You ever sit down for coffee with a good friend who has just landed back in town after a long, wild road trip? That’s what Your Emoticons Won’t Save You, the debut novella by Ethan Nichtern, reads like: a fervent, highly caffeinated tale told over a downtown diner’s aluminum-edged table. Nichtern, a dharma teacher and social activist, has previously published a book on Buddhism (One City), but this is his first foray into fiction. At a slim 108 pages, Emoticons reads quick and easy, but leaves a significant impression: of our wealthy, wayward country; of its hungover, overeducated youth; and of one young man’s attempt to find his way along the thorny path.
In many ways, Emoticons is an unconventional novel. First, Alex Bardo, the story’s twenty year-old hero, is not quite heroic. He is a bright, compassionate seeker with a good heart, a New York City kid with a recently deceased grandma. And if he opened the door to his car and asked you to hop in, you’d probably go along for the ride. Bardo is also a member of a suicide-in-the-genes family that includes his argumentative, Grammy-winning father. But perhaps Alex’s most prominent feature is his privilege and his attendant rich white liberal guilt, which expresses itself as anxiety and embarrassment. A favorite target of Bardo’s is his “schmancy education,” which he treats with special derision. After four years at an elite private Quaker school in Brooklyn Heights, he is currently entering his final “craptacular semester” at Brown (before a semester abroad). Bardo’s money anxiety is ever-present. While headed north for an end-of-summer romp with his buddies, he tries to meditate, but finds it “ridiculously pretentious to meditate in a luxury SUV.” (Why, though? Can’t rich people meditate, too?) It’s not that Bardo is 1% material. He’s more privileged than most, yes, but his brand of rich white liberal guilt is fairly common. In other words, we are all Alex Bardo, deeply anxious about our first-world wealth, and in Emoticons, Nichtern has faithfully dramatized this complex American emotion.
While Alex Bardo may make you miss the literary heroes of the past, say, Dostoevsky’s Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov or Joyce’s Stephen Dadelus, eventually Bardo won me over for many of the same reasons I so loved Alexei and Stephen: for his religious devotion and his artistic commitment. Alex is a second-generation Buddhist practitioner, “trying to meditate” at every turn. While the text is generously sprinkled with the dharma, its presence throughout is light. There is a riff on “the illusory nature of reality” here, a “technicolor yin and yang” there. The Buddhism is also encoded: “Bardo” in Tibetan Buddhism means the state of existence between death and rebirth (prefiguring the novel’s coming-of-age narrative) and 108, the page count, is the number (in thousands) of preliminary practices for ngondro. Bardo is devout but by no means self-righteous. In fact, the primary fruit of Bardo’s religious training seems to be a kind of cosmic awareness that gives him a healthy, vast perspective on life and its myriad moments. After gazing at a lake, Bardo thinks to himself:
[I’ll] find Dad, wherever he is, and apologize. He might also owe me an apology, but that’s ok. Grandma might owe us both a huge apology, and my Great-grandparents might owe her an even bigger apology, and all the way down the family tree there might be exponentially bigger and bigger sorrys due, as we trace the generations back toward the dawn of civilization, and the very first-celled organism might owe a big fat intergalactic “my bad” to every sentient being that came after.”
Moreover, he and his buddies are members of the Wannabe Poet’s Brigade. Alex’s desire to be a poet has a genuine and endearing quality to it. Here he and his best friend Gabe read new poems to each other:
On a stoop down the block from Cooper Union, we started sharing words. I read a short love poem, an after-love poem, actually. I could tell Gabe wasn’t feeling it at all… Then Gabe read a poem called “war and pieces,” which I thought was way too long and preachy. I felt defeated. I got that achy feeling that says you may was well never express anything again.”
But Alex keeps at it, bless his heart, and in the end he convinces you that “creativity [is] a genuine possibility in this world.” Indeed, even as Bardo basically spends an aimless few days gallivanting—in a word, playing—with his similarly privileged buddies on a late August road trip to a sleep-away camp in New Hampshire, doing as far as I could discern nothing of real value, he continued to hold meaning for me as a character. Why? First, he reminded me of other literary characters. That always helps. He has the save-the-world earnestness of Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the openhearted waywardness of Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye, and the conflicted hedonism of McInerney’s unnamed hero in Bright Lights, Big City. In other words, love him or hate him, Alex Bardo represents something. Something important. To use Nichtern’s own words, Alex Bardo represents the “retardedly postcolonial” youth of turn-of-the-millennium America.
Because of its passionate monologue style, Emoticons has a tendency to tell rather than show the story. Creative writing instructors in any midwestern MFA program would sharply criticize Nichtern’s breezing through big scenes with more interior narrative voice than actual dialogue. For example, the boys are always engaging in supposedly stupendous conversations, but we never see any of them in any detail. Yet, even when Emoticons dispenses with traditional novelistic modes, it manages to do so convincingly. Nichtern has a strategy: he’s a condenser. He boils things down. So in the Big Scene when Alex confronts his father, all he says (in actual written dialogue) is: “You’re the whole reason I never had a family, just random relatives.” We are asked to accept that this line is the gauntlet. And why not? After a long, rambling argument with someone, don’t we remember just that one line anyway, the one that stung? We do, though, see Dad’s reaction and Alex’s reaction to the reaction:
After a long pause, he shook his head slowly and said, “I understand.” No defense, no apology. Just I understand. What the fuck is understand? That’s not even a thing!”
That’s a very funny line, but it’s also quite moving. Emoticons has that kind of depth: where the funniest line is also the most heartbreaking.
Nichtern’s concentrated style yields terrific epigrams. For example, Anthony and Gabe compete over girls because: “Everything goes back to high school and nature-channels in the end.” And Gideon is staying with a girl he doesn’t love because: “Let’s face it, warm breath on your neck can take you pretty far in life.” Nichtern’s got style, and you can’t make that up. Though I’ve mentioned certain echoes above, Nichtern is not copying anybody. Indeed, Emoticons has its own unique voice. Nichtern achieves this voice in part by employing a highly idiosyncratic diction throughout the book. Here’s a sampling of the late 90s lingo that Alex and his buddies speak:
how I roll
she dissed me (a bad breakup)
he rocks (as in, he wears)
sucking face (kissing)
say peace (as in, say goodbye)
This last word in particular, wack, seems to be at the heart of the message in Your Emoticons Won’t Save You: shit is wack. For Bardo, the world around him is vast and wondrous, but also full of an injustice that directly informs his mood: a kind of starry-eyed double irony. There is beauty in this world, yes, especially in homoerotic male friendship, in mix tapes, and in the camp’s Lake (capitalized by Nichtern for added symbolism). But underneath the beauty, there is also something dreadfully wrong. It’s a society problem, a money problem—but also something bigger, broader. In Bardo’s world, Nike apparel is obviously just “the usual sweatshop status symbol,” but everybody still wears Nike. Everybody still loves Nike. Bardo expresses this nagging sense of wrongness through cynicism and anger. For example, though he’s acutely aware of his expensive, schmancy education, he’s also “looking forward to exploiting [it] tremendously in real life.” This comment is somehow a blend of sincerity and irony: Bardo is at once serious and sarcastic. He’s both saying the opposite of what he (wants to) means and negating the irony by meaning exactly what he says. In a way, Bardo is like a self-loathing self-help guru, which, ironically, is probably just the kind of guru everybody needs.
The strongest aspects of Emoticons are its singular style and its sociological commentary. While it may skirt traditional novelistic requirements (a sensible backstory, well-earned conflict, scenes that show), it does have good old setting in spades: end-of-the-century America, New York City, 1998. The America of the increasing 99/1% gap, of both binge drinking and meditation, of both a careless, endless youth and a massive, creeping sense of global responsibility. More than anything, I appreciated reading a book about my time and my generation—about my peeps. And the more I think about Alex Bardo, the more I love him. Because he means something to me.
There’s a scene at the novel’s end where Alex, looking at a homeless man, frets that he has too many keys on his keychain. “Sixteen keys is too many,” he says. Having so many keys—to apartments in the West Village and Park Slope, to country houses in Connecticut, to dorm rooms in Ivy League colleges, to the camplands of New England, even to the whole of good ol’ study-abroad Europe—makes Alex uncomfortable. I know the feeling. Nevertheless, Alex Bardo moves heroically forward, his heart open and bleeding, his mind trying to compute, his windows down and his “sunroof open to the cosmos.”