Hey you aspiring writers out there! Got nothing to write about? No matter! You could fill a whole book with your rambling personal accounts, limited insights, and self-indulgent asides! Just look at Toby Young, a writer who not only knew how to make lemonade from the lemons with his first book, "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," turning a long string of career and personal failures into a bestselling tell-all memoir, but who takes a new round of far less original and noteworthy failures in Hollywood and parlays the whole mess into his latest work, "The Sound of No Hands Clapping," thereby making sour lemonade from rotting lemons.
Toby Young would be a true inspiration to writers everywhere with absolutely nothing to write about except their inability to write, or their inability to convince others -- including their spouses -- that they should be taken seriously. He could be like a beacon unto the sorts of aspiring scribes who remain unburdened by, say, ideas or insights or even mildly amusing anecdotes. He would be, that is, if his book were remotely interesting or funny.
Because, in truth, there are scores of writers who, in lieu of a substantive story or a perspective on the human condition, write instead about the contents of their purses, or the sorry state of their careers, or the way that the sound of that school bus barreling up their street every morning at 8 a.m. makes them want to go back to Smithfield Elementary and take a baseball bat to Alan Lindquist's kneecaps. There are writers who can make something out of nothing, who can beguile us with their wit and their strange notions and the mundane little victories and losses of their day-to-day lives.
Toby Young is not one of those writers. Although he can cobble together a reasonable sentence, and has some knack for storytelling, he has a peculiar way of taking big moments -- his marriage, the birth of his first child, a near-death experience -- and draining all the life out of them, either by offering up old truisms in old ways (Marriage requires compromise! Family is what really matters in life!), or by forcing us to see such moments through the eyes of a self-involved but not terribly self-aware jackass.
Now, it's long been established that Toby Young is a jackass; he admits it himself, repeatedly. And plenty of authors not only get away with acting like jackasses -- Martin Amis, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer -- but they're somehow able to parlay their jackass status into wildly amusing essays, novels and memoirs. Unfortunately, Young's major personality defects only manage to alienate us from his writing. When he leaves his infant daughter unattended and bawling on a plane and then forgets about her completely after rubbing elbows with famous British chef Gordon Ramsay, it would make a good story, if Young were charismatic enough to pull it off. Instead, he presents us with all of the ugly details of his behavior, and then coyly shrugs his shoulders as if we're supposed to find his obnoxiousness and idiocy charming. "It wasn't until Caroline came padding into the galley from Club Class, all bleary-eyed, that I suddenly remembered what I was supposed to be doing," Young writes. "'That's not Sasha I hear crying, is it?' she asked. 'Ah, there you are, darling,' I said, glugging down the champagne. 'I've been looking for you everywhere.'"
But then, Young's stories have a peculiar way of making even someone with the most wicked, nasty sense of humor feel like a humorless prig. Take the time (the second time, actually) he insists on delivering a tasteless, insulting speech as the best man at a friend's wedding: "There was one surefire way to get laughs at this wedding and that was to tell a string of anti-German jokes," Young writes, explaining that the bride's mother is German. Even though the bride specifically begs him not to tell any anti-German jokes, he does it anyway. Not only are we not charmed, we feel as outraged and disgusted as a horrified bride. Is there more outrage and disgust in the world than that?
Again, it's not the scale of Young's ineptitude or his failures that are the problem. His eagerness to outline exactly how unappealing and widely disliked he is, at a time when self-aggrandizement and veiled boasts are indelibly woven into the culture, should be applauded as downright courageous. The brutal honesty and self-abnegation of Young's writing are what give it possibility, and in more able hands, such material could be mined to hilarious effect. But Young doesn't have the wisdom or the skill as a writer to draw us in, get us on his side, and make us love him despite -- or because of -- his flaws. He tells us that he hasn't managed to write a thing, he's jealous of his old friend's success, or that he's fallen back into drinking again, but we never understand the reasons for his behavior or his attitudes, not even some clever rationalizations or deluded tricks he uses to justify himself. "My inability to incorporate fatherhood into my masculine self-image provoked some fairly inexcusable behavior," he'll flatly tell us, then list the times he bailed on his wife and kid for some fun elsewhere. He seems to assume, time after time, that by merely pointing out what a jerk he is, he'll have us rolling in the aisles. Reading his rambling chapters of one fumbled play after another makes us long for the great authors, from Woody Allen to Philip Roth, who are at their most brilliant when they absolutely revel in their shortcomings. Sadly, Young artlessly outlines his foibles without offering any juicy details, sharp insights or cutting observations, and each of his stories ends up feeling pointless, if not downright irritating.
Of course, it doesn't help that what's supposed to be the meat of Young's story -- his misadventures in Hollywood -- consists of the sorts of anecdotes we've heard a million times over. Apparently unaware of the tired nature of his story, Young treats the little bumps in the road of his flailing career as a screenwriter as if they're big, important events worth retelling ad nauseam. So we hear all about the self-indulgent tirades of an unnamed big-shot Hollywood producer, even though we've met that big-shot producer a million times before, in countless memoirs and interviews and movies. Young wants to write a great screenplay for the guy, but he's blocked, so he goes to a Robert McKee seminar on screenplay writing -- you know, exactly like Nicolas Cage's character does in "Adaptation," only in Young's hands the whole affair is far less amusing. Sure, the absurdities of development hell are so extreme that they trick countless writers into wanting to capture them on paper. But once you've read one account, you've read them all, because they're all the same: They love you, they kiss your ass, and then they won't return your calls. As personally as Young takes the trajectory, it's not remotely compelling. Anyone who wants a refresher course need only rent "The Player" for a far more entertaining look at the same ill-fated ride.
Toby Young's bluster and courage to look like an asshole gave him a name, and his intelligence and stubborn determination to stay in the spotlight drove him to pull together a book about nothing. While such brutal honesty and drive are enough to keep a writing career afloat indefinitely, diatribes on your laziness as a writer are only cute if there isn't evidence of that laziness on every page of your book. Through sheer force of will, Young got our attention, but he's going to have to set the bar a lot higher if he wants to keep it.