Fuccbois Need Love, Too

Fuccboi is a novel about the lengths we go to avoid thinking about our own suffering — and the harm we do to others along the way.

One of the successes of Sean Thor Conroe’s exploration of contemporary masculinity in Fuccboi is making dishonesty function at the level of style rather than content. (Aaron Vallely / Twitter)

Controversy is profitable. Attention is limited. Accordingly, the publishing industry is quick to signal its relevance through clickbait book titles, often using flashes of provocative language to flag the modish extremes of online culture. Pitched by press and publishers as an exploration of urban masculinity in the Donald Trump era, Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi is the latest attempt to combine viral appeal with a more complex story.

Fuccboi is incredibly annoying. The main cause of this is the novel’s style: most of it written in a series of clipped, single sentence paragraphs that often suppress the subject or first word of the sentence. A Philadelphia native, the narrator’s voice is expressed through a consistent use of working-class colloquialisms (a voice that Conroe notes in the acknowledgements section he sees as merely the fictive expression of his own). But while Conroe is an aggravating stylist, he is also an original one. So I persisted through my frustrations — finding a more interesting book than I had anticipated.

Talking Around Things

Primarily a bildungsroman about a young male writer trying to make it and dating multiple women along the way, it’s fair to assume that the life of the narrator of this first-person novel, Sean, is not dissimilar from that of the author. With an excessive focus on interiority, Conroe portrays circular patterns of eating, smoking weed, taking painkillers, or thinking about contacting “ex bae,” an estranged girlfriend hung up on the failures of their attempt to “Polyamorize.”

There’s a moment in the opening section of Fuccboi that describes a date with “editor bae,” a young woman who works in publishing and may be a useful link for Sean in his quest to get his first novel in print. (None of the love interests are given names.) The frustration that follows is characteristic:

We met at an ice cream spot in Greenwich Village.

Hella date-y, this mish.

Only time I ever ate ice cream was alone, at night, after the 3 a.m. Fresh Grocer run.

And this wasn’t even ice cream.

This was mfkn gelato.

With flavors like cashew and salted caramel and honey basil.

Bro honey basil!

It’s hard not to be annoyed by this kind of stuff. Sean’s attention never seems to be on the right place: on a date, but not focused on romance; with a literary gatekeeper, but not fixated on his class inferiority, unlike, say, the characters in Sally Rooney’s novels. Where his attention drifts, bizarrely, is to flavors of ice cream.

For all its stylistic originality, the concerns of the novel are pretty consistent with those of his influences, the well-known big hitters of autofiction: Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, and Karl Ove Knausgård. Fuccboi contains critical thoughts and discussions of these authors, as well as Sean’s favorite rappers. Like Knausgård or Lin, Conroe plunges the depths of his personal life for material to fictionalize, turning writing into an extreme form of exposure.

Unlike Lin or Knausgaard, this exposure is put to the reader in elliptical expressions. In a conversation with “Z,” a potential lover, Sean enters into a defensive exchange about his social reputation and gets consumed by rage:

She [Z] retreated, like this was veering into precisely the sort of abuse she’d convinced ex bae that I, by default, had been guilty of — that had warranted her abruptly ejecting herself from.

“All I’m saying is, I don’t appreciate — I think it’s unfair — for you to make character judgments about me based solely on my outwardly perceived, categorical identity. Without knowing a damn thing about me.”

Fuccboi talks around things rather than about them. Sean, caught up in his own emotional defensiveness, brought about by his fear that he is being judged, is unable give the reader the full details about what’s actually happened. Z’s response, elided by the narrator, is secondary: “I had no idea whether she had any idea what I was talking about.”

This omission is characteristic of how Fuccboi explores the messiness of interpersonal conflict and the culture of intensive moral judgement we have erected to deal with it. Uninterested in any moralizing framework, Fuccboi turns its attention instead to the inner life of a perceived “bad guy.” What we find there is not a sociopathic manipulator but instead someone so overwhelmed by their own psychic life that clear communication is just hard. People are judgmental, fickle, and whim-driven. What we perceive as horrible cruelty and manipulation is, in many cases, just confusion.

Maybe He Deserves It?

The novel is littered with markers of Sean’s self-education, from casual mentions of Guy Debord, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Roberto Bolaño to his reflections on the importance of art for art’s sake. Alongside this familiarity with the literary greats, a general sense of uneasiness characterizes Sean’s relation to the cultural sphere: “I’m tryna write for people who don’t read. Who don’t give a shit about books.” The cause of this tension is Conroe’s apparent desire to be taken seriously by a literary world for which he feels an irreverent disregard.

Curiously absent in Conroe’s Fuccboi is the male promiscuity or coercion suggested by its title. The fuckboy is the social archetype of the man who is compelled to bad behavior. At the heart of this trope is a social identity grounded in dishonesty: the straight male who is not yet ready to recognize the extent to which he is responsible for his actions, not yet ready to grow up. One of the successes of Conroe’s exploration of the complexities of contemporary masculinity is making this dishonesty function at the level of style rather than content.

Fuccboi goes to great lengths to convince the reader that it doesn’t have a plot. Close inspection reveals that all the narrator’s digressions and segues are ways of avoiding coming to terms with the facts of his life. As Sean chases his big creative break, he works as a bike courier to support himself. But this work, his lifestyle, and his drug consumption all catch up with him: “My skin, this entire stint, had been leaking out, reeking rotten-smelling.” His body becomes covered in open wounds and sores, caused by a severe skin condition that doctors are unable to diagnose.

Lacking the money to afford any helpful medical treatment, he reaches a crisis point. His mother and sister fly him to the West Coast and help him receive urgent medical treatment; there he encounters an increasing number of bureaucratic nightmares and unhelpful solutions, bashing up against the hard edge of private medical care.

The most interesting elements of Fuccboi rest in this contradiction between Sean’s interior self, his unacknowledged bad behavior, his efforts to make himself dislikable, and the reality of his material life. He’s broke and suffering, and a highly profitable private health care system is ruining him.

Conroe invites us to have sympathy for a narrator who has gone out of his way to make us revile him. This portrayal forces on us the question: If we find Sean morally repugnant, what kind of life would he need to have to improve? The weight of the outer world is heavier than any individual moral failings.

For all its contemporary relevance, the concerns of Fuccboi remind me of a remixed version of multiple twentieth-century works of literature about male anguish. A Xanny’d Jack Kerouac, less On the Road than strung out on the stoop. But, more interestingly, in its explorations of the mental effects of a deteriorating body undergoing a series of health crises, all conjoined in the context of larger historical crises, the novel is reminiscent of Louis Ferdinand-Céline’s interwar masterpiece Journey to the End of the Night (1932), a work in which the narrator is also often covered with weeping wounds.

In its style, Céline paired a celebration of the coarseness of working-class speech with an elliptical disdain for spelling everything out. It’s in this strange combination of vulgarity and omission that bridges the divide between the two writers, despite the nine decades separating them. Where the French writer takes a rather indulgent pleasure in plunging into the excesses of a masculinity wounded by World War I and from serving in French colonial Africa, the darkness toward which Conroe attempts to make his narrator travel is comparatively limited in its external experience. A general sense of malaise, compounded by poverty and uncertainty about his future, haunt Sean more than any real events.

Nevertheless, for all its strengths, Fuccboi does not transcend the limits of its genre. Like Heti’s, Lin’s, and Knausgård’s, Conroe’s autofiction remains unable to situate the interiority of its narrator in the broader stream of events, things, and people. It is, however, story — fueled by the communication between people — that would provide the means for overcoming the suffocating interiority in which Sean is trapped.

Fuccboi is smartest where it forces questions: How does suffering affect our sense of self? Does the scumbag deserve access to medical care? Should the fuckboy be alleviated from his suffering?

Maybe even he fucking deserves that.