[25 June 2007]
Attention. Deficit. Disorder. is an astute portrait of the generation born in the ‘70s, incubated by a liberal arts education in the ‘90s, and set adrift on the comparatively choppy sea of the real world by the end of the millennium. Wayne Fencer, Brad Listi’s protagonist, is a Gen X Everyman, resembling, in his wandering world view and uncertain actions, so many late- ‘20s / early 30-something men.
Affable but slightly aloof, he is noncommittal, restless, and admittedly directionless. He seeks, but is not entirely convinced of what he is looking for and pitches forward into adventures almost accidentally, making a life out of what comes to him. It is Fencer and his quest for meaning, his indecisive complexity, and aimless wonder that make this book significant to contemporary literature, even to cultural studies.
Fencer begins a peripatetic journey through the United States after the suicide of an ex-girlfriend, something for which he feels an uncomfortable sense of responsibility. At her wake, Fencer learns that Amanda had an abortion while they were dating. Fencer, whose feelings were too uncertain to become entangled in a relationship at the outset of his undergraduate career, strung Amanda along for some time before each of them finally understood his true feelings, or lack thereof.
Even though Amanda is not wholly defined in Fencer’s monologue, Listi conveys her quiet, still hopeful anxiety flawlessly. Even Fencer’s account of their relationship, which lasted a year, seems so casual as to be no more than a passing life experience, one port in a sea where the horizon is phenomenally broad. The reader can see Amanda hanging on quietly, brows raised and eyes glistening, as Fencer waffles and finally lets go.
Fencer’s name calls to mind the irresolute nature of being ‘on the fence’ (something true to Wayne’s temperament), as well as suggests imposed restrictions; however Fencer is entirely free. Certainly his actions contribute to perceived limitations for Amanda, not to mention the literal boundaries he places around his mentally handicapped uncle, whom he capriciously drags into a spelunking expedition in one passing incident. After receiving his education, he gains, through an unusually favorable and totally chance foray into day-trading during the dot-com boom, the wherewithal to live for a year doing whatever he wishes. And so he hits the road to explore, to some degree like Jack Kerouac and even more like Lee Klein’s ‘egotourist’ in Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World.
Listi’s narrative is Odysseian but not epic. It follows the main character from San Francisco to Indianapolis, through Cuba, up the Appalachian Trail, and into Nevada with various destinations in-between. But while Fencer attempts to find answers to life’s meaning (and while his encounters have the power to resonate with readers), he is not a conventional hero: there are no feats of strength or fortitude to celebrate and there is no real moral to be gleaned from the pages. The book is simply the chronologically-measured journey of one man, whose travel experiences change his location but not necessarily his mind. He emerges from his wanderings no more decisive or dependable than when he set out, making his story one of geographical change accompanied by a conspicuously static world view.
But perhaps this is the point of the book. With the title Attention. Deficit. Disorder., Listi tacitly alludes to his character’s impulsive peregrinations. He ostensibly employs the title’s full-stop-per-word punctuation to underscore Fencer’s lack of sustained effort and frequently unpredictable actions. By extension, the title is also an incisive observation on contemporary culture as a whole, particularly in the US.
While Western lifestyles seem to permit the greatest level of personal freedom, they also foster a culture of rootless transience, inconstancy, even emotional famine. While much of the middle and upper classes have the means and mobility to go almost anywhere and reinvent themselves by way of different activities and careers, many remain unfulfilled, disconnected, sometimes identity-less. And despite the fact that we Westerners live in an era of media and information saturation (a subject Listi also broaches with his persistent inclusion of ancillary facts, definitions, and data), we know little more (perhaps even less) about the meaning of life or the mysteries of existence than previous generations.
In the subjects Fencer chooses not to explore—in his hasty right turns and emotion-staunching segues, in his factoid-packed narrative intermissions—Listi offers us a window into Fencer’s explicitly individual disposition. He seems to process the more difficult details of Amanda’s suicide by discussing, in successive mini-chapters, such topics as diverse cultural burial rituals, a near accident he once witnessed, an account of his breakup with Amanda, and a brief rundown of various nations’ suicide rates and relevant social attitudes. Later in the book, he includes other seemingly random informational tidbits, like mojito recipes, movie descriptions, and NYSE ticker symbols.
Sometimes the inclusions distract by interrupting the narrative flow. But again, these data-rich non-sequiturs are a reminder that we live in the Information Age. They differ little from the pop-ups, moving ads, newsbreaks, and sound bytes invading our everyday experience. While a relatively novel literary device, they are a means to representing contemporary reality. And they seem to imply that, while Fencer may know a great many details about the world, he has very little genuine understanding of life’s bigger picture. He can boast knowledge, but he remains naïve.
As for the book’s title, its tripartite structure is revealing because, in its descriptive embrace, it holds yet another implied statement about contemporary culture. ‘Attention’, ‘deficit’, and ‘disorder’ could very well serve as three of this epoch’s defining terms. We emulate renegade icons to capture attention because we are encouraged by commercial media to express our individuality (while also being reminded of our inevitable anonymity). We live in an age of credit saturation and binge spending on both governmental and individual levels, making deficit a primary term in federal and civil lexicons. As for the term disorder… observe its regular, often gleeful exposure; note its frequent use as self-definition, its broadening acceptance; the detailed and multifarious treatment plans in the ever-expanding Physicians’ Desk Reference, all of which demonstrate that we Americans are a culture captivated by disorders. It has become a way of making allowances for (and sometimes explaining away) human deficiencies and strange behavior that, a generation ago, would have been described simply as ‘troubled’ or ‘odd’. Disorders are the taxonomy of, simultaneously, human mystery and human misery.
Uncertainty like Fencer’s is the condition of the postmodern protagonist. The effective end of the morally edifying all-good / all-bad character was marked around the end of the ‘60s. In conscious opposition to the unassailable one-dimensional figures in the socio-political propaganda of the ‘40s and ‘50s, most characters appearing after ‘70 have angles and edges, qualms and complications that make them fallible, believable, perhaps more enlightening than their ethically pristine counterparts. And true to the postmodern character die-cast, Fencer subscribes to no absolutes. More importantly, he is intricately, almost explicitly human. This story of personal anomie and quasi-philosophical musings is an elevation of the individual, making Listi’s novel a paragon of humanism—served up postmodern style.