The Short Version: Eli Schwartz is overweight and undermotivated. He hangs out in his mom’s basement – or other people’s basements – doing drugs, maybe having sex, probably just wandering around wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do… Then he meets Seymour Kahn, a paraplegic septuagenarian, and finds himself headed further down this rabbit hole of drugs and ennui… before maybe, just maybe, finding his way out.
The Review: A big shoutout to the fine folks at Harper Perennial for sending this to me to review. I’m sure they can’t’ve imagined it would come along at the perfect time but hey – I sure appreciate it regardless!
The books is, as Tom Perrotta blurbs, “the slacker novel to end all slacker novels.”. Seriously, I don’t see where the genre could – or should – go after this. It is a perfect prescription to fight any feelings of self-doubt you may be experiencing because Eli, while funny and oddly charming, is truly a waste. He’s got interesting talents – he’s quite a cook, it turns out – but he simply has no motivation to use any of them. He doesn’t go to college, he doesn’t have a job, he just sits… And smokes…
It’s hard to engage a reader when your protagonist is a lazy and disaffected schlub. This is just a fact of literature and Wilson seems to know it. No matter how infuriating a reader might find lazy bums like Eli, you find yourself liking him. He’s funny (a fact he regularly questions should someone mention it) and he’s clearly a good soul – he’s just lost. And we can all associate with that. Not the high-caliber lost, the lost where you wander broken and contemplative until you’ve written some existentialist philosophy. Just the everyday lost that we sometimes feel when things aren’t quite going the way we expected. When we’re wondering if we’ve chosen the right path or made the right decisions. When we just want to go home – really go home, to the house where we grew up and to actually just be six years old again. It’s that sort of lost. Only most people manage to shake it off pretty quickly. Eli, on the other hand, does not – and becomes all the more fascinating for it.
On the flipside, we have Kahn. A character who is decidedly more ‘interesting’ by any regular standard. And yet, he’s far less engaging of a character than Eli. I don’t even entirely know how to explain it. Maybe it’s because I associate (especially in this tenuous twentysomething moment I’ve reached) with Eli’s listlessness, maybe it’s because I’m skeeved out by Kahn… but while he is a more roundly defined character, he is a less engaging one. Eli’s instability and near-hopelessness is what makes him so engaging, I think. This is why I agree that this is the slacker novel to end all slacker novels: once you’ve made the slacker engaging without sacrificing any of his slackerness (and let’s be honest, most slacker novels do. The ‘hero’ has some quirk or feature that makes him interesting and we just pretend he’s plain and ordinary), how can you get any better? It is the ultimate accomplishment in slacker literature. I cannot believe I actually just typed that sentence.
The plot is surprisingly non-existent, considering how quickly I ripped through the book. Eli crashes around town on various combinations of drugs, manages to get himself into a few relationships with various individuals, ruins most of them. His brother has his own problems, so does his mom. His dad is remarried and certainly lacks any real potency as a father figure. The betrayal by Kahn in the end comes as a bit of a shock – but it also reminds Eli that a surrogate father figure has even less impetus to be a father figure than one’s real father. Actually, if I had one bone to pick with the book, it’s the moment of Eli discovering the betrayal. It was entirely unsurprising that things didn’t quite work out for Eli (I’m trying to dance around spoilers here because I was genuinely rooting for him) but I thought it was a bit of a cop-out, a bit of a coincidence that things didn’t work out because Kahn swooped in. Of course, our narrator is somewhat unreliable – he’s quite often fucked up on a considerable cocktail of drugs – and so perhaps there was a clue that a more eagle-eyed reader would’ve picked up on. Perhaps in that confrontation at the party, there was a hint about Kahn’s involvement. But I missed it if there was and so I was disappointed to find that he was the root of all evil here.
Anyway, that was my biggest problem with the book. The interjections of movie titles was a bit odd – it felt like a quirk left over from an earlier draft, where it played more of a role – but I suppose in the end (as Eli starts to posit various cookie-cutter film endings for his story), it all made sense. Hell, the ending we get is in fact a riff off of one of these movie endings that Eli rolls his eyes about. But there was also a certain lack of cohesion to the whole film quirk. It felt appended at times and downright shoehorned in at others. It also worked quite well quite often, so I say this more as an observation than a critique: it was curious, a tick somewhat akin to Greg Olear’s pop culture references. It doesn’t hurt the book but it also feels sometimes like an affectation.
Oh and did I mention the book is funny as hell? It is. It’s hilarious. Laugh-out-loud funny, quite often. I mean, if you don’t find stoner humor funny, it might be less amusing. But there are also some really sharp “Desperate Housewives”-type social satire bits that really nail what it’s like in the second decade of the 21st Century in suburbia. Did our parents – our forefathers – our founders ever imagine that this is what the world would look like today? I hope they’re laughing too
Rating: 5 out of 5. I’m writing this review from my parents’ house, where I grew up, in suburbia PA. I finished the book on the train from New York last night and it’s a unique blend of good book and good circumstances that brings me to be considering it so deeply. It reminds me, in some ways, of a parallel tale to Garden State: twentysomethings in suburbia, wondering what this life is supposed to be. Still doing drugs, still going to parties, still hanging out with the same people… but where the film was the one-who-left returning, this is the one-who-stayed watching people come back. College friends come home but he’s still there. I fully admit that I was terrified to leave home for college – and I was terrified to move to New York. There’s a part of me that could easily have stayed home. Been comfortable. Read books, watched movies, stayed in suburbia and that would’ve been that. But reading Flatscreen only proved to me that I did make the right choice. That’s an odd recommendation for the book, I suppose, but I hope it explains the x-factor that made this book perhaps a little better than the sum of its parts.