Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Details and The Ragged Genius of “Rules of Attraction”

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

Every story is a collection of details, an accumulation of notes about expressions, actions, reactions, natural phenomenon, etc. Sometimes those details are layered on with a heavy trowel, burying the reader under a mountain of words. Sometimes they’re used more sparingly, leaving more of the heavy lifting for the reader’s imagination to fill in gaps.

Sometimes, they’re used really, really specifically.

Consider Roger Avary’s 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction. Based on the 1987 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it’s a film that remains somewhat ignored and controversial. It is, after all, adapted from an Ellis novel, which means it is a film about Monied Trash People who screw and puke and get stoned and exist for no reason whatsoever, and wallows in their elite crapulence. It has Patrick Bateman’s little brother as a lead character. You can’t like anyone in the story, and the story itself eats its own tail and appears to be about nothing much at all.

The film’s pretty amazing.

Number one, you have James Van Der Beek, still young-looking enough to be Dawson, giving a really great performance as the creepy, dumb, pathetic Sean Bateman. Number two, there are a lot of little tricks that work in this movie, from extended sequences played backwards, complete with backwards sound, and split screens and super creepy close ups of people. The performances are solid. If you can stomach the awful Monied Trash People who are its subjects—and the fact that one of the leads is literally raped within the first two minutes of the film—it’s a fascinating movie that has emerged from 2002 more or less unscathed except for the fact that no one has a cell phone.

But the real reason you should watch this movie is one of the details: This woman.

wayman

Before he ruins it with a shitty flashback montage obviously designed for idiots who aren’t paying attention, Avary does something really great with this character, who is unnamed in both the novel and the film. It’s a clear use of planting details purposefully—not to bury the reader/viewer in minutiae, or to world build, but simply for effect. Anyone writing their own stories can learn this trick and make it their own.

A Little Exposition

First, though, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or read the book, a little exposition. Spoilers for a movie that came out in 2002, if you really are that weird, follow.

James Van Der Beek plays Sean Bateman, attending elite Camden College, where he has been receiving anonymous letters from a girl. His secret admirer leaves her perfumed, glitter-bomb letters in his campus PO box and never signs them. Sean is smitten with his unseen admirer, and comes to suspect she is Lauren, an elfin virgin played by Shannyn Sossamon, who he meets cute and falls in love with. On the day of a big party, his stalker leaves a letter telling Sean that “tonight is the night” that they will finally meet. But when Sean arrives at the party Lauren isn’t there, and he decides to sleep with her roommate (played by Jessica Biel as a coke-sniffing wild child).

When the author of the letters is revealed, however, halfway through the film, it appears to be a girl we’ve never seen before. A wholly new character who is devastated when Sean goes off with the plastic and awful Biel. Avary, in fact, cuts from the narrative to spend several minutes with this new face as she commits suicide in the communal dorm bathroom, keeping a tight focus on her face as she bleeds out. It’s harrowing; her face starts off blank and depression-numbed, but as she bleeds it collapses into a flurry of emotions that is truly hard to watch.

As a first-time viewer, you can’t help but wonder where in the hell she came from.

On second viewing, you see it: She’s been there all along. The character appears four times before her suicide, always stalking Sean Bateman. She’s in the foreground, the background. She’s at the party when Sean, thinking Lauren has stood him up, leaves with her roommate. She’s always been there. We just didn’t notice.

(And then, yes, Avary ruins it by including a hamfisted montage of those prior scenes just to make sure we get it, and it’s so awful it makes me angry to this day, because it ruins a truly perfect moment).

The Power of Details

Avary’s choice to have the character in scenes but keep her part of the set dressing is a powerful one, because it makes the audience complicit with Sean. We’ve both just spent the entire movie not noticing this girl. We’re both mystified when she appears on screen, her face filling the frame (or Sean would be if he ever realized his mistake, which he does not). If you didn’t notice the girl the first time around (and if you claim you did I don’t quite believe you), her suicide is shocking. It’s powerful storytelling pulled from a few details Avary scatters here and there.

And he’s not done. Because in the sequence when Sean is having sex with Lauren’s roommate in their dorm room, he glances up from Biel’s contorted face at the wall where a collage of photos has been pasted up. And one of those photos is of Lauren and the unnamed stalker girl, who is killing herself in the bathroom a few doors away at that precise moment.

The implications are strong. And never explained. Obviously, Lauren and this girl know each other, and thus she must be part of their shared world on campus. And yet Sean Bateman has no idea she exists. He meets Lauren and decides he is in love with her within a short time, but he never even sees this girl who is literally following him everywhere and is friends with Lauren herself.

Avary’s decision to leave the girl’s character as a string of details is brilliant, even if it is ruined by that later montage. The viewer has to extrapolate the whole story from a few grains, and it elevates the film. In a world where a lot of writers seem to think that the more dense your details the more real your world will feel, there’s a lessen, and it’s pretty clear: Less is more. But only if you know what you’re doing.

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The Tipping Point

I recently Tweeted a few thoughts on tipping, making a joke about how I use tipping to enforce my will like a modern day Caligula. That’s half-true. I also use tipping to reward good service, like a normal human being. And while there are scenarios where I’d celebrate the end of Tipping Culture (as discussed in Think Pieces here, here, and here) in general I’d likely still tip even if the person’s hourly wage was adjusted up to compensate for a theoretical lack of tips. Because I like tipping.

You Sure, Brah?

Not me. I'm cuter.

Not me. I’m cuter.

One weird artifact of tipping is when you’re a big tipper, as I like to think of myself, sometimes, and society recoils in horror. For example, my barber.

I hate getting haircuts. This is known by the Internet, which is collectively subjected to my whining about it on a regular basis. The reasons I hate haircuts have nothing to do with hair or style, and have everything to do with having some Rando touching my head and talking to me while I am forced to sit there in mortal fear as they wield sharp objects near my jugular. So when I find the Platonic Ideal of barbers—someone who doesn’t chat, who simply gets to work cutting my hair in a silent, businesslike manner, I want to reward that person. I want to tip like 50% and reinforce that urge to not talk, to not ask me what I do, to not pretend that we’re somehow friends just because I allow them to touch my head.

And every time I try to tip some ridiculous amount, the software at the POS machine always pauses and makes me confirm the amount. It’s essentially a message that says, whoa, brah! that’s a lot of coin. You sure?

It’s 3PM on a Thursday, motherfuckers. I’m sober-ish. I am fucking sure.

The Public Shaming

There is an idea that tipping is like a limited resource you should only parcel out in tiny sips, as if you might someday exhaust your personal supply of tips. That every transaction is a complex equation where you weigh millions of pros and cons, each worth, like, a penny or something, and end up with some bizarre number like $23.64. That awarding some peon a tip is like Caligula waving an imperial baton and granting clemency to a gladiator. Like leaving a tip is equivalent to pissing out a kidney stone or having a child: painful and difficult and only to be done with lots of down time and rest in-between attempts. When you attempt to tip in a more freefall, fuckit manner, you get a lot of pushback in the form of calls from fraud services on your credit card account or, as with the barber, robots demanding that you certify you haven’t been day drinking since 11AM and are tipping your barber $25 because they’ve slipped you some Roofies or are holding a straight razor to their throat.

In short there’s an assumption that being generous is by default a mistake, and that’s troublesome.

And that’s likely because rather than a reward for good service, tipping is supposed to be a form of control, a way of making people jump through hoops. Giving someone a bit of kosh because they treated a haircut like the grimly uncomfortable horror that it is seems like I might not quite understand the capitalist system, and thus must be discouraged. Fact is, most of the barbers I’ve met treat cutting your hair like an opportunity to make a new best friend, or possibly to recruit you into their Amway cult. They talk, they ask the same questions every time (because they don’t actually remember me from the last time) and they try to upsell you on hair product.

You’ve seen me. Do I look like a man who uses hair product? Note, not a man who needs hair product (because, obviously: yes) but one who actually uses it. The answer is no. Trying to upsell me hair product while I am writhing in awkward discomfort in your barber’s chair is just dumb.

So, my current barber: A glorious woman who speaks exactly ten words during the entire experience:

Hi Jeff.

Same as last time?

See you next time!

A glorious woman who gets to work, doesn’t waste time, and doesn’t even ask me what kind of shampoo I use, or whether that smell is me, or if I am in fact wearing pants made of cocktail napkins and duct tape, possibly cobbled together in a public restroom after waking up pantsless in a dumpster. She just does the job, takes her pay, and we both move on. And whether the robots like it or not, I am going to keep tipping her as heavy as I can.

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All Over the Place

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I became obsessed with baseball as a kid because of Burger King. I think it was 1979; for the Mighty Somers Clan BK was our go-to low-rent celebration place, the fast food restaurant that Mom and Dad took my brother and I to eat when we got the Honor Roll or won a Little League game or something like that. There weren’t many good pizza places, I don’t think there was a McDonald’s at the time. The only other restaurant that was even close to BK in importance for getting little kids excited was Arthur Treacher’s. Man, I miss Arthur Treacher’s. But to go to Arthur treacher’s we had to drive into (gasp) Union City, so that was much rarer.

Anyway, BK had a promotion giving away Topps baseball cards of the World Champion 1978 New York Yankees, and I got a few one time when Mom took us out to eat. And I was fascinated. The design of the cards, the photos, which were all super serious and seemed like they’d been taken without the players being aware — and the stats. Oh, the stats printed on the back.

This is why baseball is the go-to sport of soft white boys everywhere. It’s the closest thing to a role-playing game that’s still a manly sport.

I started watching the game, playing the game (really, really badly; I played like eleventy seasons of Left Out in Little League, and I can still hear the groans of my teammates when I stepped up to the plate for my inevitable pop foul), and collecting baseball cards. Google tells me those Burger King cards are worth a little something these days, though I imagine only if you actually took care of them and haven’t had them rubber-banded together in a shoebox in varying climate conditions for nearly 40 years.

Anyway, for a while baseball was part of my personality. I could quote stats. I listened to every single Mets game on the Radio in 1987. Every single game! I can still hear Bob Murphy in my sleep. I wore a baseball cap everywhere. My Dad used to get free Mets tickets in the early 1980s, and even though Shea Stadium was absolutely empty for some reason we still sat up in the weeds, getting nosebleeds. I played Rotisserie baseball and formed a computer game league with friends from High School where we drafted Hall of Fame players and played 16-game seasons against each other.

Today, not so much. As a middle-aged man, baseball has slowly receded from me. I can’t give a single reason; it’s a tasty melange of changing tastes, boredom with something I’ve explored pretty thoroughly, the altered aspects of the game over the years, and yeah, probably the scandals. Whatever, for a wide variety of reasons that may indeed include my general level of suckitude, I don’t pay close attention to baseball any more.

####

I think of this, strangely enough, because I’m a novelist. A novelist with a messy range of books and shorter works out there, including thrillers, mysteries, dysotpian sci-fi, urban fantasy, and some straight-up general fiction. In other words, my work doesn’t fit well into a single shelving category, and I do think that hurts me sometimes.

That’s also a function of evolving tastes and interests. When I first started writing, I was heavily inspired by epic fantasy, so that’s what I wrote. Much of my pre-college work is swords and sorcery, epic quests, magical talismans and such. In college I got into crime thrillers and mysteries, and then I went into a very pretentious phase where I read classic literature and thought I was capable of matching it. A little later I got back into speculative fiction but more on the sci fi end of things. I’m all over the place.

This isn’t unusual; most writers have a wide range of influences and a wide range of projects they’re interested in. And plenty of writers manage to publish in a variety of genres and still have great success. But I do wonder sometimes if my work isn’t too varied, making it hard for someone who loves, say, the cyberpunk sci fi of Avery Cates to jump over to the snarky dark comedy of Chum. Whereas if I published exclusively in one genre I might build more momentum with people, as they’d be able to check into new books without having to research what they’re getting into.

But of course, sort of like my interest in baseball, you get bored with stuff, don’t you? I explore a concept, an idea, a character, and sometimes that’s it: There’s no more there there for you personally. So you go looking for something more interesting. And you write a new book. And no one knows how in the world to market it.

####

I’ve always been suspicious of people who are, in turn, suspicious of change. Changing, evolving opinions, tastes, and beliefs are healthy. Dogmatic refusal to re-asses and re-evaluate is kind of boring and unimaginative. Why in the world would you like exactly the same things as when you were younger? I mean, when I was 25 I thought lite beer was great and buried my whiskey in mixers. It was a savage, unschooled time.

So I don’t think too hard about baseball, and I don’t miss it much. Unless you told me I’d sell a boatload of books if I started watching Mets games again, in which case I’m all in. Because poppa needs new shoes.

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The Dangers of Not Enough Alternative in Your History

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

Like a man paralyzed with fear as he watches a horrible auto accident, I continue to tune into HBOs Vinyl now and then. The wonders of the digital age on my cable company’s circa-2005 technology allows me to time shift to my heart’s desire, which means a show like Vinyl that would get skipped hard if I had to choose between it and several other, much better shows actually gets watched in the wee small hours when I’m bored and tired. While being bored and tired when watching a show might not be the ideal headspace for appreciating art, it is the ideal headspace for undercooked prestige dramas.

Vinyl has its pleasures, but it remains an unsatisfying slog of a show filled with a clichéd antihero lead character and plenty of overblown self-importance. Overall, I’d give the show so far a hard C+, but something’s been bothering me about it from the get go, something that has nothing to do with the characters or the dialog or even the fact that the lead character is so awful (seriously, if you haven’t watched the show and want to know what the character of Richie Finestra [Bobby Cannavale] is like, imagine Don Draper on a bloaty, self-hating binge but then remove all his charisma and magnetism and any sort of redeeming artistic sense of beauty). I finally figured it out: It’s the half-measure alternative history of the show.

This is why watching or reading not-great works can still be profitable for a writer, because the failures can crystallize concepts for you. Put simply, Vinyl demonstrates that if you’re going to tell an alternative history story, you must be prepared to actually change history.

Vinyl As a Work of Sci Fi

Is Vinyl, the story of a record executive in the early 1970s, science fiction? No, of course not—except it kind of is, because Vinyl exists in that mainstay of SF stories, the alternate history. Richie Finestra isn’t just a fictional character at a fictional record company, he’s supposedly a heavy-hitter who’s the principle shareholder of a major record company. A company that has a reasonable chance of signing, say, Alice Cooper or Elvis to its roster.

And the show has fun with that, having actors portray some of the biggest stars of the time, and imagining they’re actually on the American Century label or being pursued by the team of A&R people working there. David Bowie shows up. Robert Goulet (!) shows up. A host of lesser-known stars of the era show up. The impersonations vary in quality and effectiveness, but the key here is that a plot point in several episodes has been American Century, a label in serious financial trouble, keeps trying to woo big stars onto their label. And it keeps failing, for the simple reason that those stars never signed with American Century, because American Century didn’t actually exist.

In other words, things like this keep happening: A hapless A&R guy, his job on the line if he can’t sign a new act, has a random run-in with Alice Cooper, who in 1973 was a huge rock star. So the hapless A&R guy spends a boozy, exhausting weekend wooing Cooper and trying to convince him to leave his band and go solo on American Century. That’s all fine, because it’s 100% possible that Alice Cooper was in fact wooed by a wide variety of A&R guys from a wide range of labels and no one was there to snap photos and write breathless accounts of it. But of course we all know that Cooper didn’t go solo until 1975, and when Cooper humiliates our hapless A&R guy because he hates Finestra and American Century, there’s no surprise. So far Vinyl has proved unwilling to actually re-write history too much, so we know it won’t take Alice Cooper from fictional version of a real person into the realm of 100% fictional character. That makes all the cameos by 1970s rock stars pointless. We know what will or won’t happen.

And so, Vinyl turns to fictional rock stars for the actual kinetic storytelling, inventing someone like Hannibal, an R&B superstar, so American Century can actually have a contract in play that won’t break history. That’s fine, but mixing the fake and the real just underscores the problem: Vinyl‘s unwilling to change history in service of its alternate version of history, and if an alternate history is kind of exactly the same as actual history, what’s the point?

Meet The Drapers

Mad Men danced the same dance: Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, it had a fake ad man in Draper, working at a fake advertising firm, but working with real-life products. And it works, for two reasons. One, people (or at least: me) are much less familiar with the shadowy world of advertising. In other words, as far as most people are concerned, Don Draper might as well have come up with the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign, because most normal people have no fucking idea who actually did it.

Two, Mad Men did in fact change history many times on the show, in the sense that it often had real products and real companies hire Don and company to work on campaigns for them. Heck, the Coke Ad in the finale is an actual campaign, a famous campaign, and Matt Weiner just decided that in the Mad Men version of the universe it was invented by Don Draper, and screw reality.

Mad Men is also assisted by the fact that large corporations often did and do have several advertising firms on the payroll, so it doesn’t break any rules to imagine the boutique-style firms Draper worked at might not have picked up an account here and there.

Vinyl has no such luxury, since rock stars are only signed to one label at a time. Teasing us that Richie might sign Led Zeppelin in 1973 instead of watching them get their own Swan Song label is only exciting if we think it might actually happen in the alternate universe of the show. Once we figure out that stuff like that is never going to happen, we get bored. When Richie sits down with a bloated Elvis in Vegas and tries to get him to dump his residency and start over with a new label, the audience twiddles its thumbs because the show has established that a major departure from reality like that is never going to happen.

If the show did take those chances, it would instantly be orders of magnitude more interesting. A show where Elvis cleans up, hits the gym, and signs with a demented cokehead record executive desperately trying to make music meaningful in his own life again? That would be interesting for no other reason than it would be 100% unpredictable. As it is, the impersonations of celebrities on Vinyl are only as interesting as the performers’ mimicry skills.

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The Writing Bona Fides: Software

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

I’m a lazy, lazy, lazy man. I mean, just writing that sentence exhausted me, and I had to go and have a shot of whiskey to regain my energy and lust for life.

I’m also an easily distracted man. I can’t remember what I used to be like pre-Internet, but with the Internet sitting on my desktop, I am a cocaine monkey.

So, to recap; I am lazy and have the attention span of a small fly. And yet I am a professional writer of some success. Let’s not quibble on what the precise meaning of success is in this context. Or professional. Or quibble. Let’s just say I have sold some books and make a living with words, and yes, there are plenty of teachers in the Jersey City School System who would be very amazed to discover this.

When interacting with folks who want to be writers themselves, I get a couple of standard questions. You can probably guess a few of them — what’s my process, will I read their manuscript, will I please give them back their cocktail, which totally wasn’t mine to just grab off the bar — but a couple always confound me, especially questions about the software I use when writing a novel.

I usually respond by grabbing them by the lapels and screaming are you going to buy me a whiskey or what until they flee. But the questions stick with me, because whenever I answer I feel like a fraud.

The Stipulations

First, a stipulation. This is important.

I am a moron.

No, seriously — I’m an idiot. A charming, handsome, well-spoken, pantsless idiot. I am frequently ill-informed, I sometimes have trouble hearing people and pretend I understand what they’re saying, I parrot opinions all the time and am easily confused and defeated in rhetorical competition. In short, for god’s sake my experiences are my own and mine alone and nothing I say here is meant in any way as a proclamation. In other words, there are many, many paths to writing a novel or having a freelance writing career. If your experience differs from mine, that’s great! I am a moron.

The Edumacation of Jeff Somers

The software question mystifies me, because writing a novel is the most straightforward thing you can imagine. You have an idea. You tell a story. It’s literally a process of putting one word after another until you have, oh, 80,000 of them. That’s it. It’s that easy. That’s one reason I aspired to being a writer in the first place, because it’s easy.

Of course, not everyone thinks it’s easy. I can understand that. Because it actually isn’t all that easy — the process is easy. The intellectual effort of creating characters, premise, action, and coherent narrative is hard. But writing is and always will be the act of putting one word after the other. Until about 20 years ago, I wrote novels on a manual typewriter. On paper. I still have drawers stuffed full of hardcopy manuscripts. When I grudgingly switched to writing on a computer because no one wanted to receive 400 pages of typescript covered in coffee stains, correction fluid, and shocking pornographic doodles, I used an open source, free word processor and still do (Libre Office, currently).

And that’s it.

The idea of using complicated software to track plot arcs, characters, and other minutiae frankly mystifies me. The idea that any App or software is helpful in any way is mystfiying to me. I’ve never felt the need for it, and can’t see the benefit, and that alternatively makes me feel smug and triggers my Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

Sometimes the accoutrements of a profession, the jargon of a profession are comforting. You might not be at the top of your profession, but at least you know how to use the super secret tools that the rubes don’t even know exist. At least you know the passwords. So when people ask me about the tools I use to write fiction and my answer is literally “Uh: words?” and they give me that look I know so well from all the times I have emerged from pub restrooms without my pants, I wonder if maybe I am fooling myself. Can you be a professional if you don’t use any tools?

At other times my answer to that last question is fuck yeah you can. But the use of specific tools can make you feel like you’re at least part of the club. When I’m on panels or in informal gatherings and a writer starts talking about the complex array of tools they use to write their novels, I do start to feel a little like the Slow Cousin, and I wonder, if only briefly: Would my work be better, or would there be more of it, or would it sell better if I started using some kind of magical software?

And then I am usually distracted by alcohol and forget all about it.

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“10 Cloverfield Lane” & The Oldest Trick in the Book

I AM UNRELIABLE

I AM UNRELIABLE

So, there will be spoilers in this essay. Like, seriously. Like, this essay will be about 88% spoilers. So if you plan to see 10 Cloverfield Lane at any point in your life and you want to do so unspoiled, this essay is not for you.

So: 10 Cloverfield Lane. Good movie! Not like revelatory or anything, but solidly constructed, inventively plotted, well-acted, and frequently surprising. The premise is tight: A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing a bad relationship, gets into a bad car accident and wakes up chained up inside a bunker-cum-bomb shelter owned by a man named Howard, played by John Goodman. She’s terrified, but he assuages those fears: He’s not a crazy pervert, he tells her he’s saved her life because the Earth has recently been attacked by aliens using some sort of gas weapon, and everyone outside the bunker is dead.

And off we go. 10 Cloverfield Lane has a lot of fun with expectations, zigging and zagging several times as it fools the audience, and it does so using the oldest trick in the book: The film literally tells you exactly what’s happening in the first twenty minutes or so, but the audience dismisses the information because of the batshit, unreliable character who delivers it. Namely, Howard, who Goodman portrays as violently deranged even when he’s being quiet and plaintive. Because Howard is so obviously nuts, when he tells us aliens have attacked, we dismiss it. Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened and Howard is 100% correct!

That was unexpected for me, because I fell for the oldest trick. I tried to be smart, because I like leaning over to my wife and telling what’s going to happen in movies five minutes before it does happen, but I got fooled this time, because Howard couldn’t possibly be right. I figured something weird was going on, of course, but I also figured it couldn’t be an alien gas attack, because that’s what Howard said it was.

Of course, Howard also turns out to be a deranged pervert just as Michelle feared he was, which is more complicated because Howard also specifically denies that. And yet his unreliability didn’t fool me there–nor was it intended to–because, again, Goodman plays him as the Creepiest Survivalist Ever from his first appearance on screen. His behavior negates his denial over his motives for rescuing/abducting Michelle, and thus we’re not fooled, whereas his behavior makes his statements about alien invasions seem crazy. The great part is, he’s lying about one thing and telling the truth about the other and we’re completely wrong about which is which.

The reason his secret motivation for saving Michelle remains a bit of a twist though is because it turns out to be aliens. When Michelle makes a desperate grab for his keys and gets thisclose to escaping the bunker, she’s stopped by the revelation that everyone outside is, in fact, dead of some horrible chemical attack, and that she is, in fact, safe in Howard’s bunker. And so the audience forgets all that stuff about Howard being a weirdo perv, because suddenly he’s a hero who’s been telling the truth this whole time.

It’s a nice pair of tricks, and they elevate the movie significantly. And they remind us that sometimes the best way to fool your audience is also the simplest.

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Aw, Man!

We'll take the hippies and the hipsters, but not the Irish!

We’ll take the hippies and the hipsters, but not the Irish!

For some reason today I realized that I have been using the word man as a general epithet, greeting, and acknowledgement since I was about ten years old — which was probably the last time it was cool, hip lingo. Not to mention the last time it wasn’t humiliating. Not to mention my probable emotional age. Let it drift.

I can remember my Mother admonishing me to stop using it in her presence because she considered it to be, I don’t know — smartassy? uncultured? simply annoying? But obviously her shaming me didn’t have much effect; when I’m not thinking I still call everyone man, as in “Thanks, man!” or “Hey, man!”

Today for some reason I suddenly found myself ashamed of this. I’m a middle-aged grown up, after all, but I call everyone man like it’s still 1975 in my head (I also have the wardrobe of a hobo unless The Duchess cleans me up for adult events, so what?). In many ways it is 1975 n my head; I still expect everything to cost fifteen cents, including gallons of gas and shoes, and get very cranky when presented with invoices costing more; just ask The Duchess. But that’s no excuse. Today in the grocery store I told the kid working the checkout line Thanks, man and he looked at me as if I’d turned to dust and crumbled away in front of his eyes.

OLD HABITS, OLD MAN

Language gets embedded like that. We all need our go-to phrases and lines, the things we utter when we’re on autopilot, or don’t have time to think. Thanks, man just pops out, and in my head it sounds friendly and loose, casual in a cool way. Because that’s how it was when I first picked it up, a bunch of scurvy street kids playing Wiffle Ball with black electrical tape on our bats, doing complicated handshakes when we met up every day. Calling each other man because someone saw it on TV or something one day.

What bothers me is the lack of evolution and the lack of consciousness; I prefer to think I am captain of the S.S. Jeff Somers, this shambolic body I inhabit, and not merely a doughy-eyed passenger. A long time ago the word dude entered my lexicon about the same time it entered everyone approximately my age, and I spent a long time rooting it out and eliminating it, for the most part. Because dude may be the worst word ever invented, and must be burned from our minds. Once in a while I use dude ironically, and once in a while I regress 20 years in a moment and it slips out, but it’s rare. I won the Dude War. So the ongoing battle against Man irks me: Every time I utter the word I feel like a jackass.

EVERY MAN

Of course, what’s the alternative? I suspect man persists in my everyday speech because it’s egalitarian in its way. Take the boy at the grocery: What should I use to address him? Thanks, kid makes me feel like I’m 105 years old, or possibly in a old noir movie. I could go with just an unadorned thanks, but that sounds abrupt to my ear, almost rude. I could go full-on hipster and make up nicknames for everyone — thanks, Stretch; thanks, Noodles; thanks, Starscream — but somehow I expect that won’t solve my problem. Maybe this is why some people just smirk silently at everything. It saves them the embarrassment of calling someone Chuckles or something.

See, with Man, it’s levelling: Everyone is Man. You’re all my equal when I whip out the circa-1980 secret handshake and call you man (and yet if I said Thanks, woman to a lady I’d likely be entered into some sort of police database, or possibly a Future Cyborg Watchlist). On the other hand, man seems acceptable to me mainly because for one brief shining moment it was considered cool. I could say Thanks, person! and it would be just as universal, but because it sounds so robotic and nerdy, it just doesn’t have the same panache … panache that perhaps only exists in my tiny, booze-soaked brain.

So, man remains, like mild brain damage I can’t cure. So be it. If only I didn’t sound like such an idiot when I used it.

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The Unbearable Whiteness of “The Intern”

Shiny Happy People

Shiny Happy People

Because I have committed terrible crimes in a past life, The Duchess made me watch The Intern the other day. Someday I will get myself hypnotized to discover what sort of child-killing Venetian nobleman I was in the past to deserve stuff like this, but for the moment I just accept my punishments as what I deserve.

A pretty not-good comedy starring Robert De Niro as a 70-year old widower who participates in a “senior” internship program at Anne Hathaway’s ultra-hip startup based in Brooklyn, the film sparked an observation I make from time to time that drives The Duchess crazy: A Whiteness Analysis. And holy cow, this is the whitest movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Now, I don’t think every single cast has to be colorblind or forcibly integrated, and yes, there are also films with entirely black (or other) casts. But it’s easy to argue that an all-black film is a necessary correction against the overwhleming diversity problem in mainstream Hollywood, and many of those films also include at least a few white folks, because they’re set in something resembling the real world. Films like The Intern are set in a weird fantasy land where Brooklyn, New York is more or less a White Enclave. Literally no one with any sort of face time in the film is non-White (there might have been a few background characters who were black or another ethnicity). In other words, a film set in a borough of New York City that has

  • a population of 2.5 million people and which is
  • about 36% non-White (or, you know, nearly one million people)

doesn’t have any non-white characters.

As Gwen Stefani might say while she was appropriating even more Japanese culture to sell us her wretched things, that’s bananas.

The Opposite of Good

Now, I’m no paragon of racial virtue. I’m an asshole, and I walk about draped in my white privilege like some sort of King. But I grew up in Jersey City where my friends and schoolmates were of a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, so my eye is trained to think that a lot of skin tones and accents and strange cooking smells that hit you in the face when you come over for dinner is normal. Bland Whiteness, on the other hand, freaks me out, even though I am quite bland and quite white.

None of that means a movie is good or bad. A movie can have a painfully white cast and still be amazing — and vice versa. It’s just that once I notice the absolute lack of black characters of any kind, it grates on me a little. Sometimes it’s justified due to the focus of the story or the setting, true enough. But not The Intern, as noted above, because it’s set in one of the most racially diverse places in America.

And let’s be frank, The Intern isn’t a good movie (er, spoilers here if you care, though I can’t imagine why you would). It’s not awful, but it’s that mythical story that lacks any sort of conflict. De Niro’s character is friendly, supportive, intelligent, and only mildly stymied by modern technology and slang. His fellow interns and the employees at the company find him charming and a font of wisdom. Anne Hathaway’s major problem is that the investors at her wildly successful company want her to hire a CEO. And yes, her husband is cheating on her — but, as it turns out, only because she has emotionally abandoned him, he totally still loves her he’s just a modern man struggling to find manliness while being a house husband. Or something.

In other words, there’s no villain, no conflict. Everyone is jolly. Lessons are learned. The movie feints at making Hathaway’s character a bitchy ageist who dislikes De Niro simply because he’s observant while being old, and resolves this ghostly image of conflict literally one minute after it surfaces. This is a movie where everyone apologizes immediately for every single mistake so that no drama can possibly sprout from the seed. In that regard its very much like Downton Abbey, another show where conflict goes to die in a field of muttered apologies and hugs. And also a very, very white show, but they have at least established that black people and Indian people, at the very least, exist in the Downton universe. Plus, as mentioned above, the focus and setting on that show justify the monochromism to some extent, even if there is absolutely no justification for the total lack of stakes or conflict.

Authorial Struggle

Are there areas of this country where literally everyone around you is white? Sure, of course. And maybe those audience segments get unsettled when they see a diverse cast, so maybe there’s a marketing aspect to this sort of casting. I know in my own writing I sometimes have to take a step back and ask myself if my characters are all essentially just me and people I know and am comfortable with, and sometimes I purposefully model a character on someone outside of my tiny circle of friends in order to break out a little. So I can see that if you’re a writer who has pretty much all-white friends and family (which is just a circumstance and does not mean they’re a virulent racist) they can unconsciously write characters who are all more or less familiar to them without thinking about how it all looks.

That can happen. You write what you know, and if you don’t have anyone outside of your own ethnic and cultural experience around you, that’s a thing that can happen. It’s still jarring to see it, whatever the ultimate explanation.

Of course, if I started writing characters based on only the things I interact with on a daily basis, all of my books would feature cats, and would basically be 300 pages about napping.

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Writing Lessons from Assholes

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I was an indifferent student, because I am the Laziest Man Ever Born. To this day the fact that I actually earned a college degree is kind of amazing, not because I’m dumb, but because it’s difficult for 2016 Jeff to believe that College Jeff actually performed the bare minimum of work in order to achieve a BA in English, which is the Do Nothing Bitch of college undergraduate degrees. Most of my memories of my college days involve a television, so the degree thing is a mystery.

I do have one memory that I like to tell people about because it a) makes me look smart and b) underscores the ridiculous nature of academics in general — and now I can add a third reason: c) there’s a lesson about writing in it. So let’s recount the glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid.

The Glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid

I was taking some laugher of a 200 level English course; I honestly can’t even remember what it was. Tortured Rhyme Schemes in Early 19th Century Poetry? Inscrutable Medieval Symbolism 203? Allegory for Potheads? I have no idea. It was a 200 level course so I can assume my strategy was to attend as few classes as possible and bring Other Stuff to Do when I did attend.

We had to write a paper at some point, with the stress that we had to cite original sources and all that usual drama. Again, I have no recollection of what the paper was supposed to be about. I know I hit up the library (my god if the Internet had existed I would never have had to leave my dorm room/apartment during college), wrote my paper, and handed it in. And when I got it back, I’d been given a big fat D.

Now, I was never very ambitious about my academics, sure, but this was fucking bullshit: A D? On an English paper? No fucking way. I wasn’t ambitious, but I had pride. So I scheduled an appointment with the professor and asked why.

The professor, as I recall, wasn’t a full-on professor (200 level class, remember) and might have been a grad student or something, possibly a homeless man recruited to watch us for an hour twice a week, who knows. Like I said, my memory is sketchy and very much like Homer Simpson’s habit of imagining himself in a tuxedo when he tries to remember his evenings. I had no curiosity about his status then, and certainly no memory of it now. I remember he had shaggy, thinning blondish hair and big moon glasses and a nervous tic that involved licking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. And he told me, in condescending tones, that I’d obviously plagiarized the paper.

I think my head almost exploded. You can accuse me of a lot of things and I won’t care. Say that I have poor fashion sense and hygiene? Fine. A tendency towards run-on sentences and semi-colon abuse? You may well be right. The musical talent of a wallabee? Fine. But suggest that I plagiarized something and Jeff Smash. So I asked him how he’d come to this conclusion, and he told me that the writing style was far too academic and elevated. I asked him if he’d found, you know, actual proof of plagiarism, and he said no, but he knew no one at my age could write the way the paper was written.

So I asked him if I could show him plenty of other examples of my writing that was at that level, would he change my grade? He said he would, so I brought him five boxes of manuscripts and papers from recent years. He took one look at the boxes, said he believed me, and changed my grade. The kicker? This paper that was so well-written he assumed it was plagiarized? He gave me a B. A FUCKING B.

Still. Angry.

The Writing Lesson

I think of this today because it actually points out one of the often-overlooked aspects of writing, in terms of that dreaded word craft: mimicry. Copying someone’s writing style is challenging, and while you certainly don’t want to steal someone’s style for your own, it’s a very useful exercise. Writing in a styler or voice that isn’t your own gives you an objectivity about word choice, phrasing, and other technical aspects of language that you sometimes get blinded to when it’s your own creative output.

I never realized how often I mimic what I’m reading until that unfortunate day when I came within seconds of murdering a pudgy teacher. Since then, I’ve been much more aware — I do it more or less without thinking about it. If I’m reading a book and really into it, I’ll start cribbing bits and pieces of the style, stealing tricks, and after a few weeks I’ll more or less be writing a pastiche of the style in question. Now that I’m aware of it, it’s a tool: I can indulge in it, learn something, work on something different from my normal stuff, and then keep whatever’s useful and incorporate it into my own evolving style.

And all it took to learn this was an awkward encounter with a smug teacher and a brief, passing interest in my own academic career.

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The Obligatory David Bowie Post That I Will Try to Make Into Something Interesting and Probably Fail

Blackstar

Blackstar

I’ve never been the biggest David Bowie fan. His more mainstream and accessible songs, sure. The awe-inspiring genius of the open-chord riff in “Rebel Rebel,” the effortless cool of “Modern Love,” the howling pain in “Heroes”—genius songs each. His more avant-garde work, his jazzy digressions and artsy pretensions left me behind. I am a simple man. I like a 4×4 beat and some major chord progressions.

I also don’t know much about Bowie as a human being. After the shock and awe of his passing faded, there have of course been a plethora of backlash pieces, concerning his interactions with underage groupies in the 1970s. I never knew that. I don’t care how many drugs were involved or what year it was, any grown man who has sex with an underage girl is shitbag, and that complicates my impression of Bowie.

As does Blackstar, his final album, apparently written and released not only in the full knowledge of his coming death due to liver cancer, but as an artistic comment on it.

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Recently, Nick Mamatas, who I’ve met once and who has published me a few times, posted links to heartbreaking stories about writers who committed suicide. The latter I had read years before, the former was recent. They’re both tales of desperation, of people who have slowly given up on their dreams, become hopelessly tangled in the endless bullshit life rains down on all of us. Life is, after all, death; everyone we know slowly succumbs, and everything we do is tainted with the knowledge of its transience. Some people handle this, sheltered by loved ones, friends, a vibrant social life. Some of us lose that shelter, or never have it.

Oh, I’m lucky. And yet despite my good fortune, I can see myself in those stories. How easy would it be to slowly lose people? To find yourself alone, truly alone? Easier than we think. Easier than I think. It happens so slowly and subtly and then so quickly and suddenly. And money and fame is no certain bulwark against it; Harper Lee has both and I suspect she is lonelier than ever.

####

Blackstar is Bowie’s final album, and it’s pretty clear he planned it and the surrounding publicity—the photographs and videos and the design of the physical album and the liner notes et al—to be a funeral card. A final performance. The lyrics of some of the songs seem to clearly reference the cancer that was killing him and his awareness of a legacy.

That’s amazing. To think that for a year and a half he labored under the doom of his rebellious cells and produced something that was designed to be his swan song. I find myself wondering if he scheduled his death as well, coming as it did so close to the release of the album. The discipline is impressive, and even if David Bowie wept and begged at the last moments, it doesn’t take away from his achievement. Whether Bowie was a good man or not, whether he committed crimes or was a secret asshole, he faced the one thing we all face in the end and he used it for fuel. He created something from it, and turned his own demise into a Moment.

I despair of ever having that kind of discipline, or creativity. When informed of my own death—assuming I get more warning than a shouted “Hey!” or a sudden sense of gravity having turned against me—I’ll likely wallow in self-pity and booze for a long time and then watch a lot of Netflix and then die, bewildered and irritated.

I won’t release a Blackstar, I don’t think. And that’s kind of sad, yes?

####

I’m obsessed with legacy. I don’t really believe in an afterlife, so much of my motivation to publish and self-publish is to leave a slime trail behind me. I have a strong suspicion I have just been outclassed.

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