As soon as I left the New Orleans launch party for Anne Gisleson’s The Futilitarians, I drank liquor with a dear friend of mine and we talked about things the way two longtime friends do when they’ve been drinking. We discussed love and grief, the things that worry us, and the future. It was one of those talks that makes you feel grateful to have a person (or persons) in this world who you can just kick around all the important and unanswerable questions of life with. I think that after leaving the party at the Saturn Bar, after a night hearing about a group of friends and strangers who came together to pretty much do just that, it was hard not to feel like we weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
The Futilitarians recounts the year in Gisleson’s life when she and her husband Brad assembled the Existential Crisis Reading Group, or the ECRG as it’s referred to by its members. Each chapter begins with a discussion of the group’s monthly meetings, where they drank and discussed the works of Epicurus, Clarice Lispector, Tobias Wolff, Italo Calvino, and others, while finding a way through their own personal traumas and the uncertainty of living in post-Katrina New Orleans. The night of the book release, members of the ECRG each read an excerpt from a different reading mentioned in the book, building up to Gisleson’s reading.
Each chapter in The Futilitarians is named for a month of the year the ECRG met, in 2012, and the night began with local artist George Trahanis performed two Jacques Brel songs featured in the book’s July chapter accompanied by accordionist Jesse Reeks.
Anne appropriately read from the August chapter, titled “The Metaphysical Hangover.” In New Orleans, we’re well-acquainted with a good ol’ fashioned physical hangover (“Drinking, for better or for worse, was an integral aspect of the ECRG project,” Anne recounted), but you’ve likely had a metaphysical one too and not known what to call it. Kingsley Amis describes it in his 1971 essay, “The Hangover” from Everyday Drinking, which the ECRG discussed in August, and which Anne shared with us that night:
“When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover,” Amis wrote. And doesn’t that sounds familiar to us all? To anyone who has lived as a person in the world? Especially to those of us who live through August in New Orleans, a particularly brutal month on so many levels.
Saturn Bar was packed wall to wall, and unless you were near the mic it was almost impossible to hear anything, but that didn’t seem to matter. Walking up to the bar, I was amazed at the sheer number of people standing outside on St. Claude Avenue, and more streaming in from every direction. Writers from across the city, friends, acquaintances, admirers, colleagues, and former students (like me). Inside, piled in between the bar and the lovingly assembled snack table, we were all there, August sweat running down our bodies in rivers, everyone seemed happy to be there supporting one of our own on her incredible, well-deserved achievement. But also happy to just be around each other. What wards off a metaphysical hangover more than the shared experience of commiserating with friends and strangers?
We all have trauma that ebbs and flows through our lives. After the Storm, it was hard not to feel completely lost and unsure, moving through each day like a ghost. After that night at the Saturn, I finally had a name for that feeling. Compound that feeling with the usual uncertainties of life, questioning every mistake you’ve made along the way with the grief of losing family members and loved ones, and it becomes a miracle that you’re not a ghost yourself. When you’ve been torched (meant to type “touched” here, but that’s a typo I’m keeping for now) by trauma, it can feel like no one else can fully understand, because you live on a different plane of existence now. But that’s where the ECRG, where the best friend you can drink with, where the crowded Saturn Bar comes in.