For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative.

Ethan Clease, the protagonist of Jessica Schneider’s Human Stuff, is who I hope will replace Holden Caulfield as Literature’s male angst icon. For one, he is far more the norm: one who goes through life’s bullshit and builds walls in retaliation. He is not a depressive, nor complete outcast, nor mental wreck. The worst of life he experiences is in failed relationships and occupational soullessness. But Ethan is no everyman, other than in veneer. Allow me to spoil the novel’s ‘twist’: after following Ethan’s life in third-person narration, the last two chapters are in first-person. Ethan is revealed as the author of his story, arranging his angsts, his melodramas, in a manner that transcends them. Or, as he puts it: “These are the atoms of any life, and it is only later, upon reflection, that we are able to see the full object’s composition.”

To see the object, the structure of its form – there is the temptation that that alone suffices an answer. The book lays bare several things that could have composed Ethan’s loneliness: divorced parents, inane girlfriends, intellectual inadequacies, the influence of one brilliant and snobby friend. Yet, the pattern is deeper. “Intellectual loneliness”, the narrator reflects, comes from the make of mind. Ethan’s inability is he cannot submerge his vision into the social, in the manner of an Orson Welles or Oscar Wilde. He is unable to accommodate deviation from ideal, relentless in his separating of himself from the ‘stuff’ that surrounds him. Or is he? How much of Ethan are we allowed to see, and how much is simulacra to beget fictional epiphany? And, to pull the curtain all the way back, how much of him is in the real female author, who, in a painting poem, wrote: “Who composes us?”

That, really, is the question to be asked on rereads. The narrator becomes another character, much less invisible, an over-voice whose position towards Ethan seems in a complex vacillation. At times blunt & cynical (“they’d spend hours speaking lifelessly about functionary matters and she would tell him how boring her life was”), at times detached & objective, and at times capable of rumination & soaring poesy – this Other becomes Ethan’s closest companion and critic. This is what sets Human Stuff apart from other angst novels where ‘I’ is the usual subjugating tone. Across the narrative, the narrator’s voice seems to grow with and within Ethan, shedding bluntness and vulgarity for introspective philosophizing. And, at the end, reflection becomes reunion: “I was tired of being spoken for, despite my earlier wishes for it, and instead I sought, from now on, to take over. I am my story.”

More than Ethan’s story, Human Stuff is also an artist’s story, a Künstlerroman, though a subverted one, for much is done to obscure Ethan’s artistic nature. Early in the narrative, we are introduced to Michael, Ethan’s college friend whom he meets in his Cinema Studies course. Michael has all the poise and pose of an artist, with the right evaluations, intellectual drive, and seeming talent. Ethan, on the other hand, seems a hanger-on, one who only comes to understand Art through leeching on his friend’s insights. By the end, it is Michael who has a comfortable family life, with wife and kids, but has abandoned Art, while Ethan has achieved flowering. Such irony bespeaks the reality of Art than usually imagined. An artist is the sum of his works, not poses.

I recall a quote from George Orwell: “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats”. Obviously, the man was overstating his case. But one notes how, in artists, this is frequently inverted. Seen from the outside, Ethan’s life is barren, a “Desert Country”, while all his victories are made within. Without those victories, his story would be too depressing, for he’d be left misogynistic and alienated, an asshole holed in himself. His countless girlfriends are a testament to such, each incompatible and deficient in their own way, though Ethan is also at fault for his inability to compromise, his callousness. One then wonders: how much of their portrayal is manipulated? There are holes in the narrative, gaps that Ethan glosses over: “Ethan turned twenty-eight. He turned twenty-nine”. Do these merely record the years, or cover deeper grime?

During one of Ethan’s breakups, he admits to fiction’s distortion: “Some things she said were indeed real, and others Ethan’s imagination filled in”. It is a reminder that the entire narrative of Human Stuff is slanted. Though, more than maliciousness, it may merely be slanted by memory. The wealth of Ethan’s inner world is one of remembrance, a dream observed. The prose is gentle in its nudge of detail, sparse in its gathering power. Witness:

Ethan pressed the rim of the photo beneath the tips of his fingernails. He pushed in and made creases in his skin, reminding himself that even memory became a physical thing, something with shape, and sensed within his hands. Something he could leave his print upon. Then, the moment passed, and the photo and everything it represented found itself inside the box, obscured by the mire of many memories, the many photos awaiting his sorting.

For all the barrenness of surface, it is here where Ethan is. Among the narrative’s many poetic highs is when Ethan revisits his old home after finding out his father overdosed on barbiturates. The house, neglected, becomes a zone for interior weather, where nature frays what was not nurtured. It is up to Ethan to mend his childhood, since that which was not saved can be, at the very least, remade, and in words he knows best, his own. No, he is not absolved from his immediate faults, already too-wide and widening. We do not know by the novel’s end if he has the capacity for change. But, in his Art, there is no such inertia. And in him, only that matters.

Within the diegesis of the story, we can link two works to the name Ethan Clease. One is Human Stuff itself, although it is ambiguous whether the novel is actually existent, written, or merely an ideal form in its creator’s head. The other is a poem from Jessica Schneider’s own collection, Wordshapes. It is this poem, “Tulips in Toronto”, that properly confirms Ethan’s talent, and serves an ending to his season.

Meanwhile, Jessica Schneider writes to this day. She has written through many seasons, for little attention and recompense. Some of Ethan’s angsts were likely her own, passed into him. Perhaps one day, many more will read of this time, in which she lived, and lives again.

Yet, how many will have witnessed one’s climate while alive?

* * *

If you enjoyed this review of Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a discussion of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II” and “Drive My Car”, a catalogue of Elon Musk’s stupidest claims, and a critique of James Cameron’s Terminator films.

More from Chin Jian Xiong: Better Than Sincere: On Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995), Great Man Out Of Time: On Dan Schneider’s “A Notch Of Eternity”Mere Reaction: Why Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” Fails