Ellis/DFW/Franzen vs. Lin/Zambreno/Pink

Steve Rhodes
Steve Rhodes

1. This article is not about comparing who is good or bad, how a writer should write, how a writer should live, how one should do anything. This will be about differences, like differences between mountains, The Rocky Mountains are beautiful, the Himalayas are beautiful, there is no reason to discuss which one is better, that is a waste of time and excessive discrimination. We can love and honor them both while at the same time investigating the differences between the two. And by understanding the differences, we may understand ourselves better, our place in the grand scheme of things, maybe the secrets of how we feel inside.

2. Who were Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen? They were three white males who grew up in very nice neighborhoods with college educated parents.

Tao Lin is a first generation from Taiwan, Sam Pink is blue collar from Chicago and Kate Zambreno is a woman.

3. How did Ellis/DFW/Franzen approach a theme and how to write a story? They would find a theme derived from current topical subjects that the mass media/audience would find interesting, for example “Rich kids are crazy nihilist drug addicts” “Our parents are getting old and families aren’t close anymore” “We can find spiritual value in things like AA or athletics.”

You take one of those themes and create a giant elaborate plot that requires research, the story has a lot of twists and turns, the story is not autobiographical, the writing is always clever and ‘written well.’ What it means to always have clever writing, is that ‘real sentences’ can never break through. Writing for Ellis/DFW/Franzen are always stylized, simplicity and directness is not part of their paradigm.

Writers like Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Natsume Soseki or Jean Rhys who did not ‘write well’ weren’t even on their map. They were messy or even noisy writers, who prefered vernacular to highly stylized writing. Their writing did have their ‘own style’ but it was always rooted in vernacular and simple human speech and feeling.

4. How do Lin/Zambreno/Pink approach a theme and how to write a story? They live for a period of time on planet earth, doing their little people things, and eventually a theme arises from the past year or so. They experience ‘something’ and have an incredible emotion concerning that experience, and they have to write it out, they have to get it out of them, as a form of therapy for themselves.

DFW was always very concerned how television would affect the writer, but I believe these new writers solved this problem by turning off the television, and creating their own interpretation of reality. Because what does television do, it interprets reality, often erroneously, for the sake of selling products, political parties, and people selling themselves.

Lin/Zambreno/Pink rejected television and hollywood movies entirely, by writing their own personal experiences, they are declaring, “I own my experience.” They do not go to TV psychologists, sitcoms, cable news talking heads or Tom Cruise movies for answers, they know mainstream answers are motivated by profit, and most of all their answers are temporary, timely and insufficient. There is nothing beautiful or edifying about Big Bang Theory or cable news.

This is the difference between a rebel and a revolutionary: Ellis/DFW/Franzen/Zadie Smith/Mark Leyner are rebels, they believe firmly in the system of America, progress, democracy, academia, and even in wealth, as long as wealth is moral. They believe in literary topics, such as discussing the ‘future of literature’ or ‘if novels are dead’ even though in reality, those topical articles do nothing but promote the writer, and don’t actually influence anything. They criticize the system, but do not claim it should disappear.

A revolutionary, contrary to popular opinion, does not fight the powers that be directly. A revolutionary finds nothing in a particular value system worthwhile, and creates their own value system and goes to the left or right of the object that oppresses them. They merely stop recognizing the legitimacy of the opponent, and live out their own value system.

5. The Revolution of Lin/Zambreno/Pink:

Tao Lin takes a knife and stabs DFW in the stomach and twists the knife laughing with Taipei. Bret Easton Ellis was non-judgmental with drug addict characters, but there was always a moral behind it saying that drugs weren’t the answer.

DFW in Infinite Jest makes the argument that drugs are not the answer, that to replace the death of God and corporate culture, we should focus our energy on joining a club like AA, academia or using athletics to give our lives meaning.

Tao Lin, along with shows like The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia says that drug addiction is fine, it is an okay substitute for religion or belief in a higher power. I think these new beliefs on alcohol and drugs are derived from the fact of how meaningless our lives have become, we work meaningless jobs for corporate latifundias, the corporations basically own everything now, we are forced by circumstance to work for and buy the products of the very people who are paying off politicians to make our lives worse, this is devastating for the human soul. If everything around you, communicates to you, “You are meaningless,” then why even try? Why not do drugs and drink yourself to sleep at night?

Sam Pink achieves DFW’s dream of ‘boredom writing.’ DFW thought with The Pale King that by constructing a giant plot about the IRS, even going so far to take classes on accounting to research the book he could write about boredom. But Sam Pink achieves this simply by having characters walk down the streets of Chicago or work at Target, or talk extensively about bees. For Sam Pink, life is a person living in a city with very little ambition, they live in an apartment, they go to work, while you are at work someone says something funny, you laugh, they laugh, it makes the day easier, you leave work, walk or drive home, sometimes something happens like a crazy person is at the convenient store, or you pass a car wreck, you get to your apartment, you read a book, watch television on your computer, the person you live with talks about their interests, you listen to them talk, you talk about your interests, sometimes you have sex, sometimes you go to the store and buy new shoes, nothing resolves, because nothing actually began, there is no beginning or ending, simply a human going from building to building doing things.

Some people might view this as bad, living an incredibly simplified version of life. But isn’t this what Jesus, Buddha, Thoreau and Diogenes prescribed, a life of simplicity. Sam Pink rejects the life of ambition, the desire for fame and wealth. He doesn’t discriminate though, he doesn’t say wealth is bad or poverty is good, or wealth is good and poverty bad, he doesn’t recognize that discussion as legitimate, and walks around it.

Kate Zambreno, to me the ultimate revolutionary. When I read Green Girl I imagined her twitching, crying and pounding the keys like a maniac. Kate Zambreno is a woman, to get on this list she had to get a masters degree and win awards, the two men didn’t. Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz the male nighttime hosts on MSNBC needed no higher than a masters degree to get their jobs, while Rachel Maddow had to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and get a doctorate to get her own show. A woman has to go to the most famous school on planet earth to compete with a man who went to Minnesota State University Moorhead?

Zambreno is very conscious of the inequalities, the sexism that exists everywhere, even concerning organizations calling themselves liberal. Zambreno takes on the responsibility of expressing the subtle truths of what it means to be a woman, of being their voice, all their voices, combined into one single person made of flesh and bones. As opposed to Tao Lin, who is an Asian-American, all we expect from him is to mention some Asian things sometimes, and we expect nothing from Sam Pink, he is a white male, who cares, he has permission to do anything he wants.

For Ellis/DFW/Franzen were not at all what it meant to be a woman, women often don’t seem like anything but props for the men. In Freedom by Franzen Patty Berglund gets center stage for awhile, but her personal memoir centers on her basketball career and her romantic things involving men. And the most heroic thing Patty Berglund did in Freedom was sit in the cold until her husband came out to get her, saying that women would prefer to die in the cold, than be without a man.

In Green Girl by Zambreno the female characters never devolve into wanting a long term relationship, or obsess about their romantic lives. The female characters have crushes, but their main concerns are trying to emotionally deal with having jobs, paying rent, being an American in England.

I think what happened to women was that since Gutenberg invented the printing press, men have been the editors, and men were not concerned with the nuances of women. But men have always viewed women at least in terms of sex and romance, so when a woman brings something romantic and sexual to the table, men grow interested. Men don’t care how women feel about ethics or what it is like to just walk down the street as woman, or the personal emotions a woman has when working at a job. When Ruth in Green Girl cuts her hair short, it was like a scream, like one of those horrible dubstep noises, a woman screaming, “I am going to shave my head, I will make myself ugly, to force you into treating me like a human!”

Kate Zambreno transcends even Kathy Acker with Green Girl because even Acker had to use sexuality to get attention. And Zambreno even questions the legitimacy of Marie Calloway, who always uses sex and romance to fuel the energy in her stories. But Zambreno refuses to go down that path.

6. Ellis/DFW/Franzen could see that corporatism was eroding the dignity and humanity of Americans, they could see a monster coming from the horizon, I imagine it to be like the last outpost in a terrible war, a spiritual Masada, where DFW, Ellis, Franzen, the grunge musicians, Tupac and NWA watch in terror as the monster surrounds them but still fighting ’til the bitter end, and we thank you for putting up the Good Fight. But you lost, and now we need new methods. TC mark

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Image Credit: Steve Rhodes

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