by Will Haryanto, Contributing Editor
I am always fascinated by how writers are able to write anything that should be considered dull and mundane because we're all doing it. How does writing about bringing up a child constitute good writing in a literary world that dislikes any notion of self-help? Most writers shy away from characters seeing their children grow. There are books that have elements of family-rearing, but nothing comes close to the intensity found in Ben Tanzer's essay collection Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again.
Tanzer observes himself and his son, Myles, as they navigate through a confusing American landscape of media and life. He wants to show the kid scenes from Star Wars and explain to him why the Darth Vader plot twist is so riveting. But will Myles understand the significance? It isn't a question we would think of every day, but if you live consuming media, how are you going to express that to someone who hasn't lived through it? Questions like these permeate around the book disguised as a deep contemplation on what it means to be a parent. You cannot separate American media with Tanzer's thoughts on parenting because they are connected.
The collection uses different formats and styles to capture the dissonance—the generational gap, if you will—between him and his son. Wishlists are frequent, dreams are scattered, and certainly scenes that capture the awkwardness between father and son, are the meat of the book. At one point, he looks to the TV show Mad Men for advice on raising children. This experimentation lets Tanzer explore the aspects of fatherhood that nobody thinks about.
Indeed, one of the best examples of this appears in the first essay, "I Need." Its initial line greets the reader as a cry of agony: "I need sleep, long and deep full of dreams about love, sex, pizza, Patrick Ewing, and Caddyshack." Exhaustion and regret are feelings we all take for granted in parenting, but this appears in full display throughout a very literary essay. It sets the mood and tone of the book quickly and you know what to expect next.
Lost in Space is also ripe with touching moments like the one in "Sound Like Sleep," an essay about Myles' first sleepover. Myles has always had difficulty sleeping, which worries the father inside Tanzer. Myles feels anxious and calls up his dad at 1:30 a.m. and the conversation that ensues shows the writer's adept use of simple dialog:
"I can't fall asleep, what should I do?" he asks calmly.
"Turn on the T.V.," I say.
"I can't, I'm sitting here in the dark and I'm not sure where it is," he says, still sounding calm.
"Can you turn on the light?"
"No, I don't want to wake anyone up," he says, now slightly agitated.
"Do you want to wake up the mom?" I suggest. "She's cool."
"No, are you kidding?" he asks, no longer calm.
There is nothing fanciful about the language here, just plain dialogue between father and son. You can track the son slowly losing his mind by Tanzer's guesses at his voice and the dialogue. It feels like a real scene that has been transcribed into the pages of this short book.
Tanzer shows that writing about our dull lives, even with the act of parenting, can be a peek into our identities. If anything, good writing can make anything thought-provoking. We are asking the same questions Tanzer is asking and that is one of the traits that define a good book.
Will Haryanto is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Fiction Writing program. He was born in Singapore and studied in Singapore American School. He writes kick-ass interviews and reviews for HT2.0.