I didn’t have high hopes for David J. Rosen’s I Just Want My Pants Back. I remember putting it on my Amazon wish list several years back, when I was first reading about “fratire” and searching through Amazon’s unending hyperlinked recommendations, one after the next. This was 2007 or 2008, maybe, and I had the strong feeling that “fratire” would be the next big thing: Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell was a cultural phenomenon, and Superbad and Knocked Up were proving that the general public was indeed interested in seeing the exploits of young male slackers, or reading the commentary of twenty-something white men who had been told by literature departments that their stories and their viewpoints did not matter because they had never been marginalized. (Read Tucker Max’s Huffington Post article for a little more background here).
Yeah, I was sold. If “chick lit” was so popular, I’d certainly begin to see “fratire” books in the hands of all of my male friends, on their coffee tables, in their bathrooms…it would be a grand awakening for 18-35 year-old male readers, books and stories targeted at their demographic, work that was likely comedic and raunchy, detailing the frivolousness of life in one’s twenties, and maybe the majority of the books would never be canonized, but hell, I was tired of having to constantly argue to my friends that they should be reading, that there was value in reading, that the experience was often deeper and richer than the superficial TV shows they DVR’d, or the popcorn movies they watched on the weekends. “Fratire” as a literary genre, I had decided, would change everything. Blogs were gaining popularity; my male friends read blogs, right, so why wouldn’t they buy a collection of blogs, like Aaron Karo’s Ruminations?
And maybe the real reason that young men had given up on books in the first place was, quite simply, that books had given up on them. Yes, I saw in my Creative Writing classes that there were young men who devoured Kurt Vonnegut’s entire catalogue, and there were hordes of Chuck Pahlaniuk or Bret Easton Ellis followers, but most of these readers were just Creative Writing students who had found a rebellious contemporary male writer that they wanted to emulate/imitate. On the first day of class in my CRW classroom, I always ask students to write their favorite books, and trust me: you’d be surprised at how many of the students (particularly the males) say, “I don’t really read.” Or how many of them tell me Fight Club or Cat’s Cradle or American Psycho, but when pressed to provide further examples of work that they enjoy, cannot move beyond those books. And my friends? They aren’t Creative Writing students. They’re just guys. Old fraternity guys. Sports fans. Dudes. They didn’t even like Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk because, well, they hadn’t really cared about literature since they were forced to read Frankenstein and 1984 and The Canterbury Tales in high school, and so they didn’t care about rebellious male writers (such as Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk) who seemed strikingly different or transgressive. My friends simply had better ways to spend their time than reading books, and (I’ve always thought) this was because there was no surefire genre catering to average non-writer/non-academic males. They weren’t going to take the chance on reading random books, Nick Hornby or Michael Ondaatje or Richard Russo, in hopes that they might find an author they like. From their perspective, no one was writing about 18-34 middle-class men (either in college, or stuck in cubicles), so why should they be the ones who bothered to read all these crappy books about…whatever the hell they were all about.
So: back to my Amazon list. I’m not sure how many of these fratire-style books I added to the list (and I’m not even sure how many of them are actually “fratire”), but I had this crazy idea that I would document the trend, that I would read all of these books, that I would become an expert on the genre, that–maybe–I would even write a multi-layered fratire novel that young men would read (drawn in by the lure of booze and boobs and tomfoolery) and it would be the reason that they came to appreciate good literature again, the reason they branched out and found new authors outside the fratire comfort zone. Well. If you’ve been around my site, you know that this little fantasy didn’t quite work out, that I started to think more broadly about “generational literature” and how the entire Millennial Generation might shape its books and films (and even more specifically, how the Millennial reliance upon communication over/ involving many different mediums would result in the rise of “mixed-media literature”). In other words, fratire never really took off. Someone made a movie of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Aaron Karo is still writing his ruminations, and there are hundreds of thousands of blogs about stupid bullshit and occasionally one of them is insightful and witty and is released as a book to great acclaim (Stuff White People Like), but I must have been extremely deluded to think that anything could pry young men away from television, cinema, and the multiplying number of gadget and gizmos now at their disposal (iPods, iPhones, iPads, iEtc.). Some will be interested in reading fiction, but those few readers will not need a book about Beer Pong in order to draw them in.
I hadn’t updated my wish list, really, in awhile…or rather, I hadn’t removed some of the stupid crap I put onto the wish list…or rather, I hadn’t removed all of the stupid crap, and maybe I had some vague interest in a few of the books I’d originally targeted. And this past Christmas, I received I Just Want My Pants Back as a gift from my wife. “I liked the title,” she said, and well, it is a pretty funny title, and I was happy for the gift. Sometimes it’s nice to get a book that you never really thought you’d read, or that you’d forgotten you ever wanted to read.
After a few tough reads in the preceding months, I even put Rosen’s novel at the very top of my reading list. During the first weeks of this semester, while I was engulfed in photocopies and syllabi and student emails, I figured I’d use the novel (which was, presumably, going to be semi-amusing, right?) as a bit of brain relief. But the first two or three chapters confirmed my worst fears about fratire: we have a male protagonist (the book’s summary describes him as a slacker) who goes out every night of the week, drinks, smokes pot, has some easy sex, has a few female friends with whom he can share the juicy details; he lives in New York, is an Ivy League graduate but has no real ambition, and just wants to “live it up” in his twenties while the poor suckers he passes on the sidewalk are busy with all-consuming jobs and families. Really, I asked myself? This was the sort of story that I thought would become super-successful, that would redefine literature for male readers? I was annoyed with the book because it just felt like some douchebag know-nothing twenty-something’s blog (or facebook page), and I deal with enough know-nothing twenty-somethings at my university, many of whom think that–because they’ve discovered how to do their own laundry and shop for their own groceries–they have everything figured out. But I was also annoyed with myself for ever wanting to dedicate my time and energy to such a genre. I was embarrassed. One of my own rules about teaching is that I shouldn’t expend energy on the kids who don’t care, that it’s college and if they don’t want to be there, that’s their own problem. And now I saw my former views come into sharp focus: I wanted to write literature for people who didn’t care, and I wanted to dumb myself down in order to get their attention (and I’m not even that smart to begin with!)? A strong emotional reaction from 30-40 pages of a novel in which nothing had really happened yet…
But then I started to fall into I Just Want My Pants Back, hesitantly at first, discouraged with myself for enjoying it. But there were some things that were really working, here, and the novel touched upon many of my own ideas about what “Millennial Literature” could and should be. In fact, had I ever written a book that would fall under the category of “fratire,” I started to think that it would be an amazing compliment if the book was as layered (and even affecting) as Rosen’s novel.
Of course, my own opinions on the novel might just be so strong because the story (and protagonist) confirm my hypothesis about Millennial Literature characters: they are constantly searching for a sense of purpose. From a longer posting I wrote: “In contrast to many other generations still living, Millennials struggle with a sense of purpose, a single unifying experience to bring them together in a noble way.” By now, the idea of a long career in one place (working in the same office or cubicle, the way their parents might have) has become a nightmare for Millennials, a nightmare no doubt fueled by Office Space and American Beauty; they don’t have a loyalty to employers, and they often are unwilling to spend their lives simply plugging away at an okay salary so that they can raise a family; more than ever, young people think they can become millionaires (if just the right opportunity presents itself!), a thought articulated brilliantly in The Social Network when Harvard’s president lamented that young people all wanted to “create jobs” rather than find them; young men and women are going back to grad school in larger numbers than ever before, waiting longer to marry and to have kids, and it’s because they have an overwhelming fear of committing to the wrong purpose. If I take this particular job, then I’ll be stuck! If I marry, I’ll have to get a job I don’t like, and I’ll be stuck! I can be a millionaire, I know I can, but the dream is over if I commit to the wrong idea! There is one right job for me, and it is fun, and it doesn’t feel like work, and it pays a lot, and I will find/ make it! Never mind that this fear might cripple them, prevent them from doing anything of value. It’s there, and Rosen’s novel captures it brilliantly.
We see the “Millionaire Mentality” early in the book, this sense that the character (his name is Jason Strider) believes that he is destined for great things even if he hasn’t put in any real work: “I had graduated with honors from Cornell, but I was an English major who didn’t do all the required reading and owed his diploma to the friendly folks at CliffsNotes…I was sold on moving to the city. I had been a DJ at WBVR at school, and I figured I’d be able to find some kind of job in the music industry here, though I didn’t know what. The career center had helped me get a few interviews at radio stations, but they were all in ad sales, which seemed a lot closer to telemarketing than Telecasters” (13). And late on the same page: “I didn’t see the point in shaving every day and working long hours at something I wasn’t sure I wanted to be doing” (13). Heck, we even see the sort of mentality so prominent in parents of Millennials, the super-encouraging you can be anything you want! positive talk: “For some reason, my parents thought I might become a lawyer…Cornell was pretty hard, and the last thing I wanted was more school after school. Hell, I didn’t even know what lawyers did every day, except for what I had gathered watching reruns of Matlock while hung over” (15). So Jason instead takes a “bullshit job at a casting company,” which he calls “temporary,” even though he admits to a friend that he has “no idea” what he really wants to do. “‘It’s, you know, fine. I don’t need to shave or dress up, and it pays the bills. Eventually, I’d like to do something music-related…I mean, I think.'” (89) In one late conversation we see that he is scared of a “life that was defined by what I did for a living,” though this is the sort of fear that only matters to someone who hasn’t found that right job (209).
Constantly, the narrator goes out drinking, smokes pot, hits on girls, all those things that had originally annoyed me due to their frivolousness, but what makes the book so poignant and relevant is that Rosen eventually begins to starve the fun out of these events. Whereas the most stereotypical/ popular of fratire (fiction and nonfiction alike) seems to continue full-steam-ahead with frivolousness, rather than exploring other themes and ideas, Rosen lets his narrator grow tired of the binge drinking, the purposelessness. In fact, even though the book isn’t long and we are never exhausted while reading about late-night drinking and parties, we do become sick of it, also (though we grow tired of it before Jason Strider does, which actually builds drama through the ironic narration: we know what’s best for him, but he doesn’t know what’s best for himself). By the middle of the book, we know purposelessness is taking its toll: “Even during what were supposed to be the most fun times, in a bar, drinking in hand, life was starting to feel repetitive” (113). By acknowledging the narrator’s frivolous existence, the author is able to use it as a theme and a major plot element, rather than just a source of lame comedy.
In the end, I don’t want to make I Just Want My Pants Back sound like it is the defining book of the Millennial Generation, nor do I want it to sound like the book is flawless, that it made me laugh/cry/stand up and shout, blah blah blah. It’s very good. It captures the life of an average twenty-something Millennial male with thoughtfulness and honesty (traits that weren’t present in the regrettable The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen). It’s a book I’ll recommend to a lot of my friends, and it’s a book that truly captures the fear of commitment at the heart of the Millennial reluctance to actually “start life.” Is it as multi-layered or well-written as Middlesex or The Corrections or Refresh, Refresh? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a nice book, and I think its main weakness is the very reason why “fratire” never really took off as a genre: by the time we’re done reading about the protagonist (frivolous 20-something male who likes drinking, sex, pot), we’re done reading about this protagonist ever again. Thanks for the time we had together, but you know what? Time to move on to your thirties, when you’ll look back at the previous decade and shake your head at all of your decisions and fears.