At the turn of the 20th century, an attitude set in among European intellectuals, an overwhelming feeling that everything being done in the name of “modernity” was absurd. Humanity was imprisoning itself in ever more elaborate systems and social structures: the empire-building, warmongering, and bureaucratic administration of everyday life that had defined the previous century were just futile attempts to create meaning in an indifferent universe. As “progress” marched on, civilization seemed poised to self-destruct, and writers and artists started making work that seized on this paradox.
In The Made-Up Man, Joseph Scapellato sets out to update this absurdist tradition for the present. As its Kafkaesque title suggests, The Made-Up Man is a story about an individual in conflict with the nameless, faceless forces that determine the conditions of his existence. Our narrator is Stanley, a working-class Polish-American millennial from Chicago, who gets by on odd jobs at a construction site and blows off steam by getting rowdy at the bar with his townie friends. He’s also an aspiring academic pursuing his Ph.D. in anthropology at Northwestern University, who likes to chat about performance theory with his artsy friends. Indeed, Stanley contains multitudes, and as a quarter-life crisis sets in, he starts lashing out in every which way: he asks a way-too-cool girlfriend to marry him, he drinks and gets into fights, and he agrees to participate in a diffuse and possibly dangerous art performance called “The Made-Up Man”, orchestrated by a group of Polish Dadaists.
Why is Stanley so unhappy? It seems that he can’t decide which version of himself he wants to be. The great, absurd double bind of the 21st century is the overabundance of choice, and Stan suffers from a kind of identity Fear Of Missing Out. Can he be both a working-class tough and a brainy hipster? How can he take part in a Dadaist performance-art project and at the same time be deeply skeptical of performance art and Dadaism? The alternate title for Kafka’s posthumously published Amerika was The Man Who Disappeared, and like in that novel, America — or, the idea of America — plays an important role in The Made-Up Man. Stan’s immigrant ancestry tells him that here, in this country, he can be whoever he wants to be — a paralyzing thought when you’re riddled with self-doubt. As one of Scapellato’s characters observes, “‘This Is How I Imagine America’ is the subject of ‘America'” (58); but America has swallowed many imaginations whole.
Whereas Kafka’s protagonists tend to be prismic everymen refracting their milieus, Scapellato’s Stanley remains the focus of the story. We learn all about his ex, an actress named T who, like the crossbar of her single-letter name, represents all the sturdiness and stability that Stanley lacks. She’s his emotional crutch, and thus a narrative crutch for the book: on her rests the potential for Stan’s change and his redemption. At one point, she is described as a “a woman-shaped wound sliced into space-time”, which is to say she makes an impression (63). She’s confident and level headed, and although she makes a living playing other people on stage, she has no problem inhabiting an identity that’s all her own.
After T rejects Stan, he travels to Prague — another nod to Kafka — to house-sit for his mysterious uncle, the mastermind behind the happening called “The Made-Up Man”, which it turns out is already in full swing. At all hours of the day, friends of his uncle, exiled performance artists from Poland, knock on his apartment door or physically accost Stan in the street, sometimes dressed as people from Stan’s past. Suddenly, T’s best friend, a backpacking blowhard named Manny, shows up. Like T, Manny is another foil for Stanley, and like T, he has a symbolically important name: he is “many men”, having assembled a sense of self by cherry-picking traits from others. He feigns familiarity with local customs and recites phrases in Czech, Italian, and German. Manny is a slippery character, and as we start to wonder what he’s doing there, so does Stan. Might Manny be another player in the performance?
Stanley spirals out as he tries to figure out the exact boundaries of the “Made-Up Man” and his participation in it. At times, Stan’s crisis can be difficult to grasp, tied up as it is with one of Scapellato’s headier concerns; that is, the way that external forces shape and are shaped by a sense of personal determination. The Polish performance artists are laugh-out-loud funny as they upend Stan’s world, but in a sentimental twist, we come to realize that they’re here to teach Stan a lesson. In rendering his most avant-garde characters as members of a kind of self-help conspiracy, Scapellato offers not an update but a revision of absurdism, and as such, many social phenomena ripe for satire get off easy. There are so many circles-within-circles that would bind Stan in a Kafka-esque way — graduate school, Chicago gentrification, artsy tourism to Prague — none of which are as important as his quintessentially American struggle to be himself.
While we get the sense that Stanley is a pretty taciturn guy, his “noir” narration strains credibility at times. Like a Hemingway character or Chandler’s Marlowe, Stan speaks about depression in hard-boiled terms — “the space at the center of myself that wasn’t me” (9) — that feel incongruous with our present moment. We have more language than ever for discussing depression and anxiety, and it’s hard to believe that a PhD student would have an identity crisis but be unable to name it.
The Made-Up Man is a well-plotted and frequently funny novel. But by the end, you might wish that Scapellato had given freer rein to the quirkier elements of his narrative. The demented Dada energy gets wrangled up and fitted into the plot, and the result is a novel that, like its protagonist, is keeping it all together of the sake of keeping it together, when what it wants to do is run amok.