After he finished college, you could have found Adam Wilson on Route 35, holding a large orange arrow pointing to an open house. Eight years later, you can find Wilson online, in print, and at countless New York literary events. A former editor of The Faster Times and TV blogger for Flavorwire, Wilson has published short stories in The Paris Review, The Coffin Factory, The Literary Review, and The New York Tyrant. His debut novel, Flatscreen, is now out from Harper Perennial.
Flatscreen is narrated by Eli Schwartz, a slow-moving, quick-witted twenty year old living with his mother. When she sells her house to Seymour Kahn, a pill-popping paraplegic, Eli loses his stainless steel kitchen but gains an enabler and father figure. Wilson’s novel is a hilarious, compassionate story of contemporary suburbia, where the American Dream has gone to get fat in front of its home entertainment system. I met with Wilson at Minibar in Brooklyn to talk about American myths, Philip Roth, and how you can tell David Foster Wallace isn’t Jewish.
Let’s start with the simple stuff. When did you write Flatscreen?
I wrote a lot of the book while I was in grad school, but it was also written when I had multiple jobs. So I had to fit in writing whenever I could. For a while I was working at Book Court, the book store in Carroll Gardens, and I’d work a nine to one-thirty shift and then I’d work a six to ten shift and I’d write in between, which just sucks. But it was the only time I had, so I just made myself do it. One thing I’ve been telling my students when they ask how you can be a writer when you also have to make a living is that you still have to work, you can just do a really bad job of whatever you’re doing because writing is what you actually care about.
You’re from an artistic family. Your mother is an artist and your father is a writer and an English professor.
That’s true, and my brother is also a filmmaker. I never had the sense that being an artist or being a writer was something that was impossible. I actually had more of the sense that being anything else was kind of weird, because I didn’t have any one in my family who had a real job, so I didn’t know how people went about that.
So you and your brother have both worked in film—I’ll take that as a segue. Movies play an important role in the novel. The narrator, Eli, consistently compares his life to cinematic tropes and provides parenthetical citations for films he alludes to in the narrative. What about film is such a useful reference point for Eli?
One of the things I was interested in when I was writing this book is this idea that because Eli doesn’t have very good role models—or any models, in terms of his family, parents, or friends—his entire point of reference for life comes from movies and television shows and the internet. One of the reasons he’s so paralyzed and he can’t figure out how one is meant to live one’s life is because he can only imagine life via these prescribed cultural narratives.
So then what is the significance that Kahn, the wheel-chair bound drug abuser that Eli adopts as a father figure, is himself a former actor?
That added another level to this idea that we’ve received so much from television and movies that all we can really do is imitate them. There’s this very blurred line between performing and living, and living as performance. The same thing is true for the internet and social media, where we’re constantly constructing these personas for ourselves that are really just performances.
Do you find yourself being forced to adopt a new persona now that you have to play the public writer?
The truth is I’m not sure I know how to do it. I think everything I do is a slow adaptation, which I think is good because I try not to have a calculated public persona. At the same time sometimes I think I say things that are embarrassing or seem to go against the idea of performing my own dignity, though that often means you’re coming from an honest place. I feel the same way in my writing. Often times I think that when I get to something in my writing that makes me really uncomfortable or I feel will somehow reflect badly on me as a person, if people read it that’s often where the good stuff is.
Aside from Kahn’s past as an actor, what makes Eli identify with him?
I think Kahn’s physical paralysis is a reflection of Eli’s metaphorical paralysis, and in that way they match each other. I also think that what really excites Eli is that he feels like Kahn isn’t playing by any rules and has forged his own destiny, even if it’s a kind of miserable destiny. At the same time Eli’s really envious of Kahn’s family, even if Kahn is only a peripheral part of that family. The family is two women who are partners and their two daughters, one of which is adopted. Kahn lives in their pool house, and they have this dysfunctional but also quite loving family. Eli really wants to be a part of that, and he sees this as the new way of things. The nuclear family is screwed up and these guys are forging a new path where there’s room for everyone, even Kahn, who’s this bastard drug addict, but even he fits, in a way, and is loved.
One of Flatscreen’s concerns seems to be belatedness—the question of how to live in a world overrun by earlier narratives and cultural prescriptions.
One thing I felt like I was really facing when I was writing this book was this idea that it was a coming-of-age story, and that many coming-of-age stories had been written. How do I come up with a way to make it new and fresh? And I think that that anxiety was in some ways transferred onto Eli, who has seen a million movies and can’t figure out how to make his own life original because believes every kind of life narrative has already been taken and made cliché. So Eli feels like his imagination is compromised. But I also wanted to combat that by making the way he speaks really alive, and playful and rich, and just fun.
There’s some playfulness in the structure of the novel as well. What’s happening at the end of the narrative? Eli intersperses each chapter in the last section with a possible ending, all based on different kinds of movies.
Eli is trying to figure out an ending for his own life, or figure out what’s going to happen next. His models are all movies, and he thinks about all these coming-of-age stories, where it ends with this guy driving into the sunset and he gets out and he escapes his hometown. But Eli smartly doesn’t buy that. There’s a great line in a Sam Lipsyte story where the narrator is talking about getting out of his home town and he says, getting out wasn’t the problem, everyone gets out—the problem is what happens after that.
Eli’s fantasy endings do provide possible answers to that question, but they’re all dissatisfying in different ways.
Right. I think Eli doesn’t believe any of them are real. He knows they’re just tropes. But he can’t really think of anything else, so he imagines the various outcomes of his life either as a rom-com, or a TV soap opera, or a movie where the guy writes a movie based on his life and gets famous and becomes a sad writer.
The inability to imagine the future, or to conceive of it only through tropes, is common among my friends and people my age.
Sure, I think it’s a real problem. We’re always measuring ourselves against these American myths. I feel like I was miserable in high school in part because I’d seen movies where a guy was the captain of the football team and he has all these hot girlfriends and everyone loves him.
Even if the captain of your high school football team was nothing like that.
Right, and he had all his own problems. But we develop these really unrealistic expectations about our lives, that they’ll be exciting or interesting, and life can’t always live up to that.
Those images can definitely get in the way of living. Does this relate at all to Eli’s fear of mortality? At one point he mentions beginning to feel “death’s first twitches,” then offers a description of how his body is beginning a process of gradually breaking down.
I think Eli’s anxiety about facing the future is also to some extent an anxiety about death, and that’s why there’s this through-line in the book which is Eli’s obsession with the suicide of a classmate of his. Then there ends up being a death later on in the book that he has to deal with. In some ways a lot of the book, and maybe any coming-of-age story, is about discovering your own mortality.
You referred to yourself in a Faster Times piece as a “lifelong defender of the lowbrow.” What kind of TV do you watch?
I will say this: before and during the writing of the book I watched a lot of television. I also was writing a lot of TV criticism and one of my first paid writing jobs was writing TV recaps. I have been feeling a little burnt out on it since then. That said, I think that the hour long TV drama is one of the most exciting contemporary art forms. I still think the Sopranos is one of the great artistic achievements of our time. I think Louie taps into something very integral and important. Certain episodes of Louie are perfect short stories that I would happily teach to my students. I think King of the Hill is a brilliant show that never quite got its due. It does a nice job portraying these people from Red State America who, at least for its East Coast audience, aren’t like us, but they’re sympathetic. They’re liberal along some issues and more conservative on others and are smart and thinking about politics and trying to figure out how to be good people. But I also watch bad TV.
Let’s talk about some of your influences. Did your father introduce you to literature at a young age?
Definitely, I read a lot as a kid. I was a terrible student all through school, but I read a lot. My dad, aside from being a novelist, is also a scholar and has written two critical books on Saul Bellow, and he wrote a lot about Bellow and Roth and all these great writers. So I read a lot of that stuff when I was younger. My dad thinks that all my problems in life stem from the fact that when I was 12 he gave me Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that inspired some bad decisions on my part. My dad gave me a lot of books that I loved and continue to love. But at the same time I think part of me always felt like that these books in some ways weren’t quite mine, that they were his, and that it was his literature.
If Bellow and Roth were your father’s writers, then who were yours?
One of the biggest revelations in my reading life, which literally changed my life, was reading Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland, which I stumbled across after I graduated college and I was living in Austin, Texas and I was very miserable. It was the first book that felt like mine in some way, that I connected to so much. Because of that I actually ended up going to graduate school, which hadn’t really been on my radar. I Googled Sam and found out he taught at Columbia, and I applied there.
Have you always written?
I’ve always written. In college I wrote a lot of stories, but I was reading a lot of Raymond Carver and the dirty realists. I was trying to write these working class American stories that just had nothing to do with my own life. I’d read a lot of Philip Roth when I was younger, but I was kind of afraid of him, because I had these really romantic notions of being this tough, cool writer, and Roth wasn’t that. He was just this nebbish, this creep. When I read his books I really related to them and I hated that I related to them, like he was representing to the world all these things about myself that I didn’t want anyone to know, like about hypochondria and anxiety, and creepy thoughts about girls. So I didn’t allow myself to write that into my work. And because of that I think my work really suffered. It came off as posturing and trying too hard to be cool and not really exposing myself in a way that’s honest.
So what changed?
I started reading Lipsyte and various other people, and I started writing in a voice that felt more true to myself. I also started writing funny stuff, and that all kind of came at the same time.
You can be humorous and brutal at the same time. The comedy of Flatscreen occurs next to some very bleak moments.
It’s a hard thing to do. That’s always this line that I’m battling with—how to make it funny without losing the human element. I think a lot of people have trouble seeing the serious side of funny writing. I think of Lipsyte, who is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and I’ve heard people say, “Oh, he’s just funny.” And I think these books are so sad and dark and serious!
David Foster Wallace once said that he imagined that after his first novel was published all of his problems would miraculously vanish, and when that didn’t happen it was devastating. Did you have a similar feeling?
I don’t know, because my book hasn’t been published yet [laughs]. I will say that a lot of them have miraculously vanished. But new ones seem to have appeared out of nowhere. So I always have something to complain about. But David Foster Wallace also said that because he isn’t Jewish! [laughs]. A Jewish writer would never say that because any time anything good happens we just assume it’s going to cause us more problems.
There was a Woody Allen documentary on PBS a couple months ago that ends with him saying that he’s done everything he’s ever wanted to do, but he still feels like someone’s out to get him.
I actually just turned in a piece about this exact feeling for the Jewish Book Council website. It begins: “I don’t believe in God, but I do fear his wrath.” I just figure that whatever happens it will create more problems.
So then publishing a novel doesn’t necessarily add to your sense of self-worth?
I’m not saying that it doesn’t. I think the sad truth is that we’re always seeking further and further validation for something. That said, publishing a book does feel very validating.