Friday, December 24, 2021

"You Can't Be Serious" by Kal Penn--Nonfiction Review

Ok, Obscurists, it’s time for a memoir. Today we’re discussing “You Can’t Be Serious” by Kal Penn. It’s the story of a man trying to make it as an actor and serve his country in the government’s employ under the Obama administration.

Kal Penn

What I love about this book:

I remember hearing about when Penn started working for the White House, or the executive branch, or whatever. At the time, I was a bit upset because I was a big fan of the show “House,” which he was a main character at about the middle of the show’s run. You don’t get to work for the President and work on a television show simultaneously.

Anyway, after getting Penn’s story of how he ended up in the job and why—well, he reframed that experience for me, and I get his reasons. I’m at least willing to admit that maybe working for the Obama administration was slightly more important than playing a TV doctor—again, maybe. I liked that he didn’t sugarcoat the weaknesses of government, the division, and the mediocrity, which only excels at bureaucracy. Still, he also highlighted how effective government could positively impact people’s lives. 

Learning about Penn’s childhood and the stories that went with it—from the bullies to the early drama club experiences—was a lot of fun for me, but that’s because I like memoirs. For me, it’s fun to see the world through someone else’s eyes for a bit. This enjoyment extends into his stories as a young actor trying to make it in Hollywood.

A thing I didn’t expect to happen, much like the author, it seems, is how riveted I got when the NASCAR section came up. I can’t say that I’m a fan, but he reinforced one of my core tenants: the belief that when a large group of people loves a thing, there is always a reason for that adoration. You might disagree with it, or you might not respect it—or even get it. But that doesn’t mean that their experience and joy of a thing is any less valid. I liked that Penn got outside of himself for a bit to learn about and even appreciate the sport.

What I don’t love about this book:

So not to harp on the “House” thing—but continuing to harp on the “House” thing—Dr. Kutner committed suicide!? Surely there was a less terrible way to write him off the show so Penn could work in government.

Ok, back on focus. Anyway, this is just going to be one of those times where this section is more about things I just don’t like about the world that the book outlines.

In recent times it seems we talk a lot about voter suppression in this last election cycle and the upcoming ones. But Penn points out that even back in 2008, these Anti-American activities were in play. Phone campaigns called voters to remind Obama voters that election day had been “moved” to Wednesday. For those of you reading this outside of the United States, election day is always on a Tuesday here for—well, stupid and antiquated reasons that involve farming and church-going, and it should change, but that’s not the point. Election day is always Tuesday.

Outside of politics on another hot button issue—race—Penn is an American of Indian descent, not Indigenous American, but actual India. Regardless it shouldn’t matter one jot one way or the other, for as an American, and according to our supposed societal social contract, we’re all equal, forever, always. At least you’d think so, especially in liberal bastions such as Hollywood—but no, not so much. Having to listen to why a casting director couldn’t possibly cast Penn in a movie because, well, Denzel Washington is already in the film is tedious bullshit. That’s a thing a white actor never had to face. No producer was ever sweating bullets because someone cast Owen Wilson AND Vince Vaughn in “The Wedding Crashers.”  Also, having to listen to smirking dickheads talk about how they couldn’t possibly hire women to work at their production companies because they didn’t want “to get sued for their mouth” was equally unenjoyable. 

Standard disclosure here when I write a don’t like section like this; I’m in no way suggesting that any of this should have been left out. It’s just infuriating that we live in this endless cycle of knowing winks and hush-hush intolerance.

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Parting thoughts:

Initially, I didn’t like memoirs all that much. It isn’t that I disliked them—it’s just that they, and really all nonfiction, existed in a space outside of my wheelhouse of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I learned to love memoirs on my journeys through reading, like family dramas in fiction. That broadening of horizons is the superpower of being well-read. 

Stories, I believe, fundamentally don’t work on those who profoundly lack empathy, even as a concept. And it’s empathy that lets you go out, discover new modes of being and ways of thinking. To learn to love something different than what you grew up with initially, which for me was a lot of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

By the way, I still love those things, which is clear if you’ve read any part of this blog. 

But I thought a lot about how I’ve changed and grown over the past two decades while reading how Penn grew over the course of his book. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with ambiguity, I wouldn’t say I love it, but I accept it more. I say that because I think things like truth, understanding, and justice are concepts that refine with time. An idea that is rather alarming for most people, if I were to guess. I believe it’s human nature or a least a predisposition of ours to settle into a particular viewpoint and resist, violently sometimes, anyone’s attempt to move us out of our old modes of being or thinking.

I think we see a lot of that now, on the internet, in public, and worst in government. This reticence toward agreeing with stark reality and the bone-level belief that the reality we don’t like can be negotiated with or rationalized away. But we can’t, and it won’t go away.

We’re all in this pressure cooker together. So it would be nice if we could be a little kinder to each other instead of what we usually do.

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