In college I read Karl Marx and snorted cocaine. The Marx I didn't much understand. The cocaine contextualized.
I lived with four other guys. We weren't a classless household. Some were subsidized: parentally, governmentally. Others worked campus jobs. This one roommate – Spine, we called him, because he didn't have one – was from that town in Connecticut where the mansions come pre-equipped with bowling alleys.
Spine was our procurer, doled to the rest as he saw fit. He took payment in the form of term papers. I was caught in an ouroboros of needing drugs to complete Spine's papers, and writing papers to pay for drugs. Spine was getting Cs across the board but didn't care. He had a gig lined up after grad, at a cushy desk selling commercial real estate for some blueblood uncle. ("Some Nights We Tase Each Other," p. 59 iPad iBooks e-edition)
Adam Wilson's debut novel, 2012's Flatscreen, possessed a mixture of humor and wry commentary that made me curious enough to see how his first collection, What's Important is Feeling, would work these elements into a more compressed narrative space. What I discovered was a collection of stories that utilized a familiar set of conditions to create stories that more often succeeded than not in their execution. Although I am a decade or so older than most of the protagonists, their experiences did remind me of my time at college and immediately afterward, and connections like this certainly played a role in my overall enjoyment of the stories.
The majority of the stories feel with frustrated, confused adolescent and young adult lust and emotion. The first story, "Soft Thunder," encapsulates this in its opening paragraph:
No one knows who slept with her first. Besides, sleep isn't the right word. What we did: pressed lips to closed lips, tried to slip in some tongue; buried her beneath us on carpeted floors and futon mattresses; fumbled for buckles; felt her dry skin against our sweat-wet hands; said, "Don't cry"; wiped tears with our T-shirts; kept on because she said, "Don't stop." (p. 6)"Soft Thunder"'s tale of directionless late-teens trying to live the rock'n'roll lifestyle, whatever that might actually mean, is in turns humorous and morose. Wilson does a good job in fleshing out his characters. Told from the perspective of a 17 year-old, Benjamin, the story explores the mixture of privilege and rudderless action of a group of young Jews who form a band, Soft Thunder, and whose web of connections to a troubled immigrant girl, Kendra, form the core of this story. At first, Kendra exists more as a foil for the boys, acting simultaneously as a muse and as a source of hidden tension between the bandmates. Yet by the story's end, what seemed to be just another story of teens confused by lust and driven apart by a young woman has morphed into something different. It isn't a seamless transition, but it works for the most part.
The second story, "The Long In-Between," is the only one written from a women's perspective. It is a mirror of sorts for the passions explored in "Soft Thunder," but in this case, there is no troubled youth, but instead a twenty-something young woman and a two decades-older former professor of hers and their unequal, occasionally exploitative relationship. In this tale, even more than the others, Wilson examines some of the internal contradictions that secular American Jews have with their ethnicity, especially in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It has an interesting twist ending, but otherwise is one of the weaker tales in the collection.
One of the strongest tales is "We Close Our Eyes," where a high school boy has to confront the return of his mother's cancer, his father's nocturnal absences, and his younger sister's sex tape being leaked to the student body. This description might sound rather hum-drum, as such familial conflicts (OK, maybe not the sex tape part, but that is minor compared to the first two) are often the fodder of contemporary fiction stories, but Wilson does a good job of developing the protagonist's character and his confusion is illustrated well. There are a few twists, however, that also help in making this more than just another sad "coming of age" tale.
The story I quoted at the beginning, "Some Nights We Tase Each Other," is perhaps the most emblematic of What's Important is Feeling's stories. It is a tale of strung-out college kids, desiring something that they do not understand themselves, finding fleeting parallels with the material they study, before just drifting, drifting away from whatever it was that they thought they wanted. The humor here accentuates the vague heartache that many of us perhaps recall from our college years. Yet like the other tales, there is a sense of dissipation by tale's end, like a dream fading before we can grasp its import. What is left is a sense of dissatisfaction, but of a sort that is hard to put into words.
The eponymous story differs from the others in that it is not set on the East Coast and while the first-person PoV does display some of that confused lust of others, the focus is more on a crazed set of actors and film personnel who have assembled in Texas to film a movie despite a clash of personalities and desires. Wilson here penetrates more deeply into his characters' neuroses and conflicts, presenting with little comment a memorable menagerie of "lost" souls who do not realize the plights in which they are caught. It is my favorite story and one that I suspect might point to a new direction for Wilson to follow.
Despite liking most of the stories, like the characters at the end of their tales, I felt an odd sense of deflation after completing What's Important is Feeling. Although Wilson is a sound narrative plotter that mixes humor and disaffection adroitly into his stories, there was perhaps too much uniformity in these tales. It is not simply a matter of similar characters or situations, as many writers have mined deeply their environs, but rather more that with the exception of "What's Important is Feeling," that there just really isn't even a substantial variation in theme. Read separately, most of these tales might engender a chuckle or a sigh, depending on what past self the reader recalls. However, when read as a collection, the overall effect is numbing, draining many of these tales of their ability to make us "feel" because we had already experienced this before in a slightly-different form a story or two prior. What's Important is Feeling is perhaps best viewed as a snapshot, of where the author is before he "matures" and takes his promising mixture of narrative elements and makes something memorable out of them.