A Dark and Stormy Night

I’m sitting in my darkened apartment, hiding from trick-or-treaters, thinking about my great novel-writing adventure which is due to start in just a couple of hours. And for you, the loyal readers of my website, I’m going to give an extra-special bonus and give away the ending:

I’m not going to be able to finish it.

Eh, I don’t know. I’ll still give it a go of course, and see how long I last. But my hopes and attention span have dwindled already, and I haven’t even started yet. Plus all the other distractions — the work which I can’t seem to finish, the fact that I’ve got to spend the entire next week in LA for work, and so many other things that it seems like I’m just looking for something to distract me.

Part of the reason I’m so disillusioned is because I just read Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore. Reading the NaNoWriMo site gives you the feeling of a bunch of excited people on a skydiving plane, getting themselves and each other psyched up about jumping out the door and feeling the exhiliration of making something creative. Reading Bloodsucking Fiends gave me the feeling of seeing the guy in front of me give everybody else a high five then make a battle cry and throw himself out of the plane, having his parachute fail to open, getting chopped up in the blades of a passing helicopter, bounce off a high-rise building, then land in a garbage truck.

It’s not the worst novel I’ve ever read — I’ve got about 15 Star Wars novels, remember. It’s not even the worst vampire novel I’ve ever read. But it’s one of the most depressing. It’s got this smarmy residue over the whole thing, a gross combination of the respective smarminess of Los Angeles and San Francisco that are bad enough on their own but even worse when combined. And you can tell the guy has been told by friends and agents all his life that he’s funny, and he’s writing the whole thing thinking how witty and clever he is and how his characters are lovable misfits and his situations novel and inventive and his dialogue just sparkles. And that in the end maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn a little something about ourselves.

But the characters are annoying, the wacky and subversive things they do are all contrived (they bowl with frozen turkeys in a Safeway after hours! how crazy is that?!?), the characters are stereotypes, and a lot of it is just downright offensive. He’s got plenty of the stock stereotypes, like the guys in Chinatown who talk with ls instead of rs, or the noble AIDS victims who are ciphers except for their disease. But also the American Beauty-style stereotypes: where you take a totally trite and insipid character, put one predictable spin on it, and act like you’ve suddenly created life from clay. I’d heard lots of positive reviews about it, and I’m sure that they liked it just because it made a half-step of effort past the most obvious cliches into slightly less obvious ones. And they probably like it because it’s so “refreshingly free of political correctness,” which means that it’s misogynistic and racist. Plus, he name-drops Anne Rice and Queen of the Damned as if they were good.

The whole book just feels like having an over-long conversation with someone who has above-average intelligence and a reasonable imagination, but is horribly, cripplingly shallow, and just doesn’t have the talent to reach his aspirations. And that’s about the least inspiring thing to read when you’re supposed to start writing. Reading something transparently bad just gives you the reassurance that no matter how talentless you are, at least you’re better than that. And reading something really good, of course, gives you something to aspire to. Reading this was just unsettling and depressing — it’s possible to be an uninspired C-list hack doomed to mediocrity, and still get published and praise and positive reviews and never realize how much you suck.

On the other hand, I’m still wanting to do NaNoWriMo out of spite. Spite for Alma Hromic, a humorless, bitter, self-important woman who would be bad enough just for writing “I was born with ink in my veins, in a town on the banks of an ancient river, in a country which no longer exists.” But she secured her place as a hero to the creative process with this screed against NaNoWriMo which shows how much she completely misses the point. (Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how much people put their self-worth into their own writing ability, but I guess that’s a topic for another therapy session).

So this book, if it ever gets finished, will be dedicated to you, Ms. Hromic!

Discworld and Apple

Two more things I forgot:

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, September 27th), Terry Pratchett will be in San Francisco reading from and signing copies of his new book, Thud!. I’m going to go check it out with Mac and figured other Pratchett fans might be interested.

And this week’s cover of Entertainment Weekly keeps cracking me up. Fiona Apple is as creepy as ever, and Sheryl Crow just looks kind of haunted and annoyed. Like she’s asking, “Uh… is she still there?”

I don’t have much of an opinion one way or the other about Fiona Apple or her music, but I wish she’d just cheer the hell up and eat something. I get the impression that she just sneaks around behind generally happy people, like say Sheryl Crow, and just does a total Wednesday Addams on them, making them headachey and kind of sad but unable to say anything out of politeness.

Sunny and Clear

I read a whole book by myself! It was The Partly-Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. It left me feeling strangely disconcerted. Here’s where I explain why:

1) It made me feel stupid. Not ignorant, but stupid. And she’s got a whole essay about Bush vs. Gore that re-iterates a basic truth: people don’t like to feel stupid, and the popular perception of Gore as an arrogant nerd is what cost him the election. The book isn’t arrogant, but for me it was still a reminder that there’s a lot I don’t know about history, politics, and current events.

I’ve accepted for a while that there’s plenty about politics of which I’m completely ignorant, but I’ve always rationalized it away. “Those people just travel in different circles than I do.” “I can’t watch the news because I get liberal outrage fatigue too quickly.” “I know enough about the key issues to make an informed vote, but leave the details to the people who are more interested in the finer points.” Those excuses are seeming more and more hollow. It’s not just that I don’t know about current events, but I can’t. Most of it just doesn’t make sense to me.

And this book keeps me from using the nerd excuse. I can’t say that the parts of my brain that I could devote to knowing the intricacies of the Karl Rove scandal and the background of the Iraq invasion and its key players, are instead devoted to scripting languages and C++ template syntax and tech trees in World of Warcraft. Because there are plenty of people who know more about that stuff than I do, and can remember the name of the current Attorney General.

2) It made me feel that my time is running out. Even if I did resolve to get more up to speed with what’s going on in the world, I don’t know how I’d be able to do it. It was one thing when I could point to work and say that that was taking up all my time, but now I can’t even do that, and I still don’t have enough time. I can’t even reliably say where it’s all going — I’m contracting now, so I can now point to the block of time I spent today working on the project. But the rest is a mystery. Is it possible I keep getting abducted by aliens? Can you be narcoleptic and not realize it?

My friend Moe was complaining that he needed to get rid of his television altogether, because he spent way too much time watching news programs on cable. The thing I kept wondering was how did he even find the time to spend that much time watching news?

3) It made me feel nostalgic. Not in the heartwarming sense, but the claustrophobic “I remember what things used to be like, and that time is completely lost to me forever” walls-closing-in sense of dread. I can remember a time when I would’ve read this book and identified with every essay. I used to be like that — nerdy and self-deprecating while still being idealistic, always balancing passion about an issue and cynical detachment. Now, though, much of the book just strikes me as trite. It gets better towards the end, as she goes deeper into her subjects, but for a lot I just kept hitting phrases that made me think, “typical self-absorbed shallow liberal sense of entitlement.” Which is odd, because I’m a typical self-absorbed shallow liberal with a sense of entitlement, so how come I can no longer relate?

4) Even though I know what Vowell’s voice sounds like, I kept hearing it as if it were read by my friend Emily. They strike me as remarkably similar except Vowell’s more on the fence about Canada. Actually, there’s a whole essay in which she (Vowell) describes how Americans perceive Canadians, and I thought she was right on the money — basically, they have less in their history to be ashamed of, but less to be proud of either. She paints them as a whole nation of polite and cultured people who don’t take risks. Which may sound disparaging, but is better than the usual answer to “What do Americans really think of Canadians?” “We don’t.”

I don’t think the book was perfect, and I wasn’t completely won over. But I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to be won over, because the book isn’t trying to persuade its readers of anything. It’s just Vowell making sometimes insightful observations and speaking with her own voice. And that voice is great to have out there, if only as an alternative to the polarized, partisan nonsense.

Vowell can describe how she cried all through the Bush inauguration without the whole piece sounding like an attack, but instead a fair analysis of the state of American politics as perceived by the public. She defends Americans’ love of goofing off and being capitalist consumers with no sense of excess but also no sense of guilt; the whole point of “the pursuit of happiness” is that the good life is possible, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of because we work to make it happen.

And she can be fiercely patriotic without its coming across as empty rhetoric, but instead a sincere belief (she describes it as her own religion) that America is the ideal, and it’s up to us to make it work. That idea — that we’re not Americans by accident of our birth, but because of our actions and our beliefs, and that that is what’s worth defending and keeping honest — that’s something we all need to be reminded of.

Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Social Commentary

I was fairly nonplussed about the new Harry Potter book coming out, but the package tracking from amazon.com has gotten me back around to plussed. I pre-ordered it, more out of laziness than omg omg i’ve got 2 know what happens!!!! excitement. I kept seeing promotional countdowns all over Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then Amazon politely recommended that I pre-order it, since I’ve bought (and read, usually all in one session) all the other other ones. So I figured instead of fighting crowds of slobbering, pimply people in wizard hats, and the children who’ll be buying the book as well, I’d just have it sent to me and read it at my leisure (pronounced to rhyme with “pleasure,” of course).

In almost-but-not-quite retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Going for convenience is missing the point almost as much as the trite and curmudgeonly op/ed pieces written by this bloke and this one. They hit all the usual marks when people write about Harry Potter: it’s excessive hype, bookstores open at midnight, sales are beyond comprehension, Pope spoke out against it, a Canadian supreme court issued gag orders on people who bought early copies, it’s a cultural phenomenon even though the books aren’t really all that good, but Rowling gives to charity so she’s all right, and there’s adults reading it as well as kids, and hey look I’m getting my book too so I’m just as guilty as anyone else isn’t life funny? Those columns don’t really provide any new insight other than to dispel the notion that British people are inherently wry.

Yes, it’s good that the books encourage kids to read. That’s every bit as true now as it was when the first one sold eighteen bajillion copies. But it’s amazing how quickly commentators take the easy way out — snap some pictures of a kid in horn-rimmed glasses and a wizard hat reading a book on the floor of a bookstore, mention how Rowling’s made a metric assload of money, talk about “religious” groups protesting the book, and you’re done, like Groundhog Day. What’s much more interesting is seeing how these pop media releases turn into such huge events.

It’s easy to say that it’s all advertising and marketing and publishers and book-chains and media outlets building up hype. But that doesn’t give the fans enough credit. The DaVinci Code sold a ton of copies but didn’t have people making such a big show of their purchase. Fans, even really young ones, are more media-savvy than that, and they wouldn’t be dressing up and going to bookstores unless they wanted to be part of an event. Even if this book somehow ends up being more profound than any of the previous ones, the kind of book that changes a child’s life forever, the experience of actually reading it won’t be as memorable as going out and just being there with dozens-to-hundreds of other people who are all shameless fans of the same thing. It’s why people stood in line for hours to see Revenge of the Sith — whether the actual “product” was any good was pretty much irrelevant. Being there was what was important.

And for the record, I don’t think Rowling gets enough credit. It’s easy to pont out how much money she’s made and dismiss it as just another example of easily-accessible “mass entertainment” prevailing over True Art, while begrudgingly making concessions about charity and the magic of a child reading. But there’s a lot to be said for writing something that appeals to such a wide age range. Great literature? Maybe not. But they do have messages about family, friendship, responsibility, and staying true to your principles even at the risk of being popular. And they exist as more than just marketing vehicles for some trading card game (all the product promotion came afterwards). And what’s better, a competently-written book that reaches millions of people, or an important work of literature that everyone means to get around to reading someday but for now we’d rather just sit and play Pokemon?

Laudable.com

I don’t know from audiobooks. Just not my scene, man. Even if I did have the attention span for reading material that lasted longer than the time it takes to have a bowel movement, I get nervous and my mind wanders when I don’t have more than one source of input. What are you supposed to do when you’re listening to someone read you a book? I don’t take public transit and have never had to commute longer than 30 minutes. And I sure as hell don’t exercise. Are you just supposed to stare at the wall? I’m so self-conscious that I can’t even look directly at a wall for more than a few seconds without feeling uncomfortable.

The only time I tried an audiobook was back when I lived in Georgia and decided to take a solo road trip to visit my friend Alfredo in Washington DC. The only audiobooks the Conyers library had available were a biography of Princess Diana and a couple of Star Trek novelizations, so it shouldn’t be any surprise which one I picked. Did you know that Diana’s family was originally part of the House of… okay but seriously. The Star Trek book was engaging enough, and fine for passing the time while driving through the Carolinas, but it’s hardly literature. Real literature doesn’t include laser sound effects, for one thing. The book was read by Levar Burton, which gave it a “Reading Rainbow” quality. (I could be making that up, since I don’t remember which cast member actually read it, but I’m allowed to make shit up because I can do anything!) Anyway, it was fine for that one trip, but I never had the desire to try another one. And I can’t imagine that blind people (no offense) and those who go on long road trips by themselves (no offense) are enough to drive the popularity of the things.

It’s certainly not because the audio adds anything to the experience. Today I’ve been feeling even more culturally illiterate than usual, so I started trying to find a podcast of National Public Radio (the website is kind of Mac-hostile). That didn’t turn up anything useful, but I did find iTunes carrying an audio book of Roy Blount, Jr.’s book, Feet on the Street. “Cool,” I thought, and clicked on the preview.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now, no offense intended to Narrator Paul Boehmer; dude’s got hella diction, yo. But casting is crucial. And if you’re, say, Paul Winfield, and you’re three chapters into reading the autobiography of, say, Rosie Perez, don’t you have some kind of obligation as a professional narrator to stop and say, “Hey wait a second… this just isn’t working out.”

I just spent a whole over-long blog post going on about Roy Blount Jr’s voice and how it comes through in his writing. And it ain’t that. Part of that lack of pretension I was talking about, is the fact that Blount can write the line “Chameleons skitter across turquoise stucco to disappear among elephant-ear leaves and bougainvillea blossoms, which Tennessee Williams likened to bloodshot eyes,” without it sounding all fruity. Even when he is referencing Tennessee Williams. It’s the author’s voice that’s important — if you were doing an audiobook version of Walt Whitman poems, would you cast Nathan Lane?

I was already halfway through this blog post before I checked the site again, clicked on the wrong link, and found the abridged version, which it turns out Blount narrates himself. (I’d assumed that they’d use the same narrator for both versions, and just audio-edit out the parts they wanted to abridge). Now that’s more like it. Picayune has just barely over two syllables, not three. Oyster has an extra r in there somewhere. And you can tell it’s genuine, because it’s got that half-stilted, half-familiar sound that comes from a non-actor reading his own work.

Sounds like one of my uncles proudly reading a kid’s book report to the family. At least, I imagine it would until he got to the parts of the book about how New Orleans taught him to be less apprehensive around gay men. Or how he was walking along the banquette (pronounced banquette) one morning and “coming the other way… are two head-shaven guys and between them a pretty woman with long black switchy hair… And here, from across the street, is what I hear the woman say: ‘My hole hurts!'”

So let it be said that I’m against audiobooks. At least, until I find the version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s as read by James Earl Jones.

Betcha I can tell ya where ya got them shoes

In all the hoopla over four-year-old media, I forgot to write about Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr.

It’s always amusing to read reviews on Amazon from people who just plain don’t get it, but I can’t fault “New Orleans traveller” too much, because apparently he or she was looking for a travelogue about New Orleans. This book isn’t a travelogue, even though I feel I’ve got a better idea of the city now than I did from any number of movies or books or television specials about it. This book does exactly what the title says: rambles. And it’s a mistake going into a Roy Blount Jr. book expecting to find a hands-off, balanced analysis of the topic at hand; you read the book to find out what Blount has to say about it.

Expecting a straightforward travelogue out of Roy Blount Jr. is missing the point as much as expecting Dave Barry-esque “humorous essays” out of his essay books, or calling his memoir “self-indulgent” or “not as funny as I was hoping from the Garrison Keillor show.” Blount doesn’t just write about cities or people or politics or sports or dogs or presidents or whatever the topic is at hand; Blount writes about himself. And his friends, and his family, pets he’s owned, jobs he’s had, movies he’s seen, things he’s found at junk stores, and whatever else pops into his mind as relevant to the subject. By the end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read a travelogue as much as you feel that you’ve caught up with an old friend who for this conversation, happened to keep veering back to the topic of New Orleans.

That’s why I think Blount’s writing transcends the “humor” or “travel” or “essays” labels that get assigned to them in bookstores. Taken together as a body of work, it’s about the whole of human existence, at least as much as he’s processed. Hyperbolic? Maybe, but then again, somewhere between hyperbole and “he’s funny on the radio” describes how amazed I am by his writing. When I’m reading his stuff, it’s like watching a magician who’s pointing out the wires and mirrors and hidden pockets in his cape, but is still somehow able to make a flock of doves appear out of nowhere and leave you convinced that it’s magic. He’s written whole essays about writing and how difficult and laborious process it is, but can still come up with a perfectly concise and evocative phrase to describe New Orleans humidity (“those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting hamfat”) and make it sound as if the phrase had just popped into his head in the middle of an unfocused ramble.

When people talk about writing, they talk about how difficult it is to find your “voice.” Blount’s not only found his voice, but it’s all-encompassing. It’s the voice of a man who’s got total control over the English language combined with a total lack of pretension. It’s “folksy” without being naive, funny without being meaningless, rambling without being pointless, introspective without being self-indulgent, and disarming without being deceptive. Once you’re disarmed, he can talk about oysters and orphans and leave you with sympathy for both. In this book, he talks about the death of his friend Slick Lawson, and it was neither a casual aside nor a maudlin eulogy, but real, genuine memories. And of course, memories are what writing is all about.

Blount’s been my favorite writer for years. One of my favorite things I own is a postcard he sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote to him back when I was a sophomore in college. It’s one of the old kinds, with the scalloped edges, and has a photograph of two radio personalities from Alabama I’ve never heard of. On the back are a couple of paragraphs of tiny handwriting, responding amiably to a couple of the points in the letter and wishing me well. Somebody else reading it wouldn’t think much of it — it doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not particularly funny for a “humorist,” and there are references to things that I must’ve written in my three-page computer-typed letter that even I don’t remember writing.

But it was the perfect response. In a short essay called “Having Wonderful Time Suckling Little Dog” in his book Now, Where Were We?, he writes about his postcard collection and how postcards, especially second-hand ones, always have something more going on than is obvious on the surface. Bizarre or bizarrely mundane photographs, personal messages without any context, and captions that are either completely misplaced or painfully self-apparent — the best postcard is at the same time a non-sequitur and something indefinably familiar. So what would be better to send to a young man who’d sent a long, gushing fan letter out of nowhere, expressing an admiration for his work and an odd sense of familiarity just from reading it?

Blount uses a lot of poetry in his work, and it’s almost always clever and funny and bounces around an idea. But the real poetry — the sense that you’ve just read something profound without seeing it coming, and the admiration for an idea that is perfectly expressed using just the right words — is in his prose. I haven’t yet read his biography of Robert E. Lee, but considering how much Blount talks about Lee in Feet on the Street, I’m worried that he may have kept himself out of the biography and stuck to the facts. That would be a huge disappointment. I want to see Blount write more biographies, and make himself as much as a character as he always does — not some dry, distant dump of some other person’s life, but a real conversation. “Here’s everything I’ve figured about how life works so far. What’ve you got?”