November 11th, 2015

The Lit Pub

The Lit Pub reviews Welcome to Weltschmerz
Matt Ampleman

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I wanted to walk away from this book as if a newly single man from a conflict-wrought relationship. I wanted to forego any sense of duty to the protagonist and his attendant world. But I had to see things through.


Friends, to read Gabriel Chad Boyer’s book, Welcome to Weltschmerz, is to enter into a conversation with an interlocutor that will break all the rules of polite authorship, but you find you cannot leave for niceties sake, for interest, then for sheer incredulity and inspiration at the arc of the story before you. It is like talking to a homeless man, at whom you are nodding out of politeness until you realize that he knows every line of John Berryman’s Dream Songs and can recite them backwards.


Boyer’s memoir follows a younger version of himself around the perimeter of the U.S. on a failing quest to perform bedroom theater in the homes of strangers and friends in a few keystone cities. The result is a journey fraught with engine failure, interpersonal conflict, and many empty, cold nights in a VW minibus without his side-kick Jill.


Jill and Boyer met up in Boston and followed a love-inspired proposal to perform dada-ist, grotesque, un- or loosely-scripted shows together for impromptu house crowds from Boston to San Francisco. The so-called bedroom theater is the love child of our two main characters: her art world idiosyncrasies and his lit-perfected neuroticism make for a decrepit ecstasy, but this memoir is more about Boyer’s relationship with himself than any relationship he has to theater, or to the girl who turns away from him as the story progresses.


Before his journey starts, we learn that Boyer has recently emerged from a depression that is as unexplained, in the book, as it is portentous. By the end of the journey, the fallout from his up and down is palpable, but something is different, perhaps. In revision of his long-winded manuscript, Boyer creates a conversion perspective that arises, latent and unsure.


The reader is wise to distrust it. The character Boyer has made a point of erasing all trust in him through repeated self-immolation, which is at first comical then infuriating, unregistered and finally cathartic. I suppose it is fitting that the last couple of chapters focus on the final, impromptu destination of burning man, where Boyer’s minor conflagration is surrounded by a larger, cultural burn.


The tone is different in these last several pages and the hundred or so preceding them. We hear a mature Boyer coming through in the asides and self-conscious rants that mark most pages. This revisionist metanoia and the character it creates are well worth the wait, and may even redeem the time spent wandering the desert in search of empathy or human connection, when both were lacking.


Style-wise, Boyer’s self-conscious hyperbolic insecurity and his love of discursive prose places him in the camp of David Foster Wallace and anyone else who pushes the boundary of page-long footnotes. Boyer’s footnotes are thankfully more limited and of relative import.


And his self-consciousness starts out crisp, as he spins us profoundly terrifying visions based on the neurosis of his former self, a neurosis tied up with his life as a writer. When he professes, early on, “a tendency to exaggerate and generally speaking distort the most straightforward of stories,” we see into this maladaptive mind, recognizing his character flaw, but appreciating what is evidently the reason for this book.


This alienated hero memoir pushes a tradition forward of irresolute pilgrimage that is well-placed in 21st century writing. In its execution, it leaves the reader wounded and distrustful but all the more affected when the story promises to yield, and does, a fuller vision.


[Matt Ampleman has lived intermittently as a writer, environmental scientist, and now as a JD candidate at Yale. He spent a year in George Mason University’s MFA program, and plans to use his roles in law and policy to help cultural institutions. To read more of his articles at the Lit Pub, go here.]