Return to the Last Chance Saloon

sick-in-the-headThere’s this notion that as you get older you eventually come to peace with who you are. The hardest part of that process for me was realizing I’m too insecure to do what I really want with my life. I’ve always loved acting, and for a time I loved writing (until academia beat that passion out of me). Growing up, I just always assumed I’d get involved with TV or movies or theater, doing something for a living that genuinely made me happy. And while I do love teaching, the most fulfilling times of my life were when I was doing improv or writing sketches in college or teaching high school kids to do improv or acting and directing in community theater. But when I had the chance to make the leap – I lived near Los Angeles for fifteen years – I couldn’t make myself do it. I even wrote a couple screenplays, but the thought of subjecting myself to the grind of judgment and evaluation was just too much. So I gave up on it. And now of course I hate writing and my teaching schedule eliminates even the possibility of doing some local theater in the evening. The closest I get these days to the thing I love is watching as many movies as I can.

All of which is a lengthy, navel-gazing setup to explain why I’m still irresistibly attracted to books <i>about</i> the creative process, even though as a frustrated, wannabe artist I’m no longer engaged in that process myself. Viewed from that angle, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a delight, a 550-page series of interviews with various comedians, actors, and directors that could’ve been double the length and I still would’ve devoured it. As a high school student, Apatow recognized his desire to be a comedian and suckered various managers into letting him interview their up-and-coming comedians, never letting on he was actually a teenager lugging around a tape recorder for his high school radio station. The book starts with his first interview – a 1984 talk with the still relatively-unknown Jerry Seinfeld – and ends with (in this new, expanded edition of the book) a 2016 interview with author David Sedaris. In between we get conversations about comedy and creativity from such diverse pesonalities as Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and more – essentially a murderer’s row of the best comedic minds of the last 50 years.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to condense a book like this into a couple paragraphs, but there’s no denying the big takeaway from these interviews (especially in light of how I opened this review): the common thread among all these comedians is an unerring faith in their ability and the ways in which they could add their voice to the larger artistic conversation. That isn’t to say they didn’t have moments of doubt, but it’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of how their drive to do what they loved overcame whatever insecurity they felt. Interestingly, this is especially true of Apatow himself, who speaks freely with his guests of how critical he is of his own work (and worth).  I’m not sure what lesson I personally should take from this; at 43, whatever creative ship I might have hopped aboard has almost certainly sailed.  But as someone who lives vicariously through the lives of those doing what I wish I were doing, it’s compelling stuff.

(Tangent: It’s particularly fascinating for me to hear from the people who are Apatow’s contemporaries.  They [and he] are roughly my age, and it’s fun to hear how we all prize the same pop culture touchstones – Carlin, Monty Python, SNL, Pryor, et. al. – even if they eventually went on to do something with their obsessions.)

A bunch of interview transcripts may not sound like the most entertaining read in the world, but trust me: it is. Especially if you consider yourself a fan of comedy, Sick in the Head is essential reading.

*****

Current listening:

malcolm-13

Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ’13

The Darkest Part of the Night

cuckooMy attitude toward the Harry Potter series was nicely summed up in Jane Lynch’s recent interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.  They described some of the various social events they’ve been invited to but declined to attend. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “I just don’t want to do it.”  And that pretty much captures my ambivalence about J.K. Rowling’s wizard.  I’m sure the books are good; great, even.  I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them.  My wife has all the books sitting on her shelf, and I bought her the new one a month ago.  It would be so easy to pick them up.  I just don’t want to do it.  I’ve got too many books of my own to read to even consider committing to seven books and however many thousand pages Rowling’s series represents.  But when the three Robert Galbraith books – written under Rowling’s pseudonym – showed up on Barnes & Noble’s “cheap books” shelves, that seemed much more manageable.  A quick text to, and an enthusiastic recommendation from, one of my former students whose taste in mysteries runs parallel to my own clinched it.  My first experience with Rowling wouldn’t be with Harry Potter but with her schlubby amputee detective, Cormoran Strike, in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Regular readers of this blog (or my Goodreads feed) might recall my love for two other U.K.-based mystery writers, Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder.  Their series – Rankin’s Edinburgh-set mysteries featuring D.I. John Rebus and Hayder’s grittier stories starring the tortured D.I. Jack Caffery – are, for my money, the best ongoing thrillers today.  So how does Strike stack up against Rebus and Caffery?  Not bad, although it feels as though Rowling is still growing into a genre she’s not yet comfortable with.

Strike himself is a compelling character.  Rowling hasn’t finished delving into his backstory, but we get enough of it here to want to know more. Illegitimate son of a groupie and a rock star, Strike served for a time in Afghanistan as part of the British military’s Special Investigations Branch.  While there, he was caught in an explosion and lost part of his leg.  He returned to England, resumed a highly dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and became a private eye.  When we first meet him he’s hit rock bottom, living out of his office and with only one client to his name.  In a fortuitous turn of events, he’s gifted a plucky new receptionist and a wealthy client on the same day.  Robin arrives fresh from the temp office, excited to be rescued from another stultifying turn in a cubicle.  The client, John Bristow, has a childhood connection with Strike: Bristow’s brother Charlie was Strike’s best childhood friend before dying in a freak cycling accident. Bristow has now arrived to ask Strike to re-investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry.

Strike begins his investigation with reservations, essentially taking Bristow’s money only because he’s deep in debt.  The case takes him through the pretentious upper echelons of London’s fashion scene, and Rowling has a lot of fun contrasting Strike’s hulking, disheveled bulk with the sleek, trim models and designers he comes into contact with.  Rowling’s obvious strength and the book’s great joy – and honestly, the one reason I’d be willing to check out the Potter series – is her dialogue.  Her characters come from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and as a long-time Anglophile, I could hear the different regional dialects leap off the page.  The supporting characters are all finely drawn, from Bristow’s rodent-like obsequiousness to film producer Freddie Bestigui’s bullish thuggery to homeless addict Rochelle Onifade’s crude desperation.  And receptionist Robin – clearly positioned to play a larger role in the next two books – is the most fun of all, an adventurer bristling against her role as an office worker engaged to a banker.  From this book alone, it’s easy to see how Rowling created a world in the Potter series that people wanted to live in.

The larger problem with The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, comes from Rowling’s mishandling of some of the genre’s tropes, which may simply be attributed to a first-timer’s rustiness.  A lot of the plot – and you can see it from the very start of the book, when Robin and John Bristow both arrive on the same day Strike is rendered homeless – hinges on coincidences and lucky twists of fate.  Rowling’s book is no less meticulously plotted than Rankin’s and Hayder’s books, but unlike those two writers, the internal logic she employs isn’t as consistent.  In Rankin’s Rebus series, you can clearly see how each plot twist rises organically from character and motivation.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling, certain plot points emerge only because Strike was in the right place at the right time or was able to make some enormous intuitive leap based only on an offhand comment.  And then there’s the book’s lazy climax, where Strike explains the entire case to the villain and waits for him to confess on a pocket recorder.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, where, at a movie’s climax, the bad guy could easily kill the hero but instead wastes valuable time explaining his motives, which of course causes him to be captured.  The generous view is that Rowling is paying tribute to classic mysteries where this kind of thing was normal.  The more critical view is that she just wasn’t sure how to bring the various plot threads together in any way other than the most straightforward.  No matter which view is correct, the climax doesn’t really work.

All of which is to say – as I usually find myself doing – that I didn’t dislike the book.  It’s a fun, fast read, and the dialogue alone makes it worth your time.  To be fair, the degree to which Rowling grows into these characters and this genre might cause me to modulate my criticism later.  It’ll be increasingly difficult to view this book’s flaws generously if they continue into the next two.  But again, its rocky final chapters notwithstanding, The Cuckoo’s Calling is strong enough overall not to feel exceedingly optimistic about the series’ promise.

*****

Current listening:

air-talkie

Air – Talkie Walkie (2004)

Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966

Crawl Out from the Fall Out

GirlIt’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting.  Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme).  The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart.  In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies.  In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people.  Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject.  In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were.  But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.*  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop.  Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a  thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!”  And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen.  Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic.  Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.

Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books).  At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning.  They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent.  Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure.  Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.

For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other.  Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie.  Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world.  Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further.  And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job.  As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children.  Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.

The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts.  Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been.  He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.

So that’s the horror/thriller part.  But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is.  Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine.  She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling.   This is largely down to how they view her.  Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group.   She has a role.  She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger.  So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless.  But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her.  Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one.  This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.

It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end.  The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.

 

* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel.  Nit-picking, probably.

*****

Current listening:

Sonic murray

Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)

A Girl Called Destruction

Lauren shining

Sometimes an excess of pop culture knowledge is a hindrance.  When I first heard that Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls dealt with a time traveling serial killer, there’s just no way I wasn’t immediately going to think of Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper in then-modern day (but really 1979) San Francisco.

It wasn’t exactly two strikes against the book, but the baggage didn’t help.  And that’s sort of a shame, going in with those preconceived notions, because The Shining Girls is all kinds of terrific.

Most notably, Beukes does some really fun stuff with narrative structure.  In some ways she’s telling parallel narratives.  In one of them we follow Harper, a killer who discovers a dilapidated house whose front door serves as a portal into other times.  In the other we’re following Kirby, the only one of Harper’s victims to survive his attack.  But rather than tell this is as a linear narrative – even one where the author alternates perspectives in each chapter – she skips around from character to character.  Where we might be with Harper in 1937 in one chapter, in the next we might be with Kirby in 1994, and then with another character entirely in the next.  It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds: Beukes helpfully titles each chapter by character and year, but because she’s drawn the characters so indelibly, they’re easy to track.

So we have this bit of structural ingenuity on one hand, and on the other we have a substantial degree of playfulness afforded by the time travel conceit.  When Harper discovers the house, he also discovers in an upstairs room a list of girls’ names written on the wall.  The names are – title alert! – literally shining, and beside them is a collection of artifacts: a lighter, a cassette tape, a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and so on.  Harper begins visiting these “shining girls” as children, talking to them or giving them one of these artifacts, and then returning to them as adults and killing them, as he believes he’s destined to do.

Cut to Kirby, one of Harper’s victims.  He first tracked her down in the 1970s, giving her a plastic pony to hold, and then returned to viciously attack her in the late 80s.  Now, in 1994, she’s a survivor and an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times.  Paired with Dan Velasquez, a grouchy sports writer who used to work the homicide beat, Kirby sets out to find out who attacked her.

Beukes skillfully skips back and forth between the characters, and we watch as Harper works his way through his list in a variety of time periods while Kirby conducts her investigation in the early 90s.  We know there will come a reckoning between the two of them – how could there not be? – especially because Harper doesn’t yet realize that Kirby survived his attack.

I’m not normally a time travel guy, but I really enjoyed The Shining Girls.  There’s an infectious sense of play to the proceedings, where even though we’re watching some exceptionally grisly crimes play out and are getting caught up in the suspense of Kirby’s sleuthing, we also can’t help but admire how thoroughly Beukes has created a range of worlds in which the characters travel.  Just as importantly, Kirby and Velasquez make for a compelling team, the former increasingly obsessed with finding her would-be killer and the latter basically along for the ride because he has the hots for Kirby.  Harper is a little trickier to get a handle on.  We never get a very satisfying reason for why he discovers the time traveling house – or why the house does what it is – but Beukes does so many entertainingly mind-bending things with loops in time that it seems a little churlish to pick at the details.

The best recommendation I can give is that the same afternoon I finished The Shining Girls, I went out and bought a couple of Beukes’ other books.  Color me impressed.

*****

Current listening:

XTC white

XTC – White Music (1978)

Hounds of Love

AnsariOne thing immediately became clear to me as I read Aziz Ansari’s excellent treatise on modern romance (titled, conveniently, Modern Romance) and it’s this: I would have had more dating success as a young man if I had had the options afforded by today’s technology.  As a shy, awkward kid with – how to put this? – “a face that is not pleasant to look at,” I wasn’t super successful with the ladies.  I was (and still am, I think) fairly proficient with words.  If I had had access to text messaging instead of the painful “date request” phone call, if I could’ve charmed from a distance with my written wit, if I’d been able to make a good physical impression via the smoke and mirrors possible in Instagram, I might have been happier as a wee lad.  I’m generally useless in social situations, especially at first, but once I warm up I can hold my own.  If I could’ve warmed up to the girls I was interested in through technology (instead of stumbling haphazardly through a gauntlet of clumsy personal interactions) I think I would have fared better.

But as I reflect on this, I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself while also failing to mention what I found most fascinating about Ansari’s book.

Modern Romance is absolutely a humor book.  For those who know and enjoy Ansari’s humor (whether with his Human Giant sketch show, his standup, his indelible role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, or his fantastic Netflix show, Master of None), you’ll quickly hear his voice come through loud and clear:

To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era?  I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible.  Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.

But while it’s unquestionably a book where Ansari gets to be laugh-out-loud funny, it increases the comedy book stakes by also being an honest-to-goodness social science text.  Ansari and his research partner, New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, spent years conducting focus group interviews and analyzing interactions with volunteers on a subreddit forum to present an illuminating view of what it’s like to date in the 2010s (in the U.S. and in other countries), and how it differs from generations past.  We get chapters dealing with the “initial ask,” online dating, international trends, the implications of technology, and so on.  Each chapter is grounded in their research and shot through with Ansari’s unmistakable humor.

While there’s certainly a wealth of information here, much of which I didn’t know (Japan is in the middle of a marriage crisis? A third of the people who got married in the first decade of the 21st Century met online?), the most striking issue the book reveals is the problem presented by having too many options.  Ansari sets this up early by discussing the interviews he conducted with older Americans, most of whom met their spouses in a very small radius.  Over 80% of those interviewed lived within 20 blocks of their future spouse, and many of them lived in the same apartment building or on the same street.  This is true of my parents, who lived four houses apart, met when they were 13, married in their early 20s, and stayed married until my mom’s death in 2011.  According to Ansari, this was a pattern repeated by many people in my parents’ generation (that is, meeting someone from your neighborhood and marrying young, not necessarily dying an early death from cancer), but it’s one that has largely disappeared.

Instead, thanks to the rise of online dating and apps like Tinder – as well as increased mobility and larger social circles brought about by social media networks – people today have dozens (and in large cities, literally hundreds) of possible mates a phone swipe away.  When you combine this with people’s increased need to find the best thing possible – Ansari very funnily recounts the tortuous process he uses just to find the best taco joint in town – it only makes sense that people are dating more and marrying less (or at least later).  Because we can now see just how many other attractive single people are out there in our vicinity, Ansari argues, people are increasingly less satisfied with their current situation in the hope that they can eventually find not just something better, but the best there is (be it taco joint, television, or spouse).

Most fascinating, Ansari reports that this isn’t really a thing in the other countries they researched.  People in those countries still largely fall in love as a result of meeting through friends or at work or in bars or clubs (although he also details the frankly horrifying verbal assaults women in Buenos Aires face on a daily basis).   This need to find the “best” seems to speak to a restlessness in the American psyche that I can’t help but think also speaks to our competitive, capitalist identity.  Doesn’t it make sense that when a country has as one of its bedrock principles the notion of upward social mobility, its people would find themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for second-best in all aspects of their lives?  We typically see this occurring in the context of economics, but in light of Ansari and Klinenberg’s work, it seems unavoidable to consider how this mindset has influenced other aspects of American culture, including dating.  Even though Ansari doesn’t make this connection himself, it’s to his book’s credit that it allows for this sort of speculation instead of merely settling for funny.

This is a rare book that’s able to mix laughs with research, and the few topics I’ve mentioned here are really just the tip of the qualitative iceberg.  Modern Romance is a fascinating read, not just as social science, but as a snapshot of America – and young Americans – at the dawn of the 21st Century.

*****

Current listening:

Dream days

The Dream Syndicate – The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)

First Day on a New Planet

StingerIf you’re writing genre fiction, it’s a gamble to swing for the fences.  In some ways it’s easier (and maybe more satisfying to some readers) to forgo things like character development and thematic resonance in favor of plot momentum.  Just strip it down and let it rip.  If, on the other hand, you want to go for longevity, you’ve got to give the reader more than just cheap thrills, and that’s where Robert R. McCammon’s almost successful Stinger (1988) ultimately fails.  Because if you’re going to take the time to dig a little deeper into character and story, you’d better be good at it.

The novel is almost begging for the first approach I described above.  A benevolent alien, escaping from an intergalactic prison, crashes its craft near Inferno, a remote Texas town, and takes over the body of a six-year-old girl until it can find a way to escape.  Meanwhile, one of the creatures maintaining the prison traces the escapee to Inferno, activates a skygrid around the town that imprisons everyone inside it (like Stephen King’s dome, only written 25 years earlier), and proceeds to hunt it down, wreaking havoc in its wake.

When McCammon gets there – when Stinger, as its called, crash lands in the center of Inferno and begins its violent search – the book is a narrative steamroller.  It’s creepy and thrilling and does all the things you want a pulpy horror novel with literary aspirations to accomplish.  The problem, however, is that it literally takes over 200 pages to get there.  Here we are, on page 203 of 539:

The fireball – almost two hundred feet across – roared down and crashed into Mack Cade’s autoyard, throwing sheets of dust and pieces of cars into the air.  Its shock wave heaved the earth, sent cracks scurrying along the streets of Inferno and Bordertown, blew out windows, and flung Cody Lockett off his feet . . .

As fun as Stinger ultimately gets, what precedes that passage is 200 pages of deathly tedious world-building and attempts at developing characters we care about.  We’re treated to these various plot threads:

• Tension between the white residents of Inferno and the Mexican-American residents of Bordertown, which usually manifests itself in gang violence between high school students (and some frankly atrocious racist language and attitudes, which I think is meant to be critical of the white townspeople, but because it’s handled so clumsily just comes off as garden-variety racism).

• The activities of the Hammond family – parents Tom (high school teacher)  and Jessie (veterinary doctor) and their children Ray and Stevie – which include Ray’s creepy obsessing over his female classmates and Tom’s attempts at motivating two students, Cody and Rick, who are – surprise, surprise – key members in the two opposing gangs.

• A World War II vet who takes care of an imaginary dog.

• The arrival in town of Rick’s hot sister Miranda, who exists for no reason other than to create more tension between the gangs because Cody, natch, thinks she’s “a smash fox” (a dumb phrase McCammon overuses the first time it appears).

•  A whole lot of clichéd father-son tension between Cody and his neglectful alcoholic father Curt.

• The arrival of two Air Force men – Barnes and Gunniston – on the search for the crashed spacecraft.

It goes on and on in that vein for almost half the book, just a lot of generic prefab family drama that might as well have come out of a kit.  I know why it’s there: McCammon’s trying to ultimately show how different groups of people who don’t particularly get along can band together against a common enemy.  But the payoff isn’t satisfying because the setup is so hokey.

And again, that’s kind of a shame, because from the moment Stinger lands, the book gets a whole lot more interesting.  As Stinger tracks down Daufin – the name the escapee gives itself after taking over Stevie’s body – it does so by killing Inferno’s residents and reanimating their bodies in variously creepy ways: human form but with needle teeth and claws; a man with half a dog growing out of his chest; a horse with a scorpion tail.  In this way it removes any threats from the town while in its different human forms it tries to blend in in ways not totally dissimilar from John Carpenter’s adaptation of The Thing.  It ultimately becomes a race against time for the town’s survivors to help Daufin escape before Stinger brings its entire army to Earth for colonization.

I first read Stinger in high school (McCammon was one of the authors I discovered around the same time as Stephen King) but remembered very little about it.  What I really need to do now is revisit some of his other books because I actually have very warm memories about them.  I’m not sure if Stinger is a weak spot in his bibliography, or if I just hadn’t developed the critical faculties to help me see how disastrously ordinary the first half is.  If McCammon had cut out most of the ancillary world-building and structured the first half to focus on the discovery of Daufin’s pod, the takeover of Stevie’s body, and the arrival of Barnes and Gunniston, and then skipped straight to Stinger’s arrival and the town’s imprisonment, the book would have been a lean, balls-to-the-wall thriller.  Right now, though, it’s just needlessly flabby: a 530-page novel flailing about for importance when it could have been a hugely satisfying 300-page book that just wanted to scare the bejsus out of the reader.

*****

Current listening:

Lou new

Lou Reed – New York (1989)