I started a new book last week – a much-lauded piece of Australian contemporary literature. Just one chapter in, I had to stop reading. Because clearly it was going to be good and I didn’t (still don’t) have the brain space to focus on the words. All my energy is being directed toward population genetics. Which involves lots of maths and traditionally maths and I aren’t great friends. My lecturer said (in a not the least bit reassuring voice) “This course only requires maths to Year 10 level…” Yeah, well good. Firstly, Year 10 was a shitfull year for me. Secondly, Year 10 maths was a much more recent experience for 99.9% of my fellow students. Anyway, I digress. I needed a book that was fluff. Flatscreen by Adam Wilson fitted the bill.
In short, it’s the story of Eli Schwartz – a twenty-year-old slacker who lives at home with his mother, partakes in recreational drugs, wishes he had a girlfriend, wishes he had his own cooking show, wishes his brother wasn’t so successful and wishes his father would give him more money (to support the aforementioned drug habit). Enter Seymour Kahn, former star of the small screen and current paraplegic sex addict. An unlikely friendship begins that leads to some particularly untidy scenes and a viral YouTube clip. Of course, there’s a moral to the story.
While the plot of Flatscreen may not break new ground, this book is funny. It’s dry and sarcastic and there are a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud scenes that don’t feel in the least bit forced. You don’t feel much sympathy for robe-wearing, daytime-napping Eli – he is the epitome of apathy, however, he is also endearingly self-deprecating and his love of good food won me (because you’d expect his type to be eating cheese from a can and salty snacks from jumbo foil bags).
“It’s true I’d had friends once, but they were gone… off to college, G-chatting the days away, waiting for night under campus lights, hair assholically gelled.”
‘Assholically’ is my new favourite word (although we’d spell it arseholically in Australia).
There’s clever pop-culture references peppered throughout the story (including Cobain, Salinger, Hughes and Disney) and movie references are used to style various possible endings to Eli’s story. Always a sucker for a list, Flatscreen has a number of short chapters composed of lists – Eli’s favourite ‘Jennys from the Block’ (his fascination with “…Latino women runs deep, but is uncomplicated…“) to places his father might have gone during a four-month unexplained absence. My favourite –
“Ways in which I’m like a rapper:
- Absent father
- Bullet hole
- Verbal dexterity
- Limited education
- Love of butts”
I’m no prude when it comes to writing but I did find some parts of Flatscreen a little distasteful. Perhaps because references to vaginas/penises/ejaculations were just plopped into the middle of a scene, catching me unawares. I don’t need blow-job warnings pages in advance but some sentences were crude. For example, Eli lists questions he’d like to ask his father and among them –
“Wanted to say, ‘Father, have you ever licked butt cheeks in moonlight or sucked fat clit while Otis Redding comes crinkled with static over the radio in your 1968 Ford sedan?'”
That said, there are sentences that feel like Wilson could stray away from lad-lit and put himself in the contemporary literature category –
“My mother was born for the grainy light of classic American cinema. With her tennis whites and platinum highlights she might look beautiful in that forgiving light, the testaments of age, white wine, and heartbreak erased by the camera’s flattering eye. But this is the high-def era. Every blemish is mercilessly illuminated.”
3.5/5 Half a mark off for all the cock references.
In Eli’s own words –
“My palate was unparalleled. Could catch a hint of freshly cut Brie from three houses away, smell the pizza boy before he’d turned onto our street. Knew the tannins in my tea by name, gagged at an extra teaspoon of cinnamon, understood the subtle benefits of star anise.”
He also imagines a time when he’d have a signature soufflé, so on that basis, pair Flatscreen with this Cheese Soufflé with Parmesan Crust.