• Review
By – February 15, 2012

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. 

Read Adam Wilson’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Moses and Hubris

Autumn in His Heart

Twit­ter Book Club

Read a tran­script from the June 19, 2012 Twit­ter Book Club with Adam Wilson

Book Trail­er

A Con­ver­sa­tion with Adam Wilson

by Joseph Win­kler

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?
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 nocon​ver​sa​tion​left​be​hind​.blogspot​.com.

Discussion Questions