Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What the Hell is an Aperitif? Guest Post by Gene Kwak

Person A uses the word aperitif in conversation. Drinks out of a carafe. Moves a wine flute three inches across a table in a supposed manifestation of the deterioration of her domestic bliss.

This is a scenario common to the contemporary American novel.

Which has no relation to my life. Or, I’m willing to bet, most of your lives. Not in circumstance, characterization, or language.

Now I’m not saying that all fictive work need be mimetic to my daily goings-on. I love a good escape as much as the next person. And while novels are the one vehicle that best allow us the closest approximation of empathy, the ability, even in the close-third POV (point of view) flitting seamlessly (one would hope) between objective-subjective planes, to see into someone’s skull-sized kingdom, as DFW put it, one does tire of the glut of upper middle class perspectives in American novels.

Lev Grossman called Freedom the novel of How We Live Now. This is only true if you’re white (there are scant people of color in Freedom) and upper middle class, which statistics show, fewer and fewer Americans are today.

I make no gross claims to the novel of Now, but if I could point you toward a story collection that’s as close to Now as now (Like now) I’d direct you to Mike Young’s debut story collection, Look! Look! Feathers.

Young’s stories are set in Okie-inhabited Nor Cal, and his characters may look like your familiar working class, but they grope for happiness through new means (Facebook, YouTube, Myspace) and are thus forced to employ new language to deal with those new means.

Russell from “Mosquito Fog” frequents a Facebook page for the Gold City Giddy-Ups and fosters a friendship with a woman, Delilah, since his own wife passed from a freak aneurysm and his only daughter, Ashley, is moving away to Portland. Russell’s opening gambit on the Facebook page is full of the self-conscious, awkward, and yet slightly endearing posturing of someone un-used to “selling” himself on the Internet.

In “Burk’s Nub,” the titular character, an overweight, geeky band nerd, tries to win points with his coterie of fellow band geeks by inserting, through a home surgery overseen by his aunt, a prototype of a Japanese gadget into his hand that allows him to see the Internet in his head. Burk’s nub goes over well, initially, though his fellow nerds have their doubts. As the mystique surrounding his nub grows, one of the nerds is driven to a desperate act to disprove Burk, his nub, and to reinforce the sacrosanct idea that if you’re a nerd, you don’t bring undue attention to yourself and your ilk, you “hoard the dignity of silence.”

Young’s characters (aptly named) are the Dan Mac’s, the Orrin’s, and the Reynard’s who people the West in 2010: representative of the joy in double-rainbows and Twitter and equally, the whiskey swill and grit of cowboys and wanna-be cowboys; the habitués of small-towns and the never-lefts.

I’m a Korean-American in my late twenties, a proud product of can’t-get-more-central Omaha, Nebraska, use Facebook and G-chat to communicate every day, and can often be found imbibing whiskey with my friend Paul Hansen, a member of ametal band, who has, among multiple tattoos, the visage of Proust on his left arm and a nod to The Boss on his right calf. The word aperitif has never come up in our conversations.

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