Having just reviewed Ben Lerner’s first novel, it’s strange to be reviewing one that is both so similar and so different. Similar, because it is about a young, probably white, male writer who is somewhat lost in life. Different, because unlike Ben Lerner’s main character and narrator Adam Gordon, I felt something like empathy for David Moore.
David is 29, depressed, basically unemployed and trying to come to terms with the fact that he might never get published. He is a familiar figure – he reminded me of someone I see in the mirror rather a lot. That is not to say that Bummed Out City will only resonate with struggling artists and writers; David’s frustration and confusion are symptoms of many a modern young adult.
David has written several novels, all unpublished, though not for lack of trying. He has a girlfriend he loves but whose vision for their future life together diverges from his own. He has a mother going through chemotherapy, a father who’s entered and exited his life several times and usually just to hit him up for money, and even a few friends. While there actually is a plot, the novel does a great impression of lacking one, hiding the inciting incident and conflicts within David’s narration, which is what carries the book along. One moment in a movie-theater is particularly illuminating
I’m there with the characters as they move through their fictional lives with that special kind of purpose that only fictional characters get to have, where everything matters and each thing leads necessarily to the next thing and it al adds up to something, to some dramatic and fulfilling and satisfying and appropriate conclusion and it’s nothing at all like real life, where things just happen and you do one thing and then you do something else and the next day you do it again or maybe you don’t and none of it adds up to anything or goes anywhere, where you wake up the next morning and you’re still there and you still have to brush your teeth and trim your toenails and worry about money and pay for car insurance and all the other mundane pedestrian slogging shit you did the day before.
David is basically an angsty teenager inside a man’s body and hasn’t yet caught up to the responsibility he owes to other people as well as himself. By the time he begins to understand that he is actually grown up, he has both fallen naturally into adulthood and royally screwed up his first phase in it.
Whether he is writing a blog post, fighting with his girlfriend or getting drunk at a bar, David’s voice is monotone – not monotonous, mind you – and gray. His voice is flavored with the apathy of true clinical depression as well as the ashy taste of dying dreams. It is refreshingly honest in that David manages to lie to himself while the reader sees through his convenient truths to the actual consequences that must eventually follow his behavior and his attitude. There is a self-conscious nod to this when David comes to realize things and feels no need to explain them to us; he just tells us that he gets it, and as a reader, I knew just what he meant. It was refreshing, actually, not to slog through a paragraph of what exactly was illuminated, since it had always been startlingly obvious to me, though not to him. The lack of expository fluff is one of the reasons this book works so well.
What really struck me, though, is what made Bummed Out City different than most books about artistic young men who don’t make it. Scott Burr manages to convey the absolute viability of a different styles of living rather than trashing all of them except for the bohemian author’s dream. Even while David wallows in his own self-pity, even while he cynically criticizes the American Dream of a house, a dog and 2.2 kids, I never felt as if the desire for such things was being truly undermined. When David is criticized by Carol, his girlfriend, for his passivity in their relationship, I agreed with her completely while also feeling she was being unfair. I was reading all sides of each situation through the subtly of Burr’s writing, which is a rare thing to experience in the depths of a first-person narrative.
It is always such a joy to feel that a book is distinctly of its time, and this one certainly is. The echoes of our currant climate are redolent: recession, high unemployment rates, urban decay. And, above all, the belief of my generation – that we are all special little snowflakes – and the reality. That we are not. And that’s okay.