Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bathroom Monologue: No Such Thing as Sex-Positive

The gentler sex - charity for the drunken brother, contempt for the unfortunate sister
via Library of Congress

Are you sex-positive? No, because no one is, though many people think they are.

It sounds fun and liberating and progressive, as many mirages do. According to a preposterously trusted source, “The sex-positive movement is an ideology which promotes and embraces open sexuality with few limits beyond an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of informed consent.

I learned of the movement this morning, and having skimmed a Wikipedia article, now know everything about it. That is why I regret to inform you that all sex-positive thought is a sham. You may ask, “Why? Surely boinking with informed consent is great and gooey.”

Gooey though it be, it makes everyone a rape victim. Everyone in the world started out a virgin, and virgins don’t actually know what sex is like until they’ve done it. Therefore every first time has been under uninformed consent, and every sex-positive sexer who kept doing it afterward was merely burying the trauma. It’s not informed consent. It’s Stockholm Syndrome with lube.

From this day forward I shall be sex-negative, which I now need to make up and adhere to with unwavering virility, and consent to no other ideology. Stand beside me, brothers and sisters. If you want to. If you know what standing beside me is like before you do it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Only Thing Worse is the Cure, Part 4

This is the fourth installment in a seven-episode serial. To read Part 1, click here.
To read Part 2, click here.
To read Part 3, click here.

I’m the reason the island grows. Until I was born, my shack barely had enough cabbage for two, and I was the seventh. Now every soul on the island eats from my garden. They say I’m magic. I’m the reason they’re all alive.

This used to be a colony for souls the mainland didn’t want. Saul says before I was born, Grandmamere couldn’t even stand up for more than ten minutes. Now she runs almost as fast as I do; I let her win sometimes. That’s what my garden does. Souls come from two islands over to beg for our leftovers, and even if it’s my suitor they say they’re visiting, it’s my food they eat, and they stay forever growing hardy, or they leave and never come back. I think that those who leave realize their mistakes and commit suicide. We might get a church next year, but I’ll only allow it if they make me a saint.

Saints have to commit miracles, and even if you don’t count my garden, I was dead for half a year before I was born. I don’t feel dead; sometimes I wonder how deadness feels. My mother was called names for conceiving me, because of how ill everybody was before my garden, and the weight got to her eventually, and she ran off, probably to Jerusalem. Saul says she was found floating in the sea, but I don’t believe it. No soul related to me could be dumb enough to run into the sea.

Grandmamere says I was born as still as a stone into her hands, and then I wriggled. I didn’t even cry. I’ve never cried. I don’t know how that feels, either.

Another saintly quality I have is that everyone loves me. I think more saints should be popular, so that we can remind the world that everything’s not about outcasts. You can’t build a church out of dying alone. It’s about community. Grandmamere loves me, and Grandgregor, and all the souls who used to be crazy, and the dock workers, and my suitor spends all day following me around. I don’t know if I’ll marry him. Maybe if we get a church, to commemorate it. He’s supposed to be rich. He gets gifts from the mainland all the time, heavy trunks and books that smell like I think a desert would. Arid tomes. People say they’re coming to see him, but they eat my food, the souls who aren’t afraid we’re contagious. Then again, maybe we are. Every mariner who comes selling things here dies. They should eat from my garden.

I don’t think I’ll marry my suitor because he’s too uncouth. He’s probably rich and always washes up, but he sleeps in the cemetery. He says it’s practice, and you have to be fairly uncouth for that to make sense. He doesn’t even bring a blanket, he just lies face down, fondling the earth. So I have to carry one for us, and a pillow. Grandmamere forces me to sleep out there with him. They like him better than me, which makes no sense, because it’s my garden that keeps the island alive. They say Grandgregor couldn’t even sit up straight for thirty years until I was born.

It’s like they’re afraid what will happen if we grow apart. Grandmamere and my suitor’s steward are always around making sure we’re together. It must be his money. They think he’ll love some other girl, which is silly, because he doesn’t think about girls. He doesn’t think about anything. Yesterday one of the souls who used to be crazy, who some nights wakes up screaming about angels in the walls, got into an argument with Saul and some mariners about predestiny and was stabbed four times in the flank. My suitor wouldn’t even look at him, even though I was trying to show him how eating from my garden had helped. Two days ago he’d eaten one leaf of a cabbage, and as soon as we walked in the crazy man got sane and didn’t bleed anywhere. My suitor went sullen, like he was unimpressed with my miracle, like he didn’t want to help.

The one saintly thing I need to do is endure a vision. I’ve never had one,  even though I faint too often, and I think fainting is a great opportunity for God to give you a vision, maybe to let me know what crying or dying feels like. No luck so far. I only faint when I’m alone. My suitor finds me and wakes me up. He’s so attentive then, which is why I bring him a blanket at night.

Grandmamere says he loves me, but old souls’ brains rot up. I don’t think my suitor loves anyone. He doesn’t enjoy my cabbage, or Gregor’s singing, or reading, even though he’s reading all the time. Sometimes, when ships anchor off-shore and souls stare at us through spyglasses, he looks at them like he can see them right in the eye. He doesn’t even enjoy that. He doesn’t enjoy us being watched even though he’s always waiting for visitors. They go everywhere for him, which must mean he’s rich. I wonder what they’d have to bring back to impress him. Sometimes, I think, he might get fed up and go searching in the mainland himself. I might go with him. I don’t know. It depends if we get a church.

Part 5, "The Lie," coming Friday the 15th.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Audio: Excerpt from "Dracula"

Though now several days late, I've finally made my birthday recording for Helen Howell available for free stream. It's an excerpt from Bram Stoker's Dracula,  wherein our narrator first meets the world's most famous vampire.

You can listen to me voicing the hero and the count below.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Makes You Like a Protagonist?

I got this idea from The Roundtable Podcast’s Worldcon episode, where they interviewed various authors for their ideal protagonists. Any canny person recognizes that your ideal protagonist changes from time to time. Who you desperately wanted to write or read about ten years ago is almost certainly different from the one you craved last night. If you’re like me, it even changed a few times over the course of this morning.

So, fellow readers and writers, I have a question: what protagonist would you most like to read about right now?

If you’re lucky, somebody else might turn it into a #fridayflash or short story. If you’re brilliant, you might find yourself a new hero for your next WIP. But at worst, I’m willing to bet we’ll get an interesting spread of what people crave from fiction.

You can base it on any characteristics and ideology, any kind of story. Are they unusually analytical? Insane in a world that's too sane? Is it just about how often they get laid? Whatever it is, just tell us what in the comments. This is another experiment in how different people can be, not about superiority, but about individuality. Still unsure of how to put it? Here’s a possible answer:
Holier-than-thou type, but very approachable. Healer. Loves the poor even though his followers want to make him rich. Might not be wild about what Christmas becomes.

I guarantee you that is somebody’s ideal protagonist. What’s yours?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bathroom Monologue: 992 + 992 = ?

We begin by acknowledging that “2” is not a real thing. It is an incomplete idea, a description, a modifier of real things. Two people are real; remove the people, and the number ceases to be. The people continue to be without the number, even when they are a divided pair of ones.

Then consider the number of things to which “2” can apply. Two people. Two battleships. Two bunches of grapes.

Consider also that “addition” is a floaty concept. If you move two bunches of grapes over next to two more bunches of grapes, you may well have four bunches of grapes. If two of the bunches grow tangled as you mush them together in a sloppier addition, they may well become three bunches of grapes. More common in my produce experience? You throw four bunches of grapes together, a few twigs snap, and one bunch breaks into two. This leaves you with five bunches of a grapes as the result of adding two and two.

Thereby, 2 + 2 = 5.

We’re not asking much.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bathroom Monologue: What would she do without me?

Doris simply couldn’t reach the box on her own, not without the stool, and since her hip surgery, the stool was unreliable. She wound up grabbing the box with tongs, tugging it until it fell into her arms. She sifted through its photographs; vacations she didn’t care to look at anymore, but they would do.

She returned the tongs to the kitchen, then selected her second favorite cookbook, the one with the cookie recipe her grandson Martin loved. She stuffed the book into the second compartment of her pantry, underneath the warped Tupperware. She was tangling the cord to her blinds when the phone rang. It was Martin.

“Hello!” she shouted into the receiver.

“Hey Grandma,” came Martin’s brusque voice, going weary all of two syllables into conversing. “Excited to see me tomorrow?”

“Oh, you know it. I’ve got a box of photos I can’t get back up on the top shelf, and the blinds are all tangled again. You’ll have to fix them up for me.”

“Sure, Grandma. Do you want to go out to dinner when we get there, or can you make something?”

“Oh, I would, but you know, I just lost my cookbook.”

“Again?” The disdain in his voice gave Doris a swell of pride.

“You’ll help me find it, won’t you?”

“It’s always in your cupboard. I bet I even know where you put it this time.” She heard him sigh into the receiver. “What would you do without me?”

“I’ve got no idea. I’m just lucky to have you.”

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happy Endings and the Nonsense of Realism, Revisited

Prepare to have many endings spoiled for you.

Sometime in adolescence we learn disdain for the things we like. We still want to watch cartoons, play with action figures and hear stories at bedtime, but these are inappropriate desires for “grown ups.” Children grow to feign disgust for the things they actually desire, preparing them for adulthoods of denial. Often those adulthoods are spent desperately seeking childhood freedom, such as the necessary irrationality they can now only get through alcohol or pot. I blame that same anti-rational kickback for why so many people will watch a third awful Transformers movie.

Especially if you aim for an intellectual life, one of the things you learn to disdain is the happy ending. They’re unrealistic and trite. They don’t happen. When they do, it’s still more important to the cynical intellectual to write about when they don’t. Ours is a culture that disdains naïvety but cherishes cynicism, despite those being the same thing. They are bald-faced, oversimplisitic ideologies that prejudge people and the world, glomming onto any supporting evidence while blithely ignoring or making excuses for the exceptions. To be cynical is merely to be naïve in the negative direction. Like the sweetly naive, the cynics claim they know the real world and demand their realism.

Never mind that all fiction is inherently unrealistic – no matter how bleak, it’s just words on a page. Denis Johnson is one hundred percent as make-believe as J.K. Rowling. Not one word of it wasn’t made up at a keyboard. Many in my crowd are suckers for unhappy stories, leading them to universally rebuff me for thinking JT LeRoy was a fraud. That one had a happy ending, I guess.

True tragedy and moments of profound melancholy possess inarguable power. No distaste with darkness robs Of Mice and Men of its closure. posted an editorial positing that 1984 is a classic because it’s depressing. I’ll freely admit that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of my favorite reads in recent years, ended about as bitterly as he could make it.

Despite my fondness for Of Mice and Men and Brave New World, the worst of the unhappy endings is killing your main character. It’s typically a cop-out. Death, even in sacrifice or redemption, bails the character out from having to face future consequences. You’re at least fifty years too late to play the “but those consequences were so bad” card. It’s not deep; it’s the sick-note for Gym Class of fiction tropes.

One of the greatest offenders is the post-Burton killing of villains in superhero movies. Villains in particular should have to stick around in franchises and see what they’ve wrought or develop as characters. How nice would it be to have Doc Ock mentor Peter in Spider-Man 3? Or have Harvey Dent come to his senses after his rampage in Dark Knight? I grasp the desire to kill Osama Bin Laden, but it’s a far better story to have that man meet every widow he’s made.

Danny Boyle is making a career partially on subverting the crumby ending. In India, in a secluded canyon, and in the zombie apocalypse, he puts his characters through utter Hell so he can deliver that one moment of climactic relief. He plays the conventions of bleak fiction against its own crowd. He keeps getting nominated for awards, so thank goodness the wrong people haven’t caught onto what he’s doing yet.

Depressive folk always tell me, “That’s the way the world is.” FX’s Louie having no soundtrack, dull lighting in an airport as he laughs at someone else’s distress – this is, according to The New Yorker, “giving reality its due.” This is real life.

Bullshit. That is something that can happen in reality. A man in a Ronald McDonald costume humming show tunes can also happen. It’s less likely to, though art affords the possibility for it. To mindlessly or pedantically mimic some myopic reality any reader can experience more clearly by putting the book down and living – that’s more intellectually bankrupt than a thousand Happily Ever Afters.

This storytelling environment has left the “happy ending” malnourished. We’ll continue to see trite happy endings, where the heroes either win outright or by Deus ex Machina. RomCom Guy gets RomCom Girl. Harry Potter sends his magic kids off to magic school. In many cases these still satisfy. I’ll almost always side with a treacle positive ending over a treacle negative one, because my soul isn’t a black vortex that demands to be fed disappointment. If we’re going to be superficial, I want to smile through it.

But we should do more with happy endings, though. What else could be done with them? Examining what people want.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day is remembered as an indictment of servitude and denying common desires. I’m still at odds with the novel, because its protagonist butler is an extreme stereotype of a human being who’s given up any personal ambition in favor of blindly supporting his employers, and the novel definitely tortures him for doing so. Yet the ending has him choose an affirmation: to continue in service, but to alter his personality to do it even better, by learning to have a sense of humor. In that way he actually has a spirited moment at the ending, even though he’s chosen against the independence society believes he should prize.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle literally ends on the line, “we are so happy.” Their circumstances are tragic, psychotic, and yet are desired. The survivors are deranged and enthusiastic to live in something as ruined as any Greek Tragedy.

Happiness also plays a role in the better kind of ending: the complex one. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is held up as an example of too many things, but one it never gets recognition for is its insanely ambitious conclusion. It deserves that recognition because it gets lumped in with “happily ever after” – largely by drunks and people who’ve never read it. Evil is defeated, a monarchy restored, our king marries someone we never met, the dead rest, Gimli and Legolas for an interracial friendship, the Shire is destroyed by bloody war, Sam starts a family while Frodo is so emotionally exhausted he essentially gives up on living. What happens in the payoffs in Return of the King are progressive, regressive, conservative, triumphant, joyous, defeatist and agnostic. All these themes must share a complicated world.

But writing rich endings like that is hard, which is why most authors don’t do it. The “bad ending” or “happy ending” is about as complex as most human minds are capable of fabricating, as is evidenced by the inventory of modern fiction. We mere mortals must strive for an essential goal: the ending that is authentic to the story. Of Mice and Men and Brave New World succeed in the end because their deaths are wretched and appropriate closure to great stories. A lame story can’t seed and grow a good ending. No matter what you tack onto the end, it won’t be particularly meaningful. Likewise, you can’t beat how The Princess Bride goes out. I adored Reiner’s decision in the film version to actively have a narrator tease us for wanting the right ending.

And going against what’s built up can be harmful. The end of Batman Begins suffers for Batman letting R’as Al Ghul die, tarnishing the hard-worn altruism and aversion to the death of others displayed throughout the movie. “I don’t have to save you” sounds like hokum, or a screenwriter making up for Liam Neeson’s contract expiring.

Sorry. How cynical of me.
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