How Can You Laugh?

A new breed of authors begs to be humiliated.

William Leith vowed to lose forty pounds and break his addictions to food, drugs, and alcohol. He failed, and woke up one morning after gorging on all three “caked in vomit … vomit in my nostrils and hair, vomit on my shirt, vomit stiffening the front of my jacket. … The radiator was encrusted with vomit. … I felt as if a rotating implement had pared my brain from my skull.”

Craig Lesley adopted a five-year-old boy with fetal alcohol syndrome, pledging to be a better father than Lesley’s own deadbeat dad had been. He failed. When the youth remained semiliterate, started fires, stabbed a dog, and stole seventy cars, Lesley put him into foster care.

Entertainment reporter Chris Ayres was reassigned as an embedded war correspondent, entrusted with covering the Iraq war from inside. After just a few days on the job, he bailed. He’d failed.

Weighing 128 pounds, Joshua Davis entered the US Sumo Open, the World Armwrestling Federation’s world championship, the Sauna World Championship, and a backward-running world championship. Time after time, he lost. His sexy wife still loved him, of course. But he’d failed.

After making a fortune off his 1985 debut novel Less Than Zero, penned when he was nineteen, Bret Easton Ellis burned through millions and morphed from a hot Gen-X icon into a paranoid, stoned parlor joke whose third novel was reviewed in The New York Times under the headline “Don’t Buy This Book.”

Lonely, shy Paul Feig resolved to pleasure himself orally, “to force my face into my crotch” as did “contortionists and yoga guys in India who were so limber that they could simply bend their bodies in half in such a way that their mouths would end up right in front of their genitals.”

He failed, and injured his neck for life.

You can hardly turn around these days without some author grabbing you by the collar and demanding, like the Ancient Mariner, to tell you about his everlasting shame. Mostly this comes in the form of memoirs, and some of these are actually good. Gluttonous British journalist Leith’s The Hungry Years (Gotham, $25) is visceral, incantatory, and might just be a new classic. Award-winning novelist Lesley’s Burning Fence (St. Martin’s, $24.95) puts a would-be parent’s good intentions in the saddest light. Ayres’ War Reporting for Cowards (Atlantic Monthly, $23) is funny but not as much as it thinks it is. Crisp characterizations redeem the touchy-feeliness of Davis’ The Underdog (Villard, $21.95), putting a warm human face on losers. Feig navel-gazes beyond all kinds of endurance in Superstud, Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin (Three Rivers, $13.95). Ellis’ Lunar Park (Knopf, $24.95) is a novel, but its narrator — and the basket-case novelist whose grisly tale he tells — is named Bret Easton Ellis.

They’re everywhere: Guys fumbling. Guys bumbling. Guys getting caught in lies. Guys getting duped, dumped, drunk, and running scared. (And yeah, it is almost always guys. More on that later.) No sooner did a natural disaster pound the South than the airwaves blazed with Whose fault was it? Who failed? It makes you wonder whether the failure rate is expanding worldwide exponentially. Are more failures happening than ever? Or is it just that new technologies make it easier to broadcast and detect blunders — on blogs, say, and big-screen TV?

No and no. Mod conveniences and safety nets make it harder than ever, not easier, to fail. And just because you can confess to an audience of millions doesn’t mean you will, should, or must. Rather, some urge or twinge at this moment in history is making a fashion out of failure. The groveling. The wallowing. The mea culpas. Tales of weakness, breakage, and exile. Fifty years ago, plagiarists and fabricators would have been shamed right out of print, but Jayson Blair got a major book contract. Stephen Glass got one too, then preened on Sixty Minutes. Michael Finkel invented a modern-day African slave and wrote an allegedly true article about him. Exposed, he was fired by The New York Times Magazine — and HarperCollins published his memoir True Story four months ago. James Frey’s slicingly beautiful addiction saga, 2003’s A Million Little Pieces begins as Frey, like Leith, is “covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit, and blood.” The book turned this ex-drug dealer, wanted on DUI charges, into a cult hero.

But most of the New Confessors aren’t criminals. They’re just … guys, who look like your brother or your roommate or your ex and who misstepped, a lot or just a teensy-weensy little bit, and … they want you to know. They ache to get it off their chests — the bony or fat-with-manboobs or cocaine-constricted chests that they beat and dissect in that how-much-is-too-much-information New Confessor way. They mope. They rail. Leith is a master stylist whose unflinching gaze is a laser. San Francisco-based Davis is tenderly in love with his wife, whose optimism is his bulwark: “Most people aren’t given as many chances to fail.” Setting his saga in eastern Oregon’s dry ranchland, Lesley evokes an authentic American West, gritty and golden, where people in restaurants eat grilled beef hearts.

Yet what does it mean, this dogpile? Plain old schadenfreude? In which case, note the bylines. Today’s autodestruct-memoirs are virtually all by men. This is the genre that gender equality forgot. When the rare woman writes of imploding and abandon, it tends to be billed as boldness. Search and search, and — Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess (Bantam Dell, $23) features Samantha, a top-earning lawyer who cuts and runs after documents evince that she made an error costing a client $100 million. This is not a memoir but chick-lit. It’s fluffy outside but, as Kinsella flings her trademark plausible characters into clever pratfalls, it has bones and a brain. “Everything I’ve ever worked for” goes boom with “the only mistake I’ve ever made,” and “there’s no silver lining. I’ve fucked up.” Aha — a modern woman who admits defeat. But no — and here’s a spoiler alert: The mistake wasn’t hers. She was framed. By a man. Who goes down in disgrace.

Women are no longer allowed to fail, but hey, men. If this big parade of new releases indicates anything, it’s that right now we love watching dudes shrivel, cower, crawl, apologize, and cry. A new breed of author is offering itself up on the altar, writhing to be roasted, loathed — laughed at, at best. We do feel their pain. But it’s disingenuous, because if they get you to read what they wrote, they aren’t failures. They have the power. Some had it even before authoring their eviscerate-me treatises. Ayres was a prize-winning reporter for the London Times. A filmmaker by age 21, Davis was a contributing editor for Wired. Leith was one of Britain’s leading journalists. Lesley was a professor and the author of three award-winning novels. Feig was an Emmy-nominated director, for God’s sake, and Ellis was Ellis. Real failures can’t even get their parents to pay attention. Blair and Glass, both young, both scored unspecified six-figure advances. Finkel has brashly announced how much he got: $425,000. Screwing up royally might be the next big thing in career-boosters. Watch for it.


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