More than two millennia ago Socrates opined that the unexamined life is not worth living, and people have taken him up on his call to introspection ever since. In fact, a bright new generation, who as kids were told they were special and precocious, is particularly adept at it, sharing discoveries about their pseudo-adult lives in novels and TV dramas that, depending on the audience, are either insufferable, unbelievably astute or both.
A whole lot of navel-gazing goes on in the novels of Sheila Heti and Amy Sohn. In Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) a group of artists and writers in Toronto muses on beauty and blow jobs and makes observations like “We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time.” In Prospect Park West (2009) and Motherland (2012), Sohn follows similarly restless Gen-Xers who read self-help books, join food co-ops and float between playgrounds and wine bars. They are preoccupied with real estate, their spouses’ shortcomings and such matters as not being able to “imagine making love to an Arab. Too scary, too Munich.”
These 20-, 30- and 40-somethings teeter intransigently on the precipice of full-fledged adulthood, as enraptured with precious self-discovery as a bunch of smug college students. In a passage in How Should a Person Be? Heti’s main character, Sheila, writes about being in a swimming pool with her friend Margaux: “I’m so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!” Bystanders were probably wishing the gals would scram so they could do some real swimming.
Hannah, the heroine of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, is endearing as well as enraging. You can’t watch the hapless Hannah bungle dates and let down friends for long before you want to grab hold of the 24-year-old, slap her silly, then give her a big hug and tell her she’s going to be okay.
Hannah and her friends are half a generation behind another group of fictional Brooklynites, the inept moms and faithless spouses who inhabit the stately brownstones of Park Slope in Amy Sohn’s novels Prospect Park West (2009) and Motherland (2012). Sohn’s characters seem destined to languish—they’re well established and entrenchedly bourgeois, and it’s probably too late for them to find any meaningful purpose in life. At its best, Girls is about a generation trying to find a voice and a sense of direction. One episode ends with Hannah falling asleep on the subway and, after she wakes up at an unfamiliar station, stumbling onto a platform. “Where am I?” she calls to some revelers across the way. We never hear the answer, but, unlike those lost souls in Sohn’s Park Slope, Hannah still has a few years to figure things out.
Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) documents the shapeless life of Sheila, a recently divorced playwright living in Toronto. Girls follows Hannah, a writer who’s precariously settling into what her mother derisively and anachronistically calls a “groovy lifestyle” in Brooklyn. Sheila is writing a play for a feminist theater company; Hannah is composing a collection of essays. These pursuits are tentative at best. As Hannah tells her parents, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”
How Should a Person Be? and Girls portray plenty of graphic male-female sex, but the most intimate scenes, including some pretty nasty ones, are between women. Sheila reflects, “I had hurt Margaux beyond compare. The heat of shame was the heat of my body”; a friend screams at Hannah, “You’re like a big, ugly, fucking wound!” As writers, Sheila and Hannah would do well to stick to the subject closest to their heart: the richness of female bonding. The portrayal of friendship is what makes How Should a Person Be? and Girls soar at times and may be the touchstone of a generation.
How Should a Person Be? (2012) and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius share more than highfalutin titles. Both novels are largely autobiographical works of unabashed postmodern showmanship. How Should a Person Be? is told in emails, transcripts of conversations and random notes; Heartbreaking Work contains a set of rules for enjoying the book, numerous snide asides and a reflexive interview for MTV’s Real World. Heti focuses on the inner struggle of coming to terms with oneself and one’s place in the world. Eggers’s tale is a Dickensian page-turner about a 21-year-old whose parents succumb to cancer within a month of each other, leaving him to raise his eight-year-old brother.
For Heti, life’s minutiae can present epic challenges. Looking into a mirror, the main character must decide if she should adopt a “haughty, superior expression to intimidate myself into thinking I’m cool, cooler than I am.” Eggers doesn’t really have time for such musing. He’s kept busy teaching his kid brother to sock-slide, fretting that a babysitter may be a murderer and in other ways prematurely assuming the mantle of parenthood. Both books are about endurance, but as Eggers proves, life has a way of clarifying the struggles that matter.
In a scene in Girls, Hannah asks her parents for money: “All I’m asking for…is $1,100 a month—for the next two years.” Her mother snorts, “That’s insane,” but her dad’s expression says it all. He’s doing the math, wondering how to make it work, because Hannah is his little girl. She has been raised to think she’s special, or as she tells herself when prepping for a party, “You are from New York; therefore you are just naturally interesting.”
Hannah’s the kind of person who aced the IQ test as a child. (An intelligence quotient measures how smart someone is compared to everyone else and predicts her future success; people who test well as kids often cling to their high IQs throughout their lives.) No matter how many stupid things Hannah says, we never forget she still has potential. She sabotages a job opportunity, telling the interviewer, a Syracuse University alum, “I read a statistic that said Syracuse has the highest incident of date rape of any university…which weirdly went way down the year you graduated.” The comment is terribly inappropriate, as the man points out. But at the same time, it’s pretty clever.
The seven precocious children of Bessie and Les Glass, who appear throughout J.D. Salinger’s novellas and short stories, are some of the most memorably frustrating characters in 20th-century literature. Over the years, all these high-IQ children in turn perform brilliantly on the radio quiz program It’s a Wise Child. Their collective success irritates some listeners, who consider them “a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth.” The Glasses have frayed some literary nerves, too. Critic and essayist Alfred Kazin referred to them as “horribly precocious,” Mary McCarthy wrote off the family’s collective soul-searching as a struggle of “the good people against the stupid phonies,” and Joan Didion dismissed the Glass saga as “positive thinking for the upper-middle classes.” In the end, Salinger did not treat his characters any more kindly. Only Boo Boo, who marries and moves to the suburbs, seems capable of living comfortably in the real world beyond New York’s Upper East Side. Seymour, the oldest son, commits suicide, and Franny, the youngest daughter, suffers a nervous collapse. Salinger, a vigilant observer of human nature, surely knew a high IQ alone can’t get us through life.
J.D. Salinger’s Glass siblings spend most of their time in the messy family apartment and, even there, often confine themselves to more limited spaces—a bathtub with the shower curtain drawn around it or a darkened bedroom. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers’s family lives in a disheveled suburban house and holes up in a paneled room where the protagonist’s mother lies on a plaid couch emptying the contents of her cancer-ridden stomach into a plastic bowl. The eccentric Glass family does not really fit into its snooty Upper East Side neighborhood, and Eggers says his family is “oddly white-trashy for our town.”
Near the end of Salinger’s short story “Zooey,” the title character shakes a glass snow globe to create a maelstrom around the snowman permanently lodged inside—rather like the Glasses themselves, who never break out of their emotionally stormy, hermetically sealed world. Eggers is determined that he and the brother entrusted to his care make their way in a broader world. As he tells his readers, “I’ll be plowing through the fog…to show the core, which is still there, as a core, and is valid, despite the fog.”
The poor Glass children: They came of age 60 years too soon. In the context of the square 1950s they stand out like sore thumbs. Franny’s college-boy date is completely clueless when she tells him, “Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad making.” He just doesn’t get it when she talks about the little book she carries around, The Way of the Pilgrim, and how it recommends incessantly repeating the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” to bring on a mystical experience.
Franny and her siblings would feel right at home with writer Sheila Heti. Their unceasing, self-conscious reflections would be accepted as de rigueur in a world where a Heti character postulates without a hint of self-irony, “Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much. And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic.” Clearly, the age of intellectual narcissism is upon us.