Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #262: Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

I can't say that Simon Rich put together this collection because he knew a million libraries would catalog it as "Rich/Spoiled Brats," but I'd like to think it had some influence on his thinking. If your name can give you serendipity like that, why not use it?

(This means, of course, that if I ever write books, someday I must have a story collection called Eighteen.)

Rich is a humorist in the New Yorker mode, who parlayed an initial success in the written word on a page (first as president of the Harvard Lampoon, then in the New Yorker) into what I assume is a much more lucrative success writing for TV and movies. (For reference, his IMDB listing.)

Spoiled Brats is his fourth collection of short humorous pieces, and sees them continue to become more story-shaped -- Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens were mostly extended jokes in the "two things juxtaposed" or "take this far too seriously" mode, and then The Last Girlfriend on Earth had a number of stories that all had basically the same set-up and central joke with different plots and details.

Spoiled Brats is somewhere in the middle: it has a loose theme, in "kids these days! oy!" but not much more than that to unify the stories. (This is generally a good thing: many linked story collections have too much link and not enough story.) People like me who were let down that Last Girlfriend had only one joke in it will be happy to learn that each of the baker's dozen stories here has at least one different joke, and some of them more than that.

Like most of Rich's work that I've seen, these are mostly short, high-concept pieces, opening with "Animals," the story of a traumatized school-room hamster, and ending with "Big Break," about the reserved seat at a band's very last gig. The villains, or sources of unpleasantness, are all pretty much young -- from horrible pre-teens to several varieties of hipster, from know-it-all chimp kids to spoiled teens on a semester abroad in space. To put it pop-culturally, they're all basically Millennials, nudge nudge wink wink. (Two of those villains are named "Simon Rich," and I'm not going to attempt any psychoanalysis but just point it out and back away slowly.)

There is one longer piece, otherwise in the same vein, in the center of the book: "Sell Out," the novella-length story of how "Simon Rich's" immigrant great-grandfather Hershel, who was entombed in a pickle barrel and wakes up a hundred years later in the Brooklyn of hipsters. He speaks in a thick Yiddish accent and has very different views about life than his descendant! (Look, I never claimed Rich had new jokes -- just that he had more than one this time.)

I still think Rich's short, strange mash-ups are his best, funniest work -- and there's a number of them here. As he works longer, he gets more derivative and Hollywood -- a good sign for his continued screenwriting career, I guess, but not as much fun for those of us who like smart written humor. He is a funny writer, and he has some great concepts. I just wish he'd find ways to extend the nuttiness in his longer pieces rather than settling for moments we've seen before.

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