amendsIn her hilarious first novel, Amends, released this past August, Eve Tushnet brings together a lively troupe of totally unhinged characters to participate in a reality TV show about addiction. The novel’s “talent” (the cast) lugs around dark histories and fears and sins, but their instability makes them not only interesting but also completely approachable. Reading about screw-ups is always healthy: you’ll be reminded of the refreshing axiom that ‘no one is perfect,’ or at least that you aren’t as messed up as these guys, thank God. Featuring a wolf-girl, a confessional with a camera, some dangerously hard apologies, and any number of avant-garde sexualities, this book approaches the taboo realms of the twenty-first century and treats them with dignity and humor and a touch of satire.

The show’s mastermind, Bentley, a recovering addict herself, explains the necessity of addicts in the show:

Addicts are…gooey. Our morals are very stretchy. We don’t have a clearly-defined self because we’ve crossed so many of the lines which used to define us…. And when you cross those lines it’s like you don’t have skin anymore and you’re just oozing all over the place…you do whatever you can get away with.

In this brilliant picture of the law, which always condemns the guilty and divulges iniquity, Tushnet shows us that the gooiness of addiction applies more broadly, not just to addicts, but to all of us who just can’t stop crossing lines.

Amends is largely conversational, driven by sharp dialogue that gives life to both crazy and totally legitimate worldviews, and that’s what I found was most gospel about this story—it gives a voice to the lepers. Amends creates a web of rejects, showing their faces pressed to the ground, and down there, with no where else to go, they are free to talk naturally about deep things without getting too serious. Religion, politics, suffering. Everything juicy and theologically stimulating is served hot with quirky metaphors and wit: even when it’s serious, it’s funny. Chatting about spirituality, one of the characters says:

“You know, religion is so strange,” Medea mused. “I think something in it calls to us. I was obviously raised without any kind of superstition, but I used to think I was possessed by a demon. I called her Restlene. Like the word ‘restlessness,’ but without the double ‘s’es. It was cool because none of the other kids were possessed. But I later figured out that the thing I’d thought it was, was actually a yeast infection.”

3915c35a8e779769a884d370c6ee55a3In this manner, no matter how hot the topic, conversation never feels forced. Instead, it’s more like we’re spying, listening in on a private and raw (but intentionally hilarious) conversation, and, under the framework of the reality show, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be like. Tushnet’s plot structure allows us to break into the more personal parts of the characters without becoming trite.

Tushnet draws attention to the saturation of technology in the twenty-first century mind, and includes excerpts throughout the novel from online threads commenting on the show and the characters. One comment, from the screen name 82Camaro, reads: “I just have no sympathy for people who make bad decisions and regret them.” 82Camaro obviously rides a very high horse thanks to his anonymity, and Tushnet remarks on the tendency for humans to take shelter under the Internet and use it as a platform to project anything but forgiveness.

Tushnet also reminds us of the way that contemporary technology makes us feel that we are constantly being watched and tracked and Facebooked, and that everything we do must be known and ‘put out there.’ Parallel to Amends, where there are always cameras, our lives remain on display for the world to see because most of us have cameras in our pockets and social media networks two clicks away. At the end of the show, one of the characters reflects:

In our own moments [hours, years] of willful self-defeat we may think that the view of the comments-boxers is the only true view of ourselves. We may give in to despair that provides its own comfort: If you can’t change, you don’t have to. And so I’m especially grateful for the other form of humility I learned on ‘Amends’: I stopped thinking about the cameras. Eventually you get used to that itch along your skin that comes from being watched. You accept it; and at that point you stop trying to sell yourself. You let the cameras see you, in all your idiot glory, and from that point on it’s okay that you’re an idiot. You submit to being judged, and through that submission you learn to accept yourself. Having already let go of your own image of yourself, you are able to let go of others’ images of you.

All the anxiety of being known grows from an under-the-covers knowledge that we are not good enough to be known, that we are a product not worth selling. And so we respond by angling the camera in a particular way and filtering the light on Instagram and listening to self-help radio on the drive to work, but the fact remains that, as Tushnet reminds us, we are idiots. And trying to make ourselves better and smarter and more sell-able is futile work, in the end. The real work is giving up:

“I was not able to surrender to my—to God, if this is what you are calling a Higher Power—because I didn’t have self-control. This is what I need to work on: giving up.” She lifted both hands shakily, as if making an offering, and then let them fall.

The scope of Amends is broad: Primarily, Tushnet gives us a reflection on the human existence via humor and honesty. It’s a sharp portrait of the modern mind, but the themes nevertheless remain eternal: addiction, exploitation, absurdity, destruction, consequences, laughter, team-building exercises, and, most importantly, the deep-seeded discomfort of clingy chili for dinner: “This tastes bitter and mushy. Like being forgiven.”