Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Near Miss

In the early 1990s I spent a considerable amount of time watching terrible films.  By terrible I mean the so-bad-they’re-good kind that became popular after Mystery Science Theater 3000.  My friends and I would gather every Thursday to sit through crap along the lines of Horror House on Highway 5, House of Psychotic Women, The Best of Sex and Violence, and Last Orgy of the Third Reich.  It was all in good fun and a few of these movies became cult favorites, most notably Psychos in Love. 

Having endured such trash, I am pretty immune to the so-bad-it’s-good disease that infects people to this day.  I do not need to see The Room, for example, which delighted midnight moviegoers a few years back.  I know it is shit, and while I am sure that under the right circumstances (read: drunk) I would laugh along with the bad acting and artless direction, I figure, as with Christianity, I’ve done my time. 

Still, I do retain a certain fondness for what is often generously called “outsider art” by those who wish to class up a load of garbage.  Some of this material is actually quite beautiful.  (The Shaggs come to mind.Mostly, this genre leaves a lot to be desired and, well, I’m too old to waste my time.  Still, I continue to go to the Music Box every fucking year and sit through 24 hours of cheeseball horror films, so clearly I am conflicted.  It's my own fault.  I know the waters are murky, but I choose to swim in them.  I have no one but myself to blame.  Besides, if one lets go of expectations they might just have a fun, satisfying experience.  It beats the near miss.

Oh, the near miss.  This is what is really preoccupying me today. 

Let me explain.

I recently finished a good but not great book by the very exciting and weird Victor Pelevin.   The book in question, Homo Zapiens if you live in the U.S., Babylon if you live in the U.K., though the actual Russian title is closer to Generation P., had a lot of potential.  I was very excited to read it.  In fact, I couldn’t wait.  I sped through the book I was reading, Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, to get to it.  I put aside Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (which is currently confusing me) for it.  And in the end I was… frustrated, mostly. 

It’s not that Pelevin is a bad writer or Homo Zapiens is a bad book, but it is a near miss, meaning that the best of it was not always enough to carry the worst of it.  It suffers from an overload of ideas that don’t all measure up and when it’s good it's good, but hardly great.  I settled on 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, which may be one star more than I first thought I’d give (like anyone gives a shit), but I decided that the audacity of Pelevin’s vision was worth the extra star.  I appreciated the book more than I enjoyed it.  Mostly I appreciated what it was trying to do.  At least it wasn’t about emo-vampires who fall in love.

But a near miss is still a miss.  And it is more frustrating than a flop, as a flop can be fun.  The sting of a near miss is far greater.

So what are some other near misses?  Well, as much as it pains me to say it, my hero Tom Waits put out a near miss recently.  Bad as Me has some great songs (“Talking at the Same Time”, “Chicago”), some weaker efforts (“Satisfaction”, “Last Leaf”), and an outright stinker (“Hell Broke Luce”).  The combination makes this a near miss, one that especially frustrates considering the last record Waits released, Real Gone, was pretty fucking solid.  Having heard better things from this artist, I was let down, actually kind of bummed. 

While searching my gray matter to find a near miss movie, which yielded a ton of results, I had to rest on the 1993 film Short Cuts.  While I have a special place in my heart for this movie, objectively, I have to admit that it is a near miss.  It has some great moments—Julianne Moore’s bottomless confession, Tim Robbins reclaiming his children’s dog, every moment featuring Jack Lemon, Huey Lewis’s penis— there are a few spokes in this giant wheel that don’t work.  Mostly, I’m thinking of the mother/daughter drama and the dead kid.  And the climax seems out of place.  It’s a big movie that thuds a few times, though mostly it soars. But the thuds make a mighty wallop. 

That’s the problem with movies like Short Cuts.  The lesser bits can easily derail an otherwise smoothly sailing work of art.  This is the problem with the near miss and this is why it sticks with one longer than the flop.  The flop is meant to be seen once, then mocked, then dismissed.  It is the artistic equivalent of fast food.  You don’t always feel proud for enjoying it.  It’s cheap.  It does the job.  It’s nothing to write home about.  But the near miss has potential.  It aims and misses, but barely, just enough to really piss you off and keep you thinking about it.  The older I get, the more the near misses intrigue and infuriate. This is my hell today.

Okay, I’m getting a drink now and going to try to forget all of this. Happy 2012.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why I Give a Damn If People Read and/or Buy Books

Christmas comes early in the form of books.  Yeah, predictable gifts but quite appreciated. (Gracias, Niña).

Oh, books...

I am a diseased man.  My disease is bibliophilia.  It has manifested in an admittedly strange way: I have for some time been building a personal library that consists of many books I am quite sure I will never read.  I try to read every day and feel pretty bummed when I don’t get around to it (blame papers to grade, the allure of Facebook, cable TV, which has some pretty compelling programs, and general malaise.  Oh, and there are times I try to actually write, which eats into my reading schedule).  So if I waste a day and forgo whatever book I am supposed to be reading for The Walking Dead and a Chopped marathon, I feel a wee bit of shame akin to the early feelings of guilt I experienced while transgressing the rules of Catholicism.  Of course, just as sinning gets easier with practice, straying from literary roads to the seedy back alleys of cable TV begins to feel like less of a big deal after a while.

I know an English teacher who admitted to me that she doesn’t read unless she has to.  A former book lover, the idea of reading for pleasure is now foreign to her.  When she told me this, it was in the form of confession.  I, her de facto confessor, was not about to absolve her.  My instinct was to sway her back to the joy of the printed page with the same speech I’d used (in vain) on my students.  But then I realized that it doesn’t fucking matter to me what people do in their spare time, so long as I am not adversely affected. 

But maybe I ought to care.

Let’s shift gears for a sec.  Confession: I spend a surprising amount of time driving at night and listening to right wing talk radio.  Mostly Mark Levin, that giant asshole.  I do not agree with a thing he says, but I listen anyway.  People have asked me why I would inflict the slow torture of his irritating voice and partisan revisionism upon myself.  I suppose I just like getting riled up.  Really, there are few things duller than a talk show host with whom I agree.  Aside from Rachel Maddow and, sometimes, Norman Goldman, I think the MSNBC/WCPT folk are just as obnoxious as their Fox News counterparts.  So I drive at night, static ridden AM signals struggling to broadcast effectively, head full of rage.  Recently, one thing Levin said struck me as a point to consider: no one lives in a vacuum, thus what we do, regardless of how innocent it may seem, affects the collective.  Not an exact quote, trust me.  His point had to do with the responsibility all good conservatives had to vote out the RINOs, “re-pube-icans,” and, of course, the democrats.  He predicted a glorious replay of the 1980 election.  He preached collective responsibility and reminded people that not showing up to the ballots would affect the outcome and the country. 

Of course, Levin assumed all listening were right-wingnuts like himself (no one that deeply conservative really wanted strong voter turnout, as it might, and did, mean the re-election of Obama).  Still, I had to agree with the asshole.  No one lives in a vacuum.  Collective responsibility is part and parcel of living in a society.  (Funny how communist that sounds coming from a free market ideologue like Levin.) 

So, back to books.

It is actually more important that my colleague read than I first thought.  By her not reading, and opting to watch more TV, her stated preference, she is affecting book sales and contributing to the decline of book culture.  I cannot force her to read, and I never would, but this is a person who became an English teacher for, I assume, a reason.  I can also assume the reason had something to do with an interest in reading (or composition, which does involve looking at a book once in a while).   So what changed?  Some prying revealed a little more: she used to be a voracious reader, but grad school killed that joy.  Now she confines her reading to the comp theory texts she feels professionally obligated to review and the often cumbersome, not always fun papers she gets paid to slog through.  When all that has been read, she’s content to let the brain rest and enjoy some Gossip Girl.

She is not alone.  Most people I speak with about this— casual readers who confess to me that they would love to read more though rarely make an effort to do so—tell similar stories.  They used to read as children, then as teens, then plowed through the usual texts of the 20-somethings (The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Slaughterhouse 5), and then tuned out, so to speak.  The reason?  College.  Required lit classes can really fuck up an otherwise blossoming interest in books.  I get it—not everyone is down with Chaucer (never my favorite; Boccaccio kicks his ass), but still, there are books being written, and even published, that should rekindle that initial joy.  The problem is not a lack of good books to read (there's fucking tons of them) but a lack of knowledge of where to find them.

Bookstores were the place to go once upon a glorious time.  God knows I discovered many of my favorite books at the Aspidistra Bookshop, my former place of employment.  And for all the time I have spent reading, I have probably spent more time inside the bookstores of Chicago hunting for new authors.  But all that is fading, sadly, in favor of online book buying.  Okay. So be it.  But hell, the internet is bigger than any store, so, in theory, a person ought to have no end of great literature to explore.  There’s certainly no shortage of book blogs, reviews, rants, and ratings to be read online.  So what’s the problem?  I assume, and I am speaking from experience, that even the most literary curious is easily distracted by social networks and adorable cat videos.  Who wouldn’t be?

Regardless, if anyone feels that they don’t read as much as they should (or, more importantly, as much as they would like to), then they have no one but themselves to blame.  And they are fucking up book culture in small but significant ways.  They are allowing the ooze of cyberspace’s pop culture and ceaseless sniping to slowly erode what remains one of the most stimulating, pleasurable, rewarding, and life-affirming experiences: reading.  Hell, I am happy that people are reading anything other than The Drudge Report or celebrity gossip.  Fucking read Twilight for all I care.  At least that book, and Fifty Shades of Horny, proved that books still have relevance in the 21st century. 

Now to the other thing about books: they’re beautiful.  Not just their content, but their form.  I will not go into the Kindle v. book thing, as I have ranted about that before and, really, what’s the point?  But I will mention one other function of books and, in my case, the personal library: aesthetically, there may be no finer way to give character to a room than by filling it with books.  The spines, which can be endlessly rearranged, create a visual effect similar to those paintings with the tiny dots that form, from a distance, a complete picture.  I know, I know… books are meant to read, right?  Sure they are, but who’s to say they can’t provide other joys as well?  As I stated above, I’ll never finish reading every book in my library.  I simply can’t.  But I will hold onto most of those books, as they do supply me with a certain pleasure aside from the words on their pages.  It’s sick, I know, to collect books solely for this reason, but I am sick.  I have, as I said previously on this here bloggy, 20-some copies of The Master and Margarita.  I also have multiple copies of The Sound and the Fury, 2666, and Crime and Punishment, just to name a few.  I buy them for their covers, I admit, which, again, is silly, but fuck it.  I’m silly.  Anyway, consider it my contribution to book culture.  I read ‘em and I buy ‘em, even when I clearly don’t need ‘em. 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

My Name in Digital Lights - Pub'd Agin (Truth v. Illuision, When James Frey Was and Was Not a Douchebag, and The Little Story That, For Some Time, Couldn't)

Go here to read my story "Thieves" published by the Jet Fuel Review folk.  It's a story based on real events, which people seem to prefer to fiction, suggesting that our society is too hung up on experience over imagination. I find this silly.  The pubic seems convinced that actual events are somehow of greater importance than a good yarn, and when they find out that so-called real life stories, memoirs, and non-fiction is sprinkled liberally with bullshit, they get all in a tizzy.

Case in point: that James Frey debacle.  The guy did one thing wrong: after realizing that he was getting accolades and recognition for a very exaggerated (and poorly written) story, he parlayed that into a series of speaking gigs that saw him telling actual crackheads and recovering junkies that they could kick their habit, just like him.  Now point me to the free buffet and show me where to cash this check.

That was douchebag behavior, indeed.  But the whole passing off a piece of fiction as a memoir... that's fine.  I really can't believe that anyone actually believes that non-fiction is, well, not fiction.  I mean, one look at the opening pages of A Million Little Pieces will tell a savvy reader (one who can actually read critically) that the thing is bullshit.  But again, I like bullshit when it's entertaining (as opposed to sermonizing macho texts about drug addiction). 

Anyway... it's my second story to be pub'd, which is nice.  I liked it a lot when I wrote it, but people seem to hate it.  It got shot down more times than an extra in a John Wayne film.  I'm not fishing for compliments, just realizing that my favorite work is not always what the people want, and that my least favorite pieces, the dashed off junk, the workshop-exercise poems, the sloppy, quick pieces about cooking dinner for my wife, seem to register highest.  Go figure.