The one where we talk about books and sitcoms

Jack Chelgren

July 19, 2016

More than ten years after going off the air, NBC’s sitcom Friends still enjoys an enormous influence in popular culture. It’s still regular grist for Buzzfeed, it’s still Taylor Swift’s favorite show, and last year Netflix reportedly dropped around $120 million for streaming rights. Like the Clintons and boy bands, it’s an artifact of the nineties that, for better or worse, stuck around.

No doubt Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross owe their longevity to an ingenious alchemy of marketing and lifestyle branding. But another source of the series’s enduring appeal lies in its feel-good examination of the protagonists’ lives and relationships. Through its mastery of the “we’ve all been there” moment, Friends was able to define the parameters of the normal, creating a fantasy of wannabe-yuppie life that it could position, all humor aside, as realism. Whatever frustrations the characters might experience, the take-home message was always that career success, love, and middleclassness were attainable through patience and hard work (as well as, implicitly, being white, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied). Friends also placed a heavy emphasis on the private sphere, insisting that when the world lets you down, you rely on your inner circle for emotional and material support. The public is something you endure; it’s in personal relationships that the good life is possible.

The same messaging continues to sell stories, in literary fiction as well as television. Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which came out last year, follows the friendships of four men after they graduate from college. One of them, Jude St. Francis, suffered horrific abuse as a child, and the most wrenching aspects of the book explore how the trauma from those events affects Jude’s adult life and relationships. If someone forced you to give a zingy one-line summary, you could say it’s a novel about the limits of love, friendship, and the capacity of love and friendship to heal.

As many reviewers have noted, however, underneath the emotional opera of A Little Life is another story, a weirdly simplistic arc in which the four main characters rocket to wealth, fame, and glamor. Willem, the good guy, rises from threadbare beginnings as the son of poor immigrant ranchers to become a world-famous film star. JB, an artist and raging narcissist, garners shows at MoMA and front page-plaudits in the New York Times arts section. Jude battles his way to being one of the most respected and feared lawyers in New York, and even the boring one, Malcolm, becomes an internationally successful architect.

There are justifications for these triumphs and the suddenness with which they spring up in the plot. But the fact remains that A Little Life makes conquering the world look easy, whether the characters begin with entitlement, as JB does (“he never thought he didn’t deserve it”), or arrive there like Jude, disbelievingly, from the most abject of circumstances. If it weren’t for the sharp, often gratuitous examination of Jude’s suffering, the book would be smug and unreadable. Instead, it’s a deliciously melodramatic study of the private lives of rich people, which, for all its psychological bleakness, is curiously upbeat about social and economic mobility.

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, a newish collection of short stories by Diane Williams, treads in the same meadows of privilege. Superficially, it couldn’t be more different from A Little Life: these are neo-surrealist micro-fictions, some of them just a few sentences long, all of them averse to traditional elements of narrative like, you know, plot and character development. Where A Little Life wallows in tragedy, Williams’s stories slosh around in slapstick and body humor. “There had been the guest’s lavatory visit,” begins one piece called “Lavatory.” “She did so want to be comfortable then and for the rest of her life. She had been hiking her skirt and pulling down her undergarment, just trying not to fall apart.” Williams is apparently unconcerned with the kind of seriousness, depth, and pathos that give Yanagihara’s writing its oomph.

But on closer scrutiny, the stories’ strangeness doesn’t so much dissipate as turn semi-translucent, revealing a preoccupation with the fixtures of wealthy people’s lives. The book is so stuffed with dinner parties, home remodels, and décor that it sometimes reads like a blooper reel from Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Williams achieves her signature bizarreness by magnifying peculiarities and refusing to smooth them over into a familiar narrative—but all the stories address a single, very specific tax bracket.

Both A Little Life and Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine avoid current or historical events. Both keep discussions of racial, gendered, and economic power to a minimum. And both are obsessed with rich people, to the degree that they risk promoting meritocracy and minimizing structural inequality. And yet, in both books, the bubble of privilege wears thin. Midway through A Little Life, when Willem thinks about how unbelievable it is that he’s become a star; or a little later, when Jude marvels at the house he and Willem have bought upstate (to say nothing of their third home, an apartment in London), the story calls its own bluff, because these things are unbelievable—not impossible, surely, but so grandiose they smack of fantasy. The effect of the characters’ almost laughable successes is that the novel comes off as a soft critique, not an endorsement, of meritocracy. Trauma is the peak of its realism; prosperity and fulfillment are its fictions.

In Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, recurring motifs of opulence, social manners, and ennui affirm Williams’s focus on the fictiveness of upper- and middle-class life. Meanwhile, as in A Little Life, ideals like happiness, prosperity, and success are so insubstantial that they threaten to slip out of sight. Here’s the end of “Removal Men”:

It could be lovely, the woman was thinking. It was already lonely and there were mountains and mosses and grasses and violent deaths nowadays, and injuries and punishments, and the woman finds the merest suggestion of cheerful companionship and carousal—a bit too dramatic.

Williams maintains the terms of the good life but hollows them out—what else is “loveliness” in this passage but an indication that the present isn’t lovely? Even the title of the collection reflects the prevailing theme of vacuity, as the word fine, which once denoted elegance but now usually means just adequacy, is worn out into a groan of exasperation. Like the old definition of fine, affluence and prosperity are hollow and foreign in these stories, advertisements for their own extinction.

The cultural situation that these books address isn’t new. The middle class has been shrinking for thirty years, and the public sphere dwindling with it as institutions from prisons to schools to utilities are privatized. But even as our society proves less able to fulfill fantasies of a robust and plentiful life, we see stories insisting on their possibility or likelihood—stories like Friends, where the crew’s hard-earned happy endings confirm the mythology of the middle class. A Little Life and Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine are the anti-Friends, portraying conditions of wealth, career success, and celebrity in order to call these things into question. While Friends holds up personal relationships as the last reliable reservoirs of fulfillment in an increasingly barren public, Yanagihara and Williams suggest that neither the public nor the private is a sufficient guarantor of well being. Their politics lies in manipulating the conventions and imagery of stories about the upwardly mobile to draw out these stories’ deceptions, absurdities, and limits.

Books in this review:
  • A Little Life
    by Hanya Yanagihara

    March 09, 2015
    736 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
    by Diane Williams

    January 25, 2016
    136 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Jack Chelgren is a poet and essayist living in Seattle. He's an associate editor and contributor at Poetry Northwest. His writing has appeared in a number of publications including Alien Mouth, Mare Nostrum, and Gap Tooth.

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