Actual Thoughts on “Best Behavior” by Noah Cicero

My first reaction to Best Behavior was pretty heavily colored by frustration with the text’s self-apparent shoddiness–forget a good editor, this book would’ve benefited from a half-interested proofreader. Missing periods, extra periods, references to “John Grishman” (he means Grisham) and “taking off my boats” (he means boots), even plenty of missing words and more than a few errors that genuinely obscure sense. By the time I finished it, though, I was beguiled enough with Cicero’s writing to forgive the book’s hopeless editing, and even to accept it as part of the experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the messiness is deliberate, but it’s certainly not at all inappropriate—the crappy, dilapidated condition of Cicero’s prose mirrors the crappy, dilapidated America he sees himself living in.

Cicero’s stand-in/protagonist shuttles between two vastly different, equally desperate and ruinous worlds within that America, and finds his proper place in neither. His political outlook is an odd mix of conservative golden-age syndrome and liberal social ethics—one minute he’s writing empathetically about the outcast position of prison inmates, the next he’s somehow connecting cell phone use with the decline of marriage and the family. If I can’t relate to all those opinions, I certainly can to the in-between position their mixture puts him in. His writing and philosophizing has no outlet in the blue collar world he lives in, yet he’s too self-consciously grounded in that world to fit with the mostly disaffected rich kids who populate his artistic circle. So he becomes an observer and a sociologist in both places, transforming people he can’t connect with into case studies he at least can understand and even attempt to speak for.

For that reason, it’s interesting to read this book alongside other Muumuu House romans à clef like Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel and Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad. Cicero is interested in people in a way that neither Lin or German really are—as characters, with histories and subjectivities that can be analyzed and made sense of. So when his author-surrogate comes to New York to participate in a thinly veiled version of Muumuu House’s photo shoot for Nylon, you don’t need much insider knowledge to figure out who’s who. And whereas Lin’s portrayal of himself in Shoplifting is deliberately depthless—more or less a mobile emitter of deadpan dialogue—Cicero’s version is an elaborate character study, with a personal history and cultural heritage that shape his unique combination of disaffection and ambition, introversion and leadership.

That kind of portraiture, along with broader sociological speculations—serious, expansive, deeply cynical and yet somehow still naive—is the actual heart of the book, much more so than its minimalist narrative. If there aren’t too many stunning insights, that’s really not the goal—ever the blue-collar workman, Cicero is less out to startle with his original intellect than to recall things so fundamental, we’re usually too shaped by them to consider them at all. What’s compelling about the character is not that he’s so smart, but that he’s so interested, that he cares enough not to let the basic, often horrible facts of our daily lives go by unremarked.

In other words, he has the same kind of unblinking and idiosyncratic eye that marks so many of my favorite poets, from Emily Dickinson to Ariana Reines. Best Behavior excited me in a way that usually only poetry does (not coincidentally, it was Cicero’s poem in Pop Serial, no. 2, that got me to buy this book in the first place). Now I’ve gone backwards to his first book, The Human War, and I look forward to reading it.