The Week You Weren’t Here by Charles Blackstone

the week you weren't here by charles blackstone: a bookThe Week You Weren't Here, by Charles Blackstone, is the rambling interior monologue of Hunter Flanagan, a young writer living in Chicago and applying to MFA programs. Most of his mental energy is spent obsessively analyzing a series of past romantic entanglements and agonizing over present and future ones. Shockingly, he is rather likable.

I read The Week You Weren’t Here while getting my nails done. I read it on the taxi ride home, glancing down at the page through patches of streetlight. I read it over dinner until my boyfriend asked me whether the book was good and I had no idea what to say. I read it twice, and then I didn’t know what to do with it, so I left it on the counter. My editor checked in to see if I planned on reviewing it. She said it was okay if I wasn’t interested. I said I was very interested. I carried the book around in my bag for a week. I left it on the sofa, and when I got home, the bottom of the spine was marked by the imprint of tiny dog teeth. Then I settled down to write about it.

First, I overturned a short note from the author tucked inside the review copy, scrawled on the back of a Word-of-the-Day calendar page. The word was redaction. I will never believe that anyone could choose a page from a Word-of-the-Day calendar at random. There was some significance to redaction, surely. But why redaction? And why a Word-of-the-Day calendar? And who still has a Hotmail address?

In this type of aimless analysis I am not alone.

Hunter Flanagan attends the University of Illinois and works in the University of Chicago Writing Center. It so happens I attended the University of Chicago and so took pleasure in the recitation of familiar names and places: the Lab school, the Medici, Rockefeller Chapel, Robie House, Botany Pond, Harper Library, Café Florian. More than that, I winced to recognize the markers of our generation, its cool regard, self-conscious poses, and restless loneliness.

That Hunter did not actually attend the University of Chicago but rather worked as an outsider of sorts on its campus is one explanation for his petty, arrogant discrimination, dismissing one potential mate because she dips sweet potato fries in ketchup, holding another up to the “Faulkner test.” He ponders a lovely blonde and is pleased that she, too, is left-handed—“he always thought that being with a left handed girl would be the answer to everything that the girl would be smart and trenchant . . . that she would understand irony” —and owns a Mac instead of a PC. His regard would be calculating and cold if not so obviously undermined by self-parody.

Hunter is indeed the poster-boy for twenty-something immaturity. He harbors a junior high school student’s obsession with kissing and with women’s underwear, those fledgling experiences on the road to sexual maturity. He also wallows in accumulated rejections and grievances, some dating from high school and even before. When our hero wonders about dating, “Maybe they were completely obvious—the signs—and he just never noticed it was too thick or deluded by his own thought tempest to be able to see,” you want to shake him. Meanwhile, his “thought tempest” rages on. His constant, all-devouring interior narrative never turns off. Not even during sex—perhaps especially not during sex, when his mind spins over whether a lover’s bra is brown or purple. Dating and even friendships are reduced to the same mental monologue of critiques and comparisons.

Hunter suffers from extreme sensitivity, though only in the most limited cases: he quails at watching a teenage girl embarrass herself at a coffee house, but hardens his heart to the girlfriend who all but begs for his attentions. His is the empathy that doesn’t lead to action; he indulges in equal parts pity and self-pity with no ambitions for either.

Like many of our generation, Hunter finds that irony has crippled all his finer feelings, replacing great-heartedness with obsessive, relentless self-scrutiny. The conditions and calculations are evidence of this wounded cowardice. He is a terrible mixture of self-aggrandizing, self-analyzing, self-dramatizing, self-effacing, self-serving—and he’s lonely.

All this character analysis may lead you to believe Hunter is utterly unredeemable. In fact, there is something about his character that confounds contempt, a certain foolish sweetness. His misguided search for love has its tender moments, as when he watches his date hold his soda can:

“He said Could you hold this and she took the soda can he was extending. He zipped his coat. He decided not to ask for it back and liked the idea for two reasons. First the casual way he said Could you hold this and the easy way she said Yes and did it was like how people who were close behaved. Second she was holding something that was his.”

Or waiting to meet a date at a café:

“She’d come in and he’d pretend to be startled pretend to have been engrossed but really he would have been attuned to every sound tremor motion within a 3 block radius.”

Hunter is so over the top—downloading “Nighthawks” as his computer wallpaper, comparing himself to Kurt Cobain—that you can’t help but feel sorry for him. This is a man who makes romantic puns on “sufficient and necessary conditions” and reads de Certeau at Starbucks. Even with Blackstone’s stripped-down writing style, there is a real strength in Hunter’s narrative voice, filling in the missing punctuation with pauses and breaths and mumbles. His flights of fancy are lovely:

“He always imagined at some point stopping using the fake Hotmail account losing interest in it and it would just continue to amass messages until exploring or until Hotmail would shut it off and then maybe emails would just bounce back and forth against walls of nothing until he didn’t know what.”

His observations are remarkable for their everyday insight:

“When you did recognize somebody it always seemed to take forever for both people to reach each other and before you did it inevitably felt strange when the person walked toward you because you couldn’t comfortably speak until there was a certain proximity achieved—and it always took awhile to get there—so in the meantime you just had to watch and maybe smile dumbly and he’d always preferred just avoiding all of that.”

Hunter’s neediness is so raw and exposed, his feelings so vulnerable and stunted, that you cheer for each glimmer of self-awareness, as when he thinks of a departed girlfriend, “He had let go of something that was his and for specious motives and he had to live with that be reminded of that know that he had chosen something and gotten what he had chosen and this was that thing this aberration that resulting situation. This was that.”

The book jacket for The Week You Weren’t Here compares Blackstone to Proust for the author’s exhaustive catalogue of ordinary details. A more apt—if equally grandiose—comparison might be to Dostoevsky, that unflinching chronicler of the depths of humiliation and delusion, all the agony that hangs in an instant of awkward silence, all the degradation in an off-hand remark or casual rebuff. Who doesn’t cringe to hear Hunter on the phone with his sometime-girlfriend:

“He asked Kate distractedly what time it was. Nine-forty-seven right. No it’s 10 she said. No I mean 21:47. That’s 9 right. Yeah she said I think so. Okay just wondering.”

Or, on a date with another potential lover:

“Hunter said when they were on Dorcester and Fifty-sixth I’m trying to think of— She interrupted Things to talk about. No he said quickly. Important landmarks to point out.”

But perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment of all is when Hunter comes to see at last that, “It was one thing to still wear Doc Martens and flannels it was one thing to reminisce and be envious of teenagers of how he was at sixteen of how brave he had been compared to now but another to keep pushing people away.”

Here’s hoping all the Hunters of the world can figure out at last how to stop thinking and start living, how to embrace the world without brackets or footnotes.

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