by Adam Wilson
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From Lysistrata to Don Quixote to Catch-22, literary comedy works best when a black heart beats beneath the hilarity. The comedic impulse is always transgressive, always an alternate avenue to the two tragic truths at the center of our existence: suffering and death. Levity must be rooted in tragedy because life, as Schopenhauer insisted, is essentially and irredeemably tragic, “something that should not have been.” The clown is usually the saddest guy at the circus; we guffaw at the expense of his anguish.
Adam Wilson’s debut novel, Flatscreen, has been billed as a comedy of barely post-adolescent confusion, but there’s far more heartwreck than hilarity in these rambunctious pages. Eli Schwartz has just turned twenty, that awkward purgatory of an age when one arrives unprepared at the cusp of adulthood. Drug-addled, overweight, unemployed, and unlucky with the opposite sex, Eli ascertains his fractured life through a constant referencing of television and film. For his geekish ilk, illuminated screens have supplanted reality and left them ill equipped to navigate the rough waters of their world.
Wilson’s wry bildungsroman is roused by Eli’s idiosyncratic voice and cynical scrutiny. Skinny women athleticizing on SportsCenter resemble “plastic straws bent in all the wrong places.” Unable to sleep, Eli becomes soothed by his mother’s presence, “an animal thing, pheromones like a lullaby.” A friend’s father has had a “succession of wives, each younger, more silicone-cyborg than the last.” His often fragmented and quasi-poetical verbiage corresponds