Insomniac’s Newest Title from Jay Winston Ritchie
How do others see me? How do I see myself? How do I reconcile these two perspectives? These are questions that the young and generally self-absorbed characters in Jay Winston Ritchie’s debut collection of stories struggle in various ways to answer. But perhaps the question that presses most profoundly on their minds, whether consciously or not, is: how can I become cool and famous?
Something You Were, Might Have Been, Or Have Come to Represent (Insomniac), like other books coming out of Montreal, is concerned with characters who are themselves concerned—even obsessed—with coolness. Ritchie states in his “Acknowledgments” that the collection was “inspired by and written to the music of Jordon Hassock” and many of its stories are about Montreal-based musicians who want to go viral. A few, such as Triangel, the protagonist from “Mermaids,” have already made it; Triangel’s first full-length album receives a 10.0 from Pitchfork. Yet most of the characters, such as the relatively unknown Josh from “Will You Please Chew More Quietly, Please?” are nowhere near; Josh begins each day at a call centre, what David Graeber would call a “bullshit job”, by sitting down at the computer and Googling his name.
Ritchie, a Concordia student (he’s part of a scene that includes Claire Milbrath, who did the art for the book, Ashley Opheim, who designed the cover, Jon Paul Fiorentino, who edited it, as well as Julie Mannell, Alex Manley, and Guillaume Morissette), remains true to his demographic. He sets his stories in the types of places young Montreal musicians tend to hang out. Scenes in Something You Were take place in music venues, lofts, basements. Throughout the characters reference The Simpsons, South Park, The Jonas Brothers, Mad Men, and Gawker as casually as pastors reference the Bible. One such scenester, Yula from the story “Michael Jordan,” goes so far as to liken Brooklyn to the moment in Twin Peaks when Maddy first appears and “everything gets this ultra-spooky vibe because it’s like Laura is walking around.”
The major conflicts in the collection are internal. Richie’s relatively privileged, mostly white, mostly heterosexual musicians struggle to figure out who they are. Specifically they struggle to reconcile how others see them with how they see themselves. In “Lotophagus,” an electroacoustic major named Jenna experiences a “gap in her identity” when bouquets of flowers addressed to her roommate start appearing on her doorstep. “Who she perceived herself to be,” she realizes, is “not who she was in the minds of others.” Variations of this identity crisis occur throughout the collection. Ritchie’s musicians are desperate to answer the question, Who am I?
It’s always a relevant question, particularly for people in their twenties, yet an answer, or at least a suitable response, is arguably more difficult to come by now than ever. In the 19th century, Søren Kierkegaard responded to this question by wedging apart the “inner” and “outer” self and claiming “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity.” But Kierkegaard never saw his face on Google. These days, the inner self is inseparable from its outer representations, persons are inseparable from their online personae, and if that wasn’t enough, internet fame, like the low-hanging fruit from the tree in Tartarus, seems always just out of reach.
It makes sense, then, that Ritchie (or his editor) plucked the title for his collection from a monologue in “Ocean City” about outer and inner perspectives and identity. To put this monologue in context, a presumably insane man delivers it to a washed-out musician, Jeremy, at a laundromat (puns abound) before swallowing laundry detergent and nearly dying. “In the glass you see your reflection, see yourself as a friend would after years apart—as something you were, might have been, or have come to represent to them—because while you’ve changed, inwardly, outwardly you are the same person.” The insane man serves here as a kind of Shakespearean fool figure through whom Ritchie articulates a primary theme of his collection. Ritchie’s musicians struggle to reconcile who they are outwardly and inwardly. Specifically they struggle to be cool inside and out.
Their struggle—if you can call it a struggle—to be cool inside and out calls to mind Kristen Dombek’s “The Help Desk,” published in Issue 19 of n+1. Here Dombek illustrates “the paradox inside the paradox of coolness” by paying attention to inward and outward perspectives:
People who are actually able to make good art and bring about political change and wear startling new fashions and so on have reconciled themselves to this fact—that they are doing what they’re doing because of and for others—and so they do not give a fuck whether or not people think this of them. And that’s what makes them seem cool, and as if they do not give a fuck.
Perhaps if Ritchie’s musicians admitted to themselves that they do what they do—i.e., play shows and make music—because they want to appear cool outwardly, then they would actually start to appear cool outwardly, and this would lead them to feel cool inwardly, and they could finally be who they want to be.
Jay Winston Ritchie
Or wait. Maybe there’s something wrong with that logic. Crucial to Dombek’s “paradox inside the paradox of coolness” is the emphasis it places on other people. For Dombek, artists are cool because they have reconciled themselves to the fact that they make good art because of and for other people. This means that making good art because of and for other people comes first, and appearing cool to these people comes second. An artist makes good art because of and for other people and then appears cool to these people in the process or afterward, since by making art because and for these people she appears, paradoxically, as though she doesn’t give a fuck what they think. Yet for many of Ritchie’s musicians (except, perhaps, Triangel—the eccentric spelling calls to mind Montreal’s Majical Cloudz), appearing cool to other people comes first, and making good art because of and for them comes second. In “Woosh,”John, a musician on the rise, agrees to play a show “not to affect people with his music, but to promote himself.”
To be clear: Ritchie is critical of his characters. He treats them, always through the third-person, with humour and critical distance. He looks at his musicians as though looking back at them—in his hands, the now feels oddly past-like—and he makes jokes at their expense. More than this, his approach is rich with dramtic irony. He understands his musicians better than they understand themselves. He knows things about them that would likely depress them. Namely, that many of them will either never make it, or make it briefly and then get washed out, forgotten, ignored.
This is not, necessarily, because they lack talent or dedication. It’s because they’re too self-absorbed to make good music because of and for others (let alone bring about political change). In “Ocean City,” as Jeremy the washed-out musician contemplates what the insane man at the laundromat tells him about outer and inner perspective and identity, he realizes that his problem is “the exact opposite.” Jeremy frequents the laundromat “not out of necessity but out of desire … to be recognized, to see himself as others saw him during their brief exchanges—as someone he outwardly was that he no longer felt a kinship with inwardly.”
The solution, or quasi-solution, that Jeremy finds for his identity crisis is to “expect less” from other people. Yet careful readers will notice that he ought actually to expect less from himself. After the insane man swallows the laundry detergent and collapses, Jeremy leaves the laundromat without offering help. His excuse, when later confronted, is that he “had to be somewhere.” This is true. He had to be at a show at La Brique, a loft space and music venue in an industrial part of the city. I’ve been there a few times. It’s pretty cool, I guess.