Review: We Learn Nothing, Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider

You might have seen Tim Kreider’s widely-linked Opinionator column, The ‘Busy’ Trap, this past weekend. Publisher’s Weekly is reporting today that We Learn Nothing’s (June 2012, 240 pages, Free Press) Amazon.com’s sales ranking has jumped 2000%. Having just read — and loved — We Learn Nothing, I’m delighted to see this wonderful collection get the attention it deserves.

I had never heard of Kreider, who drew the cartoon The Pain — When Will it End? from 1994 to 2009. He’s published several essays — including six of the fourteen collected here — in The New York Times, Film Quarterly, The Comics Journal, The Urbanite, and Nerve.com. I accepted the publisher’s offer of this book on the basis of its title alone.

The essays range from Kreider’s stabbing (“Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds.”), to romantic relationships, friendship, political outrage (“I was a political cartoonist and essayist for the duration of the Bush presidency, so I was professionally furious every week for eight years.”), family, illness, his friend Jenny Boylan’s gender reassignment journey (“Jenny would argue that she’d never been a man; she’d just been impersonating one. I would say, You and me both.”). The essays manage to be both hilarious and serious, quick yet insightful. I really enjoy essay collections, but the funny ones especially tend to be fast reads that I soon forget. This one I liked so much that I decided not to mark it up. So I put stickies in the spots that I wanted to go back to and really think about. You can see how that went:

In his official photo, the author looks like an affable, buttoned down Republican. In the self-portraits (this one is from an essay that appears in the book), he looks unsettled, depressed and possibly deranged. In his writing, Kreider comes off as intense, intelligent, and witty with a slightly unbalanced edge that makes for some brutally honest – almost cringe-inducing — reading moments.

Kreider is an interesting guy with an interesting life. Not many of us can write essays about a mentally ill uncle incarcerated for attempted murder by arson (“His visits were like a whiff of cigarette smoke in church.”), getting stabbed, a transitioning transgender friend, discovering in middle age that we’ve been adopted, or a best friend who becomes obsessed with peak-oil. But what makes We Learn Nothing a really worthwhile read, beyond the fun and inherent interest, is the way Kreider widens the scope. I’ll never — sorry to say — have a friend quite like Skelly, the subject of the wonderful “The Czar’s Daughter”, who, despite “his incidental falsehoods” was “a fundamentally genuine person.” But I can certainly relate to Kreider’s Skelly-inspired meditation on lying and identity:

What someone’s lies reveal about them (aspirations to being an accomplished writer, fantasies of an exotic history and a cosmopolitan family) are always sadder than the fact of the lies themselves. These inventions illuminate the negative spaces of someone’s self-image, their vanity and insecurities and most childish wishes, as we can infer from warped starlight the presence of a far vaster mass of dark matter.

Another essay I loved was “How They Tried to Fuck Me Over (But I Showed Them)”, about political allegiances, hypocrisy, and rage. As someone who spends a lot of time online, I felt more than a twinge of uncomfortable recognition when reading passages like this one:

Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good, but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy reaction to negative stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again, like compulsive masturbation.

Here’s another passage from the same essay:

It’s risky to pursue these stories beyond the initial quick hit of anger, because it invariably turns out that the more you learn about them, the more disappointingly complex and ambiguous and depressing they become. At one point, I thought a good use of my time would be to work myself into a rage over the mistaken shooting of the composer Anton Webern by an American GI at the end of World War II. There is no fetish so specialized that the Internet cannot gratify it; see the website “I Curse the Soldier Who Killed Anton Webern.” But then I took my research a step too far and learned that the soldier who shot Webern, one Raymond Bell, was tortured by remorse for the rest of his short life. He died, an alcoholic, only ten years after the war. This story isn’t morally satisfying at all. It’s pointless and shitty and sad, a collision of victims. I’d been lured by a base craving into a finer, less comfortable feeling I hadn’t experienced or desired. It was like trying to seduce a girl and accidentally falling in love.

Another essay I really liked was “An Insult to the Brain: In Which I Am Tasked with Reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Aloud to My Mother, an Invalid.” I never thought I would get an analysis of Tristram Shandy in a book of essays by a subversive political cartoonist, complete with drawings, but I did:

Once we accepted that nothing was ever going to happen in Tristram Shandy, our expectations that anything ought to have started to seem stodgy and humorless. It turned out to be very much in the tradition of the silly plotless films mom and I had always enjoyed — or, rather, they turn out to have been in its. Tristram Shandy flouts its obligations as a novel in the same way that Blazing Saddles or Airplane! mock the whole idea of a movie. Sterne affects to lament his resolute lack of progress: “Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?” he sighs after Walter Shandy and his brother have in fact spent a whole chapter getting down one flight. “For we are got no further yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom and for aught I know, there may be as many chapters as steps.” In the next chapter, Walter takes a single step down to the next staircase, which almost makes you want to cheer, but he hesitates there and starts another conversation — and then, agonizingly, he actually backtracks, withdrawing his foot from the stair and walking all the way back across the landing to lean against the wall. You can’t help but laugh at this, even if it’s with that grudging admiration that says: Ahh, you bastard. But the conversation that Walter and Toby have on the landing, about women and pregnancy, is one of my favorites in the book. It’s as if Sterne were saying, Now wasn’t that worth waiting for? And you were in such a rush. He never does get them off the staircase; in the end, he leaves it up to the reader and even inquires, all innocent curiosity, how you managed to do that.

From this paragraph, Krieder moves into describing about how the physical therapist taught him to help his mother walk up and down stairs (“We were like astronauts training for zero-g underwater”), weaving seamlessly the analysis of Sterne with the slow struggles of an ailing parent to recover her health and an impatient son who tries, and doesn’t always manage, to help her.

The subtitle of We Learn Nothing includes the word “Cartoons” and you may have noticed I’ve said almost nothing about the drawings here. I confess they left me unmoved. In describing his cartoons, Krieder has said they reveal “a certain preoccupation with the sordid and the unwise–with drunkenness, ill-advised sex, poor work habits–and what Frederic Raphael, in speaking of Stanley Kubrick, described as ‘an amused pessimism at the notion that people are capable of change.’” My feeling was that the cartoons lived up (or down, depending on your view) to this sensibility, but I happened to prefer the more optimistic sensibility of the text.

You can purchase We Learn Nothing in hardcover or digital at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powells, or in audio at iTunes.

4 responses

  1. The Opinionator column really made me think (again) about all the fake busyness in my life, and how hard I find to change it and give more time to the things I say I care about.

    I only have one problem with this review: this is a book I want in hard copy, because it sounds like my husband will want to read it too, so I can’t start reading it right this minute.

    Like

  2. @Liz Mc2: I know the point of his article wasn’t to compare “fake” busy to “real” busy, but I have always hated it when I ask how my fellow academics are doing and they say “super busy.” I have a uni colleague who likes to list off everything he is working on whenever I even say hello. I gained a new perspective on this when I started working at the hospital. I know people will argue with me, but my feeling is that until you have shadowed a critical care nurse on a 12 hour shift, you have no idea what busy really is.

    @willaful: Boylan is a pretty big celebrity in Maine, since she teaches at Colby, and she has been up to UMaine many times. I’ve read parts of She’s Not There, but not the whole book. Must remedy.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Tim Kreider "We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons"

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