Stranieri, by Tristan Gans
You know that daydream where you go to your high school’s ten year reunion and you say, “Well, I’m a writer” and your classmates are like, “Oh yeah, what’ve you written” and you’re like, “Oh, this is my book right here in the school library” and they’re like, “Uhh…okay” and then walk away thinking about how you’ve flattened them with your coolness (even though they’re actually probably not that impressed at all).
Well that dream will not be a reality for me. First, because my high school does not have ten year reunions (it’d kind of be a waste of organizing effort, since our graduating class was less than 40 people). And, second, because I’ve already been upstaged on this count! My high school classmate, Tristan Gans, is about to have a book published! The book, Stranieri, is a memoir of the year he spent in Italy after graduating from college. And, as part of his marketing efforts, he emailed it to me and asked me to write about it on my blog.
I was prepared for it to be pretty horrible, because who expects their high school classmates to be good at stuff?* But it was actually really good. The book has kind of the same self-conscious but un-self-aware tone as most autobiographical graphic novels and Ke$ha songs.** It’s self-conscious in that it views its own mundane doings as being worthy of documentation but its un-self-aware in that it doesn’t really apply any kind of analysis to this mundanity.
For instance, if you listen closely to a Ke$ha song, you’ll realize that there’s nothing particularly glamorous about what she does. She just gets herself dolled up, gathers her friends, and goes out out to get trashed at the clubs in LA (and there’s also glitter). Personally, I’ve had some nights that were way crazier than any Ke$ha song. But that’s exactly where her genius lies. She glamorizes the mundane. If her narratorial stance was less self-conscious then she wouldn’t have the words to describe her own life and if it were more self-aware then she wouldn’t have any interest in describing her own life.
Artistic power isn’t necessarily about having an interesting life; it’s about being able to transform life into something interesting.
At its core, Gans’ memoir is about something extremely prosaic. He graduates from college without a job and decides to move to Italy to mooch off his girlfriend, who is spending a year as an English teacher. While in Italy, he struggles to acclimate and fails to interact appreciably with native culture. Basically, his story is much like everybody’s year abroad. Spending time in a foreign country always involves considerable loneliness and usually means wrestling with a sense of failure–failure to make the most of this opportunity; failure to integrate into society; and failure to move forward in life.
But Gan is correct in his intuition that very few people have actually written about everybody’s year abroad. Instead, they’ve tried to make their year abroad sound like some sort of amazing odyssey into the heart of love (or the heart of darkness). Personally, I’ve read a fair (though not excessive) number of travelogues and I don’t think I’ve ever read one that’s resonated so strongly with me.
Gans spins some pretty good scenes of high anxiety. In particular, I enjoyed one chapter in which he agonizes for hours over whether to give a piece of pie to the Pakistani owner of a calling center that he frequents. It’s incredibly ridiculous, but it also rings very true. Even in our ordinary lives, it’s very difficult to reach across cultural, class, and linguistic boundaries, and, in most cases, we don’t even make the effort. What makes it funny is the sense of desperation that the narrator has over the whole issue. In some sense, he really needs for this to work; he needs to make a friend; he needs to claim something from the time he’s spent in Italy. The pie is silly, but it’s also exactly as much of a life or death issue as the narrator makes it out to be.
The other great moment are the chapters later in the book that deal with his relationship to his girlfriend. I particularly loved one scene where he’s lying in bed with her and pondering whether to roll over onto her side and try to cajole her into having sex.
It’s 5:30 a.m…I estimate that it may be an acceptable time to roll over and start badgering Sarah to have sex with me. I worry that it may be already too late, and that she has to go to work soon. Or that it will be too late, and she’ll be awake already and anxiously wondering why I haven’t rolled over, and wondering if I’m passive-aggressively waiting for her to be the one to roll over to my side this time. Sometimes I do that. I consider doing it today.
I normally don’t really “review” books. Usually, I don’t particularly care whether or not you read whatever book I’m blogging about, but I guess I will make an exception for this one. I read the book in about three hours while sitting on a front porch in Great Falls, Montana. It was not wasted time. I sincerely enjoyed the book. If you like stories about angsty and confused twentysomethings (and who doesn’t?), then I would recommend that you read this book.***
Okay, on a sidenote, I’d also like to say that reading a memoir by someone you went to school with is a really trippy experience. I mean, after six years in school with someone, you know them pretty well. I’m not saying you’ve penetrated to the deep inner core of their essence, but you generally know what they’re going to do or say in most situations. But then they go off to college and eight years pass and they change! And then you get to listen to this stranger as he passes comment upon the person that you knew! It’s both bizarre and incredibly enjoyable.
On a second sidenote, Tristan definitely has one of the better marketing personas I’ve run across in an author. He wasn’t on Facebook for years and then he reactivated his account with a post that basically said, “My agent thinks that I need to be on Facebook if I’m ever gonna sell my book…so I’m gonna do some Facebooking with you jerks.” Everything he does online is explicitly about building his brand so that he can sell books…and he writes everything in the sensitive jerk persona that is also the primary voice of the book (but which differs considerably, I am sure, from the way he interacts with people in life). It shouldn’t work, but it’s actually fairly compelling. If you want to see for yourself, then check out his advice blog.
*Literature’s number one example of misunderestimating your high school classmate has to be Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece in which he basically satirizes the life of his high school classmate Cezanne, and ends up portraying him as a tragic failure. Cezanne was kind of a late bloomer, and Zola didn’t realize that his childhood pal was about to become one of the most famous artists of all time….whoops!
**From some, this would be an insult, but I love both autobio comics and Ke$ha.
***Except you can’t actually buy it because it’s not out yet (it’s not being released until August…or perhaps October? Not really sure…I guess I’ll post when it’s actually out, too).