We were at the Rhino Records in Claremont recently, picking up the new Bob Dylan and Pete Yorn CDs, when my girlfriend came upon a little stub of a paperback book on one of the wall racks and pulled it down to have a look. It was about the size of a 100-pack of 4 x 6 index cards, with a plain white cover with no words anywhere on it, either front or back. No title, no author, no description of the contents, no blurbs, nothing. "What do you think?" she asked, and handed it to me. Opening it up, I discovered no title page, not even a copyright by the publisher, just a tiny reference on the book's last page to www.dedrabbit.com. It turned out to be a website for the dedrabbit publishing outfit, which specializes, evidently, in twentysomething alienation and operates out of Northampton, Massachusetts. A red flier jammed into the book's pages revealed that this was a novel called Manifesto, and that the author wanted to remain anonymous. I read the first few lines: "I hated school. I hated work. I hated boredom. I had no interests. I had a happy childhood. There was school, growing up, questions about the future. I was 21. I had no dream." Hmm. I was wary—there's so much crap written by young, fashionably despairing writers published by upstart presses—but I read on, and eventually surprised myself by plopping down my $4.99 and taking it home. There was something to this.
Turns out that Manifesto isn't your average hackneyed cri de coeur by your everyday self-important college kid who is shocked, shocked to learn that adult life is filled with waste, lies, hypocrisy, loveless sex, sickening consumption, ceaseless repetition of routine and people with boring jobs who've given up on their dreams. The book does traffic in some of this, but it's also got a real voice, a grinding, relentless voice that's perceptive, honest, true to itself, and self-conscious and consistent enough to constitute what amounts to a literary style, no matter how repetitive and rhythmically monotonous that style can sometimes get. Here's a sample from early on, a sort of mental montage of the narrator's memory of wasted youth:
"Drunken episodes continued, music played on; there was hysterical laughter, stupid games, crashing shins on coffee tables, spilling beer on ashy couches, collapsing at bar entrances, staring out at car windows driven by drunks and fools. I gazed with half-shut eyes at a slowly rising sun—on to the next town, the next fix. Ruination unending.
"I stumbled through streets in the night, away from the intoxicated noise. Buildings swayed in the dark. I fell against a lamppost and tried to breathe."
Manifestospecializes in montage, an evocative kind of image juxtaposition that simulates a consciousness on the knife edge of dissolution, but not all of this book is depressing. Here's a moment where the narrator remembers biking as a boy with his sister in his suburban neighborhood: "We rode slow in the sun and looked at the great houses with nobody around—three- and four-car garages, wide smooth driveways, country-style mailboxes, shrubs and trees in beds of wood-chips, expensive basketball hoops with no kids around—everything quiet in the country with the sun and the breeze blowing over the wide strips of asphalt. Large houses sat on hills like statues hacked out of boulders and preserved by gods.
"We giggled like little kids. Sybil rode the bike like a grasshopper on a horse. She pedaled hard up the hills, making the big wheels turn. I wanted to explode with happiness . . ."
You could say that Manifesto is about the despair that sets in when a boy grows out of the explosive happiness of boyhood into the manifold confusions of adolescence and adulthood. And in that the book reminds us (inevitably) of The Catcher in the Rye, particularly in the narrator's tenderness toward his younger sister and in a little scene where he asks a girl to run away with him: "Let's go. We can go tonight. We don't need anything—I've got money. We'll drive west till we find a spot where it's green and we can't see any houses or hear the highway." (This is pure Holden Caulfield and Sally Hayes.) But the novel's distinctiveness lies less in its tender reminiscences of innocence lost than in its jet-black vision of a punk-hard and abject futurelessness.
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Though there are grace notes throughout the novel that recall Whitman's exuberant cataloging of everything he sees, or the calming stoicism of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, or the windswept speed blasts of On the Road, most of Manifesto dwells deep inside the mind of a young man who walks and drives through America awash in a toxic concoction of booze, cigarettes, chemicals and existential dread. And this dread locks him into a grim nihilism where he can't go on but he goes on: this is Samuel Beckett on the road. The unnamed narrator goes to college, drops out, hangs outs and reads, moves on, gets loaded at parties, despairs over women, hitchhikes, sleeps under bridges, walks along trashy roadsides and the all-the-same streets of Wal-Mart towns, runs out of money, spends a few days at home, despairs over his parents' sincere efforts to get him to get ahold of himself, goes to Europe, finds life there just as dead-end as here, returns, increases his chemical intake, and finds himself snared deeper and deeper by a whirlpool of drug dependency and hopelessness.
Two hundred pages of this would be a taxing business if it weren't for the writer's relentlessly astonished and appalled reaction to his own condition. Beneath the ennui, he can't believe how hopeless and low he's gotten, how much he drinks, how the kids he went to college with have grabbed hold of some kind of life while he's still wallowing in nothingness. He renders up his self-horror with such energy and aesthetic care that it makes up for his rubbing our faces in the deep American muck.
The writer of Manifesto, whoever he is—and unlike many in his generation—seems dedicated to more than self-display or mere autobiographical grousing. (The book wouldn't be published anonymously if he weren't.) The careful crafting of voice, the astute borrowing of William Burroughs' cut-up method to mix up the hundreds of short episodes that compose the novel, the blending of techniques from film, from the French nouveau roman as well as pop, show us a painstaking artist at work. "I lived in vague sketches, half-finished episodes," he writes, "unfinished thoughts, not enough action, not enough conviction, not enough story, not enough love interest. Memory was fragmented, events jumbled, half-forgotten." Yes, that's Manifesto all over. But novels don't always need action or story or love interest or even conviction about life—as long as there's conviction in the art. This novel, and this writer, has it in spades.
MANIFESTO BY ANONYMOUS; MANIFESTO PRESS. SOFTCOVER, 200 PAGES, $4.99. AVAILABLE THROUGH WWW.DEDRABBIT.COM.