Arts & Culture

Primal Scream Therapy with Tortured Authors, Part 4: Chaos and Creation

From: Matthue Roth To: Marty Beckerman Subject:  Chaos and Creation Marty, I have the advantage of writing fiction, if we’re making it a contest, and the biggest advantage of fiction is that "flaws" don’t count. I don’t mean flaws in … Read More

By / October 2, 2008

From: Matthue Roth To: Marty Beckerman Subject:  Chaos and Creation


I have the advantage of writing fiction, if we’re making it a contest, and the biggest advantage of fiction is that "flaws" don’t count. I don’t mean flaws in spelling or when characters inexplicably pop up in the middle of scenes — I’m talking about the emotional rawness and the fundamental awkwardness that authors have, which translates to the perfection of awkwardness and rawness that our characters have. Case in point: My first novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, is about a self-assured 17-year-old Orthodox girl who’s punk-rock, confident, sassy and in-your-face — basically, everything that I wanted to be at 17 that I absolutely wasn’t. Four years later, I look back at Hava and I’m simultaneously wincing and kvelling. I was never that sure about anything in life — not my religion, not my music, not even my attitude about myself. And then I started reading the reviews. People said I made her perfectly flawed, that I built up her bubble, and then popped it. The reviews were complimentary, but I was horrified. I was like, She’s not egotistical! She’s the coolest person I always wanted to fall in love with! It was great. My image of perfection imploded on itself, and apparently I learned how to create a tragic protagonist. My new novel, Losers, is almost the direct opposite. Jupiter Glazer, the main character, is shy and "gawkward" and insecure. He’s Russian, and his English comes out sounding like muddy puddles of glop. In one of the first chapters, this girl teaches him how to flirt by teaching him how to lose his accent, and it’s a scene I’m hugely proud of — not because it’s masterful or well-structured or anything, but because, well, Jupiter is so overwhelmingly bad at whatever he does.

"Okay, let me try. Um. Did you hear how you said dropped? You swallowed up the O, you rolled the r, and you squish the p and d together at the end. Listen to the way I said it, just from what you remember." I said it. "Now try it slower." She said dropped again, in slow motion. I repeated her. She shook her head no. Then she reached over and took my hands in hers. She lifted them to her face. I could feel my entire body heating up, the knuckles between my fingers stiffening. She placed them gently on her cheeks and throat. "Feel the way I say it." "Say it." "Dropped." "Draah-ppeht," I echoed her. I felt ludicrous saying it, being made to say that same word again and again. I felt like a domesticated parakeet. I cleared my head: I couldn’t second-guess myself now. I felt like I was on the brink of learning some forbidden knowledge, standing on the precipice of this giant mountain that was going to be the rest of my life. "Once more," Tonya said, smiling at me. "Say it." "Again?" I asked. Tonya nodded. "When I move, you move," she said. My hand tensed into her cheek. She squeezed my fingers, enthusiastically, supportively. Her mouth convulsed, danced through the word like a ballerina in slow motion, vogueing and pirouetting each step in one one-hundredth of normal speed, slowed down beyond the range of any normal household DVD player, moving and reacting to every microsyllable in the word. I said it again. The moment felt like hours in my head, every part of every sound. My mouth imitated hers. For the merest fraction of a second, my mouth became hers, more vivid than a 3-D movie, more intimate than making out. And it sounded, it felt, absolutely perfect. "Just like that?" I asked her. She smiled. "Just like that."

I did it Elmore Leonard-style: wrote fast and took out whatever parts bored me. Is this imperfection as art? Freezing every moment in time, every mistake, cherishing every potential dorky or inappropriate gesture, word, or facial expression, and saying, Well, I meant it at the time. I prefer to think of it as "Parker Lewis Syndrome." Parker Lewis, if you don’t know, was the protagonist of the early-‘90s comedy Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, an exquisitely weird show about this kid who wore paisley button-down shirts and made obtuse references to Twin Peaks episodes, but — for some wildly improbable reason — was the most popular kid in the town where he lived. It wasn’t that he was rich or smart or talented; he didn’t even really have a girlfriend. Instead, it was some indefinable combination of wackiness, iconoclasm, and chutzpah that endeared him to each one of the town’s stereotypical teen-groups in a different way, from the jocks (who protected him) to the nerds (who helped him hack into the school computer system, although I seem to remember Parker being an expert hacker on his own) to the indy-rockers who played as the backing band when he finally went on a date. It was being in the right place at the right time; it was the essence of je ne sais quoi, a phrase that we love to throw around and never think about the fact that it has no meaning. Maybe it’s Divine intervention; maybe it’s that the girl I’m crushing on is fully confessionally drunk the same night that I am. It’s dumb luck. I always wanted to be a Parker Lewis. Instead I ended up being a Jupiter Glazer: bumbling, fumbling, unapologetically trying to be someone I’m not and failing. When Goldbergs came out, people asked if it was autobiographical. Was it autobiographical? Did I want it to be autobiographical? The truth was probably a bit of both. Losers is a whole other side of me: the frank, tearfully honest, and painfully embarrassing side. The part that tumbles out before you have a chance to think about it or analyze at all, and then everyone’s staring at you, and all you can really say is: Yeah, I said it. What do you think of that?

Marty Beckerman, author of Dumbocracy, and Matthue Roth, author of Losers, are blogging together on Jewcy, and they’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.