Monday, August 4, 2008

Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine

The hapless breed of defiantly immature anti-hero, so pervasive in film (thanks for nothing, Judd Apatow) and, regrettably, life, is a character type I can't get used to. I continue to expect something productive out of these "slacker-strivers" (as David Denby calls them rather fairly). Something more, that is, than the "lesson" of self-awareness which seems to be the modern equivalent of saving the princess from the dragon. Personal transformations are not necessary—save that for the superheros—what is called for is an acknowledgement—a shrug will do—of one's mediocrity and, more depressingly, one's post-adolescence. Whether that's Steve Carrell's coming to terms with his dorkiness and virginity in "40-Year-Old Virgin," Jonah Hill's second banana status to Michael Cera in "Superbad," whatever-his-name's whatever-his-deficiency from the Sarah Marshall movie, Seth Rogen's seth-rogenness from "Knocked Up," or... why go on. The point is, at some moment, these men just accept themselves enough to accept the women who already accepted them at the beginning of the movie, or whenever they first met. And suddenly, without actually doing anything, they're aware that they're aging, or that they have aged enough not to expect more than what they've gotten, which always ends up being suspiciously quite a lot.

Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings begins in this genre, but it lands somewhere else—in suspension, or what amounts to a death sentence for the slacker-striver character.

I'll be honest—I liked this novel a lot, and I like Tomine's art work a lot. But I don't want to talk about the book. That's not because I don't think it's well worth discussing, but I read something today (again in a review from Powells Review-a-Day) which provides an interesting correspondence to the slacker-striver.

In his review of Cyril Connolly's memoir Enemies of Promise, Christopher Hitchens introduces a remarkable quote—the first paragraph is Hitchens, and the second, Connolly's:
In the second half [of Enemies of Promise], titled "A Georgian Boyhood," he gives a lavishly detailed account of his education between the ages of 8 and 18, and shows an extraordinary confidence in the likelihood that this narrative will not prove ephemeral. The best-known phrase from this section is his "theory of permanent adolescence" as a description of the marination process of the English upper class. I should call this a coinage if it did not seem to me to derive from the "perpetual adolescent" fixation that comes to us from Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther but, as with Connolly's verdict on promise, it is very originally phrased, and it comes so close to the end of the book that it truly resembles a conclusion arrived at rather than a prejudice or proposition being demonstrated:

It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.
The experience of adolescence is so heavily over-determined that merely being an adolescent—or to be precise, to have just been an adolescent, to be early to mid-twenties—seems to resemble, in some debased form, the experience of Eton, of having experienced life as potently and intensely as you ever will. Not that this is, or needs be, true, but the idea of adolescence as we have constructed it asks us to think that it certainly might be true.

"Promise" is the word Connolly seems to use (I haven't read the book, just the review) to name the knowledge that one acquires at the moment when you realize that the phrase "you can do anything" in reality means "you can do one of a number of sequences of specific things"—that the world may be your oyster, but you have a small mouth. Rather than venture farther out with this knowledge, a retreat toward the environment where "promise" does not ask for "choice" or "decision."

Though we do not typically think of these slacker-strivers as men of "promise," it is more or les apt. The retreat from the face of choice and decision toward the realm of vague and suspended possibilities, indistinguishable from one another and the more powerful for their tangles—isn't that the heart of the slacker-striver?

Much later addition (1/15/09): Great reading of Shortcomings and other graphic novels by Elif Batuman.

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