Most of us are so humiliated by rejection that we try not to confront it directly. But with loss and floundering come opportunities to subvert traditional definitions of success and forge new empathetic connections.
Late one night last fall, I told my boyfriend that I was worried about how I’d measure up at my 10-year college reunion. I still lived with roommates. I was dissatisfied with my job. Lots of my classmates were married and had babies. Lots of them owned homes. I didn’t even have a cat. I hadn’t even ever purchased a couch.
My boyfriend gave me a squeeze. “I don’t understand you,” he said. “You’re a reporter. You live in New York. Nobody’s going to judge you.”
We broke up a few months later. One night in the early spring, I lay awake pondering the increasingly slapdash form my life was taking. This time I had no one around to tell me I was being too hard on myself. It struck me that now I’d have to tell everyone at the reunion that I was single too.
The situation in which I’d found myself was actually not so far off from the plight of a certain 27-year-old zombie named Liv Moore. I’m referring to the undead heroine of the CW television series “iZombie,” who is forcibly ejected from the sunny realm of the living when a boat party goes disastrously awry.
After Liv gets swiped by a zombie, she wakes up in a body bag and finds her whole life changed. When she was alive, she was a pert, preppy medical student with a muscle-bound fiancé so determinedly upbeat that his name is Major. She’d always hewed closely to the path to traditional success, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, joining a sorority in college and going on to score a prestigious residency in the emergency room.
But when Liv becomes a zombie, she experiences life as an outsider for the first time. She breaks off her engagement with Major, fearing she’ll lose control in a moment of passion and gobble her beloved’s cerebellum. She gives up her high-status residency and takes a new job at the morgue—literally a basement-level position—so that she’ll have easy access to a brain buffet. She distances herself from her best friend, Peyton, along with her mother and brother.
“You used to be this unstoppable, hyper-focused fireball,” Peyton complains. “Now you just lie around on the couch all day and watch TV.”
Basically, Liv is depressed. She can’t stop looking at the distance between where she imagined her life would be and the place where it’s actually wound up. And although she only makes things worse by isolating herself, she feels she has no choice. If you’ve ever carried something dark inside you, you know how she feels: she’s contagious.
It’s probably clear that Liv’s real problem isn’t that she’s a zombie (though it complicates matters). It’s that she spends too much time feeling sorry for herself. This was my problem too.
I knew, for example, that I wanted a new job. But after a particularly disappointing rejection, I got into the habit of simply longing for jobs rather than actually applying for them. My chances of getting a cool new gig seemed about as likely as those of a dirt-smudged street urchin getting the ball gown that tantalized her through the shop window.
In fact, I was pretty sure I’d face rejection in almost every area of life. The feeling made me droopy on the inside, which in turn made me more likely to get rejected, which made me feel even droopier.
My life outlook was low as a basset hound’s. I’d appointed myself chief resident of the metaphorical morgue.
In “The Queer Art of Failure,” cultural critic Jack Halberstam argues that most people in Western culture are fixated on oppressive ideas of success. Our culture’s most common signs of personal fulfillment—a rewarding yet well-paying job, a nice place to live, a committed monogamous relationship, perhaps a couple of kids and a shaggy golden retriever and yoga retreats and driving tours of the Pacific Northwest and cozy clay mugs filled with hot chocolate—are in his eyes grotesquely heteronormative and capitalistic.
On this point I am with Halberstam 100 percent. But understanding the capitalistic and heteronormative underpinnings of your desires doesn’t necessarily help with the problem of wanting a life partner who loves you and a job that makes you happy and other culturally conditioned but also understandable things. And it’s incredibly easy to feel bad about yourself if you don’t have them.
But Halberstam doesn’t leave his readers hanging. With help from Pixar, claymation movies and such cinematic gems as “50 First Dates” and “Dude Where’s My Car,” he makes a proactive case for failure and futility and getting lost. When our best efforts at achievement flounder, he suggests, we often gain makeshift families, collaborative social movements and empathetic connections. He’s not trying to convince us that failing will feel better than succeeding, only that failing might ultimately be more worthwhile. “In losing we will find another way of making meaning,” he promises, one in which “no one gets left behind.”
As Lonely and disaffected as Liv is, it turns out her zombie status opens her life up to new possibilities. When she eats the brains of dead people who show up at the morgue, she temporarily absorbs their memories and even some of their talents, impulses and personality traits.
When Liv eats the brains of a psych major, she starts dishing out uniquely insightful advice to the people she meets. Consuming a cheerleader makes her spill over with bubbly good spirits; she giggles with Peyton over boys and turns strangers into instant confidantes.
After snacking on a painter Liv gets in touch with her artistic, passionate side, spending afternoons dabbling on a canvas and listening to Chet Baker. She openly lusts after attractive strangers and lapses into reveries as she describes an acquaintance’s “alert nose” and “historic chin.”
“Javier’s brain shows me a view of the world that’s brighter, more vibrant,” Liv says in a voiceover, reflecting on all that she’s learned from the deceased painter. “I’m not ready to go back to a world without that light. I want this feeling to last.”
In short, Liv begins to come back to her life as she learns to live from the dead. She was unhappy when she spent all her time focused on how different she was from her former group —the well-adjusted winner’s circle. In order to feel better, she needed to look around and appreciate the beauty and struggles of others.
Before Liv found herself on the outside, she didn’t have the ability to see the world in all its varied perspectives. Her failure changes her for the better.
Of course, that doesn’t mean being a zombie is fun.
Finally the weekend of the reunion rolled around. I got on a plane and flew across the country to southern California, ready for judgment day.
But a funny thing happened once I set foot on campus: all my worries about how my classmates might size me up were replaced by joy. It wasn’t only my friends I was excited to spend time with, but the people I hadn’t seen in years. In a small liberal arts college, if you’re lucky, you create a kind of temporary village with the people in your class (which makes it even sadder when you’re all scattered by the rushing lava of adulthood).
Now our village was back—at least for a day or two. The bluegrass band that played almost every party during our junior and senior year reunited. Old crushes flickered up again. We lazed around on the quad nursing hangovers, slowly picking our way through plates of cut fruit and eggs. A band of us set out to steal a keg from a party at a Greek amphitheater, just to give ourselves something to do. Another segment split off to smoke up with a trio of stoned and friendly sophomores.
It seemed that we’d collectively decided to skip the whole catching-up thing. Instead we just traveled back in time and became 21 again. It was a smart move. We could see each other clearly this way—not as the embodiments of a tiresome list of accomplishments, but as the snarky girl with a pierced eyebrow who seemed to have stepped straight out of a French film, or the starry-eyed writer working on a young-adult novel, or the guy obsessed with Kierkegaard who made wry pronouncements in a voice as deep as an Ent’s. How could I worry about what they thought of me when I was busy loving them?
What bothers me most about the way we talk about rejection is the way it gets framed as an obstacle to be overcome on the path to inevitable success. That’s why everyone loves to mention how many times J.K. Rowling submitted her “Harry Potter” manuscripts to publishers before she found a taker.
But what if our futures aren’t looking particularly Potter-ish? It’s good to have hope that things will change soon, but it’s also important to find a way to live with the way things are now. Some of us work hard for a long time, and all we have to show for it is what, to others, might look like nothing.
“Rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy,” Halberstam writes. “Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.”
In the early evening on the last full day of the reunion, I went with some friends to see a James Turrell art installation that occupies a campus courtyard. Passersby had arranged themselves on four stone benches and gazed up at a square pocket of sky framed by a canopy overhead. As the sun set, a light show would begin.
The sky dimmed and we watched the lights shift above us. It was pretty, but nothing breathtaking. We weren’t sure what we were waiting for. After a while my companions said they were ready to get some food. I said I thought I’d stick around.
“You don’t give up easy, do you,” one said with a grin. They left and I moved over to join some other classmates while slow red streaks crept across the roof.
What my friend had said was true: I was stubborn. But what assurance did I have that it would ever pay off? In any case I was glad to be on those benches at my old school, in the company of my familiars. Every now and then we exchanged a few words with one another, but mostly we were quiet and kept our eyes trained on the sky.
After a while, I noticed that the changes of the light seemed to be picking up. A cool blue glow was pulsing toward orange, or maybe it was ebbing back. My stomach growled—I was getting hungry now too—but I stayed put. I wanted to see what happened next.