Meticulously crafted and a weirdly gripping one-sitting read, Bummed Out City by Scott Burr is marketed as the fiscal and psychological crisis of a twenty-nine-year-old unpublished writer named David Moore who lives a life of quiet desperation on the fringes of hipster Cleveland--a life that, in the words of reviewer Ellison Fowler, is emblematic “of a generation still floundering in the barren echo of its parents’ promise that it is special and talented, that it can be anything it wants to be.”
There’s been a lot of bad press about millennials lately, partly because they happened to be unemployed during the Occupy movement and are thus blamed for either starting it or quitting it, and partly because--for essentially similar reasons--they now mostly stick to doing thankless, dreary things, like posting pictures of themselves on Facebook and fighting in Afghanistan. Witness the notorious viral high school graduation speech where some malcontent teacher, no doubt sensing that this was the last time he’d be able to lord it over a bunch of future Merrill junior analysts and their cardigan-wearing wives, told his students in no uncertain terms that they were “not special.” If millennials didn’t think they were so damned special and wised up to the truth that they’re just basically insignificant specks of dirt, everything would just be better: cars would emit sunshine, the Dow would hit 19,000, and everyone would pay their subprime mortgages on time. More importantly, seventeen-year-old David wouldn’t have bet the farm on the bleak life of an unrecognized writer-cum-blogger, which is unquestionably wearing thin as he progresses in age:
“I didn’t go to college. I couldn’t really afford it, for one thing, but I also didn’t think I needed to. …I thought my life was going to be all meetings with publishers and phone calls with my agent and negotiations over the movie rights and book tours and parties in Brooklyn and L.A. and so while everyone else my age went to college or joined the military or went to work at their family’s company and then graduated from college and got jobs and got promoted and bought houses and had kids I was waiting tables and serving drinks and slowly writing forty one short stories and five novellas and three novels that nobody ended up wanting to publish, or even read.”
Two key themes hang over the plot of Bummed Out City, which is intricately formulated as a guided tour of a life in a chaotic downward spiral, the voyeurism so strictly controlled that you barely even notice the guide is there. The first issue is commitment. Obviously, David has problems with commitment--he can’t cope with his loudly-suffering girlfriend Carol’s incessant mind-numbing pleas for a dog, a house in suburbia, and marriage--but his world also seems to require way too much of it. It’s like the Seinfeld episode where Jerry gets an invitation to a ménage à trois but turns it down: he’d have to get new carpets, change his facial hair and generally adopt the life of an orgiast (“I’d have to get new friends! I’d have to get orgy friends!”). Everything in Bummed Out City is like Jerry’s orgy. You can’t just get married; if you’re like David’s more worldly friend Brad, you have to get married in a sweltering 200-person production with special silver-embossed floral stationery and matching bridesmaids. And, like Brad, you can’t just have a stable job: a real career also means a mortgage, a leased van, a “forty-dollar haircut,” and the obligation to propose to your girlfriend because marriage is “just kind of this thing you do at some point.” You can’t even just work part-time in a supermarket: you have to be Facebook buddies with your boss who tags you several times a week (“Someone should tell him that Facebook is for bitching about your problems and stalking your exes”) and spend your spare time reading about “the growing seasons in the different hemispheres and average rainfall and industrial farming.” And, worst of all, you can’t just write. You have to go to college so you can get into an MFA program so that you can go to school with someone who reads the slush pile for an agent (“Tanya Manz”), who might stand a slim chance of getting it published with a Big Six. Then the book can be stocked in a bookstore that gets most of its revenue from Starbucks lattes.
The second driver in Mr. Burr’s novel is a supply side problem relating to books and readers, best characterized by Ludacris as “too many players, not enough hoes.” David’s vision of the writing career, typical of the SAT generation, is that of a double-blind test situation where “if you’re talented and you work hard then one day people notice and you get, you know, you get the gold star.” David, who set out to be “the next Hemingway, the next Michael Chabon,” wants to emulate the great modernist giants of the twentieth century, but he’s by definition a little late to the party: the very fact that these people have become iconic--Henry Miller nailing Anais Nin and writing about his ex-wife in a dingy Parisian flat, Hemingway chomping on a cigar and going to bullfights--means that their myths can never be replicated. The glut of people wanting to be the next Hemingway or Chabon has caused the entire profession of writing to be commodified out of existence. Hemingway’s estate in Key West is now a killer wedding venue; in thirty years we’ll be paying people to read books. In other words, if everyone does it, it’s like nobody gets to do it--think of what happened to all the real-life restaurants in American Psycho.
If there’s a moral to Bummed Out City, it’s that looking backward is lethal. David is exhorted continually by everyone around him--his girlfriend, his dying mother--to “move on.” But move on to what? The breaking point of Bummed Out City is not a millennial crisis; it’s the existential crisis of every blasted bag-holder who was moronic enough to believe in the real estate market, CDSs, or meritocracy in general.
A faceless plasticity makes Bummed Out City almost sensuously readable. In restrained and impeccably constructed prose, the story flows from the first ripples in David’s stagnant life--Carol’s sudden obsession with buying a dog, which “would always be there, needing things, and I just don’t think I’m up for that”--to the gradual disintegration of his minor blogging career and his personal relationships. The pleasurably stylish first-person detachment in Bummed Out City is reminiscent of early Judy Blume or parts of Geoff Dyer, the kind of lobotomized monotone that was first debuted in Camus’ The Stranger and then turned out to be really useful in serial killer scenarios. As infuriating as David’s slacker behavior may initially seem, as a vicarious experience it grows to be strangely liberating. The deliberate flatness of the prose happily means that we witness, instead of viscerally experience, his self-pity and his shame. In a world of endless disappointment, the anaesthetized feel to Bummed Out City is a relief--perhaps itself an anodyne, in the end, for the pain of getting on with a crappy shelf-stocking existence.
Honoré de Balzac is actually quite accessible, even fun, and would be immensely popular around a lower-brow crowd if less of his oeuvre were structured around impossibly complicated debt issuances. This is not a joke: whole chapters of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette read like poorly written dealbooks on multimillion-dollar transactions. Unless you’re a banker or (possibly) a lawyer, basically every half-literate nineteenth-century French peasant out there is apparently better at negotiating the French Civil Code than you are. It's pretty much impossible to understand Balzac fully without having taken a class on secured transactions.
Bummed Out City is in some ways a Balzacian project, an ironic but sympathetic portrait of how individuals react--often with surprising grace and resilience--to fundamentally economic stressors. Yet there’s a disturbing trend of overly complex financial transactions in Bummed Out City that, unlike those in Balzac, cannot be precisely explained. Every interaction with the larger machinations of capitalism brings an unspoken confusion that no amount of online research can remedy. For example, at the start of the novel, David’s main source of livelihood comes from blogging for RUSTic, a vague-sounding “local arts foundation” that hustles enough cultural grant money to give David “the best-paying job I’ve ever had, and I only got it because I’m friends with Lewis, the guy who started and runs RUSTic.” Signs of financial trouble are obvious to the reader (but not David) throughout the book: paychecks start coming in late, the organization’s staff get “furloughed,” and Lewis explains ominously, “We’re still waiting on some grant money…Some things went under the radar over the holidays that shouldn’t have gone under the radar…I think I told you about the intern.” By the time the organization officially goes under, Lewis has gone off the grid. No clear explanation ever materializes.
One of the most powerful scenes in Bummed Out City involves Carol’s burning desire for home ownership. David, put upon by the collapse of RUSTic and his deadbeat dad, is forced to borrow money from her; shockingly, she uses this sign of David’s insolvency as leverage to force him to go house-hunting. Once a house is chosen, however, Carol’s parents enter the scene and insist on handling all of the pricing negotiations and bank discussions. What follows is a nightmare of labyrinthine ritual to which Carol and David are entirely superfluous:
“So we go over to the bank and we meet with Drew but there’s a problem, because our previous application came back and we weren’t pre-approved for the loan we would have needed for the first house we liked. Pam [the realtor] and Drew get into the technical details about bank ownership and Carol’s dad interjects and offers hypotheticals about a higher down payment and different collateral on the loan and then he turns to Carol and he says, ‘There’s a coffee shop around the corner. Do you guys want to run over there while we sort this out?’”
The issue here is not so much helicopter parenting as a more profound problem, which is that the increasingly treacherous debt markets have infantilized an entire generation. Post-2008, any plot line involving the word “mortgage” has a sinister and ghoulish ring to it. Carol’s father remarks, “I wanted some more information about the kind of loan they’re trying to set up for you….Typically they can do things like give you a break on the interest rate if you’re able to put more money in for a down payment.” It takes a moment to realize that he’s probably talking about one of the mortgage strategies--possibly an ARM--that brought down Lehman. David’s dream of being the next Hemingway is starting to look comparatively sensible; for one thing, it seems less likely to increase the regional foreclosure rate.
Bummed Out City, though ostensibly about a writer, contains almost no information about David’s unpublished novels. Nobody reads them and he refuses to talk about them. It isn’t a coincidence: from a refreshingly cynical perspective, the fundamental value of David’s serious work just isn’t particularly relevant to anything in a story about his failure as a writer, similar to Carol’s physical desirability (“Your ass looks fine….Your ass looks great.”) or the exact nature of his best friend Brad’s despised grown-up job.
Being a failed writer has no particular correlation with being a failed partner. David has to be both because his drive to be the twenty-first century Hemingway mirrors his girlfriend’s drive to attain the American suburban dream of domesticity. David can publish his own book; Carol, with her doting affluent parents and college degree, theoretically can work on her own career and buy the house herself. The difference is that being published by a Big Six press, like marrying a breadwinning male who can provide a comfortable Pottery Barn suburban lifestyle, is prestigious. It’s a sign that your talent is real and that your ass is just the right size.
And if prestige doesn’t matter, then what does? Why is David even getting up to work in the morning, much less giving one hundred and ten percent to a three-month stint as a produce manager while his estranged father’s ex-girlfriend’s son is waiting outside to kick his ass? Being special isn’t just a platitude that the baby boomers fed to some spoiled brats who’ve never had to sit through no-save Nintendo games, Gremlins, or a single episode of Mama’s Family. It’s a survival mechanism. Bummed Out City is one of the most painfully honest books about the writing life that we’ve seen, and it’s a credit to the technical skill of Mr. Burr that it’s done with incredible grace--a bitter but surprisingly gentle picture of the constant quasi-Nietzschean revaluation of all values that is necessary in order for people in our day and age to function and thrive.