Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

The Good Old Days.

The Good Old Days.

Writing Short Stories is Crazy

I wrote my first short story when I was about 15 years old—that is to say, the first story I consciously set out in the form of a short story. Ridiculously enough, I wrote it solely to join my high school’s literary magazine, one of my most shameful moments. I mean, seriously. The fucking literary magazine. I can now safely say that this is perilously close to being my worst decision ever, right up there with gaining twenty pounds when I was thirteen and getting an English degree instead of something useful, like contacts in Russian organized crime.

The story was titled Bricks. I still have it. In about 1,000 words I tell the story of a family in the future where everyone lives underground because of a plague, and their son’s decision to leave home and go topside. It ends with the son wondering what will happen to him as he takes his first breath of fresh air on the surface.

Oh, it’s not good. It’s derivative, but it’s derivative in that special way you get away with when you’re fifteen and not named Mozart: People are so impressed that you wrote something that superficially resembles a real story they forgive all sorts of shit. I wrote it on a Commodore 64 in an application called Kwik-Writer I got from some friends; my friends and I were running a serious underground software piracy operation in grammar school, and I had thousands of stolen applications, and Kwik Writer was one of them. It was kind of awesome and terrible at the same time, which basically describes almost all of the applications available for the Commodore 64.

Since then, I’ve written about 500 more short stories. Bully for me. Getting them published isn’t easy, though there are more difficult projects in the world (self-surgery, perhaps, or tunneling under your house to the nearest mountain range) but the real challenge, as anyone will tell you, is getting paid for them. So why write them? Because I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. And, to be honest, selling them when I can—and I’ve sold quite a few over the years, with a few more on the way.

I write a lot of them, and since the chances of ever selling one are slim, it’s kind of a crazy waste of time. Plus, let’s be honest here, 99% of every short story ever written deserves to stay right in the notebook it was scrawled into, because most of them are terrible, and as luck would have it that goes twice for mine. Even the ones that I think are not terrible aren’t easy to sell; I recently had a story rejected very reluctantly by one market, which sent me a very sad note all about how great the story was and how distressed they were to not be buying it. I immediately submitted the story elsewhere in a frenzy of optimism—after all, this was obviously one of my better efforts.

The next market rejected it within 18 hours.

Writing and trying to sell short fiction sucks. Still, I write a lot of it.

Part of it is an exercise. You get some crazy ideas for stories after a few drinks, and while most of them are awful, some of them ain’t bad, but if you don’t put some flesh on them they disappear. So to keep them alive, I write them, even though most are pretty stillborn.

So, let’s see: Failure and no market, obviously these are fantastic ways to spend my time and mental energy. Then again, I’m an author; futility is what I eat for breakfast.

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Man Baby

Artist's Rendering of the Author

Artist’s Rendering of the Author

When I was a young’un, I was never, you know, the Cool Kid. I didn’t exactly have a tragic childhood or anything, but I was definitely aware in grammar school that I was a pudgy, glasses-wearing mascot for a lot of kids. I had friends, this isn’t a tragedy or anything, but there it was.

I got invited to a birthday party one weekend. I don’t know about you, but when I was like nine or ten getting invited to a birthday party was like the Social Event of the Season. Making it onto some other kids’ elite list was thrilling, and I was excited. It was in the summer, there would be a pool, and it was like 1,000 degrees out. My Mother, naturally, insisted I wear Church Clothes. I was mortified, but Mom insisted. No child of hers was showing up at someone’s house in play clothes.

Cut to: Jeff, the only kid wearing long pants and a dress shirt and shoes, sweating profusely. I didn’t get invited to a lot of birthday parties. I can’t swear that was the reason why, but … that was the reason why. That and the cursing and the habit of breaking into liquor cabinets.

Anyway, I digress. Cut to 2016, and I am a middle-aged married man (MAMM) and my wife, The Duchess, and I make plans with another couple to have dinner at a fancy shmancy restaurant. And the following conversation occurs:

DUCHESS: You’re not wearing … well, I assume those are clothes.

ME: Why not? They’re street legal.

DUCHESS: This is a nice place. Don’t you have anything pressed?

ME: … I do not know what that word means.

Needless to say, The Duchess, much like my Mother thirty-five years before, insisted on Church Clothes. I registered my vehement protest, but if the evening was going to end with me drinking Scotch and ordering a $50 appetizer, Church Clothes it had to be.

We walk over to the other couple’s house, and when the other husband walks out, he is also wearing Church Clothes. We share A Significant Look and spend the trip to the restaurant grumbling. Naturally, we walk in and the place is packed with very comfortable and happy people wearing shorts, T-shirts, and the like. We each turn to our wives and glower darkly, and spend the rest of the evening drunkenly threatening to take off our pants right there in the dining room.

This of course leads to the inevitable moment when we do take off our pants and are chased out onto the street, where we call an Uber and

What’s my take-away from this? It could be

  1. I really have no idea how to dress. There is much evidence that this might be the case, including three open indictments against me in several states, or
  2. The Duchess learned her Rules of Polite Society in the 1970s Texas Hill Country, which is like the 1870s everywhere else, or
  3. I need to burn all my clothes except what I’m wearing right now so as to have no other options (except that won’t work because a) The Duchess will just march me to The Gap for a shopping spree and b) that means I’ll be wearing Superman Underoos to all my fancy literary events), or
  4. I am a Man Baby and need constant supervision.

Actually, I don’t need to know. Thank you for your time, please forget this ever happened.

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The Most Interesting Scene in “Mr. Robot” S2E1

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I remain absolutely riveted by USA’s Mr. Robot. It’s like a slow-motion horror movie—like literally if you took a horror movie about a man losing his mind and slowed it to like 1/8th speed, you would have Mr. Robot‘s episodes. Then a brilliant fan theory starts going around online that makes me appreciate what the show is doing even more. I mean, there simply isn’t another show out there operating on Mr. Robot’s visual and atmospheric level right now.

The show’s not perfect, of course, but every episode offers something, usually a sequence that is simply a brilliant mini-movie. This got me thinking about a sequence in the season two premiere that isn’t getting a lot of heat, but I think should: the hacking and takeover of Susan Jacobs’ smart house.

It’s no secret that Mr. Robot often films its episodes like a horror movie instead of a techno thriller or a story about hackers who actually kinda sorta resemble the real thing instead of the Hugh Jackman speed-typing sort you usually get. The lighting, framing, angles, and music all combine to offer up a tableau of dread that is very effective. And this scene is like a mini-horror movie without a payoff—or perhaps a delayed payoff to come.

Mild spoilers to follow if you care about spoilers.

Susan Jacobs is very rich woman, counsel to E Corp. She has a very nice townhome. It’s got a pool, a spa-like bathroom, and a “smart home” system that allows Susan to control everything via iPad. It’s kind of awesome, until she comes home and everything is misbehaving. The alarm won’t stop going off. Music blares at unbearable levels. Her shower is burning hot and the air conditioning has the place at 40 degrees. The TV won’t shut off.

She’s lost control.

The whole sequence is filmed like a horror movie and so it should, as the idea that by bringing these technologies into our homes we’re giving control of some of the most essential aspects of our lives—our shelter—into the hands of a) unseen corporate interests and their drones or b) hackers is kind of scary. By the time we get a smash cut to Jacobs, wearing a winter coat indoors and screaming into the phone that she can’t unplug anything because the wires are buried in the walls, we know she’s totally screwed. She schedules a service call, calls a car, and flees to her country house because of course she has a country house. And literally moments later, F Society shows up, turns everything off, and takes control of the house. They set everything to go crazy just to drive her away. Now they have weeks of using this awesome house for free.

Clever, but what’s really clever about it is how this sequence underscores something interesting: The hackers aren’t the heroes of this show. There are no heroes on this show. The hackers are just as menacing and destructive as the evil corporation. The hackers managed to erase the debts of millions, but this supposedly Robin Hood-like move has destabilized the world, and regular people are shown having to deal with the negative side of this Fight Club ideal: Sure, their debts have been erased … but so has all evidence that they paid those debts in the first place. As a sequence showing a woman desperately trying to convince the bank that she is up to date on her mortgage show, erasing all that data won’t cause the banks to shrug and say well, we can’t prove you owe us money so we guess you don’t! Instead, the more likely scenario is that we’d all find ourselves forced to prove the negative: That we don’t owe them money.

The theft of the smart house should be a chilling sequence for anyone who has a Nest installed and is thinking about an Internet-enabled lock or something. It should also serve as clear evidence that the show doesn’t think there’s really any difference between the hackers and the corporations. They both steal whatever they want, and the people who don’t understand the complex systems they administer—computers and the Internet Vs. money and finance—are doomed to be the victims of the people who do.

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Smug Bastards Can Go Pound Sand

OH NOES SMUG BASTARDS!

OH NOES SMUG BASTARDS!

I’ve never been what you would call a “hip” person. Or cool. I’ve never had my finger on the pulse, as it were; I tumble along, more or less lost in my own thoughts (you folks I’ve walked past on the street while you shout my name to no effect know exactly what I mean) and only occasionally surface to note the things around me. I’m more or less one step from living in my own fantasy world, and the only thing keeping me rooted to reality is probably whiskey.

In short, I’m blissfully unaware of most things.

My memory is also famously awful; my brain lives in the present, bro, and the past melts away and the future has no meaning. The memories I do retain tend to be powerful enough to gain some traction on the smooth, wrinkle-less vastness of my brain. One of the memories I came still summon up dates back to when I was about ten or eleven years old, and I just started to become aware of my social status. Up until then my identity had been wrapped up in my grades and the fact that my teachers thought I was adorable, and the opinions of my fellow children never really mattered; in my neighborhood I could beat all the kids in a footrace and thus considered myself King of the Block.

But then something shifted, and I realized I wasn’t King of the Block, I was a pudgy, glasses-wearing nerd. And this troubled me, because who wants that? So I began an incompetent and lazy campaign to make myself seem cooler, and part of this campaign involved the classic Jeff Somers strategy of pretending to be very knowledgeable about things all the other kids considered cool. And so, when challenged by a bullying classmate to name my favorite rock band — because this was back when rock bands were still cool, you see, which if you carry the two and divide by pi will reveal just how fucking old I am — I said Led Zeppelin, because I had vaguely heard the name before. Unimpressed, the kid demanded I name a favorite song, and, my knowledge of rock music exhausted, I was humiliated.

Now, since that day I’ve rectified both my knowledge of Led Zeppelin (favorite song: Black Dog) and my need for approval (somewhat) and am happy in my slightly obtuse existence. I have accepted myself and my limitations, even though this means I don’t get a lot of stuff. Like Pokémon Go. I barely understand what it is and have no desire to play it.

But, to paraphrase Voltaire, I will die to defend your right to play it.

The Smug Bastards

You know them: The killjoys who can’t stop announcing what they refuse to enjoy, or don’t consider interesting, or are mystified by. It might be Pokémon, it might be Game of Thrones. It might be Star Wars or sports or whatever — the only defining characteristic of the Smug Bastard is that they don’t share your enjoyment of something, and they wish — oh god how they wish, they wish hard — to let you know this fact.

The classic example has always been and will ever be the Person Without a Television. These days you could update that to The Person Without Any Sort of Screen. These folks have been waddling about for decades, proudly announcing that they are certainly not stupid and lazy enough to waste their time watching programs. They prefer reading books, collecting stamps, listening to the opera or some other Smug Bastard Approved form of entertainment.

These days, with pop culture fragmenting, Smug Bastards, much like bedbugs, are proliferating. It’s easy to fall into the trap; someone says “Hey, I love that show!” concerning something you’ve never heard of, and a cursory investigation reveals a cartoon whose premise seems silly to you. So you dismiss it. Now, you’re not required to like or even know about anything in this world. If you choose not to partake, no worries. It’s when you decide you have to let the rest of us know, in awful, horrible detail why you don’t care for it that you become a Smug Bastard, living in the damp, dark creases of the Internet.

The Dark Creases

Resting. Smug. Bastard. Face.

Resting. Smug. Bastard. Face.

The Internet, of course, is where most of the Smug Bastards thrive. The disconnect, the digital wall between you and everyone else — plus the other Smug Bastards who rally around you — makes it seem almost okay to shit all over someone else’s enjoyment. You meet Smug Bastards in real life, of course. People who will dismiss all of rap music, for example, as unworthy of their attention, or people who love and praise the worst movies made before 1970 but despise everything since. But it’s on the Internet where the Smug Bastards thrive, clogging up your Facebook feeds with smug declarations that what you enjoy is stupid, or less worthy.

Fuck ’em all.

I’m just as guilty of Smug Bastard Syndrome as anyone else. In fact, where some folks have a Resting Bitch Face I often have a Resting Smug Bastard Face, and my kneejerk reaction to just about, well, everything is bored, superior disinterest. But you know, at least I don’t post it on the Internet or walk around announcing it. When with my fellow humans, when something like Pokémon Go comes up, I smile and feign polite interest.

Because that’s what you do in a society.

So, to repeat: Fuck ’em all. Have a good day.

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Authoring is Hard Work

Cats Ate My DeskIn 2002, a year in which otherwise almost nothing I can remember happened, the New York Times reported that “a recent survey” confirmed the worst fears of many Americans: 81% of the country thought they could write and publish a book. Eighty-one percent. Considering there are about 319 million people in the U.S.A. alone, that means about 258 million people figure that someday when they have some spare time they’ll bang out a novel. Or, more accurately, they’ll go find a writer friend they know, drunkenly explain the story idea with helpful doodles on cocktail napkins as visual aids, and then let that writer friend write and publish the book while splitting the profits 70/30.

At first blush, the 81% number seems high, especially when you consider that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts just 129,100 authors and writers in the country as of 2012. Although, when combined with the explosion of self-publishing in recent years, that seems like a dubious number too, especially when you learn that the Bureau also claims the median income for authors and writers is $56,000 a year when most writers are constantly Googling “how to boil shoes for dinner” or “how long can I eat nothing but Ramen before getting scurvy”—although to be fair when you include people like James Patterson or Stephen King or E.L. James in the calculations, that median is going to shoot up quickly.

However, when you think about how many people participate in things like NaNoWriMo every year (more than 300,000 according to the website) and how many people are publishing novels—more than 750,000 traditionally and self-published books annually in the United States alone—it starts to seem like that 81% number might make sense after all.

In reality what this means is that an enormous number of people think they can write and sell a book, but less than 25% of them actually do, one way or another. That’s a big gap, even if we remove those helpful folks who are always offering up brilliant ideas for novels and seeking to split profits and restrict ourselves solely to people who would, you know, actually be willing to write a book. As an author myself, there’s only one explanation for the this discrepancy that makes sense: writing a novel is hella hard. Selling a novel is even harder. Black magic may be involved.

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Admitting Defeat

Dear Mr. Manuscript: BURN IN HELL

Dear Mr. Manuscript: BURN IN HELL

SO, a few months ago I had an idea for a novel. It was a little outside my usual light cone, so it was a little scary. But sometimes the best thing to do when you’re not certain about an idea is to steer into it and see what happens, so I leaped in. 80,000 words later I had something that resembled a novel, and “resembles a novel” is the best I can ever hope for, honestly.

I was meeting with my agent, the also-frightening Janet Reid, doing a check-in kind of thing and I mentioned I might have a new novel for her to read. She asked for the elevator pitch, and I started laying out the premise, when she interrupted me.

“I love that,” she said, “as long as the next words out of your mouth aren’t X, X, or X.”

(Note that “X” here represent tropes, concepts, or buzzwords).

“Well,” I said, abashed. “Actually, it is X, X, and X.”

Janet attempted and failed to appear cheerful. “Well, who knows! Maybe you pulled it off.”

Being informed that your big idea isn’t nearly as original as you thought isn’t uncommon, and being blithely unaware that your big idea has been done to death isn’t uncommon, either, at least for me. I’m full of myself enough to ignore such advice when it suits me, however, so I decided that the way I’d approached the concepts set my novel apart. I polished it and sent a draft to my wife The Duchess for a read-through, as she is uncommonly smart.

A few days later, The Duchess reported on progress. “I’m halfway through, and I was really, really loving it until the end of Part I. Then I read the next chapter and it was X, X, and X, and you know I hate X, X, and X!”

So, friends, at this point as a writer who is at least trying to appear professional, you have three choices: One, assume everyone else is crazy and just barrel ahead with your lame novel; two, put it in a drawer and forget all about it, along with the dozens of other set-aside lame novels; or, three, accept that your original idea wasn’t so great and come up with something better. I went and had a whiskey and thought about it, and almost immediately thought of something better. I’ll have to rip out 40,000 words and start in the middle from scratch, but damn it’s a better idea. Much better than X, X, and X, anyway.

None of this means it’ll sell. It may yet wind up in that Drawer of Dead Novels. But at least for once I didn’t just put my head down like Juggernaut, because I have a tendency to ignore good advice. Even when it’s repeated several times, from different people. There’s still no guarantee that this novel will be successful, or sell, but at least it will be better.

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Let’s Contemplate Death, Want To?

Death Becomes Me

Death Becomes Me

My brother and I have an old routine where we discuss how we’d like to die, if we had our druthers. He always defaults to this fantasy of being diagnosed with some sort of movie disease like a Brain Cloud and having an idyllic six months to live, wherein he will feel more or less normal and have all his faculties, and then simply drop dead. The idea is he’ll have the time to liquidate all of his assets and fly out to Vegas, there to live like a modern-day Caligula until he simply keels over in a hot tub filled with prostitutes and, I presume, whiskey.

While I salute my brother’s dream of drinking himself to death when the last moments come, I deprecate his plan for the obvious reasons: None of us get that kind of warning, I don’t think. Or at least a vanishingly small number of us do. Most of us will either have a bus dropped on us without warning, or our last memories will be do I smell toast? or we’ll have a long, grinding road of misery and pain until we just sort of enter a new state of existence known as barely there.

In short, I haven’t known much death in my time, but I do know this: There is no such thing as a good death.

####

Writing often means you have to concoct good deaths for characters. The closer I hue to reality when it comes to death, the less satisfying people find my stories. People like to see just desserts, noble speeches, epiphanies, and deathbed confessions. They like to see death matter in fiction. I strongly suspect this is because almost always death doesn’t mean anything in life. It just is.

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I think this topic has been on my mind (more than usual, anyway) because my agent, the Redoubtable Janet Reid, recently suggested that I take steps to set up a Literary Executor, someone who would be empowered to handle my Empire of Words after I’d died of acute alcohol poisoning (or, possibly, something else). Now, when your agent suggests you start looking towards a Post-Life Strategy, it makes you think. As in, I thought, Do I look like I’m fucking dying? It seemed like just a few years ago we were chortling over whiskies at Old Town Bar, plotting my eventual literary domination! Now we’re gently pushing my funeral barge into the water, the scent of lighting fluid all around me.

I’m no Stephen King or Nora Roberts, but I get royalty checks, which means my books sell and someone is making money from them. I’m the last stop on the Money Train, it’s true, but it’s still money. So, sure, when I die of (probably) drinking a fifth of bourbon and wandering into traffic whilst singing Irish folk songs, someone’s gonna have to make some decisions. And if I don’t designate someone, who knows what the hell happens. For all I know I signed a bar napkin a few years ago promising some rando they could have my literary empire. I mean, it’s entirely possible. I sign a lot of things.

####

On the other hand, you can’t think too hard about death when you create stories and universes. You have to be like god: eternal and unblinking, otherwise why bother? I mean, when I think about all the stories and novels I have planned for the coming years, I kind of assume I am eternal and ever-living, like Mumm-Ra. You can’t think, oh, I’d like to write this seven-book Sci Fi series, but … you know, chances are I’ll be dead tomorrow, probably from drinking grain alcohol with a lit candle nearby. Better safe than sorry!

So on the one hand, I have to plan for my own demise, when I will likely find myself on trial with every fly, roach, and cow I’ve ever murdered standing in judgment in the afterlife. On the other hand, I have to pretend I will live forever, like the aforementioned Mumm-Ra, or I will produce nothing. It’s kind of a mind fuck, if you ask me.

If anyone is thinking they might be the ideal choice to be my literary executor, I’m sorry to report the post is filled by The Duchess, who will not be amused if you make any attempts to seize control after my unfortunate death from beer poisoning.

And if you are one of the few who find references to Mumm-Ra, The Ever Living entertaining, y’all are my people.

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The Ones that Get Away

shoplifters-beware-1444139-1279x862Every now and then someone makes a terrible mistake and assumes that because I have published a few novels and stories and such that I know something about publishing and writing. I don’t. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing, and generally go through life feeling like a confused and slightly dimwitted teenager.

One question that comes up relatively frequently concerns protecting your ideas. A lot of people seem to think that Idea Thieves are hanging around all the coffee shops and bars, soaking up any stray novel idea you slur out and rushing off to write that sucker themselves, cashing in for the millions of dubloons that should rightfully be yours. And I have to burst their bubble by telling them that this only happens after your idea starts generating those millions, and even then only very, very rarely. In general no one steals ideas, and any sleep you lose over it is likely misplaced, because there are literally no new ideas anyway.

Case in point: Designated Survivor.

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Hermetically Sealed

Perfect

Perfect

Last week, under the commands of our hidden alien overlords beamed directly into our brain implants, The Duchess and I went to see Captain America: Civil War Why Not. This is not a review; the movie was fine for what it is, with my sole pedantic complaint being the incredible surveillance camera located on an isolated road in the middle of fucking nowhere that captured an assassination with perfect clarity, including several impossible camera angles. Other than that incredibly wonky detail, it’s a film with approximately 5,000 characters that somehow hangs together in something at least resembling sense, and for that I salute the filmmakers. Batman V. Superman had 90% fewer characters and plot threads (and laughs) and somehow made 100% less sense, so seriously, Civil War, congratulations on a job … done.

BUT! I have not come here to bury Captain America: Civil War, which if nothing else gifted me with the image of Paul Bettany in full Vision makeup dressed like Mr. Rogers on the Prowl. It’s just that as we walked to the movie theater I experienced what has become pretty typical anxiety, because seeing a movie in the theaters always carries a 50% chance that your audience will made up of Trash People and you will hate life for having joined them.

In other words, bring on the wall-sized TVs that never turn off, as long as they come with first-run movies on the same day as general release.

You All Terrify Me

In general I regard my fellow humans as potential murderers and suspected assholes. It makes my personal relationships fraught with drama. It also means I am always one step away from full-on Howard Hughesdom minus the money, which is the worst form of Howard Hughesdom you can come down with, my friends.

In my old zine The Inner Swine, I constructed a persona that was basically me in full-on Howard Hughes mode, swanning around an underground complex. This is, I have to admit, my ultimate retirement plan: To remain in my house at all times, preferably with blast shields down, and all personal contact with the unwashed masses conducted via video conference. Towards that end, please everyone buy 500 copies of my books immediately.

So, getting back to movies: The other day I was having a conversation about the appeal of going out to the movies, and my conclusions are that they mainly lie in the idea of getting out of the house and interacting with the rest of humanity — the social aspect, in other words. Yes, there’s still some superiority in the sound and vision department, as you don’t yet have the same sized screen at home, or (usually) the same sort of sound system. But we’re getting close, and, frankly, every time I find myself in a movie theater I invariably think you know what would make this even better? My house.

In other words, I picture myself sitting on my couch with a glass of bourbon and a remote control.

The $50 Question

Recently there was some news about a startup hoping to roll out first-run theatrical release movies (like, say, Captain America: Civil What the Ever Living Fuck) and charge people $50 for a 48-hour rental. And people went a little batshit about that price point; after all you pay Netflix somewhere in the $100 range (depending on when you signed up) and can watch as many movies as you like as often as you like. In that context, $50 a movie seems steep.

Others countered that four tickets for ~$20 apiece, plus popcorn and sodas made $50 seem like a bargain. For me there’s the extra, priceless bonus of not having to deal with the worst people in the world, a.k.a. everyone who is not me. Being able to put my feet up and get blackout drunk while watching? Worth it. Not having to listen to someone ask their date sixteen times who Ant Man is? PRICELESS.

So, to sum up, we all look forward to the glorious day when my personal resources and the available technology allow me to remove myself from society completely, including establishing my own distillery on the property so I won’t even need to truck in booze (food is not a problem as food just makes me sick). Until that heady day, my friends, I will continue to complain.

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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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