Imagine a kid—shaggy purple hair, shoulders slumped, cigarette hanging loosely from mouth—saying, “I hated school. I hated work. I hated boredom. I had no interests … ”
Your response might be “Heard it before, Cobain. Next.” After all, post-teen desperation from a middle-class brat who “came from a world of hot water and chocolate cake” is quite hard to pull off in a novel. And worse yet—it’s nothing new.
Yet Manifesto, in its 20-something angst and generational cliché, is easy to pick up and hard to put down for a few very simple reasons.
First, or perhaps superficially, it’s a perfectly small white book with no cover art, no table of contents, no index and no fancy, well, anything. It carries the anti-aesthetic appeal of the Beatles’ White Album and Danger Mouse’s Grey Album (with as much youthful relevance). In fact, Manifesto blatantly defies many rules of fiction—maybe all of them: There’s no plot; it’s written like a series of loosely related scenes; there’s no resolution to any of the conflicts presented and the main characters are a boy and his angst:
“I felt lost on an endless plane. The sky was big and blue. I liked closing my eyes in the sun.
“I was sorry I drank so much and smoked and wrecked my childhood mind. I was sorry for leaving my friends. I was sorry I didn’t explain myself. I was sorry I promised things. I was sorry I acted irrationally. I didn’t believe in depression. I didn’t believe in addiction. I didn’t want to be negative. I didn’t believe in therapy. Alcohol wasn’t my problem. I had no life. My mind twisted in knots. I couldn’t answer questions. I did fine on standardized tests. Psychiatrists could label me with conditions. My penis was the average size for the average American.”
This bleak pseudo-self-discovery is not an uncommon occurrence in Manifesto. The book—mostly sorrowful, sometimes funny—reads like a series of interrelated passages with this same grinding disparate message, but a different scenario. However, instead of the pattern wearing thin, the novel becomes thick with meditation—the mantra: Self-loathing, self-doubt, self-contemplation, repeat.
But the author is acutely aware of what the novel could become (a long-winded diatribe by a hateable miscreant who could have it much better than the rest of America if he wasn’t such a self-defeating fuckup). And instead of surrendering to cliché, the stream-of-consciousness narrative that documents the protagonist’s rootless pattern of wandering, getting wasted, vomiting and subsequent contemplation period becomes a novel-long journey where the character of Angst fights wholeheartedly to become the character of Peace.
And of course, there’s that “I.” It heavily dominates the text (sometimes as many as 40 per page)—which to many, is a sure sign of self-centered, sloppily crafted diatribe.
This “I”-centered writing, a point of contention among critics in this recent memoir-a-minute age, has certainly worked for authors like Aaron Cometbus, whose highly self-conscious squat-punk books Double Duce and I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit managed to garner him a fair amount of literary attention, even outside of his own Oakland punk scene. And, of course, there’s James Frey, who has reached literary fame with his false “I”s, and J.T. Leroy with her veiled “I,” Augusten Burroughs with his snarky “I” ….
To complicate matters, mostly everybody under the age of 30 has a blog, a MySpace page, a Facebook profile—access to some kind of minor fame that feeds directly into a personal brand of “I.”
Ultimately, what makes Manifesto hard to put down (strangely enough) is that unlike other self-centered novels, it’s anonymously written (the only signature points the reader to www.dedrabbit.com, a Web site for a Massachusetts artists’ collective/publishing house). Manifesto is secretive—in essence, the polar opposite of every “I” the author presents in the narrative. The anonymity, along with the book’s sparse aesthetic, becomes part of the story. The narrator of Manifesto doesn’t stop talking about himself for 200 pages—yet the book is written by an author who chooses not to be recognized. It’s at once self-absorbed, ridiculous and, of course, very ironic. Which is exactly why Manifesto is arguably one of the most honest and accurate descriptions of the current generation of young Americans to date.