Fuccboi, by Sean Thor Conroe (Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27)
Sean Thor Conroe’s debut novel has garnered criticism for its disregard for literary conventions and amoral, self-absorbed content. The novel indeed fails when subjected to literary and moral scrutiny—but that may be the point. Conroe’s blatant disdain for today’s orthodoxies helps Fuccboi succeed as cultural commentary.
The novel, which charts the trajectory of a semiautobiographical “Sean,” holds up a mirror to the cognitive dissonance of an age of deconstructed identities and “liquid” values. The criticism Fuccboi has received resembles that of “front row” educated elites who condemn cigarette smoking—one of Sean’s chief vices—while using marijuana and prescription drugs themselves. The critics’ ire highlights a collective hesitancy to accept the reality that we aren’t as righteous and coherent as we think ourselves to be. Sean admits this about himself and explores the implications.
The book avoids falling into reductive ideologies or highly marketable self-help schemes. Even if one were to classify Fuccboi as a self-help book, which Conroe half-jokingly does, it steers clear of simplistic cliches. Far from trying to sell the reader on a quick fix to his problems, Fuccboi recounts Conroe’s experiences of trying to mature and make something of his life with raw, self-deprecating honesty and humor. He charts his growth by examining the minutiae of his concrete experiences; painstakingly examining his motives, feelings, aspirations, and failings; and, most importantly, declining to take himself too seriously.
The protagonist’s story reflects that of Conroe himself. Main character Sean is thirty years old, half-white and half-Japanese, and lives outside of Philadelphia. The book tracks his attempt to understand his failed romantic relationships while pursuing a career in writing and making deliveries for Postmates. Much of the book, admits Conroe, “is from a place of, like, Nothing matters. I’m fucked up. . . . And, you know, I was fucked up.” (The book’s title is a slang term for young men in similar straits.) He joked in an interview that he is now onto “body-fascism shit,” trying to get his life together by playing basketball and taking cold showers.
Sean expresses a feeling of “rage” when engaging in conversations about the patriarchy and the gender wage gap, “a rage that I knew was sus but nonetheless couldn’t suppress”:
How tf was I privileged.
I couldn’t do shit.
Not only that, no one allowed me to show/admit I couldn’t . . .
We had a fking job to do; so, even though I couldn’t, I was gonna do it . . .
Not to mention, every woman I knew . . . had their shit together . . .
Had no issues integrating themselves economically/socially . . .
Everyone needed moms; every woman could get paid to be a temporary mom.
Sean’s dilemma pertains to shifts in gender roles and the job market. Conroe claims to write for “a certain type of young guy who doesn’t want to or isn’t able to partake in a more cooperative type of work environment,” and to raise questions about “where the world is going, where the economy is going in terms of that two-tiered workforce.” Mass automation makes it hard for men like Sean to find stable jobs that require manual labor, and the homogenizing of the arts and literature make it even more challenging for him to find work outside of gig construction and delivery jobs.
Sean’s attempts to get his writing published mirror Conroe’s own experience. The author has described how his desire to write literature “tangibly applicable to your life pushes back against the way we’re taught to look at literature as being in a vacuum of the classroom.” Indeed, Conroe says, “The vast majority of self-proclaimed ‘literary people’ are looking at it in that same way, and that’s limiting literature’s use or applicability to a wide range of people.” Conroe’s common-man commitments are not welcomed in “insular circles,” where writers’ careers are “based on getting money from the academy,” which renders them “more and more isolated as they progress” and “more and more distanced from the world they’re trying to write about.”
Rather than writing for the sake of building a career or making his way into literary circles, Conroe seems more interested in using writing as a tool to make sense of his own life. His admiration for Roberto Bolaño and Sheila Heti differs from the sycophantism of other aspiring writers who clamor for the attention of established figures in order to get a leg up in publishing. Conroe seems genuinely concerned about not only his own moral integrity but also the factors in society that inhibit his growth. He finds himself beset by social standards that denigrate “toxic masculinity” and lead young men to feel ashamed and repressed, which
Were what, lowkey, created Hitler.
Conroe has no discernible political agenda. He’s just a guy, a “bro,” trying to “investigate this whole thing.” “Writing,” says Sean, was “one way to even start tackling repression and shame of taboo thoughts/impulses and unspeakable traumas,” to “communicate things that, by definition . . . were incommunicable,” or at least to “attempt to.”
Those who accuse Conroe’s work of amorality, self-indulgence, and “toxicity” misunderstand his intentions. He is far from a culture warrior. Rather, his position is much like that of Anna Khachiyan, the socialist-turned-contrarian co-host of the Red Scare podcast (on which Conroe has appeared). Khachiyan describes herself as “not anti-woke” but instead “interested in wokeness as a defiance of reality. I’m pro-reality. I’m not interested in culture war as such, I’m interested in what culture war entails . . . like, I hope that we reach some slightly greater insights.” Conroe transcends the standard “woke” and “alt-right” categories, willing to find both merit and error within each position, and critical of the people who unquestioningly defend either pole. This perhaps allows him to reach “slightly greater insights” about our cultural divisions.
He is thus critical of latter-day feminism and its “savage, ruthless careerism,” “renunciation of baby-having,” and “man-cancelling” bent, calling it “dark, dark nihilism” and accusing it of “overlooking” the importance of “our parents.” “Like, OK, yes,” he concedes, “dudes have been shitty for all time; but so, what, now the move was to . . . out shitty them?” Above all, he is concerned that the feminist mentality is fueled by a “Nietzsche-type ressentiment,” which he admits to operating within in his writing at times. Later, he confesses to having watched “lowkey red pilled videos” on YouTube about the truth behind the gender pay gap and to “getting lost in the men’s rights tunnel.” In other moments, he voices a desire to be “one of the good ones” who is “so woke and self-aware and self-deprecating about how dumb ideas of alpha-beta masculinity were.”
Conroe’s novel can be narcissistic. It lacks moral clarity and is certainly not politically correct. But it dares to challenge those who consider themselves righteous, selfless, and respectable, offering a needed reality check. It especially targets the “upper-middle-class, self-righteous white boy,” who, according to Conroe, is the “specific type of dude who gets most triggered by” the book.
Flaunting standards of decency and taking the logic of postmodern discourse to its furthest extremes, Conroe works an effect on his readers analogous, perhaps, to the one Oscar Wilde had on the respectable society of his time. He implicitly builds on Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” paradigm when writing about the politicization of art, post-Trump:
art was that which specifically and categorically was not meant to be politicized.
To politicize art was to misunderstand its point . . .
The artist’s role . . . was not to be political.
It was to be honest and uncompromising.
To shake people.
“Do we want more interesting books in the world, or not?” asks Conroe. “That’s really the question.” Wilde once asserted that “it is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Critics may dismiss Fuccboi for its lack of moral rectitude and literary integrity, but those who prefer righteous authors lacking original ideas overlook how such work can easily slip into vapid posturing.