How to Live in a City, Part 2
Lisa Wells Thinks Young Urbanites Are Doing Everything Wrong
Lisa Wells's first book, Yeah. No. Totally., begins with this gorgeous sentence: "Having survived an exchange of millennia, a few plastic wars, and a series of ecological holocausts, we've arrived: Portland's lattice of gentrified streets before us." It's the beginning of an acrimonious rant against an entire generation: "Everything is parody, facsimile, reminiscent of." Bored white kids hang around bars with "the vague threat of success hanging in the smoke-free air." Totally is a collection of essays and fiction—there's no clear, convenient line between truth and lies here—about the disappointment of being from a certain young, urban generation. (Wells notes that it was somehow tagged with "Generation Y," but, she says, "I was hoping for 'Omega'" instead.)
It's audacious—hell, it's practically painting a target on your ass and running through a firing range—for an author to come out of nowhere and try to speak for an entire generation. And a few of the essays here are weak, half-formed ideas that could have used some serious editorial meddling and encouragement. "Girlfriends Who Hate Call of Duty," for example, is a study of the virtual war widows who gather in Facebook groups to lament their boyfriends' obsession with video games, and it feels more like a riff than a solid, coherent thought. But even in these fumbles, you can find a shimmering turn of phrase that will hook into the meat of your cheek, as when Wells imagines "bayonet training in which would-be soldiers stab dummies while the sergeant screams, 'What makes the grass grow?' And everyone screams back, 'Blood! Blood! Blood!'" Another essay about finding marginalia scribbled into a copy of The Great Gatsby feels as slight as a soap bubble, with a decent punch line making a case for the piece as, at best, a very good blog post.
Totally is a compact little book from new Portland press Perfect Day Publishing that even in its appearance promises more than it's willing to deliver: The font is almost comically huge, and other creative spacing solutions help give the appearance of a book report that was stretched to its breaking point on the frantic night before its due date. But, man, listen to this lively description of nature that would make Edward Abbey light up with an ear-to-ear grin: "In the insect-humming noon, coarse sage exploded from the earth." Or this brutal passage about the aftermath of a car crash: "He didn't die in the road. He was wheeled to a white room made appropriate for dying. It goes on and on like this automatically."
If not all of Totally lives up to the mile-high promise of Wells's language, that's okay; it's a $10 debut book, the literary equivalent of an offhanded introduction at a party that gets a little out of hand. And for a slightly awkward first conversation, Wells sure does take you places—on tour with a rock band (she is suitably unimpressed), studying her own history with a Portland night club and how rock music has intertwined with the establishment it once railed against, traveling to dance clubs in Nicaragua to explore race and gender disparities. The lessons that Wells needs to learn, about developing an idea to a proper crescendo, and about pruning her language to serve a topic rather than vice versa, are lessons that she will learn, beautifully, in public. The important thing is, she's here now, and we should all pay attention.