Dude…Where’d You Get That Sarong? Jon-Jon Goulian’s ‘Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt’

The video artist Ryan Trecartin is fond of proclaiming that “personality is replacing gender.” That would seem to capture something important about Mr. Goulian, whose gregariousness overwhelms sexual presence (and even sexual preference). Within the family, though, gender still has consequences. It’s only in his 30s, for instance, after reading a women’s magazine, that Mr. Goulian discovers that applying harsh acne products to the skin can actually increase your chances of getting pimples, since the skin responds to excessive drying by producing more and more oil. What the teenaged Jon-Jon needed was moisturizer. As Mr. Goulian points out, girls learn these things from their mothers while still in their teens. There is no analogous social mechanism for the transmission of grooming knowledge between men–you can’t ask your father about using moisturizer, particularly if the world thinks you’re “half-a-fag.” These days, Net natives can rely on the Internet to supplement paternal authority. Girly boys in the ’80s knew no such luxury.

With no Internet to turn to, Mr. Goulian often retreats into the company of his considerable collection of stuffed animals, a virtual world that provides an important crutch through several decades. The animals, Mr. Goulian explains, “are fundamentally nonjudgmental.” They accept him “unquestioningly” and don’t hold him to “any conventional standards of success, dress, or sexual virility.” Avatars of parental affection, the animals are more than pillow buddies–they travel to work, too. When a typist at the NYRB eventually points them out to editor in chief Bob Silvers, a man deft with abstraction but oblivious to his surroundings, Mr. Silvers cheerfully proclaims, “I’m very glad to have them on board. We need all the help we can get!” Mr. Silvers, another père manqué, eventually starts to remind Mr. Goulian too much of his own family. After three years, he quits.

Mr. Goulian is a natural wit, and his interpersonal predicaments provide fodder for Groucho Marx-style setups like the stuffed animal quip (they need the eggs).A Gen-X update on an archetype we associate most readily with Woody Allen, Mr. Goulian offers himself as “a neurasthenic man” in a “city of horrors,” terrified of moths, sex, saturated fat, the draft, Central Park, taxi cabs and high-school reunions. If Woody Allen were a cross-dresser from La Jolla, is this who he’d be?

The most important distinction between Mr. Goulian and his comedic forebears is not his wardrobe–it’s his will to ingratiate. Where Mr. Allen’s generation of Jewish neurotics asserted nebbishy nonconformism through the disparagement of  phonies–be they professors, politicians or parents–Mr. Goulian’s departure from the mainstream is not a rejection of the mainstream, but rather an attempt to deflect its censure. To be “uncategorizable, Mr. Goulian concludes, is to be “uncriticizable.He jokes that his mother won’t be able to make it past the memoir’s first paragraph, but she and all other relatives come off as superheroes (an extended riff that assesses Mr. Goulian’s parent-induced traumas is imputed entirely, and unconvincingly, to a dead grandmother). Desire for approval from his parents metastasizes into a generalized “innate capacity for solicitousness.” Unlike Alex Portnoy, Mr. Goulian has no complaint.

When I was 20 years old, struggling with my sexuality, and often consulting with stuffed animals of my own, my therapist told me repeatedly that I was not betraying my parents by being happy at college. (The same therapist insisted I was using the whole “gay thing” as an excuse to avoid pursuing women.) She was wrong, of course. Growing up is a betrayal, and a necessary one, just as surely as mothers betray nurslings when they replace the human breasts with watery bottle tops. Freud was sensitive to this, but contemporary therapy tends to obscure the tension.

To devastate one’s parents is perhaps the only permissible motive for writing a memoir. But as the personal essay boom is amplified by a family history boom (each more or less a consequence of the college admissions boom, which has sanctified the “personal statement”) the norm is increasingly to write memoir as a parental love letter. This disfiguring of Oedipal rage into something intimate and shackling, the product of a generation that gets along too well with its parents, has literary consequences whose magnitude remains unclear. The personal consequences, at the extreme end–and Mr. Goulian’s final piety is nothing if not extreme–can be quite dire: entrapment in a family romance so intense that it forecloses the possibility of any other.