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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Wagner in the Desert," by Greg Jackson

Sometimes the more I like a story the longer it takes me to write about it. Partly I'm waiting to collect my
thoughts and not rush my blog post; partly I'm waiting to see if the story provides me any "after-shock." By after-shock I mean whether or not the story comes up in my thoughts over the next week or whether any deeper meaning becomes apparent. Sometimes, I hesitate out of the simple reluctance of not wanting the experience to be over, and knowing that there's no way my 500 word blog post (no matter how long I spend on it) is going to do justice to how much I liked the story.

In this case, it's a bit of all three. To me, this story is distinctly "un-New Yorker"-ish, therefore it hit me like a searing bolt of lightning. What we have here is a truly contemporary voice that places itself within the context of the literary tradition it's trying to advance; a voice that belongs wholly and completely to 2014 while engaging with the great fiction of an earlier time. I say "contemporary" because Greg Jackson's voice seems to embody the spirit of the times. It is voice of contradictions; a voice riddled with hubris, anxiety, greed, guilt, self-loathing, egotism, lust, self-examination, apathy, humor, fear, and yes -- even hope -- all rolled into one. Greg Jackson looks like a serious contender to be that Fitzgeraldian "voice of his generation" that the Gen Y/Millenial generation doesn't have yet.

Just for some context, the story is set in Palm Springs, California, during a week around the holiday season in which a few friends have gone on vacation to a beach house, partly so that Eli, who is in the film business, can "accidentally" run into Wagner, a Hollywood producer whom Eli has isolated as the most likely to get his film made.

Here's what I liked about this story:

The Narration

Absolutely one of the funniest and most honest narrative voices I've ever read; not afraid to plumb the deepest, most sacred regions of the conscious mind. He completely captures the ups and downs in mood, the self-consciousness, the often-thwarted hopefulness, the meta-cognition, and above-all the never-ending inner monologue of the over-active mind. What's more, he makes some really trenchant observations about life in the process:

"I was by no means innocent, either, of the slow supplanting drift by which the means to our most cherished and noble ends become the ends themselves--so that, for instance, writing something to change the world becomes writing something that matters to you becomes publishing something halfway decent becomes writing something publishable; or...finding everlasting love becomes finding a reasonable mix of tolerance and lust becomes finding a sensible social teammate. And, of course, with each recalibration you think not that you are trading down or betraying your values but that you are becoming more mature. And maybe you are."

The Mid-30s Apathy

One of the more humorous elements of this story takes place as, during the vacation weekend, the Main Character tries half-heartedly to sleep with the only available female on the trip, Lily, a flighty, high-maintenance P.R. rep in her early 30s whose interest in the narrator is about as tepid and purely academic as his is for her. At one point, Lily breaks down a play-by-play analysis of why they should not sleep together; a litany which is essentially the description of any garden-variety, doomed fling between two young professionals who live in different cities and are now too devoted to their careers to take a serious chance on love:

"But we're old enough now to know some things, to know what happens next, to know that we have sex and then we text and email for a bit, and then you come visit me, or I come visit you, and we start to get a little excited and talk about the thing to our friends, and then we get a little bored cause our friends don't really care, and we remember that we live in different places..."

It continues, but it's too long to completely reproduce.

The point is, Greg Jackson is really making an effort and succeeds in capturing a very specific place in time in these particular character's lives; a very real, human place, devoid of the varnish or gloss of "fiction" and really coming from a three-dimensional character. It's a place Jackson has undoubtedly been and, like a great travel writer, has thought deeply about and observed well and come back to tell us all about.

The Intertextualism

There are a handful of cultural references in this story, to bands, foods, liquors, drugs, cars, movie-stars, films, etc. but the one that really stands out to me is his reference to Trimalchio; 

"We are desert people, sons of a Trimalchio race. We come to places like this, where there is nothing, and don't see nothing." 

Here Jackson is really reaching back through the generations of his literary forebears and, I think, attempting to place himself within that tradition. Trimalchio was a term used by F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway, in describing Jay Gatsby in (wait for it) The Great Gatsby; in fact, Fitzgerald wanted to call the book Trimalchio of West Egg. Good thing he didn't; The Great Gatsby is a far superior title. BUT...what's even more interesting is that Fitzgerald himself was being intertexual by using the name Trimalchio, for Trimalchio was a character in the ancient Roman novel Satyricon.

For more info on Satyricon, I suggest you poke around online, but essentially it's a catalog of adventures, excesses, and perversions encountered by an anonymous main character on seemingly senseless and pointless journey throughout the ancient Mediterranean. The adventures bear little relation to each other and there is no greater plot (mostly because only certain parts of the manuscript have been discovered). But in one of the adventures, we meet Trimalchio; a rags-to-riches, neaveau-riche type character who lives on the outskirts of town and throws outrageously lavish parties in order to flaunt his wealth (sound slightly familiar?).

In referencing Trimalchio, Jackson is really pulling an interesting, three-pronged trick; he's referencing The Great Gatsby and Satyricon, and he's also referencing The Great Gatsby as it itself references Satyricon. Meditate on THAT for a while.

Too Much? 

If I had a complaint here, it would be that Jackson almost delivers too much too fast. The story is so packed with insights, thought-catalogs, meta-cognition and references, that I begin to wonder if he could possibly keep this up for a whole novel. Maybe he can't. Furthermore, although there were some nice thought-provoking take-aways here, what was truly missing was the "why"? The "so what"? The characters are celebrity-adjacent, upper-middle class, Yup-ster types who do drugs and attempt to fight off the increasing listlessness of bourgeois middle-age. And...who gives a shit? I'm not sure Jackson answered that question for me, but at the same time...I don't really give a shit about that very question itself: the story was fun to read and I loved inhabiting this narrator's head. I'm sure Jackson's got more and even better stories to tell us.

Also: the Wagner character, the coke-snorting movie director with a naked prostitute standing in his office, was the same hackneyed version of every over-the-top film producer stereotype that's ever been done. It makes me wonder if Jackson has ever actually met a film producer. I'm guessing he actually has met a few, which is the even sadder part of the equation; that he could have done a better and more realistic job of creating one in his story. For me, the Wagner character is the only place where this story goes off the rails.

Still, even Wagner delivers a statement that left me with something to ponder. When Wagner asks Eli why he's in the film business and asks him what he wants out of his career, Wagner tells him it's about more than money, or sex, or possessions, or good drugs:

" don't have the good stuff, do you, the really hard-to-come-by shit? You know what I'm talking about: Envy. Serious, irrefutable reasons for people to envy you."

Maybe it's accurate, maybe it's not; maybe it applies to you, and maybe it doesn't. But it's a searing, definite, and unique comment on the human character -- or at least the character of one kind of human -- and something to think about long after the story is done.

Definitely looking forward to more from this guy.


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