Thursday, January 16, 2014

How a Show About Nothing Taught Me Something, Two Decades Later

I’m not a big TV watcher, but in the 1990s I was hooked on Seinfeld, the classic sitcom featuring Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. As I sat in bed splitting my sides, I hardly suspected the show about nothing would help me frame the theme for my novel, The Opposite of Everything, nearly two decades later.

One episode in particular, “The Opposite,” stayed with me long after it aired in 1994.

In it, George Costanza is so fed up with life he resolves to do the complete opposite of what came normally. He orders the opposite of his normal lunch, and introduces himself to a beautiful woman who happens to order the same lunch, saying “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” To his surprise, she is impressed and agrees to date him.

George explains his transformation to Jerry:
It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

The “opposite” concept appealed to me as a novelist on several levels.

Looking back on the 1990s, I sometimes felt as hapless as George. I was a busy New York City journalist struggling through stress at work, health problems, and a failed marriage. So when I sat down to write my book, long after Seinfeld went into repeats, I drew on the opposite theme for inspiration. My struggle to write the book echoed the life it depicted. At times, I wanted to run away from both. Instead I fictionalized the trauma, viewing my life through a contrarian lens. The further I distanced myself it, the less I felt like a victim.

Like George, my main character, Daniel Plotnick, partly based on me, resolves to do the opposite of everything that hurt him. Plotnick’s philosophy gels after his father accidentally pushes him off the GW Bridge:
“While the opposite concept was not new to him, never before had it resounded so emphatically, as he lay in a hospital bed, lucky to have survived at all. He resolved to go when the proverbial light was red. Stop on green. Eat chocolate ice cream when he craved vanilla. Choose a woman not at all like his ex-wife. Never go to the Catskills again—or talk with his father.”
Deciding to get remarried, he plots to make his second wedding the perfect opposite of his first. He cancels the caterer, corrals guests to cook, and replaces the priest with Buddhist monks. But his contrarian strategy collapses when he undergoes chemotherapy during his wife’s pregnancy.

Their side effects scarily converge. They both turn queasy. He loses hair; she grows hair in new places. Something grows inside each of them. Ultimately, the birth of their daughter reaffirms Plotnick’s faith in a more benign growth — the one to be nurtured with love and caring.

David Kalish’s comedic novel, The Opposite of Everything, will be published in March. For more info on upcoming book events, click here.

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