Monday, January 22, 2007

She's Just My Ex? JayHank Examines The Phenomenon of The Ex-Girlfriend Project

Milowent proudly presents this post by JayHank.

by JayHank

A couple months ago, Milo_Went suggested that I read I’m not a big blog reader, especially not the let-me-lay-out-my-heart-in-HTML variety.

But Milo_Went is a famous blogger for a reason. [ed. note: my time in prison.] When he recommends a site, something interesting is going on, so I swallowed my trepidation and started reading.

The basic outline is this: guy in his mid-30s looks back at an assortment of failed relationships and tries to figure out why he’s become a “bitter, damaged and pretty lonely guy.” Sounds sort of like that High Fidelity book/movie, right? Fair enough so far. But instead of the four past relationships of High Fidelity, the exbf, as he comes to call himself, juggles 8 relationships, that weave in and out for his entire romantic life, and to keep it all straight, each girl has her section written in a different color.

It all starts with a story about a typical 16-year-old’s first romance. Boy-likes-girl more than girl-likes-boy and she ends up hooking-up with one of his best friends. And… yawn.

But then, Kara and her medium-slate-blue letters, tango onto the screen:

“Standing there, looking at her leaning up against that car with the sun streaming through the trees behind her and her black hair blowing against her face, I instantly found out what my type was. It was like God had written me a prescription.”

After meeting Kara, I read the whole blog, (and it’s long, I’d say equivalent to a 300-page novel), in one sitting. Judging from the comments section, I’m one of many, many readers who have done the same. And throughout, I’m wondering, “Why is this so engrossing? Why is this so… good?”

Here’s why:

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read it, I’m about to ruin it. But, if you’ve got the time, go and read it. Then come back here, and I’ll presume to tell you why the last 8 hours of your life were, from a literary standpoint, well spent.)

The exbf, without any particular pretensions to do so, has written something of an early “post-paper” literary masterpiece. Now, on one hand, exbf is not the first person to tell a good-story using the internet, and on the other hand, nobody’s ever going to write a dissertation comparing the exbfproject to the Great Gatsby, but nevertheless the potential is obvious.

It’s worth bearing in mind that X (Kara always called him by his first initial) seems to be a real person, who has gone to some length to guard his, and the girls’, privacy. To do this, he never fills in a lot of the details a normal author would. The effect is that, with only vague descriptions, the reader pictures the faces of people he knows — it’s a technique Graham Greene used in “The End of the Affair” when describing the female protagonist, Sarah Miles. Greene declines to list a single physical feature of Sarah (except, I think he may have said her forehead was too big) and implores the reader to imagine the face of that girl. I’m no Graham Greene, he said it more prosaically, but I think most men know who I’m talking about. Every man has that girl. Kara is that girl.

So almost instantly, X sets a stage of anygirls and fairly prototypical relationships — there’s that failed, first high school romance (Andi); the girl that’s way more into you, but you go along with it (Gloria); that really great girl who, for whatever reason, is just not right, and that’s okay (Maria); the psycho that won’t go away (Veronica) — and chances are, any guy has been in a handful of relationships that roughly fall into some of the above categories. Chances are, you’re already picturing their faces, those eyes or that smile that you like to imagine nobody else ever really saw, the way you thought about their bare skin for weeks after the first time you saw it. That tender stuff that you’re mostly ashamed of and never really talk about. Powerful stuff.

But what makes exgfproject great is something else entirely — it’s misdirection. X doesn’t tell the story that you think he’s going to tell. X says he’s going to look back at 8 failed relationships, and figure out why he screwed them up. A reader might not realize sometimes until the very end that, actually, the whole blog is about Kara.

Over the course of four furious months of his real life, X lays down 58 chapters, every other day, a blinding pace (and incidentally, they’re often filled with great prose, like I’ll highlight below and humorous asides, “the Joliet Jake,” “So, I guess we can go back to Chili’s now, huh?” and “Tony Banks”). Kara dominates the first 25 chapters, then disappears, and you don’t even realize she’s coming back in a big way. You don’t realize that nearly every post will mention her or tie back to her. You don’t realize the last 15 chapters will be about her too. And you don’t realize that once he’s done writing about Kara, he’s going to lose all his momentum, and never contribute much more.

The reason he messed up his relationship with Roxanne and basically everyone else is:

That I wondered for years & years if today was going to be the day I would run I into[Kara] somewhere, or finally get that phone call?

Sounds vaguely familiar? It sets up Roxanne as another great prototype (the girl you should have been with, but you never gave her the time of day, because you were holding out for that girl). And you could write a lot more about each of these prototypes of girls, but that’s not my thesis.

Maybe Kara resonates here, because she fits so snugly into that defining Jay Gatsby moment (see, I mentioned Gatsby earlier for a reason) :

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” Nick says, “you can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries out, “why of course you can!”

X suffers the same affliction. And X’s final post about Kara is truly a heart-wrenching read. The prose from this whole post is worth re-reading. First the man Kara ends up married to:

A guy that used to get stoned & eat dog food, and whose mother had her makeup permanently tattooed onto her face. A really smelly, unwashed, borderline-retarded, ignorant redneck shit-kicker who was the spitting image of her father, the father that she had resented & rebelled against her whole life.

And yet after all that Kara put him through — and we’re talking a lot of pain, a lot of cheating, a lot of heartache — and after all this time — his relationship with Kara began 17 years prior, and ended 12 years prior — he still has in his heart:

I've always thought that she sold herself short... For all her faults, I really thought, just for a minute, that she could have really done something with her life. … I don't know if she could have been a rock star, or a doctor, or an actress, or what...but I just always thought that she could have had something more, somehow ... maybe I just never could understand why the whole world wasn't as fascinated with her as I was...

From many guys, it’d just be an insincere stab. But Kara, whoever she is out there, will never read this. 12-years-later and this guy is still a little heartbroken that this girl that he loved so much didn’t live the life she could have. In a novel, it’d just be prose, but in real life, when a person doesn’t have the life they should have, they don’t get another chance, there’s no eraser and no rewrite.

And how funny is it that, now, after all the time & effort it took me to even start writing all this, and how quickly I wanted to be done with, I don't want to quit writing about her. It's not that I don't want to be done with it, and it's not that I'm not over's just that I still don't feel like I've found the right words to do it all justice yet.

There’s no proper term in literature for this sort of surprise ending. In a novel, this could never work. When reading, say, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” which has a similar sort of and-now-I-don’t-want-to-quit-writing ending, the reader knows there are 350 pages in the left hand, and only the back cover in the right. A 600 page book, can’t have the story end on page 350.

When X stops writing about Kara, you think he’s got 10 years of story left. And though he tells a couple more tales, the spark is out, and it just comes crashing down that this is it. This was his life. He messed up more than a decade because he believed in love a little too much, or simply with the wrong person.

If that medium-slate-blue has started to take on the contours of the reader’s personal “Kara,” the surprise ending is like accidentally striking an anvil with a hammer, the shock reverberates through the entire body.

Kara isn’t supposed to end up with the ignorant redneck shitkicker, X isn’t supposed to end up lonely. It’s a lesson too mundane for literature (even with a closing line like “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” Gatsby still had to die for his story to work), a lesson too painful and too personal for much cinema, and frankly too lofty for television. It’s a story that could only be told in a blog.


As a happy aside, two days ago, X made another post. After finishing Kara’s story a little over a year ago, and posting only a handful of times in the last 9 months, X says

“I never thought I would say this, but with any luck at all, there will be no more ex-girlfriends. I think I might have finally run out of colors....”

Below it, is the cover of the Superman Wedding Album, the famous comic book where after 60 years of false starts, Clark Kent marries Lois Lane. Maybe some people never really stop pining for Lana Lang, but in the end, everyone knows Lois is the one that’s meant to be.

The End ... for now?

[Thanks to JayHank for that excellent blogpost! - Milo]

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