From Lysistrata to Don Quixote to Catch-22, literary comedy works best when a black heart beats beneath the hilarity. The comedic impulse is always transgressive, always an alternate avenue to the two tragic truths at the center of our existence: suffering and death. Levity must be rooted in tragedy because life, as Schopenhauer insisted, is essentially and irredeemably tragic, “something that should not have been.” The clown is usually the saddest guy at the circus; we guffaw at the expense of his anguish.
Adam Wilson’s debut novel, Flatscreen, has been billed as a comedy of barely post-adolescent confusion, but there’s far more heartwreck than hilarity in these rambunctious pages. Eli Schwartz has just turned twenty, that awkward purgatory of an age when one arrives unprepared at the cusp of adulthood. Drug-addled, overweight, unemployed, and unlucky with the opposite sex, Eli ascertains his fractured life through a constant referencing of television and film. For his geekish ilk, illuminated screens have supplanted reality and left them ill equipped to navigate the rough waters of their world.
Wilson’s wry bildungsroman is roused by Eli’s idiosyncratic voice and cynical scrutiny. Skinny women athleticizing on SportsCenter resemble “plastic straws bent in all the wrong places.” Unable to sleep, Eli becomes soothed by his mother’s presence, “an animal thing, pheromones like a lullaby.” A friend’s father has had a “succession of wives, each younger, more silicone-cyborg than the last.” His often fragmented and quasi-poetical verbiage corresponds perfectly to both his apprehension of the fallen world and his Romantic, Werther-esque notion of himself as a doomed hero meant to internalize his family’s afflictions (his mother and brother lead broken lives; his heart-dead father has abandoned them).
Auden once called Goethe’s Young Werther an egoist, “a spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself,” and it’s true that Flatscreen is stocked with self-pitying, self-obsessed youth, suburban kids of privilege whose problems are born of inanity and ennui—Less Than Zero for the middle-class Jewish set. But this does not discount the genuine human drama unfurling here, a drama about an abscess of lonesomeness and groping your way through a dark night of the soul.
The most charismatic character in Flatscreen is Seymour Kahn, former television star, who buys Eli’s family’s home when they can longer afford to stay. Foulmouthed, nearly Falstaffian, a wheelchair-bound priest of hedonism, Kahn unites with Eli over cannabis and dejection and becomes a misappropriated father surrogate. The pair unravel together as Kahn attempts to lure Eli into a narcotic-driven and debauched state worthy of Sade, fornicating with girls Eli went to high school with, and dispersing hipster sagacity such as “Posterity is bullshit, and pussy is gold.” Kahn constitutes the novel’s spiritual black hole, his nihilistic gravity almost strong enough to suck all light from the land of the living. Hedonism is every nihilist’s last-ditch effort to pretend something matters. Kahn cuts a comical figure, for sure, but like all effective jesters he is also supremely aware that, as Larkin has it, “life is first boredom, then fear.”
One unfortunate blurb has dubbed this book a “slacker novel,” which does nothing to recommend it to seriousness, and it is serious despite its waggish shenanigans and Eli’s skewed worldview. His authentic tenderness toward his family and Kahn, and his earnest trying—“I have so much love in me,” Eli says, “and nowhere to direct it”—elevate this novel above yet another played-out stoner story for an anesthetized gaming generation. There will be a death—there must always be a death—and Eli will react accordingly, with a kind of electric-shock recognition of his finitude. John Dos Passos, in the introduction to his novel Three Soldiers, writes that “growing up is the process of pinching off the buds of tomorrow.” In other words: You’re a grown-up not when you get a job, a girlfriend, and some responsibility, but when you shuck the fantasy of your own immortality. If you smashed The Catcher in the Rye into Jesus’ Son, you might have something quite close to Flatscreen, a narrative of wayward youth for our beguiled new century on the brink of a discovery we might not welcome.