by Michael Knapp
The Bachelor: a novel, by Andrew Palmer (Hogarth, 2021)
Andrew Palmer’s debut novel, The Bachelor, opens with its unnamed stream-of-consciousness narrator returning home to Des Moines following a catastrophic breakup. A published novelist intent on never writing again, the narrator develops a couple intense obsessions during his stay in Iowa: the title-inspiring reality television show, The Bachelor, and the poet, John Berryman. The author’s eclectic fixations aside, this is, in a lot of ways, borrowing from a familiar formula. Palmer’s exploration of the romantic and existential woes of a white, 20-something writer brings to mind Andrew Martin’s Early Work, or Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., or even Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls. The Bachelor is another entry into the crowded canon of popular culture concerning privileged, hyper-literary millennials.
But while the underlying conceit is familiar, Palmer’s perspective is refreshingly singular. In the sub-genre that I like to call White Writer Lit, the reader is usually following along with the narrator as he – and it’s almost always a he – lives the life that will be reflected in his material. We are being told the story of the lived experience that will become the narrator’s eventual novel. But Palmer starts his exploration from the other end of the spectrum. His protagonist asserts early on that he is done writing, still reeling from his broken engagement, and he commits to cultivating a “radical ambivalence,” saying: “Through my project of not having a project I would open my story to other stories, open my self to other selves.” We are not reading about a writer whose reality will inform his eventual storytelling. We are reading about a former writer whose consumption of stories will inform his reality.
This may sound like a niche novel existing within a niche genre, but Palmer successfully universalizes these themes through an easily accessible framing device: reality television, and specifically The Bachelor. There’s a quirky subplot whereby the narrator begins to see himself as the leading man on his own version of the hit show, but I’m much more interested in the larger statements Palmer makes about how one’s pop culture diet inevitably informs one’s self. Of one of his love interests, the narrator says: “Jess has come to seem less and less like a person than a minor character in our story.” When considering how he could separate himself from Jess’s ex-boyfriend, he says: “I could be the anti-Brett she needed, I would play that role.” Like the word “story” in the first example, “role” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this sentence. The narrator is speaking on his own life as if he were analyzing an episode of a television show. And, of course, that is precisely the point: our fictions inform our reality more than they reflect it.
Palmer drives this point home by analyzing how shows like The Bachelor establish dimensionality in their characters: “if you want to make it past the first few episodes,” says the narrator, “sooner or later you’re going to have to tell the saddest story you know about yourself.” Basically, in order to solidify your on-screen individuality, you need to star in your own redemption story whereby you suffer and recover from intense trauma. The flipside of this implication means that, without any definitive trauma, you’re sort of self-less. “Can a self be carved out of minor disappointments, periods of boredom, and occasional low-level suffering?” the narrator wonders. The pervasiveness of his hypothesis is tacitly confirmed later on by another one of his love interests, Sadie: “Sometimes it seems to me I was lucky my father died when I was a girl. I learned very early what life was about, and I think it’s made things easier for me.” When the narrator is researching his literary obsession, John Berryman, he stumbles upon a strikingly similar quote from the poet in a 1970 interview, “My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
Obviously, the notion that character is formed through intense suffering is not new. And I will admit that I at times grew tired of Palmer’s derivative musings on how the young artist “secretly” wishes to be tortured. But where Palmer does succeed is in detailing how superficial this one-track approach to character formation is, in that it boils down impossibly complex human beings to lists of bullet points, whereby sensationalism is compulsory in order to stand out.
This line of thinking leads to one of the novel’s most memorable passages. In the midst of a written-correspondence that becomes a sort of literary love affair, the narrator and his friend Maria offer up a scathing critique of biographies. Speaking specifically about a Berryman biographer, Maria skewers the author’s “pretension to omniscience” and “sham authority.” “Not once did he acknowledge the gaping void on the other side of the historical record,” she says, “all the parts of a person’s life that aren’t recorded anywhere.” Maria punctuates her point by saying that “life is experience,” and “experience is the opposite of information.” The narrator himself acknowledges the grandiosity of Maria’s statement, but the implication is nonetheless significant. If we are to agree with Maria here, and we consider life and experience equivalents that are both the opposite of information, then any attempts to get to know someone by speaking with them, or writing to them, or reading about them, are inevitably doomed. Inherent in all of those methods is a belief in the truth of words, in their ability to faithfully communicate information about our inner lives. But similar to how Palmer’s novel suggests that our reality is informed by our fiction, and not vice versa, it also plays with the idea that our feelings are a product of our words – and not the other way around. “The words seem attached to the feelings they name, pulling them up and into existence,” the narrator says of the women competing on The Bachelor. “The words make the feelings real.”
Not to be grandiose myself, but Palmer seems to be hinting at a certain arbitrariness to life and love. We go back and pick out moments that faithfully construct the narrative we want to tell about ourselves, feigning mastery of the self in hopes that we are fully capitalizing on our talents. But in the end we really might just be guessing, and justifying those guesses after the fact.
I’m sure it is apparent by now, but I did enjoy Palmer’s book – I was entertained by its easily diverted and impulsive narrator, and thoroughly impressed with its nuanced exploration of the way the self is formed in the 21st century. That said, it does bear mentioning that there is an offbeat rhythm to Palmer’s prose that requires an adjustment period. In fact, thanks to the novel’s awkwardly constructed opening sentence, I almost put The Bachelor down as soon as I picked it up: “Not long after I moved into the mostly empty house of a friend of my mother’s in northwest Des Moines, near the dead end of the street I grew up on, in order to reset my life or retire quietly from it, I discovered on the satellite television service channel 665, ‘home of your Chicago Bulls.’” This meandering introduction to the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness narration isn’t, at least at first glance, exemplary prose. It reads like the kind of run-on sentence you’d find in an over-eager grad student’s diary, which is to say that in addition to its being somewhat disarming in its lack of formality, its diaristic quality is also effective in establishing a certain level of intimacy between you and the narrator. There’s a lack of affectation; a sort of unironic genuineness. Andrew Palmer’s debut novel may be far from one-of-a-kind in its exploration of the romantic and literary woes of a white, well-read 20-something, but The Bachelor’s sincerity separates it from the pack in a genre chock-full of satirically unsympathetic narrators. You’re willing to go with Palmer’s narrator on his existential quest, and entertain his lofty meta-critiques on contemporary culture, because he is somewhat of an anomaly in White Writer Lit in that he is dead serious about his seemingly trivial interests. Although it is at times hilarious, The Bachelor is not a satire. It’s a stunning piece of cultural criticism.
Michael Knapp is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been published by Vox Media and featured on Bleacher Report. He is the recipient of Montgomery College’s 2017 Literature Award as well as George Washington University’s Elsie M Carper Prize.
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