Sean Thor Conroe
Little, Brown ($27)
by Bryan Counter
Sean Thor Conroe’s provocative debut novel Fuccboi opens with a brief and oddly charming vignette: the narrator has a dispute with the cashier at his local Fresh Grocer about whether coffee filters are on sale. “She was like This muhfucker. What aisle.” After an exchange marked by vague antagonism, the narrator states: “It connected us. It marked the start of a long, fruitful, and strictly nocturnal friendship.” Antagonism, in this refreshing and hard-hitting passage, ultimately gives way to a kind of familiarity, a bond.
Fuccboi has been called a work of autofiction, though neither the similarity between the novel and the author’s life nor the gesture of naming his narrator Sean Thor Conroe are definitive proof of this, and there are places where the narrative clearly diverges from Conroe’s biography. But undue attention to such fidelities or divergences obfuscates the possibility that all fiction, at bottom, is autofiction. As Roland Barthes states in The Rustle of Language with reference to Proust: “‘I’ is not the one who remembers, confides, confesses, he is the one who discourses; the person this ‘I’ brings on stage is a writing self whose links with the self of civil life are uncertain, displaced.” This speaks to the provocation offered by Fuccboi not only because, like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator shares undeniable similarities with the author, but also (and more importantly) because of the true autonomy of literature: its resistance to unambiguous determination.
In a recent interview with Alec Gewirtz, Conroe refers to the book’s “narrative voice.” Whether intentional or not, the resonance with Maurice Blanchot’s essay “The Narrative Voice” should not be missed. Here, Blanchot considers a mode of writing that does not afford any distance. He has in mind writers like Beckett and Duras whose writing, in his words, “allows the neutral to speak” through an alienating proximity. This relies on a certain aesthetic flattening, with “characters” no longer fleshed out portraits, but merely voices, figures. In this kind of writing, language itself shines forth in all of its neutrality, disrupting the theater-like distance imagined by writers like Flaubert.
At the beginning of his essay, Blanchot evokes fatigue: “the experience of weariness that constantly makes us feel a limited life.” The twists and turns of Conroe’s novel recall both of Blanchot’s points here (alienating proximity and fatigue), but perhaps inversely: the unrelenting style of Fuccboi—which is consistent to the point of flattening everything out—means that the same weight is given to an account of an event as to an account of a thought. Though it may seem abstract, this introduces an ambiguity into the text, the very title of which seems to invite controversy. On the narrative level, this flattening makes it difficult not only to interpret the events in the novel, but also to evaluate the narrator’s own interpretations.
This brings us to the problem of fatigue. Because the earlier sections are so vital and fresh, they end up being more gripping and effective than later portions; once the narrative style is established—a style that relies heavily on slang, contemporary references, and a text- or tweet-like cadence—its novelty wanes, which ultimately has a deleterious effect. To be sure, there are instances of beautiful poetry throughout, but for the reader approaching the end of the novel, fatigue sets in.
This readerly fatigue coincides with increasing self-reflection on the narrator’s part. Whereas the opening is thematically light and stylistically refreshing, those same qualities might mask the gravity of the latter portions. As Jay McInerny nicely summed up this tension in his review at The Wall Street Journal, “Fuccboi is long on style and short on incident.” Nearing the end, the narrator’s increasingly frequent self-reflection paradoxically results in the reader’s growing confusion as to the narrative’s stakes, precisely because this self-reflection is given the same brisk treatment as the concurrent narrative events.
At the center of the novel is Sean’s intense skin condition, which becomes a major obstacle to his ability to function, both within the narrative and perhaps even as a narrator. However, as McInerny notes, this “may or may not have a spiritual corollary—the author doesn’t seem to invite this kind of analysis.” McInerny is right, and this is an irony for a novel so focused on self-examination: Sean’s condition welcomes a reading in which his physical condition would correspond to his moral character, or at least to his reflections on it. This is perhaps the most apt opportunity for the text to clarify the relative importance of event and interpretation. But it ultimately ends up as one of what the narrator calls “moments of illumination that faded into disorientation before I could even identify, let alone capture them.” Again, if we entertain the parallel between narrator and author, this particular reflection is doubled, to the detriment of both.
These critiques should not be understood as being in service of a value judgment, but rather, perhaps, suggest that Fuccboi demands to be read at least twice: once straight through, and then again from the ending backwards. Only in this way does its social or political timeliness resonate, and the complex relation between its style and its form become clear.
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