Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: 29 Jobs and A Million Lies

Title: 29 Jobs and a Million Lies
Narrator: Jennifer Topper
Genre: Memoir/Coming of Age Humour
Price: $ 10.00 or eBook .99
Paperback: 146
Publisher: 29JObs
ISBN: 978-0984368105
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner

Book Description: Dark, twisted, and outrageous, 29 Jobs and a Million Lies is a glimpse at counterculture's underbelly and attempts to succeed within that world. From demented B-movie, roach-infested film production offices chock full of freakish characters to the Cannes Film Festival; from starting a punk rock record label to its hard but inevitable crash; from a grimy, Greenwich Village restaurant kitchen to failed attempts at joining the Navy, you gotta ask, What's a nice girl from the suburbs doing all of this dirty work for? 29 Jobs and a Million Lies is the gut-wrenching, self-deprecating account of how ambition to stand out was wiped out by clumsy choices, immaturity and self-defeating righteousness.

I can agree to some extent that the book is a bit twisted. It certainly has attitude, as it is written in a very confrontational ranty style, but even so, this is still one of those: Been there, done that, Damn the Man, now I am looking back on my Twenties and it sucked total ass memoirs. There is nothing wrong with that at all. It’s a snapshot of the youth mindset, a social satire, if you will, but it's not really counter-culture as much as it is just twenty-something angst. Objecting or opposing the dominant values and behaviour of society at large is a typical characteristic of youth. The desire to be unconventional is not the same as true counter-culture, as in the movement. As for the Angst: I had it, everyone I know had it, and kids today have it. And I, just like many others, can tell you outrageous "how I survived long enough to find my place in the world" stories.

The 60s brought the first wave of real counter-culture, where the "graduate, get married, buy a house, take a job and stay there all of your life” mantra became the American Dream of the past. Free love and independent thinking called everything into question. Censorship, racism, the war in Vietnam, the draft, the sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights, and the libertine attitudes burgeoning within the youth movement brought about the desire to break free of the rigid puritanical cultural and social restraints of the time. Individual freedom and freedom of expression were the order of the day, by any extreme deviation that was necessary to subvert the current fascist regime. My husband can attest to that since he was the youth of the 60s. However, the attitudes and the struggles of today's youth are not exactly the same as they were then. Counter-culture then was world changing, today, not so much, and that is part of the problem. Counter-culture today is just trendy, so I guess we could call that narrator delusion number one.

This memoir focuses more on the delusions of youth, rather than true counter-culture, and by using a self-deprecating approach, the overtly caustic nature of the writing is tempered somewhat, but the story is not uncommon. Ask any college graduate who has a degree they don't know what to do with and you will certainly get a story similar to this one. Now I am a decade-plus older than the narrator here, and I also didn't have some of the privileges that this narrator had, i.e. the wealthy family and the proper four-year college education that I could take a lackadaisical approach to, skiing in Austria in 1987, or softball in Paris in 1989. If someone had told me no jobs were available, I wouldn’t have just passively believed it. There were jobs in the 90s, and I should know: I had been in the working world since 83 and had changed jobs six times by that point on my way to my current career. This illustrates the generation gap very nicely, and generational differences aside, I found the narrator very relatable because she showed an independence and an honesty that we are seeing less and less of these days. The fact that the will to survive was strong enough to combat the delusion of youth is something to take note of here. We all made bad choices. We all have had our egotistical moments where we thought: I am better than this, better than what I perceive to be a menial job. I am NOT common or average. I will not compromise. My immature philosophies are valid so damn the dogma. It's a rare few who walk out into the world at twenty-something years old and have their life satisfactorily mapped out for them. If that were the case, people wouldn't have a mid-life crisis either. No matter the generation, we all had youthful delusions, but the delusions made us fearless to some extent; well, it did for those of us who were genetically predisposed to the idea that with a little outside-of-the-box thinking, we could make our own way. Most of today’s twenty-something college graduates saunter into the world with delusions of grandeur. Delusions that they will be significant, that they will make some monumental impact on the world, and that they are just that special they can do it, but eventually the realities of life have to kick in and they realize that their definitions of significant and impactful are a bit skewed because of their over-inflated opinion of themselves, the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know, and that their few real world experiences aren’t worth the salt they base their belief system on.

The meaning of life is subjective and always will be. Real impact is measured on a much smaller scale. It’s made in tiny increments. Of course no one knows that when they first start out all ass-holes and elbows, because wisdom only comes with age. That is a fact. One that our narrator here is very aware of. I found a few telling passages that really epitomize today's youth, except here, the narrator is looking back with some perspective:

“We all have a selective way of listening and retelling the "truth." We retain the things that we want to retain, and we reject the rest. That's how our social fabric doesn't come apart, because we are all totally insane freaks who have the most bizarre routines, quirks, fantasies, fetishes, perspectives, and opinions. If we weren't all totally different, life would be a George Orwell story. That's why each of us creates our own alternative universe to find satisfaction. Actually, no, happiness isn't really the motivating factor here... I'm a realist, so the underlying impetus to create the alternative universe -- the ultimate lie -- is so we can think that we are actually in control of our own destiny.

"I made a bad choice, followed by a series of worse choices. Perhaps this is the turning point that I should analyze a little more -- my total inability to make a decent, long-term decision in my life that will lead to a satisfying future. Facing these facts is somewhat satisfying -- like I found the thing to blame for so many wrong turns. But it doesn't make right what I made wrong for so many years. As I got a little older and approached 30, perhaps my willingness to start out at the bottom and learn everything in sight was curtailed. And logic would dictate that as well, since there should be a sequential series of life choices, right? Instead of climbing the ladder of success, I was floundering around the bottom for way too many years without building any foundation for the future.

"I shortly realized that everything is a priority to me, I can't adequately prioritize issues so that I can appropriately pick my battles, which was why I was having such a hard time getting through the muck of life's challenges. I made those challenges harder than they needed to be; and in a way that's what made things so much more gratifying. But mostly, it left me tired, worn-out and drained of my motivation and positive energy.

"The fear of success -- or contentment or just status quo -- was and still is penetrating. I learned about myself a lot through experiencing less-than-riveting jobs. In order to not be identified with the job, I leave it. I have a weird distance between me and consistent ideals. But in order to have a happy future, I thought, I have to keep pursuing something grander. Only in retrospect did I realize that I was setting myself up for disappointment by setting such lofty and intangible goals.

These epiphanies just prove that when things come easy, when there is little to no culpability for one's actions, where immediate gratification and an aversion to responsibility is the norm, and when the world has perpetuated a sense of entitlement then we have a society that tends to produce more delusion than not. It’s all about expectations. For some it’s about unrealistic ego-centric expectations, and for others, it's about survival; it’s about finding a way to have a life without compromising one’s principles. It's not about finding the perfect job that appeals to their sensibilities, it’s not about some obscure sense of being better than someone else, it's not about some arbitrary definition of success, it’s about finding something that pays the rent, puts food on the table, a job where, with hard work and determination, they could maybe move on to something better. College doesn’t teach survival skills, only life does. And nothing teaches compromise like a hard life.

In my day, with my particular upbringing, we quickly discovered that anarchy was for art and people who could afford it. However, viewpoint aside, it was interesting to watch the narrator's transformation from delusional self-righteous idealism to a true understanding of the apathy that infiltrates everything in the world as we know it. By the end it seemed like the narrator had come to the understanding that there is a difference between selling out and taking a more passive aggressive approach. Being arrogant and confrontational, even if you are right, might make you feel liberated, but it isn't always the best way to affect change for the better. The real counter-culture of today attempts to subvert from within.

All in all, the book is written with a militant's flair for exaggeration, in a very fast, conversational, ranty-styled diatribe with a lot of finger-pointing and language, which lit readers might find unsuitable. It read like a drive-by shooting, but sadly, the editing was a bit rough: I noticed a few minor issues here and there, specifically pervasive typos. As for the content, well, depending on your own personal experiences, this book might be a difficult read, and in some cases, it might make some people downright angry. When a narrator basically states that any job other than the ideal fantasy-land one she had in her naive head is stupid, brainless, and nothing more than a poverty-level day job that warrants little respect from her is bound to alienate a few bazillion people, including myself, who was and is a tattooed artistic anarchist who by will and savvy manipulation alone managed to turn one of those want-ad day jobs into a successful career so that she could eat, have a nice roof over her head, and have all the free time and money she needs to be the real anarchist she is at heart. So the moral of the story is: life is what "you" make it. Our narrator here made a mess of hers because she didn’t understand that a successful life has nothing to do with wealth, privilege, education, or experience. If anything, those things are handicaps. Life has everything to do with attitude. It’s about making the best of the system and making it work for you versus living in a delusion and complaining about it. It's not about ambition; it's about passion and optimism. An optimist will always find a way to better the life experience and so they will always find value and significance and gratification in whatever they do. Their passion comes from within ... They know what will make them happy because they spent less time ranting and more time becoming self-aware, and they will do what needs to be done to be happy, even if it isn't ideal, fashionable, pleasant, left wing or right. Even at the end of the piece, it didn’t really seem like the narrator had a firm grasp on what would make her truly happy, other than motherhood. She mentions publishing, a restaurant, a shop to sell homemade baby clothes, and my favourite: Farming, because, and I quote: “since dirt is good and growing things is fun.” I wonder how many actual farmers would agree that it is fun, especially after they experience devastating crop loss due to a million things beyond their control. Even in the end, the fickleness of youth is still there, and that’s what makes this social commentary so dead-on honest: Most people don’t figure out what they really want until they reach 40 anyway, and therein lies the irony of the mid-life crisis.

My only real complaint about the book is that there was so much ranting, we didn’t get enough description of the narrator’s world to really feel connected to it in any intimate way. Each chapter was basically: I got this job, and it sucked; I met these people, and they sucked; I made this decision, and it sucked; I am a deluded moron, and I suck. As for the dark, twisted, and outrageous counter-culture's underbelly description, well, you won't find that here. Compared to say Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors this isn't all that outrageous, and compared to William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch or Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it isn't all that dark or twisted or counter-culture either, but again, the claim that it is reflects the narrator’s youthful idiocracy at the time. On a final note: If you have a regular "job" and don't particularly care for someone calling you a corporate sell-out, or worse, then I would pass on this book because you might just take offence if you don’t look at it objectively. However, if you were yammering "revolution" in high school without having a fucking clue what that meant and you want to reminisce on how shitty and absurd your debut into society was, how delusional you were in your twenties, and how ill-prepared you were for the realities of the world, then this book might make you say, "Right on. Been there, done that." If you are twenty-something right now, then you will probably be able to relate better. Despite the in your face “fuck you” attitude, the book has some really insightful things to say, and I think it is an accurate portrait of, and I will let the narrator describe herself here:

“The Generation X, Y or Z, or selfish ingrates who don't have any respect, or the overeducated TV generation, or the materialistic little bastards. But we are a generation of people whose parents got married, started a lifelong job, bought a house (within a reasonable commuting distance to the city), and lived there for 40 years until they retired with their pensions and moved to Miami. Well here's where things change: we don't have pensions anymore, houses are unaffordable unless they come on wheels and are temporarily located in rural Oklahoma, companies don't advertise or encourage lifelong employment, Jim X and Jane X majored in Anthropology and Comparative Literature instead of Business, took a year off after college because they were told there were no jobs in the early 1990s so they backpacked through Kenya, then still couldn't find jobs when they returned so they rented a cheap, roach-laden apartment on Avenue C and got robbed of the few dollars they earned waiting tables and selling string on the street.


This book was reviewed from a PDF supplied by the author.

No comments: