Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook 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). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Normative ennui you could call it. Why isn’t there already a label like this at the franchise book stores, a section divided off from the chick lit or young adult or more perniciously named urban, shelved next to items pitched at the same niche, like those multi-tool wallet cards, those rocks you chill to keep your whiskey free from dilution, testosterone-supplement chewing gum?
Normative ennui is the name for that well-trod literary genre featuring more-or-less-middle-aged, comfortably-at-least-middle-class white heterosexual cis males who, you know, have fallen into a rut and suddenly come to the realization that their marriage is boring, a chore, or have tripped over some trigger for their youth, lost adolescence as encompassed in a single Bon Jovi song and the smell of faux-vanilla from some passing woman’s skin care product, and, well, presto: literature!
Some drunk guy goes swimming from lawn to lawn, someone has an affair, maybe there’s a key party, a coke-addled dude too young for this crowd wakes up with a cat on his chest, affairs get had, fellows write letters to the living and the dead, men visit shrines to athletic events, imagine having an affair, stare out a window or at their own reflection caught in the window glass looking uncannily like their father who is either dead or dead to them or soon to be dead like all of us, selah. A lyrical fade-out, in lieu of resolution. The pretty void, skipped into with some excessive references to the young strange “pussy” snagged along the way. It’s a formula that speaks to a formula while simultaneously speaking that formula into being, a marketing term that is also a reality. It is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call a model of and model for the world. Normative ennui.
It’s also a handy placation: a dose of truth sugared down with cathartic release. The ultimate take away may well be that even wealthy first world straight white men die, but nobody’s listening to this music for the lyrics. Philip Roth writes a novella about mortality, but the really zippy bit is when he describes the “robustly healthy” female jogger, the “swell of the breasts that rose and fell with her breathing.” They’re not even presented as her breasts; that would shatter the illusion that the old man (the lecher, the lector) might, in fact, be able to possess them.
Tanzer—who, in full disclosure, is a friend—knows this tradition and knows its conceits, knows the connection between the literary cliché and the lived experience, and in this tiny book he tweaks a little with what we expect, digging into that post-hipster irony that isn’t quite irony because it’s also always a hyperlink reference to the irony of the claim that irony died on 9/11 and the irony of the popular song about irony that described something rather different and the irony of even engaging in irony at all or, better put, a conscious recognition of the fact that recourse to ironic distance has become this generation’s reflexive means of dealing with the real. By which I mean, writing about a dude leaning back in his airplane seat fantasizing about some girl in black leggings and how maybe she might just possibly turn out to be “all the things your spouse is not . . . into Star Wars and threesomes . . . the Beastie Boys, clean[ing] the house naked . . . hours on Sunday mornings drinking coffee and reading the New York Times,” Tanzer gives us a nudge and a wink but then the awkward extended eye-contact after indicates that the nudge and the wink weren’t just to cue a joke, that as silly as all this sounds, there’s some real, culture-wide vein of desire getting probed here. What does the man who has everything long for? A younger woman constantly eager to give head and talk about his action figure collection. #normativennui.
Normative ennui is expressed commonly in certain conventions of flirting. Tanzer is strong on conversational back-and-forth as it slips into ambiguity and thus tilts toward some more tantalizing subject. He’s got a solid ear for how folks communicate beyond the mere words they use. One woman’s slightly buzzed “yes no I don’t know” as she rests her head on her friend’s shoulder, the two of them sitting on the bumper of a van... Look, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes moments effervesce with the frenzied, second-guessing interpretations of the characters involved. Tanzer has real skill, moreover, in presenting flirting as a kind of strategy game, an act of stringing words in order to set lures and snares. One guy explains to a potential affair-partner how, you know, “he is not happy with his wife, he loves their kids, but their relationship is staid and boring, old, it’s so much work, work he can barely stand to do, but might if she showed more interest in him, and not in his inner life necessarily, because he’s fine, and he’s there for her in so many ways, and the kids, and there’s no anger, no sadness, but she doesn’t touch him like she used to, or even look at him like she used to,” all of which is preamble for the mention of sex, the idea of sex, the trope of sex, sex as the thing that suddenly foregrounds anything else, taking all the air out of the room, sex framed and phrased as a question, like, “and they haven’t had sex for a year, and she’s fine with that, but would you be fine with that.” The set-up feels, for the speaker, so elaborate, like he’s working to pull this real subtle move, though as we see it, from our perspective as readers, it’s just a horny blunt ask, a stumbling attempt at saying “sex” and “you like it, right?” to the woman he wants to have sex with. Tanzer doesn’t skewer the guy, but cringes in sympathy and nudges us to cringe likewise, as we were nudged in reference to the dude who wanted Star Wars and threesomes from someone newer to him than his wife. Normative ennui is absurd—laughable at times, offensive at others—but that doesn’t make it any less human.
Tanzer’s book doesn’t read to me like an homage to the tradition of normative ennui so much as an examination of it. As a writer (who, maybe, as fate would have it, finds himself in the very demographic the normative ennui genre speaks to and speaks of—who finds himself composed by, as longtime consumer of, such myths), Tanzer approaches normative ennui as a question: Do we abandon such stories altogether, move on in the wake of so much ink spilled and narcissistic voices indulged, or do we recognize the human reality made manifest in this genre, but tell it slant this time, more wisely, without buying into any bullshit heroics or some aging-he-man model—of character or of narrator or, to return again to Phillip Roth’s ham-fistedly-named Everyman, of the reader, feeling his oats as he cuddles up with a pricey hardback that reaffirms his take on the world?
My sense from this small book is that Tanzer is still puzzling over this dilemma, working at the broader problem of how (maybe even whether?) to frame certain experiences as central dramas for literature: a father’s death, a nostalgically-recalled even if traumatic loss-of-virginity, that plane ride across the country where one imagines stepping out of one’s boring life and into some fantasy distilled from beer ads and certain culturally structural forms of denial. These pages read like a sensibility in the process of maturing, like an experiment in form (testing out that ear for conversation, playing with the sense of simultaneous dismissal and sympathy) that, I hope, gives some sense of where Tanzer (who is indefatigable as a producer of books) is headed next—somewhere beyond the normative, for sure.
Official Ben Tanzer Web Site
Official sunnyoutside Web Site