Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

I, PartridgeAs you know, I’ve been reviewing self-published books on this blog recently. As you also know, I’m currently writing a novel of my own. So allow me to pass down something that’s done me a great deal of creative good.

Here’s the single hardest lesson I had to learn as a writer. Are you ready? It’s a pretty brutal one:

I sound ridiculous.

And guess what? So do you.

We all sound ridiculous…at least by default. That’s why literature, in all of its forms, has evolved a set of conventions. Romance, comedy, tragedy, mystery, memoir…anything you read will have associated with it a whole host of expectations. Conventions exist for a reason, and that reason is this: they double as the contract between author and audience.

When you read a piece of literature, it’s often fun to point out the tropes and conventions as you go. If you’re especially well-read in a particular genre you might even be able to map out what’s likely to happen next. The big mistake we all make is to surrender to a sort of cynicism that implies this to be a bad thing. It isn’t.*

Conventions exist because people like to know what they are reading. It’s similar to ordering meals in a restaurant…you like to have some sense of what it contains. You don’t necessarily need to know exactly how much of what is in it, or how it was brought together, or how it’s going to taste…but it’s not out of line to want some knowledge of what you’re about to eat. After all…you’ve been eating for your whole life. You know that there are certain things you simply don’t enjoy, and other things you enjoy very much.

When writing, those unspoken conventions serve the same purpose. We should be able to know if mysteries, on the whole, appeal to us without having to read every single one of them. Some will be better than others, sure, but that’s a given. We know that, and conventions don’t at all suggest anything in a qualitative sense. What they do tell us is a list of the ingredients the work is likely to contain. For instance, maybe you read Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the terseness of his writing. In that case, you may simply not be a Chandler fan. However if you read some Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the violence, the red herrings, the alternating seduction and cruelty, or the seemingly silly pursuit of some relatively minor object, then you can pretty much count on the fact that you don’t enjoy detective fiction.

That’s fine. That’s why those conventions exist. Those of us who like it know where to find it, and those who don’t know to look elsewhere.

They also exist in order to give writers direction. The greatest literary artists know how to elasticize them, distort them, give them new and interesting ways to work, but, ultimately, they are there, and they function as signposts. The author may then choose to pull toward those sign posts, to loop mischievously around them, or to deliberately drift as far from them as possible. In any case, they are still there…and if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate what the artist is doing.

You — yes, you, if you intend to write — need to understand this, because it’s what’s going to keep you from sounding ridiculous. These structures and conventions and signposts exist, all of them, explicitly so that you won’t sound like a fool. Because if you just allow yourself to write, without being well-versed in the conventions and expectations of your genre of choice…that’s exactly what you will sound like.

I, Partridge is the rarest of all possible comedy tie-in books: it’s the comedy tie-in book that is also, front to back, a work of art.

It’s the ostensible memoir of Alan Partridge, a fictional character who has appeared in multiple British television and radio programs, as well as stage shows, specials, and pretty much everything else. I, Partridge is that character, recounting his life experiences. And it’s a brilliant work of incredible unreliability.

Granted, if you’ve seen and heard Partridge’s earlier misadventures then I, Partridge doesn’t have to work quite as hard. You’ve seen him shove a piece of cheese into a BBC superior’s face and use the hand of a dead man to sign a contract that would put him back on television, so when Alan narrates these events differently, you understand very clearly the humorous disconnect.

However I don’t think you have to have seen any of that in order to enjoy — and as a writer learn from — the book. It functions within its own reality brilliantly, with Alan’s suspiciously too-careful recitation of details giving away the fact that something is being clearly fabricated.

Throughout the book he misunderstands social cues and signals that the readers pick up on, leaving his narration and the reader’s experience of that narration to diverge wonderfully. Alan continues down a road of doubled self-delusion (as he certainly believes that his readers are taking his lies as gospel) while we are able to parse and inspect the text in order to determine just how far from reality his narration really is.

It’s every bit as fascinating as anything Nabokov — the unrivaled master of unreliable narration — has ever done, but is infinitely more accessible. And for that reason, I think I, Partridge should be required reading for anyone who believes themselves to be a writer.

Alan’s ridiculousness is palpable, and it’s palpable simply because he believes he’s being anything but ridiculous. He couldn’t begin to entertain the fact that anything he’s saying would be suspect…and that’s exactly why it’s so suspicious. His readers stop paying attention to what he says, and start paying attention to how he says it.

Your readers will do the same thing. Because you sound ridiculous.

When reading A Soul’s Calling, there was a similar disconnect. Scott Bishop — or his textual avatar — fancied himself an educated, spiritual humanitarian…but he came across on the page as a foolish, selfish weirdo. When he says that demonic spirits interfere with his life and make people dislike him, he believes it…yet the narration diverges from the experience of the reader, who sees instead that people dislike him because he’s an actively insufferable human being. And when he — in an act of paramount dickishness — finds a prayer note left at base camp by a woman before him, he burns it instead of leaving it under the rock where she left it. Why? Because he knows how this prayer needs to be handled, and she obviously didn’t. In his mind, he did her a favor. Any reader in their right mind, however, would see this as a tremendously rude gesture, and the anonymous woman would be no less hurt by it than Scott himself would be if someone came along and kicked over his pyre because they personally didn’t think that was the right way to pray either.

Similarly, when Lawrence Fisher positions himself as an unfortunate misfit wrestling with the game of love, we as readers see clearly that he’s not alone…literally every woman he dates, whether or not that date goes well, is in the exact same situation, meaning it’s a bit harsh for him to expect us to both feel bad for him and laugh at them when he says they’re annoying, not pretty enough, or just plain undateable. Lawrence wants us on his side as narrator, but he spends so much time pushing away those who are already on his side that we end up distanced as well.

What’s more, he keeps distracting himself from his ostensible topic to quote irreverently from films and television shows, or discuss historical intricacies of his religion, or wonder how people can be rude enough to speak through BlueTooth headsets in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the book is only around 130 pages and he’s spent so much time on tangents that he’s left himself no room to getting around to his actual topic.

What writers need to learn, whether they intend to employ the method or not, is how unreliable narration works. And they need to learn that lest they start narrating unreliably against their will.

I, Partridge features exactly the same failings as the two self-published books I mention above, but with a difference: here, they are failings by design.

Alan assumes the applause for a crippled veteran are directed at himself, a low-level radio personality. He gets lost discussing technical details about headsets and cars and radio frequencies when he’s meant to be relaying interesting anecdotes about important people in his life. His “big breaks” for other up-and-coming performers typically leave them embarrassed, disgraced, and broke.

But Alan doesn’t realize any of this. He is the central comic figure in his own farce, but sees himself as a hero, overcoming tragedy after trial. He uses his complete command over his own memoir to rewrite history, and to paint himself in colors he could never achieve in real life.

Writers do that all the time. And that’s okay.

But they need to do it deliberately, and they need to do it well.

Because if they don’t, they’re just writing their own unintentional comedies.

It doesn’t take much to turn your heart-warming tale of spiritual awakening into a showcase for self-importance and silliness. It’s just a shift in perspective…and it’s the shift in perspective that comes automatically from giving yourself an audience.

I honestly would recommend I, Partridge to anyone who wants to be taken seriously, because the absolute best first step on that road is to see, first-hand, why nobody would.

* At least, it isn’t automatically a bad thing. If that’s all an author is doing, then that’s bad. But an author who uses convention as a framework upon which to build his or her unique story around it is simply doing his or her job as a writer. Railing against convention for the sake of railing against convention is something else many writers find it difficult to grow out of. But mark my words: the longer you spend fighting the form, the more you’re postponing the moment when you learn how to make the form work for you. In short, you’re delaying your own creative growth. So don’t do that.

Retro City Rampage

Good gosh!
The hero has arrived.

Last month, a game called Retro City Rampage was released for download on the Wii. By this point, the Wii is already dead, its place in the console market usurped by the WiiU. This was a too-late release for the system in another way as well: other versions of the game on competing systems were released in 2012. The game itself was announced in 2010…and development began all the way back in 2002. That’s an extremely long journey for anything on its way to a dead platform.

I remember the announcement well, because I decided more or less immediately that I didn’t want it. It seemed like a nice idea — retro-style games such as Mega Man 9, the Bit.Trip series and VVVVVV had a pretty high success rate as far as I was concerned, and I’d take a simplistic, difficult romp over a modern-day talky slog every time — but early screen shots, and then the eventual trailer, were enormously disappointing.

Or, rather, there was one specific thing about those screenshots and trailers that was disappointing: the sheer number of references.

Retro City RampageI’ve written about this before. I’m simply not a fan of references for references’ sake. I don’t like the modern tendency for the snake to wink as it swallows its tail. I want to see art that carves out its own space to inhabit…not lazily inhabit the spaces carved out by those who came before.

There’s a place in the world for parody — of course there is — but that place is not front and center. That place is not in the spotlight. When parody becomes the dominant form of expression you end up with garbage like Epic Movie, which ends up spoofing Nacho Libre because there simply isn’t enough straight-laced material to serve as fuel anymore, and comedy has to begin eating itself.

Personally, I’m happy to blame Family Guy for the glut of lazy references and recreations masquerading as something new. Parody has existed long before Family Guy, of course, and lazy parody has existed exactly as long. But only Family Guy seems to have found more success the lazier it gets, to the point that entire sequences and acts consist of word-for-word reenactments of other programs, films, music videos, or anything else the writers might have watched earlier that week.

It’s lazy, and it’s not creative. But people eat it up. Prior to its first cancellation, Family Guy knew how to pull off its warped style of twisted comedy. Since its revival, it’s circled ceaselessly toward a lazy singularity, replacing jokes and cleverness with joyless recreations. It’s not funny, it’s not interesting, and it even drifts into the territory of insult when they decide to lift wholesale scenes from other parodies, such as Airplane! Perhaps the Family Guy staff simply can’t tell the difference anymore. Certainly its audience can’t. And that’s beyond disappointing…that’s irresponsible.

Retro City RampageRetro City Rampage appeared to be following in those footsteps. One of the areas resembled the first stage of Metal Gear for the NES, complete with on-screen mocking of that game’s infamous Engrish. Two of the characters are named Bill and Lance, who we remember from Contra. A store called WonderHats uses the ThunderCats font. A dessert parlor is called Vanilla Ice Cream. Tee hee hee.

Even its title is a triple reference: Grand Theft Auto, River City Ransom, and Rampage. This is all before you get to the clear Back to the Future homage of its cover art. The entire thing just screamed out that it was pieced together from bits and fragments of better things.

It felt cheap. It felt lazy. It felt like it was attempting to coast on the goodwill engendered by its source material, rather than any merit that it could have possibly earned on its own. It wanted the laughter of recognition. And that’s quite possibly the least satisfying kind of laughter there is.

The game boasted a huge world to explore, but if all I was doing is finding cutesy puns on the signage and identifying bland references to better games, then it didn’t feel worth exploring. At least Family Guy delivers its own personal blend of offensive laziness to you passively…Retro City Rampage required interaction. It wasn’t enough to just groan at what you were seeing…you first would have to make the effort to track it down.

And I wasn’t interested in that.

But I learned something from Retro City Rampage. Specifically, I learned that Family Guy has done even more damage than I thought. Because not only does it train me to see references like this — even in things that I enjoy — as unnecessary and annoying, but it made me forget why people started making references like this in the first place: love.

At Nintendo Life, Featured Editor and all-around great guy Thomas Whitehead interviewed Brian Provinciano, essentially the single man responsible for the entire game. And it was a good interview, but here’s what really stood out to me:

It became public knowledge on Gamasutra in 2009 that a sales threshold is in place, whereas, if you don’t sell enough copies [as a WiiWare download], you don’t get paid a cent. […] Many developers became unable to sell enough units, and this became a reason for so many cancellations of announced WiiWare titles. The publishers knew they wouldn’t make a cent and needed to cut their losses. Between the office rent, hardware, insurance, game ratings and other costs, had I not done the WiiWare version, I could’ve saved around $20,000 – not even including my salary in porting it. And as it stands, virtually no games hit the threshold these days, so it’s only being released as fan service. A $20,000 gift to the fans.

There’s no chance — and I say this in the nicest possible way — that Retro City Rampage will hit that sales threshold. Most games released through the WiiWare service never made it, and that was definitely one of Nintendo’s major missteps with the Wii. Far from encouraging developers to put their best work into the console, it encouraged them to put it anywhere else. Releasing through WiiWare was expensive, and as more developers and games failed to turn a profit, fewer developers and games went near the service at all.

Retro City RampageWith fewer games, the audience simply drifted away. A sales threshhold that was already near-impossible to hit just got shoved that much further out of reach.

Additionally the Wii is dead. And, with it, WiiWare. Retro City Rampage comes long after most Wii owners will have upgraded to the WiiU, and the ones that stayed behind aren’t likely to be in the habit of checking the shop channel anymore. On top of that, just about anyone who was dying for Retro City Rampage would have simply bought it somewhere else over the course of the past year.

And yet, here it is. Not because it’s expected to make any money…in fact, Provinciano is convinced it will lose him money. And I agree.

But he released it because he could. Because he made enough money from its other versions to put this one out there on a Nintendo console, as a gift to the fans. A “$20,000 gift to the fans,” to be exact.

And that’s love. That’s love, and that’s nothing short of love.

That’s also what made me buy Retro City Rampage. I know this version of the game won’t make a dime, but I bought it anyway. Because that’s the least I can do. Far from the smorgasbord of lazy references and winking visual recreations of classic games, Retro City Rampage was made with love. How do I know that? Because nothing but love could make you shovel twenty thousand dollars into a release you already know will be totally unprofitable.

It’s what I remembered about references, about why people make them, and why they took such an easy foothold in parody and pop-culture: making them betrays, or should, a love for that source material. It’s a form of flattery, a form of tipping one’s hat, respectfully, to those that laid the groundwork for what you are now able to do.

Family Guy doesn’t express love. It can’t, because it feels none. Its references are lazy at best and outright mean-spirited at worst. Robot Chicken feels very much the same way. It lives to deflate the cultural ephemera of days gone by. By contrast, when Futurama incorporates the lore of other science fiction works into its universe, it feels like the show saying thank you…no matter how they subvert the character, idea or object. Futurama exists because its creators and writers love the genre, and want to play with the same toys. Family Guy might have existed at first because Seth MacFarlane loved the golden age of television, but it continues to exist just to feed more meat into the grinder. It all comes out the same. A joyless, tasteless, inconsequential mush.

Retro City RampageRetro City Ransom, which I can say now that I’ve played it, is great. But I almost missed it, simply because I forgot that references aren’t always lazy…they’re often, when done right, admirable. They’re a familiar seasoning in a new and exciting dish. At least, again, when done right.

Many years ago, in 1999 or so, I made two video games myself. They were both part of the same series. The first was called Larry Vales: Traffic Division, and its sequel was Larry Vales II: Dead Girls Are Easy. I haven’t thought about them in a long time, though certainly at the time I was working on them they were everything to me. I invested a lot of creative effort into two games that, for all their faults — and there were faults, boy howdy — people enjoyed. That was all I really wanted. I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted people to have fun.

A couple of years ago I found a video on YouTube of somebody playing through the first game. I watched it, and re-experienced the game for the first time in around a decade. And I was overwhelmed by the number of references I crammed into it. Whereas Retro City Rampage mainly pays homage to classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Commando and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Larry Vales paid homage to The Simpsons, and 1984, and Pink Floyd. In short, it was everything that had inspired me, at some point…just as Provinciano refers back to everything that inspired him.

Watching that video, I cringed. I felt lazy. I felt as though I had every opportunity to make something interesting and unique, but I fell back on mindlessly referring to other things that I enjoyed, hoping that others would share in the nostalgia, and that would be enough. I was being a bit harsh on myself, I think now, but I also believe there’s some truth to that.

But that’s just the Family Guy effect. I felt guilty for making those references because the practice of paying gentle homage to your inspirations has been dragged through the muck and become something dirty, something lazy, and, above all else, something to be avoided.

Retro City RampageWhat I forgot — or, perhaps, was in no condition to remember — when watching that video, someone else playing through a game world of my own construction, was that I made those references out of love. They may have been lazy. They may not have been funny. But they were my way of saying thank you…of openly expressing my gratefulness for the so many wonderful things that made me want to create.

That’s a lesson Retro City Rampage taught me, all over again. There are a few bad apples that have poisoned the practice…but, in doing it right, it’s still as noble a way to tip your hat as it ever was.

References are a way of saying thanks. That’s something I’m going to try to remember again. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even give those thanks right back to Retro City Rampage, for showing me that someone, somewhere, still knows how to make them for the right reason, in the right way.

Hell, releasing Retro City Rampage at all, with the complete foreknowledge that it will only lose money, is a way of saying thanks. Provinciano is using Retro City Rampage as a sort of double-sided note of appreciation…he’s thanking the industry that inspired him, and the players who’ve been inspired right along with him.

It’s an admirable thing to do. And I really do hope he ends up turning a profit, against all odds, because it’s nice to see goodness rewarded in the world every now and again.

And the game is also, to put a fittingly obscene button on it, pretty fucking incredible.

Detective FictionSo it’s been quiet around here lately, and there’s absolutely nothing noteworthy about that fact. But I did want to pop in to let you know that, unlike every other time, I haven’t been totally unproductive. In fact, I’m writing a book.

It’s a project that I started for National Novel Writing Month a few years back. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the idea is that you are supposed to write an entire novel between November 1 and November 30. I’ve participated a few times now, and I’ve nearly always succeeded, but it’s very much worth noting that they define “a novel” as “50,000 words.” So you can very easily hit that number without bringing your story to a close, or even getting anywhere near an ending.

For many it’s just a writing exercise, which is great, but for me…I’ve always tried to do something more. 50,000 words of anything is a useful workout for a writer, but I feel a little let down at the end if I don’t have something I can share. Rework, rewrite, edit, extend, sure…but I at least need to come away with something I can show for my investment.

My first completed novel that I owe to National Novel Writing Month is Afterbirth: The Comedy of Miscarriage, which took me two years to write and another five to really shape into what I needed it to be. It’s a piece of work I’m immensely proud of right now, a book that manages to be clever and complicated enough that I can’t believe some schlub like me wrote it. In fact, it’s so good that nobody wants to publish the thing, and it’s sitting around doing absolutely nothing.

Detective Fiction was a deliberate response to Afterbirth. The former is massive in scope and scale, scrambling up scenes across generations and narrated by a self-serving trickster, leaving the reader to fend for himself or herself from paragraph to paragraph, trying to piece together the story that lies beneath what’s actually being said. It was hard to write. Heck, it’s hard to read.

So for my next project, my next real project, my next big novel attempt that I could actually spin into a finished manuscript at some point down the line, I went intentionally simple. It’s a straight-forward story without any significant leaps through time, with a manageable cast of characters, and with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t want it to get too big. I didn’t want it to get too complicated. Because…well, I already had one of those. And it went–and continues to go–absolutely nowhere.

Detective Fiction, I reasoned, could make for an easier sell. It’s a simpler pitch, its first few chapters won’t scare people away, and I can make an effort to be a little more overtly funny. It should still be good, but it could be good in a way that plays more nicely with its readers.

My plan was to write a sendup of the detective fiction genre, starring a young man in the fictional Palmwood City, Florida, who decides to operate as an unlicensed private eye in order to draw focus away from a few other things in his life. I delved into some classic examples from Raymond Chandler to Arthur Conan Doyle and realized, shockingly, that these books were actually a lot better than I gave them credit for being. In fact, my attempt at a joke very quickly turned into a love letter, as I realized the reason that these stories endured: they only pretended to be about the mystery. They were always actually about the detective.

But I never finished the book. I wrote most of it, hit the 50,000 word goal, but never brought it to a conclusion.

And it languished for two years. While I did absolutely nothing with it. Honestly, I was afraid to go back. As simple as I wanted the book to be, I was still trying to provide three things at the same time to the reader: a good read, a genre pastiche, and a satisfying mystery…in roughly that order. And the more time passed, the easier it became to just assume that I had failed, that it was a scattered mess, and it wasn’t worth revisiting.

Recently, I revisited. And it was far, far better than I remembered it being. So I thought I’d dig back in, and give young Billy Passwater the conclusion his story so specifically deserves.

I have one chapter left to write. I intend to do that tonight. I will then spend months (at least months) rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

And before long, I hope to have something I can send out to agents. Something I can be happy to have my name on, and something they can be happy to have their names on as well.

I know I’ve been quiet, but I haven’t been unproductive. I hope you understand why I’ve decided to focus my energies elsewhere for a time…it’s now or never for Detective Fiction.

Noiseless Chatter isn’t dead. Detective Fiction doesn’t represent me having nothing to post here anymore. If anything, as the man himself once said, “Things should start to get interesting right about now.”

(Kudos to the friendly Ridley for that banner.)

A Soul's Calling, by Scott BishopFTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

When I was a boy, I used to go camping with my father. During one of these trips, my brother and I decided to take a little walk together. We didn’t think we walked very far, but trying to find our way back to the campsite was difficult. Everything looked the same and the return trip took at least five times as long as the journey out. Ultimately, though, we found our way back.

That which you have just read is true. But it is not, I absolutely hasten to add, a story. It might be an anecdote, but I doubt it’d be a very entertaining one. More likely it’s the sort of thing I might bring up with a group of friends, all of whom are exchanging brief, inconsequential narratives on the same theme (being lost, childhood memories, camping with kids…). But even in the right context, it doesn’t become a story. It’s just something that in some (but certainly not all) cases might be worth repeating.

I could drag it out, certainly. I could add reams of accurate detail that may well make the recitation more vivid for my listeners, but the compounding of unnecessary detail doesn’t turn it into a story either, and without a great deal of fictionalization, it never could be one.

There’s nothing wrong with fictionalization. At least, not within the context of fiction. (That’s kind of where the word comes from.) Fictionalization is a good thing for stories. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing. Storytelling is an art, and art lives and dies by the talent of the artist. We might be fine listening to a close friend tell us about a personal experience, and in that case we might feel cheated if we later found out he was embellishing it excessively.

However when we pick up a novel, we don’t want to read a dry recitation of something that the author did. First of all, that’s not what a novel is. And secondly, the novelist needs to demonstrate, in some way, a mastery of his art. This can take many forms, of course; it can be the active and deliberate bafflement of Joyce or the intense simplicity of Hemingway. It can — even better — be one of numberless possibilities in between those two extremes.

But an artist has to do something, otherwise he isn’t creating art. He’s just saying things.

A Soul’s Calling, a novel based on author Scott Bishop’s experience of hiking to the base camp at Everest, just says things.

It’s admittedly difficult to issue this as a universal criticism, especially since the writing in A Soul’s Calling isn’t uniformly bad, but this is essentially a long, long first-draft that is in dire need of a more compelling rewrite. As it stands it reads no better than my camping anecdote, but takes around 1,700 times as long to finish saying nothing. And that’s the problem. Some of my favorite pieces of writing “say nothing,” but they say it in so moving, amusing, or thrilling a way that the act of saying nothing becomes a kind of art unto itself. It takes — or, rather, is sculpted into — a shape, a series of shapes, patterns within patterns that compose themselves into larger movements and statements. That’s what fiction is for.

A Soul’s Calling doesn’t do that. It presents copious details in the hopes that obsessive accuracy will eventually conjure up its own kind of interest in the reader. But it does not.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I should be judging this book as a novel. Its back cover refers to it as a novel, yes, but it also refers it as a memoir…and those two things are mutually exclusive. You can’t actually be both. You can be a Nabokov-esque memoir of a fictional character, or you can be a Vonnegut-like fictionalized memoir, but in each case you’re still writing a novel, and the format (or intention) of memoir becomes a utility…a filter through which that novel is read.

That is not what we have here, and though I’m making a bit of an executive decision by calling it a novel, I think the presence of spirits and talking mountains and a main character who receives visions of an apocalyptic future that he alone can avoid somehow by making this journey all seat the book firmly in the category of “fiction.”

If any of that seems to be out of place for a story about a journey to Everest, then you might be disappointed to learn that it’s also completely unnecessary, and — to be honest — nonsensically handled. When Kurt Vonnegut takes us away from the real-life horrors of World War II to make comical digressions to an extra-terrestrial zoo, or Thomas Pynchon sees it fit to insert a sentient mechanical duck into the surveying party of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, they do so in order to make colorful points about the things we think we’re familiar with…in order to slant our perspectives enough that we can view the familiar in a new and unexpected way.

However when Bishop employs these strange intrusions, they serve only to confuse his intentions. What’s more, they ring loudly as artificial and empty gestures. After all, when George Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest, he famously (and maybe apocryphally) replied with three words that have been connected with the mountain ever since: “Because it’s there.”

Everest is, within our cultural landscape, a mountain whose conquering legendarily requires no justification. It is in itself a justification. If reaching its peak is understood universally as being entirely free from — and separate from — mere human reasoning, then I’m not sure why we need urgent entreaties from the Spirit Realm to justify the comparatively minor trek to its base camp.

The real problem, though, is that this unnecessary justification fails to even justify itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making the protagonist the “Chosen One” who alone can prevent massive calamity on a universal scale; this has been the backbone of everything from The Bible to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are countless places you can go with the idea, which is what keeps it from feeling stale in the right hands. It may come across as somewhat trite, but it’s an acceptable triteness that we expect will pay off in some interesting flourishes along the way.

In A Soul’s Calling, however, the protagonist / narrator (who shares a name with the author) some emissaries from the spirit world turn up, tell “Scott” that he needs to journey to the base camp at Everest, and then essentially disappear from the novel entirely. We do hear from them again, but they never actually explain what the issue is, what exact function “Scott’s” journey will serve, or why “Scott” was chosen at all. In fact, every time the narrator describes these conversations or visions, he lapses into an evasive textual shrug, admitting that he can’t really explain what he saw or heard…so, I guess, we just have to trust him when he says that his ethereal Princess Leia assured him he was our only hope. Whether or not he was qualified to shoulder the burden of universal salvation I can’t say, but as a reader I’m absolutely positive he’s not qualified to narrate if he can’t tell us about the most interesting things in the book.

Part of me wants to see this as a deliberate evasion. It wants me to read these moments — and there are many of them — as evidence of unreliable narration. That would indeed go a long way toward turning A Soul’s Calling into a work of art, as opposed to a collection of pages. But that part of me easily loses the war against another part of me: the one that read the book. Bishop’s inexplicable and unexplained forays into a spiritual justification for the trip are simply a baffling obstacle lost in the midst of so many other baffling obstacles, and it becomes an unintentional running joke that the narrator preemptively defends himself against the logical faculties of his audience, assuring us openly that these spiritual visitations — which occur when he’s in bed with his eyes closed — are not dreams. Why are they not dreams? Because they’re not dreams. That’s why. Well, that’s me told I guess.

Even if I could accept that “Scott” were the only hope for both this world and the spiritual world, and that his trip to and back from the base camp at Everest would somehow avoid The Biggest Apocalypse Ever, I absolutely cannot accept that, as a writer, Bishop so eagerly buries the lede.

If you were personally visited by spirits who told you that you needed to perform some earthly task in order to prevent the Alleged Cosmic Implosion of All That Ever Was and Will Be, and you did that thing, you’d then be pretty eager to tell everyone about it. Right? I know I would. But I also know that I’d spend a lot of my time talking about the spirits and the apocalypse, and probably wouldn’t spend nearly all of 340 pages methodically documenting that earthly task instead. And I suspect your narration would have a similar bent. “Scott,” on the other hand, waives away interest in the spirits, and thinks we’re more interested in how many times he stops for Pringles along the way to base camp.

The story here is that “Scott” was visited by ambassadors from another realm — a realm most human beings don’t even know exist — and assigned an urgent task that alone can avoid total intergalactic destruction…but Bishop thinks the story is that he took a difficult walk through the Himalayas. And I simply cannot abide that oversight. After all, that’s what prevents this from being a story, and restricts it to being instead a sloppily-framed and long-winded anecdote.

There are lots of other issues at play here, as well, including a massively problematic relationship at the book’s core. “Scott” and his guide Tej feud constantly on their way to Everest. To his credit, the narrator understands that this relationship is strained. To his much larger debit, he never realizes that the reason it’s strained is that he keeps arguing with Tej, childishly overriding his experienced council, and insisting that they do things “Scott’s” way. After all, Tej has only spent a lifetime physically guiding people along this exact route…and “Scott” has done several nights’ worth of reading on the Internet, so clearly he should be stubbornly disregarding everything his guide is so emphatically trying to tell him.

I was absolutely astounded by the way this played out between the narrator and Tej. All along I was expecting “Scott” to learn his lesson, but no, A Soul’s Calling wants us to believe that the moody American was right all along, and Tej was out of line for questioning him.

I’ve never seen anything like this. I kept expecting “Scott” to receive his comeuppance in some way and realize that the rich and beautiful world he’s so desperately trying to make conform to his expectations is actually the world he should be opening himself to. I find it hard to imagine a version of The Darjeeling Limited in which the Whitman brothers learn that it was smart of them to cling to their possessions and petty grievances, and I find it impossible to imagine that that would work at all as a film. When you fight against accepting another’s culture, the audiences laugh at you because they know better. When you stop resisting, the audience is on your side because you learned your lesson. In A Soul’s Calling however the opposite happens, and the audience is meant to be glad that “Scott” had the willpower to resist the foolish guidance of his (ahem…) guide. And I’ve never seen anything like that before. It genuinely hurt to read.

There’s more I could talk about at this point — such as the narrator’s explanation that every person who’s ever disliked him in life was actually being manipulated by evil spirits (which must be pretty nice, as everyone who’s ever disliked me in my life has done so because I was a dick to them in some way…you know, something that I’m actually responsible for as a human being and therefore must learn a lesson from) — but I think I’ve said enough.

A Soul’s Calling could have had some value, at least potentially, as a dry yet meticulous travelogue, but it ultimately fails there as well because the travel comes across as dead and routine. The narrator arrives somewhere, Tej tells him to go one way, the narrator throws a tantrum and goes another, the narrator gets exhausted, the narrator leans on a rock, the narrator tells us about something he read on the internet, and the narrator goes to sleep in a lodge. It’s just a simple, cyclical repetition of the same few ideas, with no substance or character at all, making this magical and important journey feel more like a boring car ride during which nobody feels like looking out the windows.

I’d like to read a version of A Soul’s Calling that makes something of its own components. I want to know what the spirits are talking about, exactly, rather than getting a spill of vague gibberish about them every one hundred pages or so. I want to see the narrator grapple with the possibility that the spirits aren’t real, and that he might actually be losing his grip on reality, just as any human being would. And most importantly, I want to see the narrator face some consequences for his behavior toward other people, without simply being able to handwave their disgust as being due to the interference of some invisible boogey man.

Because what we have isn’t a story. It’s a recitation of things that happen, yes, but it’s not a story. And it’s not a novel, and it’s not a memoir, and it’s not a travelogue. It’s a numbered collection of pages, and it’s waiting for somebody to give it shape. I hope somebody does; it’ll undoubtedly be for the better.

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Every nerd has something they collect. Some try to track down every issue of their favorite comic book, some relish rare video games, and others are simply satisfied with collecting themselves after a brutal de-pantsing. I collected the work of Dr. Seuss.

Growing up, my bookshelves were filled with all number of works by Seuss, both under his usual monicker and pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. I had rare books like his risqué adult novel The Seven Lady Godivas, collections of his World War II-era comics and advertisements and a copy of his terrible movie, The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. My father would back-order out-of-print works for me, and my favorite place to visit was the book store. So, needless to say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was the only special that fully suited my youthful Christmas needs.

Like most of Seuss’s books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! outlined an important message: Christmas doesn’t come from a store; it comes from the warm feelings of those we care about, and a sense of fun and togetherness. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp (sorry, stump-o’s).

On its surface, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t look like much. Of course, with the wonderful rhyming patterns, made-up words like “chimbley” and winning illustrations, it wasn’t hard to make the message a more appealing one. But as a Seuss-o-phile, this resonated to me on a different level. Seuss’s stories were generally allegories for big, important things – Yertle the Turtle is Napoleon or Hitler, Horton Hears a Who is about the bombing and occupation of Japan (and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), The Butter Battle Book is about the Cold War. Why place the meaning of Christmas alongside such incisive analyses?

Religiously, I grew up in a household that none of my largely Christian schoolmates could fathom without a few questions. My mother was raised Episcopalian, but I don’t remember her ever being religious. My father is Jewish, but again, not very religious besides observing the high holy days and Hanukkah – though even the former practice began in my adolescence. Every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I have fond memories of decorating our Christmas tree and lighting our menorah, illuminated as it was by an array of Christmas lights.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I called myself a “reform Jew”, but I think all along I knew I was atheist. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I did not believe in God. Even without going to church every Sunday, God was assumed to exist by everyone around me – and, thus, that I believed as well. I sat by while friends called other friends “stupid” for not believing in Him before I was out of the atheist closet myself.

I was surrounded by Christianity in my suburban Texas town. Churches were everywhere. A girl that I liked was baffled by my disbelief in the miracles of Jesus. I uncomfortably sat through an assembly that was described as a talent show for teachers, where one instructor gave a brief but passionate Evangelical sermon. The Daily Show came to my hometown to interview members of a group who, in reaction to the building of a mosque, held pig races on Friday nights. A barbecue restaurant I drove past every day was in the news a few years ago for its refusal to take down a graphic image of an Iranian man being lynched. It wasn’t hard for me to develop some mixed feelings about religion, and subsequently about Christmas. Doctors told me that my heart was dangerously close to shrinking three sizes.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the TV special, brought the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss straight to America’s sets every year, and that was a special thing for me. Without having something like that, I may have become a much more bitter person than I did. It brought the story to life, and it didn’t need Jim Carrey’s signature jumping and screaming to get it done.

It only expanded on the kernel of goodness that was the original novel, along with the memorable voice acting of Boris Karloff and the chasm-deep tones of singer Thurl Ravenscroft, also known for his famous portrayal of Tony the Tiger. It also gave color to the world of the Whos, whose existence in the book was originally limited to Seuss’s stylistic choice of only including the color red. For the budding literary geek I was, turns of phrase like “you’ve got termites in your smile,” “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy, purple spots” and “your soul is an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled-up in tangled-up knots,” stuck in my memory and inspired me to create fiction of my own.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But let’s return to my original query – why would a Christmas special be written by Dr. Seuss, whose most accomplished pre-children’s work was his co-authorship of Design for Death, a 1947 Academy Award-winning documentary about World War II and the occupation of Japan? As a child, however, my reverence for Seuss assured me that I ought to trust him on this one, to enjoy Christmas in spite of my schoolmates’ bemused bafflement at what they considered a devastating personal flaw in me.

I was reminded to not get too annoyed by the constant barrage of carols every time I went to a store, and to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion – it can be about togetherness and love. And it reminded me that not everyone who had faith was the barbecue bigot down the street.

Today I fully identify as an atheist. And yet every year, my wife and I set up our Christmas tree, deck our halls and watch Christmas special after Christmas special. The Grinch may have tried to steal Christmas, but he gave me a very important gift – an understanding that even though the world isn’t perfect and that there will always be closed-minded people, Christmas should be a celebration of what we have in common, not a magnification of our differences.

Thank goodness I have hands to clasp.

Tomorrow: Spend Christmas Eve with Ebenezer. No, not that one.

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