It is no surprise that Eli Schwartz’s anthem is Kurt Cobain’s “All alone is all we are.” Because that is precisely who Eli is--a twenty-something lovable loser in Quinosset, Massachusetts, who really should be attending college but instead whiles away his hours doing nothing but drugs and soaking in “culture” from his flatscreen TV.
His lifestyle subsidized by Dad’s checks (although the last three have not yet materialized), Eli watches life go on, attending temple services with his mom, making googly eyes at the girls who show up, dreaming carnal dreams about them and generally spending life as if it were one long lazy Sunday afternoon. The extent of his remove and Eli’s delusion is complete thanks to the only medium he faithfully swallows: television. Never having worked before, he has no idea how it is done. He wonders what happens in Pepsi factories, if elves mix the Pepsi in giant tubs (just as in the Keebler elves commercial).
Eventually Eli meets a disabled and aging actor, Seymour Kahn, who is now past his prime acting years. The two strike an unlikely alliance forged mainly by drugs and easy women. Eli is attracted to Kahn as a father figure, too, something he sorely lacks in his own life. As the story winds down, it remains to be seen whether Kahn or anybody (or anything) else will provide the necessary spark to get Eli’s life back on track.
Loser lit, and especially “lovable loser” movies, the roles enacted so well by actors like Adam Sandler and Paul Rudd, have been the staple of stories for a while now, and Flatscreen is an able addition to that canon. Debut author Adam Wilson has perfected Eli’s voice and tone, and they absolutely shine in the book. Many a young adult will find something to relate to in Eli’s funny and often profound observations. It is this fact—that despite being such a loser, Eli is so likeable—that makes Flatscreen a compelling read. Almost every observation that Eli makes is so spot on that the book completely draws you in. The problem with Flatscreen is that, like its protagonist, it’s a lovable proposition that does not go too far. The story brakes and stutters quite often, and it seems that Wilson is more interested in Eli’s existentialist crisis than in moving the story along clear-cut plot lines. After a while, the endless navel-gazing gets a little tiring. All in all though, Flatscreen is a very promising debut by a talented young author.
Even in Eli’s stasis, there are moments of profound sadness and humanity. While he tries not to blame anyone, he suspects his parents have to shoulder some responsibility for his life’s circumstances by the mere fact of their separateness and apathy. “Part of me wishes that she’d (Mom) prodded, told me to get a job, get off my ass; that she’d whispered in a half-awake hush that love exists and, as a young man, it was my duty to find it, tether it, rub my eyes as it disappeared in the wind, restart the cycle,” Eli says. Flatscreen also hits home some real zingers about the shallowness of contemporary American society. “We were isolated selves, shoved into solo corners, stabbed by stuck-out umbrella ends and pangs of futile human4human hunger. We publicized it all on the Internet, from inner thoughts to excrement, exhibitionists until someone turned to look. Then suddenly we were shy,” Eli observes.
Despite his depressing circumstances, Eli fervently wishes for a fairy tale ending (or at least beginning) to his life. “Maybe just maybe even the ugliest of circumstances can be remolded into a series of whimsical, fart-charged episodes, unburdened by the silly sadness of post-nuclear parenting, elevated by laugh track, always ending with a lesson learned,” he thinks. And if such wishes did indeed come true, what better way to watch his fairy tale life unfold than through the comforting embrace of a flatscreen’s blue glow.