Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You bursts off the opening page with an intense stream of prose swathed in Hold Steady songs. The thirty-something narrator, Keith, is frenetic with lust and desires, and he also wants to have sex with his wife more often. Terse sentences spit out observations that meander between pithy and neurotically self-conscious. When confronted with an attractive intern who seems to be flirting with him, he wonders: “Why did I mention my wife. Why wouldn’t I mention her? The intern twirls her hair a little. Fuck, twirling hair is not good. Not good.”
Self-delusion isn’t a foible Keith suffers from. Self-analysis is as it paralyzes his actions. His candor is inimitable and torturously funny. Uncertainty mars every decision, particularly fidelity. Even as he fantasizes about other women, when given the chance to actually stray, he remains faithful to his wife, Liz. It doesn’t mean he isn’t impervious to temptation, as with the love of his life in high school who throws herself at him, or a neighbor who is aspiring to be a singer at Disneyland and invites him in. “It’s like bad porn, or worse, some masturbatory fantasy of mine where hot, barely dressed Opera singing neighbor comes to the door and says she has something for me before inviting me in.” After following her in, she offers him a gift. “‘They’re Mickey Mouse coffee mugs, one for you and one for your wife. They’re really cute and when I saw them I knew they were perfect.’” To which he mentally responds: “She definitely does not want to fuck. I am mostly relieved, though more than anything I realize that I am done, really done, getting myself into these situations. It’s not cool anymore. It never really was.”
Keith finds parallels to his life in popular TV shows like Mad Men and the Shield. The pop references become his lens through which he makes sense of his striving to be both a “human” and an “adult.” Even if you might not know a specific reference, the meaning is clear, as when he’s talking about a boy crush on Don Draper and how “doughy everyone is at those conventions on Real Sex.” Unlike the suave Don Draper or the savage Vic Mackey though, Keith isn’t as direct in his relationships and often tries to avoid confrontation. There’s a funny arc involving different neighbors because their apartment walls are so thin and they can hear everything next door. His wife wants him to talk to the loud neighbors, and because a stream of them moves in and out, they tease, titillate, annoy, irritate, frighten, and finally empathize. Empathy is a big part of why You Can Make Him Like You sucks you into the story. As Keith struggles with his work, his wandering eye, and Liz’s desire for a baby, Tanzer recreates the chaotic mumblings of the mind with its narcissism, longings, self-conscious doubts, joys, and moments of self-realization that also end in self-disgust: “It’s funny what envy looks like when you’re caught in the middle of it. It’s ugly and distorted, like the way your reflection gets warped on the side of a sweaty drink. It’s not you, but it is a part of you, the worst part, the weakest, least thoughtful, most irrational you, that for the most part you get to keep hidden until the moment it overwhelms your usual ability to filter out your more negative thoughts.”
The candor is blistering and easy to understand, particularly for married men in their 30s working technology-related jobs. Keith is struggling with issues originating all the way back to growing up with parents. Even in discussions with his therapist, he vacillates as he struggles against maturity. Hints of a mid-life crisis poke its head, but surprisingly (and refreshingly) remain subdued as Keith grapples with age and the pending birth of a son. As his therapist states: “‘You’re human Keith, deal with it. Confront it, don’t run, don’t tell a good story, just confront who you are and what hurts you, and scares you and makes you sad. Those are normal reactions to everyday life. You’re human.’” In perhaps another book, that would have led to a deeper understanding, an epiphany amounting to self-acceptance as with most coming-of-age stories. Keith responds with: “I’m human, really, now that’s fucked up.”
Even though he knows it’s “fucked up,” he doesn’t run away, lose himself in pop culture, or stray into a desperate affair. Instead, he grows up. Reconciliation with his father comes after the birth of his son, Jones. Jones is suffering from a dimple that might lead to a spine condition and has to go in for an MRI. Jones struggles against the machine and cries (I just had myself a MRI so I know the claustrophobic feelings it can induce and can’t imagine how a baby would react to it). His father gently handles Jones, calming him, which makes Keith wonder: “Who is this fucking guy?” That question forms a relational bridge that allows Keith not just to understand his father, but the labyrinthine and anxiety-driven constructions of his own mind. Sometimes those constructions dive into verbal splurges, which happens when he describes his daily life with Jones broken into laconic baby talk. “Eat. Burp. poop. Change diaper. Sleep. Eat. Burp. Poop. Change diaper. Sleep. Eat. Poop. Change diaper,” and on for a page.
“We have no control over these things. We have no control over anything, or, anybody,” Keith muses upon Liz’s speculations of how his childhood affected his life. For a book that talks so much about pop, Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You sheds away facades, comes to terms with that lack of control, and embraces the ugliness of everyday life with the ease of a catchy pop song. Only with a little bit more poop.
Tags: Peter Tieryas Liu