Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Everything Is Going to Be Great'

The cover of Rachel Shukert's Everything Is Going to Be Great speaks to the reader in the same way that the "Don't Panic!" cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is probably meant to. Her memoir evokes the anxieties of the collegiate and post-collegiate, groups for which the dread of embarrassment, confusion and failure — of having tripped coming out of life's starting gate — is far more real than for fictional space travelers. They need some assurance that the journey will be okay, and so does the reader, both in a general existential sense and because so much of her book can induce cringes of recognition and sympathy.

Shukert is a klutz and a serial bad-decision maker. Despite a going-nowhere acting career (or because of it), she takes off to Europe with a touring company, performing as an extra in a play that sounds annihilatingly dull, the sort of tendentious theater that you imagine Europeans and thin New Yorkers alone like because it helps them to hate themselves and to hate the people who hate it. She travels to Vienna and has a quaint May-November affair with a Viennese man. She takes advantage of an unstamped passport (and thus unlimited time in Europe) and stays with two gay friends in Amsterdam for what seems like months. While there, she gets involved with a man already in a long-term relationship, stands in front of the Anne Frank house passing out coupons for bad American comedy, has a wrenching but meaningful moment with her visiting parents and finally stumbles across a happy ending.

That last item is meant literally, but given much of the book's content, it's perfectly understandable that someone might mistake it for a handjob euphemism. Part of what makes Everything Is Going to Be Great so rife with anxiety at times is that many embarrassing moments are graphically sexual. In the midst of a dental emergency, a jealous ex-girlfriend shrieks at Shukert before she's whisked through a dark doorway and, basically, tongue-assaulted at both ends by a pair of Italian partners-in-fucking. During her Viennese sojourn, she discovers what an uncircumcised penis is like, in the most profound and orally immediate way possible. The former event betrays a shockingly undeveloped danger sense, and the latter shows a surprising inexperience. Both episodes are the sorts of things the book's title is for: Rachel Shukert emphatically and reassuringly pledges a positive outcome because, in many parts of the story, she does some pretty stupid and worrisome shit.

The thing is, the book is really, really funny, and thankfully it doesn't rely solely on embarrassment comedy for its laughs. Some of the best bits come in standalone chapters that present workshops to readers*, like one that instructs them in how to build their own racist Dutch holiday figure (Zwarte Piet, literally, "Black Pete"), and another that seeks to explain how a Phil Collins incapable of death has somehow come to make every single person in the Netherlands do the air-drum thing to that part of "In the Air Tonight," just a baffling confluence of terrible music and hideous public behavior.

* — Usually these sorts of "workshop" and "little-known facts" parts of books are comedy death, the kind of "here is the obvious joke for jerks" that gets thrown in to pad page counts, make up for ploddingly expository chapters or try to wacky-stuff-up on the assumption that what makes people happiest is distilling implied humor from preceding pages and making it loud, spastic and dumb as shit. Far from finding them dreadful, plenty of Shukert's could have stood alone as their own comic pieces. I could have done with at least five more pages on bizarre Swiss sex acts. Yet another piece was one after my own heart, her tendency to cheer herself up by toying with events in her life and running them through the lens of adapted situation comedy pilots.

Even the embarrassing comic scenarios work harder for the laugh than merely pointing out how silly something is and flogging it for every wincing reaction possible. Often Shukert's process is one of finding humor in the setup and the retrospection rather than in how outrageously awkward each scene can be, getting the laugh from trying to understand the stupid thing rather than the stupid thing itself. As someone who sometimes has to mute The Office and watch it out of the corner of one eye — squirming as the latest terrible Michael Scott moment refuses to end — I should have felt miserable with every other page. But what Shukert neatly illustrates is that making dumb mistakes doesn't equal comedy, and that in fact someone can be smart, funny and endearing even in the process of outlining a litany of minor, personal clusterfucks.

Take her first night in Vienna, in which she's convinced that all the garbage she ate on the plane can be seen in her face — iniquity and sloppiness on display in her tangled hair. Compared to the tastefully presented hotel employees, she might already be a catastrophe of personal mismanagement. On top of that, she might also be an avatar of American consumption: sloppy, ill-fed, easily confused by the basics of other parts of the world even existing, let alone functioning. Determined to ingratiate herself with a chilly hotel porter whose glasses, she notices, are the same style worn by icons like John Lennon and Heinrich Himmler, she feels outmatched by his silence and simply tries too hard to seem smart and self-aware, to ward off boorishness and ignorance by dropping every worldly detail possible into the briefest span and, thus, winds up seeming boorish instead because of an excess of zeal:
"May I help you?"
"Oh! Yes," I said. "I need to check in."
"Of course," he said.
"I'm so sorry," I hurtled forth, unable to raise the force field fast enough to avoid utter humiliation. "I don't understand German. I took French in school, but sometimes I think I should have gone for German instead. I mean, we should all be learning Chinese, right? But after all, some of my family was from Austria. Or maybe it was Germany or Poland. You know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There's that joke, you know, about the man who was born in Austria, grew up in Poland, got married in the Soviet Union, and died in the Ukraine? And the punch line: He lived all his life in the same town! Anyway, what I'm tying to say is"—I staggered, bloodied, to the finish—"that I think there's something about Europe that makes Americans"—bring it home, Fräulein, bring it home—"all Americans, somehow feel like failures. We may seem arrogant, but that's because we have a huge inferiority complex. Look at Bush. He's so insecure. It's why he started the war." (49)
I've no doubt that this conversation, like many in the book, speculatively reconstructs exchanges she knows she had, but that doesn't matter because so many of them are universal. (All memoirs fudge a bit, but it hardly counts when the conversation was inevitable.) Almost every smart American overseas has felt some shamefaced need to explain away that they are not that American, that they are aware of the excesses of their homeland and would like you to like them regardless. Trying to shoehorn in observations that say, "Really! I'm one of the decent ones!" is familiar not only for its good-natured impetus but also for the universally clumsy and obvious way it comes off, regardless of how suave we think we are.

This kind of universality makes Shukert very likable, but it also helps to make the cringeworthy moments go down easier. We've all done these dumb things, and she makes them seem inevitable, the sorts of missteps we're all doomed to make no matter what. And, again, it helps that the comic scenes work as comedy. The above example illustrates a certain behavior of Americans abroad, but within the context of the book as a comic piece, one could replace it with dozens of others that work as well and spark a grin. I was reading the book before going to sleep, without any pens or bookmarks nearby, and I was tempted to dog-ear pages every time I read something I liked just as humor. After a couple of chapters, I realized this was a stupid idea: at the rate I was going, the top corner of my book was going to increase in size until the damn thing couldn't lie flat anymore.

The only real trouble with memoirs, especially the trend of memoirs from young people who haven't made a cultural mark yet, is that often one encounters prose with a high entertainment value because the story itself is low on historical or transcendent content. On the personal achievement scale, going to Europe, getting laid and loaded and overstaying your welcome with too-hospitable locals doesn't rank especially high. Nor does finding Mr. Wrong before Mr. Right. The familiarity of these stories that inspires smiles of recognition also prevents us from experiencing a process of unique discovery. The damnable bind of writing something that relies on a kind of wry "hey, we've all been there" knowingness is, of course, that we've all been there.

Still, although it might not stand out in terms of the big strokes, I think the book stands out in two smart ways.

1. It's arrestingly unashamed to include sex.
On a personal note, this appealed to me because reading a funny, pretty lady who drinks like a champ hits me on a predictably and elementally male level. I remember looking at the bio blurb on the back cover, after wondering, "Hey, is this lady single?" before realizing, "No, you idiot, and neither are you." But that's not the important part. What is, is that I found myself feeling a little uncomfortable about the nakedly confessional tone employed to talk about things we do naked. At times I felt like the level of honesty was almost ruthless, the sort of thing that just is not done when one's parents are still alive to read them. But of course, I didn't really feel this way when someone like, say, Norman Mailer wrote another tired and badly veiled interlude about his old, useless penis. I found it horribly boring and predictable, but I didn't worry about the guy, that he may have made family feel ashamed or have invited his friends into an intimacy with which they were unwilling to be part. I just judged it on its merit and thought it sucked.

Maybe I should chalk it up to a reflextive and innocent protective streak. There's no shame in worrying about someone when you're reading about her being thrown on a bed and being aggressively tongue-fucked by some foreigners she met in a bar. Under many circumstances, I think it's natural to say, "Way to go," but when it involves a surprise tandem osculatory assault, a kind of paternalist concern is at worst benign. That said, I think the frankness signifies an instructive authorial intent. This is, after all, a woman who wrote all about Jewish women and blowjobs in a piece called "Big Mouth Strikes Again: An Oral Report," in which she sought to undermine the Borscht Belt, Woody Allen and assimilationist-inspired comic stereotype of the Jewish woman as a brittle, disinterested lover (or, in the case of the Jewish American Princess, a naked materialist, the whore who takes twice the cash and performs none of the services). Her other book is titled, Have You No Shame. Basically, if I felt temporarily unhoused by the salacious openness of the author, maybe that was the fucking point.

2. I would not be surprised to learn this book was intended to capitalize on — and flip the bird at — "chick lit."
Again, given the title, I'm hardly spoiling anything by saying that everything turns out to be pretty great for the memoirist. However, it struck me that part of the structure of the book might have been meant to address the most perniciously successful and one of the most aggressively saccharine genres on the shelves: chick lit. Pride and Prejudice remains the artful grandmother of the form, but it's easy to see how devoid of content the style is. If you've seen or read Bridget Jones' Diary, you've read almost every subsequent title within that category. (Jones, of course, was patterned after Pride and Prejudice; its male lead was named Mark Darcy and even modeled on Colin Firth's performance of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC miniseries of the novel.) Calling them formulaic isn't an insult within the profit machine behind them; it'd be like calling cigarettes "addictive tobacco vehicles for people with pattern behavior."

Anyhow, the end of practically every chick lit novel features the heroine meeting Mr. Right, and it would be easy to put this book in that category because everything winds up great. The steps along that path, though, are markedly different. The chick lit heroine is invariably a goodhearted lass who has most of her stuff together, apart from man problems and a few superficial shortcomings. Take Bridget Jones, for example. She eats and weighs a little too much, but when she drinks too much it's usually with a solid and smart support group of buddies. She has a good life in terms of friends, has her own place and doesn't worry for money. In fact, she has a good job and a genuinely interesting — if under-explored — life. The problem is, she doesn't have The Right Job, and she gets involved with a guy who's not The Right Guy. But, with a little prodding, she rouses herself, gets a marginally better job, meets The Right Guy, and seemingly all else is catalyzed. Thanks to a man's being there, she notices how everything else in her life besides the man issue was already pretty awesome. Somehow, this is his fault. It's self-empowerment by proxy, which is to say, not at all.

Of course, it's bullshit. It tries to make us believe that incidental shifts are all that keep good women from pure happiness, and, worse, that a social setback assumes the scope of real tragedy that casts the remainder of life under shadows stretching to all horizons. But in real life, millions of women have great jobs and shitty boyfriends, great boyfriends and shitty jobs, great friends and shitty boyfriends, great boyfriends and shitty friends, and, of course, great work opportunities and no support in a personal life — and vice versa. The idea that a comprehensive resolution to all life's inconveniences is ready to be delivered at any moment by a meet-cute with a young man who has a leased BMW and laugh lines around his eyes is infantilizingly perfect.

In this respect, the title "Everything Is Going to Be Great" seems to play off on that. It declares something like a perfection deferred. The ending is great, but it's not a resolution; it is, rather, a confirmation of the title, a signification that it's still a work in progress. We're getting there, kiddo. More importantly, it's a book about a charming fuckup. Rachel Shukert isn't a woman who has a career and just needs to be loved to find the confidence to find a better career: she doesn't have a career at all. She's like a lot of us at that age, in that she doesn't have a clue what she's doing at the moment, doesn't have a partner in life to help her figure it out and still gets checks from her parents. Thankfully, just when that might seem quotidian, you realize that, unlike a lot of us at that age, she's also selling crap comedy, to people viewing a famous house Jews hid from Nazis in, and apparently driving the nicest gay men in Holland slowly but inexorably crazy.

So just when you begin to see her dealing with staple characters from the modern young woman's Stepford novel, those characterizations and familiar plot structures start to unravel. Sure, there are patient gay men, a good straight girlfriend and a mom who doesn't understand her. But she doesn't fully appreciate the guys at the time; her friend briefly keeps devastating but vital news from her, and — worst of all — she and her mom actually have a moving and beautiful moment of mutual understanding and concession to roles of dependency and protection in the middle of the book. Even if Shukert's frankly disclosing her own Columbian discovery of a new world of foreskin hasn't already unhoused a reader in search of feminine fan-service formula, surely the sight of a mother and daughter finding rapprochement even before the narrator finds the right boyfriend should be the final straw.

Doubtless I've read a little too much into it, but this is why Shukert's memoir works better than another real-life tale of twentysomething wandering. Yes, it's funny, which already puts it miles ahead and makes it more readable than an overwhelming percentage of its peers. Yes, it's graphic and often startlingly honest. But when given the option of eliding less sympathetic parts of the story and highlighting others to proffer a more familiar — and, let's be honest, probably far more marketable — narrative for a guaranteed readership that would exult in neat "vicarious self-actualization," it stubbornly and honestly sticks to its own, real terms. Even if they are unintentional, even if they are as simple as talking about awkwardly fucking and fucking up, those terms offer a nose-thumbing at a profitable genre that seems to say that all those acquisitions of perfection can be better reached through something comfortably non-fictional.

Everything Is Going to Be Great lives up to its name. The person working toward that point is still sometimes klutzy, drunk, rude, mistaken, confused and adrift. Finding, and then finding comfort in, the right person doesn't harmonically align a personal universe. The best person for us is only a panacea for not having the best person for us. The best person we can be is still another project, as our mothers, bar tabs and friends all amply remind us.

Rating: 4
There are a few ways to think about this book. As a memoir, it probably won't challenge many readers; Rachel Shukert is not Henry Adams, but she doesn't aim to be. On those terms, the above rating might seem silly, high praise for something not meant to be high-minded. To moms and daughters who like stories about moms and daughters, or to fans of chick lit stories and happy endings, it might be a fantastic five out of five — some Boomer-to-Gen X bonding gift, like Fried Green Tomatoes, but with blowjobs and getting shitfaced. It possesses enough elements of familiar beloved plots while having the virtue of being true, unique and written by the sort of narrator who probably hates Fried Green Tomatoes. Ideally, I think most people will pick up on a little subversion of cloying depictions of women and womanhood, as outlined above. Lastly, there's the comedy. Trying to quantify anything funny is a doomed exercise. How many more units of laughter are there to The Simpsons' Monorail episode than to the less acclaimed but still inspired "Missionary: Impossible"? Why is it that I still can't properly explain to loved ones why I can't stand The Three Stooges yet still think Curly is awesome? I suspect that this book just happens to be right in my laughter wheelhouse: embarrassing and awkward enough to make the text urgent and quickly paced, but wry and absurd enough to save it from being uncomfortable to read. Given that you're reading this comedy site, our experiences might be similar.