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‘BoJack Horseman’ Creator’s First Book: Sweetly Sad, Darkly Comic

Rolling Stone 2019-07-20 20:23:24

Raphael Bob-Waksberg was trafficking in the missed connection before you even knew he existed. Back in 2013, before his animated show BoJack Horseman haunted our laptops, an anonymous message was posted on New York Craigslist under the rubric of “Missed Connection—m4w.” The post tells the old story of a man spying a fetching woman on the subway, but not having the courage to say anything. She’s also intrigued, but shares his shyness.

The account unwinds like a David Byrne song; we start in the routine world but end up in absurdity’s fun house. Let’s call this technique “fantastical juxtaposition,” which sounds like the world’s worst jazz-fusion band name. Anyway, the subway ride and the yearning go on and on. And on.


For months we sat on the train saying nothing to each other. We survived on bags of Skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break dancers. I gave money to the panhandlers until I ran out of singles. When the train went above­ground, I’d get text messages and voice mails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you OK?”) until my phone ran out of battery.

The non-couple exchange arched eyebrows and knowing looks but little else. The yearning just clatters on. Eventually, the woman staggers off the train, her leg muscles atrophied from a lifetime of sitting. The man does not follow her, but writes to her via Craigslist with some parting observations.

I realized most likely I would never see you again. And I thought about how amazing it is that you can know somebody for sixty years and yet still not really know that person at all.

Some sleuthing traced the post back to Bob-Waksberg, who originally was coy about whether he was the author. In retrospect, there could be no doubt. The missed connection — typically as a function of cowardice­ — has become an anchoring theme in the 34-year-old Bob-Waksberg’s work in the years since. It’s there in BoJack Horseman, his Netflix show about a washed-up, alcoholic, equine Nineties-sitcom star with a heart of gold wax paper not unlike the fake winning ticket in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And it’s there on almost every page of his first book, Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory (Knopf; out now), a collection of short-fiction.


Bob-Waksberg’s style is to begin with a routine moment — BoJack goes to a film festival (Season Three, Episode Four) — and take it somewhere surreal. The festival is underwater, and BoJack can’t speak; he meets a working-class Joe Seahorse and ends up delivering his seahorse babies. The same approach permeates Someone Who Will Love You, an odds-and-sods assemblage of lists, dispatches, and broken humans reporting from the front. A young man tries to take care of his mom and his ailing sister while working as President Chester Arthur at a presidential amusement park (“More of the You That You Already Are”). A dog narrates the story of an everyman and his descent into idiocy (“Rufus”). A couple tries to have a simple wedding but is pressured to feature a Shrieking Chorus performing the Weeping and Flailing and Shouting of Lamentations (“A Most Blessed And Auspicious Occasion”).

Bob-Waksberg does meta very well both in the book and in real life. After BoJack received an Emmy nomination for best animated program last week, he responded with: “What an honor! It has always been my dream to have my quote included in a roundup of Emmy nominee reactions in an entertainment industry press outlet such as this one!”

 

Bob-Waksberg in Beverly Hills in 2018.

Still, sincerity is Bob-Waksberg’s best friend. Happily, his book is not just the literary version of arch, eight-minute art-rock songs. There are also bubblegum-pop singles if you like your Bubble Yum dosed with a little arsenic. “The Serial Monogamist’s Guide To Important New York City Landmarks” (St. Patrick’s Cathedral: “where you and Eric sat on the steps and ate frozen yogurt that time”) and “Lunch With the Person Who Dumped You,” a list of awkward post-breakup outings such as The No-Hard-Feelings Lunch and The Here’s-Your-Stuff-Back Lunch, are as simple and dark as their titles suggest. (The Reconciliation Lunch: “There are a lot things this lunch can be, but it almost certainly isn’t this.”)


The most moving stories are found somewhere in the middle. “You Want To Know What Plays Are Like?” starts simply, and for a moment you think this is going to be one of Bob-Waksberg’s trademark comic rants. (I once profiled Bob-Waksberg and he went into a 20-minute filibuster in the BoJack writers’ room about how each version of iTunes is worse than the one before.) The narrator is a divorced mother guilted into driving several hours from Syracuse to Manhattan to see her brother’s play. She begins by listing all the annoying things about the shabby theater it’s in, starting with the “you had one job” agony of the uncomfortable chairs and the nonsensical seating chart that goes from Row JJ to Row 2A and a Half. The play is set entirely in a hotel room because, she reasons, the troupe was too lazy to build a second set.

Then the trap door opens. Our guide recognizes herself on the stage. Her brother has turned family tragedy into melodramatic fodder. The caustic criticism continues — it’s illegal to sell wine at intermission, so glasses are offered for a “suggested donation”­ — but now it co-stars with agony as she melts down watching a version of herself on the stage. Afterward, there’s a confrontation that gets increasingly sad and harrowing, but she never stops offering bon mots about malfunctioning sound effects and narcissistic actors monologuing at a post-show dinner. (Humor as emotional armor is a constant in Bob-Waksberg’s work). She retreats to a hotel room not unlike the one in the play. The curtain falls. It’s a perfect mesh of McSweeney’s and Edward Albee.

Somehow, Bob-Waksberg tops that with “Move Across the Country,” the story of one woman’s travels as she tries to lose her longtime companion, The Sadness. She hits the open road, finds new friends and a favorite coffee shop. But there’s always the urge to move on, to stay one step ahead of The Sadness. One night, she gets up to leave her partner, but, magically, finds a Post-it on the doorknob that says, “but what if this time you stayed?”


She goes back to bed, but eventually the Sadness finds her. It takes a seat at the kitchen table. Sadness is a smirking asshole and tells her something she already knows: “This is the real love story here, buddy, you and me.”

When that happens you can put your groceries down and walk back out the door and close the door behind you. You can get in your car and drive all night and call your person from the road and say, “I’m sorry.”

There is no need for misdirection. There is just the terminal ache anyone who has suffered from depression knows too well. Bob-Waksberg’s stories bounce between the poles of despair and a crossed-eyed optimism about finding love, or at least solace, in this life. In the acknowledgements, he explains the emotional schizophrenia: Halfway through these stories, he fell in love. “I’m convinced if you lined them all up in the order they were written, you could pinpoint the moment where my heart became whole,” he writes.

And that’s the final message of Bob-Waksberg’s work, both here and on the small screen: It doesn’t have to be all missed connections. We can still find solace amongst the dross of presidential amusement parks, terminal subway rides and underwater film festivals. We are all afraid. Just give yourself a break, summon your courage, and start looking for what you need. It’s there somewhere, maybe between the gestating seahorse and the man dressed up as Chester Arthur.