The inability to move on from adolescent resentments is a strangely prominent condition among American men, as indeed is the inability to move on from adolescence in general. That is one of the unhappy consequences of the low-stakes character of American middle-class life, by which I mean the fact that the difference between being in the 50th percentile and being in the 55th percentile of whatever index of socioeconomic status you think most relevant is not that consequential in terms of one’s real standard of living. The price of being a little bit of a slacker is not very high in the United States, though the rewards for success can be staggering. Life is pretty comfortable, and you can take six years to finish your bachelor’s degree in art history while working at Starbucks, and it isn’t miserable.
Necessity used to be what forced us to grow up. That was the stick, and sex was the carrot, and between the two of them young men were forced/inspired to get off their asses, go to work, and start families of their own from time immemorial until the day before yesterday. A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content. Some of them understand that there is more to life than that, but some do not. David Foster Wallace’s great terror in Infinite Jest was entertainment so engrossing that those consuming it simply stopped doing anything else. (Is it necessary to issue a spoiler alert for a 1,000-page novel that’s 20 years old? Well, spoiler alert: It’s Québécois separatists.) He revisited the idea later in “Datum Centurio,” which is one of the all-time great short stories, one that is written in the form of a dictionary entry from the future for the word “date.” Over the course of the definition (and the inevitable footnotes), we learn that pornography has become so immersive in the future that conventional sexual behavior has been restricted entirely to procreation. The final footnote reads: “Cf. Catholic dogma, perverse vindication of.”
As our collective standard of living gets higher, the cost of individual failure gets lower. This is, we should appreciate, a good thing, especially for people like Mark, who sometimes fall right over the edge of adult life. (I can’t help but think of Wallace again here and his bitterly ironic treatment of a porn outlet called “Adult World.”) The old men who sit in chairs and rail about how peace and prosperity are making us soft and what we really need is a “good war” — as if there were such a thing — are wrong, as they always have been.