writer in the clothes of a nihilist.

His stories focus on what we might call the fringes of society. Like his mentor Sam Lipsyte, these stories show us ostensible failures based on the current and often lame definitions of success: townies desperate to leave and stay, young academics coming to realize the bullshit even supposed intellectuals spout, burned out druggies hoping that one kiss, one band practice can save the world, druggies seeking the next fix, sex-starved teenagers realizing that emotional intimacy can be as powerful as an ejaculation etc. But all of these stories, purposefully, lead the reader to challenge our sense of success and achievement, of what we want out of life for ourselves and other people, which exhibits the nihilistic impulse to destroy accepted traditions, but for the purpose the humanistic foundation of empathy.

For example, my favorite story in the new collection somehow manages to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a humanizing manner that, despite the infinite amount of accounts and information available, manages to sound fresh and important and urgent. Wilson’s opener of the story “The Long In-Between” captures all the unique aspects of his writing and the dynamics of this story:

In August of 2006, during Israel’s relentless bombing of Lebanon, and days after Mel Gibson said his piece about the Jews, I came to New York City to live with a woman who had once been my college professor.

The rest of the story feels like an elaboration of this sentence. The sentence is both highly associative yet perfectly idiosyncratic. It triggers thoughts of tiredness of both the “relentless bombing”, but also the as relentless debates and arguments on the conflict. It balances the politics of power used by Israel with the unavoidable realities of anti-Semitism, and it betrays a type of ambivalence about Jewish identity in refusing to elaborate or define what Gibson said (I can hear the Jewish mother saying, “You shouldn’t repeat such things…”) and in referring to the Jews, as “the Jews,” which at the same distances and betrays an intimacy of the narrator with the Jewish people. Last, these lofty questions of politics, war, history and anti-Semitism give way to the humanity of the story. All of these questions only take place within the context of living with a beloved college professor. What Wilson intends to convey is something we too often forget – that these opinions are not abstract, and can’t be disconnected from the human reality on both sides:

Two things Elizabeth hated were Zionism and machismo, though she’d flirted with the former on kibbutz after college (Yitzhak Rabin and pharmaceutical-grade ecstasy, darling—those were different times”) and the latter was a trait she proudly manifested. I do not mean to suggest that Elizabeth’s sympathy for Lebanese civilians was insincere, but something about the word hideous – the same adjective she’d used to describe the apartment’s art – made me wonder if it wasn’t’ all theory for her, some kind of ideological chess match unrelated to actual suffering.

This sounds like a quasi-manifesto of the whole book. What do the ideas we hold about the world and society look like from the concrete perspective of actual human lives. To that extent I think Wilson’s work highlights the unease many feel not towards moral or empathic writing, but to the label morality because of its religious, parochial and paternalistic connotations. No one these days want to think of themselves as intending to enlighten or to teach, though most of the books we love do that anyway. All of which leads us to realize that our sense of nihilism inheres directly to our sense of humanism. The most nihilistic book almost always stems from a moral standpoint, the morality of contingency, as philosophers call it. Fiction, inherent within its magic to create, shows us that our lives as our created as the characters we read. Fiction, in its ability to highlight the creation of our lives helps us dismantle our notions of natural, which are often used to limit and hurt other people.

There are few more nefarious ideas to an egalitarian society than what is “natural.” The justification of natural has been used to enslave African Americans for hundreds of years, the same for the domination of men over women, majorities over minorities, rich over poor etc. The sense that something natural exists allows us to prefer one definition of femininity or masculinity over others among many other insidious ideas. To that extent the heavily nihilistic impulse of Wilson, along with many other writers, is some of the greatest moral work of our generation. Now we just need to get over our fear of the word.

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