20 January, 2014Issue 24.1FictionLiterature

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Avoiding That Awful Taint of Rejection

Haiya Sarwar

Peter Mattei
The Deep Whatsis
Other Press, 2013
256 pages
ISBN 978-1590516393

Jay McInerney once wrote, “Your heartbreak is just another version of the same old story.” Those who have read his 1984 novel Bright Lights Big City may remember that line, but they will definitely remember the goodhearted protagonist’s Mean Girls-esque frenemy, Tad Allagash. In a style reminiscent of McInerney’s, Peter Mattei’s debut novel, The Deep Whatsis, is an Allagashian take on that same old story.

The novel follows the demise of the anti-heroic Eric Nye. Eric, the Chief Idea Officer at a New York advertising agency, is paid big bucks to fire people. Or as Eric more eloquently puts it, “I was brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak, and that’s what I’m doing, because it’s my job.” Born into wealthy background and educated at the prestigious Brown University, Eric has been handed life on a platter. And, although he is only “smart and interesting” in the words of an interview which he wrote about himself, he has an exaggerated sense of his own importance like that of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort as depicted in The Wolf of Wallstreet (2013). Nevertheless, after a drunken hookup with the new and crazy-beautiful intern, Eric’s Sancerre-tinted life is shattered and he is left to deal with a novel-sized hangover.

As with all elitist nobs, there is something irresistible about Eric. He possesses an infuriating charisma which is captured in McInerney’s description of Allagash: “You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is shallow and dangerous.” In a way, Eric is symbolic of the capitalistic culture of New York City. His charm, as he explains in one of the book’s many meta-moments, is a product of his commercial role:

She smiles at me. I mean of course she does, I’m someone in a position of authority, so she’s acknowledging me the way any employee would, but at the same time one knows that young women are involuntarily aroused by power.

In the same spirit of consumerism, Mattei deconstructs the glamour of New York—its deep whatsis—by describing its inhabitants with cheeky labels. Trivializing the spiritual journey of one of New York’s many nutritionists, Eric explains: “She went to the place where all abused junkie wannabe models go: LA. She got into some kind of all-kale-juice-and-codfish-oil diet thing and supposedly it saved her life.” In the same vein, Eric describes Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek as “this semi-Eurotrashy intellectual guy from NYU” and sizes up a girl in an Alexander McQueen jacket as “well brought up”—adding that “I’m willing to guess by her overall look, a lack of youthfulness in someone so young, and her expensive taste, that she was raised on the Upper East Side, went to Dalton or possibly Brearley, college at Sarah Lawrence or Smith, and now judging by the Triple Canopy totebag she works for some kind of art-related foundation.” Mattei also includes the exact prices of the objects which feature in the novel, such as Eric’s overpriced coffee (one for $26) and a bowl of locally grown berries ($12). By labelling and tagging, Mattei satirizes the narcissism and materialism of the ‘bright young things’ of present-day America and the selfie culture as a whole.

The book is much more than a misery-loves-company rant. There is a bright playfulness to the writing—and to the storytelling as a whole—that brings a childlike cuteness and vulnerability to Eric despite his misogynistic and almost misanthropic personality. At the same time, Mattei plays up the villainous side of Eric by delivering the story in first-person—via Eric’s hard male gaze. This might seem like a turnoff, but it is clear that Mattei understands the Hollywood art of entertainment as well as the art of manipulation. The way Mattei twists Eric’s scandalous one-night-stand with his intern into a problem which invites the reader to sympathise and root against Eric’s demise is a testament to Mattei’s strength as a writer and psychologist.

But, ironically, the manipulated construction of a narrative which places Eric in a positive light may actually result from a lack of manipulation. Mattei’s stream-of-consciousness approach drills the reader into the depths of Eric’s skull. The uncensored, spontaneous, and somewhat unorganized prose plays up, once again, the lack of composure and endearing vulnerability within Eric, as his thoughts about a perennial acquaintance reveal:

One of the reasons I hate Seth Krallman is because he talks like he’s from the ghetto when actually he is from Greenwich, Connecticut, and I tend to talk that way when I’m with him just to mask the fact I dislike him so intensely. I’ve hated Seth Krallman ever since he got clean and became a yoga teacher and changed his name to Hanuman or Ganesh or something. No, the truth is I always hated him; we shared a big house together at Brown and he thinks this means we have some kind of Special Bond. He’s a pretentious idiot […]

There is desperation in this word-vomit styled rhythm and in the tone in which Eric unwinds his interior monologues. And, at least until he starts to experience a mental breakdown, his inner voice remains distinctly different from that of his suavely ‘constructed’ outer-persona.

Various critics have compared The Deep Whatsis to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991) and there is sense in the comparison. At one point in American Psycho, the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, mutters: “Because, I…want…to…fit…in.” This seemingly trivial statement, which is only meant to address why Bateman won’t quit his tedious job, encapsulates the psychotic drive behind the film because Bateman’s irrational behavior and desire to kill stem from vanity and, hence, from insecurity—or as Tad Allagash puts it, from the need to “avoid that awful taint of rejection.” Bateman’s obsession with material wealth and status reflects a yearning to be valued by those around him. Though Eric’s dismay is expressed much less psychotically, his behavior is also the result of an overwhelming desire to be valued, to be worth something as simple as a phone call from a girl he is falling in love with.

Beneath the humor, the narrative’s meticulousness—Mattei’s intense deconstruction and dissection of a mere moment—captures Eric’s cripplingly extreme self-consciousness. Hooked on a number of medications, from Ambien to Xanax, he is suppressing an unbearable amount of mental pain, which he also attempts to suffocate under his “nineteen-hundred-dollar” Icelandic pillows. This is not a story about becoming a better person. This is a story which aspires, in the spirit of Nabokov, to understand eccentric behavior. Emphasizing Eric’s darkness, rather than downplaying it, is critical in bringing his vulnerability to light. Ultimately, this is what endows Eric with a kind of reliability and trust, and non-capitalistic human value, which readers can buy into.

“When people wander in the desert”, the cute intern explains to Eric, “with nothing to guide them, no compass or GPS or anything, they tend to just go in huge circles rather than a straight line, because inevitably one of their legs is just a little bit longer than the other.” Similarly, it seems that in contemporary literature, when people wander around New York, they tend to go in huge circles. The Deep Whatsis may be the same old postmodern sob story that many of us have read before—just another version of the existentialist yuppie pastiche. But in one of the greatest and most thoroughly clichéd love films of all time, A Man and a Woman, there is a line that goes: “I don’t claim to be original. You meet someone, marry, have a baby. It happens all the time. What can be original is the man you love.” Eric is definitely a man you can love—or at least love to hate. Either way, Mattei has created an unforgettable character and a book which, pun-intended, deserves better advertising.

Haiya Sarwar is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.