Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Why Youtube Hurts My Soul

Watch the ad that sponsors the video that is a trailer for the movie that’s the first of a trilogy that you’ll have to buy on DVD to see uncut, upon which you’ll see ads for the BluRay which has even more content including the trailer for the spinoff that will have the tie-in videogame for the system you want that you’ll have to sift through six blades of ads to launch before you see eight studios advertising their brand on the load screen, all company logos flashing directly above the manufacturer of your TV or monitor, which is eternally stamped before your eyes. And you pay for the bandwidth.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Me, Myself and You

You take a hundred dollars and tomorrow's newspaper. Bet everything on and win the first, second and third races. In the fourth, bet a thousand on the most favored horse that loses. Sit out the fifth, then bet everything and win the sixth and seventh. Blow five thousand on any horse you like that loses in the eighth. Before the ninth, go up to the window and make a show of being unable to pick a horse. Even ask the teller for his advice. He won't say anything – every man can see enough of the future to know it’d get him fired. Wind up not betting on any of them and go home for the day with your winnings, which will be comfortably over a hundred thousand.

It's not the millionaire's scoop you want. I know because I wanted it, back when I was you. But you've got to lose some of the time, and never come out ludicrously far ahead. Humility is a smokescreen, and in time you’ll come to realize owning just one percent of the company that topples Apple makes you plenty rich enough. It's a principle you'll soon be applying in the Commodities Market, in politics, and at the lab when you purposefully get every equation wrong and convince the company that these new particles are useless. Your co-researchers cannot be allowed to figure out time travel too. This only works if we're the only one in on it - me, myself, and you.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Thanks Anyway

They were pale and pink and puffy people. They wore too much and it did not keep them warm. Though they arrived on large boats, they did not return to them or sale away to wherever they were meant to live. Instead they dug at frozen ground, hunted drunkenly and starved sober. The Woman of Myth hollowed out a gourd and stuffed it with crops. She held it aloft, commanding, "Give us your poor and your tired."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fifteen Authors Who Influenced Me

There's a game running around where writers name fifteen other writers who influenced them. I did it for Paul Brazill, but people kept tagging me on Facebook about it anyway. Reading a few, I was annoyed not knowing how these authors influenced the people listing them. So I'm going to do it again, but I'm also going to say a little about them. Prepare to watch a man admit he stayed up to 1:00 AM Fridays to watch TV and compare cartoonists to classicists. Dignity, I'll miss you.*

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit was one of the first true novels I read from cover to cover and is partially to blame with me getting into literature at all. Tolkien’s world-building and sense of gravity for all the fantastic elements drew me into prose in ways no modernists and post-modernists did. I still remember reading the end of Fellowship of the Ring at my grandmother’s and trying to hide under the bed, for terror at the prospect of someone as great as Gandalf being killed. By college I wasn’t writing anything like Lord of the Rings, but I had the “Tolkien Instinct.” If there was any question of what to do in a story, I’d ask, “What would Tolkien write here?” It was almost always the wrong answer for what I was doing, and it took me another two years to get a grip on it. Imitation was not how I needed to pay homage to the father of Fantasy. Just writing good Fantasy should do.

2. Akira Toriyama – Most famous for his comics Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, which actually had a bigger impact on me than Lord of the Rings. It was reading those bizarre comics that I realized how hard it is to come up with truly alien stories. I loved Tolkien’s Norse and Medieval fantasies, but they were still familiar enough to the Arthurian stuff I grew up with. Toriyama had the advantage of drawing on thousands of years of Asian culture and classics, so my little white ass in New York was baffled. Monkey-tailed boy living in a dinosaur-infested wilderness that is sometimes invaded by sentient plants that might be the devil, then escaping on adventures with a perverted bipedal pig in a car that fits into a capsule. Delightfully outlandish. First I imitated it, actually writing fanfiction that helped me ace my Humanities class. Then, around 180 pages in, I realized this thing wasn’t publishable and wasn’t mine. This was someone else’s world. Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Dragon Ball – worlds that were hard to make, shouldn’t be made again because someone had already done it, but that if I really wanted to write towards, I should study. Oh, and Majin Buu is my role model.

Imagine them high-fiving. Imagine it!

3. Stephen King – The biggest influence. At age 13, I was crippled by a neuromuscular syndrome. I was in constant pain and bedridden. The only reason I made it through many sleepless nights was having a King audiobook. I was entranced in Needful Things and Desperation. It wasn’t escapism. It was immersion. I was where I was, could not forget any of it for how badly I was suffering, but I wanted to know what happened next. I’m not exaggerating to say that curiosity about fictional events gave me the will to live. Ever since I’ve been dismissive of academics who look down on fiction for being entertaining. I’ve mined a lot about voice and the nature of endings from King’s writing since, but saving my life is a little bit more important. You can’t do more for a reader than that.

4. E.B. White – Through whose pen I also got the wisdom of William Strunk. I’m somewhere in the middle of prescriptivists and descriptivists. The only thing dumber than literary totalitarianism is literary anarchy. But there are general rules for the way most prose functions. Especially interpreting White (and Strunk via White) for the spirit of the rules, like why “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words” has six technically needless words in it, has given me a decent sense for editing.

5. Eudora Welty – Possibly hazardous to my career, but Welty’s versatility in the short story impressed me more than any other feat of any other author in literature. “Why I Live at the P.O.” is airy, trivial and funny. “Where Is That Voice Coming From?” is profoundly disturbing in its violence and racism. “A Still Moment” is ethereal. They tell you to find a niche and stick to it, that way you become a solid commodity. I can’t stand that.

6. Dante Alighieri – My worst influence. Dante convinced me to always do another tangent, to throw in another point or observation. Thank goodness I learned to edit them out later.

7. Douglas Adams – The perfect sense of humor. He seemed to make fun of everything and hate nothing. The first hundred pages of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dismisses God, logic, friendship, government, and the earth itself. But any jackass comedian can do that. The big trick with Adams was to mock a thing and hug it at the same time. It was the comedy that accepts even the absurd and the intolerable. He could always invert a character to soften a criticism, deflating didactics in the service of pure humor. I still can’t listen to those radioplays without getting ideas. Horrible, stupid, purple ideas that I hope someone, somewhere will laugh at.**

8. Mark Twain – He was so easy to read that his were several of the first novels, after The Hobbit, that I read cover-to-cover. His narration achieves mental voice very quickly. I spent a decade trying to work out how. While recently I’ve become disenchanted with fiction that exists to make a point, his observational fiction still gets me. Even in a boys book like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the fence painting anecdote illustrates a great principle I’ve never read put better. Re-reading my favorites (The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Joan of Arc, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), I think I’m pinning down how he drew me into humor writing, and why the humorist establishment in literature disappointed me so badly. Twain wrote humor to make people laugh and think. Today many writers, especially those who think they are “edgy,” write humor to make people think and luck into laughs, which shows a distinct lack of thought. I think about that. One more way in which Twain influenced me, and continues to be ahead of me.

9. GK Chesterton – How did I make it through college and never hear about this guy? He was the writer I spent years looking for: the one with whom I could disagree frequently and respect entirely. God, sound way too full of myself. Listen, he was rad. The Man Who Was Thursday has aged to perfection, time robbing its original context and adding a second edge. Now it satirizes both Chesterton’s opposition and allies. He stood up for orthodoxy and satirized satire. That's Welty-like range in non-fiction. He and Twain duel in my head these days, as I’m trying to weed out the impulse to reach for good quotes in my writing. They duel almost entirely in good quotes.

 Very funny men.

10. Gail Simone – I actually gave her closing run on Deadpool to a college professor. I walked in on him one day laughing his ass off, and before recognizing it was me, he actually tried to hide the comics behind his back. At a certain stage in my life she specialized in the irreverence of dangerous people and irreverent people in dangerous circumstances. Humor was not just a defense mechanism or an excuse for a point (like it’s treated by too many humorists), but a reason to be, a mode of existence. I loved that so much that it wound up at the core of my first novel, and will probably keep showing up until I go sane. She (and writer #11) almost made me recognize that I love a dynamic cast. You can drop them into the most enticing or boring circumstances, and I will read them. I will read three hitmen in spandex chatting about existentialism while they monitor the Prom. Gail Simone has not written that. Perhaps I should, but if I do, it's because of her sense of casts, which existed in Deadpool, then Agent X, and right now in Secret Six.

11. Aaron Sorkin – Television writers should also count. Literate people of my generation still watched more than twenty-five hours of TV for every book they read, and it influenced us. In high school I’d stay up to 1:00 AM on Friday nights to catch reruns of Sports Night, for its wit and profound monologues. There was a solid year when all dialogue I wrote on my own was a bad imitation of Sorkin’s repetition. He was for me what certain titanic playwrights were for others. Even after I grew out of the imitation phase, I credited his shows (and M*A*S*H) with making me realize my favorite thing in fiction is to establish a few interesting characters and just listen to them talk.

12. Joseph Campbell – Made me look at structuralism. I’d already had most of his key thoughts on culture and cross-culturalism (actually got very angry upon first exposure to him at 12, claiming he stole my ideas thirty years in advance). But his breakdown of the hero’s journey made me diagram stories in a new way. He sort of made me a post-modernist, when I tried to tell a story that was a purposefully backwards version of the heroic arc. Part of me still go back to his lectures when I ponder cultural and religious resonance.

13. Homer – My gateway into Literature. While I don’t pretend to know a mind thousands of years old, he appears to have had a sense of glory, of riveting action, and of sanguine humor. His Iliad caught me at an early age, for being similar in structure to those massive superhero crossover battles I liked so much. Even through translation he had ways of expressing the magnitude of a hero and the intrigue of action. As I grew older I appreciated his way of expressing things, comparing a lance tearing out an eyeball to the blossoming of a flower. That’s repulsive, but it also speaks to why war was waged. There are big pictures hidden behind every book of his poems. The dozen translations of read of his two surviving epics were my analytical training ground, and a significant reason for me giving the rest of literature a chance.

 This list is pants-optional.

14.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - I'm pretty dismissive of melancholy and bleak fiction. I think attraction to these usually indicates a life that hasn't been hard enough and a resultingly lethargic mind in dire need of exercise - say, the kind by getting its owner off its ass and living, doing some work in soup kitchens or clothing drives or relief work in a disaster zone. But if I'm bad now, I was impossible about this stuff earlier in life. You could not bother me to finish such tripe. I dismissed even classics of world literature as defeatist, authors who were regrettably celebrated for lying down before hardship. Nothing t swayed me until One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is an inescapably bleak novel that used bleakness for purposes, particularly to show how a person may refuse to be destroyed by it. Solzhenitsyn was almost doing bold political work in prose, but it was his character in the face of these things, and the character of his characters in the face of these things, that shook me. I've already commended Gail Simone for writing funny people who don't yield their humor. The big thing in Solzhenitsyn's work was creating austere or severe men who did not yield and made me admire that position, something I'd long given up on as valid. Here is work that does not lay bare some discontent and masturbate over how unfair it all is, or how bad life sucks, or how it's meaningless, or you don't like the meaning. It's not the wishywashy unhappiness that dominates so much of modern literature, and that is really just a well-dressed and bourbon-soaked negative of the Care Bears. Reading any Solzhenitsyn is distinct, purposeful, and disturbing in ways Horror can't be. It's an entire border of fiction. There was that time when I asked, "What would Tolkien write here?" Now I am more prone to ask, "If Solzhenitsyn hated this, would I have the balls to stand up for myself?" If I would, then I feel I'm doing right.

15. Flannery O’Connor – Like a lot of these writers, she taught me little things, such as desiring character descriptions that seem sharp but are actually just vague and short (these work amazingly well, at least when she did them). But the big thing for me was learning that this shrewd, frequently shocking storyteller struggled with illness and questioned if the work she did in the hospital counted. That’s a kind of doubt I have – am I responding too much to my conditions, is sickness holding me back or tainting my work? No rational argument makes this doubt go away. You’d think rational people would realize that, but they keep trying with their rational arguments, and thereby disproving the existence of actually rational people. This sick-doubt is something that haunts. The closest thing to curing it is that O’Connor produced an amazing body of work. So, maybe I’m tainted and ruined, but that’s all just an excuse. Good work can be done. Thanks, Flan.

*No I won't.

**Honorable mention goes to Terry Pratchett for writing several thousand more pages of Adams, and convincing me that’s not what I wanted to do.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Clarifying Lies about the Internet

I need to the clear the air. The internet has not diminished attention spans. People were never able to take in more than four paragraphs of information unless it was formatted into The Top Ten Best Asses in Hollywood. There were never newspapers, magazines, novels, letters, or epic poems that entire tribes memorized verbatim. No one ever intended you to finish a short story in a single sitting. Man did not evolve to read the entire Nutrition Information on the side of a cereal box, and certainly not to figure out how much saturated fat he was actually consuming in four bowls of the stuff, unless someone first designed an app for doing so. Except man has never had the patience to design an app. They are found in the wild, caught, captured, domesticated and price-coded by Apple. Contrary to your memory, you could not spend all day reading for pleasure when you were a child. You sat by the window and dreamed, wished and prayed that someone would put videogames on a phone, and you sat there doing nothing more than this wishing until it went on sale. You should not feel badly for skimming Cracked to get to the next item, or for only reading the funny captions under their stock photos. Nor should you feel bad for having the same NYTimes article open in your browser for two weeks, perpetually intending to finish it. It cannot be finished. If you had the superhuman will to consume every sentence, you would find that the writer herself did not finish it, instead trailing off into a series of vowels and punctuation marks. This was the result of her bravely passing out from the effort of trying to sustain thought. This is hazardous and should not be attempted for so long as you can get Angry Birds at a discounted price. I’d go on, but then I wouldn’t have the mental stamina left to tweet about Twitter going down for half an hour tonight. Farewell.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Could James Joyce Succeed Today?

“I’m trapped in a hypothetical.”

“What is the hypothesis?”

“People are wondering what I would do if I were to publish my work today. Not today-today, as is the only sense of today that I, James Joyce, would know, but in the today of some people in America in 2010.”

“That is a ways off. These hypothesizers want to know what you would do with your life?”

“Specifically in regards to my fiction. They wonder if I would be able to publish as lucratively as I have today-today.”

“If you were to publish today instead of today?”

“What’s more, it seems I have dramatic influence on the future. I essentially give English literature the tools of the anti-hero and stream of consciousness. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are highly influential. Even Dead End creates a certain existentialism amongst short story writers.”

“I didn’t think you cared for that sort of infamy.”

“I don’t, but they do, so the James Joyce of their imagining does.”

“I’m a little relieved the short story has survived so long.”

“It survives, though it is in questionable health.”

“So the hypothesizers want to know how successful your works would be if published many years in the future?”


“But in the future, your works have already been published. Are you going to live in a future where your influence has already spread?”

“It would be difficult to market new fiction that had been canon for so many years. I’m not even certain if I transported to the future by some ugly Wellsian means, or if I grow up there, raised in a world unknown.”

“Something a little too clever for Wells to think up, that one.”

“If I were to mature in a world where all my ideas had already spread, I would not be myself, but the product of influences from my-other-self. I’m completely uncertain what I’d produce. I’d be a different James Joyce.”

“Though if you retained your style exactly, and your style is popular, you should be popular.”

“I think style has become exceedingly unpopular, in favor of populist entertainment and plot. The hypothetical is about challenges I’d face where I was a fad that had passed.”

“Well, I’m sorry you don’t have lasting success.”

“But publishing old or new fiction in a world where I’m no longer the same James Joyce, and have an entire different literary establishment to rebut, seem like much greater qualms to me than whether or not I could sell what I’m compelled to write today-today.”

“Oh, selling’s not the thing. You would rise through workshops, lectures, a university scene and fellowships. You would meet the people you need to impress in order to garner publication and doubtless succeed, if not amongst the masses, then in the intellectual niche that’s bound to develop.”

“I detest this hypothetical. Time traveling. A plot flare to distract from dim style.”

“Only one thing worse.”

“And that is?”

“John Wiswell’s attempt to write you.”

“Oh, I sound nothing like that.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Stay Where You Are, OR, Composed during a bathroom break from Marathon Man

Want to hear today's monologue? Either click the triangle on the left to begin streaming audio, or click this text to download the MP3.

Stay where you are! Both of you. I said stay! No, I don’t care that you’re not with him – I don’t care who sent either of you. I’ve got a gun and even if you’ve got something, I’ll shoot at least one of you first. Faster than me, smarter than me, more than me, but this is pointed at you two. So stay where you are.

Good. That’s good.

Uh. Hands up. Yeah. Take off your jackets. Shrug them off. I know I said hands up, but take them off! One at a time. First you. Move and I’ll shoot. No, I know what I said, take it off! Drop it in the mud. Who cares how expensive it was, I said drop it.

That’s good. For what it’s worth, it did look nice.

Now you. Take it off slowly.


I knew it. You’d have gone for that gun, wouldn’t you? Do it now and I’ll shoot.

Okay. Reach behind yourself and unfasten the holster. Slower. Let it fall. Now kick it halfway to me. If you grab it or kick it into me, I will blow the top of your head off. Swear to God.

There. Okay.

Both of you step out of your shoes. Kick them off. I don’t care if your socks get dirty. Do it.

I don’t care if you’re not with him. Why would I care? One or both of you has been chasing me all fucking day and now… Now, you know what? Rub your feet in the mud. Do it or I’ll shoot right in the socks. Both of you. He was an ass and now you’re both going to have disgusting toes.

You wouldn’t be willing to admit who sent you, right?

No, of course. It’s all a misunderstanding. My car always blows up in this kind of weather. Shut up. We’re almost done.

Whichever department sent you. I don’t have anything against you guys personally outside of being scared shitless. I just want you to know that, and to wish you the best of luck chasing me with no guns or shoes. Please stay where you are at least until I’m out of eyesight, or I really will shoot you.
Counter est. March 2, 2008