Matt Forney
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City of Singles by Jason Bryan

city-of-singlesNever have I wanted to throttle the author of a book so badly.

It’s a friendly throttling, mostly; City of Singles, the debut novel by Jason Bryan (who is active on Twitter as “Dylen Durret“), is an intriguing portrait of life in our sexually liberated, post-feminist society. A semi-autobiographical book, it follows several weeks in the life of hard-partying porn mogul Dylen Durrett as he drinks and bangs his way through Vancouver’s most eligible bachelorettes. It’s a familiar premise, but Bryan has the talent and experience to pull off a truly fantastic story here.

That’s why the book’s failure is all the more maddening.

The smart move would have been to write City of Singles as a black comedy. Instead, Bryan adopts the phony poor-little-rich-boy tone of Bret Easton Ellis and James Frey, lamenting about how awful it is that romance and love are dead. Yes Dylen, it’s so terrible that you have a revolving door of attractive young women sucking your dick all the time. It’s a complete injustice that you get to make a living hocking smut from your home computer, giving you ample time to down Jim Beam and play Skyrim in your free time. Oh, the gut-wrenching humanity of it all!

It’s this thematic blunder combined with Bryan’s uneven prose that knocks City of Singles out of the upper echelons of fiction. While Bryan has a keen eye for dialogue, all too often he slips into the godawful “writerly writing” style of Jonathan Franzen, which is to say he overwrites. All the time. Take this sampler from the first chapter, about the aftermath of yet another hookup:

Sitting up wasn’t such a good idea. The world is dancing under me and I can’t see straight. The floor will quickly become my destination again should these party legs decide to stand up. Come on man, one hand, other foot, now another hand, another foot. We spend such a small amount of time crawling as children, then again as alcoholics. Her hazel eyes reminded me of Kentucky bourbon after a few cubes melted in a tumbler. Wonder if she has a Tumblr. Fuck this. The whole room is spinning, that’s never good in an open concept loft. It’s not possible to stare at anything for too long without a rolling ocean wave throwing my eyes off. There are shiny floors for light to play tricks on, high ceilings for that vertigo, no soft carpet to cushion a fall. My skin’s sweaty in the way a smokie sausage blisters over flame. Something’s coming up, fuck. Retching is never fun. That first gag hits your mind like the phrase ‘We need to talk,’ or ‘Have a seat over there.’ Posting up on one arm, never thought that a little jiu jitsu would help me get to a toilet to puke faster. Throw my feet under me, go! The wet smacking sound of clumsy meat hitting concrete, my mind went silent for a few nervous steps. Almost, almost, just a couple more. With precise timing of chin pimples before first dates, gravity acts up to throw me shoulder-first into the bathroom sinks.

And this is just one paragraph from the first chapter! What’s the endgame of all this purple prose? To tell you that Dylen has a hangover and he fucked some cute girl last night. That’s it. But Bryan insists on dragging out every description, every little thing he says or does several sentences or paragraphs longer than is necessary. While he has a talent for metaphors (I particularly enjoyed his description of dried-up vomit stuck in his chest hair), after a while you want to scream: “Will you just get to the POINT already?”

And to his credit, Bryan does get to the point… eventually. The book wanders through the minutiae of his daily life: selling porn, playing computer games, and getting laid with a never-ending carousel of pretty young things. The book picks up steam about a third of the way in as we’re introduced to Dylen’s best friend Doug and his girl pals Misha and Kiki. While no one would ever call this a particularly plot-heavy book, a couple of twists near the end grabbed me and kept me going even through the most obnoxious segments.

Unfortunately, I have to downgrade City of Singles due to the insulting tone.

When he’s at his best, Bryan paints a darkly comic picture of Vancouver’s singles scene, a world where attractive girls cheat on their boyfriends and people sleep around and party without any concern for what tomorrow will bring. The problem is Dylen’s unbearable whining about the emptiness of it all. Despite having what every guy on Earth wants—a neverending stream of cute girls who want his cock—the guy keeps moping about how he just wants to settle down with one girl he can love.

It’s not just fake, it’s cliched beyond all reason.

Look, the pointlessness and loneliness of the modern singles scene is a worthy topic to address, and I can understand where Bryan’s coming from. But this isn’t the way to do it. Reading City of Singles flashed me back to Ramon Glazov’s epic takedown of David Foster Wallace, where he described the bathetic tone of anti-drug/anti-sex lit like Infinite Jest and Less Than Zero as being lifted from Augustine’s Confessions.

The problem with this is that the reason why Augustine was so OCD about his sins was because he was afraid of going to hell when he died.

When you transplant the Augustinian story structure into a secular setting, it always, and I mean always fails. In Confessions, being selfish or gluttonous carries actual, material consequences; in the real world, who cares? You’ve got all the cocaine, whiskey and hot sluts you could possibly want! What the fuck are you complaining about? Please don’t try and tell me that your existential ennui is equivalent to getting butt-raped by Satan for all eternity, because it isn’t. In this respect, City of Singles reminds me of Donlak’s novel The Refugee, and not in a good way.

Jesus, both Donlak and Bryan are from Vancouver too! Seriously, is there something in the water up there?

It’s this combined with Bryan’s morbid obsession with seeing how many metaphors he can pack into a single paragraph that forces me to downgrade City of Singles somewhat. If you can look past these flaws, though, the novel is a stark, gritty and engrossing exploration of modern masculinity and femininity. If Bryan takes these criticisms to heart on his next project, he’ll be able to put out something truly spectacular.

Click here to buy City of Singles.

Read Next: Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: Of Exile and Excess in Japan by Stefhen F.D. Bryan