NYRB Books

A Meaningful Life, L.J. Davis

There is no other novel like it.

A Meaningful Life is a seething assault on what it means to live in New York City, how a life of little substance gets absorbed into the great melting-pot mass and slowly loses its shape, its purpose, its meaning. This is urban existentialism and dread narrated with acidic reflection, brimming with metaphors that are ugly, mean-spirited, but downright hilarious in how they skewer the ruined psyche of the main character, Lowell Lake. How Davis manages to be so bleak and so damn funny at the same time is truly a marvel. He peoples his world with characters who are all unlikable. They come in and out of the narrative like demented caricatures, indifferent losers, miserable blowhards. Nobody likes living in the city yet nobody can escape.

Read this as a parody lined with razor wire, a biting commentary on gentrification, or a scalding critique of the WASP mindset, but also read it for the playful cruelty that Davis indulges his descriptions with. On every page, he’s like a cat playing with a crippled mouse. There is so much to love about this grotesque little book. Parts Bruno Schulz and Hubert Selby, Joseph Heller and Gilbert Sorrentino, this book will change the way you look at real estate and home renovation, as well as marriage and family. A major book about a minor apocalypse, this one goes to my top shelf.

Excerpts:

‘Not even the spectacle of his wife coming in the door at her usual time could rouse him from his torpor; his psyche was in limp tatters, like an old kleenex dredged up from the bottom of a purse.’

‘The little girl and an even smaller boy were seated rigidly side by side on an enormous, spavined, yellowish sofa that was much and questionably stained and which stank to high heaven with an odor that resembled a superhumanly protracted fart.’

‘He regarded the bag of shit that was about to fall on him with a kind of fatalism. He’d always known this was going to happen.’

‘The drunks next door never said a thing. Lowell had a bad moment the first time he had to pass them, but they just sat there and looked at him with a very total kind of indifference as if he were a traffic accident or a fly.’

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