MARCH 26, 2019
THE ESSAYIST IS MANY THINGS: egotistic is definitely one of them. This cuts both ways, however. Essays can be focused on the writerly self, but they can also offer an escape. As Montaigne said well over 400 years ago, one gets rather wrapped up in oneself. “I have no more made my book than my book has made me — a book consubstantial with its author, concerned with my own self, an integral part of my life.” Yet the essayist also retreats. Emerson saw his reflections as solitude, where “all mean egotism vanishes” and he becomes “a transparent eyeball,” a “nothing.” The essay is much more than that too, of course. A riff or a sally, a fight or a laugh. A journey, a ramble, a wandering about. Beyond such meanderings — the digressions on which the essay thrives — the nature of the form is itself formless. It might be “short or long,” as Woolf wrote in 1922, “serious or trifling, about God and Spinoza,” or — recalling Samuel Butler — “about turtles and Cheapside.” But so often, as she wrote on Montaigne, the essay turns back to oneself, “the greatest monster and miracle in the world.”
Fast-forward almost a century and we have Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant by Joel Golby, which takes up (and takes down) his own monstrous ego with delicious panache. You probably know of his work. He’s a crusading hero for twenty- and thirtysomething UK renters who frequently lambastes the hellish property market in his regular “London Rental Opportunity of the Week” column for Vice. From an exposé of a toilet jammed inside a shower at the foot of the bed, to a Beckettian litany going over and over the nature of a bedsit with multiple sinks but no adequate space for a mattress, Golby wages a single-handed war against that peculiar subspecies of human: the landlord. He’s massively popular, not least with those of us destined to forever move from one overpriced grief hole to the next. Golby does absurdist humor on other themes, too. A piece asking questions about why Pete Doherty was seen “aggressively eating” a massive breakfast outside a greasy spoon in Margate; 101 ways to ruin a party; “deep dives” into property TV shows; the likelihood of certain celebrities eating worms if they go on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! One recent column on “The New Rules of Being a Millennial” is both caustic and community-building. If Lena Dunham (as a “voice of her generation” — that now somewhat hackneyed joke in Girls) was a member of the precariat and grew up in Chesterfield, she might turn phrases like this:
The problem with the “us” thing is that we (Us) do not have a collective term for ourselves which isn’t wildly inaccurate or painfully cringey. “Hipster” suggests a level of effort that I think we’re all big enough to admit we don’t subscribe to. Does “millennials” work? Sort of, but not. It’s too broad. Plus, “millennial” is more-or-less a slur these days, isn’t it. Nobody self-identifies as one. It’s just something your dad calls people with university debt. It’s nothing. The people I’m talking about are the ones who know what De School is and don’t really know what a “James Arthur” is.
Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant is a gathering of 21 new essays and three updated pieces, and arrives at a time when emerging writers are voicing their histories and outlooks in hilarious and poignant ways that befit modern anxieties. The Chicago-based blogger-turned-writer Samantha Irby’s debut collection, Meaty, and her second, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, both offer takes on bad sex, Crohn’s disease, life as a woman in her mid-30s, loss, and more, and recent collections from Hanif Abdurraqib, Chelsea Hodson, Scaachi Koul, and others reflect an exciting boom in the genre in the last few years alone. The essay has made a comeback, but it was always powerful. Again, Woolf said it best. “You can say in this shape what you cannot with equal fitness say in any other,” she wrote in “The Decay of Essay-Writing” in 1905: “its proper use is to express one’s personal peculiarities.”
There’s definitely something about essays, in their long-held comic tradition — “the joke” of literature, as G. K. Chesterton framed them — that resonates strongly today. After all, they are easily digestible, and in turn digest ideas. They are often simply “brain soufflés,” as David Lazar puts it in After Montaigne: a “walk-in closet of self or selves” ever more popular in our era of selfies and accumulations of followers on social media. Indeed, contemporary essays are often thoughts that gestate online, developed from blogs or one-off pieces: the sort of text with “14-minute read” under a byline for the crushing commute to work. They can also be surprisingly long and detailed, putting pay to the redundant idea that millennials cannot focus on anything beyond a shakshuka brunch, or — as the Daily Mail might interminably trot out — avocado toast. Caity Weaver’s epic quest to eat limitless mozzarella sticks as part of a TGI Friday’s promotion requires a good chunk of your time. John Saward’s classic reflections on Mike Tyson are as astute and amusing as Hazlitt. But with Golby we’re treated to two things at once: the pleasure of his wit and style as he ranges his themes, and a sustained, near-Swiftian satire on the very real and material challenges driven by the United Kingdom’s housing crisis. It’s not as simple as just laughing at £1,894 for a fold-out bed in Marylebone, or hedonism gone wrong; in Brilliant, we find a writer gunning for a fight.
In “PCM” (“Per Calendar Month”), Golby lays out the vagaries of dealing with the feudal overlords that might kick you out or take your deposit at the drop of a hat:
The landlords were very keen to stress when I was viewing the house that they were Reasonable People, which I have learned to now take from landlords as an immediate red flag that actually means “I am insanely deranged,” but I didn’t know this then; I was but a young bear cub, tiny and clear-eyed and full of trust, and plus desperate.
Golby intersperses his stories of the worst offenders with brutal, bloody fantasies of decimating each and every one: “The sound a landlord makes when you nail their toes down into the wood floor beneath them is, ‘This isn’t the definition of normal wear and tear.’” This is followed by an adroit move to his notion of “capsule coziness”: the kind of Scandinavian homely warmth called hygge that people were raving about a few years ago that in actuality equates to a herbal tea, a candle, and a “heather-colored blanket” you have to pack and move with every time the tenancy is up. Yet for all his inherently socialist leanings — this piece includes a well-researched outline of the real estate sector going back to 1986 — Golby is the first to admit that he is a slave to late capitalism’s charms. “Monopoly is the best game because the Actual Devil lives inside it,” he writes in another piece, before confessing to his rapacious greed and inhuman dealings on the board. “When I play Monopoly,” he writes,
I am David Cameron rimming Maggie off, I am Edwina Currie fucking John Major harder than he can fuck her back, I am a roaring-drunk Boris Johnson, I am Tory to the core-y, I am shaking hands with property developers in shady backroom multimillion-pound deals, I am blocking social housing to build luxury apartments in an effort to squeeze an extra £200K into my own private account, I am wearing a panama hat in the Cayman Islands and laughingly lighting a cigar with a £50 note.
In the United Kingdom there is a generational moniker: “Thatcher’s children.” If you were born in the ’80s, so the tag implies, you’ve been raised on rampant conservatism — the assumedly money-grabbing offspring spawned by her regime. But in truth we’re more conflicted. Society has raised us to believe getting on the property ladder is of paramount importance, but the reality of life-long renting and being pushed out of the city draws a big line between those who gained and those who lost under and after Thatcher. That Golby spins comedy gold from such a sorry state of affairs is testimony to how much we need a voice like his. Given his toothsome fight against oppressive property-owning profiteers, it is tempting to ascribe a cohesive political drive to Brilliant’s author. I asked him over email if he was interested in the horrors of capitalism, given how much of a theme it is in his work. “Mm, yes and no,” he responds. “My politics are, like baby-level deep. I was on a podcast the other week and everyone kept saying ‘neoliberal’ in a natural, casual air that made me sweat. I know the right and the left and vaguely where I fall on that spectrum … but beyond that I don’t feel qualified to talk. I don’t have the vocabulary.”
A similar modesty emerges with the very title of the book, even in its absurd egotism. “The title was initially there to make me laugh,” Golby explains, “then over time it became supremely annoying. It’s hard to pronounce without counting the Brilliants on your fingers: naming the book in this way has become the ultimate self-own.” One also finds this “ultimate self-own” in Golby’s approach to the book’s other major theme: masculinity. He riffs on the ineffable quality of “Machismo” (Golby’s brand is “soft knits and high necks” and a complex skin-care regime that includes the joys of an eye mask), offers an exhaustive, obsessive overview of all the Rocky films ranked in order of greatness, and marvels at Lenny Kravitz’s ability to pull off a leather jacket. (Golby decidedly cannot.) This deconstruction of masculinity accounts for some of the book’s funniest moments:
I realized a way of upgrading myself from a 5-out-of-10 to a solid 6 is to get a special trimmer to do the edging on my beard. And suddenly I went from a bar-of-soap-in-the-shower man to a guy with flannels, with precise and expensive tweezers. A guy who says this: “£55 for a moisturizer? Hell fucking yes!”
I asked Golby why masculinity can be so funny. “Well, because it’s absurd,” he replies, “but also it’s been one of the overriding influences on culture for the past million years, and we’re only just — just! — cracking out from that shadow … A lot of the things every man who has ever lived or ever died, a lot of what he has ever done, has been due to some deep roiling well of masculinity.”
I wonder if Golby is quite apart from the hegemonic masculinities (as initially theorized by R. W. Connell) that he decries. Brilliant arrives on the shoulders of gender theory: generations of feminist work with which emergent men’s studies became conversant in the 1980s, in works by Peter Schwenger, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lynne Segal, and many others. A major subject of such studies was the “New Man” figure that appeared in popular culture in that decade — an emotionally more intelligent, respectful of women, post-yuppie incarnation — which in turn led to the “New Lad” of the 1990s. Integral to the British “lad culture” associated with the Britpop musical genre, the “New Lad” has been characterized by Rosalind Gill as an ironic, “beer and shagging,” Nuts- or Loaded-reading, cheeky manchild. We found him in David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s comedy and the “Three Lions” football anthem, for instance, in the TV series Men Behaving Badly and in the fiction of Nick Hornby and Martin Amis. “Ladlit,” as Elaine Showalter named it, is a direct forerunner of Brilliant, which — over 20 years after the classic “lad” film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and in the light shined on shameful male behavior by the #MeToo movement — inherits and plays with its own genre heritage.
On the one hand, Golby retrenches old notions of manhood. “The Full Spectrum of Masculinity as Represented by Rocky in the Rocky Movies” tangent is a somewhat limited list that veers between brute force and fragility, relying on tired myths as the joke. There’s a familiarity in this move, a well-worn trope. After all, as Steve Connor wrote in 2001 (in “The Shame of Being a Man”), talk about being a man usually has “tucked into it a snicker at its bumptious presumption”: “[W]e find it hard to take masculinity as seriously as we suppose.” That Golby turns his comedy on this theme so frequently suggests a reiteration not wholly free of its antecedents. On the other hand, however, he’s doing something utterly new with the late 2010s permutation of “lads.”
Golby’s Instagram is often one long stream of captioned images sending up exhausted “haway the lads” lager-swilling clichés with a belligerent repetition of “love and appreciation to the lads” — men and women — until it goes from funny to irritating to funny again. He’s also aware of the ways in which, as Connor puts it, “to write is to be unmanned, meritoriously to unman oneself.” Golby embraces such “unmanning.” He explores his own sensitivity and offers a catalog of “All the Fights I’ve Lost.” He’s part of a new generation that knows (yet still laughs) at how, as Connor again writes, “[m]en are spent up: masculinity is a category of ruin, a crashed category. It’s a bust.” Golby is also aware of its persistent homosocial nature: the values and relations exchanged between men, as Sedgwick’s ground-breaking work revealed. “I have to have a very small-voice conversation with myself every time I put a selfie on Instagram,” he tells me. “‘Is this … lame? Will the other boys … mock me?’ It’s an insane and stupid thing to be under a thrall to.”
The homosocial dimension of Golby’s thoughts on masculinity might explain the book’s main oddity. Brilliant has no women in Golby’s love life to speak of. No formative crushes, sex, dating stories — nothing except an encounter with a man in Barcelona selling state-of-the-art sex dolls. The cringeworthy, non-erotic nature of these scenes made me wince with the uncanny feeling Ernst Jentsch and later Freud associated with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s automaton doll Olympia in The Sandman. They are, as Golby puts it, “eerie”: “balloon-like breasts w/ bullet nipples, sagging unlocked jaw w/ a raw pink tongue, splayed neat rubberized vagina, a one-size-fits-all butthole put out with a drill.” Again, we’re less in the realm of sexuality and more in gendered constructs. Golby offers a feminist take on AI and consent, yet feels disquietingly shorn of “the pulsing core of straight masculinity” when surrounded by these uncanny valley robots. He has it both ways: exceeding the “busted” category of manhood, yet circling back to it for a laugh. Is this a new new laddism? The book provokes such a question.
There’s an adolescent immaturity to Golby’s writing, to be sure, but a joyful one, with a comedic suaveness that demands attention. He consistently delivers the jokes through distinctive stylistic moves. Words and phrases pile up in heaps until bam! — the thing tips over and you’re laughing, rereading. He even manages to pull off some comedy in the opening essay, the moving yet funny “Things You Only Know If Both Your Parents Are Dead” that appeared in an earlier form on Vice and more recently the Guardian, about being orphaned at 25. He repeats “My parents are dead” no fewer than 22 times, yet still finds humor in grief, in um-ming and ahh-ing over which kind of beer basket to plump for for a neighbor, or buying vol-au-vents at Tesco. (There was more about the ubiquitous supermarket Tesco, but it was subbed by the US editor for being a bit too British. Other Britishisms include: the cheap pub chain Wetherspoons; the cigarette papers Rizla; tights.) This is perhaps one of the most powerful things about the book: people have reached out to Golby after that essay’s first publication, “as if I am some sort of griefsaver,” but, as he says to friends, “no two griefs are the same. They are always different spikey, awkward shapes. There’s no clean, easy way to vomit grief up out of your system. It just works its way through you in whatever way it chooses to.”
In some ways, as with his romantic life, Golby keeps a lot back, but aspects of Brilliant, like his loss, are totally up front — a juxtaposition that gets us back to the question of ego. I wonder if he considers himself private. “I don’t know if I’m wildly private,” he tells me. “I tend to tweet every thought I have, Instagram my dinner with a forced hashtag and wrote an essay [“Ribs”] about attempting auto fellatio — so let’s not worry too much about that.” Golby still harbors a strong, endearing desire to go to America and “hole up in a motel room with every snack I’ve ever seen on TV and watch 24-hour news.” (He’s wanted to do this since he was about eight.) He admits that his book is all about him, as he has had to convey what it’s about to many an editor’s bemusement with “a blank stare and say something along the lines of: ‘things that I like. I am the theme.’” Ultimately, he confesses, “more than anything else it is, still, fundamentally, just an ego trip thing. I have an enormous ego. An insufferable one.”
In the end, it is Golby’s satire that carries most weight. I ask him one final question, which was always on my lips as I read his columns and choice bits of the book. Is it possible for a human being to become a landlord without turning into a monster? “No,” he replies, firmly. “It’s not possible to become a landlord without turning into a monster. It’s not even possible to conceive of the idea of becoming a landlord without some hollow part of you already being monstrous. No landlord can escape the curse of their own landlordism. Their soul is condemned before they even pull up outside the auction house.”
Cathryn Setz is an Associate Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927–1938) (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).