Category Archives: fiction

General, non-specific fiction.

Review 209: Killer on the Road

LL 209 - Killer on the RoadKiller on the Road by James Ellroy

My brother gave this book to me for Christmas, and to be honest, I was a little bit hesitant to start reading it. Not because I thought it would be bad. On the contrary, all of my siblings are creative, intelligent and insightful people, and I would trust any of their reading recommendations without a moment’s hesitation. I just can’t always promise that I’ll like what they recommend.

The book my brother gave me before that was Narcissus and Goldemund by Hermann Hesse. It wasn’t a bad book, really…. it’s just that I hated the main character Goldemund with a white hot passion and wished grave misfortune on him for the entire book. In fact, the main thing that kept me reading the book was the hope that he’d eventually fall down a dry well and break his legs, or perhaps get hit in the head by a two-by-four and live the rest of his life as a drooling moron. That the book aroused such great passion in me is a testament to the author’s skills, although I don’t think that was quite his goal. Let’s just say that there were a few unpleasantly familiar themes that made it hard for me to be an objective judge of his actions.

Anyway, I figure my brother couldn’t have known that, so I don’t blame him. This book, however, more than makes up.

Serial killers who can't be bothered to kill people personally...

Serial killers who can’t be bothered to kill people personally…

Killer on the Road is a book about a serial killer. Now I know what you’re thinking – the serial killer angle has been done to death (HAR!). There are serial killers in all kinds of airport novels, comic books, movies, and TV shows. It would seem like there’s really no new way that you can do a serial killer, other than to have him use more and more horrifying means to kill people, and that’s all just flash. But trust me, even if you’re feeling a bit worn-out on serial killer fiction, I think you’ll want to read this one.

The standard portrayal of a serial killer in most modern literature is that of a cipher – we don’t know why he does what he does, and we don’t really care. The TV drama “Dexter” is an interesting exception, of course, although if I were a gambling man, I would suppose that show owes something of its origin to this book.

The traditional serial killer is a monster to be hunted down and destroyed. Even when serial killer characters are handled well, they’re still just foils against which we can play the police characters. Where the killer is a hyper-intellectual, the cop’s street knowledge and common sense will prevail. The twisted perversity of the murderer helps play up the straight morality of the cop – and society as a whole, by extension. Ultimately, of course, we just enjoy the chase in the sure and certain knowledge that we’ll see the Bad Guy in jail by the end of it.

In this book, the Bad Guy is in jail from the first page. Already, the author has taken away that carrot, and so we have to readjust our expectations a bit.

Martin Plunkett is a serial killer. Over the course of a decade, he murders nearly 70 people across America until he is finally caught in New York. This book is his story, and his explanation of why he did what he did.

Pictured: Research

Pictured: Research

Ellroy obviously did a whole lot of research for this book, probably both from the law enforcement side of serial killing and the psychological side. There would be no way to write the character of Plunkett as thoroughly, convincingly and – to a point – sympathetically as he did.

Make no mistake, Martin Plunkett is a monster. He kills without hesitation or remorse, and he does it to satisfy urges that normal people shouldn’t have. But at the same time, he is a human being. For all that his moral scale has been skewed waaaaaay off to the bad side, he still has worries, hopes and dreams. We get to see him grow up from childhood. He meets the circumstances and makes the choices that all eventually lead him to his vocation as serial killer. He didn’t just wake up one day and start killing, any more than I woke up one morning and started teaching English. There is a chain there, a somewhat logical series of events that he follows willingly. Once he gets going, the murders become defining moments of his life, rather than simply the horrible acts of a madman. The story isn’t about the dead. It’s about the killer.

In the end, what made Plunkett what he was? That is, after all, what the book is ostensibly trying to figure out, and it’s the question we always ask when we see something on the news that horrifies us. We want there to be a reason for such terrible things, because if there’s a reason for a problem, then the problem can be fixed. If we know that violence arises from factors X, Y, and Z, then all we have to do is correct for those things and it’ll be done. Right?

You never know...

You never know…

The answer is…. we don’t know. Was he a frustrated misanthrope, trying to get revenge on the world? Kind of. Was he an abused child who had no other way of expressing his childhood traumas? Sort of. Was he an avatar of true Evil, spawned by our corrupt and decaying culture? Maybe. It doesn’t matter to Plunkett, and therefore it doesn’t matter to us. He is what he is, and there’s no getting around that.

Ellroy could be warning us against trying to find such simple explanations for terrifying things. That in our search for order, there will always be the anomalies that simply cannot be fixed. There will always be people like Plunkett out there, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. In that way, he’s defying the expectations of serial killer fiction – the killer will never truly be understood and will never truly be caught. He’s always out there somewhere, even if the Plunketts of the world are in jail. There will always be a killer on the road somewhere…

—–
“I will not let you pity me. Charles Manson, babbling in his cell, deserves pity; Ted Bundy, protesting his innocence in order to attract correspondence from lonely women, deserves contempt. I deserve awe for standing inviolate at the end of the journey I am about to describe, and since the force of my nightmare prohibits surcease, you will give it to me.”

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Filed under fiction, James Ellroy, serial killer, thriller

Review 173: Still Life With Woodpecker

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

When my brother gave me this book for Christmas, he told me to “drink in the writing.” Or something to that effect. Whatever it was, he heaped praise on Robbins’ use of language. Several people in my family had read this, or some other Tom Robbins book, and they all enthusiastically agreed that reading him was a pleasure unto itself, above and beyond the enjoyment one gets from reading the actual story. I was promised an actual Reading Experience, and that promise was fulfilled in spades.

Reading Robbins is like sitting through a storm. His words flow down the page like the acid dreams of a long-reformed hippie. They dance and spin, curling into strange and exotic shapes that you can’t quite take in on the first read, so you look at the page again, convinced that there must have been something there that you missed. You find yourself at the end of a section, convinced that you’ve read it, but not entirely sure what you’ve read. Or you go back and read it again just because reading it the first time was just such fun.

Just pretend I'm not here. (photo by DeathandDisinfectant on DeviantArt)

Most modern writers do their best to keep you involved in the story, to keep the writing from drawing attention to itself. Much in the same way that many filmmakers try to keep you from thinking, “Oh, I’m looking through a camera,” so do writers try to keep you from thinking about the words – their lens through which they transmit their message and images. Robbins completely eschews this principle – not only does he make sure you notice his words, he goes out of the way to make the words themselves more interesting than the story.

This is not to say that the story isn’t interesting, of course. It is a romance, albeit a strange and brambly one. A young princess, the only child of an exiled king and queen, has vowed to devote her life to the betterment of the Earth, to use her royal station to help the world and to absolutely never fall in love – or even have sex – again. For very good reasons, of course. Nothing like having a miscarriage while cheerleading for your college football team to dampen your reproductive urges. This plan works up until she gets to a ecology conference in Maui, where she meets the man of her nightmares – a notorious terrorist who is nicknamed the Woodpecker.

The Woodpecker (his real name is Bernard) is a self-professed outlaw, a man who takes joy in subverting order, thumbing his nose at authority and living with a complete disregard for legal niceties such as not blowing things up. He’s been in prison and escaped, and has only a short time until the statute of limitations finally runs out. This doesn’t stop Bernie from bringing dynamite with him to Maui, and under the influence of alcohol and lust and rage, he tips his hand too soon. The only thing standing between him and prison is the beautiful red-headed princess – Leigh-Cherie – who hates him at first sight and swears that there is absolutely nothing about him that she finds redeeming.

Yes, yes, you hate each other. GET A ROOM!

We all know where that kind of thinking leads.

They fall in love, of course, a whirlwind outlaw romance that is only put to rest when Bernie finally lands back in prison. As a show of solitude to her lover, Leigh-Cherie locks herself in her room, turning it into a cell to mirror that of her beloved, and swears not to leave it until he leaves his. The only things in the room are a bed, a chamber pot, and a pack of Camel cigarettes.

That’s where things start to get weird.

The nice thing about this book is that you don’t really have to ponder what the themes were – Robbins points them out quite clearly by the end of the book, so if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll be able to get it the next time ’round. It’s a story about love, of course, and the irrational, weird turns it can take. It’s about history, about the great, never-ending “why” that drives us from one act to the next. And, interestingly enough, it’s about our relationship with the physical world, from the greatest of the Egyptian pyramids to the most mundane pack of Camels.

During her self-inflicted time in solitary, Leigh-Cherie constructs a vast universe inside the label of her cigarettes (which she never actually smokes) and it leads her to truths and realizations that would confound the greatest philosopher or the most devoted mystic. By contemplating the mundane, she finds the key to the universe.

Speaking of relating to objects, the story itself is a kind of romance between Robbins and his typewriter – a Remington SL3 – which doesn’t, insofar as I have been able to tell, exist. Theirs is a tumultuous love. It begins with a tentative love, a hope that the machine is The One for this book. It passes through admiration and infatuation, only to end with rejection as Robbins finishes the book in longhand.

Oh my god, I can see forever!! And a naked man, BUT MOSTLY FOREVER!!!

As Robbins relates to his Remington, and Leigh-Cherie to her pack of Camels, so do we have relationships with objects. We become familiar with our possessions, imbuing them with character and personality. Not only that, but once we give consideration to the history of that object – its design and manufacturing, where the idea and the materials came from – we find that we can read the history of the universe in something as simple as a paper clip.

It’s a weird and wonderful book. The characters are vibrant and real, in a kind of hyper-real way. It’s funny and bright, changing pace and rhythm from page to page and really is a delight to sit and read. Even more fun to read aloud, actually, so if you have a chance to do that, jump and take it.

—————————————————-
“Plato did claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Oedipus Rex was not so sure.”
– Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
—————————————————-

Tom Robbins on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Amazon.com

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Filed under anarchy, fiction, humor, romance, terrorism, Tom Robbins, writing

Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

————————–
“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

Cormac McCarthy on Wikipedia
Blood Meridian on Wikipedia
The Cormac McCarthy Society
Blood Meridian on Amazon.com

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Filed under Cormac McCarthy, death, dystopia, fiction, good and evil, morality, murder, survival

Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

———————————
“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
——-

[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 160: The Day After and Other Stories

The Day After and Other Stories by Wil Wheaton

If you had asked me, back in 1988 or so, – when I was a Trek fan who hadn’t quite figured out the real reason I liked seeing Wesley Crusher on screen – what Wil Wheaton was doing at any given time, it would have sounded like a completely irrational question. How should I know? He’s probably doing whatever it is actors do in their free time, which my mind generally rendered as some sort of eternal cocktail party where all the famous people knew each other and none of them would be caught dead with a prole such as myself.

And this isn’t just Wheaton – the idea that I could know what any of my favorite creative people were up to at any given moment was just impossible back then. It was just a fact of life. I am over here, and they are over there, and the chances of our two spheres of reality intersecting were precisely nil. They were members of America’s elect, and I was, well, me.

Absolutely true. (image from Zazzle.com)

Now it’s the future, and we have connected our lives online to an extent that would have been almost unfathomable twenty years ago. Wheaton has greatly expanded his creative repertoire, and I am an Internationally Famous Podcaster and Book Reviewer. [1] For those who have access to it, the internet has democratized creativity in many ways. People who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the world now have a chance to shine, and the daily workings of the famous are laid bare to everyone with a Twitter account.

Suddenly we can see that these people aren’t as special as we thought they were – they’re not living the eternal cocktail party of the gods. They’re working and juggling their careers and their families. They’re getting upset about politics and worrying about paying the bills. They’re having great ideas that never quite work out and massaging small ideas until they bloom. The creative process is now open to everyone, and the potential for your work to be noticed is that much greater.

Of course, the caveat is that your creative work has to be that much better. If you’re a short fiction writer, for example, you no longer have to shop around for agents and wait for the big publishing companies to take on your book. You can publish it by yourself and see what happens. But if that’s the route you’ve chosen to take, then you’d better be damn good. There are a whole lot of fish in that pond, and you’re only going to end up on the internet’s dinner table if you are big, juicy and succulent.

And then this fish is me... (photo by Corey Johnson)

Okay, I don’t know where that particular metaphor came from. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wil Wheaton is definitely one of those big, succulent fish. He’s got his years of work in film and TV to support him, and he has become one of the stars of the 21st-century internet. As of this writing, he has over 1.9 million Twitter followers and runs a very successful blog. He’s a darling of the summer convention season and probably the TV guest star that I most look forward to seeing. He makes a living writing and blogging and acting, has a gorgeous wife and two sons that have turned out to be fine young men.

So, with all that, why should he be scared to publish this book, his first collection of short fiction? After all, it’s a limited print run, and if it fails then so what? It’s not like this will be the end of the Vast Wheaton Empire, right? Why should this be so important to him?

There are also things he wishes the world never saw, but that clown left the clown car years ago...

It’s because he understands the new dynamic between the creator and the consumer. He understands that his creative work must live or die on its own merits, and not just because it’s Wil Wheaton putting his name on the cover. He knows that he’s no better than anyone else who loves his craft and puts it out for the world to see.

The Day After and Other Stories is a very short collection of four stories that Wheaton has written – his first published collection of fiction. The title story takes its name from the movie of the same title, and is an exploration into what it might be like to be a survivor of the end of the world. Tim, a young man just out of high school, is living among the dead. The walking dead, that is. Zombies have taken over everything, and he and a few people from his town are holed up in a high school gym in the hopes that things might someday get better soon. Of course, they won’t. Tim knows that, the girl he loves, Erica, knows that – everybody knows that. But they have to try and hold on anyway, because there’s nothing else they can do.

“Room 302” is a bit of flash fiction, inspired by a photograph. Most of it is a pretty straightforward analysis of a mediocre photo, and an explanation of why it can’t be used in a news paper. Fine, a nice scene and some good dialogue – with a creepy twist at the end that, much like “The Day After,” makes me wish there was more story to read.

Wheaton tells us that “The Language Barrier” was inspired by a real event – overhearing a couple of ladies having a heated conversation in a mixture of Russian and English. In the story, the conversation is exactly that, but the eavesdropper, Mike, does what we wish we all might be able to do – he steps in and says what most needs to be said. It’s one of those moments where l’esprit d’escalier is beaten to the punch.

It turns out that Wil is actually the monkey's lucky charm.

Finally, “Poor Places” rose from Wheaton’s love of poker. I never was able to get into poker, probably because I am really risk-averse when it comes to money, but there was a time in the mid-Aughts where poker was the trendiest game to be had. In this story, a couple of players in their local Hollywood bar proceed to fleece some tourists in a back-room poker parlor. It’s probably the weakest of the four stories, but I grant that not knowing poker lingo really doesn’t help.

All in all, they’re four good stories. Wheaton has a good ear for dialogue and a way of making characters sound believable, even if the plot structure is a little weak in points, or the narration tries to carry more weight than it can bear.

Probably because it is the longest of the stories, “The Day After” is the most guilty of this – Tim is described by other characters as “kind of an asshole,” but his actions don’t really match that so much. He complains a lot, sure, but who wouldn’t be a bit bitchy after human civilization has gone to the zombies? When he’s told it’s his time to fill the generator, he goes. When the girl he’s crushing on offers a bit of apocalypse-sex, he considers turning it down, the way he did when they were in high school to protect her reputation. We don’t see the guy that the other characters do, which makes me wonder what else we’re not seeing. Internal conflict is a great hook upon which to hang a story, but the conflict between others’ view of him and his view of himself isn’t developed nearly as well as it should be.

In addition, his internal narrative tells us things that would be better shown, and overall the whole thing could stand to be tightened up. I also have some questions regarding the gas can (a full one left next to the generator? Who would have left that there?) and their discovery of Alvin (the guy camped out only about twenty feet from the school gym and never noticed that there were survivors living in there?) While interesting, adding a mini-quest to the story – get gas, then fill the generator – would have been fun, and the dead guy just served to heighten the sense of loneliness that was already there. A sense that was about to be mitigated once they got back into the gym with the other survivors. It’s nitpicking, but sometimes that just has to be done….

Maybe the lives of the Famous really are different after all...

All that said, it looks like the beginning of a much longer story, albeit a bleak one, which I hope he works on more. [2]

If you haven’t bought this, you’re probably out of luck – the print run lasted for a very brief window of time, but I reckon an electronic version of it will be up at some point. If it is, scrape a few bucks together and pick it up. It’s a quick read, and I feel like it’ll be something to hold on to if Wheaton decides to pursue more fiction. If he does, I’m sure he will approach it with the same honesty and humility that he had when he released this book, which means that I’ll certainly be willing to pick it up.

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“I’m terrified that nobody’s going to like it, but the goal isn’t to be perfect; the goal is to be creative. I’m going to keep saying that until I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up.”
– Wil Wheaton, from his blog
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[1] Source: Me

[2] When I was in college, my creative writing teacher told me exactly that – the short story I had written was actually the beginning of a novel. The whole thing immediately dried up under my fingers and turned to dust, and the novel he thought I was writing never came to be. I hope Mr. Wheaton is made of sterner stuff than I was.

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
The Day After on Amazon.com (Kindle only)
Wil Wheaton’s blog
Wil Wheaton on Twitter

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Filed under anthology, fiction, short stories, Wil Wheaton, zombies

Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

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“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Amazon.com

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Filed under fiction, humor, Ken Kesey, made into movies, psychology, therapy

Lost in the Stacks 8: Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has a guilty pleasure book. It might be one author or a specific series or even a whole genre – that book you don’t want to be seen reading. The book you know your high school English teacher would scold you for wasting your time with. The book you feel stupid talking about at parties because you know they’re going to say, “Really? That’s an interesting choice. I enjoy reading James Joyce in my free time and have first editions of the collected works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in every room of my home,” after which they all laugh at you until you run out of the party in shame and swear never to read another word of anything fun as long as you live. For example.

You didn't know about Twain's little-known short story, "A Connecticut Yankee in a 30th Century Court?" It's fascinating, really....

But should it really be that way? Why do we let the bestseller lists and “Best Books of ALL TIME” lists or some knucklehead with a podcast tell us what we should read and what we should like? In this edition of Lost in the Stacks, we explore the idea of Guilty Pleasure Reading and whether or not the concept should even exist. Share your guilty pleasures with us and stand up for your tastes in reading!

Obama’s Book Club
NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Guardian’s Best Books
Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels
The Telegraph: Top 100 Books
New York Times Bestseller List
The Comics Code Authority on Wikipedia

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Filed under classics, comic books, criticism, culture, fantasy, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, reading, reviewing, science fiction, society