H. Jon Benjamin and the Art of Failure

Adam Gravano

 

H. Jon Benjamin

Failure Is an Option

Dutton

256 pages

 

Failure is often a sensitive topic. The things we fail to do loom over our lives, quite often casting a longer shadow than our successes. But only recently has failure, even in unlike ventures to those in which one later succeeds, become a topic of major interest. It seems ever appropriate that we would fail to understand failure. Presently, in business writing and podcasts, particularly Tim Ferriss's, there now seems to be more attention paid to failure.

 

In my own life, I can find no shortage of brushes with failure (I have the suspicion that anyone who says otherwise is lying). Be it reading about Joseph Conrad and the “Queer Art of Failure” as a student, or hearing at graduation from a math teacher who was retiring yet claimed to have failed, among other things, as a father. A teacher with a good pension to retire into and years of work in an increasingly affluent community candidly discussing personal failings. While I forget its specific turns, I remember its direction, but it took aback a certain young man. But right there, in the shadow of the mortgage crisis — a cascade of failures on its own — we learned something of failure and success: they often come packaged together.

 

Years later, after becoming a huge fan of Archer and developing a taste for Bob's Burgers, I saw a copy of H. Jon Benjamin's Failure is an Option peeking out of a bookstore shelf. Perhaps it was a side-effect of a time in which the terms of success were being — and of necessity no less than choice — re-evaluated.

 

The book turned out to be, from its beginning, a memoir about Benjamin's brushes with failure. Each chapter has the term failure in the title, for example, “How I Failed at Pretty Much Everything as a Kid.” One is reminded, if faintly and through juxtaposition, of Nietzche's Ecce Homo, which begins with chapters like “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Write Such Excellent Books.” While Nietzsche proceeds to prove the titles ironic in the text, Benjamin takes a different tack. Benjamin is adamant about his failure, for example, when discussing his shortcomings related to Archer and Bob's Burgers, “I did the same voice,” in a chapter laconic enough to give Faulkner's Vardaman a run for his money.

 

 

While some sections of the book, like the chapter on “Failed Sex Positions,” fall close to flat, with a repeated, sophomoric Iran-Contra gag, other areas are ripe for a picture into Benjamin's life. For example: “One afternoon I decided it would be fun to play catch. But, seeing that I had nobody to do that with, I took my glove and ball and ventured out to play 'tragicatch,' a game I had invented that involved my throwing a ball up in the air, then catching it as it dropped.” Between this sitting in his neighbor's house waiting for them to come home, we see a lot of laughter overlaid atop loneliness.

 

Publishers Weekly found, in an unsigned review, some short chapters to be fit for a stand-up act but not necessarily great on the page, where they are “cloying and tedious.” Albeit one is stuck with  bad book for longer than one can be stuck at a stand-up act, if one sticks to the assertion that they must get their money's worth, one can always put a book down. Some gags in the book definitely wouldn't work in a stand-up show, however, and they also work quite well: For example, the chapters in which “correspondence” is included between a Benjamin, struggling to meet his word count and publishing deadlines, and several academics, which, if taken sincerely, amount to being a failure both to attain meaningful and helpful historical anecdotes (as Robert Greene might if tasked with a book about failure).

 

On the other hand, Alex McLevy at AV Club found, “What makes it all work, as with so much of his comedy, is the cleverly genial persona behind it all, undercutting potentially cruel moments and perpetually reminding the reader that even if a particular joke doesn’t work for them, that’s OK.” This is probably more to the point, although one misses the few moments of concern where one generally feels something akin to concern for the author's well-being: “Take your parents, even though they may see you as a curse on their very existence.” In general, no matter how hard I laughed I was forced to wonder if the tears might not have all been of jovial origin, and the concern lingered from minor, or in the case of the beginning not-so-minor, details.

 

We all have a friend whom we laugh and have a good time with, but later, when we go through the events of time together, when it's too late to mention and we're too far apart, we wonder if everything is all right — perhaps while lying awake. This is a book written by that friend. You'll cringe; you'll laugh; you'll cringe while laughing. The book does a remarkable job of accomplishing its goal: You'll find that failure is an option and it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's great to read and makes a more helpful suggestion to people who haven't quite found a good fitting place after graduation.

 

Author Bio:

 

Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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