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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“Fuck, when did this go so wrong?” the narrator of Ben Tanzer’s fifth book, a middle-age Chicagoan named Keith, asks in reference to his marriage early in You Can Make Him Like You. Keith describes himself elsewhere as “a selfish cocksucker,” but this is more the expression of guilt, of angst, than a statement ringing with truth. Keith has reached a point where he feels like he’s “maxing out,” like his best days are far behind him. He sits in an office working on marketing campaigns to sell products to younger people, spends too many nights with “my head down for a moment on the bar, resting my eyes and trying to pretend I’m not too old to stay out late.” In bed at night, rather than having sex with his wife, he lies awake, wondering whether both locks on the front door are locked. And as his interactions with his wife have become increasingly characterized by awkward pauses, he fantasizes about other women, and, more and more, flirts with other women, riding a slight rush from it all, to be sure, but also getting hit by waves of guilt and the looming reality, lurking just under the haze of gin and giggly exchanges with bachelorette party girls, that he is only “mostly able to ignore the fact that I am not as cool, smooth, good-looking or young as I would like to be.”
Insert crisis, in this case his wife saying, “Didn’t we agree that we were going to start trying to have a baby soon?” Keith finds himself in the middle of another one of those awkward pauses, then another desperate interior monologue: “We did? When? I should remember that. But I don’t. And I can’t sit here not remembering it, or at least thinking about how I do not remember it and why that might be. What I need to do is to be supportive.”
The thing about Keith, when he’s not operating out of “that region of my brain where everything is fuzzy and I have to really focus on not making bad decisions,” is that he positions himself as something like a voyeur of his own life, or, to use a more Keith-ian term, an audience member, a consumer. His life is a monotony lined with the names of brands and celebrities, products of all sorts. He shows up for work, “Starbucks maple scone in hand,” and clicks “the Microsoft Office Outlook icon” but ends up on Perez Hilton pondering the intricacies of Mariah Carey’s marital status. So when he’s not either charming his way into or struggling to jettison himself from one of those alcohol-fueled and lust-heated flirting situations, he views his own life in relation to lives he’s seen on various screens. Things are fucked with his wife, and all he can think, over the dial tone drone where his emotional response should be is, “If this were a romantic comedy...,” lamenting the fact that “Nora Ephron has not written this moment for us.”
He ends up in therapy, of course, but again the experience is filtered via this tic. His therapist’s name is Jeff. “Like Jeff Perry that Steppenwolf actor who so wonderfully played the gay teacher on My So Called Life” Keith thinks, the same guy who “plays Meredith’s drunken, jerk-off father on Grey’s.” Jeff, regardless of what free-associations his name may lead to, diagnoses Keith as “a storyteller,” saying “you can tell a good story and it’s almost believable, you act like you’ve thought things through. That you have insight, but really you just tell it well. I think you’re in pain.”
The set-up for all of this is familiar enough. Keith has a distant father, his wife gets pregnant, he deletes her texts informing him of every time the baby kicks, sneaks a joint with a buddy, wrestles with how trapped he feels. Even Jeff’s psychological summation has a whiff of MacGuffin to it: “You’re human Keith, deal with it. Confront it, don’t run, don’t tell a good story, just confront who you are and what hurts you, and scares you and makes you sad. Those are normal reactions to everyday life. You’re human.”
But You Can Make Him Like You is such an engaging, entertaining read precisely because of this suggestion. Tanzer doesn’t just want to tell a “good story,” he wants to put something real on the page and have it hit his readers right in the heart, the balls, the tear ducts. There’s a scene about midway through where Keith, instead of day dreaming about the office intern or Cindy McCain, instead of watching and ruminating on another episode of The Shield, picks up an issue of the New Yorker and flips to the story, which he identifies as “another story by Roddy Updike Coraghessan Trevor Ford Antrim Munro about some guy or girl, and their love, marriage, adultery, mental health issues and death, be they literal, figurative, metaphorical, symbolic or otherwise. It ends badly.”
Tanzer is not of that company, and my sense is he doesn’t want to be. He’s done his homework, read plenty, but he’s also watched what, if figured numerically, must add up to one hell of a lot of hours of TV. Then there’s the issue of song lyrics. Permissions were still pending on the advanced review copy I read, but if the publisher gets clearance for half of them, there’s still a sizeable chunk of background noise to the novel—background noise that isn’t mere “noise” but is, rather, urgently human, a sometimes raspy, sometimes wailing, sometimes candy sweet vernacular expression of real situations. It’s not that Tanzer dismisses the Roddy Updike Coraghessan Trevor Ford Antrim Munros of the world, it’s just that he’s equally interested in how “being human” plays out in the camera-crowded intimacy of an episode of The Bachelor or the looping refrain of a song from The Hold Steady. This, after all, is the stuff in our heads, the free associations that pop up when we’re confronted with a therapist poking his theories into the rawer parts of our psyches. Or when we’re rubbing avocado oil on our wife’s feet. Or when we’re lost somewhere along a string of bars, too late in the night and too late in our life, terrified and buzzed, with no sense how it all played out, how everything ended up culminating in this moment.
As Keith says, “It is all craziness, all of it and everything having to do with everything.” If Grey’s Anatomy gives us a grip on how to handle the next step, then that, it would seem, is the literature of our generation, the go-to source for representation of human problems, for models of how a human might navigate such “craziness.” In plenty of ways, You Can Make Him Like You is designed like a television episode, or a series, with plenty of panning out while the soundtrack plays. Tanzer is taking familiar—ubiquitous—narrative conceits and turning them into a novelistic form that has real traction in, and beautiful reflects, the contemporary media moment.
Keith and his wife have their son, and assorted resolutions and random acts of friendship, decency, humility, and everyday courage get performed. America unfolds outside his apartment windows, particularly an election, another index of radical change and, for Keith, of getting older, of moving on into an uncharted future. There’s some lines from a song that help him make sense of it all. You Can Make Him Like You leaves you waiting for the next episode, the next installment, and, in the meantime, humming along.
Official Ben Tanzer Web Site
Official Artistically Declined Press Web Site