On Slacker Novels and Killing Darlings: Kris D’Agostino

As someone steeped in culture, I try not let another person’s tastes dictate the way I feel towards them. “Oh, Coldplay/Mumford and Sons is your favorite band, that’s so interesting!” Or, “That’s an thought-provoking opinion, thinking Garden State defined the voice of our generation, let me think about that one.” I need to remind myself that cultural choice speaks nothing about character, goodness, or any aspect of a personality. But then I meet someone who enthusiastically endorses my tastes and opinions, and I feel connected, incommensurately so because I assume this person “gets it.”

Consequently, after about 3 minutes with the talented, modest, insightful, and plainly engaging Kris D’agostino, debut author of The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac (Algonquin), when we both agreed on the true awfulness of Juno and Garden State, it became less of an interview and more of informal, albeit loud conversation. We started the conversation with some requisite basic questions about his book, but as I came to learn, D’agostino enjoys using these mundane question as a gateway to larger questions of life, art, and society all with a healthy playful, and genuine perspective. His book, a roman a clef, given the literary climate, could conceivably have been written as a bildungsroman memoir. Or, on the other extreme the book works as complete fiction – tinker here with the timeline, drop or add some characters and viola, fiction, but neither option felt true, or right.

Memoirs he opined, not only felt old, their time up and all, but felt lazy and perhaps narcissistic. “I know that despite some interesting details in my life, I don’t deserve or warrant people’s attention for an entire book length memoir. And more importantly, I can’t get anyone to explain to me why memoirs seem to be so popular these days. Or why they keep being written by people in their 30’s? Even if I had life experience significant enough to justify a memoir, would I really trust myself at 33 to have the wisdom or perspective to capture those experiences with any clarity?”

Not shy with his opinions, though always backed by intelligent argumentation, D’agostino makes a compelling case for the irrelevance of memoirs as the genre now exists. Fiction, in this case felt too removed, but his novel contains numerous elements of fiction to create a dramatic story. He changed his younger brother to a sister, and packs of a wallop of an emotional gut punch at the end of the book that in no way corresponds to actual life events.

D’agostino takes Faulkner’s recommendation to, “Kill all your darlings,” deadly seriously, with perhaps D’agostino’s greatest character. A sassy, confident, insightful, in the moment 17 year old dealing with her teen pregnancy, who, as he points out, is nothing like Juno. Part of what makes D’agostino’s book feel new and refreshing lies in his ability to create wholly different characters, even happy ones, a rarity in the novels of our time. Though he doesn’t know any happy people who actually live in the moment in real life, D’agostino doesn’t fear creating happy characters, not maudlin, but balanced, well adjusted, insightful, but yes, happy, which to me partakes of the avant garde. “I think happy people do exist. For me, one of the things I wanted to do with the sister character was try to get someone on the page who is able to live in the moment. That is one of the rarest qualities I see in people. It’s almost wholly absent in me, so I’m intrigued when I see it in others. It might be the cornerstone to happiness. I’m not sure.”

His honest sense of self-awareness, a self-awareness that never falls into self-indulgence guides much of his thinking. As simple as it might sound, he knows his strengths and weaknesses and makes no excuses for either. Though some criticize D’agostino for a dialogue heavy novel, the book suffers nothing because of it, and D’agostino acknowledges his relative lack of talent in the more lyrical descriptive writing. “I’m just not good at being overly descriptive. I often wonder if it’s because I have no aptitude for florid language, or if it’s because I’m not interested in writing that way? As in: which came first? My favorite writers (Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy) write in very stripped-down, terse, direct ways and I lean toward emulating (read: ripping off) that. One of the best things I’ve learned about writing was when I got to the point where I realized I could trash sentences I loved for the sake of making the story more streamlined.”

 Self proclaimed at being “bad on the phone” and having spent many of his formative years engorging on movies, D’agostino is something the status of an autodidact expert on movies. He recently finished watching every single Woody Allen movie, and swears he can make an actually intelligent, compelling romantic comedy and laments the lack of more socially oriented long form essays on movies from the cultural realm. (We are waiting on you Kris.) He also, will tell you, unabashedly about the countless hours played dungeon and dragons in high school, though despite describing it in his book, he never partook of LARPing.

His excitement to talk about art, culture, this generation, his family, life, movies, his job, his students, arts all evince the excitement of a genuinely passionate person, moved by opinions, entranced by ideas all with a healthy, humbling perspective of what truly matters in life. Though he jokes, pokes fun, and espouses some strong cultural opinions, when it comes down to it, D’agostino truly believes in Art,  despite the simplicity, perhaps even naivete of this sentiment, specifically in its ability to allow him to communicate in a manner normally closed to him. “I do, I take art very seriously. Most of the time I think it is more real than the real world. Art’s ability to connect you to yourself and to other people and to perspectives and ideas you didn’t even know exists. The empathy factor. It’s what keeps it all together. To read a book and realize “Hey, I’m not the only one who thinks that way!” That’s a major moment. Not much else in life comes close to that.”

 Another defining conversation centered on the question of first world problems. D’agostino, and a whole host of younger writers these days contend with the ambivalence of the problems of luxury, what D’agostino refers to in his book first world problems. These problems, perhaps issues that stem from the luxury of copious amounts of time to just think, refer mostly to problems that when put in perspective, often seem laughable, but that never takes away the real pain they cause. D’agostino, realizing the ambivalence of first world problems, tackles them, but with a perspective that allows for playfulness.

There’s a funny irony in these sort of generational novels about first world problems, these so called slacker novel’s, post college, living at home, lost, sexually frustrated, haunted by problems of money, maturity, and mothers written by successful young writers. Their characters, their protagonists generally suck at life and yet, these authors, in writing a novel about this transcend the limitations of their characters. D’agostino laughs at this irony, but still comments that as much as he accomplished his goals, he still feels woefully under-prepared for real life, a sentiment, we agree, common to most of our generation.

Writers today, perhaps more than ever, need the personal wherewithal to live with ambiguity, to shun the either/or of life. Either you love your family, they light up your life, and laugh away the dysfunction or you move to Austin, or L.A. on a bus, listening to something soul piercing in headphones that cover the whole ear. Either you devote your life to third world problems or you indulge, narcissistically in the melodrama of our first world lives. Of the many problems with this black and white vision of life, its reductive nature poses the greatest threat to art today. “One of the things I hate most about popular art (books, films) is the lack of ambiguity. Or worse, people’s perception that ambiguity is somehow unfulfilling. Real life could not be any more ambiguous. We go out in the world everyday and are met head-on with gray uncertainty and there is something beautiful and transcendent about that. I don’t know why people want to look for clarity in art. It isn’t there and it shouldn’t be. It isn’t anywhere. If you boil a person down to being either “good” or “bad”? Where’s the fun in that?

Ultimately, the artists job of today lies in creating a balance between Art as an ideological or social weapon of inviolable importance, and art as a serious path towards genuine reflection and connection with other people. In his first book, D’agostino delicately walks this beautiful line between these poles, and I can only assume he will do the same in his upcoming book, a dystopian sci-fi novel based, loosely, off some of his experiences in the real world of jobs, demanding parents of schoolchildren, bosses, and unfulfilled dreams. I, for one, cannot wait.

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

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