12:52 pm Mar. 2, 2012
Adam Wilson knows a thing or two about being miserable. After graduating from Tufts University with a bachelor's degree in English, Wilson, whose first novel, Flatscreen, was published last week by HarperPerennial, decided on a whim to move to Austin, Tex. It didn't work out quite the way he intended.
“At one point,” Wilson said when we met at a bar in Carroll Gardens, where he now lives, “I had a job holding up a giant orange arrow by the side of the highway.”
“I had heard it was cool,” he explained. “As a 22-year-old, that was just enough. I had a very miserable year there.”
He had moved to Texas with romantic notions of striking out into the heart of America, the kind of place where a writer could forge himself in the crucible of raw experience. The reality was far more banal.
“I wasn't really writing. I didn't really have any friends. I wasn't getting laid ever. I was just miserable.”
Wilson kept using the word when referring to his time in Texas.
While in Austin, he read Sam Lipsyte's Home Land. Wilson described it as “one of the first contemporary books that felt like it was written for me. I loved it and had sort of never read anything like it. I wanted to write a book like it and I wanted to meet the guy who wrote it.”
He decided to apply to Columbia's M.F.A. program because he knew Lipsyte taught there. He was eventually accepted, but it would be a while before he ended up in New York.
After flaming out in Texas, Wilson decamped back to his parents' home and found himself, like Eli Schwartz, the main character in Flatscreen, hanging out with whoever was around.
“There was this kind of community there that was drug dealers, sort of 'bad girls,' but also all sorts of nice people.”
The environment, if not quite healthy, would prove influential. So too would Columbia, and the move to New York, where he came into contact with a host of well-regarded writers, several of whom become valuable mentors.
“It was great. I really had a great experience. I think people sort of have these blanket attacks on MFA programs. But the truth is everyone's experience is different, and every program is different.”
While in graduate school, he did get to work with Lipsyte, as well as Gary Shteyngart, Binnie Kirshenbaum (“a really, really great teacher”), and James Wood. He names Darrin Strauss as an early and vital supporter of his work and counts John Wray as a friend. More than anything, school kicked Wilson’s novel, which he had been working on for some time beforehand, into high gear.
Flatscreen tells the story of Eli, a depressed young man a couple years out of high school who, unlike most of his friends in the upscale Boston suburb of Quinosset, didn't go to college.
Instead, he spends his days watching television, hanging out with other burnouts, and slipping dangerously into heavy drug use. He also becomes entangled in a fascinating and bizarre relationship—is it unrequited love? father-son? mentor-mentee?—with Seymour Kahn, a wheelchair-bound former B-list actor, whose own sexual and narcotic proclivities jive with Eli's.
The novel, which is scabrously funny, opens with Kahn buying Eli's mother's house—Eli's parents are divorced, as are most of the parents in this unhappy yet gilded suburb—upending our hero's life.
Wilson grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, which he used as a model for the novel's town of Quinosset. The pseudonym, he explained, “gave me a little more creative freedom.” But it's also left people from Wilson's hometown searching for themselves in the novel.
“I have a friend who for years has been telling people I was writing a book about him and is now telling people I wrote a book about him,” Wilson said, almost enjoying his friend's audacity.
Wilson is 29 and bald, with a ready smile. He drinks scotch and speaks with the kind of confidence about his work that reflects a childhood spent around artists. His mother, Sharon Kaitz, is a painter who has taught widely and collaborated with David Mamet. His father, Jonathan Wilson, is a writer and a professor at Tufts University. Sharon and Jonathan met in Israel, where they were a part of an artistic community in Jerusalem in the late '70s.
Wilson is not quite an oversharer, but when speaking with a relative stranger, he was unafraid to feather a remark with a curse or make an offhand remark about his sex life. As in his fiction, his speech quickly and fluidly switches between concerns high and low, between the weighty and the absurd.
I wondered how his parents felt about the novel, with its focus on depression, drug use, and sex.
“They're really happy that I'm just not in a gutter somewhere,” he said. The answer was funny, of course, but like Eli's sometimes glib narration in Flatscreen, it masked deeper concerns, namely the author's own struggles with depression, during and after his time in Texas. It also reflected his complicated relationship with his parents, who worried about his early twenties doldrums. (Wilson has spoken elsewhere of being a heavy pot smoker well into college.)
Although Wilson earned his undergraduate degree at Tufts, he made a point of not taking a class with his father. For a while he felt in competition with the elder Wilson, whose first short story (and several thereafter) was published in The New Yorker.
“Now that's kind of fallen away,” said Wilson, a genuine excitement overcoming him. “In part that's because no one still knows who he is. Now it's like, 'No, my dad is great! You should read him.'”
By the time he arrived in New York, he had already begun writing what would become Flatscreen and found the city to be a electrifying environment for a young writer. Working with Lipsyte, whose novel had inspired him, was a particular pleasure.
In graduate school, he made the rounds as a freelancer. He wrote “a lot of TV criticism” and for a while did a culture blog for, of all places, Ralph Lauren's website. Later, he was a digital proofreader for Simon & Schuster. It was a mind-numbing job—one that only required he quickly scan manuscripts for page-number errors or chunks of errant code in the middle of a page. He took the opportunity to embrace his inner slacker.
“It was a very tedious, boring task,” he said. “Luckily I was on a team of people who didn't give a shit about the job, so we spent all day either writing or reading, or we'd watch movies. We had our own little area of the office where no one bothered us.”
While there he wrote some of Flatscreen, tore through Infinite Jest, and collaborated with a friend on a screenplay. After four months he was fired—an intrepid recent college grad had joined the group and proceeded to expose their goldbricking by blowing well past their quota of 10 books a day. Wilson had pulled the young man aside and tried to explain to him the special arrangement—“Just do twenty a day. Just do double what we're doing. You'll still be the best. Everyone will be impressed.”—but to no avail.
But getting fired was probably the best thing that could have happened for Wilson’s literary ambitions. Along with some friends he founded The Faster Times, an online newspaper, and at the same time began working at Cobble Hill bookstore BookCourt, where the steady stream of high-quality author events the shop hosts couldn’t help but inspire.
Flatscreen has a kind of roaming quality that reflects its author's eclectic sensibility. Eli peppers his narrative with short, listicle-like chapters about his family, his sexual history, or ways in which he's like a rapper. His sentences are lyrical and pungent (“She snored lightly, like a woman who can't whistle trying to whistle”), but he often omits “I” from them, causing them to have a disarming, clipped quality: “Didn't have the balls to kill myself. Afraid of death. Wanted rest, not eternal rest.”
In many ways, Eli's narrative speech mirrors Twitter-speak, with its elided pronouns and its emphasis on self-deprecation and obscure pop cultural references. (Wilson himself tweets under the “Wire”-derived handle @bubblesdepot.) Eli is constantly falling back on allusions to movies—real and invented—as a sort of scaffolding around which to structure his experiences: “Remember leaving Kahn's, hobbling out the door into the flurry like an old hobo looking for a shelter he knows is just around the corner, if only he can find it (The Last DeMille of New Haven, Sunshine Entertainment, 1961).”
“This character is someone who knows a lot without ever having been educated or paid attention in school,” said Wilson. “But he's seen a lot of movies on TV and read the Internet and read a lot of blogs and, because of that, has pieced together a lot of information that's maybe not really telling him that much.”
Unloved by his parents, in frequent conflict with his high-achieving brother, and losing himself in drugs, Eli is haunted by a sense of the inadequacy of his own experience—but also by his seeming inability to do anything else.
“All his points of reference come from TV and movies,” said Wilson. “I think he understands and is aware that his referents are these clichés and tropes.”
In Kahn, the broken former actor, he sees someone who's turned away from this world. Yet Kahn relies on drugs, prostitutes, and macabre humor to get him through his days—all of which may just be another type of performance.
When asked if he ever knew Eli types, Wilson responded without hesitation: “Oh yeah. I was one.”
The circumstances were different—for one thing, he went to college and comes from a happier family; his brother, a filmmaker, lives blocks away in Brooklyn—but the emotions, and the sensibility, are familiar.
“He feels very close to me in some ways even if he's very different... and has hair, which makes a big difference.”
Flatscreen is, in part, about the ways that technology and pop culture weave themselves into our lives and somehow become the stuff out of which we create meaning. Eli cannot enter a room without commenting on the television or DVD collection he finds there. He spends hours poring over a girl's Facebook profile and has a humiliating incident immortalized on YouTube. But these events don't receive inordinate attention; rather, his depiction of them shows how these sorts of experiences have become almost conventional for millennials.
The novel also ends up being about how to end a novel. As he moves towards some kind of final reckoning—when his drug habit becomes particularly dangerous—Eli begins lacing the narrative with “possible endings” gleaned from various movie-genre conventions: “American Coming-of-Age”; “Unsatisfying”; “American-Made Film About French People”; “Gritty Art House.” These interstitial chapters are often quite funny satirical sketches, but they also betray Wilson’s own anxiety about how to write a coming-of-age novel, one very concerned with inauthentic and clichéd experience, without in turn relying on those same clichés. Wilson acknowledged as much to me.
“Those endings in some way came out of my struggle” to find a way to finish the book that “doesn't end in some cheap, easy, sentimental, or obvious way,” said Wilson. He was wary of how similar books and movies try to impart a false sense of closure—for example, with the troubled protagonist jumping in a car and “driving off into the sunset as some indie song plays” (I'm looking at you, Good Will Hunting).
“The truth is I had my own ending like that,” said Wilson, referring to his time in Texas. “It didn't change my life or my problems. I was still a very lonely and sad person.”
Life is clearly better for Wilson now, and he speaks excitedly about teaching undergraduate creative writing at NYU, where he started this semester, and future projects. His old employer, BookCourt, hosted his own packed book party last week. Recently, he took a leave from The Faster Times in order to focus on teaching and writing his next book. But he'll still be keeping his hand in the freelancing game: he's agreed to blog about "Mad Men" for The Paris Review, which published one of Wilson's stories in its Winter 2011 issue.
He's finished a book of short stories and is working on a new novel. It's the story of a man who loses his job in the 2008 Wall Street crash but doesn't tell his wife. Instead, he wanders around New York, having decided that he'll write a book about Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP, “which he thinks is the most important artwork of his generation.”
The willingness to take mass culture seriously is a recurrent feature of Wilson's work. One chapter of the novel-in-progress, for example, is narrated by basketball star Dirk Nowitzki. (“I sort of tried to give him the personality of Werner Herzog,” Wilson said) The protagonist's wife works for a marketing company that has her creating cheeky Twitter avatars in an attempt to rehabilitate a disgraced insurance company's public image.
These stories are a reflection, Wilson believes, of the way we live now, with our digital and our physical lives deeply intertwined. It's this very reliance on technology, our practically cyborg relationship with it, that also concerns him. (During our interview, he chastised himself for reading his own reviews on Goodreads.)
“We're very confused about how human connection works because we're behind our screens all the time,” said Wilson.
Even so, he sees this world as a new frontier where writers—especially those anxious about measuring up to past masters—might go.
“It's the one thing we can contribute to literature,” he said, his voice taking on a wry tone. “No one's going to write Ulysses or To the Lighthouse again. But Joyce or Virginia Woolf couldn't tell you about Skyping.”
More by this author:
- Edwidge Danticat and Salman Rushdie share stories of violence and fear, well-leavened with humor
- A comedians' live show, 'Thrilling Adventure Hour,' comes east from L.A.