Plenty’s been said lately about what technology does to our minds. Articles abound. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic wondered last month (Stephen Marche, May 2012). It could be making us sad, Slate proposed in “The Anti-Social Network”(Libby Copeland, 26 January 2011). Technology could be making us lazy, too, according to Psychology Today, although it could also boost efficiency (Tracy P. Alloway, 21 July 2011).
And those are just reflections on the Internet. We’ve all heard what too much TV could do to the brain, and what too much porn does to sexual expectations and relationships. Sure, many of us use technology to connect—to share stories and photos, to reach out—but (according to some writers) it can just as easily isolate us behind our own individual screens.
With that in mind, Adam Wilson’s debut novel, Flatscreen, is incredibly timely. Its protagonist is indeed lonely, sad, lazy, and bad at sex, to boot. He speaks in fragmented sentences (leaving out subjects), views women as sex objects when they aren’t surrogates for his mother (or both), and initially lives in front of a flat screen TV. Luckily for readers, though, he’s also funny, and he has at least a glimmer of potential for change, so it’s possible to overlook the overwhelming self-loathing and self-importance he emits on almost every page.
Eli Schwartz is 20, unemployed, and living in his mom’s basement without any plans for the future. A self-proclaimed “glorified townie without the glory” and a “rich Jewish kid” from suburban Boston, Eli doesn’t go to college, but he does indulge in hours of TV to fill the educational gaps, swallowing hours of Discovery, History, Food Network, and MSNBC, along with possibly every movie ever made. This accounts for the manic curiosity in his voice, and the clever wit, which would seem inappropriate for a hopelessly drug-addled slacker. But Eli’s more than just that. He knows there’s wisdom to be reaped from the flat screen; he’s just not sure how to apply it to real life, yet.
If not fully attuned to life’s endless possibilities, he at least sees potential in food, telling readers, “My palate was unparalleled. Could catch a hint of freshly cut Brie from three houses away, smell the pizza boy before he turned onto our street. Knew the tannins in my tea by name, gagged at an extra teaspoon of cinnamon, understood the subtle benefits of star anise.” This gives a glimpse of his sensitivity, while also explaining why he’s fat. Food, like technology, is relatively easy to control, even for the weak and powerless. He buys the ingredients, follows the recipe, and voila! His hunger is temporarily pacified—all the more so when the meal is communal.
Eli and his older brother, Benjy, are both hungry in their own ways. Grown children of divorce, they’re still coping with a sense of abandonment. Their mother is technically present, but not really. Their dad is remarried and has two new sons. When the story begins, Eli’s mom is putting the family’s house on the market. “It’s a McLovely McMansion Jr.,” Eli says of the split-level home, and even though the town seems like a flat, sterile suburb where “women showed off new outfits, men showed off new wives,” it’s clear that Eli doesn’t want to abandon the house his father sweat and labored over during simpler times.
Of course, endings bring new beginnings, and Eli’s new beginning comes in the form of one Seymour Kahn, an aging, wheelchair-bound former actor who buys Eli’s house. Convenient, right? Who better to cure a spoiled Millennial of tech-poisoning than an analog-era old man who remembers when people really lived? But Kahn has his own pain, and he brings as much danger into the mix as he does relief, bonding with Eli by striking a tempting deal: he’ll dish out prescription drugs (Oxycontin, Viagra, and more) if Eli buys him weed. And with that, the bond is set.
Kahn—the great, complicated catalyst of Flatscreen—is easily the highlight of the novel. It’s his influence (drugs, sexual advice) that slingshots Eli out of his basement wasteland and into the real world—and that’s when life really starts kicking Eli’s ass. At this time of year, commencement speakers repeat aphorisms like, “Leap and the net will appear,” but when Eli leaps, he lands on an EMT stretcher, then on a hospital bed, and eventually on YouTube. He gets coked up, spaced out, punched repeatedly, rejected, and humiliated. It’s all fantastically crazy but also viciously true. After all, sometimes things work out, but sometimes when a person puts himself out there, he just gets stomped on, especially when he has really, really poor judgment. C’est la vie. Kahn is the figurative shot in the arm that gets him started, for better or worse. He means well, and he clearly loves Eli as a son—possibly even as more.
Since Kahn is the most profane, textured, vital, loving, crazy jerk in the novel, it’s really a shame he isn’t used more. Flatscreen is weighed down by so many characters, some of which are nuanced (like Eli’s brother Benjy, his dream-girl Jennifer, and Jennifer’s mother), but many of which are, well, flat. The jocks are dumb, the black girls are sassy, and the Red Sox fans are rowdy idiots (although they thankfully avoid a few wicked annoying Boston clichés.). Eli’s Sapphic crush wears a “Greek-goddess-style” dress while “serving heaping portions of fried tofu.” These all provide a few laughs, at least, but the druggie friends are just brain-draining.
Obviously, characters don’t need to be likable to be well-drawn, and stereotypes (while not my personal favorites) can work when they’re used wisely. It’s true that Eli is the media-influenced, unreliable narrator of Flatscreen, so, sure, we can expect a few stereotypical character descriptions; we’re seeing Eli’s world through his eyes. But Wilson serves up too much of the thin, grating characters and not enough of the richer, more compelling ones, potentially leaving readers with a dissatisfying feeling that doesn’t really serve the book. We spend too much time with Dan the drug dealer and his forgettable family, and we fill up on nonsensical, empty-calorie dialogue that other characters often respond to by asking, “What does that even mean?” It comes across as lazy writing that can’t be explained away with a pat, “Life is absurd.” It’s too easy, like taking shots as suburbia and after-school specials is easy. Wilson covers all of this with varying degrees of success. (I’ll admit, though, that when Wilson describes a driving school video, he kills it with perfect comic timing. When he’s on, he’s really, really on.)
The inconsistency creates some doubt about other parts of the story. At one point, Eli tries to console his recently dumped brother—who’s disconsolate in the bathtub—by bringing his laptop to the bathroom and playing, appropriately, “All Apologies” by Nirvana; Eli then mistakenly identifies the closing lyric as “All alone is all we are.” (Cobain actually sings, “All in all is all we are.”) While reading, I wondered if this was a sign of lazy research, or if it was a controlled, purposeful choice on the part of the author. (Or possibly a little of both?) Either way, the ambiguity of the reference put a snag in the scene for me, distracting from what’s generally a rueful, honest moment between brothers: Benjy self-consciously notes that this whole bathroom commiseration scene “is pretty gay”. Eli corrects, “Don’t be a homophobe.” Benjy replies, “Sorry,” and then, “Thanks,” before slipping his head under the water. Eli tells us, “I silently baptized my brother.”
In the final section, Eli suggests 19 possible timeworn endings for the book. He does this with all with the bravado of a smartass who’s seen it all (on film, anyway) and knows it all. The gimmick is clever, but it hurts the novel in two ways. First, by calling attention to the ending, it invites readers to recognize that the story’s barely gotten started and doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere. (I wrote in my margin near the conclusion, That’s it?) Second, the act of panning possible endings puts an awful lot of pressure on the actual ending to deliver. That’s not to say that the ending is bad, necessarily—it’s not!—but can it live up to expectations for originality? Personally, I think Wilson may have set the bar a little high for himself.
All things considered, Flatscreen does have a few uneven patches, but it’s got merits in spades, too. When it’s funny, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, and when it’s sad, it can make a reader feal soul-sick. It has moments of real beauty. The language is fluent and poetic—obviously, no one can deny Wilson’s ear for language—and while it may feel like an amalgamation of any number of burnout books and movies, it has a timely subject, an original voice, and a few great characters to set it apart from the rest. I look forward to Wilson’s next book.