Published February 21, 2012
Over the past year I've read a number of books in which the main character(s) emerge from structure of school into the chaos of the real world and find themselves lost in the shuffle. Most of the time these are post-college novels in which the character discovers that maybe that thing they wanted wasn't what they wanted at all. This is not one of those novels. At the center of Adam Wilson's debut novel is Eli Schwartz, high school graduate, Food Network junkie, recreational drug user. His parents' marriage has fallen apart and he's been living in his mother's basement for a few years while the rest of his friends have gone off to college. Eli's life is without proper form - all of the structure in his life has either expired (school), disintegrated (family), or run dry (money). All that's left for him is getting high and watching tv. It's kind of a slacker-stoner novel.
The beginning of Flatscreen feels like a well-managed exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing. It jumps like a late-90's music video - flashing tangentially related images that all somehow come together in a weird but cohesive vision. Within the first few pages Wilson gives the reader a good taste of what the next 300+ pages will be like - dark, silly, strange, profane, and sad. The rest of the book is presented in short chapters that alternate between traditional and nontraditional storytelling methods. Sometimes these nontraditional sections take the form of lists and later in the novel these sections are the imagined 19 alternate endings to Eli's story.
This is one of those books where I felt indifferent about the story but enjoyed the craft and construction of the novel. The prose is so quick that it sometimes feels more like reporting then your normal run-of-the-mill writing.
Wife Three had wine-stained lips. Sat on Dan's dad's lap in purple velvet (low cut, one freckle on the lip of her cleavage) sipping champagne, feeding him chocolate covered strawberries while he stroked her hemline. She fed him without looking at him. Glaze wandered the party, fixing for a moment on the TV, passing to other guests, walls, windows; legs crossed, bouncing slightly, right foot bent down like a ballerina's. Mascara had caked, flaked off her lashes. It stuck in little pieces to her cheek, resembled one of those tear tattoos people in prison get to commemorate their dead homeys. Dan's dad had his eyes closed. Licked his lips, then Wife Three's finger, pretending to bite her wedding ring. When he opened his eyes he saw me.There's so much to like about the writing that it's a shame that I didn't care all that much about the characters. You want Eli to get sober, find a job and just do something productive, but he's so invested in the self-aware slacker persona that he's crafted for himself that he just can't get off the metaphorical couch. The only people he tries to connect with are damaged by their own tragedies. There's Seymour Kahn, former actor and paraplegic, who acts as a sort of bizarre Buddha with a rifle to Eli. And then there's the tortured Alison Ghee, whose boyfriend recently killed himself and gives Eli just enough attention that that she becomes part of his fantasies.
Flatscreen is interesting because in many ways it seems like a reflection of our current internet-enhanced lives. All of the characters interact, but they never really know each other. Eli sends a sort of love-letter to his never-gonna-happen love interest, Jennifer Estes, but it's not scrawled on lined notebook paper, it's not even an email - it's a Facebook message. Facebook, the land of paper-thin relationships, filled mostly with people you used to know. None of Eli's relationships with non-family members go beyond superficial. Even his family members are kept at arm's length.
I am so different from characters like Eli and the people in his life that I had a really difficult time relating to much of anything in the book. I didn't feel like I had anything invested in whether Eli got his act together or whether anyone actually ended up happy or doing anything productive. The book moves along at a brisk pace and I rolled with it, enjoying the scenery but caring very little about where we ended up. It's clearly a case of the subject matter existing outside of my own personal experience and therefore not really my thing. Yet I know that this is a book that will definitely speak to certain people and they will absolutely love it.
Book Source: NetGalley