Book: NVSQVAM (nowhere)
Author: Ann Sterzinger
Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Oh, this book…
Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Amazon currently has this book on sale for Kindle for $2.99. That makes it almost impossible not to take a look.
Comments: There are two reasons to read this book. The first reason is because Sterzinger nails a specific social dissatisfaction I tend to associate with the sorts of men who really love Jonathan Franzen, a sort of Lester Burnham-esque unhappiness that can only be cured by having sex with a much-younger woman and sneering at the daily grind and everyday domesticity. She distills this generational malaise through a single character and refuses to show us the way out, because, most of the time there isn’t one. The other reason to read it is because it is so very funny. Seriously, Sterzinger has the sort of intelligent, acerbic wit that I imagined I had back when I was a drunk.
I think this is a book that will read differently to every person who picks it up. Women of a certain age (hi!) will want to take the protagonist and swat him with a newspaper until he stops pissing and moaning about his life and either accepts it or changes it in a meaningful way, and I wanted to swat him all the more because Lester (yep, Lester) Reichartsen is himself a man of a certain age. He embodies the Gen-X confusion-burnout that I see plaguing so many of my age-peers, coupled with a longing for an edgy past because their passivity and entitlement meant they ended up in a life they really never wanted but didn’t have the balls to reject along the way.
In the beginning, Lester is just one of those people. You know, the ones to whom everything happens and they actually do very little. They feel very put-upon. Lester is more or less living a life he hates that he feels happened to him due to no actions or faults of his own. He hates everyone around him – especially his only child and the religious mid-westerners who surround his college town – and the only things he really accomplishes, aside from a prolonged, drunken nervous breakdown, are taking long walks and engaging in an affair.
Though I find Lester largely irritating and unlikeable, he is not unique in his passive, seething uselessness. Jesus, so many young people born to baby boomer parents ended up like this. Almost all of us were latch-key kids, the post-Reagan economic state seemed hopeless, and we had Pearl Jam running across the stage in baggy shorts making millions of dollars moaning about their mothers, which was sort of understandable because so many of us were raised in divorced, single-parent, female-headed households. Some young men raised in such an environment felt buffeted by fate, as if everything they wanted would never happen and they entered a post-collegiate life with no idea what to do next. Get married? Yeah, that worked so well for our parents. Get a good job? But aren’t we supposed to find our bliss and honor our talents? Didn’t our parents raise us to honor our deep individuality (while giving us little assistance in determining how to put that individuality to use)? Get a factory job? None are left. The world changed so much in such a short period of time that all the lessons many Gen-xers were taught were obsolete the day after they became adults.
It’s tempting to write Lester off as a self-involved crap-fest of a human being, but even as I wanted to grab his nose between my index and middle finger and twist it violently, I felt a certain level of empathy for him. He almost seems like an embodiment of the sentiment expressed in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club – we were all told we were going to be rock stars and when that didn’t happen it pissed off large segments of this generation. So many of us feel like we have failed our families, ourselves and especially our past, idealistic selves. What do we do about that rage and real failure? To avoid that sense of failure, wounded egos become passive, taking paths of least resistance, so they can say that they aren’t responsible for anything in their lives – that’s how we end up with Lesters. Lester Reichartsen is a self-absorbed, largely useless asshole but he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. You can’t hobble large segments of a generation and then hold them completely responsible for limping.
What helped me so much as I grappled with my feelings about Lester is the fact that this is a very funny book. Jesus, every time I have ever been funny it was solely by accident. I have absolute envy for people who can be humorous and witty with purpose. This book sieves sly and outright humor through a representative of a wreck of a generation. There is some pretty serious and meaningful content in this book, but the humor wins out as the reason to read it.
Before I wallow in the humor, let me give a synopsis of this book: Lester Reichartsen is married to Evelyn, a formerly hot young woman who became forever ruined to Lester when she got pregnant and gave birth to their son, Martin. Martin is a genius and that rubs Lester raw because he himself is not a genius and he can see, very clearly, how this child he did not want is going to eclipse him as an adult. Lester and Evelyn are both in academia, and Evelyn is good at it – she takes pleasure in research, writing and teaching. Lester can barely be arsed to learn the basics of his own field of expertise. His Latin students know more about the topic than he does and he hates every moment of working on his thesis, using every excuse and bad habit to avoid real work.
Lester was ousted from a punk band when he was younger and this also eats at him. When he meets a young woman wearing his old band’s logo t-shirt, he begins to long for his lost youth and the life he gave up when he married Evelyn. He took other people’s advice and went into academia and hates every minute of it. He eventually sleeps with the young woman, and that comes with its own set of problems. He’s drinking himself into mini-comas, seeking psychiatric help (or actually, psychiatric meds), struggling to care about the thesis he is supposed to be writing, and ruining his marriage and his life in general because he bought into the Palahniuk dream described above – he’s not a punk rock star and he is pissed off and depressed but unfortunately his sense of entitlement disables him from finding a positive outlet for his many grudges. His resentment for his son Martin, whose intelligence means that Martin will eventually dwarf him professionally, for his wife, whom he sees more as a mother than a wife, his job and his life in general creates a cataclysmic ending that I still don’t know if I like much because, like I said, I wanted to twist the gristle in Lester’s nose until he squealed in pain but I also tend to think that Sterzinger knew what she was doing because Lester, at his core, was not an evil man. He was just self-absorbed, selfish and venal.
So back to the humor.
Like the book itself, the humor in NVSQVAM will read differently to everyone who reads the book. I may be in a minority when I assert that Lester has enough self-awareness to make some of his thoughts and dialogue clever and amusing. My copy of this book is littered with yellow marks indicating a line or paragraph that I found funny in some manner, so many that I have a hard time knowing which ones to discuss.
The first one I highlighted is funny to me now because I don’t remember why I found it funny, which is sort of funny in itself.
Once he got lost in the structure of an essay, he was like an eyeless Oedipus in a labyrinth. Only not that cool.
From here on out, the humor is easier for me to recall why I was so amused. Here Lester is observing the students on his campus, and he can only see things the way he does because he has deliberately and self-righteously set himself apart from those empty-headed students.
When forced to walk the 100-yard length of the student center, they consoled themselves by talking on their portable phones; their transit time was tripled, since every five steps or so they would bump into each other and wander off the track. It was like a prison for senile cats.
In the beginning, before I really got a sense of who Lester is, this seemed very… I don’t know… on the mark. A nice little lampoon of people who simply cannot exist alone with their thoughts for a few moments because anything short of continual online conversation or passive entertainment is boring to them. But then I read more and understood that Lester took hours-long meandering walks alone with his relentless inner dialogue. If those students bounced off each other in a prison for senile cats, Lester was in solitary confinement for personality disordered turtles. It’s a nice way to handle Lester, to let him reveal just enough of himself – a disgust for tiresome elements of academia, exhaustion from dealing with ignorant and digitally absorbed people – that the reader cannot help but agree. Then we later find out Lester is unstable and sort of a dick and we are then confronted with the idea that maybe we the readers are not as enlightened as we think we are when we first agree with Lester.
But then there are the moments when he is completely on the nose. Here’s Lester as he starts a day’s work in the field he has chosen as his life’s ambition:
The file finally came on screen and Lester stared at it like a caveman. It seemed to have been written in no known language. He’d been over every phoneme of it thousands of times, and even the English words had no meaning for him anymore; the Latin looked like the transcript of a dispute between squirrels.
I am a grad school drop out. I couldn’t stomach academia and I don’t even know why I enrolled in grad school because my last year of college was a complete slog. My Latin class translated Cicero’s De Amicitia and there were moments when I finished Latin work and began to read texts for literature classes and stared at the pages as if I had never seen English words before. I look back over notes and textbooks from that time and in the margins of pages I frequently drew a stick figure with a long, bent neck and an enormous head that drooped down past its shoulders, dangling on the end of that long neck like a wilting balloon. I called him “nothingface” and if that little drawing came to life I bet he would love this book.
Oh Jesus, I tend to think this next section shows Lester in as honest a state as he can ever be. And it’s so very funny to me. Lester is seeing, if I recall correctly, a graduate student in psychology or psychiatry. He initially admits exactly what it is he hopes to accomplish – obtaining excellent drugs – but as he is prodded to speak, all that plagues Lester comes pouring out.
“OK, so I’m ashamed. And I really need some drr … medication. Some help. I’m going insane. I want to kill my teachers, I want to kill my students, I want to kill my son, I want to kill my cat. And fine! I am tying one on every two weeks or so, and it pisses off my wife – and she’s a fine fucking one to talk since it was during her happy-go-lucky alcoholic days that she forgot to take her fucking birth control and fucking didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to ruin the fucking anniversary of our first fuck and nine months later she shat out that miserable kid and then we had to get married …
“Oh, god, listen to me. I’m the father from hell. I’ve turned into an even worse version of my father. OK, so I don’t beat the kid, or yell at him, but I think at least my father loved me. I try to love the kid, but all I can come up with is duty with affection forced into it. I feel like I have to fill a giant pastry shell of duty with the soft whipped cream of affection, but the plunger is stuck. AHHH! Did I just imply that I’m impotent? I’m definitely not impotent. Although once in a while I wish I’d been. AHHHHH! I need a drink. Are there any antidepressants that won’t kill my sex drive?”
I feel I should mention that he wouldn’t have even been there in the first place had Evelyn, she who shat out the kid, not cut him off from her own rationed benzo prescription, an act of marital self-preservation that annoys Lester. Also Lester sort of pervs on the doctor/therapist. He really digs her legs. He needs more help than can ever be given him in a therapeutic setting.
The entire section wherein Lester, Evelyn and Martin visit family over the Christmas holidays is just excruciating and hilarious. There’s too damn much to reproduce here so I consider that long section to be the price of admission for this book. One of the things I really love about Mr Oddbooks is that he, much like me, loves his family but loves them best at a distance. He’s never encouraged an extended holiday hell march like Evelyn emotionally coerced her family into and if he did the only way I would have been able to endure it would have been to consume as much alcohol as Evelyn and Lester downed during their Christmas torture.
But he has to stay drunk. He has no choice.
I need to cut down on the booze … but if I cut down any further I’ll be living in reality practically all the time.
And goddamn if Sterzinger doesn’t absolutely nail the ridiculous, maudlin misery that comes from being a semi-professional drunk. Staggering home, drunk as hell, Lester remembers how unhappy Brett Favre looked during a bad moment during a game and it sparks a long, dark minute of the soul in a man completely unaccustomed to giving a shit about anyone else.
Feeling sorry for myself doesn’t feel half as bad as this, and I’m a self-centered bastard! How can normal people stand it? Why is world hunger allowed to exist? … the sheer pain it must cause to anyone who isn’t hungry and has a decently functional empathy gland … oh! Holy shit! – Does that mean everyone is as selfish and evil as I am? No wonder things are such a fucking mess!
Though it is not particularly amusing, I want to share this quote from Evelyn, who is very patiently trying to encourage Lester to live in a different manner because eating shit, drinking to excess and seething as a form of exercise were clearly contributing to his obvious mental and physical problems. He outright mocks her because she made him a nice meal and she snaps at him.
“Jesus, Lester! We aren’t twenty-five! Eating ramen noodles isn’t funny anymore! It’s depressing!” She took another deep breath and tried to smile at him. “Don’t you think I can tell you’re not happy? I’m not happy either, Lester. We’ve been working too hard for too long. I’m just trying to get whatever comforts of life we can afford, OK? If you’re that stuck on your romantic vision of being a punk-rock-ape who sleeps in a pile of used drum heads and eats Count Chocula cereal for three meals a day forever, do what makes you feel good. But don’t talk to me like I’m some stupid 50s housewife because I want to live like a real person!”
And then Evelyn destroys his plate of food in front of him because fuck Lester and his rejection of everything she is and wants. I struggle with his. I am a force of order and domesticity and the house and our life suffers when my old pal cyclical depression shows up. I often feel… reduced and diminished by people who find such attention to domestic detail boring and pointless. Yes, yes, I know I was supposed to be a college professor or a lawyer or at the very least a semi-successful writer with a profound substance abuse problem but instead I’m just a woman with a house and cats and a lot of really healthy recipes and a love for Swiffer products. So yeah, I know I’m trivial, no better than Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show. But don’t sneer at me to my face. Have the grace to look down on me once I’ve left the room. I get Evelyn’s rage here.
But I also get Lester’s rejection of a Martha Stewart, home-cooked, orderly life. It seems like comfort is what happens when you just don’t have the balls to hack it in the real, artistic world. If you’re producing excellent art, who cares if you eat nothing but take-out and never change your sheets? I don’t necessarily see it that way all the time but I often wonder if I am no different than everyone who is dropping out and making jam and keeping chickens in their side yard. Domesticity is what seems to happen when nothing else happens – it seems like a second-option, a plan B. I thank my stars that Mr Oddbooks doesn’t think that way. He likes our comfortable life. Some of us who spent too long in squalor don’t see the artistic value of it anymore. But I also know plenty of my peers look askance at what can only appear to them as me having chosen comfort because I cannot be Dorothy Parker.
Sometimes the humor in this book is very dark, while still being appealing. Take this passage wherein Lester is speaking to his young son after Martin asks his father to play a board game with him on a snow day and his father declines:
“You’re no fun.”
“Just wait till you’re seventeen and you have to write your dissertation. We’ll see how fun you are, then.”
“‘How much fun you are,’ Dad.”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself? I mean that affectionately.” He patted Martin too hard on his head and wondered how horribly he would act when he got drunk at Martin’s PhD graduation – whether he would buy him a drink too, though he was underaged; whether he would throw up on the cake … whether he would even be alive by then.
God, Lester is a miserable prick. Yeah, it sucks to have your kid correct your grammar, but come on! I think Martin is eight in this scene. If not he hasn’t reached double digits yet. And it’s not like Lester actually wants to work on his dissertation. He hates his work, he hates his area of specialization, he hates his school, teachers and students. Why not play a game with his son? Well, because Lester hates his son and the prospect of being shown up by his son worst of all. Look, the world sucks in almost every regard and so many of us get cornered into scenarios we didn’t choose. In a sense, it is commendable, the way that Lester refuses to accept his fate. But he’s shitting all over his kid, who genuinely didn’t ask for any of this, as annoying as he sort of is (yeah, Martin is irritating in the way that all precocious children are irritating). Divorce Evelyn, start a new band, find co-eds online and fuck their brains out nightly – do anything to keep from shitting all over the kid. But Lester does none of that. He just stews and fumes and flails and considers his failure a Martin-shaped roadblock. Had Lester acted once in his own positive self interest without assigning squirmy blame to the innocent, I think I would have cut him so much more slack.
His snow day with his wife isn’t going much better. She’s not pleased at how drunk he already is so early in the day and no longer makes a pretense of keeping it to herself, to Lester’s dismay.
Maybe I’ll nail her door shut. Then Martin and I can drink vodka from a giant latex bra and roll around in the living room in diapers. She says she wants us to bond. I don’t think he’ll complain. Just as long as he doesn’t bother me with fucking Othello again.
Shortly after this, rather than nailing the door shut, he tries to nail Evelyn in the kitchen. Which she shoots down.
Eventually a therapist speculates that Lester has a personality disorder, an observation we all saw coming.
I hesitate to discuss the footnotes for fear readers will recoil and be all, “No way, everyone raved about that shit in Infinite Jest and I fell for it once. Never again!” and dismiss this book out of hand. Sterzinger’s footnotes never venture into grotesque self-indulgence, I swear! I have a couple of favorites.
In a book that speaks of punk music often, it’s not unexpected that some of the footnotes would attempt to clarify certain musical ideas. Here’s footnote 25:
God, how do you describe death metal to readers of the future? Uh … first, you play classical music really fast with really loud guitars to get metal, and then you add lyrics about violent death and get rid of the ballads to get death metal.
This footnote, interestingly, is on a page wherein Lester is discussing his ouster from his punk band, Incognito Mosquito. He was more or less kicked out because he had a day job and missed practice one day in order to take an extra shift and the real drunken, hardcore member of his band challenged him. Almost all the members of death metal bands I know of, even the famous ones, have day jobs. Had Lester had dreams of death metal god-status, maybe all of this would have turned out differently. But then again, maybe not. After severing from his band, he justified the hell out of it – dislike for the squalor, loathing for the nasty, drug-addled elements of his band. He hated the squalor but he also hates the comfort Evelyn offers. He just hates living, the sheer boredom of being alive.
Some of the other footnotes were great because they seemed directly aimed at my own sensibilities. Footnote 31, referring to Jackson Pollock:
20th C. splatter painter that people admired for some theoretical reason.
Another excellent footnote (72) attempts to explain The Muppet Show:
TV show from the 197os involving spooky puppets on dimly-lit sets. Fozzy was an ursine stand-up comedian. Piggy was a porcine nymphomaniac who compulsively pursued an asexual frog.
The humor helps in this book, and while I suspect that many readers will identify with Lester in some regards, there is an innate nastiness to Lester that prevents complete empathic reaction. He is just such an asshole. He engages in black and white thinking in a manner that will seem excessive even to the most hardened sufferer of borderline personality disorder. His son is intelligent? To Lester, Martin’s intellect is nothing to be proud of because it is a sign that one day his own son may do better in life than he does, be more renowned, be more respected. His beautiful wife is a good mother and excellent at her job? She asks Lester not to drink until he is immobile and his only response to such a request is to drink even more than he initially intended because as soon as Evelyn gave birth, she ceased to be a partner and became a mother-by-proxy and he refuses to be nagged by a mother. She’s just someone to be defied, even if it means ruining his own life in the defiance. Lester is obsessed with youth and trivia to the point that it is impossible to believe he is really capable of growing up until something cataclysmic and irreparable changes everything in his life.
And one last vague discussion of the ending of this book – I think that one of the reasons I recoiled from the way everything ended is because I really wanted Lester to develop some nobility of character. I wanted him to stop dragging down others around him. Instead he infected those who should have been dearest to him in a way even his diseased ego could not have foreseen. Until the last page, Lester was completely ignoble. And I suspect that is how it had to be. We human beings seldom see the damage we are doing until that damage is irreversible.
This is a very good book. Sterzinger managed to write a book about a man I find tiresome and often despicable and infuse it with enough humanity and humor to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes that which represents individual tragedy is comedic in the perspectives of others. Lester is laughable and incredibly sad. He’s an asshole, but like I said, he’s our asshole. Highly recommended.