Monday, January 04, 2010

When Growing-Up Is NOT "The Bomb"

It's been a while since I've recommended a book on this blog, the last one being Junot Diaz's tragic and beautiful The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Part of the reason for the absence of good fiction here is because I went through a bit of a literary drought recently, reading several books that struck me as just, well, mediocre. (Among the ho-hums in the past few months: Don DeLillo's Falling Man, Richard Price's Lush Life, Philip Roth's Everyman, and David Ambrose's The Man Who Turned Into Himself. None of them bad really, just nothing to write home-- or on this blog-- about.) So, I was pleased to have been given cause to declare the end of the drought upon finishing Marshall Boswell's Alternative Atlanta, a kind of 30-something's coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of 1996 Atlanta, when that city hosted the Olympics... and, you might recall, somebody set off a bomb.

[Full disclosure: Boswell is a friend and colleague of mine. But as friends and colleagues of mine near and far can attest, that fact alone doesn't win anyone any favors when it comes to my evaluating their work. That is to say, the favor expressed in this review is not derivative of my knowing the author in advance.]

First, let me say that Boswell couldn't have embedded his protagonist (Gerald Brinkman) in a more perfect milieu. Because we readers all know that a bomb went off at the Atlanta Olympics, and because we all know that there's no way it's not going to go off in the story somewhere, the novel moves through the paces of Brinkman's bildungsroman carefully holding in suspense the expectation that something momentous, and possibly something terrible, is about to happen. Of course, that feeling is a marker of all good bildungsroman stories, I suppose, or at least all of them that manage to cultivate real interest in the protagonist. But given the thoroughly non-interesting character of Brinkman, as Boswell initially presents him anyway, the Atlanta background is an especially clever device. As one of Brinkman's (and, I suspect, Boswell's) heroes, John Lennon, once said: "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Sometimes, as is the case with the protagonist in Alternative Atlanta, life is what happens when you're avoiding making plans at all.

Brinkman is the archetype of a thirty-something underachiever. He works at a job that he is (and thinks he is) better than. He dodges filial, familial and romantic relationships with a kind of haphazardness that is (and he knows is) lazily pathological. He invests the lion's share of his time and attention in pop culture and alternative-music-scene obsessions that are (and he secretly fears are) indications of his abiding adolescence. He misses too many appointments, he sleeps too late, he smokes too much pot, he barely cleans his meager hovel of an apartment, he intentionally overlooks social trangressions like his mismatched socks, his wrinkled shirts, his otherwise disheveled presentation, his un-returned phone calls. He is overeducated and undermotivated. He is that guy. And he needs to get his sh*t together.

What Boswell captures so nicely in Brinkman's story is something that is, inviolably, a fundamental law of one's thirties: it's time to get your sh*t together. It's the time when one faces, with more or less acceptance, that one is an adult. It's the time when friends (some of them exes) get married, have kids, find success. It's the time when parents begin to show their age, slow down, get sick, need their (adult) children. It's the time to slip on the garments of a semi-stable identity, to write the concluding paragraphs to the finding-oneself story of one's twenties. Or, at least, it's the time that we are habituated to believe that all of those things should happen. Only for Brinkman, like for many of us who feel like we just woke up one day to find we were there, that project of growing-up doesn't look so easy, or so interesting.

Because Alternative Atlanta includes several plot-twists, I don't want to give away any spoilers. So I'll just say that Brinkman's journey through the minefield of his life that summer in 1996 is wrought with both unexpected peril and unexpected joy. And for all his attempts to lay the filter of his truncated graduate school education on top of it-- Heidegger, Derrida, and other so-called "postmodern" references abound-- it is an utterly familiar, utterly common, and (to use Nietzsche's phrase) utterly human-all-too human life. Boswell compellingly captures the hit-or-miss project of meaning-making, of becoming-a-subject, of fashioning something solid and enduring out of the transient, elusive and ambiguous vicissitudes of a human life. And that is why, despite all of his feigned disinterest, we can find Brinkman so interesting nonetheless.

One last thing: the epigraph to Boswell's novel is a quote from Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which The Tragic Dane speculates "If I am able to apprehend God, objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith." As far as I can tell, that's pretty much the last mention of God in the text. Like the Olympic bomb, I read much of the novel waiting for God to show up as well. But this is not, in the end, a novel about God or the bomb or any of the other myriad "events" that constitute the elements of Brinkman's summer in Atlanta. It's a story about what those things mean, or don't mean, and how the determination of meaning in the existential sense-- which is the only sense that really matters, isn't it?-- is not a science and cannot ever give us objective value. For that, I would put Boswell squarely in the camp of writers (like Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace and, well, Kierkegaard) who dare to undertake the "big" questions by traversing the "small" lives and events that make those questions matter. It's an "alternative" route to (some kind of) Truth, to be sure, but sometimes you have to get off the highway to see what there is to be seen.

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