Oct 25 2011

Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner

Liz Colville

web exclusive


In the world of the teenager, time doesn't march forward, but oozes lazily. Wes, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Jesse Browner's fourth novel, may be rapidly gathering the faculties of a grown-up, but he's still very much stuck in the mindset of an adolescent, in which an hour feels as long as a day. What better way, then, to depict the scale of the teenage mind than to set a novel over the course of twenty-four hours? "Everything happens today," Wes declares about halfway through the day in question, a Saturday in New York City on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. If he were to write a novel, he says, it would be called just that. But many important things also happened the previous day, when Wes drank three Bloody Marys at a party and lost his virginity to the wrong girl, Lucy; and before that, when he spent the weekend in the Hamptons with the right girl, Delia. When you're sixteen, everything happens every day.

Wes is a student at the prestigious Upper East Side school Dalton, and lives in a rundown Greenwich Village house with his philandering "failed writer" father, and bedridden mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Buoying this trio is Wes's eleven-year-old sister Nora, who invents charming personas for herself and remains devoted to her brother despite his self-absorbed antics, which include ditching her at the movie theater in order to go meet a girl. On the Saturday we meet Wes, his goal is to decide which girl he loves—mysterious Lucy or brainy Delia—and to cook an ambitious meal for his parents and sister, who spend most of their time sequestered in different parts of the house.

In the midst of all this, Wes is having a bit of an existential crisis. While half-heartedly trying to reunite his family, he also has a paper on War and Peace due on Monday. But Wes is too distracted by his love interests to really focus on the book, and instead procrastinates by comparing the girls to Tolstoy's characters—how is Delia like Sonya, or Lucy like Natasha? Wes's love triangle, essentially a distraction to keep him from thinking about his splintering family, feels like a Jamesian interpretation of Gossip Girl. Though the story is told in the third-person, we rarely emerge from Wes's head, and his histrionics and self-pitying take some getting used to. About losing his virginity, for example, he feels "a much older person's kind of sadness, informed by regrets, nostalgia, a sense of half a lifetime's squandered opportunities." He describes the dawn following the event as "ominous and bleak, as if the new day would set the night's events in stone." This being only the second page, readers may hope Wes will get out of his head, and quickly. But as we get to know him, Wes's sense of urgency becomes more endearing, reminding us of a time in which life was made up of so many hopeful, if combustible, social interactions.

The iPhone is a surprisingly poignant prop in Wes's romantic life. Over a page-long, reference-heavy paragraph, he mulls the significance of a text message from Lucy, which simply reads "U charmr," until the screen goes dark. This two-word missive ends up being more of an epiphany than most face-to-face interactions he has: "He couldn't remember Delia ever having said something so pleasantly mysterious to him," Wes realizes, "let alone about him." Earlier, upon seeing Delia's name show up on his list of voicemails, his heart "began to race and he felt his cheeks grow hot, and the letters on the display seemed to ripple and pulse." But he is so intimidated by what Delia's voicemail might contain that he "pressed the delete button" without listening to the message and tossed the phone onto the floor. With its iPhone glow, Wes's clothes-strewn bedroom is worlds away from Browner's previous novels, which riff on a little-discussed slice of ancient Roman history (The Uncertain Hour), track the exploits of a Transylvanian monster in East Coast society (Conglomeros), and imagine life on an eerie island off the coast of Manhattan (Turnaway).

Browner has a surprisingly diplomatic take on technology, and makes it appear laudable, or at least funny, that Wes can do things like feign knowledge of sweetbreads, privately look them up on an app called iPedia, and hours later taunt his best friend for not knowing what they are ("Don't you know anything?" Wes asks him). Technology isn't a crutch or a distraction here, but a conduit to knowledge and human connection—including the face-to-face kind. Browner is less interested in moralizing or sounding Luddite alarm bells than he is in considering how gadgets organize and accelerate our actions. While text messages theoretically make it easier to communicate, they also allow Wes and his love interests, particularly Lucy, to be braver than they would in person. In the middle of the book, for example, Wes thinks back to the previous night, when he made the fateful choice between the "cerebral" Delia, there in front of him, gripping his hand, and the elusive Lucy, sending him text messages from another room. "Want 2 dance?" Lucy writes. "Find me." The words are that much more provocative because they come in the form of an iPhone chat bubble. How else could a seductive game of hide-and-seek come about now?

Everything Happens Today is certainly Browner's most straightforward novel, and its pleasures lie in intimate episodes that don't go awry or completely as planned, but unfold organically, the way life tends to. The climax (if it can be called that) involves Wes, Nora, their mother and Lucy eating dinner in the dimming light as they watch Bob Ross paint a forest scene on TV,. No one eats much of the sweetbreads Wes has lovingly prepared, his father is absent, he's not quite sure what to think about the women in his life, and his paper is not written. But Wes has figured out that there is no "one right thing" he can do, as he earlier wished. In fact, there are really no "right" things, but rather, decent things. Or, as Bob Ross puts it, "there are no mistakes" in life, "only happy little accidents."

Liz Colville writes for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR and The Daily and is the author of a forthcoming story collection, Cover Story.

Advertisement