Are You Useful to Anyone?

Are You Useful to Anyone?

Pitchfork Reviews Reviews was a Tumblr that launched in 2010. It, as one might expect, reviewed Pitchfork album reviews in a piercingly strange and touching voice — flat, declarative, obsessive, a bit breathless — that made it wildly compelling. But Pitchfork Reviews Reviews was only partly about Pitchfork reviews. The true subject of the blog was the anonymous young man who wrote it — his insecurities, his fears, and his triumphs of experience and understanding as he made his way through the various milieus of New York. It was weirdly elegant, tender and funny because of the author’s willingness to share uncomfortable details about his own life.

The deceptively banal confessional tone had a charm uncannily like that of the Nobel-bound Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard. And like Knausgaard, too, once in a while, the author of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews would really spill, and it was mesmerizing.

One year in middle school, I saw my friend Doug’s [gym class] card and it said 90 lbs and my card said 180 lbs and I wanted to tell him I weighed as much as two hims, and laugh, but obviously I didn’t because it was too sad to laugh about and I didn’t say anything.

So every day on the walk to school I’d get a $1.59 bag of Dipsy Doodles (which was a huge bag) and a Starbucks bottled Frappucino to supplement my lunch, which was like a chicken parmesan sandwich or cheeseburger and french fries and a soda, and my parents didn’t keep any good-tasting food in the house so sometimes I’d get candy from the vending machine and hide it in my bag and eat it secretly before or after dinner or before bed. One time I heard my mom crying and telling my dad that she didn’t know what to do to help me, and I used to look in the mirror and think of what I would do or give away to be able to lose weight, like I would think to myself that I would literally amputate one of my legs to make the rest of my body thinner and other stuff like that, or I wished I was too poor to be able eat that much, honestly.

The author, whose name is David Shapiro, grew up, lost weight, and wrote a novel of rare quality called You’re Not Much Use to Anyone. It’s not an “entertaining” book, per se — but it’s a fascinating one. It is virtually plotless, and its protagonist, David, who becomes Internet-famous for writing a blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, exits the novel in a condition very nearly as clueless as the one we found him in at the beginning. Publicity materials for the book assure us that the David of the book is not the same as the real David, but that is as obvious as can be: The David of the book is not always very honest, while the David who wrote it is brutally so.

David is an only child, a dutiful and loving son at heart, conscious of carrying all the hopes of his parents contained in the boundaries of his uncontrollably mutinous body. He feels terrific guilt, and yet is detached from that guilt; it doesn’t stop him from fibbing constantly. He lies just as much to his friends and new acquaintances, is afraid of being “found out,” constantly, nervously comparing his own achievements to everyone else. (How on earth do people who lie such a lot keep track of what they’ve told everyone? The potential for slip-ups made me nervous as hell, just reading about it.)

There’s a certain standard-issue pose for the young person of literary ambitions in New York. Cynical and slightly bored-seeming on the outside; thirsty on the inside: disillusioned with the whole idea of “believing in anything,” exhibiting a generalized scorn of government, religion, politics and philosophy, as well as a set of received feelings about women, and about “respecting” women. Very rarely will anyone venture one syllable outside that SOP for fear of imperiling a nascent career. And understandably so, perhaps: in the fishbowl of New York media, the slightest deviation from conventional thinking is so easily magnified that the risk of being blackballed is real.

The novel issues a series of challenges to these conventions, scene after scene describing realities that fly in the face of comfortable assumptions: Why does David’s girlfriend literally weep at the success of his blog? Why do his feelings about women center so inconveniently on his desire to just have someone to have sex with, to have that taken care of? What is the closeness he seeks? Why does he lie to his parents so baldly, and so often? Why does he worry about his hair so much, constantly combing it with his hand “so it looks okay” (a gesture so painful, and so familiar?) Why should there be such uncertainty and competitiveness among young people just starting out in the world? Shouldn’t things be different? What is “coolness”? What is “success”? Isn’t it all just the most ridiculous bullshit?

We get to the coffee shop where the reading is supposed to take place, and some kids standing around outside look very fashionable, like wearing rigid denim and shoes instead of sneakers […] we can hear a girl behind us talking to a very tall guy about how Slate “spouts conventional wisdom disguised as innovative thinking — so dishonest.” I want to turn around and tell her that there are plenty of worthwhile things on Slate that are just fun and good, like the Explainer column where the writer answers readers’ questions that are related to the news, but we don’t know each other, so it might be weird to go up to a random person and tell them you disagree with them, so I don’t. […]

[The reading] is packed with about seventy-five well-dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings, many of whom are carrying tote bags from bookstores and magazines like Harper’s, magazines that I’ve never read but that seem really impressive. I remind myself that coolness is just a characteristic people ascribe to people who they only observe from afar, and that nobody is actually cool once you get to know them, and especially not people who are really concerned about how they’re dressed, but knowing that something is true and acting on it are different obviously.

The possibility for a better — a more honest — way of conducting ourselves and our relationships with others is demonstrated obliquely, in the possibilities of contact and meaning that flicker through the story. Why would anyone bother writing, or indeed living, a life that isn’t “much use to anyone”? The line comes from the Belle and Sebastian song, “Sleep the Clock Around,” a lovely and characteristically nostalgic song from a brilliant band that has become quite “uncool” (perhaps even a dreaded “dad band”!) among our younger cognoscenti. One of the novel’s particular charms is how the ultra-knowledgeable music writer David, afraid as he is of being thought uncool, tell us quite openly that he listens to Belle and Sebastian all the time with his girlfriend, because it is cool, and good, to him; that’s where liberation is to be found, in being oneself, and in telling the truth, and being open and unafraid of your own ideas, tastes, feelings, experiences, no matter what anyone else might think of you. Such a simple, banal message, “be yourself”, but in fact that is a feat one spends one’s life trying to perform. (Or not perform, rather.)

“Not being much use to anyone” becomes a double joke that recurs throughout the book, the author-David interrogating the reader about his own complicity in the hypocrisy and lunacy of the world, while the book-David, and his lovers and friends, are by turns the butt of the same joke; we all wrestle with feelings of doubt and inadequacy, and with our fears for the future, our place in the world. Is all that really stopping us from being any use? I think yes, pretty much.

The book’s cover blurb comes from Adelle Waldman, the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. — another fantastic novel that revealed so much about the travails of New York’s young literati. Though both stories concern themselves externally with the difficulties young singles face in finding and maintaining an intimate relationship, the questions they pose are, at bottom, as much about literature as they are about love: about the terrible prison of emptiness inhabited by the literary careerist, and about escaping that prison just by doing a writer’s job, just by telling the truth. David Shapiro addressed this question directly in an old post on Pitchfork Reviews Reviews about a piece he wrote about dealing heroin on Craigslist; these remarks encapsulate his novel’s message very neatly, it seems to me.

Kai said his life is very bleak and lonely, and he intimated that he didn’t really have anyone else to talk to about it, and it reminded me of a quote used in a great Vanity Fair piece about going around the world looking for opium: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” I’m sorry to use a corny quote, but I think that just means that being honest about yourself, with yourself and other people, will make you more okay with who you are, and consequently you’ll feel better.

In You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, David Shapiro lays bare the whole of a conflict-ridden, uncertain and scary existence, even though he was only twenty-two when he wrote it. It is necessarily slight in some ways; he hadn’t had enough time yet to live very fully as an adult, but in his achievement, he is like the little brother of Karl Ove Knausgaard, a fellow literary genius who, by telling the truth of his life, transcended it; by laying claim to the whole of his humanity, transcended it.

I asked David Shapiro a few questions over email.

Did you really go to law school? Have you finished?

I have another year left of school, which starts again at the end of August. I’ve already done two years.

Are you starting work soon and if so, where?

I’m working at a white-shoe law firm over the summer, which is where I hope to work after I graduate. We find out if we get post-graduation (to begin around September, 2015) offers at the end of the summer, which is in three weeks. I work in the corporate (transactions) department, specifically the private equity group. If all goes according to plan, I will be what people refer to as “a corporate lawyer” (in the field of private equity) after I graduate.

Will you try to do both writing and lawyering? (I hope so!)

I will be doing just lawyering for at least the first two or three years of being a lawyer, and if I’m any good at being a lawyer, I won’t be writing again probably forever (although it’s hard to predict, like, where I’ll be in 20 years when I’m 45 or something). There are a few remaining things I would like to do newspaper reporting on during my last year of law school, but after that, I’m retired.

Have your parents read the book and if so, what do they think about it?

My parents have not read the book. I have a deal with them — they can’t read the book until July 22, 2024 (ten years after publication) and in turn, they get to come to the book party. I love my parents and we have repaired our relationship after I fought constantly with them from ages 13 to 21, so it’s not like we’re estranged, but I just think it would be better for all of us if they held off reading the book until the subject matter and characterizations are far enough in the past for us to laugh about it. When I wrote it, I was 22, angry, helpless, and felt like a complete failure, and I wouldn’t want how I felt then to bleed into my relationship with them now. People who read the book have a totally understandable tendency to believe that since some of the things in the book are verifiably true, everything is true, and I’m worried that my parents will think the same thing.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.