No Sympathy for the Incel

Last summer Ann Sterzinger asked me to participate in a podcast with alt.right writer Andy Nowicki in which we discussed incels.  “Incel” is a portmanteau that combines the words “involuntary celibacy.”  Incels, mostly young, alienated men, had (and have) been in the news due to several deadly rampages committed by young men with links to or assumed to be part of incel culture. This conversation took place shortly after the Santa Fe high school shooting, wherein a young man shot and killed ten people.  Sometimes the media got it right – Alek Minassian, the man who ran a van into a crowd in Toronto, was undeniably part of incel cultur. The affiliation was far less clear with Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the young man who shot up the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, even though one of his victims was a girl who had refused to be his girlfriend. Either way, both attacks were presented as incel rampages in the press and suddenly all across the Internet people were talking about incels, as each month seemed to bring a new attack committed in the name of incel-ery.

The discussion with Andy dealt more with the macro of incel-ery, the big picture of how it is we’ve ended up with a group of unhappy and often unstable young men who loathe women, successful men, feminism, and the modern world.  I tend to focus on the micro, the individuals who make up movements, so I’m unsure how much I added to the conversation.  I wish I had been more on the ball because Andy Nowicki asked a very good, very humane question that this article is going to attempt to answer.

Andy wanted to know why it is that people find it so easy to mock and deride incels when they share what for them is very real, very tangible pain regarding their role in the modern world.  We laugh at these young men in a way we would not laugh at women who share their own pain.  Though there are a lot of ideas that “incel” covers, the primary issue boils down to men who are angry or sad that they cannot have the sorts of sexual relationships they prefer with the sorts of women they prefer.

Incels of course bemoan their lack of sexual success but when you look at the whole of what fuels this sort of discontent, you see a group of human beings who feel like the modern world has stripped them of all dignity, decent employment prospects and possible family life.  Plenty focus their anger on the lack of sex that named the subculture but they also speak in depth about humiliations they experienced or perceived when just trying to talk to a woman, apply for a job, speak in class, go to a gym, pay for cigarettes and on and on.

It’s a litany of human misery and it’s interesting that among leftists who decry “toxic masculinity,” those very people find it easy to mock men who report crying when being rejected or rebuffed, who reveal vulnerability when they report their inability to reach basic cultural milestones. It’s a question worth asking – why do we mock these particular men who reveal their weaknesses?

There are several answers to this question.  Among them: chivalry isn’t dead yet and we live in a culture in the West wherein we punish emotional response in men while rewarding it in women.  But it’s curious that many still mock incels even after seeing the harm these disenfranchised young men can do.

Initially, when people see the entitled whining some incels engage in online, people mock them because if you aren’t experiencing youthful angst yourself, reading it wears thin and can seem ridiculous.  But we continue to mock them after seeing incel mass murders because there’s something inherently ridiculous that anyone would consider sex such a natural human right that they can justify murder in the name of libido.

This is a very long article, tl;dr on a grand scale.  The rest is under the cut.

Valencia by James Nulick

Book: Valencia*

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir (sort of)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s written in a style one does not commonly see in memoirs, a style that demands that you read the book twice in order to really understand the whole of it. The truly odd part is that I don’t think you will mind reading it twice in a row.

Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Or you can get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments: It’s hard to write an American memoir in the year of our Lord, 2016. Modernity has caused most of us to live unremarkable lives. No more surviving small pox or famine. Not a lot of terrain to discover that doesn’t already have several Taco Bell locations within a fifty-mile radius. No invaders from foreign lands, no wars on American soil. No duels, few remaining sexy hippie cults waiting to indoctrinate the young and innocent, and even those who have fled to large cities in order to carve out an interesting career in the arts while living with lots of interesting people in a bohemian slum are more likely to micro-blog about binge watching some fucking show about women having lots of implausible sex in a prison than their latest attempt at creating a mural or a novel or an interesting sculpture. The bulk of lives these day are completely unremarkable but sometimes reading about unremarkable lives can be interesting, if the life in question rings true to the reader, offering muffled catharsis for the quiet depression that is so much a part of modern ennui.

Don’t get me wrong – suburbia has a lot to recommend it but it doesn’t lend itself well to the creation of great memoirs unless we have something really and truly nasty lurking behind the scenes, and those things happen to us rather than being experiences we seek out. Good modern memoirists need at least one crazy or alcoholic parent, one unsettling example of sexual abuse, a slowly developing drug addiction, and maybe, if such a writer is lucky, one of his family members will commit a terrible crime or get killed in the course of a terrible crime and then he’ll be rolling in the life experiences that make up the modern memoir.

But even if one has these qualifiers, so do many others. If one is going to write a memoir about a prosaic life, even one with requisite misery, one needs to be a very good writer because otherwise the readers will be tempted to say, “Shitty parents, stranger touched me, drugs during college, terrible job, why am I reading this when I can clearly write my own memoir because everyone in the benighted Generation X more or less lived the same fucking life.”

Nulick takes his cues from all three categories: he’s lived a life that seems all too common to most Americans; he has catastrophic life experiences that make for interesting reading and a certain prurient rubbernecking; and he is a very good writer, profoundly good at times. We recognize Nulick’s life as our own in some respects, we are appalled at some of the things that happen to Nulick, and we are drawn in and held in by his unique and near-poetic style.

I mentioned this before in an entry closing out 2015, but it bears repeating. The way that Nulick writes reminds me of conversations one has with an old friend. You know this person well, but you haven’t spoken in a while. Your friend mentions an incident or a person in the course of telling a story, thinking that you know all about that incident or person. You don’t know, but you don’t interrupt because your friend is on a roll and you feel certain that in a moment you can either interject and ask a question or your friend will throw you enough clues in the conversation that you can piece it together. Sometimes you realize the information isn’t important enough to interrupt, because the point of the story isn’t about that person or place – it was just mentioned as an aside in the course of a larger topic.

This is how Nulick writes. Sometimes he mentions a name before we know who that person is. The first time this happened I wondered if I had overlooked the person as I read and I almost backtracked in order to find the original mention that I was sure I had missed. It can be a bit odd if you begin reading this book unaware that Nulick writes this way, treating you like an old friend listening to a long conversation about his life, but once you are knowledgeable about this method of story-telling, it feels completely normal, almost comfortable. You feel like you are being drawn into Nulick’s story in a manner that implies that he considers you a trusted friend, and that’s an unusual feeling when reading a memoir. I’ve often felt some commonality with memoirists as I read their works but this takes that feeling of knowing an author in a direction I can’t recall ever having read before. You may want to read this book through once and then read it again a week or so later. That second read cements that feeling of being a friend because you now feel like an insider to Nulick’s story.

That sense of commonality takes you only so far, though. I find it interesting how many books about Gen-X men have come across my radar lately and how I respond to them. In Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM, the protagonist Lester is utterly lost and a complete asshole, but as I mention in my discussion, he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. It’s hard to hate your brother even when he’s a prick. It’s irrational to hate a child you may have created but Baby Boomers despair of me and mine, and for some reason we all seem to be poking Millennials with a stick as if we didn’t fucking make the world they were born into, like we didn’t raise them or mold them into the people they are now. Yet Nulick, in as much as this memoir accurately reflects his real life, at times inspired in me the same nose-pinching desire I felt toward Sterzinger’s Lester. I just wanted to smack him as he artistically destroyed his life, almost as if he was modeling his destruction on those who came before him and set the example for the lost, dissolute, addicted writer.

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Book: In the Sky

Author: Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book reached into my chest, grabbed my heart with both hands, and wrung it out.

Availability: Published in 2014 by Nine Banded Books, you can and should get a copy here:

You can also get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments:  This book broke my heart. There are books you read at moments when you need to read them and this was one of those sorts of books for me.  I was left feeling unsettled the first time I read In the Sky, and read it again to see if I could pinpoint what this book was trying to tell me.  The second read was more of a revelation, and I’m not going to discuss the reasons in any real depth because, even though I discuss books in a confessional manner, this book caused me to consider my life in a manner that I prefer not to discuss overmuch.  As much as I tend to treat this site like a diary, even I have parts of my mind that don’t need to be shown because the contemplation trumps the discussion.  That should be in itself an excellent reason for any regular reader here to read this book.  A book that helps me cauterize my continual brain bleed is a rare, interesting, compelling book.

Mirbeau is a genius.  He portrayed with great intensity a quietly malignant life, a person rotting inside because of tension and fear, a person for whom a blue sky is a crushing reminder that there is no freedom, only a mocking emptiness that can never be filled.  This is a book about a man who died while still living, who kept dying long after the disease had eaten its fill.  That Mirbeau never finished this novella makes it all the better a representation of the life half-eaten, half-lived, never complete. Ann Sterzinger is also a genius to be able to read these words in their original French and convey such exquisite misery so precisely yet with such raw, bleeding emotion.

2015: Truly the Crappiest Year

This is the time of year when everyone comments on the best books they read, best movies they saw, best albums they listened to, most important political events that affected them, and basically whatever else they feel summed up their experiences during the calendar year.

The last two years of my life have been a depressive blur punctuated by extreme stress. I had calm moments, like when I proofread books for other people and when I would disappear into my office and mindlessly sew for days on end. There were brief periods when the desire to write or obsessively research grabbed hold of me, but those moments were indeed quite brief. I did very little reading because my attention span wouldn’t permit it for very long – reading for pleasure became impossible and this site suffered greatly because of it. I feel like I am coming out of it but I am also often wrong about what my brain is doing. We’ll see, but I can confidently say 2016 will be a helluva lot better than 2015.

Also 2016 will be better because I will begin to discuss the excellent media that did penetrate the blur:

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger, absolutely devastated me. I am reading it for the second time at the moment and I can’t imagine a better way to describe the last couple of years I’ve lived. The gorgeous infinity of a blue sky becomes a crushing, enveloping landscape of endless misery, and all pleasures and hopes will be devoured by that endlessness. Because I am a typical American, I can speak only the one language, so I sit in awe of any peer who is fluent in other languages. That awe is magnified when I consider how Sterzinger finessed Mirbeau’s words into a narrative that spoke directly to my own feelings, so direct and pointed and frighteningly accurate. It’s a beautiful, dark book.

Valencia by James Nulick is a memoir of a man from a fractured family, the story of a boy carelessly raised, who experienced the death of childhood while still a child, growing into a man whose peripatetic life managed to remain anchored a bit by the photographs he keeps in an old cigar box and the ties he maintained in that fractured family. It’s a memoir not so much of a phoenix rising from flames but rather a document that shows how even trees which may appear to be dead still have an endless network of living roots underground. What makes this memoir most remarkable is the way in which Nulick tells his story, in a disjointed manner that mimics the way old friends speak to one another. Nulick assumes his audience is his friend and speaks to us in a way that draws us into his story, bringing up events unknown to the reader but later expanding on those events, a hiccup in timeline that happens often when those who know each other well have conversations.

The Suiciders by Travis Jeppesen is a book I need a very clear head to discuss. I can’t even try to summarize it now. I don’t know whether I loved it or hated it. Perhaps both? Neither? It is a book that defies easy synopses and was a book I read in spurts, which made it all the harder to really grasp. I may reread it before I attempt to speak of it. But even as I have no fucking idea what this book really means to me, it’s still niggling away in the back of my head, demanding attention.

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse is a book that gave me hope regarding my own approach to my media of choice. Janisse discusses neuroses in women as depicted in horror and exploitation cinema, and she discusses these films not so much using cinematic aesthetic criteria as she uses her own personal experiences as the relevant filter for these films. Her relationship to the films were the basis of the book, even as she discussed schools of cinematic thought and psychiatric ideas. I have always filtered literature this way and I have been told by a couple of academicians that it’s a lazy, self-absorbed and ultimately useless way to discuss books. That may be so but at the same time I cannot abide a review that doesn’t tell me simply whether or not the reviewer liked the book and why. We may all find value in beautiful prose, in deft characterization, in well-constructed plots, but if the book does not move that which is you, that part of you that exists beyond education and cultured reaction, then all the authorial skill in the world is meaningless. Discussing literature or any media this way has perils – I discuss far more of my life discussing books that connect with me than some diarists and you get to see all the dirty dishes behind the kitchen door. But it’s the only way I can discuss books, and it was heartening to see this approach used by a woman who is clearly a strong thinker even as she responds with herself as the filter.

There are other books I plan to discuss, like Trevor Blake’s Confessions of a Failed Egoist, as well as what I have now come to call The Borderline Personality Potboilers – books by Gillian Flynn, Claire Messaud and Paula Hawkins. I have great hopes that 2016 will be a wholly different year and I can reconstruct this site into the place I always wanted it to be. For those who still read here, thanks for hanging on, and hopefully more will join you when OTC is updated regularly.

Have a happy holiday, however you celebrate!

NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

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.