Justin Taylor has been called “a master of the modern snapshot,” and in his new collection of short stories, Flings, he lives up to the label. That’s good news and bad news.
Taylor, who previously published the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, made a bold pronouncement on the eve of his new collection’s publication: “I don’t want to always write stories about the same kind of disaffected, angsty, youngish dude.”
At this he has succeeded, mightily. Flings has its share of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes — those generic characters we’ve come to expect from youngish Brooklyn writers like Taylor — but to his great credit he has stretched himself in these new stories. In “Carol, Alone,” for example, we follow a grieving widow through her robotic daily routines in a middling south Florida retirement community. It’s told in the first person, which is one of Taylor’s strongest suits, but unfortunately it’s also told in the present tense, which is one of his weakest tics. Yet the story gets at something deep about the nature of grief. Here’s the insomniac widow, Carol, visiting her husband’s grave:
When Gerald first died I used to talk to him when I came here, bring him up to speed about our children and friends, the neighborhood – anything I could think of. But whatever this was supposed to make me feel, it didn’t, besides which I hated doing it. If Gerald is anywhere he can hear me, I figure then he probably already knows what little news I have to bring…And if he’s not anywhere, which is, after all, what we both always expected would be the case, then what am I doing recapping TV shows and mah-jongg winnings to a patch of earth?
The story includes a pair of vivid, linked snapshots: a 7-foot-long alligator slithers out of the canal and falls asleep in Carol’s back yard; and late one night she interrupts two teenagers making out on the spot where the alligator recently dozed. Like all the stories in this book, “Carol, Alone” ends without any major epiphanies or breakthroughs, just a lonely widow’s quiet resolve to remain connected to life. She does this by spreading food in her back yard, hoping to lure back her alligator, a presence so unexpected it hardly occurred to her to be afraid, a welcome shock. It’s a beautiful ending.
Taylor can be funny, too. “Sungold” is one of the strongest stories here, even though it’s about a disaffected, angsty, youngish, callow dude named Brian who manages an organic vegetarian pizza restaurant, a job that requires him to stand in front of the place wearing a gigantic fur mushroom suit to attract customers. The view from inside the sweltering suit “is like peering through the hair catch in a shower drain.” He notices that black teenage boys will cross the street to avoid coming near the giant mushroom, which inspires this riff:
Now I’ll grant you, a guy wearing a full-body fur mushroom suit to promote an organic vegetarian pizza pub is arguably the whitest thing to have occurred in the history of whiteness, but it’s not as though it’s going to rub off on them. It’s not like it’s contagious, like breathing the air around me will result in sudden loss of pigmentation, cravings for old Friends episodes, and, I don’t know, a Dave Matthews box set.
The owner of the restaurant is Ethan, a trust-fund fuckup, a blackout alcoholic cokehead smokehound who’s also bipolar. “Whenever I see a light on in the restaurant after hours,” Brian reports, “I knock on the kitchen window, find him rolling blunts at the salad station or deep-throating the spigot on the Jagerator.” He adds that “Ethan has the memory of an infant or a goldfish, which is why he’s such a shitty capitalist and such an amazing boss.” And when a sweat-drenched Brian is liberated from the mushroom suit and forced to wear a waitress’s plunging V-neck shirt, he fixes himself a stiff drink, “the logic being that if I’m stuck dressed like a sorority girl at a Phish show then I might as well drink like one.” Taylor must have been channeling Sam Lipsyte when he wrote this story, and, as with Lipsyte, the story leads to a small shred of realization that helps make Brian a more complicated and interesting person. And that’s enough.
The variety of characters in these stories is proof that Taylor has lived up to his pre-publication proclamation. We get college kids, teenagers, widows, single parents, grad students, waitresses, and 20-somethings with too much education, or not enough. Most of these characters are unmoored somehow, adrift, seeking something they can’t quite name. They’re also stuck.
In the collection’s title story, a group of college friends in Ohio relocate to Oregon for dubious reasons, with dubious results. Their driftiness and lack of grounding in the physical world makes them mere types, not fleshed-out characters. In “Mike’s Song,” a divorced father goes to a Phish concert with his two grown children while furtively texting his new lover, a story so creepy and uneventful that it’ll make you swear off the band forever. “The Happy Valley” is less a story than a diagram, and the prose describing Hong Kong fails to rise above the level of the Fodor’s guide the protagonist carries with her. The story doesn’t live and breathe on the page. Worse yet is “A Night Out,” which reverts to the annoying present tense and, for good measure, is narrated in the tricky second person. This story is everything Taylor claimed he was trying to rise above — a catalog of the predictable nighttime antics of a bunch of disaffected, angsty, youngish New Yorkers with too much money and too little direction. It reads like Jay McInerney Lite, and it’s a reminder just what a remarkable achievement Bright Lights, Big City was.
These stories are loaded with memorable snapshots, and that’s not a bad thing. But for a writer of Taylor’s wit and intelligence, it’s no longer enough. Here’s hoping he uses his many gifts to move beyond the snapshot and create something full-blown and grand, a panorama teeming with all kinds of characters who owe nothing to the world’s legion of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes. With Flings, he’s moving in that direction. If he keeps pushing, I’m sure he’ll eventually deliver a big vibrant novel. I’m waiting, eagerly.
It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. William Shawn’s 35-year streak as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for example, yielded to the comparatively brief reigns of Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Roger D. Hodge’s tenure at Harper’s, following the second long Lewis H. Lapham regime, lasted all of two years.
Even amid such tough acts to follow, the case of George Plimpton stands out. As the longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton did the traditional things imposingly well. He charted the magazine’s direction. He developed features. He cultivated and supported good writing. But he also, through his journalistic talents and his presence on the social scene, expanded our idea of what an editor could be: founder, ringmaster, patron, host, impresario, fundraiser, cheerleader, public face, presiding spirit, and living embodiment of the brand. Though slender of frame, he cast a big shadow.
Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003, Brigid Hughes, then the managing editor, was tapped to lead the magazine. She was soon shown the door (a circumstance which led to the founding of A Public Space, with the help of a cadre of writers and donors loyal to Hughes) and the journalist Philip Gourevitch slotted into the role, somewhat against type. Gourevitch’s Paris Review has been more consistently appealing than one might have expected it to be. (A great reporter does not always a great editor make.) But, given that Gourevitch has been more of a caretaker than a visionary, it was no great surprise to learn in November that he would be stepping down to focus on his own writing…leaving The Paris Review searching for its fourth editor-in-chief in seven years.
The good news is that the pool of available talent is probably larger now than it has been in years. I’d happily read a Paris Review run by former Spy editor Kurt Andersen, who writes well, is interested in everything, and seems to have a Rolodex the size of a card catalog. Likewise Dan Menaker. In the wake of Hodge’s departure from Harper’s last month, his name has been thrown around as well. If I was on the search committee, I’d certainly be looking at Keith Gessen, who, though young, is something of a scholar of the little magazine. Or The Paris Review could again try to hire in-house. (Having had a piece edited by Meghan O’Rourke, who pulls double duty with Slate, I’d hire her for just about anything.)
Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian editor must be out in the world. She cuts a figure. She makes fireworks, and shoots them off, too. Tina Brown, now of The Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter have certainly learned a thing or two from Plimpton, but the only editor currently working in the world of little magazines who fulfills the polymathic model is Dave Eggers. And so, as absurd as it may sound prima facie, I’d like to propose that Eggers is the best candidate for editorship of The Paris Review. And, somewhat counterintuitively, that hiring him for the job might be as good for Eggers as for the magazine.
Eggers is an entrepreneur of distinction, a gifted fund-raiser, a networker, a talent scout, a celebrity, a philanthropist, and an accomplished graphic designer. Moreover, he has a particular editorial capacity that’s always in rare supply: the capacity for vision. At his first two magazines – Might and (especially) McSweeney’s – Eggers helped to distill into literary form the sensibility of those who came of age after The End of History…and before history unceremoniously resumed. Whimsical, highly aestheticized, conspicuously casual, reverent of childhood and its signifiers, bound by the dialectic of irony and sincerity, the style of McSweeney’s has become the style of post-post-Modernism. It is No One Belongs Here More Than You and Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, yes, but also American Apparel and Avenue Q, the films of Michel Gondry and the career of Michael Cera. It is vast swaths of Echo Park and the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
The first obvious objection, then, to the marriage of Eggers and The Paris Review comes from Eggers’ side of the aisle: he already has a magazine. But the truth is that McSweeney’s (reportedly intended to have a forty-eight issue run, followed by a long hiatus) has, in its middle age, begun to run up against its built-in limitations. One need not slight the magazine itself (the recent “Panorama” issue, a loving tribute to the print newspaper and a manifesto on its behalf, reportedly sold out), or rehearse the whiplash speed at which subculture becomes mainstream, to feel that McSweeney’s some time ago made the move from innovation to institution.
The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a broader mission and a broader potential audience – a place where readers of McSweeney’s, readers of Newsweek, and readers of The New York Review of Books might meet and mingle en masse. And because its appeal is less bound up with youth, it might offer Eggers, now pushing 40, new and different challenges…even as McSweeney’s continued under the able hands that one sort of imagines mostly run it now anyway.
The second obstacle to the union is that Eggers, like Gourevitch, is a writer, and writing takes time away from editing. But here, too, Eggers, for all his successes, seems like a man in need of a jolt. His literary talent has always recalled for me David Foster Wallace’s description of the tennis player’s physique: hypertrophied in places and underdeveloped in others. This is true to some extent of all writers, but truer of Eggers than of, say his kind-of contemporary (and sometime collaborator) Zadie Smith. With impressive consistency, his books display visual acuity, inventive turns of phrase, and a fine ear for dialogue. Most importantly, they are full of compassion. But they also betray a countervailing tendency toward solipsism that the home crowd around McSweeney’s has been unable or unwilling to call Eggers on, and that has held him back from being the novelist he seems to aspire to be. Which may be a way of suggesting that Eggers is still in his literary adolescence.
This solipsism expresses itself as constraint. There is, on the surface, a kind of airless stylization of the prose, all those floating pronouns and studied flatnesses. More deeply, there is the constraint solipsism imposes on plot and drama – on the interaction of characters, and thus, on their development. Of Eggers’ longer narrative works, three are more or less nonfiction, one is a rewrite of a children’s book, and two (You Shall Know Our Velocity and Away We Go) are lashed to picaresque conceits that substitute vignette for scene and propulsion for plot.
Most recently, these two forms of constraint – micro and macro – converged in the disappointing novelization, The Wild Things. Max goes to the island. Max does some stuff. Max does some other stuff. Then Max comes home. At no point in the book does Max, or his writer, feel the sense of discovery and possibility we saw in Spike Jonze’s filmed sprint through the trees – or that marked the finest passages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The oddity of this is that Eggers is profoundly interested in other people. His best book overall, to my mind, has been What is the What, based on the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. (I have not read Zeitoun, which seems to follow a similar strategy in telling the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.) This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.
Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?
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.