Millennials, are you a Jen, a Kat, a Dirk, or a Thad? Because you’re not a Chandler, he’s a gen x-er
Jen’s tissue box is recycled brown cardboard, or at least it looks like it based on the small but visible recycled symbol, and was purchased at Whole Foods. Kat’s tissue box is well researched and is saving the rainforest; it features endangered species and is from Trader Joe’s. Dirk’s tissue box is slate blue with a commercial art deco angular design, like a gentrified apartment building, and he bought it at the Walgreens around the corner — at the corner of 18th and Market, not Happy and Healthy, and IRL, not through an app, how Dirk usually prefers to shop. Thad’s tissue box is not in season because he bought it at Aldi, and he likes to mix-it-up and buy a different color every other week of either the box or rectangular variety the store offers.
These four tissue boxes are found on the desks of four millennials, inside their cubicles, in a generic office, in a moderately sized city, in Kelly Karivalis’s debut novel “Adult Gummies.”
Karivalis is a creative writer who has produced collections of poetry in the past. She is currently based in Philadelphia and admins a popular Instagram meme page, appropriately titled “@businesscasualdreams” and recently changed from “@businesscasualmemes.”
Ultimately, the book’s main themes are the increasing anxieties of the modern world, specifically automation in the workplace and automation in personal lives. However, Karivalis evokes these themes through the book’s four main characters, whom Karivalis presents almost like user personas that a new tech company would create for a venture capitalist pitch.
“Like a prepackaged four-pack of giant tissue boxes, their cubicles share a touching corner. The cubicle walls are low enough so that they can see the tops of heads, hairlines and eyes. Thad reminds himself: today is an ordinary day, today is an ordinary day, to quell his waking fear of untimely death. While reaching for a second tissue, he overhears Jen’s phone conversation, to his left.”
Jen is the book’s main character, but not the protagonist, and is an over-achieving millennial determined to break the glass ceiling by making performances of productivity, a phrase Karivalis herself coins. “I saw the best hands of my generation going through the motions as the world watched, being completely aware they were being watched, performing their duty to perform productivity,” Karivalis writes, not necessarily about Jen as a character, in her poetic and omniscient forward to readers that appears before the book’s first chapter.
Obsessed with personal branding and outsourcing her love life to technology, Jen comes off as incredibly calculated but not quite cold. Karivalis creates a character that is both somehow humanized and demonized for the reader by her own aspirations. That is quite an accomplishment for the young author, and perhaps an accomplishment that could only itself be accomplished by a millennial female who runs an Instagram meme page dedicated to American office banality and recently witnessed the first female candidate of a major political party being defeated by a man who bragged of sexual assaults.
I don’t know if she would agree with the observation, but Karivalis is also ambitiously creative and remarkably successful in making the protagonist of the story not a character, but the IRL — “in real life” — connection between millennial co-workers Kat and Thad.
Kat is a stoner girl who is willing to go beyond the superficial, as seen by the research she did to fact-check the claim made by her tissue box — “20% of the revenue goes towards saving the rainforest” — and contrasts with Jen and her tissue box, with its calculatedly visible recycled symbol. But, Kat seems to live in a liminal space, resisting and acquiescing to an increasingly automated and technological world — she is a hybrid strain somewhere between an indica and a sativa.
In a similar way, “Thad is an imposter according to Thad,” writes Karivalis. He wears Old Navy shirts, khakis tailored for free at Uniqlo, and changes into his dress shoes at work, wearing New Balance sneakers on his commute, for an especially goofy look.
Karivalis’s writing also places Thad in a liminal space, but where Kat’s liminal space is like the midpoint of a rope used in a tug-a-war battle, Thad’s is a tightrope and he is walking on it. Thad, who is black, has his balancing skills tested in a particularly perturbing interaction that occurs during his morning commute late in the book.
Luckily, he is ignorantly saved from this interaction by his frenemy co-worker, Dirk, with the gentrified tissue box, and Dirk and Thad finish their commute together; “continuous inane dribble seeps from Dirk’s wet mouth onto the pavement and Thad blows his nose into the last tissue in his travel-pack, sick and tired of a lot of things.”
Dirk’s ignorance is the humanizing factor Karivalis graciously bestows upon him. His complacency extends from his ignorance and manifests itself in an apathy and lethargy that Dirk himself is both ignorant to and complacent with. Dirk has bought in to technology and is obsessed with it, just like Jen, whom Dirk shares a rivalry with, has bought into marketing buzzwords, like personal branding and SEO, and is obsessed with them. Both the rival characters are ignorant to the fact that they share a common enemy that will eventually lead to their unraveling.
Through all these characters, Karivalis champions humans. She champions art and human connections, and she champions feelings that have no words but are communicated through her poetic and symbolic writing. In one chapter, she creates a mantra of the phrase “Jeff in sales” which gives the reader a feeling of anxiety that is hard to explain and hard to shake.
“Adult Gummies” is a short read that is well worth it for any millennial collectively living on this liminal edge, marching nauseously toward their future underneath capitalism while staring at the past, like the angel of history in philosopher Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the monoprint “Angelus Novelus” by artist Paul Klee.
In her poetic and omniscient forward to the book, Karivalis finishes with a short paragraph that makes both a blunt observation and a blunt prediction that both seem to be well researched on her behalf.
“My generation is criticized most by those in closer proximity to death,” the young author writes. “It’s not our fault we want to be artists. Art will be the last human vocation.”