Puzzling Through Our Eternal Quest for Wellness

Rachel Syme in The New Yorker:

About halfway through a recent episode of “POOG,” a new podcast that is essentially one long, unbroken conversation about “wellness” between the comedians and longtime friends Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, the hosts spend several minutes trying—and failing—to devise a grand theory about the existential sorrow of eating ice cream. “The pleasure of eating an ice-cream cone for me,” Novak says, in the blustery tone of a motivational speaker, “involves the attempt to contain, catch up, stay present to the cone. Because the cone will not wait.” Berlant, a seasoned improviser, leaps into the game. “And it’s grief,” she says, with no trace of irony. “And it’s loss, because it’s so beautiful, it’s handed to you, and you’re constantly having to reckon with the fact that it is dying, and yet you’re experiencing it.”

From here, the conversation begins to warp into almost sublime absurdity. Novak suggests that what she ultimately desires is not the cone itself but the emptiness that comes after the cone has been consumed, or what she calls “the dead endlessness of infinite possibility.” She makes several attempts to refine this idea, in a state of increasing agitation. And then she begins to cry. “Are you crying because you are still untangling what this theory is?” Berlant asks. “No,” Novak blubbers. “I’m crying out of the humiliation of being seen as I am.”

At first, listening to this meltdown, I wondered what, precisely, was going on. Novak and Berlant are brilliant comics, denizens of the alternative-standup scene that bridges the gap between punch lines and performance art. They had to be up to something. And then, after several incantatory hours of listening to them talk, it became clear: “poog” is a show about wellness which is, in a dazzling and purposefully deranged way, utterly unwell. Of course Novak can’t process her desire to have everything and nothing at once; like so much of the language of being “healthy” in a fractured world, her yearning can never compute. “poog” is not just “Goop” (as in Gwyneth Paltrow’s life-style empire) spelled backward—it’s an attempt to push the wellness industrial complex fully through the looking glass. Each episode begins the same way. “This is our hobby,” Berlant says. “This is our hell,” Novak adds. “This is our naked desire for free products,” Berlant concludes.

More here.