Debut author Adam Wilson’s slacker novel Flatscreen tells the story of Eli Schwartz, a jobless 20-year-old, months out of high school and still living in the basement of his mother’s house. Set in a secular Jewish suburban town in Massachusetts, Eli’s story is chock full of teenage angst, from navigating his town’s complicated social scene, to awkward sexual encounters, and dealing with his parents’ divorce and older brother’s success. At times staggeringly dark, and at others incredibly graphic, the novel is an emotional roller coaster funny enough to have you in fits of laughter. As Eli drifts through his life of drug addiction and alcoholism, he finds solace in the friendship of a fellow outcast, handicapped ex-actor Seymour Khan. With sex-addicted Khan as a moral guide, both of their lives spiral deeper into depravity.
Besides being riddled with awkward moments, drug induced hazes, and stressful family gatherings, Flatscreen is interspersed with vignettes from Eli’s mind that offer an even deeper understanding of his psyche. These include imaginary scenarios that Eli plays out in his head, a list of sexual experiences, flashbacks, and many others.
Wilsons’s sharp, heartrending prose is captivating and comically laced, and an ultimately satisfying read.
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Twitter Book ClubRead a transcript from the June 19, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Adam Wilson
Adam Wilson is a master of many trades, in a way. A teacher at NYU, an accomplished screen writer of a humorous trailer, an editor and co-founder at the Faster Times, a short story writer of import (see his Paris Review story), a onetime book-clerk, and now a critically acclaimed novelist. Here, we sit down with the busy but always generous, funny, and intelligent Wilson to discuss his fantastic debut novel, Flatscreen.
Joseph Winkler: My first reaction to the book, besides unconditional love, was a worry that the label being attached to the book (“A slacker novel to end all slacker novels”) would limit how the book would be received. Did you worry about that?
Adam Wilson: I definitely see your point, but that was a marketing tool, and hopefully an effective one. Look, it is in the tradition of a slacker novel, whatever that is, but part of the book is an attempt to create a book that is self-aware of the tropes that it is falling into and then fight against them. I think that for most people who read the book, none of the external stuff will matter, be it the book trailer or the blurbs.
JW: Even though you place yourself within a specific tradition of what might be easily categorized as a slacker, Eli, the protagonist, harbors no pretensions to living a good life. He easily sees his pain, and doesn't pretend to hide his despair. This is very different than this whole tradition of slackers, no?
AW: I thought a lot about that, and that felt very contemporary, this character who has seen enough movies to know what all the clichés are, but doesn't know enough to avoid them. And part of that problem is that he has no models or reference outside of his broken family or the TV and movies. He’s trying to understand how to live, how to be a person; he has all these references that are clichés, and he’s not sure if American life is anything other than an imitation of these clichés. He has a feeling that there might be something else, which he thinks he sees in Kahn, but he’s not sure. That’s part of his main struggle.
JW: Your book lacks what people would expect of a slacker novel, mainly a huge, life changing epiphany. Instead we see, at best, small changes, and in particular, I am thinking of the exchange between Eli and his mother in the hospital...
AW: I was starting to feel that Eli was coming off as very claustrophobic, stuck in his room and head. He’s very self-centered; he has trouble with empathy, and has trouble imagining people as people, outside of how they treat him. His mother gets a bad rap from him throughout the book, we get a caricature of her as a drunken mess, and what I wanted in this hospital scene, where she gets a monologue, and he can't interrupt, was for the reader to see that he's tricked us, that they didn't get the full picture, and that this person is much more complicated. People have complained that the character doesn't change or grow. I don't think it's true, he grows in small increments, and for me this was a huge moment, that he then gives his mother a name, and she's her own human being to him.
JW: I’m sure you noticed, but no one in the book is actually happy. In a sense, the book feels stuck in a post-modern trap of “been there seen that,” and it doesn’t work. Narratives, meta-narratives that promise to provide answers do not work, so where do we go from here?
AW: That is sort of the main question. I think in some ways Eli’s struggle was a very similar struggle for me as a writer, to write a new coming-of-age story in a way that hadn't been done before. I struggled with creating my own story and offering a new take on Jewish suburbia, because how could you write about it after Philip Roth? Roth, however, didn't have internet porn, and didn’t grow up engorged on TV and culture like my generation. I was very conscious about that in writing the book.
JW: The Jewish aspects in the book are not prominent, but ambient. What role does Judaism play in the book?
AW: Judaism is used in the beginning of the novel to set up the overall spiritual void in Eli’s life, even though it’s not the only place that hasn’t provided him meaning. The Jewish components show that he is searching for something grand and poetically vague, something outside of himself. The moments help the reader to understand where he is coming from, that his family and community use religion as social glue. His experience with religion is something impure, and more tied to money and decadence than spiritual fulfillment, and it’s this ugliness that repels him.
I purposefully wanted Eli to meet Kahn for the second time at the synagogue, because I wanted Kahn to offer something mystical to Eli, something this form of Judaism couldn’t provide. Kahn believes in things, deep things, even if these things don’t necessarily conform with what’s politically correct or appropriate; however, these are the things that Eli can believe in.
JW: Do you see Eli’s existential issues, or perhaps dare I say angst as endemic or even unique to our generation?
AW: Well, no and yes. I wrote this article about my favorite literary slackers which includes Jesus and Hamlet, so it's not that different. Most people don't have pity for existential situation and a lot of the critique against the book is that Eli is just have another whiny rich kid, but I think he knows that, and that's the predicament for the writer too. I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, and didn't have some exciting or tragic story to write a memoir about. Flatscreen is reflective of my own experience, and I think there are other people who relate to it. For me, it's not about a rich kid whining about his life, rather there is a problem that defies class: the inability to connect. What was interesting to me and felt quite new was this idea that Eli's family is falling apart, and, in contemporary America, in a country that has made a lot of changes from electing a black president to legalizing gay marriage, we've seen that the nuclear family has largely failed, and we are seeing hope in new type of connections. It might not be hopeful for Eli, but he sees ad hoc families constructed from various parts, races, and sexualities, he sees that you not only can build your own family, but that you have to in order to survive. I think at the end of the book there is some hope; Eli and his brother are a family, even if his parents are checked out.
JW: Did you think about the fact that you write a book about loneliness, but in essence it’s a book that attempts to alleviate that loneliness in other people?
AW: That’s a very David Foster Wallace idea right there, the whole idea of literature as alleviating loneliness, which I totally buy into. All literature, and art, really is a form of a communication, meaning, that there is something that I want to explain, or represent, or to express, that I can't just tell you. For example, take Rothko’s paintings: they exist because plain language can't represent what this painting represents, something far more complex, poetic, and vague that you can’t simply say from one person to another. Books are like that, as well, but in some ways even more intimate.
Even though they make thousands of copies, it’s just you and the author, and the book literally shields your face. My hope was that this book would appeal to a wide audience, but I am also aware that there might be a specific audience that it might appeal to or one I wanted to appeal to.
JW: Your book, both in style and content, makes the contention that so much of our lives is infused by TV, movies, and the Internet to the extent that it creates a paucity of imagination. In a sense, these cultural stories and outlets become our own personal memories and narratives that trap us...
AW: Yes. That was certainly the idea. I was very interested in a character who wasn’t really educated in the classical way, but at the same time has an amazing depth of knowledge from TV and the Internet. I wanted to incorporate this idea that even with access to so much information from these sources Eli is, of course, still missing a lot. He has no real understanding of human connection, although he has these false narratives of how human relations should go.
JW: In terms of style, Eli’s voice seems wholly new. He speaks in staccato like phrases, without pronouns, in the style of tweets, sound bites, and Facebook statuses. Did you have trouble creating this voice?
AW: I had the most trouble with it being consistent throughout the book, which took me years to iron out, and sometimes I was reading Virginia Woolf, and sometimes I was reading Lydia Davis, or reading War and Peace or Infinite Jest while I was writing the book. I also read a million blogs. All of those things contributed to the voice.
JW: There are many stylistic novelties in your book. One that comes to mind is that you list certain facts about characters instead of providing backstory. This seemed to work really well because they allowed for a slower pace and a meditative space, not just because they are perfect details or character sketches. They allow space to think…
AW: Well, because the voice of Eli is always running, I was looking to allow the reader to take a breath and to punctuate the other sections. I was also trying to figure out a way to convey certain information without getting bogged down in back story, or getting bogged down in a character that was just thinking. There was an earlier draft that was one-hundred pages longer, which included Eli thinking about his father's childhood, and it felt slow to me, and the story wasn't moving quickly enough. I realized the character should be, and would be, thinking in short bursts, and it allowed me more creativity to create ideas like the surreal recipes, and the movie endings. Those were the most fun chapters to write.
JW: In that vein, you cleverly have Eli imagine many different endings to his life through the prism of how it would play out in different movies from distinct studios. What were you trying to accomplish there?
AW: Literally the character is trying to imagine what he will do with his life, but his imagination has been compromised, because he can only imagine cheesy clichés. Yet, the consequent chapters bury the previous possible endings. The great trope of all these types of movies or books is that at the end the guy gets into his car and drives into a sunset, and we know he's going to be okay. I knew I couldn’t follow that formula, but what I could do was think of all the endings I couldn’t do. I wanted to have this character defy these endings.
Joseph Winkler is a freelance writer living in New York City. He writes for Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Huffington Post, Jewcy, and other sites. While not writing, Joe is getting a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support his extravagant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashedly babysits. Check out his blog at noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com.
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