| A blurb on the back of David Gilbert's new collection of stories, "Remote Feed," compares the young writer to Philip Roth. Perhaps Gilbert shares this assessment: It would explain why he finds his own clumsy venom so interesting. Scathing writing can be exhilarating, but Gilbert's targets are absurdly easy -- sorority girls, Hollywood producers and overweight housewives -- and his misanthropy rarely goes beyond cheap shots at people's appearance. Instead of seeming sharp, these stories are weighed down by a low-level meanness and a hazy, off-putting ironic distance that reeks of creative writing seminars. There isn't a funny line in "Remote Feed" or a particularly true one, nor a single recognizable human soul in this batch of forgettable characters.
Gilbert has a knack for setting up compelling scenarios, but he consistently blows them with his smug tone and clunky prose. In the first story, a yuppie couple invite their friends over for a secret theme party where, motivated by an Anthony Roberts-style guru, they plan to have everyone walk over hot coals. The title story has a vaguely shellshocked news crew recuperating from a stint in Sarajevo by filming a puff-piece in the Galapagos Islands. The rest are equally promising -- an ex-con volunteers to read George Eliot aloud to a blind woman; a Hollywood producer has a breakdown and flees to Montana after Siskel and Ebert pan his film; a jaded sorority girl and her eager boyfriend have sex in each of her sisters' beds while they're out at parties.
But while Gilbert shows considerable range in his plotting, his writing is consistently flat, full of awkward pop-culture references that seem shoehorned in. He describes a man with a cigarette in a third-world bar: "The smoke unfurls from the glowing ash the same way gossamer shoots from a spider's anus. That's an attribute Spiderman was lucky to avoid. Everyone would be disgusted, no matter how many times you saved Manhattan from the evil Dr. Octopus." Gilbert always seems to be striving for cleverness, never insight. When he gets serious, it's as purple as a suicidal high-schooler's diary: "Nowadays, we have nothing but fear, just the fear itself, to sustain a sense of fleeting reality, and the days and nights of infamy loom ahead with bright-eyed appeal," he writes in the story about the sorority girl. Sure, his characters are desperate, but he refuses to give us a reason to care. They're deplorable in the most conventional ways.
For instance, Saul, the cracking-up producer in the story "Anaconda Wrap," compares failed movies to concentration camps. Now, there are plenty of writers, Roth and Saul Bellow chief among them, who can wring endless pathos and pointed, pitch-dark humor out of self-hating Jews and their egomaniacal ways. They make you shake your head at their raging honesty. Gilbert just makes you cringe. "I know this is terrible but this is the way Saul thinks about movie disasters: they're like Nazi death camps of World War II and their names are enough to make your blood cold: Cleopatra ... Dachau; Heaven's Gate ... Auschwitz; Ishtar ... Treblinka; Howard the Duck ... Lublin; Hudson Hawk ... Buchenwald." It's not that Gilbert shouldn't joke about Nazism -- there's something inherently comic about the F|hrer after all. But a writer needs panache to pull off such self-conscious transgression, and using the Holocaust to spice up "Ishtar" jokes doesn't cut it.