Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

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Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…

 

 

Introducing Larry Abramov, Your Humble Diarist in “Super Sad True Love Story”

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Thomas Mann, near the beginning of his book Death in Venice, presents a figure of a man on a boat who, though old, is dressed as if he is young. Mann uses the most grotesque terms to describe him. The narrator tells us that Aschenbach, the main character, is appalled by the juxtaposition of youth and old age. And this evokes an experience of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might call an experience of angst or what Freud would call the uncanny. At first, he sees a man in a “bright yellow summer suit of ultra-fashionable cut, with a red necktie, and a rakishly tilted Panama, surpassed all the others in his crowing good humor.” But when he looks closer the “good humor” and gay-candor become terrifying:

But as soon as Aschenbach looked at him more carefully, he discovered with a kind of horror that the youth was a cheat. He was old, that was unquestionable. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of the cheeks was paint, the hair under his brilliantly decorated straw hat was a wig; his neck was hollow and stringy, his turned-up mustache and imperial on his chin were dyed; the full set of yellow teeth which he displayed when he laughed, a cheap artificial plate…Fascinated with loathing, Aschenbach watched him intercourse with his friends….He felt as thought everything were not quite the same as usual, as though some dreamlike estrangement, some peculiar distortion of the world were beginning to take possession of him.

What I love about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is the fact that, unlike Mann’s Aschenbach, we are given an opportunity to chuckle about the juxtaposition of age and youth (that is middle-age and youth). Instead of pulling back in horror and anxiety, Shteyngart gives a kind of sad-charm to the juxtaposition.  

At the outset of the novel, entitled “Do not go Gentle,” we read a diary entry by the main character, Larry Abramov. He is a middle aged man who tells us that he has made a “major decision: I am never going to die.”   His description of how he is going to live on beyond his body is comical. He tells us, with a faux confidence, that “others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain.”

In pop-cultural confidence, Abramov tells himself (after all, it’s his diary) to stop “them” from telling us that “life’s a journey” where you end up somewhere. He assures himself that they are going nowhere, while he is going somewhere:

When I beg the pilot of the rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park’s fickle arms, that’s a journey.(3)

But he won’t beg him. He’s a schlemiel. And this is his fictional attempt at romantic heroism.  Yes, he will return to the woman he is in love with: Eunice Park. But how?  After writing this, he can’t keep his mind on the romantic mission.  He’s a distracted anti-hero.  He changes the subject in what  seems a sudden revelation. And that revelation is not about returning to her on a romantic journey, but the meaning of a line in a popular Whitney Houston song.  It speaks to his obsession with “living on.”

But wait. There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, au buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP. Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song’s next line, “Teach them well and let them lead the way,” encourages adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. (4)

He thinks this self-negation (for the children and their future) is foolish. But when he reflects on the meaning of Whitney Houston’s line about “ah chil’ren” this brings him to reflect, once again, on Eunice Park.  And in this reflection, we see why he charmed by her: she is young and innocent.  The two, taken together, bring out a comical juxtaposition of youth and middle age:

Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park-like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their plasticisty; at one with the simple nature of their world. (4)

As one can see, he is drawn in by Eunice Park who is “blind to mortality” while he, apparently, is not. He sees her as an “innocent” schlemiel. And he seems to want that for himself because he is thinking about death and immortality. But, and this is the catch, he is also a schlemiel because he dreams of escaping mortality by way of technology. He has been swayed by what Dostoevsky would call the “miracle” of science. 

But unlike Thomas Mann’s narrator, we don’t see a character who is horrified of this juxtaposition of youth and age. This covering over of death evokes a different mood and has a charm that is missing in Mann’s novel.

….to be continued….