The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog is a non-fiction, comedic diary for grown-ups written by prolific children’s author Anthony McGowan.
The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan is the funniest book I read in 2017. Anthony McGowan considers himself a middle-of-the-road children’s book author who is ever on the cusp of no longer being invited to publishers’ parties. Kitted up in mismatched corduroy outfits and bright blue shoes, his days are spent writing at the British Library, walking his dog Monty, and failing at menial tasks like changing the battery in the smoke detector. He spends a good deal of the year documented here traveling to teaching gigs and giving talks at schools where teachers are humorously perplexed at the discrepancy between McGowan and his author photo.
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It is incredible to watch McGowan fail at something every single day for a year, whether it is in some small way like the failure to start a conversation with his dwarf doppelganger, who makes several appearances throughout the book, or in some tragic way like an embarrassing swimsuit malfunction at the water slide. Despite that McGowan is aware that he’s married above himself and suspects that Mrs. McG feels he has, too, his failures, however insignificant or epic, don’t seem to have any real threat to his family.
Diary entries of failures and observations are broken up with attempts at poems and the occasional serious entry, such as discovering that a teacher he’d had when he was a kid has been murdered. This lengthy reflection allows the book to transcend from a collection of amusing anecdotes to a realistic portrait of life’s ups and downs. Some tragedies are forgetting to pack your soup, while other tragedies are more profound.
True to the Dostoyevskian subtitle, McGowan paints himself as a true underdog. Having not been familiar with McGowan’s work, I picked up the book fearing it would be an ego trip with faux-failures, like you might see a standup comic doing in order to gain empathy, but McGowan’s ineptitude in the little things feels genuine, and his compulsions are consistent. For example, he has the need to let nothing go to waste, which means he’ll use mysterious red crystals found under the sink as bath salts, even if it turns his skin pink, or eat an old fish out of the back of the fridge, even if it makes him sick. His failures to buy shoe laces or to unblock the kitchen sink are relatable and believable enough to garner real empathy from the reader. Above all, Anthony McGowan fails to fail at being a superb, poetic writer.