Boys in the Corner

Jonathan Safran Foer, Wes Anderson, Conor Oberst, and the new male infantilism

Time was, everyone who wanted to wear the Artist Hero's wreath of flowers had to step into the ring. Norman Mailer cemented this routine by decamping from Harvard to combat in the South Pacific, returning to write the jaundiced great American war novel at the salty age of 24. He perpetuated this model by sussing out his literary rivals' weak spots in the cruel, clear-eyed essay "Evaluations: Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room" (a model for harsh literary criticism ever since). After Norman and his spiritual godfather Papa Hemingway, every American artist had to play, to some extent, the hard-hearted paterfamilias. Even the epicene Gore Vidal, who lived in a Roman villa, made his bones by getting into near-head-butting matches on TV with Mailer and William F. Buckley. By the '70s, female artists who wanted to share the glory had to strap on fatherly postures and grip brass knuckles. The filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, turning the Holocaust into a coarse porno cartoon; Patti Smith, donning the sweat-stained wifebeater of her forefathers; Erica Jong bracing her hips against the airplane's bathroom sink--all of them had to get their bad-ass ticket punched before they could take center stage.

Where a Scotch-sozzled Big Bruiser once ran onto the fire escape with a roar, rolling up his or her sleeves to challenge the whole U.S. of A. to step outside, now a smallish fellow in a knit cap and woolen sweater sits in the corner with a box of chocolate milk, giggling at his own inadvertent burps. Where Pops built skyscraper-sized mirrors to reflect a metastasizing society, Junior lives in a world we might call Mini-Micro-Narcissus. Son of Big Bruiser, I name you LittleBlue SmurfBoy™--after the fetish of your patron saint, Donnie Darko, the most sensitive and martyred of your kind. I take this moment to examine the markings of your race, as evinced by your most applauded manifestations: novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, filmmaker Wes Anderson, and musician Conor Oberst.

Of all the celebrated SmurfBoys of the moment, 24-year-old Oberst is for sure the most little and most blue. I can't recall a single live performance that filled me with as much rage as Oberst's unsmiling warm-up for Belle & Sebastian at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, in which an anti-Iraq war variation on his current song "Road to Joy" climaxed with Oberst closing his bright eyes and rendering the mock-ecstatic windup--"Let's fuck it up, boys, let's make some noise"--as a literally shivering paean to his own too-raw nerve endings. "Let's fffffuckitup, boys!" Oberst shuddered, his plosive F a talisman of his too-sensitive-to-live fragility. (Even serenading Leno with "When the President Talks to God" can't redeem that long evening.) On his early 2005 album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Oberst the composer devises variations on Robbie Robertson's shambling antebellum melodies that have a crawling-kudzu creepiness, like Matthew Brady photos of carpetbaggers staring shell-shocked into space. But damned if every song isn't shellacked by Oberst's penchant for teen-drama-queen melodrama. No lyric clink of image-shards or exhausted wheeze of Jon Brionesque hurdy-gurdy is permitted to stand its own ground. No, all must be subjugated to the sniffly one's deluge of sensations, impressions, and feelings. (Maybe that's why the title suggests the first, early a.m. words of a demonically overprecocious child.)

Wide awake, ready for his Cocoa Puffs: Leading boy-man Conor Oberst
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Wide awake, ready for his Cocoa Puffs: Leading boy-man Conor Oberst

Wes Anderson is perhaps the dean of the LittleBlue SmurfBoys™, having plied his middle-schooler wares for the past decade. Of this trinity of Smurfs, Young Master Wes seems to show the most promise as, if not a Big Bruiser, surely a Soigné Uptown Sophisticate. Where a stunted self-regarder like Oberst seems condemned to an incommunicative trance, the 36-year-old Anderson is aware enough of the lineage of movie auteurs as lion-taming showmen to, some day, escape his autistic fugue state.

In his bizarrely engineless recent effort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson left the Broadway aspirations of The Royal Tenenbaums to plunge headlong into a silo stuffed with a haut-bourgeois 12-year-old kid's fetish objects. No longer concerned with suspense or surprise, or even story or character, Anderson gives himself a consolation massage as the screen widens with little red ski caps, zany matching Nike tracksuits, Hottentots out of Master Wes's moth-eaten National Geographics, and a series of nautical vehicles that recall the playthings of bath time. Never mastering the rhythm or even the plastic elements of a satisfying tale, Anderson contents his hipster audience by asking, "Wasn't it cool when you were 12 and you really loved [ A Wrinkle in Time/the wallpaper in the Plaza/old New Yorker cartoons/brown Izod shirts on girls...etc. etc.]?" Still, the winning noblesse oblige of Anderson's audio commentaries on the Criterion DVDs of Rushmore and Tenenbaums leave me thinking that the director might one day possess the character traits of a functioning adult.

Anderson has much in common with the 28-year-old novelist Jonathan Safran Foer: a fondness for lovable winking proletarians who help the Little Lord Fauntleroy hero; a fascination for the photos seen in an adolescent's Time-Life Library circa 1981 (anguished tennis players, Jacques Cousteau boats, strolling cavemen); and above all, an almost sexual obsession with the awestruck reactions of an advanced child to the big, bad world. But where Anderson's Cornell-box compositions have a painstaking, madcap charm, Foer's greeting-cards-to-self remind me of critic A.O. Scott's memorably withering words about Tenenbaums: "Yes, yes, you're charming, you're brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed."

In the loudly acclaimed and suddenly backlashed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old son of a dad immolated in the Twin Towers (a Big Bruisee, like most Foer parents), imagines that it might be neat to invent a sign that families could flash at an ambulance carrying their loved one away, maybe forever: "Goodbye! I love you! Goodbye! I love you!" As he toddles around an Eloise-ish (read: Tenenbaum-ish) Manhattan with a key from his late dad, to open a mysterious lock, Oskar concocts a gizmo that will gather all the tears of New York in a reservoir. For all its borrowed experimental-fiction gimcrackery (illegible pages, blank pages, even Berlitz pages--"I'm sorry, this is the smallest I've got"), Extremely is old-timey yiddishkeit tear-jerking in hipster garments--it's Tuesdays with Morrie for the yellow Converse set.

Like most creative-writing-class escapees, Foer writes in patterns of dreamy-fantastical list-making ("Oskar Schell-- Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist...") that here constitute the most pathological version yet of the salient LittleBlue SmurfBoy™ trait--the endless running of fingertips over Stuff I Really Really Like. Foer's infantilism might be as harmlessly engaging as Anderson's if only his when-you-wish-upon-a-star monkeyshines didn't alight on the World Trade Center. Using Ground Zero as a locus for SmurfBoy's first toddle toward naptime without Mom--oof! Queasy-making.

Why are these boy-men ascending all at once? I can only quote one of the brightest LBSB's I know, an aspiring screenwriter and pushing-30 dweller in Mom's guest room, who casually dismissed Raging Bull by sniffing, "That movie doesn't matter, because masculinity isn't like that any more!" He's right, it isn't. (To gauge whether I'm right: Utter the words "Clive Owen" to a heterosexual woman and watch the pupil dilation.) Also: Especially in the world of blue-state liberal-arts grads, and most especially in the world of movie/book/music criticism, there ain't a lot of Big Bruising going on. In this Blue Smurfy climate, the outsized obsessions, red-hot rhetoric, and violent argument of the Bruisers would give the tastemaking class a panic attack. And to be painfully blunt, LBSB art makes critics and editors feel...relaxed, the way '80s decadents like David Salle and Jay McInerney once made them feel rich and hip. In our Age of Terror, educated art consumers and taste arbiters want nothing more than for Mom to make them a grilled cheese with some Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa on the side. The hand-carvings of the sensitive son--sexless, multi-allergic, bubble dwelling--represent a return to comfort, to nonresponsibility, to sleep.

I can only pray some hibernating Bruiser--Don DeLillo, say, or Robert Rauschenberg--will spring from his cave, tear LBSB's Saint-Exupéry scarf off his pencil neck, and show him how it's really done: art-making revealed as high-wire act, fire-eating contest, bare-knuckle barroom brawl.

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