Big Ideas in Bite-Sized Essays

By Rebekah Hoffer

July 2, 2021

Big Ideas in Bite-Sized Essays

No One You Know: Strangers and the Stories We Tell by Jason Schwartzman

Jason Schwartzman’s first book, No One You Know, contains sixty-two essays—many of them just a few paragraphs long—in a concise 155 pages. Each tiny essay in this fragmented collection illustrates a brief, memorable interaction with a stranger, creating the effect of a photo collage. Settings and characters pass by rapidly. We are invited to eavesdrop on Schwartzman’s meandering examinations of the world, gleaning small epiphanies as he interacts with strangers. Three consecutive essays, for instance, feature a struggling actress on a long bus ride, a scientist giving a presentation about whales, and a pickup basketball game with nameless men. Most of the people in this book, in fact, are nameless. The author refers to them instead by how he knows them: “the boogeyman of our building,” “someone I bumped into on the street,” or “a Chinese man on the phone.”

Since these interactions and the resulting essays are so short, characters are presented as caricature, their identity distilled into one conversation, one action, one feature—and then, more often than not, we don’t see them again. For most of No One You Know, as the title suggests, anonymity is the norm. There are a few exceptions to this: one recurring character, for example, is Schwartzman’s ex-girlfriend, “L.” In the essay where L. is first introduced, the casual voice and unexpected moments of emotion that pervade this book are clearly displayed.

L. and I are there to learn, but mostly we stand on ladders, stuffing insulation recycled from jeans. Blue dust slips past our surgical masks. It clings to our throats. One day soon, I’m sure, she will remove my picture from her wallet. We are still transitioning out of our intimacy. There is so much dust I can barely see. Not her constellation of freckles, not her ink-colored eyes.

We get to know L. a little better over the course of the book, but she remains more of a silhouette than a detailed portrait, condensed into a few sparse moments. The only character who’s given enough time on the page to develop is the narrator himself. The Jason Schwartzman who emerges in these sundry scenes is a keen reporter, a scrappy not-quite-starving artist trying to make a name for himself, and a gentle, sometimes anxious soul. He is also endearingly awkward—in one scene, he politely turns down cocaine while clutching a bag of four-leaf clovers he just picked; in another, he almost confronts a man who offended his family, but then holds the elevator door for him instead.

Another aspect of the narrator’s personality is his strong desire to be less anxious and awkward. “My preferred self-image,” he writes, “comes from the stapled and long-faded pages of my old summer camp sports newspaper, where someone once characterized me as ‘a fiery guard with a mean streak.’” Perhaps this is why we see so many scenes involving basketball. Schwartzman writes with pride about continuing to play after an injury in one essay; in another, he makes a snappy remark to a player who was whining. Glimpses of that preferred self-image.

Fieriness aside, pickup basketball is a source of interesting strangers, such as the title character in “Magical Dave,” and brief connections, such as Schwartzman describes here:

We are playing three on one and he is by far the best. It seems like he never misses. He raises the ball up slowly into his stance, shoots, swish every time. He is a beautiful machine, a magic trebuchet of basketball. . . . Guy never says a word, but we win every game. It’s something I like about pickup—the instant chemistry you sometimes develop with strangers—learning each other through playing.

These little nuggets of insight are the hallmark of this book. In some essays, it’s fun to puzzle out what the message is. In others, the message is plainly stated, which I find exasperating, especially when the last sentence reveals the moral of the story. Schwartzman toes the line between profound and cheesy and sometimes ends up on the wrong side. One essay, for example, ends like this: “’I feel like I lost the last part of my mom today,’ she tells him. ‘No,’ the repairman says. ‘You’re the last part of your mom.’” Such sentences feel too obvious in their supposed wisdom, bordering on triteness.

As I got further into the book, I began to struggle with finding a through line. Such fragmented  and ever-shifting essays make it hard to find a clear sequence of cause and effect between scenes. The overarching themes of identity and perception are easy enough to see, but what about plot? The narrator goes on dates with different people, works different jobs, and lives in different cities, but doesn’t seem to be striving toward any goal. If pressed, I might say that this is the story of the narrator and his ex-girlfriend growing apart. However, she appears so infrequently that I wouldn’t argue that with certainty. The thing that develops most consistently is the reader’s acquaintance with the narrator—a pleasant enough progression, growing familiar with his voice and personality—but not exactly a compelling narrative.

There are inherent limitations to the format Schwartzman’s working with. The vast majority of stranger interactions are brief, boring, and not worth writing about; the ones that are truly essay-worthy are far and few between. Most of my favorite essays ended up being the longer ones: in “The Man on the Street,” Schwartzman walks and talks with a homeless man for an afternoon, learning about his day-to-day life, and, in the book’s longest essay, “The Man Who Has Everything,” we realize along with Schwartzman just how often a casino-loving DJ tells lies. Schwartzman has managed to come up with enough really unusual moments like these to use as the foundation of No One You Know, but the sum total feels like he’s forced himself to stretch in places. The essay about his little brother’s childhood nicknames comes to mind.

My biggest complaint is the lack of chronology. Scrutinizing the table of contents feels a bit like searching for a pattern in an abstract painting. The book is divided into ten sections; odd-numbered sections contain only one essay, while even-numbered sections contain between six and fifteen essays, the first of which is a short, transcribed conversation with no original words added by Schwartzman. I tried to parse out the connections between the title of each section and the essays it contained or to deduce a system of organization, but I had to squint to find any.

Collage-like, Schwartzman bounces around between childhood and adulthood and between different places, rarely providing temporal clues or a pattern of progression. I mentioned earlier that I appreciated being allowed to find my own meaning in individual essays, but on a macro scale, I would have appreciated more guidance.

This book may have been improved by greater coherence and a more obvious climax, but despite the weak organization, No One You Know is sweet and thought-provoking, and, as others have noted, it’s a good book to pick up during a lonely time of your life. I enjoyed how closely Schwartzman paid attention, how he found significance in insignificant moments. The bite-sized essays in this collection are individually intriguing, if largely random. All told, I think the book achieves what it set out to do: I imagined myself in a lot of strangers’ shoes, I was struck by conversations that didn’t go as I expected, and I came away with new ideas about how and why we interact with people we don’t know.


No One You Know: Strangers and the Stories We Tell by Jason Schwartzman

Outpost 19
 $14.50 Paperback | Buy Now

Rebekah HofferRebekah Hoffer lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with three of her dearest friends and the world’s most perfect cat, which, as far as anyone can tell, has a single stale piece of candy corn rattling around in its head where a brain should be. Rebekah’s work has been published in The Broken PlateDive In MagazineBall Bearings Magazine, and elsewhere. She earned her Bachelor’s in English from Ball State University in 2021.

Keywords: book review
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