Loser Lit: John McNally's After the Workshop, Peter Bognanni's The House of Tomorrow, and James Greer's The Failure
Jack Hercules Sheahan, the deadbeat protagonist of John McNally's After the Workshop, is a guy with an MFA, an ex-fiancée, a car without a muffler, and a novel in a box on the shelf—that familiar fixture of every college town ever. He's the special kind of elite failure that only the Iowa Writers' Workshop can breed: published in The New Yorker while still in the program, selected for The Best American Short Stories, and halfway through the book that will make him famous before sloth, terror, and an unplanned pregnancy end all that. In the aftermath, he takes a humiliating job—picking up other, more successful authors from the airport. "I was a media escort," is how McNally's third novel begins. "That was how, twelve years after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I was earning my keep."
The literary meta-memoir is a genre unto itself, as McNally—himself an Iowa product—surely knows. Thus Sheahan is surrounded by trust-funded Workshop women who write poems with names like "My Mother's Pimp" and wannabe novelists who scribble Barry Hannah quotes in bar bathrooms. The literary world he can't escape is populated with authors whose fabricated incest memoirs—The Outhouse, say, about forbidden love in a forbidden place—are repped by publicists who haven't read since college. Sheahan's nemesis and former classmate, Vince Belecheck, is everything he is not, namely, a successful writer. "His characters were foul-mouthed roofers and hard-drinking bricklayers," Sheahan observes, "whereas Belecheck's own parents were university professors and Belecheck himself drove a Jaguar with a vanity license plate advertising his best-known novel: STEELTOE." Belecheck carries around a bottle of Rohypnol in his pocket—subtlety is not something McNally really does—but the irony is that in Iowa City, a published author rarely needs to resort to any pick-up technique much stronger than alcohol.
There's a plot here, but you probably already know it: Sheahan's writer's block and existential angst collide with the two rogue authors he's been assigned to escort at the novel's opening, one of whom goes mysteriously missing for most of the novel. The other turns out to be pillaging Sheahan's pathetic life for material for his next book. As Sheahan stumbles around a snow-covered Iowa City in search of things and people he has no real interest in finding, he belatedly realizes his own story is worth telling, etc., and the albatross of the old novel is jettisoned. The lightly fictionalized memoir you now hold in your hands emerges instead—get it? It's the kind of too-neat narrative trick McNally might've affectionately mocked in After the Workshop, if he hadn't just written some version of it himself.
Speaking of Best American Short Stories–decorated Iowa graduates, meet Peter Bognanni, whose debut, The House of Tomorrow, is out from Putnam this month. Plain and earnest in all the ways that After the Workshop is bitter and sardonic, The House of Tomorrow tells the story of Sebastian Prendergast, 15 years old and an orphan being raised in isolation by his batty, Buckminster Fuller–worshipping grandmother in a geodesic dome. In Iowa, of course. The book opens with a mother and son coming by the dome for a guided tour, which on this day consists of Sebastian's grandmother having a stroke in her fuschia tracksuit. Their would-be guests ride along to the hospital, and it's in this way that Sebastian befriends his younger compatriot, Jared Whitcomb, a waifish punk rocker with a transplanted heart in his concave chest, a smoking habit, and a love of the Ramones. In the hospital waiting room, Jared plays the Misfits for Sebastian, whose sole experience with music has consisted of whale songs and the varieties of New Age mewling you're forced to listen to when your family subscribes to a belief in "Spaceship Earth."
"The philosophy of Buckminster Fuller and the philosophy of punk rock are not as separate as they may seem at first," writes Bognanni, optimistically. Maybe. Mostly, the attraction for Bognanni seems to be that both disciplines reliably produce a certain kind of vivid weirdo. Jared writes songs with names like "I Wanna Fondle Your Chests"; Sebastian, for his part, is so home-schooled he might as well be an alien—"You talk like a jack-off," Jared tells him, before recruiting him into the Rash, the duo's putative punk band. Sebastian spends most of the book hiding out at the Whitcombs' house while his grandmother is in and out of the hospital, learning about the Dead Milkmen and Jared's older sister's breasts. Jared, meanwhile, finds a friend and thus a reason to battle his own transplanted, balky heart for a while longer. Take out the Sex Pistols references, and this book could've been written anytime between now and 1950. Maybe MFA programs really are that conservative?
"Say you come up with the Theory of Everything, say you're that guy, the one who solves for all time the riddle to end all riddles," asks a character early on in James Greer's The Failure. "Would that make you happy? It would, I suspect, make me immensely, unfixably sad." Call this a mission statement: Former Guided by Voices bassist Greer's second novel and third book is more an affectionate riff on imperfection and ambition's dubious aims than it is any sort of coherent narrative.
Not that there isn't one: The Failure revolves around a Korean check-chasing robbery that goes horribly wrong and more or less kills off the main character, Guy Forget, on the first page. Luckily, winking chapter heds—"The Villain Sven Transvoort, still in his undisclosed location, talks about Guy's background, and makes broad, mostly nonsensical generalizations about culture"—navigate us forward and backward through time. A YouTube viral video involving Guy's buddy getting mauled by a mountain lion, a "Web 3.0" subliminal advertising application codenamed "Pandemonium," and opium all feature in the plot, such as it is, but Greer is after bigger questions than who ultimately got his main character killed. (Hint: It's the guy with "Villain" in front of his name.)
Guy is that perfect punk existentialist, able to see through everything while at the same time having no earthly clue what that skill might gain him. "Someday I will follow through," is his motto. "I just don't know with what, exactly." Credit Greer for making him the hero anyway.
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