When Will You Be Available For Me to Pick Up My Hat?

From Jerry Felsheim’s “New York Literary Tea,” part of the aborted America Eats project that was never completed by the Federal Writers’ Project, but that is thankfully collected in Mark Kurlansky’s forthcoming book, The Food of a Younger Land:

Literary teas are constantly in a state of flux. The uninitiate gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink. Since the general rule of conduct is to seek out those who can do one the most good, magazine editors and big-name reviewers enjoy much popularity.

If the party happens to be given in honor of a new author, he is almost always completely ignored. In fact, there is a tradition among veteran literary tea-goers to put the young author in his place as soon as possible. They accomplish this by pretending vociferously not to know for whom the party is being given. The young author usually stands awkwardly in a corner, surrounded by a few dull old ladies, with his publisher frantically trying to circulate him among the “right” people.

wworld2

A Bona-Fide Reading Recommendation

Every once in a while, there’s a novel that’s been inexplicably ignored. Ignored in the way that a band or a movie could have been a hit, had it been released five years before or after, but that has the misfortune of being dumped into an uncomprehending crowd like a kewpie doll in a gated community. A book so giddy and nuts that you find yourself slowing down just to savor the madness. A book that causes you to get so lost in its warped world that you laugh loudly on a crowded subway and you are asked by a martinet-faced septuagenarian to “not enjoy yourself so much.” (Yes, this actually happened to me.)

wworld2The book came by accident. But I recognized the translator: Mara Faye Lethem, who also translated Albert Sanchez Pinol’s excellent book, Pandora in the Congo (which I reviewed here). And I thought I’d give it a whirl. Turns out I whirled very right.

The book is Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World. It’s been out for over a month in the States, and only two newspapers have deigned to review it: the Dallas Morning News and The Chicago Sun-Times. Not a peep from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or any of those ostensible organs intended to serve as our tastemakers. And you’ll certainly hear nothing from the Bookforum snobs or The New York Review of Books. This book is beyond them. And I mean that in the best sense.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this book is the real deal. This is an extremely fun book. The kind of novel I find myself jumping up and down over. The kind of book that one would hope all the litblogs would go crazy about. The same way they went crazy over David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y, and numerous others. I mean, I’m enjoying the book that much. This is one of those books for us. How often do you read a book with a Russian thug with dreads who is attempting to cling to his peaceful Rastafarian philosophy as he is about to be tortured by a maniac named Donald Duck? Or a novel constantly obsessed with characters who are “sprawled out” on chairs? Or a mysterious father with a weird fear of windows? Or a completely fabricated Stephen King novel? Or a man wondering why people complain about eating ice cream in the winter as a hooker services him?

If you ask me, the Chicago Sun-Times missed the boat on this. To call this book merely “satirical” or “two-dimensional” is to ignore what a slightly heightened truth can say about the world around us. I should also probably note that Calvo has translated David Foster Wallace. And there are some modest stylistic similarities. But I think the DFW Brigade will be pleasantly surprised by how distinct Calvo is with his odd and wonderfully circumlocutory descriptions (“The way they are consulting the maps and whispering to each other is not so much genuinely conspiratorial. It’s more like the way someone whispers theatrically, giggling and rubbing their hands together, when they want to make abundantly clear to any spectator that they’re conspiring.”)

This is not a book for the stiffs. This is not a book for people who can’t enjoy themselves. And I don’t think I could possibly recommend it to anyone who agrees with James Wood more than 50% of the time. But I can recommend it to anyone who could really use a fun read in this time of shaky economics and swine flu. The kind of punch to the stomach that reminds us that books can, and should, be fun and involving. If only we’d loosen our inhibitions every now and then.

susanboyle

Yes, The Master Race Does Matter

For more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been wondering whether Susan Boyle is a frumpy, middle-aged cipher or someone who actually possesses some skills outside making sandwiches. Fortunately, we here at the New York Times are happy to intellectualize this extremely troubling issue for you. Our demographic data suggests that you are, in all likelihood, a trim, upper middle-class Caucasian. And while these lowly types are getting into our clubs and newspapers, there is now the suggestion that some of us are shallow. I, Pam Belluck, certainly don’t consider myself shallow. I consider myself selective. And I hope to demonstrate with this article that being shallow is an essential survival skill.

susanboyleBefore she sang, Ms. Boyle was one of those people that just about anyone with taste made fun of. The kind of person who might wander into White Castle or enjoy a Seth Rogen film. One of those terrible unsophisticated types who many of us ridicule over a round of golf. The kind of worthless human specimen who we ask to fetch our coffee or to type our letters.

Now, after the video of her performance went viral, a troubling flurry of commentary has focused on whether we should even bother to give the groundlings the limelight. I suppose there are some situations in which, yes, we have to let someone as unappetizing as Ms. Boyle through the velvet rope. After all, a handful of these people seem to have a few special skills, such as tossing grapes into their mouths or juggling chainsaws, and we only find out about these skills by accident. These special skills are quite entertaining, but it’s very important not to talk with these subhumans or express any curiosity in their lives. But if we don’t offer them a token acknowledgment from time to time, then these subhumans will complain that we’re conforming to the prejudices of ageism or look-ism, or whatever these damn things are called these days.

But many social scientists and others who study the science of stereotyping (I don’t have to name names, do I? You do know what I’m talking about, right?) say there are reasons we quickly size people up based on how they look.

On a very basic level, racism and sexism are just something harmless and impersonal, much like deciding whether an animal is a dog or a cat. “Human beings don’t have feelings,” said David Avocado, an assistant professor of eugenics at New York University. “They are essentially pieces of information that we must categorize, and certain types are prioritized as better. There was a brave man in the early 20th century who understood this problem very well. Unfortunately, he went about it in the wrong way.”

Eons ago, this capability involved making decisions that were of life-and-death importance. But even today, humans have the ability to gauge people within seconds. And this can be of great value. Because who knows when a normal-looking person like Ms. Boyle or even some random black guy standing on the corner waiting for a cab might attack you?

“In ancient times, it was important to stay away from people who weren’t friendly or attractive,” said Susan Grant, related to the famed Bronx Zoo pioneer who had the courage to display the subhuman Ota Benga before a crowd. “If we don’t lionize the beautiful people, then how can we possibly enforce the fact that we’re better?”

Grant’s research suggests that those in low or ugly status register differently in the brain. “We’re still working on a way to improve upon phrenology,” said Grant. “We do have to come up with something that seems vaguely plausible to the scientists for a few years.”

But perhaps with the reintroduction of the Malthusian concept of “moral restraint,” we might prevent many of these ugly or lower people from reproducing.

“Susan Boyle is not a problem,” said Professor Avocado. “She is 47 and quite unlikely to have children. She was not brought to public attention until later in life. And people will forget her. History is written by the winners.”

And so are New York Times articles.

Police Taser Naked Wizard at Coachella


Naked Wizard Tased By Reality from Tracy Anderson on Vimeo.

A six-minute video that is now quickly making the rounds around the Internet (see above) depicts a naked man at the Coachella Music Festival being tasered by police. The Desert Sun has the best summary of events, but essentially Johnathan Frederick Feich, a 23-year-old-man, ran around naked without his wizard costume. Three police approached him — two from Indio and one from Banning — trying to persuade him to put on his costume.

“I’ll tell you what,” says one of the officers. “You can have a great time, but you can have an even better time if you put your clothes on. Can I get them for you?”

According to the Sun article, Indio Police Department spokesman Ben Guitron claimed that it was the officer from Banning who elected to use the taser.

If this was indeed the case, then the Banning Police Department’s Departmental Policy and Procedures (PDF) suggests that the officer may be out of line in using his taser.

According to Policy 309.2(d), an Electronic Control Device can only be used to overcome resistance from violent or potentially violent subjects. And while the Policy doesn’t specify a requirement that the subject has to strike the officer, the officer must have “sufficient information (i.e., verbal threats, verbal defiance, or physical stance) to believe that a person is physically threatening and has the present ability to inflict harm.”

The Banning Police Department has not yet returned calls to reporters. The Indio Police Department stands by the actions of its officers. I will be making some calls this afternoon and I will attempt to obtain the police report.

The question that the investigators will have to answer is whether Feich’s actions constituted a potential for violence. The other question is whether repeated tasers to the skull, the heart, and other areas constitute use of an ECD that is acceptable under the circumstance. Is a man who throws his clothes off violent? And why didn’t the police officers escort Feich from the facilities and avoid a public spectacle?

UPDATE: I spoke with a very helpful woman in the Records Department at the Indio Police Department. She tells me that there isn’t a police report that they have available. (I gave her the name and the time of the incident. She didn’t recognize the name, but she certainly knew “naked guy.”) It appears that Mr. Felch may have been taken to a jail and a command center nearby the festival, but not directly to police headquarters. I have also left a voicemail with police spokesman Ben Guitron and I hope to put forth a number of questions to him about this matter.

UPDATE 2: I have not heard back from the Banning Police Department. Mr. Guitron has been inundated with media calls, but I will be putting forth questions to him very soon.

UPDATE 3: On Friday afternoon, I spoke for about ten minutes with the very polite and very helpful Ben Guitron of the Indio Police Department. He was very generous with his time and his answers. Mr. Guitron informed me that Indio didn’t have enough staff in place for Coachella. For large events like Coachella, the IPD regularly coordiantes with four municipal agencies for events of this size. And in the case of Mr. Felch (apparently pronounced “Fletch”), the IPD partnered up with the Banning Police Department. Mr. Guitron told me that the BPD has the arrest report.

I have left a few messages with the BPD and have heard nothing back from them, and I will continue my attempts until I can obtain a copy of the report. Apparently, the investigating and arresting officer was BPD, which meant that the BPD controls jurisdiction. When I asked Mr. Guitron if it was the IPD’s position that the BPD bore the responsibility for ECD use, he said that this was indeed the case. I also tried pressing him on whether he considered Mr. Felch to be violent, and he again deferred to Banning. But he did note that the three officers’ behavior was guided very much by firm policies and their training and experience.

Here’s what happened, according to Mr. Guitron: There was a call from Coachella. The gist? Some gentleman appears to be on drugs or alcohol. He appears to be very drunk and naked. The three officers moved in. The reason that they did not take Mr. Felch away from the crowd was because one of the officers was attempting to keep a lookout for one of Mr. Felch’s friends. As Mr. Guitron explained to me, “With a large crowd, there has to be an officer watching the crowd.” The officers tried to talk Mr. Felch into putting on his clothes and, as Mr. Guitron conveyed to me, “This lasted longer than expected.”

“In our perspective,” said Mr. Guitron, “nobody’s looking for a violent tack.” But because Mr. Felch did not obey the officers’s orders and refused to be cuffed, this exacerbated the circumstances and caused the ECD (i.e., the taser) to be used.

The IPD is very well aware that cameras document these arrests at large events. As he told me, “Everybody uses their camera. It was to be expected. I mean, we’ve had people with nudity who have been drunk before. Girls without their tops.”

Of course, nobody at the IPD expected all this to hit the Internet as much as it did. And there remain additional questions. First, did Mr. Felch come to Coachella with friends and why didn’t they help him or talk him down? Second, why did the Banning Police Department use an ECD for a nonviolent act of authoritarianism? I hope to determine the answers to these questions as my investigations continue.

UPDATE 4: This Vancouver Sun story reveals that Felch was arrested and released on $2,500 bail.

fighting2009

Review: Fighting (2009)

“Bob Semen is a freak but New York needs freaks. At his best he was hope for the hopeless and at his worst, no more than a lesson. An adventure to be lived and learned.” — Dino Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

New York does indeed need its freaks. But few artists wish to broach the terrible truth that the richer and cleaner New York under Bloomberg doesn’t particularly desire them. Those seedy characters lovingly portrayed in Richard Price’s books and Abel Ferrara’s films now occupy the realm of endearing fantasy rather than representative reality. Ferrara himself notably attempted to reclaim his lost New York in 2007’s Go Go Tales (largely shot in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios and sadly unseen here in the States beyond film festivals) and the same can be said of Price’s last novel Lush Life, which, as Salon’s Richard B. Woodward and others have observed, doesn’t quite possess the authenticity of today. That’s a stunner, considering how dead-on Price’s previous achievements were. But the bums lost and were pushed rather rudely into the patchy remnants of the underground, causing our best artistic practitioners to drift into the past. Still, maybe the current economic downturn will fire up a few slackers to take any rug they want from the house.

Because of all this, it’s no surprise that the New York depicted in Dito Montiel’s second feature, Fighting, bears little resemblance to current New York. In Montiel’s universe, a hustler can get away with selling an all-too-obvious Harry Potter ripoff just blocks away from the publishing industry hubs in Midtown, African-Americans shout loudly about Billy Joel tickets, landlords post overdue notices on doors to embarrass tenants (rather than sliding them under doors), and gamblers fail to do the most rudimentary background checks on bagmen delivering half a million dollars. Montiel’s Manhattan is as true as the blown-up photo of an aerial view sitting behind one man’s desk, accessible through a door containing an equally cartoonish illustration of money. All this is something of a surprise given Montiel’s heightened attention to detail in his last film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. (Yes, modern subway trains did often roll by in 1986, among many other notable gaffes. But this low-budget film felt right for the most part; especially with one powerful moment between Shia LeBeouf and Chazz Palminteri, just after LeBeouf observes a death, in which the father-son power dynamic seesaws twenty times in a New York minute.)

The inflexible authenticity booster — that Walter Benn Michaels sort of blowhard — would see all this as a bad thing. (If you missed Michaels’s small splash in the pool tended to by the gated community, Michaels stated, in all seriousness, that American Psycho — a novel, incidentally, turning eighteen this year — recalled Edith Wharton’s novels of manners and that Ellis had written a truer novel than Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Michael Chabon. This is the kind of wild and tenuously supported claim that apparently has you spearheading a New York Public Library discussion. You can observe the glum video results here, where the rigid Michaels comes across as some Richard Dawson-like figure of the literary world, a man very much in love with his own voice waiting for nearly everyone around him to supplicate to his ostensible intellect. I was surprised he didn’t get up from his chair, kiss Susan Straight on the lips, and entreat the audience to “play the Feud.” After spending ten minutes reading his essay aloud like some hoary and entitled hybrid of Ben Gazzara and Lee Siegel, Michaels doesn’t seem to consider that American Psycho might, in fact, be a satire or a pastiche. That the brand names and the consumerism juxtaposed against savage violence has less to do with dutifully reporting on manners and more to do with sending up entitlement. Michaels seems unable to come to complete terms with Susan Straight’s concern for location over character, which she admits to him and which defies his generalization of what authors seem concerned with, or, for that matter, David Simon’s affinity for seemingly unreal books like Schindler’s List. To give you a sense of Michaels’s subtlety, the man not only rolls his eyes, but remarks on rolling his eyes. And if he happened to be in the hood, I suspect that this hotheaded attitude would get the man beat with a baseball bat — a la Montiel. Michaels is also shockingly out-of-touch with such writers as Stewart O’Nan, Richard Russo, and William T. Vollmann, all of whom have devoted much of their fiction to working-class and/or alternative perspectives. And yet Michaels’s flummery has been lionized. Because it’s the New York thing to do. Too bad a few freaks weren’t invited to sit at the table. But, hey, this is New York.)

The more intriguing question is whether there’s any value in the inauthentic. Should we dispose of a film like Fighting that is unapologetically artificial? Well, only a humorless cloghopper like Michaels would. For what it’s worth, I found myself pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed Montiel’s movie as much as I did, precisely because it seems to concern itself with deliberate fabrication as a response to a very real predicament of a city gone horribly gentrified. The movie feels like some bizarre homage to the action movies produced by Cannon Films in the 1980s. It’s almost as if the film is suggesting that even the kind of ridiculous bravado you got with Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A. would better serve New York than the neutered passive masculinity too easily settled upon today. The cinematography, much like those choppy action flicks shot in the pre-500 Tungsten days, avoids volatile high-contrast situations. It seems photographed directly for VHS. (The movie does end up employing a few helicopter shots for the climactic showdown.) But that’s part of the fun. Because Montiel’s metropolis is rendered as if some 1985 incarnation of New York merged with one prominently featuring billboards of the Legally Blonde musical. And the aesthetic resemblance here is so striking that I found myself extremely startled by the first appearance of a cell phone.

The fights in this movie, rather remarkably, don’t involve blood. These bouts are of the crunchy, bone-breaking, and drinking fountain-collision variety. The safe, crowd-pleasing type you’d expect from a Cannon movie. You could easily replace Michael Rivera with Billy Drago. My Cannon parallel theory may hold up when we consider that, just after every fight Channing Tatum is involved in, one of the gang members points his finger at the supine defeated opponent and laughs. And I haven’t even mentioned the cheesy subplot with Brian White’s Evan Haley. The rich New Yorker/poor small town implant vendetta between Evan and Channing Tatum’s Shawn MacArthur goes all the way back to high school.

Channing Tatum, incidentally, makes an iffy pugilist, both in look and in execution, but he does serve as a weird amalgam of Patrick Swayze’s Dalton, a young Patrick Dempsey, and Mark Wahlberg talking to animals. His character doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t quit have the guts to say, “I’m telling you straight It’s my way or the highway.” He desperately pursues Zulay Henao and insists on clarifying that a forced 20-minute breakfast in which he claims not to be hungry is a date. (I found myself inexplicably recalling the rather ridiculous way Richard Gere shovels eggs into his mouth in An Officer and a Gentleman during this awkward meet-cute moment. Perhaps the fights in this movie are meant to be as pleasantly incongruous as the smackdown between Gere and Louis Gossett, Jr. that comes out of nowhere near film’s end. My moviegoing companion seemed convinced that Montiel was channeling They Live‘s Nada. Now, in hindsight, I am skeptical of both claims. But this does demonstrate the free association risks that come with a particular aesthetic.) Montiel has better success with Shawn MacArthur when Zulay Henao’s daughter’s abuelita tells him to get the hell out of their apartment and refuses to understand his belabored gratitude in Spanish. Here is a MacArthur who doesn’t quite have the guts to say, “I shall return.” But he’s content to fight anyone he needs to for tens of thousands of dollars.

But the reason this movie worked for me as a guilty pleasure involves how something wholly inauthentic may very well have emerged from Montiel’s reality. In Montiel’s case, it starts with Bob Semen, cited in the quote that began this essay and one of the many gritty hues brightening the streets in Montiel’s memoir. Bob’s described in the book as running an “unbelievable illegitimate, straight-out false, television movie and modeling business on 52nd Street and Broadway, right upstairs from the Kit Kat Club.” (No surprise that this locale is where much of Fighting‘s action takes place.) Bob harbors grandiose dreams to turn Montiel’s band, Gutterboy, into a media sensation. One of his plans is a ten-million-dollar movie called No More Mistakes about the guy who invented the pencil eraser. (Which sounds as dubious as a ten-million-dollar

Bob never made it into Montiel’s film adaptation, but Frank the Dog Walker did. As played by Anthony DeSando, Frank is a languorous-tongued hustler who drawls out his vowels with a vaguely gay Queens timbre and expresses his dubious plans with spastic arm thrusting. And with Fighting, there appears to have been something of a schizoid split. Both Frank the Dog Walker and DeSando made it into Montiel’s second movie, but the double helix was split. Bob transmogrified into Frank, and this was a composite further altered by DeSando. But now Montiel has found an actor to carry these idiosyncrasies further, one who can improbably carry this somewhat preposterous but strangely entertaining movie.

Bob and Frank are now Harvey Boarden. And I don’t know if this movie could have worked without Terence Howard in the role, who improves on DeSando’s performance and improbably anchors the film. Here is a man who succeeds at his hustling in spite of his seemingly space delivery. He fills up dead air with little maxims picked up from his father and a steady drawl that involves lingering on one word across multiple sentences:

A: “I got a place around the corner. You can stay there until you find another place.” (“place”)
B: “We’re in a a $100,000 Mercedes. That’s where we’re going.” (“we’re”)
C: The “You tell…” that precedes Harvey’s efforts to delegate. (“you tell”)

We soon realize that it is these emphatic repetitions that has kept Harvey going. (And indeed, Fighting continues with the Altman-like overlapping dialogue rhythms that Montiel carried out in his first film.) Harvey may have stacks of Broadway tickets on his table. He may claim to be in the “tickets and sneakers” business. But he stays alive in this New York for the rich because he finds a way to inhabit each scene and demonstrate his worth through quiet repetition. And if the movie abides by the rule that a hustler is “someone who cannot win that wins,” then surely there is room for a world that cannot be authentic but that remains authentic in its convictions.

Make no mistake: this is a cheesy fighting movie. But Montiel knows very well that New York in real or fictive form needs its freaks. For those dwelling on the freaks being squeezed out, here is a movie that, for a time, offers hope for the hopeless.

Unfollowed

Dear @MyFriend:

You unfollowed me on Twitter today, and I simply haven’t been the same. There are salty beads of sweat slithering and agitating the angry furrows of my aging forehead and my left testicle has just popped out of my boxers. I am considering switching back to briefs, but I don’t think this will help. And I don’t think any of this will encourage you to follow me again on Twitter. But I must tell you the truth. Because you are, in no small sense, responsible for all this. I bought some fresh glue from a Duane Reade so that I’d have a new habit to take up. Something to help me through the sadness. But nothing can distract me from the dismal truth. Forget the economic upheaval. Thanks to Twitter, I now have some inkling of how David Kellerman felt. I wonder how many followers he had when things got bad for him. My guess is that you would not have unfollowed David Kellerman if you knew that he was on edge. I don’t know if I’m on edge, but the glue sure is helping. And I’d probably do the same thing that David Kellerman did, but I’m too cowardly and too lazy to hang myself right now.

All this is your fault. I followed you, knowing then that you had around 700 followers, some of whom were following me. When I followed you, I thought you might eventually follow me, and that the two of us might follow each other for life. It would be like a marriage. We’d be committing to each other, but we wouldn’t have to live with each other or cook or clean or shout at each other or eventually pay alimony. I retweeted your posts, figuring you would eventually see that I was fond of you and hoping all the while that you would follow me right back. And sure enough, you decided to follow me when you had around 925 followers.

Well, I was quite impressed. And to show my appreciation for your act of kindness in a prominent social network, I believe I bought you a beer once, or maybe it just happened to be another person who had your name. (You know Twitter. After a while, you see the fail whale everywhere.) We may have felt each other up in a broom closet at some point. Who knows for sure? But we definitely had some fun, if it was indeed you. The real details aren’t important. What’s important is the pithy bits of significance we express online. The problem, of course, is just how well we know each other or whether this whole Twitter thing even begins to encapsulate anything close to the social experience.

But now I know that it doesn’t. Because you unfollowed me. And if social networks actually mattered, then this cruel act would never have occurred. Now I don’t know if I can approach Twitter the same way. Because you have unfollowed me, I cannot DM you to clear up this misunderstanding. I am here by my computer, begging you by email to follow me again. To consider my emotional well-being over your organizational convenience. I mean, I simply don’t understand why you follow someone like @stephenfry, but not me. It’s not that I’m as smart as @stephenfry. But @stephenfry doesn’t tweet nearly as much as I do. And I’m more inclined to @reply you. Has @stephenfry ever @replied you? You see, I have. And while I may not have @stephenfry’s clever wit and conversational acumen, wasn’t there some small solace in knowing that someone was out there @replying to you?

Perhaps you’re one of those fools who believe that Twitter isn’t the center of the universe. Or maybe you’ve fallen asleep right now and you’ve lost your grip on the bottle of Pilsner Urquel and it’s all dribbled down your loud Hawaiian shirt. (I also feel uncomfortable using your first name or assuming that these biographical details are true, but what else do I have to go by other than your tweets? These details came from tweets that you posted, respectively, “8 hours ago,” “1 month ago,” and “3 months ago.” I have carefully studied all of your 1,247 updates.) Maybe I’ll never know you through Twitter. Maybe I’ll never know myself. But surely you must understand that there’s another person at the other end who will eventually figure out that you’ve unfollowed him, and who will spend many hours weeping.

I thought we were friends or, at least, acquaintances. Did you ever really like me? Or was your follow just a put-on? I won’t sleep easy until there’s an explanation. Or maybe you can just send me a check for $6.00 (beer plus tip) to recompense me for the expenses I blew. You were, after all, simply pretending. Or you can just follow me again and we can act as if nothing ever happened. Alternatively, if you know of a good therapist who you can recommend to me — someone who is on Twitter and someone who I can follow — I think you owe me at least a reference under the circumstances. My ethical core is this: I would never unfollow my worst enemy, in large part because I wouldn’t follow him in the first place. You’ve caused me endless emotional distress, confusion, and psychological pain. I wish I could unfollow you right back, but I can’t seem to quit you.

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

Mashup of Drafts (With Annotations)

I cannot be bothered to write anything of importance at the present time. Therefore, I offer the following post composed entirely of random sentences from other posts that I started in 2009, and I never finished, and that I have no real intention of finishing (with pertinent annotations):

I am in Midtown Manhattan, where the streets have no name. [1] Thanks to the dependable rage and knee-jerk regularities of the big crunching boot known as the Internet, Billy Bob Thornton has, in the past four days, been widely derided for his boorish appearance on a CBC radio program. [2] We make drinking within the realm of financial possibility while we tax the fuck out of cigarettes. So let’s take this oxidized sportster out for a spin, shall we? There is a part of me that might feel like one of those hokey magicians playing a PTA meeting for $75, the type who attempts to pass off that all-too-simple trick of squeezing water behind your elbow as cutting-edge.[3] Some figure who genuinely wallows in the suffering of others. Some savage soul who wants to kick in the teeth of anyone really. But I’m sure they’ll both choke on their free foie gras at some junket later in the year.[4] Never mind that I offered counsel and empathy when his personal life was falling apart. There is nothing entertaining, thoughtful, funny, literary, or striking about any of the material that is regularly posted here.[5] Last night, as I rested my freshly pedicured feet on my manservant’s lithe and writhing back, I found myself exceptionally alarmed. Our team of researchers, using the finest investigative techniques that microfiche has to offer, have located an essay written in 1983 by a hotheaded young man, who reportedly beat an Apple IIe with a baseball bat just after banging out the deranged essay reprinted for our readership below.[6] The box, the simple box, the box that rhymes with fox, the box you get back from the bagel shop that has your lox, may be the art form of the 21st century.[7]

[1] Careful readers of op-ed columns in a certain newspaper will likely see what I was satirizing. One common quality of these abandoned drafts is the fixation I have on the New York Times. This says more about me than the New York Times.

[2] I have been building up to an enormous essay about masculinity that I need to get out of my system. The theme has recurred in numerous drafts over the past eighteen months and there have been pitches to numerous outlets. Alas, nobody is really interested in the topic. Except that they are interested, as the near two million people who watched that YouTube video demonstrates.

[3] This metaphor was rooted in personal experience. And I’m going to have to figure out another applicable essay to get it in. When I was a boy, I would often attend Parents Without Partners outings with my then single mother, who was looking to get lucky and who, as it turned out, was extremely miserable. While adults gathered together for mediocre potluck dishes, I was left to wander the floors of some meeting room with frayed beige walls — the kind you found quite often in the mid-1980s that was often turned into a makeshift dance hall but that had not been architecturally designed for that purpose. But everybody knew that all the single parents were pinching pennies, with varying results and outright poor children with holes in their shirts and unwashed shorts pretending to be middle-class. There, I’d talk with other nervous kids, who were all likewise abandoned by their parents and were in need of a sad social fix. The adults often hired a cheap magician: someone who needed some pocket money, but who had certainly not made professional magic a full-time job. The kids didn’t care to be condescended to. And for some reason, they often looked to me. Because I tended to have a very loud voice and say things that apparently you weren’t allowed to say. (Or so many adults frequently told me. There was one particularly pious gentleman who took my mother aside outside of a church and said, “There’s something of the devil in that boy.” These days, it’s more or less the same thing. Except that the adults take other adults aside to talk shit about me and use four-letter words to describe how terrible I am. And it’s all a bit awkward because I’m now an adult.)

Anyway, I would often raise my hand when the magician asked for a volunteer. And if he was ever a bit condescending to my fellow kids, I would then expose all of his trickery to the audience, pointing specifically to the sponge behind my elbow and exposing the mechanisms of his act during the course of the show. I was truly a little asshole. But one such magician took me aside after his act, and he was very kind to me. And he asked me if everything was okay at home. I told him no. And he said I should perform magic shows because the other kids were very amused by my antics. And I remember that magician’s kindness any time I see some troubled kid trying to figure shit out, and I try and do something about it.

[4] This seemed a particularly vicious thing to say. One often writes in the moment and is astonished to see what one has written later.

[5] This sentence was written during the morose early days of quitting smoking.

[6] A chasm of memories I haven’t thought about in years have provoked ancillary imagery. It is no accident that violence remains a constant motif.

[7] I don’t believe any writer should be hindered by singsong prose. Some “literary” authors would be better off writing children’s books and rediscovering why they enjoy writing in the first place. It is very sad to have seen them deteriorate.

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Viral Marketing

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As Sarah Weinman reports, in a signed note on the back of the forthcoming James Ellroy novel, Blood’s a Rover, the Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is urging all of his readers to find him on Facebook. This may very well be the most brazen Web 2.0 pitch in the history of book industry marketing. And the last thing I want to do is kick a Demon Dog when he’s down. So go to Facebook, find James Ellroy, and lift this great writer’s spirits for the benefit of arts and letters! Perhaps by befriending Mr. Ellroy in this manner, he might be tempted to write even stranger novels for the joys and pleasures of readers around the world! (That is, when he’s not being poked by people he barely knows, given virtual gifts, or being chatted up by bored 15-year-olds.) Now if only we can convince Mr. Ellroy to get on Twitter and Tumblr, then we may very well make Mr. Ellroy the Demon Dog of All Media.

The Hard Quit

There’s presently a wild perceptive dust floating about in lieu of the daily smoke. It’s a mad balance that comes from giving up one terrible extenuating habit formed in my twenties, committed to (and quit) with varying degrees of government-sanctioned addiction over the past twelve years, and kicked at by the impromptu hooves bucking at salubrity at this present day — just a few years beyond thirty. There have been abject side effects. Sentences unpacked and deployed from my noggin like mad rivets dutifully dipping from a dribbling drill now take thrice as long to squeeze and bounce about my brain and bang into some coherence. All this is frustrating and very disheartening to say the least. I have even misted a bit at not having my apparent chops, but I know that it will come back. I am a stubborn bastard. Precise memories have become foggier, yet incidents that I haven’t given much thought to in several decades shout like mad banshees in the middle of the night, beckoning attention and disrupting my dreams. Minor moments from my first thirteen years have clung like surprise barnacles to the galleon I am presently retrofitting. Why they should come now remains a mystery. I am hardly purer than I was. I suspect that I am much worse.

I can apparently still do interviews quite well, and have done about five since I kicked the habit in anger. And while I can’t wolf down a book in one day (my appetite seems committed elsewhere, I’m afraid; to reduce the inevitable pounds, I have taken to fruit like a ravenous rhesus monkey), I can now read about 150 to 200 pages before my head rattles into the pillow. I can sound coherent on the phone and am apparently semi-erudite in person. (Nobody has yet suggested that I have turned autistic, but it certainly does seem that way at times. I am the worst judge, as many have kindly reminded.) I tend to be angrier over particularly stupid topics and resist all urges to give in completely to this unwholesome fury. Which is not to suggest that I’ve abandoned righteous indignation. Being mad, after all, is an important visceral scenario to countenance from time to time. But I am very aware that I am becoming emotionally and physically cognizant of the individual I hid behind the cigarettes: not the greatest person, but not a bad guy; someone, however, certainly afraid to be adorably crazy. I have, as a result of this, made myself socially scarce and only emerged when called or beckoned. A different kind of disguise, but not as bad as my previous mask of embarrassment that came with the occasional cancer stick I puffed at odd hours and let get out of hand. And it didn’t help that the price went up, and that the heartless bastards who contrived this tax didn’t think of the addicts who needed the frequent tugs and what it really meant to throw it all way.

The upshot is that this has been exceptionally difficult, and the difficulties of quitting are something we aren’t allowed to talk about. But it’s been just about three weeks. And it gets easier. I stay positive and remain active. The associations subside and reform, as does the hiding. I find a surprising new self to know who is perhaps a bit frightening, but who will live better than he did before. And if that sounds like a needlessly boastful statement, then you have never known what it is to be an addict.

RIP J.G. Ballard

Jeff VanderMeer is reporting that J.G. Ballard is dead. If that last sentence doesn’t cause your heart to sink to your feet, then get thee to a bookstore or a library and check the man’s work out immediately. Ballard was one of the greats: an imaginative giant, a profoundly erudite iconoclast, one of those rare talents who came up with a warped concept that needed to be wild while providing the speculative heft needed to keep a thought experiment going. And I hope to have more to say about the man as soon as I can collect my thoughts more coherently.

[UPDATE: Joanne McNeil, Jacket Copy, the AP, Tributes from the Guardian, even Gawker and Entertainment Weekly. But nothing from the New York Times or the Washington Post, who I presume are both too vanilla to appreciate a genius.]

[UPDATE 2: The New York Times and the Washington Post merely ran the AP obit off the wires. So John Updike gets independent coverage. But Ballard, being a mere "speculative" writer, does not.]

Better Than a Thousand Hollow Words

Like oh my God! I would SOOOOOOOO like to meet Louisa Thomas, who like reviews, like, books for the Los Angeles Times, and who, you know, seems to like people. Reading her review, I became convinced that she was, like, the kind of BFF (!!!!) who would, like, go with me to get Häagen-Daz. And we’d like spend the whole day gagging each other with our spoons, wondering, like, why there’s those, like, two funny dots over the first A. I think we would be friends. And I also think that if I decided to, like, enlist Louisa Thomas into my more libertine activities, she’d totally participate in what Sir Richard Burton once described as the Seventh Posture.

The quality of a review doesn’t depend on the personality of the reviewer, but, for fuck’s sake, one expects some minimum of critical acumen. Some of my favorite reviews were written by people who liked to digress or get excited about a strange subject, but they never made the profound mistake of lionizing the author’s personality and losing sight of the text itself. And yet the editors at the Los Angeles Times permitted this dopey and idiotic review to appear, perhaps because they view their audiences with contempt, they believe that lowering the bar as much as possible is the way to attract readership, or Thomas is sucking somebody’s cock.

There is no way to read this review without hating it, without recoiling at how it takes four fucking paragraphs before we actually know anything about the book in question. Louisa Thomas would appear to lack intelligence, would appear to have nothing worthwhile to say about books, would appear to have taken on this assignment and put on her rosy and phony enthusiasm because she wasn’t professional enough or emotional enough to do her job and tell us WHY THE FUCK SHE LIKED THE BOOK.

Liking the author is moot. I like any number of authors, but don’t care for their work. I love any number of books, but think the authors behind them have been total asshats. (Fortunately, 95% of the authors I meet are friendly.) None of this matters in the slightest. I have praised volumes written by assholes and savaged tomes crafted by nice guys. To gush about how much you like an author is to capitulate to the poisonous celebrity culture that is presently deracinating the possibilities of independent thought. It is to accept, as Louisa Thomas clearly accepts, the coward’s knee-jerk sprint to conformist groupthink. It is to waste words, sabotage paragraphs, and to offer nothing original. It is to accept the superficial.

We’re told that Thomas is “a contributing editor for Newsweek.” Here are a few exemplars of Ms. Thomas’s analytical chops:

“A confession: I can’t wait to watch the new DVD of ‘Twilight’-a movie I’ve already seen.”

“What makes a thriller work is a million-dollar question, but why they matter is more than an economic concern.”

And when presented with the opportunity to talk with Yiyun Li, what pithy words did Thomas rustle out of her? “I’m fascinated by people I can’t understand.” Personally I’m fascinated by inept interviewers who choose this generalization, above all others, for a profile piece about a highly acclaimed novelist.

If newspapers are going to publish vapid articles written by Louisa Thomas, why indeed should they be saved? When the Los Angeles Times publishes junk like this, it makes me want to reach for my metaphorical revolver so that I can convey to a few stubborn editors just how serious the situation is. When an editor publishes an article this vacuous, he is committing an act of self-sabotage. Newspapers are not in the position right now to print homogenized junk that speaks down to the reader, nor should they be alienating high-profile ex-editors who can get people fired up and pissed off about books. Newspapers must take more than a few chances right now and demonstrate to the public why this medium is worthwhile. I’m not against having fun in a book review, but speculations on whether Joanna Smith Rakoff has had a few “nice times” in Brooklyn restaurants have no bearing whatsoever on a book’s value. It’s an insult to an audience’s intelligence, and such reviews demonstrate that a newspaper doesn’t really deserve the literary stature or the acclaim it continues to lavish upon itself.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Alex Rivera

Alex Rivera appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #281.

Alex Rivera is the director and co-writer of Sleep Dealer, which is scheduled for limited release on April 17, 2009.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid Morpheus’s maquiladoras.

Guest: Alex Rivera

Subjects Discussed: David Riker’s La Ciudad, splitting screenwriting/directing duties, the collaboration process, the dynamics of globalization, labor and New World Order, the importance of having a heart when making a film, being the “Tin Man” to the “Wizard of Oz”, setting a futuristic story in the Third World, doing something new with science fiction, Sleep Dealer‘s lack of references to contemporary guerrilla armies, the Mayan Army of Water Liberation, intercepting a radio signal without problems, encryption, the heightened realities that come from balancing multiple narrative issues, clairvoyance in a bed of glue, machines and remote control, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, wireless vs. cables, what “looks cooler” on film, organizing specific movements, looking for actors with dance backgrounds, ambition vs. practicalities of low-budget films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, satirical television commercials, Robocop, the “post-border spirit” of collaboration, class division, using humor and satire to discuss the evils of fascism, Starship Troopers, Brazil, on directing a first feature after 15 short films, mashups and found footage, Craig Baldwin, reusing and recontextualizing images, switching from collage to narrative, financial assistance from the Sundance Institute, the false creative ideas of being a director, sprinkling found footage from the Iraq War into the narrative, pharmaceutical company ad campaigns, shanty towns on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mad Max, hiding behind technologies, police resistance, Thomas Mann’s “principle of least resistance”, increased connectivity vs. widening economic gap, the Berlin Wall, mariachis offering to play songs, Mexico’s legacy of tradition, the “wacky prediction” of big ideas, ultimate outsourcing, machines that eat up money, the Slurpee effect, Tijuana as the city of the future on t-shirts, spoofing Independence Day, flying sombreros that blow up Congress, Nortec DJs, Urban Outfitters, donkey shows and getting drunk, Tijuana as immigration gateway, and bad puns.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

sleepdealerCorrespondent: I would put forth to you, based on how excited you were just talking about Craig Baldwin, that you still have this impulse to take other things and transmute them and rearrange them. I’m curious how you got your fix during the course of Sleep Dealer in terms of recontextualizing found stuff and found locations. Did it come back to initial objects? Or taking things from eBay and the world around us and reconfiguring for this particular world?

Rivera: First of all, I would say, for me, the notion of being a director and the notion of being creative is laden with a lot of false ideas. This idea that the artist, the filmmaker, generates this vision. The truth is we sample. We work with actors who bring what they bring. We work with locations that pre-exist. So we’re always sampling and recycling no matter what we pretend to be doing. And Sleep Dealer is a film that does recycle more than other films in two big ways: one is we’ve got found footage sprinkled throughout the narrative. There are helicopters and aerial shots that were probably filmed for some news crew. And we bought them and put them in the film. And they’re woven into the narrative. There’s footage from the war in Iraq that is recontextualized as part of this sci-fi future war. There are images of the nervous system that are used in this science fiction-y way in Sleep Dealer that were probably produced for a pharmaceutical company ad campaign. And we brought those into our narrative. And so this is a science fiction where it’s perforated by already existing footage. The other way that we’re sampling is in the locations. Because as a documentary filmmaker, I saw places that blew my minds. Shanty towns on the outskirts of Tijuana that push up against the border wall. The border wall itself running down a beach and out into the ocean. High-tech factories next to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. And so you see these things that look, in front of your own eyes, more bizarre, more dystopic, than anything in Mad Max. And so I got the idea that we could make science fiction using documentary strategies.

BSS #281: Alex Rivera (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of Life Sentences.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened of sleazy and opportunistic biographers.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Cassandra Fallows vs. Kathryn Harrison, writers with peculiar personalities, the memoir dictating the memoirist, Hegelian synthesis, the Quarter Pounder and Proustian comparisons, philosophical modifiers, the inauthentic self, stereotypes of NPR listeners, book smart vs. people smart, satire and gentle fun, shaking the “serious is better” notion, Thomas Pynchon, being true to voice, the problems with the word “ballsy,” writing effrontery, Janet Maslin’s overanalysis of Life Sentences, the value of the red herring, the benefits of found opportunities, the problems with plans, Portnoy’s Complaint, creating deflections for the reader, the Oz books and the Nome King, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, overworking sentences, the joys of dashes, Emily Dickinson, smarmy memoirs, reading the entire book aloud at 40 pages per day, writing a book a year, following instructions, William Gibson, editing as “deboning a fish,” Lippman’s work ethic as a saving grace, racist perceptions, generalizations, and the older generation in Baltimore, the fallibility of memory, the purpose of memoir, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, making stuff up, basing a novel on true crime, the ethics of taking from real-life stories, responding to email, investigative journalism and amateurism, faking it, and losing sight of the victims over the course of fiction or investigation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lippmanCorrespondent: You have, of course, Callie-ope — Calliope — and Cassandra. I read Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and she seemed to be really hung up on the notion that this represented some Greek mythology. But when I read your book, I immediately said to myself, “Oh! Well, this is a very funny red herring to throw the reader off.” Just as the dates that precede each particular section have no significant meaning, or very little meaning, on the narrative. And I’m wondering if little red herrings along these lines are intended to either see if the critics of the Janet Maslin streak are going to latch onto them or whether they represent a way for you to obtain this level of “just doing it” that you just described in your last answer.

Lippman: It is true that both Cassandra and Calliope show up in the narrative, show up in my writing, with their names attached to them. I did not sit down and schematically design a story in which, yes, I will create two characters named after classic figures of Greek mythology. Cassandra was Cassandra. And then I realized her father was a Classics professor, and I began to think he would have conveyed. And Calliope was just always Calliope. There’s a certain Baltimore-ness to it. But I’m a really big believer in found opportunity. And sometimes writers create their own found opportunities. So it’s an accident that the two main characters of this novel have these names that have a lot of resonance. But I’m okay when people then see the resonance and point it out. It’s like someone at a painting and focusing on a detail that might not have been the intent. But it’s in there. It is there.

My belief is that if one is overly schematic in writing, it will feel a little stale and airless. So on the one hand, I’m delighted that people come to this and say, “Oh! Cassandra and Calliope. There’s all this significance.” Well, there is for them. They found it and it affects the way they read the story. And that’s great. At the same time, I think that if I had had a plan, I think the novel would have a really contrived feeling to it. I think it would feel kind of pedantic. One of the things I didn’t plan. You know, it just comes out. You’re writing. I write trying to think about who is this person and what would they be doing and what would they be thinking at this moment. And there’s a scene in which Cassandra has sex with someone who she’s really been yearning for. And because Cassandra can’t turn her head off ever, she’s thinking and thinking. And for some reason, she starts thinking about Leda and the Swan. Which if people are really paying attention, and they’ve seen the bit about Portnoy’s Complaint in the book, that’s very important in Portnoy’s Complaint. So Cassandra, whether she knows or not, is actually channeling that book that she read as a kid, which she remembers seeing in her father’s house.

So I’m writing this. And, you know, I don’t remember every line of Leda and the Swan! And, by the way, although I’m pretty well versed in Greek mythology, I didn’t remember that Leda gave birth to Cassandra. I didn’t remember that. So I go back and I read the poem and I just think, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious!” And if I had planned it. If I had been writing to that moment steadily for days and days — “Oh, I can’t wait until the moment in which Cassandra evokes her namesake’s mother. Via Yeats in bed.” — I think it would have felt a little off.

BSS #280: Laura Lippman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #279.

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and reports indicate that he is loved, in turn, by the actor James Franco.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Evading the pomp and circumstance of cultural taxonomies.

Author: Carl Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Celine Dion and incompatible tastes, Elliott Smith, the questioning of canonical knowledge, Paul Valery’s concept of taste composed of a thousand distastes, TV on the Radio, choosing sides when dismissing trash, defying the stereotypes of Celine Dion fans, snobbish record store clerks and zealous fans, anti-snobbery, false dichotomies and cultural advantage, culture and existing power structures, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the Internet and the music industry, fans and cultural capital, Immanuel Kant and “common sense,” cultural consensus, the Beatles, questioning Wilson’s party criteria, middlebrow aesthetes in newspapers, separating the person from the artist, the relationship between vituperative feelings and meeting people, the celebrity-industrial complex, Dion’s 2005 appearance on Larry King, whether or not Larry King mocks his guests, judging a person on a handful of eccentricities, whether it’s possible to see the “real” Celine Dion, reinforcing celebrity image, whether or not personal information about an artist can affect your opinion about the art, Michael Jackson, “classic” vs. contemporary pop culture, the expiration date of scorn, that damn song from Titanic, Celine Dion in Vegas, music and emotional frames of reference, the problems with the word “social” being applied to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the problems with “hip,” coolness and judgment, the Mountain Goats, the perceived “hipness” of alt-music boosters, authenticity, “keeping it real,” and civil disagreement.

(Note: Video excerpt forthcoming.)

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

wilson2Correspondent: But look at the Beatles and Elvis. I mean, this would seem to me to confirm the ideal conditions. It would be very difficult to find someone who is a music lover who hates the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis. I mean, there’s a fairly common consensus. Even if you don’t love them, you can at least appreciate the achievement of these bands that just went in and likewise captured the popular consensus. And this is a little bit different from Celine Dion.

Wilson: It is.

Correspondent: In which there’s an artistic criteria likewise being applied. So how do you separate this?

Wilson: I mean, it’s different than Celine Dion. And it’s different than Stockhausen. Right? So look at them as poles of a spectrum and the Beatles and Elvis as being somewhere in the center of that spectrum. By the end of the book, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book about taste and different ways of thinking about it and criticism. And the thing, that at the end of this whole process of immersing myself into a different taste world than my own, was that where those big aesthetic disagreements arise, my tendency at this point is to suspect that really it’s a problem of terms. That people are arguing on a different set of assumptions than one another, but that their conclusions are perhaps equally valid. But that doesn’t mean that I think now that Celine Dion and the Beatles are equals. And it would be a whole other sort of chapter of this exploration to figure out where to find some kind of more objective set of measurements for greatness. But if you’re using populism and anti-populism hand in hand, what you do find with people like Elvis and the Beatles, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles — you know, they kind of win all of those contests. I’m not saying everything’s the same.

Correspondent: Then what accounts for the aberrative impulse for Celine Dion then?

Wilson: I think that there are things that are confirmed both by elite opinion and populist opinion. And in those cases, it’s kind of good to think, “Oh, well, whichever direction you come from, this gets through the gates.” What explains what doesn’t get through one set of gates and what doesn’t get through another set of gates. And so the book is more concerned with aesthetic disagreement than aesthetic agreement. And it’s a question of when we have these fights. When you’re at a party and somebody’s saying, “This is great,” and you’re saying, “This is terrible,” what are you really talking about? And my suspicion is that you’re talking about something that has more of a deeply autobiographical root than it has any connection to some objective set of markers. But that’s not to say that there might not be works of art that are more profound and universal than others.

Correspondent: But see, Carl, this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. Because you’re applying a criteria here where if I go to a party to express a particular opinion about music, I’m immediately going to focus in on Celine Dion and absolutely damn her to the skies. When, in fact, in my case, I have not actually thought about Celine Dion in any serious capacity until I read your book. I mean, I largely ignored her. So this is why I’m a little suspicious. I mean, I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m a little suspicious of how you’re applying such a broad brush to how we have tastes and how we express those tastes at parties.

Wilson: Well, it might just be that Celine’s not the best example for you. But maybe Whitney Houston is a good example for you. I think there’s a whole category…

Correspondent: I ignore her too!

Wilson: But that just, to me, speaks to the aesthetic world that you live in — it’s well cordoned off enough from places where you might have to deal with that. But, I mean, the places where I use as examples in setting this up is, in the media, the people who are representatives of our tribe. You know, the aesthetes. Which are middlebrow aesthetes in terms of who’s writing a column in the newspaper. Celine is a very favorite whipping boy.

Correspondent: Whipping boy. Have you looked at her lately?

(Photo credit: David Waldman)

BSS #279: Carl Wilson (Download MP3)

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The Octagon

At the bottom edge of every beer bottle, you will find a series of dots — a crude glass Braille identifying the specific glass moulding. If you examine your medicine cabinet and your building is old enough, you may find a tiny slit that once held razor blades. If you have lived long enough, you may remember when the capsules on jars and bottles were once made of lead or even cork (before health regulations replaced these with plastic and aluminum foil).

stopsignThe octagonal STOP sign, which is well-known throughout the United States and more observed than the above items, is only fifty-five years old. The eight-sided seed was planted in Mississippi by a three-man crew insisting on different shapes for disparate signs. Why this trio made the jump from four sides (rectangle) to eight sides (octagon) is an answer just as mysterious as the chopped diagonal ends on the paper in Battlestar Galactica. (It is a sad indication of our largely non-inquisitive culture that even fanboys have not sought to grill Ronald D. Moore on this omnipresent observation.)

But in 1935, the original STOP sign was yellow and octagonal, with red or black letters cast in the same font we know today. Two decades later, the yellow was changed to red. Doug Lennox’s Now You Know: The Book of Answers suggests that red “was logical because red had symbolized danger for thousands of years.” But this is too pat an explanation. A gentleman named Eric Reiss opines that the color code established by traffic signals beckoned the need for visual standards and conformity. My own theory is that the old STOP sign resembled an overripe banana, and made numerous aesthetes (and possibly a few vicars) vomit. Perhaps the yellow background caused automobiles to advance faster past a crossing to avoid the sign’s dreadful color, and this movement to avoid ugly signs was initiated in California, thereby bringing the phrase “California stop” into our national vocabulary. But I have only speculation and wild imagination to bring to this discussion. I remain convinced to this day that John Montagu took credit for the sandwich by swiping the idea from a culinary innovator stressed out in the kitchen. But, of course, nobody can prove it. If only the sandwich had emerged a few centuries later, when recording devices had become ubiquitous. Or maybe we’d rather not ask these questions.

In the case of the STOP sign, I’m sure there are public records to sift through. There may even be a transcript from some MUTCD meeting. A search for books on traffic signs reveals that most of them can, in fact, be found in the children’s section. We’re quite willing to document the signs around us, but we’re not willing to get our hands dirty and uncover the stories behind the signs. We’re not willing to encourage children to find answers to these questions. We accept their constant questions of “Why?” as an indication of a phase. The inquisitive impulse is discouraged and permitted to die. The great hoarding of money, needless trinkets, and Babbitt-like sinecures begins with two decades of education, and the world of facts, imagination, and ambiguities — that magical and less competitive realm as limitless as Schläfli — is thrown into the dust heap.

When you see a STOP sign, do you simply accept it? Or do you ever ask yourself, “Why this polygon above all others?” Is it selfish to disseminate an idea or to suggest to another person to get lost within this second concern? When I promulgated a playful riddle on Twitter yesterday, a narcissist by the name of Tony Hightower, who purports to “make stuff up for other people’s benefit,” responded, “I don’t get it. I’m too busy to understand you and your arcane obliquenesses, anyway.” I have the feeling that he simply accepts the STOP sign, and I feel sad for him.

Hachette Imposes Salary Cuts Across Board

An anonymous source has informed me that Alain Lemarchand, CEO & President of Hachette Filipacchi Media, has sent a memo to his employees.

Today’s business environment requires decisive and quick action for the welfare of the company. This includes a number of difficult decisions on my part, some of which impact you personally. In this case, I deliberated long and carefully before coming to the conclusion that one of the steps that needs to be taken immediately is a cut in base salaries. Effective April 27, 2009, the salaries of all exempt employees will be reduced by 6% and the salaries of non-exempt employees by 3%. In addition, we are changing the regular work day from 7 ½ hours to 8 hours. For non-exempt employees, overtime will continue to be calculated on a weekly basis and will be paid for all hours worked over 40 hours.

I understand that this economy has already had an impact on each of you and that this represents another loss. I am sorry for that. We hope that taking this measure across the company will save headcount in the long run. I know you join me in wanting this company to remain competitive in this challenging marketplace. I want to assure you that once the economic picture improves, we will reevaluate this decision.

I thank you for your continued dedication to your work. Your professionalism and contributions are essential to the ultimate performance and success of HFM U.S.

It remains unknown whether a similar memo involving similar salary sacrifices was distributed to the Hachette Book Group or Grand Central. But investigations are ongoing. And a bitchy and decidedly unprofessional comment left on this site today by executive editor Reagan Arthur would seem to suggest that she’s only 94% herself today.

Amazonfail: Amazon Responds

After multiple attempts to contact Amazon, I have at long last received the following reply from Patty Smith by email:

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

“Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.”

When I asked Ms. Smith about whether or not this problem represented a hack, she insisted that this was a “ham-fisted cataloging error” that had been caused by Amazon. Therefore, Amazon’s position seems to indicate that the cataloging problem came from its end. Ms. Smith did not, however, answer any questions I put forth to her about why much of this metadata was necessary in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon still hasn’t issued an apology.

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RIP Derek Weiler

weilerI was shocked to learn the terrible news that Derek Weiler, editor at Quill and Quire, has passed away at the ridiculously young age of 40. Derek and I had many heated arguments here in the comments and through email. (He once called me “pathological.”) But despite our feisty exchanges, Derek was a very fair-minded and reasonable man who deserved to live much longer. And I enjoyed our volleys. He had the balls to take me on, and the decency to understand positions that were contrary to his own, which I can’t say about a lot of editors. My profound condolences to Derek’s family and friends for this terrible loss.

Amazonfail: A Call to Boycott Amazon

It’s been called #amazonfail on Twitter, but it represents the greatest insult to consumers and the most severe commercial threat to free expression that we’re likely to see in some time. Amazon has decided to remove certain books that they deem “adult” from their ranking system. But the “adult” definitions include such books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Amazon link) (screenshot), Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (Amazon link) (screenshot), Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Amazon link) (screenshot), John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Amazon link) (screenshot), and numerous other titles. [NOTE: These titles have now been ranked again. But please see UPDATE 11 at the bottom of this post, which contains additional links and screenshots. Amazon is still deranking many titles, but only seems to be restoring the ones directly called out by multiple sources.] Books that, in some cases, have fought decades to gain literary respectability have become second-class overnight because of Amazon’s draconian deranking policy.

To add insult to injury, such anti-Semitic texts as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Amazon link) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Amazon link) remain within the ranking system while the less offensive books named above are considered too “adult.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has written openly about sex, Amazon considers you worse than an anti-Semitic writer who helped initiate pogroms and concentration camps.

As Kassia Kroszer noted, this is an offensive and unacceptable gesture from Amazon to the many readers and writers who make the publishing industry what it is. This is retail maneuvering of the most spineless and despotic form. It amounts to a store treating adults, who are informed individuals who can make up their own minds about how “adult” something is, as if they are incapable of independent decision making. It is a betrayal of the community that keeps Amazon thriving with the customer reviews. It is an insult to any author or reader who has dared to take a chance.

This decision must be responded to by a complete and total boycott of Amazon’s services. DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM AMAZON unless they restore the ranking system. Boycott Amazon and let them feel the sharp pincers of your wallet going somewhere else. Instead of supporting a corporate behemoth who wants to put up the equivalent of a beady curtain at a video store for many titles that don’t deserve it (including numerous GLBT and sex-positive books), go to an independent bookstore who will treat you with inclusive respect. Remove all links to Amazon from your websites. Let Amazon know precisely how you feel in these economically uncertain times, and then maybe they’ll think twice about treating you as if you are unthinking cattle.

We can make a difference in this. We made a difference back in February with the Facebook TOS snafu. We can make a difference with this needless and demeaning ranking system. Boycott Amazon. Because a retailer should never be in the position of determining what is “adult” or salable. As the old maxim says, the customer is always right.

UPDATE: See also thoughts from Mark Probst, a petition to protest the policy, and Google bomb efforts from Smart Bitches. Also, as many helpful people on Twitter have noted, the Amazon customer service line is 800-201-7575. Although we may want to see if we can track down the executives who enacted this ridiculous policy and hold them accountable instead.

UPDATE 2: Goddammit, that’s the last straw. Nobody deranks Jonathan Ames and gets away with it. Here are the numbers for the Amazon Board of Directors. Flood all these people with your complaints on Monday morning.

Thomas O. Ryder (914) 244-5782
William Gordon (650) 233-2750
Myrtle Potter (650) 225-1000
Alain Monie (206) 266-1000
L. John Doerr (650) 233-2750
Tom Alberg (206) 674-3000
Patricia Stonesifer (206) 709-3140

UPDATE 3: On Twitter, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles reports that Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener has told him that there was recently a glitch in the sales rank feature and that he is working to correct the problem. I am likewise pursuing investigations to get Amazon’s side of the story.

UPDATE 4: Of course, if the glitch was only just “recently” discovered, the big question here is why Amazon told Mark Probst two days ago that the company was now in the practice of excluding “adult” material in some searches. For that matter, why did Amazon offer the same answer to author Craig Seymour? Something is fishy. I have left voicemails and emails for Amazon spokespersons. What they do not realize is that I am a rather tenacious fellow. If they do not answer me tonight, starting tomorrow, I will be contacting them once every hour until they offer a reasonable answer to these many questions.

UPDATE 5: An Amazon search for homosexuality revealing anti-homosexual books in the top results is more than a “glitch.” In the comments, it has been reported that if you search for Olympia Press and Cleis Press through Amazon, the results have been diminished with this “glitch.” Meanwhile, here is coverage from Foreign Policy, The National Post, and The Associated Press. Tiara Shafiq has called for Amazon alternatives. There will doubtless be more news as Amazon tries to mop up this morass on Monday. And it would very much be in Amazon’s interests to “comment further” on the “glitch” that has been in effect since February.

UPDATE 6: Dear Author has dug up metadata that would suggest not so much a “glitch,” but a conscious effort on Amazon’s part to exclude books.

UPDATE 7: As of Monday afternoon, I have left eight voicemails for various contacts at Amazon and they will not return my calls. Also, the main Amazon corporate number — 206-622-2325 — appears to have been disconnected. We still have nothing from Amazon elaborating on the “glitch” that they are working on.

UPDATE 8: I have sent numerous emails and left repeated voicemails to Patty Smith (Director of Corporate Communications), Drew Herdener (Senior Public Relations Manager), and Dean Falvy (Amazon’s legal representative). These are all people who should really be going on the record and answering very specific questions about the “glitch.” But these spokespersons have refused to return my calls. And I have learned that they are not returning calls from other journalists.

UPDATE 9: Still no response from Amazon in my ongoing voicemail efforts. Some speculation that this was a hack has been debunked. Meanwhile, Mike Daisey claims inside info to The Stranger.

UPDATE 10: The metadata theory promulgated by Dear Author seems to me the most reasonable explanation (and Jane now has spreadsheets up of the books with metadata categories). See also Scrivener’s Error and this theory from an inside coder.

UPDATE 11: Amazon is now pretending as if the “glitch” appears has been rectified as of 5:30 PM EST. But here’s what’s interesting. The specific titles that I linked to offered direct links to have been ranked again. But many other books are still deranked, including such as Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage (Amazon link) (screenshot), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Amazon link) (screenshot), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Amazon link) (screenshot). So is Amazon only ranking those titles that people are singling out? In other words, if the “glitch” is being fixed, then why does it only apply to the titles specifically linked to on other sites, rather than an across-the-board metadata value?

UPDATE 12: Patty Smith responds to some of my inquiries.

UPDATE 13: Andrew Sean Greer writes in the comments: “Well all I know is the paperback of The Story of a Marriage came out last week but you can only see it by searching directly, not by looking at sales lists of literary fiction, etc. The equivalent of having it for sale only by asking the bookseller for something behind the counter. *sigh* Glitch, hacker, cataloging error, it still hits a writer where it hurts. Nobody likes their new book to be invisible except if you know where to look. Isn’t book buying all about browsing for unexpected treasures?”

UPDATE 14: James Marcus, author of Amazonia, offers a lengthy response at Propeller. Meanwhile, Sara Nelson offers a contrarian take, suggesting that Amazon has every right to determine what it wants to sell.

UPDATE 15: The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich investigates. Shockingly, I actually agree with the smug Daniel Mendelsohn for once. But more interesting than this is that all the publishers who Rich contacted failed to comment on the record. In other words, we should be reminded by this setback that Amazon holds a needless vise-like grip on the publishing industry. But are we willing to accept such a hold when Amazon’s data can be so easily manipulated or modified?

observeandreport

Review: Observe and Report (2009)

observeandreport

Observe and Report‘s most memorable moment involves the appropriately named Randy Gambill’s penis, which flaps in slow motion beneath Gambill’s developing pot belly as Seth Rogen chases him in a mall. Gambill, who the IMDB reports is making his big screen debut with this scrotal ballet, is not an actor of much range. His character has spent a good portion of the film flashing people. And now he has flashed us. I was neither shocked nor offended by Gambill’s flaccid member, but I must commend Gambill and writer-director Jody Hill for going out of their way to give us a flapping penis in a mainstream comedy. Alas, the moment is neither funny nor amusing. Indeed, the penis here is quite gratuitous. It simply just is. Beyond pushing the penis camera time beyond Graham Chapman’s famous flash in Life of Brian, the penis remind us that we’re watching a film that may have been cooked up in a locker room. (To give you a sense of the stillborn thrust here, let’s dispense with Gambill’s penis and observe how disarming it is to see a grown and limited man like Gambill act like a predictable teenager.) The penis bouncing up and down in this mall scene is not really a revolutionary act, but it does tell us that the moment in which dicks are afforded the same cinematic exposure as breasts is inevitable. Cocks are coming to middle America whether the red states like it or not.

I just wish that the occasion for the third leg peek was more momentous. This movie isn’t an outright travesty. I’ve seen many films that are worse. Whoever cast this movie was smart enough to give Collette Wolfe a thankless role as a handicapped employee who gives Seth Rogen his free daily coffee. But Wolfe is good enough to transcend the material with her eyes and her winning solicitude, even if her doting over a jerk is sexist and stereotypical. I am, however, losing patience with Anna Faris’s overacting, particularly with the eye-bulging and chronic face-expanding that is less about making the other actors look good, and more about hijacking a scene for attention. Faris appears destined to play Scary Movie-like bimbos for the rest of her career and she makes Drew Barrymore’s occasional hysterics look like Meryl Streep’s subtle craftsmanship. I’ve set down my issues with Ray Liotta’s acting before. The man once again keeps his mouth hanging open through most of the movie, and the audience feels compelled to bolt Liotta’s mandible in place. Nevertheless, before Liotta explodes on Rogen, he’s actually somewhat interesting as a contained cop trying to stay professional.

As for Seth Rogen, I should note that I’ve performed my constitutional duties. Without really trying, I have seen a good number of the films in which Rogen has played a prominent or supporting role. I have seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up, Superbad, and The 40 Year Old Virgin. And I have liked the majority of these films. But the upshot is that Rogen does the same schtick every time: that chortle suggesting a cross between Beavis and Butt-Head and some avuncular fortysomething in the making watching the last of his twenties wash away and that deep voice sounding like a harmless Canadian stoner. In fact, it’s fairly effortless to impersonate Seth Rogen. I should report, in the interest of cultural journalism, that a friend and I recently had a twenty-minute conversation, both of us doing Rogen, one of us hungover. Scholars believe that just about any male living in North America can impersonate Rogen, rub his belly, walk, and chew bubble gum at the same time. I don’t really have too many problems with Rogen, but I have a feeling that if he doesn’t shake up his routine in the next few films, his audiences will lose patience with him. Needless to say, Observe and Report doesn’t really give Rogen much to do except, well, play a slightly more psychotic version of Seth Rogen. (The psychosis, of course, is underdeveloped and makes no sense. For example, Rogen effortlessly kils six criminals at one point, but he evades arrest? Rogen takes on the entire police department single-handedly, but he’s still allowed to walk the streets? I guess, if you’re a Seth Rogen character in a movie, you can rape some random stranger’s pet at a Starbucks and invite all surrounding children to join in a bestial gangbang. And you’d still be able to get away with it.)

So, yeah, the movie here is pretty bad. It has some promising ideas, such as Rogen cracking skateboarders over the head with their skateboards, but it has no clue about how to make these ideas funny. To offer one example, there’s a moment in which cop Ray Liotta and rent-a-cop Seth Rogen are talking with a Spanish-speaking employee, hoping to find out who is robbing the mall. Rogen is jealous of Liotta’s attention and gets more frenetic. He claims to know Spanish, but he doesn’t. Jody Hill could have had Liotta effortlessly speak Spanish to the employee and then escalate the conflict between the two characters. With one simple decision, we then would have zeroed in on the conflict. How does a screwup like Rogen operate in a world in which calm competence like Liotta’s is valued? (And had Liotta not freaked out, then Jody Hill would have reversed our expectations. For nearly everybody associates Liotta with his crazy or psychotic roles.) But Jody Hill doesn’t understand that Rogen’s appeal lies in the audience’s capacity to relate to him. Instead of giving the audience what it wants, he simply has Rogen go crazy (the violence described above) and it’s just not funny.

Having not seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop (I presume its success will unleash an endless spate of mall cop movies in the Police Academy vein), I cannot make any serious artistic comparisons between the two films. But Observe and Report has a flapping penis and Paul Blart doesn’t. Given this superficial criteria, I can probably make the wholly uninformed conclusion that Observe and Report may be a better film. The film has the courage to flap a penis, but it doesn’t have the courage to push Rogen beyond type.

The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kraft

One of the difficulties of managing so many projects is that I continue to forget that I am committing some of these conversations to video. So I must now atone for the slightly delayed missing component. If you missed out on the elaborate roundtable discussion for Flying, or you don’t have the 2+ hour investment to listen to the three-part podcast (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three), or you just want to get a sense of how much remarkable vivacity Mr. Kraft has, then the above four-minute video excerpt should offer a dutiful encapsulation of what became, over the course of March, quite a momentous undertaking. And if you haven’t yet picked up Flying, and wish to plunge into some crazed postmodernist fun that may keep you occupied for some time, well, the bookstore still awaits.

(For those who tire of my continuous Kraft boosterism, don’t worry. This will likely be the last post related to Mr. Kraft for quite some time.)

IPG Keeping Authors in the Dark About Sales Figures?

I have learned from several sources that book distributor Independent Publishers Group is not permitting its authors to know the number of books that still sit in their warehouses. Authors hoping to call up the distributor and get that pivotal figure that just about any book distributor will give them — so, you know, they can plan to either buy the remainders or figure out new ways of marketing their books — are being told that sales figures are secret. And not even a friendly “Abracadabra” or “Open Sesame” will persuade IPG to be transparent.

You may recall last November’s brouhaha, in which IPG President Mark Suchomel boasted of “having a record sales year” on these pages, while simultaneously demanding that I retract a memo that had been sent to publishers from IPG alerting them to troubles with Borders. I just don’t understand. If Suchomel is “having a record sales year,” why not boast to his authors who are asking for accountability? Unless, of course, Suchomel’s “record sales year” is subject to an altogether different definition.

I’ve sent an email to Suchomel asking him to clarify why he’s not being transparent to the authors who, you know, are writing the books that he’s going to the trouble to distribute. If Suchomel doesn’t feel comfortable with email, he can always leave a comment here, demanding further “retractions” as his secretive policies are disclosed.

Come to My Arms, My Beamish Boy!

The kernel, reviving himself for the fourth time since the specialist had pressed him into this messy business, slowly hauled his sticky, still healing corpse up from the Formica. Before he was a kernel, he’d been a major part of the trail mix. But he’d kept in his martial duties, staving his private thoughts from the messes that were unavoidable. The chain of command was fallible. He hadn’t had a heart-to-heart with the specialist for some time, and resented the constant erasing of memories. But he knew that the specialist profited handsomely with every financial conquest and that those disgraceful citizens who still craved their petty addiction needed to be corrected. If they couldn’t be taxed, they’d have to be brainwashed. It was part of the five-year recovery plan that had been vigorously debated in Congress, and the plan had proved so controversial that two Republican representatives had strangled each other to death while debating the flaws and merits of this daring and unprecedented moral stimulus package.

While it was painful to the kernel to have these addicts continually decapitate his head, the specialist made sure that the kernel received a fringe benefit: namely, a dutiful blowjob from a peanut past her prime not long after revival. Peanuts, particularly the salted ones that had been soaked in brine, were perhaps the most slatternly snack. There really wasn’t much subtlety to cracking a shell open. I mean, how was that seductive? You cracked open a hard scrotum and popped two nuts down a gullet as if they were aspirin. It was the kind of pathetic judapatow that had been vigorously argued on television decades ago. Alas, the executioners were a bit out of practice. Beyond the lack of culinary eclat, the citizens hadn’t caught on to any of the homoerotic imputations. And it was rather amazing that the religious forces hadn’t yet connected the dots. But the kernel knew of a few peanut fellatio operations in the Utah underground.

Not that any of the peanuts cared. They were happy to stimulate many penises, if only because “penis” sounded very close to “peanut.” And the holy books indicated that Father Planter (the great deity riding with his grand top hat on a rare elephant brought back from extinction!) had insisted on regularly pleasuring the citizens and the snacks. Fellatio was the path to salvation.

Why? Well, the citizens had respected the peanuts in ways that the elephants hadn’t. (One could make a case that humans had manipulated the results. But if the elephants had really wanted to respect the peanuts, surely they would have revolted at the circuses.) The humans had stopped throwing shells on the floors of Los Angeles restaurants. When potato chips had been removed from the market (courtesy of dutiful lobbying by the prominent candy company that the specialist had quietly mentioned to the Bavarian), demand for peanuts grew. But the peanut farmers had thought to expand the peanut’s duties to cure loneliness and quell those who were randy. It wasn’t too long until peanuts served not only as a sentient aphrodisiac, but a guarantee for the citizen who came home from the bar empty-handed on a Friday night.

The kernel accepted all this not just because the peanut’s connection with sex was second-nature, but because he liked working in a behind-the-scenes capacity. He wasn’t whoring himself out like the peanuts were. He was performing a more valuable service steering the citizens away from temptation. And the hell of it was that he didn’t need ethics. He could save humanity and let the peanuts service his licentious needs, and not feel any guilt whatsoever. For deep down, he truly didn’t care for the Puritanical direction that the country was heading in. These were dilemmas for the specialist. He would have to figure this all out eventually. The specialist’s sentient snack design had deliberately made the popcorn and the peanuts amoral. He could animate as skillfully as he wanted. But in the end, he couldn’t find an ethical reason to dabble sexually with his creations. The kernel could. And it was worth all the head-bashing that came with his occupation.

“And Hast Thou Slain the Jabberwock?”

“I’ve never been to Bavaria,” said the specialist. “Is it nice?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said the Bavarian, who was still staring at the barren kernel corpse that the specialist had left on the Formica as a reminder.

“Just so you know, I didn’t enjoy that task.”

“Oh?”

“I give the snacks their feelings and I figure that people will respect them.”

“Treat them as pets?”

“Well, hopefully more than that,” said the specialist, who stroked his beard to suggest to the Bavarian that he actually had some authority when he, in fact, didn’t really know what the fuck he was talking about.

“How did you get into this racket?” asked the Bavarian.

“It started when a prominent candy company, which shall remain unnamed, hoped to revive sales of their flagging chocolate candy product. They had put out a series of commercials featuring this candy with thin pipecleaner arms and legs, and injecting a bit of personality. If you saw these commercials stoned, you’d come down bad. Because chances are that one of your pals had a bowl of these candies lying around.”

“You speak from personal experience.”

“Not really. That’s what the candy company had pointed out on the dossier.”

The Bavarian poured herself a shot of Courvoisier.

“Continue,” she said. “I’m interested.”

“It was thought to create a sentient snack. One that would make the eating experience more engaging and interactive. More importantly, this would lead to an increase in sales, with the customer believing that a snack with feelings would bring extra value to his purchase. It was suggested by the candy company that since these commercials featuring anthropomorphic snacks had managed to get their message out, the experiment should start there.”

“And why did they approach you?”

“I was a professional animator. We were just beginning to animate the world around us. You may recall that Pixar was becoming very concerned about how cartoon street theater was cutting into their profits. But then, how many people had $25 to see a movie?”

“I want to assure you,” said the Bavarian, “that this was my first time eating sentient snacks.”

“Why didn’t you listen to my instructions?”

“I was bored! All right! They banned alcohol. They banned cigarettes. They banned coffee. There’s nothing left but the snacks. And most of them are sentient.”

“Is that your Twinkie defense?”

“What?”

“A well-known case from decades ago. In simpler times.”

“I had to kill something,” said the Bavarian.

But the specialist knew that snack homicide, thankfully not yet on the books, left long-standing effects. He could see the headless kernel twitching. He could see new arms stretching. The machete had taken the lopsided popcorn out for a few hours. But it would resuscitate itself as often as necessary before settling into the intestinal tract of an easily duped consumer.

He Went Galumphing Back

The specialist’s chest heaved waves of homicidal catharsis. And while this troubled him, he nevertheless cleansed himself of that dreaded atonal compunction scaling its way across four vertical ventricles. His musical heart had been categorized by the visceral taxonomists like so: (1) e.g., the part inside that cried for data and hard examples but could not appreciate the warm aroma of a woman or a child’s laughter; (2) g.b., a bona-fide hard drive, an ambition that was capacious in 1995 in danger of being replaced by the cutting-edge t.b.; (3) b.d., that lascivious impulse calling the specialist to impulses that could not be sufficiently described as vanilla; and (4) d.f., a ravenous adventuresome spirit with a stapled sombrero. These heavy boxes dealt with the snack massacre like so: e.g. contemplated the ethics; g.b. casually suggested more data, with the machete applied to peanuts, Kit-Kats, twiglets, and other snack-centric decapitations that involved shrieks; b.d. wondered if it was possible to rape a half-popped popcorn and derive an atavistic pleasure that would surely be censured by the appropriate authorities (this pressing development caused e.g. to work double time on the ethics); and d.f. simply demanded this stiff trio to stop aligning itself with this intellectual wankery. “For fuck’s sake,” said d.f., “the deed is done. Let’s party. Pour me a drink. I’m pretty sure we can keep b.d.’s disturbing vagaries in check. And I’m pretty sure that I’ll stop using stupid fucking ten-cent words like ‘vagaries’ if you ply me with enough cordials.” So the specialist’s heart decided, and it was not easy with all this chatter going on, that the specialist needed to run to the bar, get as inebriated as possible, avoid any eleventh-hour rolls in the hay, and return to the scene of the crime, sprinting if necessary so that the specialist could fit this activity inside ninety minutes. At the other end, he might repine his own savage instincts with that of the sad Bavarian woman who was probably not as dissolute as b.d. (that pesky quasi-id, but essential) had conjectured.