It's been eight years since Richard Linklater's film "Slacker" showcased the disaffected in all their feckless glory, but in contemporary fiction they're still thriving. Call them aimless, call them alienated -- just don't call them too early in the morning.
Fail Again. Fail Better.
Unlike many of his fellow failures, David Henry once was a man with a plan. The first-person narrator of David Eddie's entertaining debut, Chump Change (Riverhead, $13, paperback original), came to New York with visions of literary celebrity (emphasis on limos, champagne and Fitzgeraldian cavorting in fountains). "Like Madonna, I got off the bus at Times Square with about fifty dollars in my pocket, big ambitions, and no talent or marketable skills. Unlike Madonna, though, I didn't become one of the most famous people in the world. Instead, I sank like a stone straight to the bottom of society."
It's Bright Lights, Big City without the cocaine. Aided by a highly developed sense of his own absurdity (and copious amounts of alcohol), our hero careens through a familiar but amusing series of romantic and professional disasters. He processes mail at Newsweek, a job he hates so much he pays a fellow employee to do his work. Why bother? Because New York abhors a failure: "When a New Yorker sees a street person, they don't think: There but for the grace of God go I. . . . They know no graceful God would put such festering suffering on such naked display just to provide a moment of Schadenfreude for the Yuppoisie. They think: There but for the grace of my boss, and a stacked-deck social system that allows bland, talentless people such as myself to succeed and prosper while others starve in the gutter, go I. And I'd better get going."
Eventually David gets going too -- back home to Canada, where he can fail in comfort, surrounded by friends and family. (Author Eddie lives in Toronto.) If he can't get a job, maybe he'll find comfort in the arms of the (lovely, leggy, libidinous) Legendary Leslie Lawson. At least David's libido is in good working order.
David Henry could have been separated at birth from William, the hero (if that's not too strenuous a designation) of Benjamin Anastas's An Underachiever's Diary (Spike, $10). Actually, William does have a twin, Clive; though William beat him into the world by seven minutes, the infant Clive wasted no time in showing up his older brother. When nursing, "Clive sucked happily, I am told, while I would gum my nipple, spit it out, try again without success, turn an angry color red, and howl."
A parent's delight, "a green Beret in diapers, capable of any test of skill he put his mind to," Clive is precocious, lively, winsome. William is a trial to everyone and allergic to everything. "In the winter I developed chronic eczema, a painful rash that started at my fingertips, and in the arches of my sweaty feet, migrating from there until the two tribes of blisters met on my upper body, trading their discomfort like so many trinkets."
When the twins acquire language, William discovers new ways to express his chronic displeasure. "Clive's first word had been the charming and unlikely Castro, spoken while he tried to ride the dog across the living room. Mine was Ouch, whined in the pediatrician's office during an outpatient procedure to remove an infected splinter from my heel. Clive followed his first word up with complicated phrases sounding vaguely British, like Mum and Da; Lovey dovey, of course; and Goodness, naptime? Language, to me, revolved around discomfort and bodily injury, as in I hurt, or Ouch, my finger."
A glorious path to failure stretches before William. And he fails wittily; with more one-liners than plot twists, An Underachiever's Diary reads like a standup comic's notes for a routine on lifelong ineptitude.
The Age of Miracles
There aren't many laughs in the downbeat life of Martin Kelly Minter, protagonist of Miracle Man by Ben Schrank (Morrow/Quill, $13, paperback original). Born into the soft middle of the middle class, Kelly and his brother, Kevin, grew up in a rural household run by urban-refugee parents, "great teachers and decent people, always on the side of good," who have spectacularly failed to influence their children. Luxury-loving Kevin's training to be a plastic surgeon (no burn victims in his future -- high-ticket cosmetic cases only). Out of what seems like solidarity but may be slumming, Kevin lives in a tenement at Third and 96th in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem. For money, he hauls rich people's furniture around Manhattan for the Miracle Move company.
He also steals from them -- some cash here, an objet there, nothing they'd really miss. He works with his blood brother, Felix, "a Puerto Rican foster child brought up in The Bronx
. . . Felix and I were Fresh Air Fund brothers from back when we were nine and my parents had him brought out to the country. They did it for him, because it was the right thing to do for an underprivileged kid, and for me, too, because I needed a friend. We got real close."
"Steal from the rich and give to the poor" worked for Robin Hood; Kevin's not that lucky. He falls in love with Luz, a woman who lives upstairs, and gets deeper into stealing; pretty soon it's a full-fledged racket, an underworld perversion of his parents' liberalism. Find a career, they said; he opts for a life of crime. Give to others, they said; he takes from those he feels don't deserve what they've got. This is one set of life choices that won't end well, though Schrank (a columnist for Seventeen magazine) does hold out the possibility of redemption -- after Kevin does some hard time.
Slacking French Style
North Americans don't have the monopoly on alienation. The French practically invented it. Michel Houellebecq's Whatever: A Novel, translated from the French by Paul Hammond (Serpent's Tail, $14.99) follows in a grand Gallic tradition of malaise: "L'Etranger for the info generation," Tibor Fischer says.
That's stretching it, though Houellebecq's anonymous, 30-year-old narrator does suffer from Camus-style blues: "The texture of the world is painful, inadequate, unalterable, or so it seems to me. . . . I associate very little with human beings." His romantic life's as dry as Death Valley in a drought year; "lacking in looks as well as personal charm, subject to frequent bouts of depression, I don't in the least correspond to what women are usually looking for in a man." He does have a job, the most late-'90s of jobs -- software programmer/analyst. (One thing worth noting about disaffection circa 1999: It's not antithetical to employment.)
To craft this anecdotal account of his life, he will "demolish, one by one, a host of details. In this I will be aided, moreover, by the simple play of historical forces. The world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched with new gadgets. Human relationships become progressively impossible, which greatly reduces the quantity of anecdote that goes to make up a life. . . . The third millennium augurs well." Who wouldn't feel blue?
He distracts himself by writing animal fables. In one, a chimpanzee is taken prisoner by a band of storks, who stab him to death with their beaks after he harangues them about political philosophy. (An essayist and poet as well as a novelist, Houellebecq cofounded the magazine Perpendiculaire and has a penchant for philosophy.) This boy needs serious therapy. He may be beyond help. "For years I have been walking alongside a phantom who looks like me, and who lives in a theoretical paradise strictly related to the world. I've long believed that it was up to me to become one with this phantom. That's done with."
The author's note reports that in France Whatever has inspired "a disaffected and caustic group of young French writers who have been hailed as the most exciting literary phenomenon since the nouveau roman." I have no sure way of knowing, though for the sake of French mental and spiritual health I hope this is publishing hype. Disaffected Houellebecq may be; he certainly understands that blankly desperate state of mind. Don't waste pity on him; he has sold the film rights to this novel and published a second one, Les particules elementaires. There may be a future in slacking after all.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.