Isolation (re) Read #72

Subtitle: “Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Published in 1991. I remember the excitement that greeted it. It was (“at last”) ‘the new Catcher in the Rye’. And I remember originally reading it, breathlessly racing through the tales of newly disaffected American youth, with their boredom and their dead-end “McJobs” in a couple of sittings. Then I put it on the shelf. Next taking it down again a couple of weeks ago – in the intervening years and awful lot has happened and the book as an entire thing has not aged well.

There’s a problem with writing into a “scene / period” in that it soon passes into history and unless it is brilliant, your book dates badly: Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Gatsby etc were just written…as the author saw the world around him, this book doesn’t feel like that, it feels more mannered somehow, with a lot of graduate-level aimlessness presented as philosophical nihilism. The phrase “occupational slumming”, sums it up well and in a way therein also lies the problem – for some people taking these McJobs is all well and good as a phase, as a ‘rejection’ of ‘what the world expects them to do’, but for others without the parental cushion or the educational get-out, these jobs have become a grinding, remorseless necessity. There’s a faint whiff of condescension, but of course, that is reading it today and it does not do to ‘read with hindsight’ because we will get nowhere fast. The atmosphere evoked feels like a Richard Linklater or early Gus van Sant movie, with lots of accidentally gorgeous people getting high, out in the desert musing on life: it is also no Fear and Loathing…more a case of ennui and ironic disinterest in Palm Springs.

The edition I have is interestingly presented with wider than normal pages, with extended blank outer margins, allowing for slogans or explanatory captions (which nowadays make it look like a word document with “track changes” switched on) – such as:

Poor Buoyancy: The realisation that one was a better person when one had less money.

Nostalgia is a weapon”

Ozmosis: The inability of one’s job to live up to one’s self-image.

Less is a possibility”

Veal-fattening pen: Small, cramped office workstations built of fabric-covered disassemblable wall portions and inhabited by junior staff members. Named after the small preslaughter cubicles used by the cattle industry.”* (I like this one)

The three main characters, Andy, Dag and Claire share a house in Palm Springs: where the have moved to from respectively, Canada, Oregon and Los Angeles. Aside from not really engaging with their not-very-engaging employment, they seem to mainly spend their time telling each other stories, some of which are real events and some of which are fictions. Some of these stories within the main story, are good, others just peter out. Claire falls for Tobias (the straw-yuppie, with his mobile phone) and follows him to New York, more or less on a whim…Tobias is the (mainly oblivious) target for snide derision from Dag and Andy. While Elvissa, Claire’s best friend becomes Dag’s on-off girlfriend.

The most noticeable thing is how much the digital world has raced on in the last 30 years and with it our working, shopping, communicating and travel habits. This cutting edge book has no internet, is refreshingly free of emails and texts, Tinder and all the rest. What foreboding there is in the novel is centred around some kind of nuclear armageddon…there is a little bit of climate concern, and there is no sense of coming destruction of the things binding communities (the big works / mines in towns; the strength of unions; welfare systems; affordable and functioning education) that Thatcher and Reagan were putting into gear at the time.

It is by no means a ‘bad’ novel, it just hasn’t aged well. It still feels, just, like a portrait of a more innocent time, a time when young people could take some time out without getting remorselessly chewed over by the way life is set up at the moment, and that is a loss.

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