Fifteen Problems by Noah Eli Gordon
Images by Sommer Browning
Published by above/ground press, 2014.
“First world problems” is a term I’ve never cared for. It might quiet someone’s idle complaints but there’s a sense of entitlement lurking its comic intentions that I’ve never felt comfortable with. What’s worse is hearing my reading voice shout it throughout Noah Eli Gordon’s Fifteen Problems as though obnoxiously summing up a mystery before it's solved.
It isn’t Gordon’s fault. His suite of anecdotes doesn’t condescend privilege so much as call attention to dualistic ways of identifying and nurturing a problem. (Is a situation confusing or in need of a decision? Then it must be a problem!) Each of these fifteen paragraphs unfurl like a mini Rubik’s Cube, endowed with layers that compound, undo or desensitize the perceived importance of a given scenario. As the following example suggests, the problem can be subjective, fickle and perhaps totally illusory, but everything else hinges on finding it:
She writes a stunningly accurate review praising the reclusive novelist’s long-awaited new book. Upon its publication, a key sentence of the review contains an error of omission that, while minor, reverses her intended meaning, rendering the piece as a damning take on the book. Still, there is near universal agreement as to her review’s stunning accuracy. The problem is, as any good narrator knows, accuracy is never stunning.
These tales of situational irony and simple misfortune carry no prescribed form besides succinctness, so it’s a wonder to note the recurring trace of uncertainty – some grey area of impartiality – that these clean sentences harbour. Sometimes I’m convinced “The Problem” is the reader’s to solve, as even the ones I do not fully understand invite an obsessive re-reading. (Those who find themselves stuck can also look for hints in Sommer Browning’s charming sketches.)
That these curious case studies aren't looking to be solved in the conventional sense keeps Fifteen Problems wily and unpredictable. Some aim for remotely clever zingers while others gleefully tangle in the yarn. Let’s take a look at the stakes behind two problems:
He kissed his third cousin once, in the rain, under a canopy of branches and kudzu, on a Wednesday afternoon. Incidentally, today is also Wednesday. I like to think of it as the third day of the week. The problem is it’s the fourth.
First, there were a lot of gods. Then there was one, but a lot of ones. Can I tell you that what I most admire about the arachnid is the mechanics of so many legs in motion? After a while, the problem adds up to something infinite. And then, then there’s just us counting it.
As with the latter example, I find Fifteen Problems more compelling when it subverts the tangibility of these tribulations to probe deeper habitual thought patterns. Why do we marginalize small dramas from the rest of our daily lives? At what moment does a situation turn into a problem, and how do we react to that labeling? All of Gordon’s discrepancies, as breadcrumbs toward irrelevance or irrelevant in and of themselves, outline “the problem” as a shape-shifting character - like fate. And just like fate, there are moments in Fifteen Problems where the clout of conflict evaporates like a mirage, leaving each reader’s best interpretation of truth.