Idiot Wind: Julia Glassman’s Other Life Forms

In “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books.

Perhaps that is even more true, now, because we have better technology. Entire categories of jobs appear overnight; others vanish. If something is trendy — The Wire, say, or The Arcade Fire — you can make jokes about it and people on every continent will laugh, even if the joke’s about something that went live the day before.

In all likelihood, the novels you know best are sympathetic and somewhat timeless. Such works — The Lord of the Rings, or Middlemarch, or The Catcher in the Rye — endear us to life, and we’re grateful to them for it. There is, however, one other kind of book you need, if you want to live in this lousy world. In these works, every character, situation, and outcome is utterly horrendous and utterly familiar. Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. None of these books, Franzen included, are perfect. At times they’re not even good. But I’m glad I read them, regardless. Frodo and Gandalf have never saved me from a single bad decision; these novels have. They teach us how not to live.

Julia Glassman’s novel Other Life Forms (available from Dinah Press here) is this kind of book. It’s about Sylvie, an unlikable woman who churns through three unlikable men while trying to make sense of her life. It goes down like a shot of Jaeger; I read it in less than a day. Partly, this is due to Glassman’s deft pacing. It’s also just compulsively fun to see how these characters manage to fuck everything up completely. Consider, for example, Simon, Boyfriend #1. Simon has panic attacks. We expect Sylvie to feel sorry for him, but instead she’s repulsed. They have sex, and it goes pretty well. This allows Sylvie to ignore the fact that Simon lives his life online, playing MUDs, an early version of MMOGs like World of Warcraft. She plays MUDs, too, and thus enables him. He is prescribed antidepressants. They don’t do anything.

Boyfriend #2 is Dan. He’s Simon’s antipode, a handsome drifter who gets by doing manual labor for minimum wage. He does everything Neal Cassady might do, if good ol’ Neal was still alive. He has a skateboard, and he’s good at skating. He’s one of those guys who ends up being sexy because he never gets any of the memos, and is therefore not self-conscious about having tattoos.

There’s also Dennis. He’s a hipster.

Simon’s MUDs are really just one example of the book’s larger theme, which is the way that twentysomethings split their time between meaningless jobs and aspirational hobbies. Dennis tries to be a magazine publisher, and attracts a large crowd of people trying to be in a magazine, including Sylvie. Dan skates competitively. Maybe he wins, maybe not, but either way he doesn’t end up with endorsement deals. Sylvie constructs strange little sculptures and indulges in fantasies of being suddenly discovered.

The result of all this dreaming big is that nobody lives in the moment, at all. The hobbies edge out sex. They produce no joy, because everything is riding on whether or not they succeed as professions. These characters are still in the bloom of youth, and how are they spending it? Sitting in dutiful little circles, setting deadlines for each other, assigning tasks — in short, creating the same dull corporate hierarchies they’re supposedly trying to escape. This is Dennis talking to one of his pretend underlings, the pretend anarchist Kirin:

Kirin scrambled to get his legs underneath him, and when he managed to gather them up, he rose onto his knees and hopped into a crouch. He looked like he’d received the holy spirit. “So okay,” he said. “Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking.”
“Kirin?” Dennis sounded testy. “We’ve got the cover taken care of, bud. Your job is illustrating Leslie’s essay.”
“Yeah,” Kirin said. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”
“And how could that be?” Dennis asked. “How could that possibly be when you’re almost finished with it, and thus cannot incorporate any new ideas?”

Sylvie’s sculptures start to feel like symbols of all these stillborn ambitions and occupational fantasies. The glue between lovers isn’t sex or intimacy, but just the opposite: people who don’t know you very well actually believe your schtick is gonna go somewhere. Once Glassman’s characters do understand each other, there’s nothing left to do but split up.

All this may sound dismal, but Other Life Forms is wickedly engrossing, and it gets under your skin. Unlike Kunkel, or Lerner, or Jonathan Lethem, Glassman never pauses her story to show you what a spectacular writer she is. She just lets this collection of poseurs be themselves. Her metaphors stay completely on target: “[The city of] Emerald was like a bad insurance plan. The only way you could stand it was if you didn’t know you had better options.” (The Oz reference is also a nice touch.) The novel’s one moment of sustained lyricism, right at the end, is poignant and incredibly earned.

Sure, just like Freedom and the rest, Other Life Forms is not perfect. Dan’s arc is predictable. The mixture of tragedy and comedy is sometimes wobbly, especially in the scenes with older characters. The satire of Orange County (in Southern California) is a distraction, because these people would do the same things, and make the same mistakes, no matter where they were living. But these are scuffs around the edges. Glassman’s a friend of mine. I don’t say that as a feather in my cap, or to disclose a conflict of interest. You’ll see when you read it. Knowing the author personally, or not, is besides the point, because the book confronts its reader like a friend would. It makes you not want to be Simon, or Dennis, or Sylvie. You want to prove, really prove, that you can be more.