The Designer’s Drugs: Josh Olsen – Six Months

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Josh Olsen ‒ Six Months

 

 

I half expected this book’s back cover declaration of returning to the womb every six months to refer to some transgressive trans-vaginal exploitation film scene.  The funny thing about my Rorschach reaction to the noirish packaging of Six Months is that the true meaning behind that line became the thing in this excellent book of one page stories which resonated with me most.  Instead of being a tale of sexy sadist slapstick, the title story tells of the author’s biannual returns to his hometown, which is also my hometown.

My fellow expatriate describes the sadness found in returning to La Crosse only to discover that nobody there has improved in any significant way.  The only changes to the author’s friends and family are those of age.  This saddens him in part because he can’t join in with their lack of success, that he can’t find the old camaraderie and fellowship within shared disappointments, that he can no longer be a lifer.  He’s become a visitor, and every six months he leaves the old world behind.

If I hadn’t felt exactly those things about exactly this place, “Six Months” may have simply been one more very good story.  But as I’m also filled with that same sort of self-nullified nostalgia for our hopeless hometown in western Wisconsin, the story picked up a really powerful, fascinating sense of despair.

Beyond this, Olsen fills the rest of this quick book with the sort of warped yarns that will appeal to a certain sort of man approaching middle age.  Most of these tales are presented as stories from the author’s life, anecdotes about his messed up life and his attempts to square being a respectable father and neighbor with the deviant malcontent (and husband) within.  The perv is certainly on display in the showroom, though these tales steer far from becoming grotesque and trans-vaginal, and this warped Ward Cleaver is most interesting when he’s not being a little hard on the beaver.

Two of my favorite stories are clever little bits of weird, the first involving the author attempting to meet the great Captain Lou Albano and the second being a musing over the creator of the classic Holocaust comic book memoir Maus and my beloved, forbidden Garbage Pail Kids.  Until here, I didn’t know that the creator of these vastly different cultural artifacts was the same person.

I’m also a fan of Olsen’s hateful reminiscences of his own father figures, as well as his adventure in shitting in a sandbox.

Much of what makes this mishmash of bizarre stories function is that there’s a humor and humanity to them that doesn’t wallow in the sordid details.  I suppose that the fact that each story is but one page long helps this.  I definitely want to read something longer from Josh Olsen, but this quick, fascinating burst of screwball tales is captivating enough on its own.

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The Designer’s Drugs: Chuck Palahniuk – Damned

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Chuch Palahniuk ‒ Damned

 

 

In Chuck Palahniuk’s new world, Hell is Hollywood.  Hell is also Hell, full of the typical wailing, gnashing teeth, and rising lakes of wasted jizz that serve as Hell’s equivalent of global warming.  But if we’re stacking up the hierarchy of the awful, consider this ‒ even Palahniuk’s Satan has a script he’s trying to sell.

Damned promotes itself as The Breakfast Club in Hell, and if Madison, its pudgy, oft-neglected hero, resembles any member of that Saturday morning detention crowd, it’s the Ally Sheedy neurotic girl.  (In discussing that 80s film classic, our girl notes that she howls with terror when the popular cheerleader gives said outcast a condescending makeover.)  Madison’s quite a bit more than that dark, mousy type, however.  In true Palahniuk fashion, this preteen is quick to assert that she knows middle of the road words like gender, excrement, tenacious, and feign ‒ yet in casual moments she nonchalantly drops bigger words and phrases like colonoscopies, biological imperatives, vivandiers, and coals-to-Newcastle.  I have no idea what that last phrase even means.

This newly lost soul spent life as an unloved prop to her vapid Hollywood parents, the sort of people who adopt kids from around the world shortly before shipping them off to boarding school, the sort of people who fly their kids via private jet to ecology retreats.  I get the impression that there’s a healthy portion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in these absurdly cosmopolitan celebrity caricatures.

After dying from a marijuana overdose, Madison meets up with the requisite Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Judd Nelson characters, and this infernal Breakfast Club goes traipsing around the hoary netherworld in search of misadventure.  As time goes by, Madison gets kind of awesome.  She preaches the joys of damnation in her telemarketing job, beats up Hitler in grand, hilarious style, and goes on a spew-soaked revenge haunting.

The last book of Chuck’s that I picked up before this one was Snuff, whose porno gangbang setting was the most obvious and inevitable thing an author inclined toward burying his readers in freakshows and trivia could have produced.  That book was so over the top as to become really, really boring.  In contrast, Damned is kind of delightful.  Perhaps the choice of setting absorbs some of that stereotypical shock.  Sure, Palahniuk’s paintbrush colors up a pretty disturbing landscape of the inferno, but it’s Hell, so that’s kind of expected.  With the need to shock sort of canceled out, the story ends up relying on wit and characterization, and Palahniuk, perhaps having no choice, ended up writing a book combining the scope and cleverness of Robert Olen Butler’s Hell with the innocent charm of Judy Blume, right down to beginning each chapter with “Are you there, Satan?  It’s me, Madison.”  Damned seems to be a reworking ‒ if not total subversion ‒ of Chuck Palahniuk’s established formula, and as such, it made me a fan again.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Drew Magary – The Postmortal

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Drew Magary ‒ The Postmortal

 

 

In keeping with my recent forays into near future dystopian literature comes The Postmortal, a fascinating account of a 21st Century in which humanity has eliminated aging.  This story is all about being careful what you wish for; almost from the moment humanity unleashes nigh-immortality it spends the rest of the story trying to cram it back into Pandora’s Box.  Humanity doesn’t become one iota superior for having shaken off the reaper: immortals keep pumping out kids on autopilot, the new mankind-worshipping religion comes off as equally totalitarian as the afterlife salesmen it supplanted, and the internet trolls have painted themselves green and run out into the real world to maim and murder.  In this world of total overpopulation and self-absorption, it takes no great imagination to predict that the forever business would soon change back to the death business.

The story’s lead, a former estate lawyer named John Farrell, eventually falls into the death business, getting his feet wet as a euthanasia assistant (known in oh so customer service terms as End Specialists).  As the world continues to slide due to people’s stubborn refusals to die and/or stop multiplying, Farrell and the rest of the Kevorkians find themselves upgraded to government-sponsored public hitmen, charged with taking out the elderly and undesirable.

But that’s only the latter half of the story ‒ and honestly, it’s the least compelling half.  Mostly, that’s because the most fun in The Postmortal comes in watching Drew Magary describe the minutiae of the brave new world through Farrell’s journals.  Our hero ponders such ideas as the decline and transformation of marriage in a world where “to death do you part” has no meaning, the end of retirement and Social Security, immortality’s effect on crime and punishment, the fading of personal goals to work towards, and the strong possibility that almost nobody is really prepared to face up to the massive personal responsibilities involved in existing forever.

I like John Farrell as a character, though his narrative is way too full circle as old flames tend to neatly pop out of nowhere to replace new voids in his life.  He’s an intelligently written cipher through which the reader gets to look into a fantastically terrifying future.  That’s said, his philosophies and sociology are much more gripping than his life.  As Magary’s big world-building gives way to the desperate living within that world, a bit of that fascination fades and is replaced by horror.

Within the dystopia lit I’ve read recently, I’ve found that I like the big-picture approach, on display in Albert Brooks’ 2030, over the sort of Player One solipsism seen in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.  The Postmortal occupies a strong middle ground between the two, moving from Brooks’ style to Shteyngart’s, from sociology to the surreal.  Beyond my reservations on building a story of immortality around a guy who seems unable to move forward ‒ and maybe that’s the point ‒ this story of the end of the end is really magnificent.

The Designer’s Drugs: Haruki Murakami – 1Q84

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Haruki Murakami ‒ 1Q84

 

It’s possible that I’ve never been as frustrated with a book as I was with 1Q84.  Maybe if the book wasn’t so massive, I’d at least be less irritated about the trip through these dense woods.  Unfortunately, this would-be epic fairy tale’s length draws out the story’s primary and lesser flaws so far that they become almost intolerable.

Ultimately, the worst thing about 1Q84 is that it should be amazing.  This story of a parallel world has so much going on within it that, had Murakami focused more on its fantastic elements instead of jettisoning all of that colorful landscape in favor of making the book little more than an elaborate goddamn teenage romance, I’d have stood up on my textual soapbox and praised this book as a work of genius.  Instead ‒ and I don’t give a shit about spoiling this ending, because fuck this book’s ending ‒ the world is literally cast aside and thrown out the second the two main characters find each other.  All the big metaphysical questions are suddenly given the finger and ignored; it felt a lot like watching someone get born again and then deny that their life to that point ever happened.  I got the explicit message that the parallel 1984 world meant nothing to Murakami, that it served merely as a shiny backdrop for his mooning young lovers to have some bullshit Disney happily ever after moment.  After almost a thousand pages of investment, this sort of ending is a ridiculous letdown.

I’ll refer to the two main characters as Boy and Girl, since Murakami seems downright miserly in giving out even the most trivial details such as people’s names.  They begin as moderately interesting characters.  Girl is an assassin of wife-beaters as well as a weekend warrior swinger.  Her wingwoman in the latter is a really insipid character, but Girl’s spectrum of murder and sex creates some interesting contradictions.  Boy is a part-time math teacher, “older girlfriend” banger, and aspiring novelist who rewrites a mysterious girl’s novella into a bestseller.  This book, which initially only runs the risk of being exposed as a semi-fraud, soon creates metaphysical consequences which lead a cult to hunt down the authors.  Meanwhile, Girl is hunting down the cult leader, and soon Boy and Girl’s interests cross.

What makes these two characters implode is the revelation that Boy and Girl were classmates when they were ten, and one time they held hands, and ever since nothing else in either goddamn world they inhabit has mattered.  They’re thirty.  Despite their interesting and sordid lives, their entire reasons for living are soon exposed as finding each other despite not having seen each other for twenty years.  This quickly becomes as one-track and grating as watching a child throw itself on the ground in a toy store and hold its breath until it gets the toy it wants.

Interestingly enough, the third part of the story introduces another point of view, the welcome perspective of an insectlike private detective hired by the cult to track first Boy and then Girl.  He’s a great, pathetic character whom nobody likes, which combined with his extensive knowledge makes him the story’s most compelling voice.  Problem is, it just seems like he’s there for Murakami to grudgingly give up some more plot details, after which he’s tossed into the trash.  In a story filled with underutilized side characters, he’s the prime victim.

I really wanted to like this book, but no, I don’t.  The neat, supernatural elements are delightful but ultimately treated as unimportant.  The sordid sexy bits, perhaps owing to translation issues, are badly written with a very odd sort of technical euphemism.  And the main characters ‒ besides that sad, scuttling detective ‒ lose all their allure as they become all fucking doe-eyed.  I can’t say that 1Q84 was a total loss, but there’s no way I’d recommend this long, pointless journey to anyone else.

The Designer’s Drugs: Top 11 of 11

So here’s my crappy end of year list.  I don’t think I liked enough albums, books, or other entertainments to warrant separate best-of lists for each medium, so I’m just smashing everything together. Deal with it.

11.  Medium: Literature. Stimulus: George R. R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons

Finally, George R. R. Martin continues his Song of Fire and Ice series with a gigantic book that nonetheless picks up the pace and is much more exciting than its predecessor.

10.  Medium: Film. Stimulus: Red State

The guy who directed Clerks and Mallrats makes a serious movie about Fred Phelps-grade religious fanaticism and David Koresh-grade domestic terrorism.  On paper, you’d think it wouldn’t work, but it works pretty goddamn hard.

9.      Medium: Game. Stimulus: The Nintendo 3DS

Most video game systems suck and have a crappy library of games in their first year.  The Nintendo 3DS bypassed this by cutting the crap and releasing upgraded versions of the company’s best games 15 years ago, Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64.  It worked.  Add a highly serviceable port of Street Fighter IV, a Mario game that is the 2011 version of 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3, and the requisite round of Mario Kart, and the opening salvo of the 3DS hasn’t been too bad at all.

8.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Austrian Death Machine – Jingle All the Way

If you haven’t listened to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-themed metal genius that is Austrian Death Machine, do it.  Do it now!  Their latest release is a two-song EP based on Arnold’s epic Christmas movie, Jingle All the Way.  “I’m Not a Pervert,” based on Arnold’s failed attempt at gaining a bouncy ball from a stupid kid at the Mall of America, is the feel-good Christmas song of the year.

7.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030.

A believable, grounded account of American decline without the usual futuristic vibe.  Usually, books about the future are pretty devoid of compassion and pretty bonered out on robo-fascism, but Brooks plays it calm and presents a future with real people – and, equally important, real language.  This examination of overpopulation and boomer entitlement reaching old age is less fiction than it is frightening inevitability.

6.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Shatner Shatners it up and sings cover songs about space.  How could this possibly go wrong?  The answer: it won’t.

5.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Peter Gabriel – New Blood

I think that instead of the usual gathering of singles into the usual stale Greatest Hits collection, all musicians who reach such a reflective point in their careers should do orchestral renditions of their best songs.  Especially the B-52s.  Consider Peter Gabriel and this beautiful retrospective to be my prime argument for this.

4.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Once more, the great Andy Schoepp delivers over the top martial arts action in book form, yet this time he outdoes himself.  Time traveling ninjas, giant robots, and hot assassin babes make for an epic tale.  I’ve said it before: if Andy Schoepp’s work doesn’t kick your ass, then you don’t have an ass.

3.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

This is what pop music should always sound like: well-crafted yet forceful, ambitious yet immediate, intellectual yet emotional.  Ceremonials is titanic sonic literature.

2.      Medium: Film. Stimulus: Hobo with a Shotgun

This ridiculous, ultraviolent, pun-heavy bit of low-rent cinema made me grateful to be alive.  Seeing an old grizzled hobo dispense buckshot justice to an awesome family of gleefully murderous gangsters was a joy.  Remember: when life gives you razor blades, you make a bat covered in razor blades!

1.      Medium: Life. Stimulus: Protests!

It’s breathtaking to see people giving a shit and fighting corrupt systems of power worldwide.  In America this seems even more amazing, because we’re currently the spoiled children of the planet.  Divide that down to the Midwest, where the secondary holy mantra that follows “go [insert local NFL team]” is “don’t rock the boat,” and consider my mind blown.  My expectations for humanity this year were completely shattered, and that feels wonderful.

The Designer’s Drugs: Adam Ross – Mr. Peanut

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Adam Ross – Mr. Peanut

Anno: 2010

 

 

It’s too bad that the one element in Mr. Peanut that makes sense of the rest of the story comes at the end of the book, because once the reader gets to that humanizing point one is probably burnt out on all the David Lynch psychothriller tedium slogged through along the way.  What is at its core a tale of disintegrating marriage and recovering purpose fragments into a repetitive meditation on these things, the sum total being four stories that could have been told in two.

Those two stories center around a genius game programmer accused of murdering his wife.  She’s a woman who has suffered through a whole mess of physical problems in her lifetime and through their marriage.  Spooky things happen, people screw, the programmer writes a sinister book, and there’s a beady eyed dwarf hitman wreaking havoc.  Those are to be expected.  The problem is that after the introductions, the book takes a half of its width examining the marital problems of the two detectives assigned to the murder case.  Without blinking, the book ditches the accused and dives after the lives of his accusers like a dog chasing cars.

One of the dicks has a wife who won’t get out of bed; the other is Dr. Sam Sheppard, real-life defendant in one of the most famous wife murder cases of the 20th century.  In real life, Sheppard died over 40 years ago, but for some reason he’s alive and kicking in Ross’s present-day world.

The Sheppard chapters in particular reads like an erotic true crime fanfiction, analyzing the events leading up to his wife’s murder in heavy detail and sinking into yet another unnecessary musing on failing marriages.  I could have handled the detective with the bedridden wife in a small dose, but bringing Sheppard into it hijacked and derailed the entire story.

Adam Ross had more than enough potential with his main characters that he didn’t need to go on the excessive tangents he went on with the detectives.  Unfortunately, he did.

The Designer’s Drugs: Albert Brooks – 2030

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030

Anno: 2011

 

I’ve recently developed a fascination with American declinist literature, stories taking place not far in the future which predict the end of America’s run as king of the mountain.  In reading Albert Brooks’ excellent account of the wane of one more empire, I drew immediate parallels to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, though as soon as I did so the differences also presented themselves.  The destination of both books is the same, but the focus of each is the polar opposite of the other.  Shteyngart’s story is concerned with the clutching desperation for youth in a hyper-networked world.  It describes, almost by necessity, a more absurd, idiotic place (I hesitate to say that it is more self-obsessed).  In contrast, the world Brooks describes is being wrecked by the old, who have become an undying, retired ruling caste with no regard for the Social Security slave state it has created.  Here, the young are not venerated but marginalized and then feared as hopelessness boils over.

The colors Brooks paints with are much more sober and human.  Leaving out the flying cars and neo-Facebook crackheads, the only technology that’s really fetishized in his story is medical technology.  The cancer cure that turned 60 into the new 30 was just the beginning of the immortality industry that both elevates and plagues this world, but Brooks doesn’t have his characters speak in Internetese or act hip and futuristic.  Both the old and young are gathered together and presented as terrified, self-interested, conflicted, and most of all familiar characters.  This point is precisely what gives 2030 its power.

This wide scope also leads to some weird changes in perspective in which the reader gets into the thoughts of multiple people at the same time.  This pinball narrative isn’t unreadable, but for those conditioned to read and write a certain way, it is noticeable.  Also noticeable is a thin political vagueness that seems to indicate a desire to make the issues of 2030 beyond politics.  This is best seen in the American president, a central character who is buried under his nation’s rubble, as well as his own.  He isn’t explicitly labeled a Democrat, but his team is pretty obvious.  One of his rivals is painted as a corporate opportunist who plays the field, but his business interests in a chain of retirement homes would seem to make him an ardent anti-Kevorkian Republican.  As opposed to the contradictions and asymmetry of the characters, I don’t think this lack of definition in the big picture completely works.

This is a pretty amazing work of future world building which has easily become my favorite story of the end of the United States as we know it.  The characterization amidst the deep examination of an impending and severe social issue makes clear that Albert Brooks wasn’t simply interested in creating an American grave to dance upon.  What’s most gripping about 2030 is the possibility that he might be right about everything.