This week: Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan (2012) and Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen (2012), a pair of debut novels, each about Jewish twenty-somethings who live with their parents, in their hometowns, self-medicating to cope with the existential crisis that generally accompanies that situation.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Nice to meet you.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (beat) So, it sounds like we have a lot in common.
FLATSCREEN: Similar plots, themes. Cover blurbs even by same person.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Gary Shteyngart’s a sweetheart. A real mensch.
FLATSCREEN: Also a blurb-whore.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (laughs) I wouldn’t have put it that way, but he did lend a blurb to James Franco. What’d Shteyngart say about you?
FLATSCREEN: “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter.”
THE FALLBACK PLAN: That’s a great blurb. That would make me want to grab you off the shelf—
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Well, I don’t have arms—
FLATSCREEN: The blurb. Familiar with physical limitations.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Oh. Right. “Beautiful, funny, thrilling, and true.”
FLATSCREEN: High praise. Accurate?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: I don’t want to brag, but—
FLATSCREEN: Thrilling? Story about a twenty-two-year-old babysitter living at home qualifies as thrilling?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Her name’s Esther Kohler, and it’s not just about babysitting. It’s not about babysitting at all, really, thank god. It’s more about Esther’s relationship with the family she works for, and her own family and friends, and how her experiences with those people shape her growth—
FLATSCREEN: Doesn’t sound very thrilling. What else happens?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (rolls eyes) A lot happens. Esther drinks too much, she gets high, she abuses prescription medication—
FLATSCREEN: Now we’re getting somewhere.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: I don’t want to give too much away, but there is some sex.
FLATSCREEN: Speaking my language.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: About your language—
FLATSCREEN: Voice off-putting?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Yes. Is this natural, or something you put on for our conversation?
FLATSCREEN: Appropriated from my protagonist, Eli Schwartz. Curt, economical, to the point. Ever read Watchmen?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: I’ve never read anything.
FLATSCREEN: I know. Kidding. Shteyngart nearly died from laughter, remember?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (forced laugh) Right.
FLATSCREEN: Voice allegedly reminiscent of Rorschach. Reader adjusts, doesn’t even notice. Grows to love it, maybe.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: It seems like it’d be a handy voice to master in the Digital Age, with 140-character limits and all. Entire careers have sprung from Twitter feeds.
FLATSCREEN: Wouldn’t know. Stuck in the Print Age.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: You and me both.
FLATSCREEN: Mentioned drugs earlier. What’s Esther on?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Um… Alcohol, marijuana, Zoloft—
FLATSCREEN: Kids’ stuff. Repercussions?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: She makes some bad decisions, definitely.
FLATSCREEN: Nothing worse than characters who use drugs excessively but never seem affected by them. Agree?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Well, yes, but this isn’t Bright Lights, Big City. Esther’s not a drug addict and I’m not one big bender. She’s just in a bad place, so she picks up some bad habits.
FLATSCREEN: Funny: Eli’s self-destructive streak recalls Bright Lights, Big City. Minus the lights, city.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Esther’s vices pale in comparison to Eli’s, I think. What kind of drugs is he on, exactly?
FLATSCREEN: Booze, weed, coke, Oxy. Anything he can find.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Oh, wow. Where does he find them?
FLATSCREEN: Eccentric paraplegic, Seymour Kahn, moves into Eli’s old house. He and Eli bond, form strange, dangerous friendship. Eli gets fistfuls of drugs from Kahn and old high school friend, Dan.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Sounds pretty wild.
FLATSCREEN: Understatement. Eli blacks out, humiliates self on regular basis.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Ouch. Esther usually just gets drunk or stoned and hangs out with her friends, Pickle and Jack.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: It’s one of those old nicknames with a story attached to it. She’s known him since they were kids.
FLATSCREEN: Understood. Eli can’t escape childhood, adolescent friends, either. Small town. No one ever leaves.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Well Esther doesn’t want to avoid Pickle. He’s a nice guy—although, actually, his character is one thing I don’t love about myself. I kept waiting for Pickle to play a larger role, and it never really happened. I’m not sure why he’s here except as a bridge to Jack.
FLATSCREEN: Frustrating. Waste of your pages. Happy with other characters, though?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: For the most part. Esther is funny, self-deprecating. Simultaneously cynical and naïve, if that makes sense.
FLATSCREEN: Does. Especially for twenty-two-year-old.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Yeah… Sometimes Amy, the mother of the little girl Esther babysits, just feels like an older, tragic version of Esther. But that’s probably the point.
FLATSCREEN: Walking warning for Esther? Foreshadowing worst-case scenario?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Something like that… Leigh—sorry, Leigh Stein, my author—nailed the little girl’s voice, though. Leigh teaches elementary school, so it probably came pretty easily to her.
FLATSCREEN: Good. Children’s voices even less bearable when counterfeit.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (laughs) What about you? How do you feel about your characters?
FLATSCREEN: Most of them vivid, three-dimensional, true. Only beef with token black character, Natasha. Reinforces stereotypes: “Damn,” “Crazy white boy,” etc. Minor character, barely a blip, but paired with Eli’s references to gangster rap, reader comes away with warped sense of black culture. Not offensive, but misleading.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Hmm… (considering) I don’t think I even have any black characters. I don’t want to spark an argument here—especially on the heels of the great Girls debate—but my story is a very narrow one. It follows a young woman living in a suburban white neighborhood. I don’t think that makes it racist or anything. And I think Esther’s story is one a lot of people can relate to, no matter their ethnic background.
FLATSCREEN: Haven’t seen Girls. Can’t get over terrible title.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Yeah. I like the show, but it sounds like a four-year-old came up with the name.
FLATSCREEN: Eli spends long hours in front of TV. Constantly refers to movies, thinks of life as one. A few chapters even written in screenplay form. Nineteen chapters devoted to possible endings for Eli’s story, most based on film clichés.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Really? Wow… Esther takes a stab at writing a screenplay, and sometimes she fantasizes about her life as a movie.
FLATSCREEN: Natural, I think. Humans can’t help themselves. Want lives to feel more dramatic, important. In reality, mundane.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Yeah. Esther also narrates a version of her life to May, the girl she babysits, like it’s a children’s story. I’ve been told it recalls The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai.
FLATSCREEN: What’s children’s story like?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: It’s called The Littlest Panda—
THE FALLBACK PLAN: It’s for a six-year-old.
FLATSCREEN: Little cute for my taste. Continue.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Nevermind.
FLATSCREEN: Sorry. Eli infecting me with misery. Turning me awkward, antagonistic.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Why is he so unhappy?
FLATSCREEN: Never went to college, got a job, moved out of mom’s house. Lazy, out of shape. Feels like a loser.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: That is really tough. Esther’s just graduated from Northwestern, so her move home is probably just a short-term compromise.
FLATSCREEN: Eli never wanted degree, career. Only redeeming skill: cooking.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: He cooks? That should help him meet a girl, at least.
FLATSCREEN: Women don’t appreciate Eli. Sweet guy, great cook. Some of my chapters: recipes. Love, Spaghetti Bolognese, etc. Others: lists. “Facts About My Father,” “Facts About My Mother,” “Sexual Experiences,” etc.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Sounds like you’re a little experimental.
FLATSCREEN: I’m young. Good time to experiment.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (laughs) So am I, but…
FLATSCREEN: You seem straightforward. No postmodern tricks. Accurate?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: I think so. I’m pretty accessible—not like that. But, at two-hundred-nineteen pages, I consider myself slim. A quick read. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.
FLATSCREEN: Agree. (pats midsection) Wouldn’t mind getting under three hundred. But also respect what Adam [Wilson] did, refusing to hand in cliché ending. Shuffling through and discarding them much braver. Defies expectations.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Yeah, I don’t think my ending is predictable either, which I’m proud of. I just worry— Nevermind.
FLATSCREEN: You worry…?
THE FALLBACK PLAN: (beat) Do you think readers find us anticlimactic?
FLATSCREEN: Can’t control what readers think. Can’t even control what authors did, do.
THE FALLBACK PLAN: Do you think we fall flat? Feel incomplete?
FLATSCREEN: Can’t speak for you, anyone else. Prefer honesty to melodrama, character to special effects. Readers want explosions, they can put us down. Go see Battleship.