The “conceit,” or unifying thematic idea, behind Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats is not simply “Millennials are spoiled” or “Millennials are silly,” as so many surface-skimming reviews and blurbs suggest. Rather, some stories in the collection, like a piece where aging parents are represented by prideful, over-the-hill chimpanzees, and one where they are oblivious, backward-looking ghosts in the modern world, poke fun and point a thoughtful eye towards the older generations as well. The object of exploration here is interaction and change: between generations, between individuals and groups, between the young and their changing ideas of themselves, between dreams and the pragmatic onslaught of maturity in the real world, between a person, culture, and life.
And the real “conceit” that Rich employs is a fun one: extreme, exaggerated what-if scenarios played for dry humor, like a teenager’s self-absorbed obsession with her shallow relationship during her study-abroad semester on Venus, where alien races are engaged in a fierce and genocidal battle. Or a rock band of young adults on the cusp of pursuing more practical life paths like law school and finance being visited by the literal Angel of Death at their big show (it’s not what you think).
All of these idea seeds are brought into intelligent, self-aware short stories that play as fun speculative shorts on their own – and most of them will make you laugh out loud in your pajamas, like it or not. Together, though, they create an extended allegory that speaks to the unique and yet universal experience of growing up – in your late 20s – in a world with mixed feeling about us Millennials: some justified, some not, some simple, some as complex as the strange places we inhabit.
I defended Millennials in a previous post on this blog in response to a viral article that I felt grossly over-simplified and pandered to generalizations that, in most of the individual cases I personally know, simply aren’t true. I also highlighted there that in addition to the broad brush-strokes of our joint negative traits, there are broad brush-strokes of positive traits: the level of supportiveness we exhibit towards each other, the earnest desire to make the world a better place through activism and choice, the eagerness with which we hold onto a drive for personal growth and cultivation.
Rich illustrates the good and the bad in his humor, but his device of using absurd situations and fantastical premises goes somewhat deeper than send-up, forcing you to not only figure out the comparisons he’s symbolizing (easy), but also decide whether and to what extent they’re true (harder).
The centerpiece of the collection (literally and figuratively) is “Sell Out,” a story about Herschel, an early-1900s immigrant who braves extreme penny-pinching and strife in a pickling factory before getting pickled himself and awakening in our own modern day, where he is horrified at the lazy and self-absorbed lifestyle his descendant lives in Brooklyn. The comparison is a familiar one: the previous generations built America on their backs, and things come too easily to us now, which has reduced our morals and character. In my own family, the hardworking immigrants are only one generation away: my parents are the ones who came to America, working physically strenuous jobs for little pay to try to make it and provide for their children. In fact, they continue to work those physically strenuous jobs for little pay to this very day, to keep on trying to make it (whereas I write blogs about it, like this one).
Like serious novels such as Octavia Butler’s time-travel slavery narrative Kindred, “Sell Out” is about the inescapable presence of our ancestors and their imagined accusations made real in a literal visit. Rich doesn’t let simplicity sit for more than half the story, though: while the Brooklyn hipsters are laughable in their zeal for “locavore” and “Freegan” authenticity while they live in oblivious wealth, Herschel himself turns out to be self-centered, greedy, and utterly without concern for principles or the well-being of others. Sure, he works hard and is willing to suffer a lot, but his authenticity and morality are as suspect as anyone’s. Our older relatives are more like us than either of us would like to admit – and maybe it’s time we all did admit it.
“Sell Out” highlights the complex folly of plying a narrative that’s black and white, whether it’s “Millennials are self-absorbed babies,” or “the older generation is out-of-touch and closed-minded.” The truth might contain both those realities, but Spoiled Brats shows us it’s also inhabited by something more personal and complicated than either simplification: people, who defy simplification and express surprising motivations usually driven by personal feelings and desires and relationships more than any encompassing generational trait (a fact that shouldn’t surprise us at all).
Stories about monsters, space travel, and magic have always been a way for culture to create allegories of interaction between individuals and society. The shift from vampires to zombies in popular culture can illustrate the kind of things we’re afraid of, or the kind of things we want, or the kind of things we’re looking for a way to deal with, as a group. Ordinarily, these stories don’t highlight overtly what they say about society: people see a vampire and react to a vampire literally, recognizing it as only that.
In Rich’s stories, though, there is no recognition of typical forms and what they “should” mean: a couple with a demon child is convinced he’s just gifted and unique, the ghostly dead continue to skim the New York Times even though they cannot physically turn the pages, and hamsters and monkeys contemplate families and career goals as if they were people. Where in classical tales of the fantastic, forms are the only thing that’s recognized (identities being defined purely as “monster,” “alien,” “animal”), the inversion here brings to the forefront questions of who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing and how we interact with our culture – at the same time as it works as a hilarious exaggeration of the familiar.
Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote that the “images and metaphors of other worlds, space travel, the future, imagined technologies, societies, or beings” become in the science fiction of “serious writers” the “images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot otherwise be said about us, our being, and our choices, here and now.”
Spoiled Brats is not science fiction by any means (there isn’t any science in it), nor is it serious (at all) in tone, but we all know the best jokes work because there’s truth behind them. The same holds true for tales of philosophizing monkeys, finger-wagging ghosts, alien field trip leaders, and Montessori-school demon spawn: the fantastical elements work because in their ironic getups, they’re free to shine an earnest light on our sincere selves.
Let it not be said that Rich simplifies the messages with trite moralizing or anodyne young-people-mocking; he doesn’t. Instead, his take is nuanced and honest and while these stories aren’t quite personal or intimate enough to strike the most affecting chords, they are funny, smart, interesting, and insightful stories about individuals: individuals who are – once you look closely – a lot like you and me, and our parents too.
Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.