Apr/May 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

Daddy Issues

Review by Stuart Ross

Sean Thor Conroe.
Little, Brown and Company. 2022. 352 pp.
ISBN 978-0316394819.

Conroe's debut novel got everything a young male writer could want: a hefty advance, a hardcover release, a side piece in GQ about Dad, and a solid appraisal in the London Review of Books from hard critic Christian Lorentzen, who informs us Fuccboi "is about something more interesting than sex." Maybe there is something more interesting than sex: successful debut novels. For Toni Morrison, though, this was premature. "First novels shouldn't be successes," she asserts in The Source of Self-Regard. "If a first novel 'makes it,' then there is some suspicion about its quality." I have few doubts about this novel's quality. But it is too post-racial for prissy literary people: more Himes than Baldwin, more Bukowski than Updike. If style is fate, this novel may age like crumpled loose-leaf couplets in a subway turnstile. But if style is argument, as Didion suggests in the final pages of Play It As Lays, then this novel might stick around. A longer essay could compare its bike messenger sections to those in Raven Leilani's Luster, another wakeful and daring novel about the autonomy of the artist in the face of already-created consciousness—a successful debut novel of high quality that, to date, has been much more successful. Even though Fuccboi's Sean gets tipped for his bike runs, and Luster's Edie does not.


Last Resort.
Andrew Lipstein.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2022. 304 pp.
ISBN 978-0374602703.

This debut novel about an aspiring writer and the "question of authorship" has a laugh-out-loud Topher Grace joke and an Andrew Martin-worthy riff on why angry sex is the best sex. The word irony is all over the place, even though there's little dramatic irony—even though, ironically, the novel is very, very dramatic. Our prissy hero, Caleb Horowitz, is a good cook, and therefore insufferable about people who aren't. He even makes fun of his girlfriend, Sandra, for using too much butter when frying an egg. I felt bad for her in that moment, as I felt bad she had to appear in this novel at all. In that sense, if no other (maybe for the gorgeous cover), Last Resort will stay with me more than many other works. I mean I am still thinking about it every time I fry an egg.

On a recent episode of the Our Struggle podcast, the neon-named author Delicious Tacos himself brought up Ling Ma's 2018 novel Severance, "the one with the pink cover," a universally successful pandemic hunch—a book emplaced in more quality TV shows than even Shelia Heti's How Should a Person Be?—calling the writing in Severance, several times, prissy. The echoing podcastual emotion in Tacos' use of this gender-churned word gripped me and tabbed me over to our dictionaries.

Prissy is of uncertain origin, even though it's only been around for like 150 years. It wants to be prick, but a snake holds it back. Colloquial and born in the USA, the OED tell us it means "precise and over-particular; (affectedly) prim or prudish, esp. in a manner considered feminine or effeminate," while Webster's mostly short-changes it as a synonym for finicky. With prissy, we're "tiptoeing around contentious issues and often wrapping replies in swathes of euphemism," which is a dope way to describe late Henry James, emergency sessions of the United Nations, and mainstream literary fiction. Hair—and this is key for Caleb Horowitz—keeps turning up in prissy's citations. "He looks more fresh and prissy than ever we saw him, excepting that his locks are whitened by the snows of a few more winters." How melancholy. How true.

Many novels are rendered in the prissy style, even when the sex is hot, like it is in Andrew Martin's successful 2018 debut, Early Work. Maybe all novelists are prissy by definition, as James Wolcott prissily said of Philip Roth in an obituary for Vanity Fair: "too moralistic, too observant at the high altar of modernism, too prissy to get into the funk and gunk of true swingdom."

I regret to inform you that
"'you're a dirty boy,'
she observed,
prissily tossing her curls,"
isn't from Lauren
2021 novel, Fake Accounts,
but Prokosch's dusty
1939 novel, Night of the Poor.

In Jami Attenberg's rarely-prissy memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You, she handles the pretensions circling the "literary salon" by writing, magnificently, that she "threw a salon." But it takes Caleb Horowitz almost half a page to admit he's thrown one. Why didn't you just say so, I wanted to call up and scream at Caleb, you are literally a fiction writer in a 304-page novel about the Question of Authorship. Throw a salon, hell, fire away a salò—the book is yours.

And what is the Question of Authorship, anyway? After reading Last Resort I still don't know. But I suspect they will keep publishing books about the Q-of-A, and I will keep reading them. Here's a description of a Fuccboi-like viral book from Adam Langer's 2010 Q-of-A novel The Thieves of Manhattan:

No, the book was ludicrous, the grammar and punctuation awful, no sentence lasted longer than ten words and half of them ended with yo, as if Blade [Markham] had dictated the book, not written it.

Maybe I should just blame my struggle on Fuccboi, since I ate up that book just before Last Resort, like I was one of those Cambridge baes who waits for the new one from Ben Lerner. Unlike Fuccboi, which arrives tainted, innocent, and breathing, Last Resort is for gilded literary people: its grammar and punctuation are okay; it is well written, not dictated; it is delivered, not received. Or, as the New York Times said in 1935 (a decade, if our citations are to be trusted, of peak priss), "all the technical skill fails to save the work from a certain prissiness and cloying prettification."


My Father's Diet.
Adrian Nathan West.
And Other Stories. 2022. 176 pp.
ISBN 978-1913505226.

A short, odd, delightful book I read in one Sunday, one of those Sundays where my happiness was getting a little out of hand. The protagonist is supposed to be in college but sounds like he suffers from arthritis. West's sentences take all of Nabokov's rules seriously. One remembers the master saying the thing he was most proud of in Lolita was the description of a haircut, and I can't remember if there's a haircut in My Father's Diet, but if there is, it is well shorn. I didn't buy this book for someone else, but I would recommend this book to anyone, and also West's unsparing 2016 work of autotheory, which is also about the father's body, i.e., pornography, The Aesthetics of Degradation.


Who Killed My Father.
Édouard Louis.
New Directions. 2019. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-0811228503.

I read this tiny, touching book in a well-run Starbucks. I cried throughout the final pages. I then bought it for someone else. Maybe because it was the Starbucks on Jolly Oak Road, near my parent's house, and my father is being killed for the same extrasomatic reasons Louis presents here. Then they called my name for an Impossible breakfast sandwich with no cheese. Moments earlier I had watched the barista tweeze out the "cheese" and throw it in the garbage. It was impossibly depressing. This book is very, very French in the sense that it was inspired, in part, by America, disclosing its debt to Ocean Vuong from the get-go. It would've been even cooler if, in Luca Guadagnino's We Are Who We Are, Frazer Wilson was lazily reading Who Killed My Father instead of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, because Frazer has two moms, and three of them are Chloë Sevigny, and she kills men for the US Army, and some of those men are fathers.


I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home.
Jami Attenberg.
Ecco. 2022. 253 pp.
ISBN 978-0063039797.

White men of a certain age often reference Holden Caufield's philosophy of good books: that when you're reading one you want to put it down and call the author up, see how they're doing. Is your author listening to Eric Dolphy? Frying an egg? Watching World War II in Color and scarfing down scoops of Tony Soprano spumoni? Perhaps a better test for our stoned, exchangeable times could be the tension between Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney in Ellis' genre-busting 2005 novel Lunar Park. At a Halloween party, Bret has a bag of good cocaine for himself, a bag of bad coke for his creative writing students (who are all dressed as Patrick Bateman). Bret accidentally (?) gives the laxative-laced bag to the Jayster, who says something like, "Uh-oh, broheim, this is the bad stuff."

I think Fuccboi's Sean would say to me, "You think I'm going to give you the bad blow, don't you, Stuart, but I'm not. I'm going to give you the good stuff, let's just get wrecked, who cares what people think?" Andrew Lipstein's Caleb Horowitz would spend ten pages wondering which bathroom stall to choose and flush before opening the baggie. Adrian Nathan West's very serious hero would tell us a sobering history of Indigenous Colombian exploitation, and Édouard Louis and I wouldn't head to the same venues.

Jami Attenberg is the only writer on this list I've met in real life, and I would bet real money that in this salon game she would give us all, even her creative writing students, the good stuff. Like many great teachers, Attenberg doesn't think she is one. Her new memoir, her eighth book, works on the level of an industry career recap you'd purchase in a flashback airport, but its higher value is in its treasury of actionable writing advice. Like Fuccboi, Last Resort, and My Father's Diet, I Came All This Way to Meet You is mostly about what it means to measure yourself by your productivity. Isn't that the American dream? Or, as Billie Eilish sings it, "The things I once enjoyed / just keep me employed now."

In one chapter Attenberg describes teaching a fiction writing workshop in Vilnius, Lithuania, the class where I met her. I don't think most of us American students and instructors knew what we were in for, traveling to Vilnius, Lithuania? Which, in my wordcloud, kept sounding like Vegas, Lithuania? For a writing workshop? I HATE writing workshops. Nevertheless, I had won the contest hosted by the sponsoring organization—which made me worry for the mental health of the judges—and my trip was paid for, so I gambled away my PTO and went.

Oh, nuts, I thought to myself, sitting down in Jami's workshop, this woman is super successful and confident and impetuous but also commanding, like that mauve woman who spills milkshake on George Costanza and then makes Costanza carry her luggage. She also reminded me, at first, of the Hebrew school dropout who taught Stuart where it's really at in Greenwich Village. "No, you don't buy your pipes here, Stuart, you buy your pipes there and your screens here, and you don't buy your nickel bag by the chess tables, Stuart, you buy your nickel bags of funk by the fountain"—even though every store on 8th Street sells the same pipes and screens, and all of the weed in the park is the same delicious strain of brown. But that's the thing about influencers: they mess with your high.

Jami introduced me to the fiction of Harry Crews, Kate Christensen, Stephen Dixon, and, as she writes about here, Patti Smith's Kids, her go-to bookseller recommendation. I often, when lighting candles, think of the young Smith's photo of John Coltrane above her writing desk, and when I do, I think of Jami, too. She also once led me into a cemetery where she, at least, had an epiphany, graciously proffered her agent's assistant's email address, and hipped me to the Ragdale Foundation. This was very late—2013, a year music died. The songs of the summer were Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," ft. Pharrell Williams, and "Instant Crush," ft. Julian Casablancas, who tried to warn us we would never be alone again. I was reading Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life, Oriana Small's Girlvert: A Porno Memoir, Henry Miller's Under the Roofs of Paris, and many lesser and anonymous incest-leaning romances, all packed onto the new Kindle Paperwhite whose cherry I broke with Henry James' What Maisie Knew. More than me, apparently.

I couldn't sleep after that first class, although that could've been all of the "Chicago-style" Lithuanian pizza I was eating and all of the porn I was obsessively rereading, or because the story I submitted to the class sucked in comparison to Marie Calloway's "thank u for touching me" and Oriana Small's description of a hot tub threesome with her pimp and Max Hardcore. So the next morning I wisely took a Xanax before class and perked up. I remembered how much I LOVE writing workshops, and I terrified myself by thinking the Soviets might bomb Vegas, Lithuania, and destroy our civilian arts space, and all of our beautiful childish minds would vanish along with all of our unfinished but workable stories that would change the world forever, because a bomb changes nothing. A few classes later, so like 20 years later, we were discussing new and sensitive fiction—although not any of the new and sensitive fiction I was reading at the time—and one of the students in the class jerked Jami out of her daydream by asking, "Isn't Shelia Heti's new novel How Should a Person Be? going to


           THE NOVEL




What would Jami say? She looked super angry at this question. She gazed not on us but off upon the puffing canon, just like the guy on the cover of Fuccboi, who, in addition to all of the other female writers he stans, stans Shelia Heti the hardest. In Natasha Stagg's 2019 book Sleeveless, a man tells a woman he likes her writing. The woman knows the man is waiting for her to ask about his writing, but the woman abstains. In interviews, Stagg (who doesn't pop up in Fuccboi) has said some of the pieces in Sleeveless are fiction, some are not. In several possible readings, Fuccboi is a study of whether or not Stagg's non-exchange with the male writer is true. And isn't that always the binary dynamic, which the fiction of Fuccboi comprehensibly disrupts: Will the female writer abstain? Will the male writer not be able to help himself? As for this male writer, I wanted to blurt out


Nobody gets to


           THE NOVEL


Unless it's


But all of this was many years ago, before my locks were whitened by the snows of a few more winters. Nothing I learned in that writing workshop was more important than the friends I made, or more inspiring than the DJ mouthing the fallacies of morning rose as she spun Portishead's "Sour Times," or the high schoolers strumming Sting's "An Englishman In New York" underneath graffiti that looked insourced from The Scorpions' "Winds of Change" video. And all of us were always already "wetter than we'd ever been at a poetry reading," as Fuccboi's Sean says, listening to Eileen Myles, who was also in Vegas, between the bars. From plenty of male teachers, I learned—and this would be my downfall—the purpose of writing is to delight the reader, to crack-up. But from Jami Attenberg I learned something more inescapable and interior: the demands of writing harder, writing your way through it, which is what I am doing right now, realigning the difference between obsession and devotion. And when I arrive safely back in America, never wanting to leave it again, and feeling quite like Catherine, Bae of Cambridge, returned from a cultural exhibition in a faraway former colony, I read Shelia Heti's How Should A Person Be? before Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins. Isn't it typical? We deny reward to those who gave us everything, and instead chase after the bright shiny being, robbing exchange of its value.


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