railarson

Reviews
More
(Not that You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions

by

I picked up this collection of essays from Boston writer (and Bay Area native) Steve Almond on a total whim and found it to be one of the explosively funny books I’ve read since Ozzy’s autobiography. Almond is just nuts—and honest to a fault—which may or may not be a product of his insanity.Not that You Asked is organized thematically with the chapter entitled About My Sexual Failure (Not that You Asked) being the most cringe-worthy of the bunch.In the extended piece Shame On Me (Why My Adolescence Sucked Donkey Cock), we are regaled with tales of his late-blooming sexuality via the water jets in the Almond family hot tub; hand jobs con sharp, inexperienced fingernails; the family dog’s rooting out of a used condom from the trash and subsequent tug-of-war with Almond’s mother leading to predictable, but no less horrifying results; and getting publicly busted for shoplifting condoms and Sta-Hard gel from Longs Drugs.Chestfro Agoniste and My First Fake Tits reveal waxing and breast implants to both be somewhat less wonderful than advertised, the former resulting in this conversation painfully recounted by Almond:Me: Ow! Please. Please, don’t—Fuck!Her: It’s almost out.Me: You have to do it faster, really—No! Ow! Fuck! Please move to another—that part really—Owwww!Her: Stop being a baby.Me: Please, sweetie. Please, I’m not joking.Her: Lie still. Just fucking lie still and let me—Me: Owwwww! You fucking bitch! You mean fucking bitch!For every writer who has attempted to wince his or her way through a sex scene, Almond offers a 12-step program that lays out some pretty good (and common sense) advice, such as Step 5 (Real people do not talk in porn clichés):“Most of the time, real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as ‘I think I’m losing circulation,’ and ‘I’ve got a cramp in my foot,’ and ‘Oh, sorry!’ …”Given my utter lack of interest in the sport of baseball, it took me awhile to battle my way through one of the longer essays in the collection, Red Sox Anti-Christ, which ended up having some interesting and insightful things to say about sport and its place in a war-loving society such as our own.He equates the coverage of the kick off to the invasion of Iraq with a major sporting event. “Nightly highlight reels charted the day’s major offensive drives. Correspondents offered sandswept on-the-field interviews with our burly combatants, while generals served up bromides fit for a head coach.”Almond goes further and takes part of the blame for the unnecessary war onto his own shoulders. “As a fan, I had helped foster a culture governed by the sports mentality, in which winning mattered above all else, and the application of violence was seen as a necessary means to that end rather than a betrayal of our democratic standards.”In a chapter entitled In Tribute to My Republican Homeys, Almond turns on the vitriol. Demagogue Days, Or How the Right-Wing Hateocracy Chewed Me Up and Spat Me Out spins the story of how Almond, an adjunct professor at Boston College at the time, resigns over the school’s invitation of Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement speech. Almond uses the format of Dante’s descent into hell to map out all of the insidious devils of punditry that all wanted a piece of him for a brief, terrifying moment.With the ability to ride out ridiculous situations with the artistry of a Mavericks surfer (see How Reality TV Ate My Life), one starts to wonder just what would really get to Almond, what would crack his smooth, white chocolate exterior and let the creamy nougat pour forth? That force majeure comes in the form of a baby girl, the arrival of whom is hilariously recounted in 10 Ways I Killed My Infant Daughter in Her First 72 Hours of Life. It’s this window into the hopes and fears that people have shared from time immemorial, that saves Not That You Asked from being simple a collection of ravings from another smart ass cynic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Chronic City: A Novel

by

Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn native and de-facto chronicler of life in the borough, caught a lot of flak for placing his last novel (gasp!) in Los Angeles. In Chronic City he casts his gaze back to the city that never sleeps, although his version of Manhattan is, as you might imagine, a little off.Lethem has a gift for blending literary genres; his fiction always has a smattering of science fiction, his noir has a metaphysical bent. In between 2007’s geographically maligned You Don’t Love Me Yet, and this novel, he even took a stab at reviving the forgotten superhero Omega the Unknown for Marvel Comics, and it is the comic book that informs this novel; it’s characters are, by choice, two-dimensional, and play out all the necessary New York archetypes against a flat back drop of apartments, diners, taxi cabs, and improbable not-so-random violence.The novel’s protagonist is an empty vessel named Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who lives off of royalties and making the scene with Manhattan’s rich and even richer. His latest claim to fame, and the one that instills him at all the important parties, is his engagement to an astronaut who is marooned on the International Space Station due to a carpet of space mines that have been sowed underneath its orbit by the Chinese. Like a lot of things in the novel, this is taken for granted and nobody seems that interested in doing anything about it. Perhaps, and just perhaps, this is Lethem’s dig at the place the international community finds itself in relation to China’s rising prominence on the world stage. At this point, what could we do if they decided to mine the heavens? Write a strongly worded letter? Stop buying … oh, I don’t know, everything?Insteadman’s “lostronaut” writes him letters that are reproduced in the New York Times (albeit in the War-Free edition that seems to be favored by most) so that most people know more about what is going on than he does. Insteadman’s problem is that he can’t quite remember his fiancé or how he became an ornamental table setting.There are clues from the beginning that all is not right with Lethem’s island, for one, Lower Manhattan has been enveloped in a mysterious dense fog that never dissipates. Like DeLillo’s “air-borne toxic event,” there is a disconnect between what’s real and what is simulated. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (whose position as the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona, Lethem is due to inherit) has become Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, another overly long book that no one finishes. Muppets have become Gnuppets, which may just be a wink at Gnosticism, loosely defined by Wikipedia as “consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that the material cosmos was created by an imperfect god.”The root of Gnostic belief, gnosis, is further defined as “a form of mystic, revealed, esoteric knowledge through which the spiritual elements of humanity are reminded of their true origins within the superior Godhead, being thus permitted to escape materiality.”Insteadman’s catalyst, and a fount of esoteric knowledge, is Perkus Tooth, a stand-in for an aspect of Lethem’s own personality in much the same way as Kilgore Trout took the heat for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Tooth is a twitchy, well-stoned cartoon in the Lester Bangs mold, and although he bristles at being called a rock critic, is as remembered for a stint at Rolling Stone than for a series of intellectual commando-style broadsides that papered the Bowery back in the day.The chronic in the novel’s title, is an allusion to the high-grade marijuana that Tooth, Insteadman, and a former activist-turned-mayoral-fixer, Richard Abneg, imbibe with stunning regularity. The trio’s pot-driven cultural insights and conspiracy theorizing are either the best parts of the book, or the worst, depending on one’s own proclivities. I, for one, loved Tooth’s Marlon Brando obsession and manic drive to “connect the dots.”Almost exactly halfway through the book, a game-changing possibility is introduced that ties directly into Gnostic belief and, like religion, either explains everything or nothing at all. Tooth’s homeless associate Biller finds work designing “treasure” for a virtual universe called Yet Another World, created in turn by Linus Carter, a brilliant but socially inept designer—an imperfect god.A description of Carter’s online universe reads like a Lonely Planet guide to Manhattan itself, a “… paraphrase of reality which welcomed role-players, entrepreneurs, sexual trollers, whatever.” The line between real and unreal becomes even more blurred as Insteadman realizes that “Yet Another World wasn’t the only reality that was expansible. Money has its solvent powers …”In the end, our empty hero comes to realize it doesn’t really matter if the island that he knows is indeed real, or if anything actually exists on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. He learns the hard way that what is important is the real relationships that we form with other travelers.As for Tooth, he is finally permitted to escape materiality through losing everything and finally finding a kindred spirit, in this case a massive three-legged pit bull named Ava. The dog continues to work healing magic on Insteadman after his own collapse into his own footprint. Having inherited the responsibility of walking her, he finally abandons Manhattan’s ubiquitous taxis for a street-level view of his world.“… it occurred to me how Ava’s paces, her bold and patient pissings, must have been immensely comforting to Perkus, and in a sense familiar. Ava’s a kind of broadsider herself, famous within a circle of correspondents, invisible to those who don’t care.”
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

by

While reading this collection of “essays and arguments” by the late David Foster Wallace, I made a list of twenty words I had been lamentably unaware of, as well as two that, apparently, he made up:ablated, anaclitic, appurtenance, belletristic, commissure, decoct, enfilade, erumpent, espial, exergue, frottage, hieratic, lalations, otiose, preterite, sedulous, threnody, titivation, ventricose, weltschmerzOf those 20 words, I have to say that the most amusing discovery for me was frottage, which some of you already know means, “the act of obtaining sexual stimulation by rubbing against a person or object.” I’m not here to judge; I’m just sayin’. Erumpent is also pretty fun to say, and could actually be onomatopoetic if you were to listen very, very closely.As for the two Wallacisms that don’t seem to exist in the English language, some DFW wiki-tweakers have pointed out that katexic could be derived from Freud’s katexis referring to “the process by means of which libido energy is tied or placed into the mental representation of a personality, idea, or thing.” In this respect, Wallace’s writing in toto could be viewed as katexic. The energy that must have gone into building such a vocabulary and the means to swing it around as effectively as he did could easily be imagined as a primal urge. Plumeocide is another matter. Wordnik member vbogard22 postulated about a year ago that “plumeo- could come from the Latin “pluma,” which means feather or pen … added to -cide (Latin, kill) would come to mean something along the lines of ‘death of the pen.’” Given Wallace’s tragic end by his own hand, the fact that he may have coined a word for the silencing of a writer is prescient and a bit creepy.I was beguiled, beleaguered, and besotted by Wallace’s use of language, often all at the same time. In much the same way that Wallace thought he was a decent tennis player until he got the opportunity to view the pros in action, I thought that I could, on occasion, craft a clever line. I see now that there are players out there operating on a whole different plane. I almost forgot to mention that the book is really funny.Cheers to you, Wallace, wherever you are.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

by

While undertaking a course on the psychology of religious conversion at the Graduate Theological Union, Bay Area religion writer Don Lattin cast back in his memory for his own “personal conversion narrative.” Like many of his generation, Lattin had experimented with psychedelics with—in retrospect, predictably—polarized results.What this reflection led Lattin to consider was that his encounters with LSD, both good and bad, were the beginning of a long process of spiritual awakening. A process closer, perhaps, to the journey of Huston Smith (who Lattin personifies as The Teacher), than the more convoluted roads that Timothy Leary (The Trickster), Ram Dass né Richard Alpert (The Seeker), and Andrew Weil (The Healer) traveled.Originally called in to help Smith finish his biography, Tales of Wonder, Lattin was approached to tell this story, a fascinating tale of an incredible time in human history. The editors at HarperOne realized they had inadvertently found just the right guy to do it justice.With a subtitle of “How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil killed the fifties and ushered in a new age for America,” the uninitiated may have the impression that the four men worked in consort toward that goal, however, the interesting push and pull of these four strong and very distinct personalities is what gives this story its legs.Weil’s betrayal of Leary and Alpert that resulted in their expulsion from Harvard was the most shocking revelation of the early years of the quartet’s transformation. It is surprising, even with the hindsight that the two men had to leave the confines of the institution—one way or another—to become what they ultimately became, that an enlightened person like Ram Dass still can’t forgive the young Weil, a man that arguably no longer exists.The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a fast-paced read, with faces both famous and infamous popping up throughout the entire ride. The men independently show up with almost Zelig regularity at every important moment that collectively led to a shattering of the calcified paradigm of post-war American culture.While Weil was busy becoming the guru of the organic health movement, and Leary was spending a good deal of time and effort staying one step ahead of the law, Smith and Dass explored the Far East, found affirmation and enlightenment in India and Japan, and ultimately brought those lessons and attitudes back to a United States hungry for deeper meaning.It is these spiritual ramifications of the psychedelic experience that Lattin considers important, and, like many at the time, he discounts Leary’s messianic tendencies as being antithetical to the possibility of positive change through inner exploration. Leary’s surviving cohorts seem to hold him responsible for the unfortunate cessation of serious scientific research into the use of these drugs at the same time they realize that, as an archetypal “trickster,” he was playing as inevitable a part in the passion play as they had been.Lattin sums up the quartet’s tumultuous history in his conclusion as such: “All four of these characters played a role in the social and spiritual changes that made the sixties such a pivotal decade in recent American history. They stirred up the water and then rode a wave of social change. The difference is that Timothy Leary never found … the stability needed to bring those changes into his life in a positive, long-lasting way. Instead of finding an anchor, Leary tried to walk on the water.”He then addresses a generation that, for a large part, has turned its back on the lessons learned in the era of questioning “the materialist, consumerist mind-set into which we were raised.” Lattin points out that, “Now more than ever, we need to remember the lessons of that idealistic era. It’s time, once again, to find new ways to live together with equality, justice, and compassion.”Amen, brother.
Talk Talk

by

Like him or not, you can’t call T. Coraghessan Boyle lazy. Talk Talk, his 2006 novel about Dana Halter, a deaf woman who’s had her identity stolen and the resultant single-minded attempt to confront the man who did it, was his 11th novel since 1982’s Water Music. Coupled with the eight collections of short stories he had out at the time, that’s a lot of pages. For most of those pages, Boyle has shown himself to be a consummate wordsmith whose plots are always conveyed with an artisan’s sense of shade and nuance and a prankster’s sense of the ridiculous.Talk Talk starts out like it had been shot out of a cannon, and Boyle adeptly conveys Halter’s headlong crash into the brick wall of a jaded and overworked judicial system. From the time she leaves the house, Halter is behind the eight ball, and we are barely hanging on, along for the ride: She was running late, always running late, a failing of hers, she knew it, but then she couldn’t find her purse and once she did manage to locate it (underneath her blue corduroy jacket on the coat tree in the front hall), she couldn’t find her keys.We quickly learn what Halter is made of—she still worked harder than anyone she knew, driving herself with an internal whip that kept all her childhood wounds open and grieving in the flesh—when she is thrown in jail after a traffic stop reveals a veritable litany of bad behavior. None of it, of course, has anything to do with her. The real her.Up until this point, the book is a horrifying trip through a Kafkaesque nightmare of identity theft, incarceration, and the painful aftermath of both. Boyle shows how tenuous our grip on the information we rely on to define ourselves can be in the modern, data-driven era. Boyle further plays with the concept of identity by giving Halter’s nemesis everything that she has worked for her whole life. Deep down, she has always only ever wanted to belong. The other Dana Halter, a sociopath who started out as William Wilson, is accepted by the well-heeled Marin County society with whom he rubs elbows. Whether shopping with his Russian immigrant girlfriend, cooking up gourmet dinners in his Sausalito condo overlooking the bay, or going out to the best restaurants his attitude is—they knew him here—everybody knew him—and if there was a line of tourists or whoever, they always seated him the minute he walked in the door. Which was the way it should be. His money was good, he tipped large … and his girlfriend was a knockout—they should have paid him just to sit at the bar.Halter soon sleuths Wilson out and enlists her somewhat immature boyfriend Bridger Martin into a half-baked scheme to find and confront the guy. Martin is not the vigilante type—all his life he’d cruised along … living a video existence, easy in everything and never happier than when he was sunk into the couch wit a DVD or spooned into a plush seat in the theater with the opening credits rolling—but he rises to the occasion, putting his job as a digital effects jockey and, ultimately, his life on the line. Wilson, however, is more like Halter than either would ever care to admit. Both of them have a chip on their shoulder the size of a stolen BMW Z4, and both are tenacious as hell—Wilson puts as much sheer determination and willpower into maintaining his farcical life as Halter, or anyone, puts into their real ones. Boyle often enjoys giving his anti-heroes the choicest parts, the most glamorous lives; in Talk Talk, he seems to enjoy tossing even that convention on its head. Wilson’s living the good life, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it any more than Halter enjoyed mixing with the drunks and prostitutes in the county lockup. The two have finally found, in each other, the perfect foils to blame for their insecurities and frustrations and Martin and Wilson’s girlfriend Natalia get dragged into the maelstrom.After a cross-country chase that places the two principals back at the mercy of their respective mothers, Boyle seems to falter and becomes unwilling to bring the hunt to a suitable conclusion. At first I thought, that after embracing the thriller genre, he got nervous about being perceived as a hack and decided to end his book not with a bang but a whimper. Was it the right move for integrity’s sake? Perhaps. Does it deliver the much-needed payoff? No, not all. In fact it points out the glaring plot hole of “what did Halter expect to accomplish by chasing this guy across the continent?” Then I read somewhere that Boyle’s Ur-moment, when he knew that he had to write fiction, was after reading Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants. Coover’s stories are all about the unexpected, the set-up without the payoff we’ve come to anticipate—or all of them at once. Boyle simply left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow into the forest, and while we were there, we got to think about the nature of identity and look at the pretty trees. It’s not his fault if we weren’t tossed into an oven by some crazy bitch. Sometimes, shit doesn’t happen. And, that’s OK.
Gun, with Occasional Music

by

The January movie trades were abuzz with news that a screenwriter has been picked to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, for the Polsky brothers, Gabe and Alan. For those unfamiliar with the young producers—30 and 33, respectively—they were behind Werner Herzog’s re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant, creatively called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Didn’t see it? Me either, mostly because it starred Nicolas Cage whose good movie-to-crap ratio has gotten completely out of whack—still, it is a ballsy proposition to willingly go up against Harvey Keitel’s performance as the original (very, very, … very) bad lieutenant.About the book: one of my favorite things about Lethem’s work is the sense of fun he imparts when playing with the expectations of genre. Gun takes the noir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and fuses it with the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, with a little William S. Burroughs thrown in for leavening.The life of Gun’s protagonist, futuristic flat foot Conrad Metcalf, gets complicated when his client on a simple peep job ends up murdered. The problem compounds exponentially when the number one suspect, after Metcalf himself, shows up to hire the detective to find the real killer.This brings unwanted heat from the Inquisitor’s Office, an all-seeing, not-so-secret police force that has the power to remove “karma points” from citizens as they see fit. To let one’s karma fall to zero is to become a non-person and awards the unlucky a trip to the (literal) freezer. Further complicating matters, is the fact that everyone is hooked on the government-supplied drugs “Forgettol” and “Acceptol” which makes getting a straight answer from anyone an interesting challenge.Not satisfied with a run-of-the-mill paranoid run through one of our possible paths, Lethem ups the ante with super-evolved talking animals, including a gun-toting kangaroo (inspired by a Chandler quote reproduced at the top of the story), a concubine sheep, and disturbing “babyheads,” human toddlers who have had the same mutagenic fast-forward applied to them, making them little alcoholic fatalist assholes.Lethem would return to the detective genre with the award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, which if I were a Polsky brother and had just blown into Hollywood with an butt load of cash, I would have started there. Talking kangaroos and the like are tricky to pull off without looking ridiculous, and like the creatures in David Cronenberg’s 1991 take on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, perhaps left to the individual widescreens in our heads.As for who might be right for the part of Metcalf—why not double down and go with Cage? In for a penny, in for a pound.
Sunset Park: A Novel

by

New Yorker book critic James Wood wrote an article about author Paul Auster last year that masqueraded as a synopsis of a new novel before revealing itself as a parody using the tropes that Auster is known for. Intellectual male protagonist with a dark sense of loss? Check. Violent accident? Check. Doppelgangers akimbo? Check. Check.The back-and-forth argument as to whether Auster is merely doing what postmodernist writers do—i.e., borrow liberally from popular culture as to point out the foibles of modern life and paucity of new ideas in the face of existential crisis—or has succumbed to the greasy but comforting business of slinging familiar fare like a grizzled line cook on the graveyard shift had all but killed my desire to read another Auster novel ever since. That was a shame.I discovered Auster a few years ago and had jumped into the deep end quite quickly, devouring In the Country of Last Things, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, and Oracle Night in short order. Maybe Wood was right, and Auster had become somewhat of a one-trick pony, but if it’s a good trick, what the hell? The weird thing? Wood’s parody actually sounded pretty good. Which brings us to Sunset Park.Auster’s latest starts out like a parody of the parody, sort of a literary “fuck you” to the critics. We find twenty-eight-year-old Miles Heller mucking out foreclosures in Florida in his seventh year of self-imposed exile from his family after dropping out of college. Heller’s dark sense of loss stems from accidentally pushing his stepbrother in front of a speeding car while arguing on the side of a winding road in the Berkshires.Heller is pretty screwed up, and although characters male and female seem to be powerless before his supposed charms, he’s not a sympathetic enough protagonist to hang a novel upon. He may have actually offed his brother on purpose, and he is carrying on with—that is to say, sodomizing—a seventeen-year-old Cuban girl. It’s easy to see how Heller could have been emotionally stunted by his brother’s death, and the girl, Pilar Sanchez, is about the same age as he was when the break occurred. As hard as Auster tries to give their relationship credibility, gifting Sanchez with above-average intelligence and insatiable curiosity, it is still a little unseemly when she refers to her various orifices as the off-limits mommy hole, and the A-OK funny hole. Given that this is an Auster book, this strange relationship is mirrored in the backstory of one of Heller’s roommates once he’s forced to retreat back to New York by a greedy, and possibly jealous, older Sanchez girl upon threat of incarceration for statutory rape. An old friend of Heller’s, the bearish Bing Nathan, and a group of like-minded twenty-somethings have opened up a squat in the seedy Sunset Park district just in time for Heller’s exile.Ellen Brice, a woman who “projected an aura of anxiety and defeat,” had been impregnated at twenty by a sixteen-year-old who she had supposed to be watching. Brice, while physically and emotionally understated, is perhaps the key to Sunset Park. Auster’s novel is ultimately about depression, both national and personal, and the poor judgment that can arise from being in that state of mind. He has placed his box of broken characters smack down in the financial meltdown of 2008; the national malaise mirrors the feeling of Heller’s peers who have burned through their initial promise, and are now adrift.The third squatmate, Alice Bergstrom, is neck deep in her dissertation for Columbia. She has become obsessed by William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives; a film that examines the difficulties soldiers returning from WWII had relating to domestic life once again. Heller and company don’t have the monolithic bummer of a world at war, but they do have the collapse of a system that was to provide each and every one of them a chance at the American Dream. It is interesting that among his peers, only the vindictive Sanchez sister, a recent immigrant, has the balls to grab ahold and squeeze what she can out of what little she is presented with.Within all this, Auster weaves a thematic thread involving baseball pitchers; especially those who showed great promise then flamed out, often tragically. For my money, if you’re a New York author and you’re going to use baseball as a metaphor to describe the human condition, then you’re going to have to go up against Don DeLillo’s masterful set piece that opens Underworld. That bit transcended any interest one might, or might not have, in the detailed ephemera of the national sport. In the shadow of DeLillo’s big game, Auster’s latest pitch falls low and outside. Or maybe that’s the point.
Which Brings Me to You

by and

After coming dangerously close to blowing hot coffee out of my nose while reading Steve Almond’s Not That You Asked, I decided to dive a little deeper into his (sure to be twisted) oeuvre. Swimming around, I bumped into this book, a novel of letters co-written by sometime (and, as quickly becomes apparent, sometimes not) children’s book author Julianna Baggott.It’s a conceit that could have ended up too clever by half, but is so well handled that I kicked myself for not thinking of it first. The story begins—like most Hugh Grant movies—at a wedding. I was hooked after the very first line: “I know my own kind. We’re obvious to each other. I suppose this is true of other kinds, too: military brats, for example, anarchists, mattress salesmen, women who got ponies as birthday gifts.”Jane ruminates while spying John standing under a white crepe paper wedding bell “My own kind. I’m not sure there’s a name for us. I suspect we’re born this way: our hearts screwing in tight, already a little broken. We hate sentimentality and yet we’re deeply sentimental.” Sound like anyone you know?The two are drawn to each other like cracked magnets—repelling those they should be attracting, yet powerless to avoid the collision with their harmonious defect. After a furtive and aborted liaison in a cloakroom—the pair pulls apart long enough to realize that hooking up with a stranger under a bunch of outerwear would be a mutual mistake in two long, sad trains of mistakes—they hatch a plan to exchange letters confessing their respective tragic love lives. The sense that both of them know that this encounter just may be their last best chance permeates the already stuffy coat check.“No e-mail.”“Absolutely,” he says. “Real letters. Ink. Paper. The whole deal. We’ll be like the pioneers, waiting by our windows for the Pony Express. In bonnets.”John kicks things off with the story of Jodi Dunne, his first love at sixteen. Almond nails the tentative stirrings of romance fighting against the poison tide of peer and familial pressure, social awkwardness, and “erotic incompetence” that make up everyone’s high school years.Almond’s doppelganger proves his commitment to the spirit of full disclosure by recounting an unfortunate (and nearly geometrically impossible) incident wherein he ejaculates into his own mouth and gives himself, “as known in porn circles,” the Pirate Eye. Now, if I hadn’t read Almond’s harrowing tales of his own sexual awakening, I would have called gratuitous bullshit and might have given up on this character, but that would have been a mistake.Jane fires back with her tale of Asbury Park boys and a brooding and doomed muscle car driving boyfriend, and we’re off to the races. “Michael Hanrahan was something that I hoped would happen. In fact, I hoped he’s go off like a bomb in my life, obliterating most everything except me, still standing, albeit charred and dizzy.”Romantic disaster after romantic disaster, and “charred and dizzy” covers the state of both characters pretty well by the time we find them back at the wedding. Will they be able to put it all behind them and start anew, one more time? Or are their respective personnel files too stuffed with abject failure to recommend advancement? Come to think of it, get Hugh Grant’s agent on the phone!
Radio Free Albemuth

by

In 1974, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick had what he would come to understand as a religious experience, or more specifically, a Platonic anamnesis—a loss of forgetfulness. Triggered by exposure to an ichthys, what is commonly known as a “Jesus fish,” he had a flash of the continued existence of Rome circa 70 AD and felt the certainty of the early Christians that their messiah had just left and would be right back. This experience was followed by several nighttime visions where a beam of pink light beamed information into his head from an alien satellite. Dick struggled to understand what had happened to him and wrestled with these themes, most comprehensively in the writing of his exegesis, the VALIS trilogy, and, in 1976, the creation of Radio Free Ablemuth. Those that have read VALIS will recognize this novel as a tentative first crack at the material that would define and consume Dick until his death in 1982. This is not to say that this book doesn’t stand on its own, in many ways it is the more down-to-earth take on a very complex and singular cosmology, however, the VALIS mythos did become richer as a result of the extra effort. Too much of the underlying schema in this early draft is pitched in the form of manic exposition. Dick would later recast himself as Horselover Fat/Phil and kept the gist of Radio Free Ablemuth intact as the experimental film that forms the centerpiece of VALIS. Some characters, however, lose something in the translation. Cancer survivor Sadassa Silvia Aramchek comes across as a better-realized and motivated person than her later incarnation, Sherri Solvig. The thinly disguised Richard M. Nixon stand-in, Ferris F. Fremont, is a delightfully evil antagonist, doubly chilling as the portrait rings true in hindsight. All in all, Ablemuth is not the place to start exploring later-period PKD, but it is a worthwhile read as well as a fascinating example of what a rewrite/re-imagining can do.
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

by

It wasn’t until nearing the end of Oakland journalist Mary Roach’s latest fun fact-finding foray that the five-year-old boy deep inside of me finally shut the hell up about flying into outer space. Much to his chagrin, he had been dutifully keeping a litany of the astro-indignities Roach gleefully, yet respectfully, outlined with her usual irreverent wit.Worse than horrible food? Check. Little opportunity for humane sanitation? Check. A decent likelihood of having one’s brain disengage from its stem in a g-force tilt-a-whirl clusterfuck? Ch-ch-check. And yet lil’ Raymond held on to his Apollo-era dreams of the uncharted void until the horrible truth was finally revealed: there will be no beer in space.Apparently, without gravity, the bubbles that provide beer’s carbonation don’t rise to the top of your pint or to the top of your stomach. Retired NASA food scientist Charles Bourland calls the results, “a foamy froth … often a burp is accompanied by a liquid spray.” The best the greatest minds in the country could offer as a substitute was to decant Paul Masson cream sherry into little plastic pouches. Pass. Of course, once the modern prohibitionists got wind of it, even that exiguous libation was permanently grounded.And so it went. It seems the excitement of space exploration had died down before the Apollo program had even run its course. Roach quotes Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan as deadpanning, “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much.” From this remove, it’s hard to believe that even going to the moon could have ever seemed routine. Cernan summed up the feeling many Americans had toward the space race by 1972 with, “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.” Roach underlines the sea change by stating; “The close of the Apollo program marked a shift from exploration to experimentation.”Even the luster associated with, in the words of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “boldly go[ing] where no man has gone before,” tarnishes when you hear Shoichi Tachibana, the Chief Medical Officer of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), reveal, “To tell you the truth, astronaut is a kind of college student.” Roach embellishes, “He is given assignments. Decisions are made for him. Going into space is like attending a very small, very elite military boarding school.”Indeed, many of the tests that astronauts have to endure seem more like ritual hazing than science, but lest one forgets, they are not being prepped to survive in the great big world, but beyond it, where the very nature of the void wants to kill you.Astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the necessity of what often seems like sadistic torture. “That’s what we do for a living. We don’t fly in space for a living. We have meetings, plan, prepare, train. I’ve been an astronaut for six years, and I’ve been in space for eight days.”Roach ultimately considers whether all of the trouble is worth it. She quotes Benjamin Franklin who—upon the occasion of the first manned hot-air balloon flight—was asked what use he saw in it. “What use,” Franklin replied, “is a newborn baby?” She dismisses the argument that the substantial amount of treasure spent on such an unlikely venture as traveling to Mars could better spent here on Earth by pointing out the truth that it probably wouldn’t.“I see a backhanded nobility,” she writes, “in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying, ‘I bet we can do this.’”
scribd