Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Ben Tanzer’s novels feature a variation on a standard pattern of protagonist, a man approaching middle age, saturated in pop culture and music, with an ear for lyrics, a job in a field related to social services. He has a wife, a therapist, a running habit, and some unresolved but generally benign childhood issues, some problematic father issues, but, in the course of a novel, he shuffles through scenes and situations that, slowly, despite a numbing haze of alcohol and slipping into other women’s beds, force him to reflect on age, mortality, love, and meaning.
The hero of My Father’s House is getting older. He flips through magazines and television channels, ponders the meaning of certain popular movies; Bruce Springsteen echoes in his head. He works at a drop-in center for the homeless, and he has a wife, a therapist on whom he crushes, about whose hands he obsesses (“...those hands, those tiny hands I just want to eat like marzipan.”). He is a runner, though in the course of the novel he develops a “new outlet,” a “new compulsion”—writing. And his father has a rare form of bone cancer, is going to die, and so our hero shuffles through scenes and situations—drinking beer at hometown bars, shooting pool with buddies in Chicago, sleeping with random and not-so-random women as a kind of vigorous denial, a sort of therapy—that jolt him into a new awareness about age, morality, love, and meaning.
Yet this formula, while compelling, is only part of what drives Ben Tanzer’s work. Character, story, misadventure, tragedy, and thickly cited lyrics serve, rather, to allow Tanzer to treat a wider tension between routine and restlessness, habit and passion. His books are thus ultimately less about coming-of-age or coming-of-middle-age or coming-to-recognize-one’s-age as they are about coming to a kind of balance—albeit, perhaps, only temporary, a synchronicity of epiphany and physical euphoria, a resolution in and of the moment.
Roland Barthes, in his lecture course “On the Preparation of the Novel” recently published in English translation, divides his time between considering writing as a lengthy, Proustian project and what he calls “the minimal act of writing that is Notation, chiefly through an exemplary Form of Notation, the Haiku.” At first glance, Tanzer is surely a workmanly, Proustian novelist, hammering out book after book about middle-aged, middleclass men coming to terms with adulthood and the afterlife of childhood. But Tanzer’s work might be more rewardingly read for its offering of, in Barthes’s words, “a tiny element of ‘real,’ present, concomitant life,” the flash of the haiku, where “something happens but it’s not an effect.” The kerplunk of the frog into the old pond—this rupture of the routine which certainly feels, viscerally, like transcendence but isn’t glossed or theorized, just given—Tanzer’s books have haiku moments at their core.
On the outside, of course, there is the novel laid on in slabs of meat, drawing heavily on movies and television, particularly for the flow dialogue and certain expository scenes, like this one in which the protagonist of My Father’s House has something of a borderline breakdown in front of his homeless group: “All right, fine, fuck it,” he says, after several of his clients have shared their situations.
You want to know what’s going on. You want to know how my dad is dying from this really fucked-up form of cancer and how doctors can keep promising they know how to save him, but they don’t and they can’t and so he will be dead soon and I’m not sure how to deal with that? Or how about the fact that my dad wasn’t always living with us when I was a kid and I’m sure I have a lot of unresolved shit related to that, but I just don’t know how to square that with my dad being so sick it seems all wrong to start discussing this now? I know you would probably like to know that I’ve been drinking a lot, especially when I’m home, and when I’m out drinking I sometimes sleep with women other than my wife, including one who once followed me home when I was a kid who and then also happened to become friends with my dad so I know there’s some twisted nostalgia-laden element to all this as I try to find any way I can to be close to him, though I just can’t say for sure, because again, I’m mellow and everything is cool.
This passage—familiar to us from movies, familiar to the protagonist from movies, familiar to Tanzer from movies—lays out the business of the plot, the bumps and tangles on which the book will dwell. But already in the compartmentalization—to use a notion of the protagonist’s—and simultaneous neatness of and remoteness from this summary we see the more interesting aspect of Tanzer’s heroes, whose relentless energy propels them into and through (even while sometimes running away from) crises but whose real goal—and the goal of Tanzer as a novelist, the gem at the center of his work—is not solving the problems or untangling the knots but coming to some still points of transcendence, moving beyond all the “unresolved shit” and assorted questions and bad behaviors and normal behaviors and façade of day-to-day bullshit “mellowness.”
Consider the act of running—which Tanzer meditates on at length in his nonfiction 99 Problems. Here running is described as “religious, even rapturous at times,” a practice of, in the protagonist’s words, “just grooving, taking it all in like a vacuum and running for hours like it is the most natural thing in the world.” At the book’s climax, our hero pushes through some stiffness and finds himself “loose and floating along. The clutter from the day dissipates” to be replaced with an unarticulated clarity, a sort of satori moment. While this scene implies something like an epiphany, the physical means getting there is, itself, routine—the location of this passage makes it feel like a crest to the story of the book, but at the same time it is one of a series of descriptions of similar routine moments—each with the self on auto-pilot, as it were—stitched throughout the novel. In these moments, “something happens,” as Barthes says, but it is not a building block for the larger drama of plot so much as a poetic moment in and of itself, “a tiny element of ‘real,’ present, concomitant life,” that gives us the Tanzer protagonist as a living consciousness, a person we relate to and care about apart from the specific details of “what’s going on.”
Tanzer toys with the tension between plot and moment by constantly reminding us that, in the wider world of the novel, things are happening—news, current events. Planes fall from the sky, peace talks fail, movies are released. Studs Terkel discusses Will the Circle be Unbroken? at the public library. These things have effects on the characters, their moods and conversations over pool games, etc., but while these may be markers of a kind of history, they are resolutely not the stuff out of which Tanzer is interested in crafting literature; rather, history is background noise, and in the foreground is routine, the self at its most “natural” because most is unscripted.
“I feel like today has been one long out of body experience,” we hear at one point.
I’m doing the things I always do, I know, making breakfast, going to work, doing the laundry, watching television, and whatever, and yet even as I’m doing these things, I feel like I have been watching myself do them from afar.
Back home. I have done my usual rituals. I have walked the tunnel in the airport. I have taken the train home. I have stood in the bathroom under the hot glare of the lights over the medicine cabinet and searched my face for bumps and trapped hairs.
We are lying on the couch. We have been flipping channels. We might have sex. We might not. We might talk about my dad. We might not. We might move off the couch at some point tonight. We might not.
It is late and I know that I won’t sleep. I will lie here. I will stare at the ceiling. I will masturbate.... I will drink some water. I will read The Nation, The New Yorker or Entertainment Weekly. I will smoke a joint.... I will watch ... ESPNews.
Then, when we encounter more extreme formulations of this treatment of routine, such as the protagonist’s statement that “I can press buttons forever, and I can sit guard over my father, but that doesn’t mean I can control anything and there’s no reason to pretend I can,” or his similar realizations regarding adultery “I’m in pain. I’ve got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal,” we appreciate these comments not for the way they somehow push the character into a new understanding of himself but for how they shed light back on all the otherwise unexamined moments, the narration of pure action, routine—the channel surfing, the domestic rituals, the running, the “rinse, repeat” of existence. “I was feeling aimless, so I put on the television and began channel surfing. SportsCenter. Tony Robbins. QVC. Mindless of all of it. And perfect.”
Another of those French literary thinkers—Maurice Blanchot—wrote at length about writing as a phenomenon that engages the impossible, writing as something that can exhibit paradox. The writer who writes “I am alone,” for instance, is already not, quite, because this act of communication is predicated on a future audience. When Tanzer writes “Mindless of all of it,” or details the “rinse, repeat” nature of unconsidered routine, he is reflecting on the lack of reflection that he is describing. Paradox is here being harnessed as a kind of dynamo—Tanzer’s fiction (and he is far from unique in this regard, particularly among his peers in contemporary American letters) derives some of its energy from the fact that it pays attention to those moments when its protagonists zone out. When his heroes are “just grooving,” Tanzer writes his strongest, most compelling stuff. And, thus, a book about a father’s death is really a much stronger book about one man’s restlessness, the story of how aimlessness can find a temporary focus, whether while staring at QVC or clutching a lover or checking for ingrown hairs or hitting the lake path. You can read a Ben Tanzer book for the plot, but the moments that happen along the way are by far more gripping, more revelatory, more real.
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