Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ben Tanzer's 99 Problems

I think arguably one of the most difficult feats a writer can attempt, something less like patient, careful craft and more akin to sword swallowing or juggling chainsaws, is trying to cogently describe the experience of fatherhood.

It isn’t just that the vocabulary doesn’t exist (it doesn’t), that maternal sentiment tends to dominate the dramatic discourse (it does) or that narratives of fatherhood tend toward a skewed, lop-sided cliché of the absent, abusive, or at best emotionally-distant and enigmatic father (they do). It’s all of these things together, and more. It’s the fact that good fatherhood doesn’t sell. And I don’t just mean in the money sense. It doesn’t sell itself to a reader as reality. No one wants to listen to a man complain about the grinding, thankless nature of responsible fatherhood. Where’s the drama? Where’s the action? Who cares if dad is bored to distraction or is subtly dissatisfied with life in general for years that stretch to decades? Who gives him a second thought if dad can’t sleep because he’s worried about the future? Angst by itself is so twenty years ago. Unless dad is hitting, raping, abandoning, emotionally-scarring, creatively-suppressing, stubbornly socially anachronistic, or betraying the protagonist’s modern compassionate values (or occasionally sacrificing his life in a quaint gesture to prove that he is worthy to be a father to begin with) readers would just as soon put a cardboard cutout in the family photo and get to the good stuff about mom and her struggles against a world that’s terribly unfair to women and children.

Responsible fatherhood doesn’t make for cinematic, set-piece narrative construction or tidy three-act novel progression. It doesn’t make you keep turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next. In fact, if it was written as accurately as it can be, a story about real fatherhood might make a reader wonder if they even want to continue reading. You can see the difficulty of selling this, let alone writing it.

And with this paradox comes the realization of how the pioneers of race and gender equality of the 50’s and 60’s must have felt. Few things have been as disappointing to me in my adult life as seeing so few positive fictional fatherhood role models reflected back at me culturally, when I know for a fact that I and dozens of my male friends struggle silently every day to live that life and walk in those shoes. The Good Dad. Everyone knows one, but unless he dies tragically at a young age or snaps and climbs a clock tower with a rifle hardly anyone takes notice of him. He is a static and uninteresting fixture unless and until he transforms into The Bad Dad. A father character that takes even the smallest step towards a life not defined by utter debasing sublimation to the betterment of the family has just bought a ticket on the slippery slope that leads toward that same bullpen of negative father stereotype clichés. Unless you look back 30 years or more, that’s virtually the only widespread character arc in modern fiction for fatherhood.

This is perhaps not without reason. The non-pathological 21st Century American Father might well be the most difficult, uncompelling character archetype to fictionalize. You can see them standing off to the sides of playgrounds watching their toddlers, in the kitchen washing the dishes after dinner, and double-parked in front of the pre-school in the bus lane at 7:30AM, hoping they can make it to work on time and that they didn’t forget junior’s sunblock, sun hat, change of clothes, diapers, wipes, nuks, lovies, water bottle, formula, and the order form for picture day which won’t actually happen for a month but needs to be paid in full ahead of time. What on earth is this guy doing? Besides being a dull, uninspired doormat, that is. If he’s not a secretly a CIA agent or serial killer, and is instead exactly what he appears to be, how is a writer supposed to build a story around that? Beta-males and metrosexuals had their cringe-inducing heyday in popular culture, but let’s face it: the emasculated American male is also becoming clichéd as croc shoes on nurses.

As a reader, though, I care about that guy. I care about what he thinks when he has to pull himself out of bed in the morning. I care about what he does to escape the tedium. I care about what makes him put one foot in front of the other and keep going. I care about how he sleeps at night. I care because that guy reflects something a lot closer to what I am than most fictionalized fathers.

And Ben Tanzer cares about that guy, too. Tanzer’s new book, 99 Problems, is ostensibly the culmination of a lengthy exercise in exploring the crossover dynamics between running and writing, but it’s also much, much more. It bears note as well that this book was released by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, using the same payment-optional downloadable e-book format used for Repetition Patterns. This is quickly becoming a popular book format and CCLaP has gotten it as close to perfection as anyone at this point. 99 Problems is a pleasure to read, and not without some thanks to this innovative platform.

In 99 Problems, he gets past the jittery, panicky, claustrophobia of new fatherhood he touched on in his earlier book Repetition Patterns, and settles into the figurative long-haul. How does a man stay a man when he is pulled like living taffy in the opposing directions that fatherhood takes him?  Tanzer's narration would have you believe that creative and physical self-realization are only as far away as a pair of running shoes, but the broader implication is the more important concept.  The book dwells on the nuts and bolts of running and writing, but as astute readers have noted there are deeper themes at work. One of these is the impact aging has on the psyche of men, the other is the slave’s game responsible fathers play of finding ways to cast off the yoke for a day, an hour, or even just five minutes. The game of finding a way to fly without ever leaving the chains.

And this is where Tanzer shines. He shows you the chains, and makes you want the narrator to fly. Most writers I know, with a few notable exceptions, take the easy way out. Why confront this ugly, uncompelling, unpopular, slightly-depressing truth? What does it serve? Are we supposed to feel bad for dad because he chose to be a father? Women and children aren't "chains" in the literal sense, even if you can sort of see his point.  There are a hundred reasons not to write responsible fathers into fiction, and most of the time I let other authors off the hook when they keep their heads down and decide not to stir that hornet's nest.  The ones who do face the reality head-on, though, earn my immediate and lasting respect.  Admiration and pity are muddy emotions to pair with each other, but that’s exactly what this sort of narrative demands. Today’s Good Dad is an object of both. Beneath this is the place inside a real man where the static builds between how life is, how life should be, and the synapse of human nature that the creative sparks fly across. 99 Problems is that spark; nuanced, unpretentious, and without fear.

Check it out here: http://www.cclapcenter.com/99problems/ and though it is available for download free if you so choose, don't be afraid to pay for it if you want to support the author and publisher and what they're trying to do.  The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography is putting out some of the best e-books in the business right now, and they're as good as anything I've seen elsewhere.


Ben Tanzer said...

Hey man, as always, thoughtful and much appreciated, if we were willing to have more kids, we would name the next one Mark even if it was a girl.

Ben Tanzer said...

Hey man, sorry not to tell you sooner how much I appreciate this. Because its a lot. So much that the first round is on me when next we meet. For real.