The term solecism—an error in syntax; a minor infelicity; a violation of social protocol—was one of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Day selections in spring 2004, around the same time that Cassie Black (née Claire Stankowitcz) began considering a move to Brooklyn in earnest. The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for three years and in Iraq for one; a bedroom in Greenpoint was $600 a month; and the oldest millennials were galloping into adulthood. Cassie, about to graduate from Wellesley, heard people were moving to Brooklyn and decided she would, too. Not one for solecism of any kind, following is what Cassie always did. Mark Brumfeld, however, a Colgate alumnus and soft-boy mandolin player, would try to change that in the course of Daniel Torday’s Boomer1.
“Solecism” appears again and again in this book, where its widest possible meaning—doing things out of order—captures the conflict at this novel’s heart. Partly the (un)love story of Cassie and Mark, partly a chronicle of New York from post-9/11 to post-recession, Boomer1 is entirely a story about the generation that came of age in between, whose members will likely not live better than their parents. Or, to be unambiguous: This is a “millennial novel,” and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. For the millennial novel. For millennials being history, which we are now, officially.
In March, Pew Research Center declared that anyone “born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) will be considered a Millennial” henceforth “to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort,” emphasis added. While this new clarity heralded the welcome end of categorizing everyone under 40 as a millennial, it also insinuated that millennials were now an archive that was ready to be examined, finally. As if our individual histories—our data, our old online selves, our texts, our itinerant nudes—haven’t been at our fingertips, if not in the palms of our hands, for quite some time.
“Had any generation in the history of the world been so duped about the nature of time, been rendered so complacent by the appearance of control over perception?” asks Mark’s mother, Julia, in the novel. According to the millions of words published about millennials in the past decade, the obvious answer is no, and I was apprehensive that this book would be a long-form reiteration of that answer. To a certain extent, it is, yet Boomer1 tweaks recent history just enough to avoid being a draining re-litigation of events we’re still collectively processing. Though it returns to well-tread paths, Boomer1 is a refreshingly (if at times devastatingly) uncanny, funny, and clever retelling of the events that made millennials mad.
Arriving almost exactly seven years after the first Occupy Wall Street protests, Boomer1 reimagines that movement as a decentralized, dark-web-conspired wave of “generational domestic terrorism.” In this case, it’s not the 1 percent against the 99 percent, but baby boomers against millennials, the latter camp having been been radicalized by the video missives of angry, unemployed, and masked YouTuber “Isaac Abramson,” who is actually not a millennial but identifies as one. The unsubtly biblical name is the grandiose pseudonym Mark assumes upon leaving Brooklyn for Baltimore (and his parents’ basement) sometime in 2010; an ignominious goodbye-to-all-that is not what Mark had in mind when he arrived in New York in summer 2001.
He came to the city to be a Great American Writer, “marry a strong-minded woman and have strong-minded children and lead a strong-minded life.” Three years later, when Cassie arrives in Brooklyn, he is arguably on his way. An editorial assistant at a glossy men’s magazine, Mark also moonlights in a Brooklyn bluegrass band and is generically desirable enough for Cassie, who did not come to New York desiring to be any particular thing and who did not particularly desire men (she’s slept with mostly women). A cocktail waitress at the Chelsea Hotel and the bassist in a band, Cassie needs only to watch “old Polish women in their babushkas push their black wire carts home from the Pathmark” in her “ugly enough” corner of North Brooklyn to feel “she’d arrived,” full stop. Unequally ambitious and about six or seven years apart, Cassie and Mark share a musical background in bluegrass, which provides the pretext for their very early-mumblecore Brooklyn introduction.
Early in the book, both of their bands play a gig at a Williamsburg warehouse that “was pre-cancerous with artists’ lofts” where “bespectacled college grads milled around drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can and Miller High Life from the bottle.” A few weeks later, they reconnect after Cassie’s show at CBGB’s, which Mark, “an ironic-thrift-shop-T-shirted twenty-something-year-old-boy,” had seen advertised in the print Village Voice. “Did they have a CD? They didn’t, but they’d made a MySpace page where you could stream two tracks they’d recorded on Cassie’s iMac.” Torday’s prose is lapidary with such period details that range from authentic to ~authentic~. Often they’re deliciously precise subtweets aimed at Brooklyn or millennial stock characters (“Well, I work for a start-up but mainly I’m the editor of Czolgosz Quarterly”). A few other details, like the nod to PBR above, are Brooklyn as Told by Lana Del Rey circa 2011 calling cards that try a little too hard—which is what I think Torday intends. If this is a book about history, it’s also a book about people who have become caricatures of their own.
Cassie and Mark find themselves in the same bluegrass band, then in a relationship, and after several years that elapse in a few pages, in almost inverted professional places in a post-recession New York. Cassie has become a competent fact-checker at Us Weekly thanks to Mark’s network, and he has left journalism for a Ph.D. program in English, “so he had all the time in the world – to worry about what was ahead. The world wasn’t conforming to his ideas of what it should be.” Unsuccessful in the sclerotic academic job market, he comforts himself writing a 10,000-word review of an Emma Goldman biography for “the most prominent hipster intellectual journal in the country,” The Unified Theory. His contributor bio reads, “‘Mark Brumfeld is a writer living in Brooklyn,’ which seemed to Cassie a tautology, or at least a solecism.” (Cassie is the funniest character in the book.)
The story of the famed anarchist consumes Mark, compounding his long-simmering resentment for the baby boomer literati who just won’t retire and give their jobs to him. “They had and they had and they had, as if that was the very condition of their own existence,” Mark thinks, disgusted by the opulence of his unremarkable professor’s $4 million Joralemon Street townhome. Meanwhile, “his own generation had not. They, too, wanted plenty, but they did not have.” Angry and increasingly isolated, Mark begins to wear on the patient Cassie, who rekindles her romance with an old girlfriend, because at “least if she was with a woman, she would be not procreating while experiencing pleasure.” She threatens to leave him, and after he ambushes her with a desperate marriage proposal and a hideous, chocolate diamond and titanium ring (“It was everything she wouldn’t have picked”), she does, abandoning him at the table of a trendy restaurant in a gentrifying DUMBO.
Mark decamps to Baltimore shortly after his jilting. The first of his “Boomer Missives” appears on YouTube shortly after that. And shortly after that, he is spending entire days on dark web chat forums under the handle Boomer1, nourished by the “unerotic, unromantic space” so reminiscent of the “sausage-fests of parties he and his guy friends had in middle school” – spaces where even “the idea of Cassie…or any woman listening in…was ridiculous.” The solid straight line that connects these dots is the sexual and social rejection of a young, white man who believed he need only to show up for his due sex and success. It’s a clear citation of incel internet culture, one that casts doubt on the motivations of men who want to move fast and break things—even those like Mark who “learned in his academic life not to make heteronormative assumptions.”
Tellingly, it was an act of intergenerational male aggression—a fist fight Mark loses with his stock-market-playing former high school history teacher—that sparks his cuckolded tinder, leading him to make his first radical YouTube video. Bleeding and furious in his parents’ basement, in front of a poster of Jerry Garcia, he warns his elders: Retire or We’ll Retire You. Much to Mark’s surprise, his video strikes a nerve with his disaffected and precarious peers: Viral fame ensues and soon an anti-baby-boomer movement of “boom boomers” is born that’s more SHAC 7 than Occupy Wall Street.
Rather than mass protests, the “boomers” conduct a series of widespread “distributed denial-of-service” attacks against baby boomer symbols, like the AARP website—which is as ridiculous as Torday intends it be. Someone “threw a trash can through the windows in front of Terry Gross’s production studio.” In a stroke of millennial ingenuity, someone else “used a drone to spill pigs’ blood all over the roof of Stephen King’s Bangor home” (very ~millennial~ but still funny). Some of the rage is evidently misplaced:
Every night the news was filled with interviews with the name doppelgängers of boomer heroes whose home had been vandalized—every Robert Dillon and Jon Erving and Irving Johnson in America suffering for the sins of their homophonic namesakes, for the lack of attention to detail in the millennials who perpetrated them. In Baltimore alone a guy named Jonathan Watters had a series of pink lawn flamingos thrown through the bay window at the front of his house.
The confused identities of its targets reflect a more important confusion of identities at the source of the boom boomer movement—a movement that Mark inadvertently started but which appears to be set on finishing without him. After his first blistering videos go viral, his editor at The Unified Theory and another “hipster intellectual,” Regan, insist that he take them down to “erase the footprint” and “move all of this over to the Deep Web.” He complies and begins recording new missives behind the anonymity of a David Crosby mask.
Intended to protect him from becoming traceable, the tactic works a little too well, and rather than becoming a recognizable icon of disgruntled American youth, “Isaac Abramson” becomes a meme format. Soon, copycats are making versions of Boomer missives in their own basements, wearing their own David Crosby masks, with their own Jerry Garcia posters in the background tilted at slightly different angles. “The Boom Boom movement was supposed to be his Boom Boom movement,” Mark thinks, wondering how his scheme to claim his place in history has worked out for everyone else but him. As the movement grows, it swallows him entirely and shits him out, and the novel ends with him certainly gaining a place in history, but not the one he wanted.
The ambivalence of digital history—which can be gamed despite its democratizing potential, and which can abet social inequality as much as it can attenuate it—is one of the book’s more interesting moral concerns; Torday has written it in such a way to engage with its complexity. Boomer1 is a novel in 10 parts, each told from the perspective of one of its three protagonists: Cassie, Mark, and his mother, Julia. All three of them have a distinctly different relationship with the interminable memory of the internet, and by arranging their narratives contrapuntally (Mark’s missives are called “fugues”; the last section is titled “Counterpoint”), Torday engages with the ambiguities of being the first generation to be so immersed in its own history so constantly. What else, after all, should we ultimately make of social media, personal online brands, and the dopamine jackpot of going viral, other than a monetization of individual histories?
Cassie’s relationship with the internet is the most positive. After she leaves Mark and he begins his Boomer missives, she takes on the handsomely compensated job of Director of Research, Native Content Division at the thinly veiled BuzzFeed-dupe “RazorWire,” where she plays bocce and smokes freshly rolled American Spirits. Coincidentally, her workload increases considerably when Mark’s missives go viral, spawning a deluge of anarchist™ listicles and think pieces. In this way, ironically, Mark directly contributes to the meteoric rise of her own career as a sought-after editor of “content”—both advertorial and editorial, which she increasingly can’t distinguish. She doesn’t really care to try.
Cassie pivots to video and while editing what would become a career-defining viral smash of a clip, she wonders: “What did it do to her conception of time, to her sense of memory, spending her day manipulating time like this? Did writing, slowing and condensing the world into words, do the same? Cassie wasn’t sure,” but she does it anyway because it will accrue clicks and money and fame. She moves to San Francisco, where young “meme developers” adore her as “the Cassie Black.” The girl who came to New York as a follower leaves it as a leader, locked into a place in history—whatever that means anymore.
It’s difficult not to wonder what Torday’s attitude is toward Cassie—the text insinuates that she’s a sellout, a favored insult among Generation X, to whom Torday dedicated the book. Mark, however, is simply a man born in the wrong generation. Parts of this novel veer a little too close to sympathy for a type of white American man who’s been radicalized only because he wanted his life to be just a little easier than it is already. As Cassie’s former lover, Natalia, succinctly states: “Where the fuck are the Panthers Mark’s supporting? This boom boom thing sure seems white as fuck.”
Torday’s book is eerily prescient of the America we’ve struggled to reckon with since Nov. 9, 2016, and all the more unsettling even in spite of its clever humor: All of this writing was on the wall, but in the hyperdrive of digital history, we were moving too fast to see it. Only two years ago, social media was still vaguely and cheerfully “democratizing” instead of undermining democracy itself, and “leaning in” was what people were saying women had to do to be taken seriously. With or without the current situation, that former self-deceptive tech utopianism could have never lasted because nothing does, even for youth who’ve grown up with a sense of mastery over history. That’s the melancholy theme that runs through this book from beginning to end, which Torday focalizes through the sad character of Mark’s mother, Julia. Reflecting on her own childhood in suburban Philadelphia at the dawn of the postwar boom times, she recalls “the beginning of a period, an era, that appeared then to have no limit.”
A former Haight-Ashbury hippie and talented musician decommissioned by hearing loss, sexism and pregnancy, Julia reminds the reader that young people have always been young people, that men have always been perpetually too young for too long, and that the order of things is provisional and random. History has always moved too fast to betray that much of it is, in the end, accidental. The point seems to be that millennial rage, while merited, is nothing out of order. This generation may appear to have been especially duped about the nature of time, but this is a distinction of degree rather than kind.