The teenage and twenty-somethings who people Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever face many impediments to happiness, and principal among these is debilitating self-obsession. Taylor depicts a generation raised on video games and cable-news politics, a nation where alcohol abuse and sexual discord are the main rites of passage. There’s a sense of entitlement that clouds the vision of his characters and blurs the boundaries between sex and love, faith and religion, politics and art. And while there is some hope that pervades many of these stories, the sense that this hope can ever be rewarded is conspicuously absent. To these people youth is merely an aggregation of disappointment and failure. Even among the characters who more or less get what they want, it’s suggested that there are no real winners here. As the narrator in the story “Tetris” makes clear: “This game is designed to end, not to be beaten.”
Although this is his first published collection of short fiction, Justin Taylor has also published a book of poems, compiled an anthology of apocalypse-themed literature, and guest edited an issue of McSweeney’s in which he compiled the symposium “Come Back, Donald Barthelme.” Taylor is a thinker well engaged in post-modern literature, tied particularly close, one would think, to Barthelme. However, while Taylor’s work clearly owes a lot to Barthelme, Everything Here is at its best when veering off on a more distinctively original course, relying less on Barthelmean pastiche and more on traditional tropes. The stories longer in length and narrower in scope are the ones that shine the brightest, balancing cleverness and poignancy. Taylor certainly has a talent for linking potent images, through which his affinity for Barthelme shows, and he often indulges a sincere touch with common people and the tragedies of their lives. In stories such as “What Was Once All Yours” and “Somewhere I Have Heard This Before” and “A House in Our Arms” and “Tennessee,” Taylor is at his absolute finest.
In “Tennessee” we see a familiar trope combined with a modern twist—it’s the return of the prodigal son, but this version features a family of transplanted South Florida Jews, forced by layoffs into moving to a suburb of Nashville. This relocation allows for an exploration of identity struggle within a familiar and traditional structure. There’s a father who cleans compulsively to establish a sense of self-worth after losing his job, a brother who smokes cigarettes to punish his parents for migrating, and a narrator, Daniel, who struggles most of all to establish an identity within his family. As Daniel says early on, “We were Hannukah-and-lox Jews, not the Kashrut-and-Shabbos kind,” and being able to tactfully wield social symbols is an important skill he apparently lacks. After a night of drinking, Daniel is asked to take the virginity of his brother’s best friend Dara before she leaves on a trip to the Middle East—a request that reveals the anxieties of their historical moment as opposed to those of previous generations. “I don’t want to die a virgin,” Dara explains, revealing her eschatological fears to Daniel. “Like if I did get blown up on a bus or something. I’d have never even known what [sex] was like.” Unlike their grandparents, this generation of Jews isn’t afraid of dying in the Holocaust or a Pogrom—they fear car bombs and terrorist attacks. By the end, the plot anxieties of “Tennessee” aren’t really resolved, but the philosophical points are at least connected by the impending sexual act, exemplifying how the fear of apocalypse is passed on.
Most of Taylor’s characters are unremarkable, the kind of people who serve as colorful footnotes to the lives of high-achievers. And while Todd, the main character of “A House in Our Arms,” isn’t all that noteworthy himself—an apathetic hedge fund worker who falls asleep reading New Yorker articles—he does manage to find himself in a love triangle with a girl he knows from college and a man he meets at a gallery opening. Leah is stunning, bisexual, and an aspiring artist who talks about getting her MFA as if she plans on “dropping by the school to pick up something she left there, maybe a coat.” On the other hand, Richard is a cosmopolitan Manhattanite and seems to genuinely care for Todd. You get the feeling that Todd has a good thing going with Richard, but he’s too confused by his relationship with Leah to see that his life would be better without her. “I no longer think of Leah as the love of my life,” he says, “but I do still sometimes think we might make each other the happiest. It would be more like teaming up than being married.” And Todd and Leah would the kind of well-matched couple envied by their friends if it wasn’t for the one complication keeping them apart: that Leah doesn’t love him. So Todd is drawn to the older man who pursues him, craving “the undivided affection Richard gives me on our nights together.” We see here that relationships usually aren’t about finding a match or being the envy of others. It all comes down to being loved in the end. But, of course, Todd is unable to realize this, overcome by his sense of entitlement. He holds out for the edgy and sensuous woman—as opposed to the caring and intelligent man—and he’s young enough to believe that if he just hangs around long enough, she’ll eventually love him back.
In “A House in Our Arms,” Todd reads a selection of Frank O’Hara poetry that exposes what is perhaps the major theme of this collection—“the unrecapturable nostalgia for nostalgia / for a life I might have hated, thus mourned.” In Todd’s recognition of the love he’ll never have with Leah—and more importantly, of what he’s lost with Richard—the essence of Everything Here is laid bare. The growing pains these characters endure is not so painful in and of themselves, but it’s in the act of thinking about growing older—in being nostalgic for the present—through which they place themselves within the world at large.
The sixteen stories that make up Everything Here are generally short, most of them coming in under ten pages, and for this reason I wondered how they would work as a collection. The initial stories, and the final few for that matter, are too pedantic, they try too hard to be big, like “a protest sign, or long-winded bumper sticker,” to quote the collection’s final story. And more often than not they cut off before things get really complicated. Like “Tennessee,” many just stop without really ending. In terms of plot and theme, there are a bunch of loose ends, which puts a good deal of pressure on the proceeding stories to fill in the gaps left by their predecessors. There’s a recklessness in how these stories are told and in the way they jump from one to another, a speed that borders on daring. It would have been nice to see some of them linger a while longer in their moments of uncertainty before rushing off to the next scenario, but the book’s structure is fitting in other ways too. Taylor doesn’t provide us with many answers; he presents a scenario, provides an image, raises the stakes and then gets out, something Barthelme was a master at. And perhaps this is where their greatest similarity lies, in that many of these stories demand to be read multiple times, often functioning more like poetry than fiction, although they aren’t really prose-poems. It’s in these second and third readings that the broader significance of the work emerges, where we find what vital goods simmer under the surface.