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A once-tragic figure (from Wikipedia)

At a party not long ago, a friend of mine, a dramatist who teaches film history among other subjects, launched into—or perhaps was provoked into—a sad critique of today’s students. As recently as a decade ago, he said, when he showed films that displayed sexist or racist attitudes or callous violence, he’d get a strong reaction. Today, the students seem indifferent, unprovoked, unimpressed. Nothing moves them.

My friend is of an age (as am I) when old-fogey-style complaints are natural, even expected. I withhold his name, though, to avoid informing his students that he criticizes them in public. But they wouldn’t care anyway, would they? “Whatever,” they’d yawn.

Normally I don’t indulge old-fogeyism except in private. But my friend’s remarks came to mind when I read an interview with Marc Schuster, whose new novel The Grievers was featured in my last post. Marc had this to say about American culture and in particular about his own still-youthful generation:

There’s such an emphasis upon entertainment in our culture that we’re losing the ability to take things seriously. We’re really into melodrama, into quick laughs, into anything that amuses us. Look at The Daily Show for example. I love watching it, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the fact that I get a lot—if not most—of my news from John Stewart. It’s like I can’t digest serious information without a heaping teaspoon of humor to help me get it down. What does this say about me? About people of my generation? When am I going to start taking things seriously? Questions like these were in the back of my mind as I was writing the novel, and they’re also the kinds of questions that plague its narrator.

Let me add a third comment to these two: In the past couple of years, as a subscriber to Philadelphia’s excellent Arden Theatre, I’ve seen two plays that offer a classic mix of comedy and tragedy: Cyrano this past season—a new translation and adaptation of Rostand’s 1897 warhorse—and Romeo and Juliet in 2010. In both cases, the productions had me laughing with the comic bits but utterly unmoved by the tragedy, which seemed as extraneous as a sticky note thumbed onto a computer screen. When the heroes and heroine keeled over dead, I merely noted that they had ceased to be funny. In each case the director (Aaron Posner and Matt Pfeiffer, respectively) was experienced and talented and known for drawing the best out of actors. So I had to blame either myself (have I lost the ability to appreciate tragic deaths on stage? admittedly melodrama has never been my favorite genre) or the actors as a group or the culture as a whole.

I’ll take the broad, easy approach, blaming the culture, and extend what honorary old fogey Marc Schuster said a step further. Not only do we demand “a heaping teaspoon of humor” (or, better yet, a campy irony) with our seriousness, but maybe we’re fundamentally desensitized in some important way.

What’s the reason? Video games! Violence on TV! The Internet! Lying, untrustworthy politicians! Loss of faith! Decline in moral standards! Televised wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan! Facebook! Cell phones!

But notice what most of these comments have focused on: our reaction to pretend-reality. Films, theatrical productions, even the news, which we access through the tinted glass of mass media. What happens when we move into real life? When a young ironist witnesses, say, a bicyclist run over by a truck?

Whatever. Don’t ask me. Just pass the pretzels, dude. What’s on Law and Order tonight?

The original Stockholm hostages

The original Stockholm hostages

My alter(ed) ego, as part of his role in hosting a fiction series at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, has been reading new novels by two interesting authors. Liz Moore’s Heft (W. W. Norton) focuses on a housebound ex-professor who weighs more than 500 pounds—a grotesqueness that I thought would put me off. Overall, there are too many characters in contemporary fiction who don’t resemble anyone I know. It turns out, though, that hefty Arthur Opp isn’t grotesque at all, not in ways that count; he’s extremely human and decent and has a fine appreciation for the finer things in life, including but not limited to crab rangoons (“a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess”). He’s a good man whose story of lost love and found friendship grows more fascinating as it proceeds.

Very different but equally entertaining is Marc Schuster’s The Grievers (The Permanent Press), the tale of a prep-school graduate who arranges a memorial event for a classmate who has committed suicide. Marc satirizes every institution in contemporary America from schools to banks to chain restaurants, and his main character, Charley Schwartz, is a smart-ass who never had a good intention he couldn’t undermine with stupid comments. But Charley, like Arthur, grows on the reader, and once he has slashed away everyone’s pretenses, including his own, he finds a way to connect with people at the end.

My alter(ed) ego did an interview with Liz and Marc for the Musehouse blog. You can find it here. They will be reading and schmoozing at Musehouse on May 19 at 7:00.

Among numerous interesting points in the interview, one that jumped out at me was Marc’s comment about the dangers of first-person narration:

The temptation is always there to go into a character’s head and talk about things like guilt and regret. The narrator can do something petty or spiteful, and immediately you can have her turning to the reader with an apology. The real challenge, though, is conveying that kind of information without getting too interior. Ultimately, being in the narrator’s head is a bit like a hostage situation. As a reader, you’re more or less stuck with the character, so it’s only natural to experience a degree of Stockholm syndrome.

The implication that having the narrator express guilt can be the easy way out ties in with my previous post on Jeremy Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In that Man Booker–winning novel, Barnes does exactly what Marc worries about, and it bothered me so much that I felt the reverse of the Stockholm syndrome—the narrator’s whining about his guilt distanced me rather than increasing my empathy.

I say this as the author of an entire novel, McAllister’s Fall, predicated on a man’s guilt. In that book, the protagonist semiaccidentally kills a guy with a baseball bat and spends the rest of the novel clumsily trying to make up for his action (and perhaps making things worse in the process). Maybe it’s proper that it remain unpublished so that I can criticize others’ treatment of remorse without suffering the inconvenience of that emotion myself.