Archive for category books
In Australia, not long ago, we were amongst the first to see the respectable 6pm Saturday deadline for Harold Camping’s predicted rapture. It was impossible to ignore the fact that the world actually didn’t end. Don’t worry – he’s now said that it’ll come in October, and this time was more of a spiritual armageddon. The kind most of us wouldn’t notice.
But all this rapture-talk reminded me of a novella I wrote, inspired by my own odd feeling of disappointment when the world didn’t end on New Year’s Eve 1999. It’s called Zero Zero Zero, and features the hyperactive, advertising-tinged writing style I used a few years ago. (I’ve been trying to tame it ever since.) It stars a conceptual supermodel, a vigilante postman, and a young man receiving private, inexplicable broadcasts of a sci-fi radio serial.
I thought I’d put the first chapter, Midnight, online for anyone who might still be feeling a little apocalyptically unsettled.
In William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, one chapter opens like this:
Hey, that’s where I live! Fitzroy represent!
When this unexpectedly appeared on the page, I felt that odd thrill of recognition. Because of our geographical isolation and limited media output, Australia is particularly susceptible to this. We don’t see our streets or landmarks or countryside on screen that often so there’s an excitement when we do. Somehow I doubt that, say, New Yorkers get the same buzz seeing their neighbourhood on Law & Order.
It got me thinking about the insidious pleasures of recognition. I’ve been there! I’ve read that book! I get that joke! It can be a powerful drug.
Sometimes the fun of recognition comes from encountering something that you feel is just for you. (Fitzroy! Woo!). Writing on her blog, Jane Espenson (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica) once explained the meaning of a “two-percenter”:
“A two-percenter, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, is a joke that the writers estimate will be understood and enjoyed by two percent of the audience. Sometimes the number cited varies, but the idea is the same, it means you’re dealing with a fairly obscure reference. As an audience member, when you’re part of the two percent that gets it, there’s nothing better than this kind of joke because it feels like the writer is reaching into your own personal brain. In a good way.”
Gibson’s mention of Fitzroy could be a non-funny example of this, as would every second brand name in the book. If the protagonist of his earlier Pattern Recognition was allergic to brands, Gibson is addicted to them. In his review of Zero History, Mark Feeney writes:
“The [brand] names aren’t simply showing off. Their role is structural, not merely cosmetic. They provide a kind of gazetteer of desire, an armature of possession. Products and companies fascinate and excite Gibson the way sin did Graham Greene and butterflies Nabokov.”
And while some of these brands are ubiquitous (Sony, KFC, iPhone) others are more unique. Two-percenters, if you like, for those familiar with them. One character’s outdated Neo phone is mysterious enough that this website, which tracks every object mentioned in Gibson’s most recent trilogy, had to guess at the Neo specs. If you recognised it? Imagine how special you’d feel.
Compare and contrast Gibson’s world, though with the movies of Jason Frieberg and Aaron Seltzer. Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans, Disaster Movie or Vampires Suck. These movies aren’t comedies; they’re barely even films. They’re more like secret psychological tests designed to make sure you’re absorbing an appropriate dose of popular culture. Recognition is their entire raison d’être.
When Meet The Spartans shows a bald, baby-crazy Britney Spears getting kicked into the pit from 300, it gives the same hit of pleasure. This time, though, it’s just a reward for knowing who Britney Spears is, and having heard the exact same Crazy Britney gags as everyone else.
Paris Hilton. Michael Jackson. Lindsay Lohan. It begins with jokes, but then the jokes fall away; audiences now laugh at the mention of their names. The jolt of easy recognition turns human beings into punchlines: ninety-eight-percenters.
This will be an entirely content-free review. Even though Matt DeBenedictis’ Congratulations! There’s No Last Place if Everyone is Dead is only two dozen pages long, I still haven’t managed to read it yet. What I wanted to share is this pictorial lesson in how to make me excited about your self-published chapbook.
Send me a mysterious package tied with yellow string and sealed with wax.
Fill said package not only with your book, but with an audio CD, some instant coffee, and a handful of Yo! MTV Raps trading cards.
Include reading instructions, after presumably intuiting that, yes, I am easily confused.
Make me feel like I’m a unique snowflake. (Happy star optional.)
See? It’s that easy. Now I can’t wait to read the book inside. I just hope it lives up to the genuinely gleeful experience I had unwrapping it. You can read more about it at the Outside Writers Collective.
It’s always interesting when comic book writers attempt a first novel. It starkly shows the differences between writing comic books and writing prose. Even Neil Gaiman – and I’m a fan, don’t get me wrong – seemed to overwrite in his early novels, compensating for the lack of pictures on the page; it’s why his stripped-back kids(ish) novels like Coraline started strongest.
Now that Warren Ellis (of Transmetropolitan, The Authority, and a frankly ridiculous amount of others) has written his first novel, Crooked Little Vein. What’s it like? It’s exactly what you’d expect. Swearing, smoking, sexual perversions, hyperbolic insults, characters popping up to mention facts from New Scientist – Ellis draws from a well-worn box of writing tools. If you’re a fan, you might say his unique style is never less than bitingly memorable. If you’re not, you might say he’s been mining the same material for too long with diminishing results.
(I’m somewhere between the two: I enjoy most of his writing, but find myself drawn more to his ideas than his execution, and like him more when he’s not playing for laughs. There’s no denying, though, that Crooked Little Vein contains its fair share of extremely lovely sentences.)
Working with different artists gives comic writers a sense of variety that the writing itself mightn’t earn, kind-of-but-not-really like a screenwriter’s work being filmed by different directors. The fact that this is a prose novel provides an automatic gulf of difference from the rest of Ellis’ comic book writing.
For one, comics are separate from ‘photographic’ reality – something we can match more easily to our everyday experience – because they’re drawn. Academic David Carrier calls this the “aggressive caricature” inherent in comic book art. It’s part of the reason why superhero comics are able to be so spectacularly insane without batting an eyelid. I mean that in the best possible way.
Combine that with the fact that Crooked Little Vein is somewhat set in the ‘real’ world – without the leeway provided by Transmetropolian‘s future, or The Authority‘s heroes-become-gods, or even X-Men‘s Marvel Universe madness – and Ellis has to jump through conceptual hoops to justify his book’s narrative oddness. Exhibit A: McGill, the battered, Chandleresque private eye protagonist, says that he’s attracted weirdness all his life:
McGill’s mission takes him on a journey through various strange American subcultures, giving Ellis leeway to explore his usual filthy interests. (Most memorably: Godzilla bukakkeists.) Ellis pushes this logic further, however, and sharpens the premise of Crooked Little Vein to a point that could summarise his whole career so far.
He suggests that there’s no longer such things as a subculture any more. Everything – every perversion, every obsession, and therefore every subject that Ellis finds fascinating – now sits on the surface of society. As he puts it in the quick author interview filling the back pages, “This is how life really is lived in America, no matter what the news tells you.”
What better way to justify the whole world as his particular literary playground?