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Thursday, January 23, 2020

SPOTLIGHT: Why Liv by Jon Sebastian Shifrin @smithpublicity

Why Liv
by Jon Sebastian Shifrin 

Personal identity is tied to the jobs that we hold—but what happens when our jobs feel pointless? That’s what Livingstone Modicai Ackerman—Liv, to his friends—is wondering. Millennial dissatisfaction runs rampant in an age where even the jobs that are the most coveted have no social value (and those that are truly important do not pay as though they are). How do we find meaning when work feels meaningless? Why Liv? by Jon Shifrin explores the big and small questions that complicate modern professional life for Liv and his cohorts.

Like Holden Caulfield before him, Liv craves authenticity in a phony age. His job is tedious and soul-gutting, his girlfriend is a vacuous, image-conscious snob, and, meanwhile, his pathologically narcissistic parents are constant irritants. Add to this the febrile political climate dominated by a reactionary group and their mendacious leader, a radio personality with outlandish hair and a catchy slogan to restore American greatness, and existential dilemma seem a constant way of life.

Liv is searching for meaning in a sea of cynicism—and he finds it in the most unlikely of places. This two-part novel opens with “Dusk,” which takes place in the elite circles of New York society. It’s thought to be a glamorous milieu, but for Liv it’s gloomier. The second part, “Dawn,” is set in the majestic city of Barcelona. The language spoken in this new setting is challenging to understand and the local culture, while attractive, is alien to Liv. Yet, it is sunny, alluring and redemptive. “Finding meaning in life is difficult, but we all search for it,” Shifrin says. “I hope readers recognize themselves in Liv.” Humorous, charming, and witty, Why Liv? endeavors to explain why modern work is so devoid of purpose and why reactionary politics is so alluring in America. But most of all, it humbly attempts to offer motivation to persist in these difficult times. 

“Finding meaning in life is difficult, but we all search for it,” Shifrin says. “I hope readers recognize themselves in Liv.” 

Humorous, charming, and witty, Why Liv? endeavors to explain why modern work is so devoid of purpose and why reactionary politics is so alluring in America. But most of all, it humbly attempts to offer motivation to persist in these difficult times. 

About the Author: 

JON SEBASTIAN SHIFRIN is a writer whose political commentary and short stories have appeared in various newspapers and literary journals. He also is the founder of The Daily Dissident (, a popular current events web magazine. Jon lives in Washington, DC.

Q&A with Jon Shifrin
Author, Why Liv?

Question: What made you want to write this book?
Jon Shifrin: Growing up as the son of two artists—a painter and sculptor—burdened me with high expectations. Like a faith or creed, art has the ability to connect those who create it to an ancient artistic tradition, as well as endow a form of immortality via an artistic legacy. But, most significantly, art gives its most ardent devotees a sense of purpose. I wanted the same from my chosen profession. However, this was not to be.
The jobs I held over the years, while impressive on paper, provided no meaning whatsoever. In fact, they seemed utterly pointless; nobody, I suspected, would care or
even notice if they disappeared. Naturally, I fell into a deep funk. Only by discovering
my own creative outlet, writing, did I climb out of the morass and begin to experience
the sort of spiritual satisfaction I long sought.

The theme of finding meaning is central to Why Liv?—hence the title. Like me, Livingston, the protagonist, has achieved success by societal standards. He has gone
to the right schools and holds down a prestigious job. Yet, he feels empty inside. I believe that his angst, like my own, is commonplace and therefore speaks to many
struggling to find meaning in their lives, professional and otherwise.

Question: Why did you choose to have your main character struggle with how his
profession affected his personal identity?
JS: Personal identities are closely tied to our chosen professions, since we spend a
significant portion of our waking hours at work. This is why one of the first questions we
ask new acquaintances is what they do for a living. The response to it reveals critical
information about a person’s essence in ways that few, if any, other questions can.
While the centrality of work to personal identity varies to some degree by culture, an
underlying truism holds regardless: we are what we do.

Livingston, Why Liv?’s protagonist, identifies with his job, but also knows that it is
meaningless; thus, he feels meaningless himself. At first, he feels guilty for being
miserable, since he knows that, as a corporate high-flyer, he has got it better than most.
A close friend ridicules him for having “white man’s problems.” But he cannot shake the
sense that something is dramatically wrong in his life.

Liv’s struggles are universal. Occupational angst is endemic. One recent national
survey found that almost a third of Americans view their jobs simply as a means to “get
by,” while fully 40 percent of respondents to another study in the Netherlands said their
jobs had no reason to exist whatsoever. Many of us, regrettably, are on the same
sinking boat. The key is to find a way off.

Question: Your book deals mostly with an affluent society - why did you choose that setting and are the themes relatable beyond that sphere?
JS: Why Liv? takes places in a new Gilded Age—contemporary America. The main
characters hail from the glittering class whose members seamlessly glide at day’s end
from their high-pressure/highly compensated corporate jobs to exclusive places in a capital of capitalism, New York City. They are society’s winners, the “meritocracy’s”
most meritorious. They are the people many of us seek to be. And yet they are
overworked and unhappy, lost. The most self-aware among them, including the
protagonist, knows that the rat race is folly, and he wants out. There has to be better
way, he thinks, and he is right.

The promise of affluence undergirds our society. Most millennials, in fact, believe
they will be millionaires someday. The zealous pursuit of riches is a goal that, even if
achieved, likely will yield a miserable life featuring endless hours at a soulless job that
has no intrinsic value. Such is the paradox of our modern consumer-driven existence.
The cheese at the end of the maze is moldy. Thus, Why Liv?, though focused at the
outset on an exclusive niche—the one-percenters—is broadly applicable, as the novel
indicts a system to which 100 percent of us are subject.

Question: What is your writing process like?
JS: Dorothy Parker, the eminent critic and satirist, once said, “I hate writing, I love
having written.” I think most writers, myself included, identify with such sentiments, as
the process of putting words on a blank page is tough, even excruciating at times. I
require regular breaks while writing, like a football player dashing off to the sidelines for
“breathers.” The constant stoppages do not always work; oftentimes, I spend hours
gazing in vain at my computer screen, having conjured only a line or two. Here a certain
faith in one’s artistic ability is necessary to persevere, which itself is the key to success
in any endeavor worth pursuing, creative or otherwise.

Eventually, I clumsily cobble together a first draft of a book’s chapter or short
story full of narrative flights of fancy and inconsistencies. But the hardest part is behind
me. I then revise and revise, applying one layer on top of another, ironing out wrinkles
and adding richness and depth—the sort of ornamentation that gives a story added
punch. A relatively polished draft takes shape. Further revisions follow once I receive
editorial feedback and, eventually, the particular piece is “done,” or completed to the
point where returns on effort have sufficiently diminished that my efforts turn elsewhere.
Then and only then, do I truly love having written.

Question: What books and authors influenced your writing?
JS: W. Somerset Maugham and Franz Kafka, among my favorite writers, have
influenced my writing greatly. Maugham, for one, is a master storyteller. His lurid
descriptions of places and personalities are totally transporting. Much the same can be
said of Kafka, though his style, of course, is very different. The commonality that links
the two—and a feature that, I think, unites all great writing—is strong moral conviction.
That is, both Maugham and Kafka have something to say.

Maugham’s stories typically feature flawed characters that redeem or do not
redeem themselves, such as a supremely gifted artist in a Moon and Sixpence who is
also an unprincipled brute, while Kafka’s characters almost always are victimized by
some absurd circumstance. But both share insights into the way we live and act, and
the societal forces that shape our behavior. Attention must be paid.

I also aspire to challenge the reader in similar ways by casting into relief some of
the issues that, I believe, confront my generation: demanding yet meaningless jobs,
rising political intolerance, and so on. I want the reader, once finished with Why Liv?, to
question some very basic precepts about the times in which we live and to feel
uncomfortable yet also moved as one does when putting down a work by Maugham or
Kafka. That is my goal. It is for the reader to decide whether I achieve it.

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