A Lost + Sentimental Solipsist
by Weston Cutter
I really, really liked Found Magazine when it started—I was just out of college, working at a bookstore, and I heard about it I don’t know where, but I was on it pronto, got the first three issues, loved them more as objects than as collections of things simply because the notion of Found, while great, is basically a gimmick: a magazine of found stuff! On the one hand: awesome—there are some amazing, amazing things they’ve found and posted (the note above, which has now been in my life/world for ten years and still I can’t shake it), and you can easily lose solid chunks of time browsing what must be called detritus (or, at least, someone’s detritus). But what Found also is, and revels in, is a sort of slap-dashy, everything-tells-a-story-man sort of vibe, which (I at least) can get tired by: eventually one has to recognize that notes like the one above are truly amazing, and that’s incredible, and that things like, say, a toad’s skin don’t matter in the same way (the same way meaning, roughly, as an object which hints at a depth of narrative and human feeling). If you’re like me, Found is badass when it does the former and an utter whatever when it does the latter. Unfortunately, of course, much of what they’ve used and posted, by necessity, has to be the latter: there’s just more of it. There simply aren’t that many fucking documents in existence that offer glimpses of real human depth and feeling, or at least not that many lost+found examples of such.
So: Found was, as of pretty early on, something that felt like a thing which was very cool in one very narrow, niche-y way, and to a specific demographic (those young or innocent enough to believe in sort of movie-magic stuff; folks who, like lots of my friends, had very clear notions of dealbreak aspects re: future spouses which, looking back, were deeply [but credulously] silly—nobody should toss out a potential mate because s/he doesn’t have a certain Rolling Stones album, or hasn’t seen a certain Truffaut film, or whatever). That doesn’t diminish it, it’s just that it only offered a small spectrum of sustenance. Here’s why I even bring all that up: Davy Rothbart is the editor and creator of Found Magazine, and he’s been a contributor to This American Life for a good while, and he’s had a book of stories—The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas—published, and he now has a book of essays, My Heart is an Idiot, published as well—it’s out as of last week. Here’s the very very best thing I can say about Rothbart’s writing, and this book: I wanted very much to like it. Also: the moments in the book which truly are an attempt to be about things other than Davy Rothbart himself—those moments are sometimes quite good, and fun to read.
The problem, however—and it’s an overwhelming problem, and I want to be clear from the start that this is maybe the worst book I’ve read in the last couple years, and its badness has everything to do with failing in a very very specific way that I loathe and fear for reasons that’ll become shortly enough plenty clear—is that Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot is a book in which Davy Rothbart processes the world, over and over and entirely, through his own consciousness, his own experience. That is all. That is everything (this is also why Found has always, to me, struck me as vaguely creepy: in ordering the ephemera, Rothbart + co can’t help but stamp their narrative, human choices onto the objects, onto the overall story they’re building—that perfect note, pictured above? One needs a sort of wet optimism to see it the way the Found folks want you to; could it not just as easily be a creepy note scribbled by someone stalking someone else? Could each repeated yes actually be about something darker than just an affirmation of the author’s love for this other? Answer to both: of course, it just depends if you want to read the note with your innocence as the chief light to guide you by).
But back to Rothbart and processing the entirety of his experience through his own consciousness: As many of us learn early on, this is called solipsism, and it’s a faith that you are the center of the universe, and that everyone else’s existence is ancillary to yours—everyone’s a supporting cast-member to the drama of your whims and hopes. You might be a solipsist if, for instance, in a story about a young man imprisoned for murder, you twice go out of your way to mention trying, essentially, to get laid, one of which instances happening over a lunch with folks who are interested in helping you help this young man prove his innocence and going as follows: “Lauren…[is] in her early thirties and incredibly, mind-meltingly hot, in a tight black sweater, with long black hair and a mischevious glint in her eye. Throughout our lunch, Lauren kept smiling at me and holding my gaze, making me drunk and dizzy.”
The above example’s from “The Strongest Man in the World,” Rothbart’s essay about Byron Case, an essay which, yes, is fine enough, but which, as if it’s a car he can’t help but crash, Rothbart swerves toward matters of inebriation and sex, twin pillars in the author’s existence in this overwhelmingly juvenile book. Aside from maybe three essays, the rest feature one or both—drinking and/or Rothbart’s pushy pushings toward women—to the point of nauseating the reader, not out of any disgust with the act (I dig the hell out of drinking, and, when I was single and looking for my wife, I very much enjoyed trying to find women to get acquainted with), but out of boredom, repetition. Also, one eventually feels sort of exhaustedly bad for Rothbart—as his interviewer at the Rumpus pointed out, he’s got a fuck of an affinity for women who are always tagged by one of very few adjectives: bewitching, sad, haunted, beautiful, angelic. Any reader, however, quickly picks up that Rothbart’s actually something like casting the women of his life—he literally forces all the women he pursues (with his idiot heart) into the same small mold (regardless of whether they actually fit, and so, along with the creepiness of him always needing women to form to this cookie-cutter romance shit he peddles, there’s the whole lack-of-agency he demands on the part of women, and so the book ends up being, to use his words, mind-meltingly misogynistic in the worst way: dude’s fucking clueless that, far from loving women, he’s fucking using them, over and over, awfully). Here’s the lone sentence about this subject: Rothbart also wants women to save him, to which I can only reply fucking seriously? Really?
Rothbart’s treatment of women, however, is made infinitely worse for the inclusion in My Heart is an Idiot of an essay titled “Shade,” about Rothbart’s obsession with a movie character, and how he fell in love with her, age 18 or something, and how a dozen years later he’s still obsessed with a fiction, and how, in that obsessive love and searching, he forces women to try to be just like this fake woman. Of course Rothbart presents this info, seemingly, in an attempt to verify his capital-R Romantic Cred, but it ends up reading in the essay precisely as it does here: he’s creepy, and he’s shockingly immature. The killer part of “Shade” is that it’s an essay in which Rothbart goes to (too great a) length regarding this mystical attraction to this made-up woman, and then details a romance with a fucking real, live, in-the-flesh woman with whom, through nothing more than calls and letters, he falls in love with (and she him), and they’re talking about marraige and everything else, and he finally goes out and visits her, only to—I’m not at all kidding—not find her attractive enough, and so he begs off, lies, and messes with this young woman’s life out of what amounts to frustration that his cock’s theoretical future home’s not quite the model he wished it was, a ranch instead of a mansion he saw once in a movie. Instead, of course, of actually using such an event as a springboard to fucking growing or realizing his almost innumerable flaws and idiocies, however, Rothbart stays fixated forever on this Shade chick form the movie, ending the essay convinced—I’m not making this up—that an owl which happens to be staring at him is somehow Shade, or her spirit (sure, he says “[T]hat was it for me and Shade. I’ll always love her more than anything, and I can’t help but size up any girl I hang out with and compare her to Shade, but there’s nothing much to be gained by continuing the quest. I won’t find Shade in this lifetime. Shade is dead.” All fine and good. But then the owl shows up, plus note that, somehow, Shade’s both dead and will always be the personage against whom he’ll compare all other girls.)
But wait, you’re saying, what’s wrong with drinking and talking about sex? Especially when the book is called My Heart is an Idiot? So he compares all women to this one movie girl: big deal. We all do that. Surely I should just let this go, right? This is Rothbart being Rothbart, and it’s his book of essays, right? Okay, to a degree. And I know this little frustrated screed’s coming during the tail end of the Summer of Let’s Be Nice, book-wise. But this isn’t a matter of being nice. Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot is a terrible read not because he is chronically fucking dumb (chronic dumbness can be fun enough), but because he un-self-awarely chronically fucking dumb, and the guts of his appeal in each of the essays is fundamentally human, emotional not rational: I’m an okay guy, he’s trying to say to you, and all I want is love, and here’s how I try to get it. That’s the rhetorical claim going on, yet not once is Rothbart remotely self-reflective: not once does Rothbart ever stop and say: well, maybe I should not be like this. Maybe I should learn from what are clearly basically chronic mistakes even though—especially though—he won’t call his mistakes mistakes. That girl he fucks over, the one he wants to turn into this movie character named Shade except she’s not pretty enough (her name is Sarah)? He doesn’t regret any of it—for Rothbart, it’s all about the experience, and that’s fine, on its own, except then the issue arises: all his experiences are the same. All of them. He meets girls, obsesses about them, fucks them over or bemoans getting fucked over, drinks too much, meets interesting people, end scene. His life and experiences are, shockingly or not, strikingly parallel to Found itself: ‘random’ ‘cool’ things collected and considered with an almost aggressive naivete and innocence and a total lack of considering other narrative alternatives.
Look, I’m not trying to say that the book fails because it’s trying to be too happy, or that Rothbart himself should somehow get darker or anything. He can do what he likes, obviously. But I do think that a book which is ostensibly about the narrator’s chronically idiotic heart should at some point maybe attempt to address why said cardiac moronity’s transpiring, should attempt to understand it. That’s not what Rothbart’s offering, nor what he’s seemingly interested in offering, and so you’re left wondering whether the collection’s title should feature an exclamation mark: My Heart is an Idiot! Most of us, when we call someone/thing an idiot, mean it negatively, but Rothbart’s out to celebrate idiocy in its innocence and purity. Caveat emptor.