'Defining' Generation-Y: Best Behavior by Noah Cicero

by David Miller Jun 17, 2011
Novelist Noah Cicero’s latest book, Best Behavior is a seemingly-bleak but sometimes hilarious work on the way people live and travel in the US.

I’VE BEEN FOLLOWING Noah Cicero’s work for the last two and half years. In some way he (or at least his online persona) reminds me of the kind of crazy person you meet on the street who always comes right out with his story, how this or that has happened to them and that’s why they’re now out on the street.

The difference is that Noah writes it all down in novels. Underlying all of his work is this energy, this need to get words down. You can feel it.

Noah’s words seem inseparable, inextricable from where he’s grown up. He never lets you forget or romanticize his blue-collar upbringing in Youngstown Ohio. It just is. It continually informs his writing and worldview in a way that I feel challenges other people (see, for example his stories on Matador).

This latest novel, Best Behavior, is his sixth.

In the introduction he writes:

I wanted to write a book. A book that would define a generation. Why I would want to do that, I don’t know. Probably boredom. Sometimes people get bored and think that it would be good to keep busy writing a novel that would define a generation.

Because of the introduction, it seemed hard to review this book out of the context of how it defines Generation-Y (or the “Some went to War, Some went to College, some just Hung Out generation” that Noah offers as one of several alternate names).

What I’ve realized though is that the book isn’t defining of anything but itself, and that if you want to define a generation, it’s the whole process, the progression of going novel by novel via small publishing houses, building your readership via your blog and DIY promo, and in your own way inviting readers and other writers to take part, that’s as good a point of entry into this generation than anything else.

So I just ended up asking Noah the following questions via email over the past week, and decided that what I want is to keep Best Behavior moving. To keep the process moving. To get it in your hands. At the end of the interview, you can win my copy by leaving comments re: “Generation-Y.”

[DM]: Of all the elements of Best Behavior, the one that affected me the most was the way characters seem confined – almost condemned – by societal circumstances. Take Andrew, the cook:

Andrew was 24 and grew up in Warren. Unlike half the people who went to Warren, he graduated. He went to business school after high school but dropped out. Later he got in a car wreck, got sued and owed over 20 thousand dollars. He was the best cook we ever had and he never let us forget it. . . Besides being a good cook he was also a good rapper. . . .He would make his songs at his friend’s house and put them on Myspace. . . . I liked that very much, there were a lot of people I worked with that didn’t do anything to make themselves happy but smoke weed and drink. And he had found an outlet for his emotions, which led to him having the confidence to be a better cook and do less drugs and drinking.

Andrew had it bad though. His mother was a heroin junky and he had no father. He would sometimes describe, without showing emotion, how his mother would shoot up in front of him. . . Everyone would stare with pained faces while he would tell us these stories. It wasn’t the stories exactly, it was the way he said it, like it seemed normal. Like it was normal for a mother to shoot heroin in front of her son. . .

You got the sense that he wanted to be black. A lot of white people had that from the Youngstown and Warren ghettos. A lot of white people, much more than the media shows, grew up in the world of poor black people. The poor black kids had had outlets in the media to represent them, musicians, movie stars, sitcoms, and politicians. But poor white people weren’t represented in the media except maybe as trailer park hicks. So Andrew looked up to the rappers. And what the rappers exude were the anger and wants of the poor people of the ghetto. Andrew was poor and he would probably die poor, but he was nice and a good worker.

[DM] and compare it with Desmond Tondo, the Harvard educated writer:

Desmond Tondo was a writer. . . He gradudated from Harvard with an English degree and then decided to work in the hiring department of a hedge fund company. . .He had one book published about a suburban landscape catching on fire and turning suburbia into flames. . . His parents had fallen for the advertisement that raising kids in suburbia with good schools and a high level of security would make their child an adult that would be efficient in the modern workforce. It was true, he was efficient, he had succeeded. He made good money and he was living out his conception of a good life. . . .His face was shaved and he always smelled nice.

Last summer Desmond came to visit me for a few days. He didn’t shave those days. He wore t-shirts with leather shoes. He came to write an article that appeared on Huffington Post. Desmond and I drove around the Youngstown area for two days doing nothing. He was fascinated by the shittiness of it all. There were houses close together but it wasn’t suburbs. It was summer and the poor blacks and whites were playing basketball on the streets. The crack heads were walking down the sidewalks.. . People were sitting on their porches drinking beer and swearing at each other. It was a very different scene.

I couldn’t help but thinking, especially in the context of Best Behavior as a book seeking to “define a generation” that presenting characters this way (including the narrator) seemed very real and, in a good way, challenging. I think part of the “challenge” came from the sense that each character was somehow “framed” in a particular societal context with seemingly little or no chance for progression or change. Was this something you consciously tried to convey?

[NC] From my experience and I think statistically people do not leave their social class, they don’t go up or down. It is like this and this is difficult to understand unless you’ve seen it. I’m Ohio blue collar through and through, I grew up with guns, dirt bikes, a forest to walk for hours in, my parents were a butcher and a factory worker. My friends parents were all factory workers and blue collar laborers. Nobody really spoke good English. None of our parents really cared about us getting straight As. None of our parents ever mentioned us going to a private university or becoming doctors or lawyers. They were happy if we graduated from college or even a tech school. The idea of traveling the world or studying abroad sounded absurd to our parents. Those ideas didn’t exist.

But recently in my life literature has brought me to a different world, not super rich people. But a wealthy class of citizens who have parents that are professors, scientists and doctors. Their lives didn’t have guns or forests, their didn’t fix cars with their dads, they didn’t have chickens or animals to feed. They were told that studying abroad and going to a big name university was a good idea and if they didn’t graduate college they were failures. I’ve met people that had parents that didn’t like the idea of their kids going to a state university at all. And they did what their parents told them to do, and the blue collar kids did what their parents told them to do.

I also noticed that it is very hard for people to go between classes, the wealthier people do not mix with the blue collar and the blue collar do not mix with the people a little bit more wealthy. And the blue collar do not go below their class and mix with the poor, because strange feelings can arise. So we stay within our class to feel comfortable, and because of that we stay within our class we determine ourselves. I think I am able to move between classes because I have a talent for adapting to new situations. I can sit in a giant house next to an in-ground pool, sit in a shitty motel room with two strippers sniffing coke and help a factory worker fix the water pump on his car and feel fine.

Similarly there is a particular way that place is portrayed. Take the New York party scene:

Jason Bassini was sitting next to me, we spoke to each other yelling because the music was so fucking loud. Jason said, “Everything is hierarchy here. Everyone instantly announces their job, which implies their status and how much money they make. No one does that in Seattle. Everyone just sits around and asks if you want to get stoned.”

“This is New York City, this is where you come if you want to achieve status. People go to Seattle to become like musicians or something.”

“I don’t know why people live in Seattle.”

“People in Youngstown sit around all day bitching about their problems.”

“People don’t do that in Seattle. People are always like, ‘Life is awesome, let’s go do something. Let’s get a haircut.'”

This – while seeming like a very real conversation, one that I could see so many people having – reminds me of the piece that you wrote for the Matador about New England in that it seemingly reduces places down to whatever one happens to be thinking about them at the time. On one level, Best Behavior is a road novel. The protagonist / narrator leaves his home in Youngstown and travels to New York. And yet, all of the places seem to get the same “treatment.” What is the role of “place” in Best Behavior, and how does it relate to the generation you’re attempting to define?

I have never liked the phrase, “Everywhere you people are the same.” Recently I went to LA and saw how the writers and artists of different mediums live out there. In NYC every one lives in cramped little apartments. You go to someone’s apartment and sit in some little cramped dark hole. Everyone announces their occupation and just kind talks about things.

In LA it was different, everyone lived in good sized apartments, you sat outside on chairs and everyone asked questions of each other, about what they were doing, about how they could help them. I say I thought I might want to live in LA, everyone was like trying to find me a job. I don’t think that would have happened in NYC. The attitude is different. I’ve been to Eugene, Oregon like five times. That place, oh my god, you sit on a bench and somebody will start talking to about something. Everyone is so friendly and peaceful.

I wanted place to matter in the book, that America is full of different types of places. One of the things I wanted to show in the book is that there is no real American Culture, there is the constitution that binds us but that is about it. You can drive 600 miles in any direction in America and find a completely different type of people living there.

Some of my favorite moments in Best Behavior dealt the mythologies characters’ create for themselves (such as drinking for the Pittsburgh Steelers or playing drunken Monopoly) as well as the deconstruction of characters’ mythologies. The narrator essentially deconstructs his own personal mythology:

I grew up in a normal little house on 5 acres of land in a rural part of Ohio. But it wasn’t like we were in the country. I was ten minutes from a city with malls and shopping outlets. We had indoor plumbing and heating. My parents made enough money I never had to worry about lacking the necessities in life. I could say philosophically it would be better for Americans to put down their cars and their excess and go back to the land, of outhouses and fireplaces. But I don’t want that. I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know how to live a simple life. I like to go to work and go back to my house and check my email, turn on the lights and night and read a book. . . .I don’t really care about impressing other people. But I don’t feel like being shit on by idiot managers anymore. I think that is why I started reading Richard Wright and Richard Yates. Their characters are always trapped in the modern economy. Beatnik characters never have to work, they are always out running around, having a good time. Even Bukowski is like that, his characters do work. But they are always having a good time also. I hardly ever have a good time.”

Reading Best Behavior I found myself thinking a lot about myth: that so many of us live in a world without myth, but that, in essence, we just create new myths around whatever it is – literature or science or sports teams. It’s ironic to me that Best Behavior (and most of the writing published at Muumuu house, the formation of which is a central part in Best Behavior – the reason for the narrator’s trip to New York) seems to advance a philosophy that’s like “post-myth” and yet is itself creating a mythology around the writers and characters involved. How does mythology figure into Best Behavior and the generation you’re trying to define?

I think that my generation has adopted what Rorty talked about a lot in his books, we are pragmatic relativists. We don’t believe that there is any real truth except for maybe math, you can’t walk through walls, that if you are held under water long enough you will drown, things like that.

But ideas about how people should live, religion, philosophy, codes of ethics, those are relative, and only true if you convince yourself that they are true.

Now there is no way clear way to describe that in language, why we can’t walk through, you just know it, you feel it. But ideas about how people should live, religion, philosophy, codes of ethics, those are relative, and only true if you convince yourself that they are true. But we are pragmatic and want the truth that can be useful to our lives.

I’m not concerned with truth or facts. My writing is about experience, feeling and interpretation. I have an experience, then I go back to my house and dwell on the experience, trying to interpret what happened and why, to make sense of it.

I like myths, especially myths about writers. I love reading stories about strange things writers did, I love Movable Feast and books like that. I don’t care if they are true. Truth doesn’t matter. The audience doesn’t want truth, someone asked me the other day what I would like to be the result of my literary career, I said, “To be read a thousand years from now?” He replied, “What about this life?” I said, “To die a tragic death like Poe, Hemingway or Thompson.” He said, “Are you serious?” I said, “No, to be like Norman Mailer to grow old in a nice comfortable home with ghost writers.” He asked then, “Which one is true?” I said, “It doesn’t matter, as long as you are entertained.”

The human species has an instinctual drive to myth, our brains love myths, our brains love to drift away into the epic. Do I have a good explanation for this instinct, why has the human species evolved to love myth, why do they value entertainment over facts? I do not know, and if someone tries to offer an explanation they are just creating another myth. All I know is that I love myths, people love myths, the old world Europe, the Middle-East and Asia, they have a million myths, America needs some, I’m happy to supply a few.

I read on your blog where you’re considering moving out West. What are your plans?

My plans are to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico and live with a friend. Hopefully I can find a job and remain living there. I love the west, it is so beautiful to me. I went there when I was 12 and fell in love it and a day doesn’t pass where I don’t think, “I want to live out west.”

I also saw the schematic for your new novel sketched out on what looked like playground chalk. What are you working on next?

I’m working on a bunch of things, right now I’m working on a novel called “I Can’t do It.” It is about a ninth grader who melts down. The other book I’m working on is called “Netlit Canon” with Martin Wall and Sam Pink. We are compiling the best literature that has come from the Internet in the last five years. We are going to have everyone in it from Ned Vizzini to Tao Lin to Shane Jones.

Then I have the movie things, The Human War movie is coming out later this year and will probably hit Netflix sometime in the first half of next year. And I appeared in several scenes for Shoplifting from American Apparel based off the Tao Lin novel. That movie has taken a lot of my time in the last two months but my scenes are done now. It will be out later this year at festivals and appear on Netflix next year. I’m not sure what will happen with the movies, but usually it causes some effect on a writer’s life. And I’m doing this while still trying to promote Best Behavior and do interviews of other writers and artists. I’m having a lot of fun doing it all, there is a lot of teamwork in all of it too with other writers.

Win Best Behavior

In the comments below, please leave either (a) your own name for Generation-Y, and / or (b) an example of how your generation has been written about (or a scene describing your generation) along with how you’d write about it.

I’ll mail my copy of Best Behavior to the comment that raises stoke levels the most.

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