Adam Ash

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bookplanet: what with chick lit, can lad lit be far behind?

Guy Lit — Whatever

"What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while. ... What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." So noted Holden Caulfield, the sardonic prep-school dropout in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), who, by age 16, had already had his fill of phonies.

From the fanfare that recently greeted Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision (2005), you'd think that Holden's creator, the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, had come out of seclusion. Jay McInerney raved about the book on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and the paper's usually implacably tough daily reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, went so far as to channel Holden's voice in her laudatory review.

Kunkel's is the latest in a spate of books that have collectively been dubbed "lad lit," the male riposte to "chick lit" — that juggernaut spearheaded by Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary in 1996, which sold two million copies and spawned both a sequel and a companion book, two films, and countless imitators. Each of the recent lad novels is a sort of anti-bildungsroman, in which a sardonic, clever, unapologetic slacker refuses to grow up, get a meaningful job, commit to relationships, or find any meaning in life.

Like chick lit, lad lit has a British pedigree, with Nick Hornby providing the touchstone texts of the genre. Rob, the protagonist in High Fidelity (1995), is a 35-year-old London slacker who works at a record store and organizes his life by Top 5 lists; the well-named Will Lightman in About a Boy (1998) drifts along on inherited family money (his father composed a horrific but massively successful Christmas jingle). Worldly wise and wisecracking, both are temperamentally unable to commit to relationships or a sense of purpose in their own lives. But then something happens, and they actually do get a life.

The genre's American ancestry is rooted in the "brat pack" fiction of the 1980s, most notably McInerney's own Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Like Hornby's protagonists, McInerney's unnamed 24-year-old narrator, adrift in the big city — bored with his job, suffering writer's block, left by his wife, coked and clubbing every night — eventually finds a modicum of redemption, repudiating the corruption of the city and starting over. In Britain the term "lad lit" evokes a certain type of urban male — part slacker, part metrosexual; here in the States, there's no corresponding notion of laddism. What the Brits call lads, we call simply guys. Guys play poker and video games, drink, ogle women, and lounge around their grungy apartments.

Here, then, is a summary of guy-lit novels:

I may be 30, but I act 15. I am adrift in New York. I'm too clever by half for my own good. I live on puns and snide, sarcastic asides. I don't look too deeply into myself or anyone else — everyone else is boring or a phony anyway. I may be a New Yorker, but I am not in therapy. I have a boring job, for which I am overeducated and underqualified, but I lack the ambition to commit to a serious career. (Usually I have family money.) I hang out with my equally disconnected friends in many of the city's bars. I drink a lot, take recreational drugs, don't care about much except being clever. I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and while I am eager to have sex, which I do often given the zillions of available women in New York, the sex is not especially fulfilling, and emotions rarely enter the picture. I am deeply shallow. And I know it.

Oh, and then something happens. I go on a journey, get inside the media machinery, sort-of fall for a new girl. Or 9/11 happens, but that doesn't really affect me much either. And though I might now mouth some bland platitudes about change, anyone can see that I'm still the same guy I was before. Only different. But not really.

Virtually every writer of guy lit is an almost-thirtysomething graduate of an elite college or university. Their college pedigrees read like the college rankings at a certain national magazine: Brown (Sam Lipsyte), Harvard (Benjamin Kunkel), Stanford (Erik Barmack), Wesleyan (Scott Mebus), Yale (Kyle Smith). Each writer, and their characters, lives in New York City. Each work is written in the first person, by a destabilized, unreliable narrator; these books are like one long run-on sentence of self-justification and rationalization. "I don't want your wholesome values, your reasonably good judgment," says Jeb Braun, protagonist in Erik Barmack's The Virgin. "My goal isn't to please you. So if you're expecting the whole handshake and nod routine, you can stop reading right now." (Several authors refer to "the book you hold in your hand," as if to distance themselves even further from their own sad story.)

Back in the 60s, we probably would have cheered wildly for these characters' iconoclastic brio. Forty years later, though, their "whatevers" have a more callow ring. (McInerney's novel, written in the second person, is as much admonishing as admiring.)

"I don't have a girlfriend now: I played the field and the field won," Tom Farrell, from Kyle Smith's Love Monkey, informs us. When one of his girlfriends says she'd like to keep things platonic, he asks, "Who was Plato anyway? A guy who didn't need to get laid? This makes him a hero?" Scott Mebus's antihero in Booty Nomad can't even bring himself to remember his girlfriends' names; instead, he gives them sexual nicknames like "Totem Pole" and "Bendy Girl."

Despite being obsessed with getting laid, the characters, oddly, seem unconcerned about sex itself. Perhaps it is too demanding. Tom Farrell's most emotionally intimate conversations are with his penis.

Nor does anyone seem especially ambitious professionally. "I don't like work, for one thing," declares Jeb Braun in The Virgin , ever so matter-of-factly. "I don't enjoy it. And also I'm not very good at it." The characters drift from job to job; some are fired, some quit. Sam Lipsyte's Teabag, in Home Land, punctures the veneer of those who believe "that we are all of us blessed with talents, skill sets, and if we just stay the course, apply a little elbow grease, ride out the bumps and grinds of decreasing economic indicators, life will shine like our new 'professional' kitchens."

"Dream on, worm bait," he hastens to add.

Political commitment also is scorned, seen as a naïve symptom of actually caring about something. Two books cynically pivot on 9/11, but even that disaster is hardly the jolt required for transformation. Kunkel's main character, Dwight Wilmerding — high on Ecstasy and having just had sex with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend — completely misses the tragedy unfolding before his eyes. And Farrell watches the World Trade Center fall and immediately thinks it's a good time to score with one of his exes. But the first girl he calls already has other plans: She's trying to catch up on work. "Sigh. Is everyone in New York thinking this way? Major terrorist attack = a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for extra credit?" His would-be girlfriend can't bear to watch it on TV, not because it's so horrific, but because she "got bored." "Exactly how I felt," says Tom.

While the characters of Smith and Mebus are weak-willed and wan, Barmack and Kunkel make an effort to move their characters beyond sarcastic wisecracks into something resembling transformation. Not that we exactly trust Dwight Wilmerding's sort-of political transformation to slogan-spouting socialism lite, especially since his revelation is inspired by copious amounts of a mystical drug from the Ecuadorean highlands; a sexual encounter with a mysterious Belgian anthropologist; and his prescription for Abulinix, a new, untried prescription medication that may relieve symptoms of indecisiveness.

Instead of spouting self-promoting justifications, Barmack's Jeb is mostly tongue-tied, never knowing quite what to say, what he feels, or even if he feels anything at all. He tries to navigate the world of phonies as the contestant on a reality TV show called The Virgin, a sort of sexually explicit Dating Game, in which a gorgeous virgin gets to choose the man who will deflower her. When the producer directs Jeb to show some emotion on the air when it is disclosed that he is the "winner," Jeb basically shrugs his shoulders and asks exactly what he should feel, so that he can then try to feel it. But Jeb's insights come cheap: Barmack's brilliant satire of the world of television descends to flaccid gender-bending at the novel's anticlimax.

The characters in these books are as unmemorable and faceless as the men in the gray flannel suits they hold in such contempt. None will hold up like Holden Caulfield because what makes him so endearing, and The Catcher in the Rye so enduring, is that he actually believes his own hype. Holden believes that he and he alone is morally superior to all the phonies he sees around him. The purveyors of guy lit implicate themselves. They know how inauthentic they are. Salinger is at heart a romantic; Kunkel et al. are cynics. Holden feels too much; Dwight and the others feel too little, if anything at all.

And that may be guy lit's biggest problem: Its readers are unlikely to resemble the guys the books are ostensibly about. As long as the antiheroes stay stuck, and the transformative trajectory is either insincere, as in Kunkel's Indecision, or nonexistent, as in Smith's Love Monkey, these writers will miss their largest potential audience. For it is women who buy the most books, and what women seem to want is for men to be capable of changing (and to know that a woman's love can change them).

Sales of these books have been even more sluggish than the novels' protagonists. (Only Kunkel has achieved a modicum of commercial success, appearing briefly on a couple of regional best-seller lists.) In fact, the genre was declared dead a year before Kunkel's book was even published. The critic Laura Miller wrote the genre's obituary in 2004, in The New York Times Book Review. "If female readers allowed themselves to believe that most straight men spend their time holding conversations with their penises, watching the Cartoon Network, fiddling with their rotisserie baseball teams, and contemplating the fine art of passing gas on subway trains, romance — and perhaps even human reproduction itself — would grind to a halt," wrote Miller.

Women won't read these books unless there is some hope of redemption, some effort these guys make to change. And men won't read them because, well, real men don't read.

The characters in guy lit are stuck in boyhood. Their creators may use up every clever undergraduate phrase they've ever jotted down during a boring literature class, but stringing together such back-of-the-class witticisms does not make a novel, and feckless indifference is a posture hard to sustain. Yeah, sure, Kunkel and the others are funny once in a while. But frankly, I'm not at all sure that Holden — or I, for that matter — would want to be friends with them.

(Michael Kimmel is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.)


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