3 Odd Books

Pardon My Body (1952) by Dale Bogard.

Don’t kick yourself for not sending a card, but last year was the 60th anniversary of Harlequin, the press that has been best known over the years for its line of romance titles.  Turns out Harlequin published a much more diverse range of genres in its early years, including a few crime pulps.  As part of the anniversary celebration, Harlequin reprinted six of these titles last year. 

Pardon My Body seemed like a good place to begin.  I mean, come on, pardon my body!  Starts out okay:  a guy is driving around one night minding his own business when suddenly he finds a nymphomaniac passed out in the middle of the road (hence, "pardon my body").  Who can’t relate to that?   But then the story devolves into a rather boring account of what I think the gumshoes used to call “leg work.”  As sometimes happens in a really terrible book, I hit that point where I realized I had been “reading” for 20 or so pages and had no idea what was going on anymore.  Case closed, whoever you are, I’m going to go make a sandwich.   

I wanted to give another title in the series a chance…but then I found this little nugget over at the Harlequin website.  

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.

No wonder Pardon My Body was so terrible.  Thank you, Harlequin, for completely negating the entire purpose of reprinting these books.  I agree it’s totally unacceptable to hit a woman, but if I was going to pummel one with cruel mockery, it would be the editorial schoolmarm who decided that a gangster slapping a cocktail waitress around is somehow more offensive than a company churning out a half-century of pornography designed to enslave women in the fantasy that they might one day be transported to a fundamentally impossible emotional universe.  Which is worse?  To encounter an ugly convention of the post-war pulp in its period context, or to read the more “modern” Harlequin titles that promise a handsome Italian surgeon will suddenly materialize in the kitchen to save you from all the half-finished wine coolers, stray candy wrappers, and Shiztu fur that covers the apartment?

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The G-Men Smash The Professor’s Gang by William Engle (1937) 

Still stinging from John Williams’ rather bleak portrait of professorial life in Stoner (1965), I thought a quick cruise through this title might be a bit more inspiring.  As the title suggests, this book dates from an era when professors could still inspire fear and respect by threatening to use their superior intellect to terrorize the city, nation, or world.  There’s a great scene toward the end of the new Sherlock Holmes movie where Holmes, summarizing his various deductions, reveals that his next adventure will be against the dreaded Professor Moriarty—whom he identifies by  chalk dust on the lapel.  Ah, to diagram sentences in the morning, take lunch at the faculty club, and then hold London hostage in the afternoon with some manner of death ray.  That’s living, my friend.  Today, sadly, even professors who know how to do really scary stuff, like re-sequence your genome or trick you into studying anthropology, are generally figures of ridicule—best known for their tweed patches, constantly misplaced car keys, and complete lack of interest in Brad and Jen’s impending reconciliation.   

Obviously, the title here reveals that this particular professor and his gang will be “smashed” in the end…but still, the fantasy of a Ph.D. having a “gang” and temporarily sticking it to Johnny Law was a strong lure.   Expectations diminished quickly, however, when Engle introduces the professor as “little, twisted, and gnome-like.”  Oh well. 

Hollywood famously caught a lot of flak after Little Caesar (1931) and Public Enemy (1931) made the gangster life look—if not necessarily viable—at least noble and heroic.  Aimed at younger readers, this book—like the film G-Men (1935)-- appears to be part of the era’s larger campaign to de-glamorize criminal life and force impressionable kids to identify with the police.  Lots of emphasis here on all the cool gadgets and neat-o techniques G-Men have at their disposal.  And yes, the professor and his gang end up well and truly smashed.     

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The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall by “Tony Trelos” (1967) 

Victoria McCall wasn’t like other girls.  She was fat. She also had a storm of passion waiting to be unleashed.  It didn’t happen until she dieted.  Then nothing could prevent her unnatural fling… 

Best just to go straight to the plot here: Vicky lives with her mom who is frequently abused by the strange men she brings to the house.  To escape this harsh world, Vicky eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and has become rather heavy.  When not eating, she fantasizes about becoming a beautiful starlet—the kind of woman to whom she is increasingly attracted. After catching mom in bed with a particularly disgusting guy, she runs away from home.
Happily she meets a dyke named Toni on the subway and accepts an invitation to live on her houseboat.  Vicky is in love, but dares not say anything.  When she finds Toni in bed with another woman, she has to run away again. 

A year later, Vicky is back.  Dieting and exercise have transformed her into a bombshell, and she uses her new allure to get a high-paying gig as a topless dancer in a swinging New Jersey cabaret.  Here she becomes the “property” of Ronnie, the club’s “butch in disguise” owner.  Things are going pretty good until Vicky decides to see what sex with a man might be like, perversely picking one of the same men who used to beat up her mother.  Ronnie finds out, they get in a fight, and Vicky quickly leaves in the escort of a rich older lesbian from Manhattan.     

But Vicky soon gets bored with her new lover and all her snooty, artsy, intellectual friends.  Then one night at a particularly boring party, Vicky thinks one of the men is hitting on her and so she decides to take him into a back room to seduce him.  But—in a scene ripped right out of Now, Voyager—it turns out this man is actually a psychiatrist who has been invited to the party to evaluate Vicky’s growing malaise. Yep, Vicky sure is screwed up, opines Dr. "Get Your Hand Off My Junk." Humiliated and angry, Vicky has no choice but to run away once again. 

Cut to a seedy bar somewhere in the Village.  The bartender, whom we haven’t met before, has just sold the joint and can’t wait to get away from all the “degenerates” that hang out there every night.  Someone comes in looking for “Vicky,” whom the bartender only knows as that sweet but sad fat girl who has been a regular for the past couple of years, turning tricks with anyone at anytime for a ten-spot. Nope, he hasn’t seen her.  Then a policeman comes in.  They just pulled a woman out of the river—a suicide.  “Fat girl.  Really big.  Her name’s Vicky McCall.”  THE END.   

Oddly, this book is available as a $2 buck download, which means someone had to scan The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall page by page. Why someone would invest the time and money to do so remains a mystery.    

So there you have it.  I’ve read them so you don’t have to (except for Pardon My Body, which was too horrible to finish).  You’re welcome. 

It's Riley, BITCH!

The formula for succeeding on Saturday Night Live has been fairly clear almost from its premiere 35 years ago.  Join the cast, work your way into more and more sketches, unveil a signature "character," get that character slotted into the opening 30 minutes as often as possible, use the increased exposure as a beachhead for introducing additional characters, repeat as necessary until you can quit and make more money in Hollywood.  I would describe a few of the SNL cast members who have followed this path, but really, I can't imagine anyone reading this would disagree with this assessment.  It even worked for Rob "Copier Guy" Schneider (well, that, and knowing Adam Sandler).  

Critics of SNL sometimes complain this leads to lazy writing.  More ambitious and (dare one say it) original sketches get bigfooted by the predictable returns to be had in a more familiar gag--routines that sometimes consist of little more than the recurring character riffing off his or her usual straight-man.  Whether that's better or worse than having 100% original material each week is debatable. But certainly a bankable character on SNL does involve a type of comic shorthand, a reliance on instantly recognizable costuming and mise-en-scene, slightly differentiated yet basically identical set-ups, and perhaps most importantly of all--the catch-phrase.  Again, this goes back as far as the "wild and crazy guy" days of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd.  What has been remarkable in the most recent bids for recurring-character status on SNL, however, is the almost minimalist approach to this now tried-and-true formula.  The stakes of contemporary comedy being what they are, it is often difficult to know which routines are meant to be comedy and which are a type of “meta-comedy”—a commentary on the form itself (obviously, that distinction doesn’t really matter if the bit is funny, but as always, there is funny and then there is “funny”).

How, for example, to explain Kristen Wiig’s “Gilly” character—a creation that has now been repeated several times over the past two seasons and was even given coveted primetime exposure as the host of last year’s SNL Christmas anthology?  In her first appearance, “Gilly” seemed just another of the truly deranged bits Wiig and Will Forte usually uncork in the program’s last half-hour (like their powerfully bizarre country singing duo, Clancy T. Bachleratt and Jackie Snad).  If you haven’t seen "Gilly,” it’s essentially Wiig as a “bad seed” version of Little Orphan Annie—each sketch unfolding through an agonizingly slow repetition of “Gilly’s” increasingly dangerous hijinx, punctuated by Forte as Gilly’s teacher in super slo-mo disciplinary mode searching for each act’s culprit (accented by Kenan Thompson as Gilly’s classmate in a plaster-cast, frequently accused and yet clearly incapable of each prank).  Whereas SNL catch-phrases used to be as complicated as Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) proclaiming once per sketch, “Sometimes, when I get nervous, I put my fingers under my arms, and then smell them like this...", Wiig now has this convention down to one word, Gilly’s vacantly psychotic apology: “sorry.” As the sketch is so brutally minimalist in its design, pacing, and resolute refusal to develop in any significant manner from installment to installment, one has to consider the possibility that the entire thing is just a winking goof on the time-killing function of all recurring characters--not to mention their inevitable progression from fresh discovery to eventual irritant.

Not to be outdone, Fred Armisen introduced his own hyper-minimalist character during the show’s last new episode—the abrasively fierce “Riley.”   As the clip below illustrates, Riley’s strategy for a return invitation in future episodes involves—not the laconic unveiling of a distinct and memorable phrase—but instead really laying into the word “Bitch’ over and over and over.  This is one of SNL’s favorite sketch structures—a suburbanesque family of straight-men (in this case, both sexually and performatively) disrupted by an escalating comic transgression (a set-up eclipsed only by the staple of "slow-burn game show host struggles with moronic contestants" sketch).   Extra points here, I suppose, for placing the obnoxiously “bold, brash, and you'd better believe it" gay high school student in the same structural role as gangsta rappers, Goths, punks, and other potential “bad influences” on normative suburban kids—the threat centered not so much on homophobic fears of sexual conversion as on the horrors of contamination by a certain strata of gay subcultural fixations. 
Will Riley be back?  Who knows?  But as much as Wiig and Forte have been the comic vanguard at SNL over the past few seasons, I would gladly see Gilly retired if it made room for Riley and Jake to have few more turns going to school, church, prom, or whatnot.  And I would really love to see a walk-on by Linda Blair...perhaps as Riley's less than fabulous Devil-worshiping mother.

Fantasy Life on the Cheap

Show most cinephiles the current sales figures on video games and they are likely to curl up into the fetal position.  Between the sobbing you will likely hear a threnody for the death of narrative art, thematic complexity, visual style, light-based cinematography, theatrical exhibition, and a few other criteria that will seem increasingly quaint to the citizens of the 21st century--our future descendants who will one day go to work, buy groceries, have sex, tweet, twitter, and play Grand Theft Jetpack: The Hovering all at the same time--through an electrode implanted directly in the brain!  Stare at images projected on a wall?  Sure, right after I finish curing this mastodon meat and hide it from the moon gods.

Perhaps most disturbing for the cinema is the ongoing erosion of the line between “games” and “art.”  Games require active immersion of some kind, even if that only means paying attention every five minutes or so to roll the dice and move your thimble over to Baltic Avenue.  But the cinema has typically been regarded as a voyeuristic art of contemplative appreciation. But as headache machines like Avatar (2009) demonstrate so clearly, this line of demarcation is becoming increasingly meaningless.  In fact, after weeping for the plight of Pandora at the theater, gamers can now go home and mow down the Na’vi with complete impunity in the video game—a kind of affective disconnect that is, quite simply, awesome, and gives one hope that the forms of collective psychosis encouraged by Deleuze and Guattari in the 1970s might actually be coming true (if only this feature could be added to other movie-inspired game-play.  How much would you pay to be the government agent tracking down E.T., riddling him with bullets and then using your joystick to navigate his bloated corpse through the Orange Country sewer system and out to the Pacific to be eaten by sharks?  Or to pit Julie and Julia against one another in a catapult war of flaming Boeuf Bourguignons.  Or to re-score the next Rob Schneider comedy with an endless loop of Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings?  Oh age of digital wonders—when will you at last catch up to my fantasy world?

All around us we see signs that the old paradigm of voyeuristic detachment will have no place in the entertainment of the future.  For example, the press has recently reported on a community of interstitial beings so transported by the wonders of Avatar that they are “depressed” about returning to the real world.  "When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday," writes one fan on an Avatar support page, "the world seemed ... gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning.  It just seems so ... meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep ... doing things at all.  I live in a dying world." Whereas it used to take a couple of months and a few lids of good weed to cultivate a truly demented D&D delusion, seeing Avatar a couple times in one weekend apparently now does what Godard couldn’t achieve in a lifetime: force people to confront the profound alienation of their daily existence under capitalism.  And the only solution, apparently, is to yearn for the Na'vi to be real, to escape to Pandora through a variety of synergized media.  Add these disillusioned souls to the people who see the Na'vi and instantly want to fuck them, and you have an interactive empire with endless potential--a true model for the entertainment franchises of the future. How long until we hear of the first Avatar-plushies convention at the MGM Grand?  A precarious evening of restricted vision and sex on stilts culminating in an array of genital traumas the Vegas E.R. will be talking about for decades.

But, like most things we assume to be a new and/or impending crisis, the line dividing participatory gaming from cinematic art has never been all that clear—especially as the two converge in the hazy theater of fantasy that animates both realms.  In fact, we should probably be grateful that gaming systems now allow people to engage in more socially-sanctioned forms of fantasy play around the movies.  Before we all made the collective decision to abandon the real world and surrender our identities and imaginations to a converging horizon of market-tested media templates, the task of integrating movie-based fantasies into “real life” was a more difficult and potentially embarrassing challenge. In other words, before Star-Cons, “Second Life,” and Playstation made everyone more comfortable with the idea of investing untold hours of pretend-living into an entertainment franchise, having someone catch you engaged in such fantasies could be downright humiliating  (and sometimes still is, as “Star Wars Kid” can no doubt attest).

As proof, I invite you to examine a series of ads from a 1963 issue of Screen Thrills Illustrated.  From what I can tell, STI was a magazine for boyish kids who liked “screen thrills” but might piss their pajamas at night if they read the better-known title of the era, Famous Monsters of Filmland.  These ads come from the back of the book and all direct you to the "Captain Company" of Philadelphia—apparently a warehouse crammed full of cheap plastic crap just waiting to come alive through the power of your movie-addled imagination. 
First we have this nifty space suit, an attempt to capitalize on the Cold War space race and the attending roster of cheap rocket movies that proliferated in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Want to extend your latency period for a couple years?  Then here is the outfit for you.  One can just see Johnny riding his bike down to Old Man Cranston’s gas station, eager to inflate his “ELASTIC AIR COMPRESSION CHAMBERS” so that he might hurry back to the Gemini capsule he has constructed out of a refrigerator box in the basement, impatient to begin the countdown and take off for Jupiter (and beyond!).  See him there now as he stands alone by the gas pump, an air hose attached to his gently swelling thighs.  But wait…who is that emerging from Old Man Johnson's five and dime?  Oh crap, it’s those ninth-graders Judy and Susie from Johnny’s algebra class.  God, I hope they don’t see me, thinks Johnny, trying to find shelter behind the Goodyear sign.  “Blasting off today, Johnny?” giggles Judy as she walks by.  Susie whispers something into Judy’s ear.  More giggling.  Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! screams Johnny, pedaling his bike home in tears, the air draining--slowly, inevitably, pathetically--from his cheaply sown space pouches.  At home the Gemini capsule collapses on its launch-pad under a barrage of violent kicks, drained of its imaginary fuel and reduced to a heap of moldy cardboard, old egg-timers, and glued-on buttons.  With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Johnny goes upstairs for dinner.  He knows full well that when he re-enters the atmosphere of Mayfair Junior High on Monday, a cruel nickname awaits him more alienating than even the deepest abyss of outer space.  

If pretending to be an astronaut doesn’t work out, there is always the exceedingly creepy fantasy of donning the Hollywood Mystery Man Mask.  From the ad copy:

Who are you? What do you want? Are you good or evil? These are the questions that will be asked when you appear from some dark entrance on a black midnight.  People won’t know what to think when they see you.

Of course what makes these questions particularly disturbing is their uncertain origin.   Is this what Johnny’s befuddled friends and neighbors will say when confronted with his mysterious presence, or is this the probing interior monologue that goes through Johnny’s own mind as he skulks down to Old Man Thompson’s ice cream parlor?   “A banana-split, my good man,” says Johnny, “or ye shall feel the wrath of Zandar, royal executioner of ancient Caltronia!” The old soda jerk responds crisply, “Yes, Sir!” and then retires to the backroom to make a muffled phone call.  “Yes, he’s here again.  Yes, he’s still wearing that weird black hood.  Yes, I’ll keep him here a few more minutes.” Zandar is enjoying the spoils of his victory, conquering the final cherry at the bottom of his dish and awkwardly cramming it through his felt mouth-hole.  But wait…who is that coming in the front door?  Mom! Dad! What are they doing here? And who are those two men in white coats with them?  Years from now when Johnny is paying Mistress Olga good money to whip him in her chamber of horrors, he will look back on this day and its odd mixture of exhilarating humiliation and wistful eroticism.  “Now it is my turn, Olga,” he will say, tenderly removing his now faded and crinkled old friend from a briefcase, “Now it is my turn!”

Boldest of all, perhaps, are the empty promises and guaranteed humiliation to be had with the “MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE.”  Says the copy,

A fight to the death with a 10-foot snake can make you the winner.  Just as movie heroes have fought and won Python battles, so can you amaze your friends and family with this 10 foot “MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE.” Wrap him around you and surprise everyone with the realistic effect of a genuine snake fight.  Show you’re not afraid of anything as you wrestle this fierce snake to the ground.

Johnny’s back now from his “rest” upstate, and unbeknownst to everyone, he is plotting a final victory over his tormentors.  His only confident is his little brother, who he pays a quarter to climb the big oak tree behind Old Man Paxton’s candy store and, at the appointed time, drop the deadly plastic python on Johnny’s head.  It’s 3:45pm.  All the cool kids are there now after a long day at school.  They sit on the grass or at picnic tables, drinking sodas and nibbling on candy treats.  A transistor radio blares the new Chubby Checker record as a couple of ninth-graders smoke shoplifted cigarettes by the trashcans.  His heart pounding, Johnny quietly hits his mark beneath the tree.  “What’s that rustling noise?” he shouts at the top of his lungs, pointing upward into the verdant foliage.   Everyone’s attention turns toward the stately old oak.  On cue, his brother drops the snake from a hidden limb.  The python falls a little to the left of Johnny’s position, but thinking fast, he executes a daring somersault to take up the deadly lizard and engage it in battle.   As Johnny writhes back and fort in combat, he coils the snake tightly around his body for maximum effect. The world around him becomes a blur as he thrashes spasmodically—his vision focused on the forked rubber-tongue that he pretends is darting menacingly for his jugular.   As he falls to the ground for a dynamic series of choreographed rolls, he glances around to gauge the impact of his performance so far, searching the crowd for the screaming girls and awestruck boys, the swelling crowd of supporters egging him on to vanquish the scaly beast before it escapes up the hill to Lover's Leap.  But there are only dumb stares and a brutal silence of disbelief punctuated by the sound of the tussling boy’s labored grunts and exclamations.   I need to be more convincing, thinks Johnny, I have to sell this, I can’t give up!  He redoubles his efforts at making the snake come alive, choking his python around its imaginary neck.  Take that!  Die! Die! Die!  he shouts again and again.  But wait…the silence has now turned to laughter…jeers…taunting.  Before he knows it, Johnny is no longer wrestling his MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE but is instead embroiled with a trio of football players. They pick him up and carry him toward the oak.  The last thing he sees before blacking out is one of the hoods by the trashcan. He's laughing, laughing in a rare moment of solidarity with the jocks who have just suspended Johnny from the tree by his underwear, the MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE uncoiling obscenely from over the top of his mud-caked Tuffskins. 

Years later, in college, Johnny will have an epiphany.  That all would have been so much less humiliating if done in electronic form.  Soon after comes Pong…Mario…Pac Man… Doom…WOW…Avatar…and then the greatest cinematic/game system hyrid of all:  Omnipotent Little Boy Who Can Never Die III: Atomic Wedgie Patrol.  


Ads from Screen Thrills Illustrated (September 1963)  

Confessions of a Psychiatrist (1954)

Today people are so eager to talk about their stints in therapy that it seems almost impossible to believe a time existed when there was still some stigma attached to being an emotional hot mess.  But as the particularly lurid pulp cover from Confessions of a Psychiatrist (1954) suggests, lying on a couch and telling a relative stranger your innermost secrets, fears, and desires once occupied a gray area somewhere between sexual seduction and mental rape. "Every boudoir was his office. Every patient his plaything."  The art is very clear about this: Is this psychiatrist reaching for this woman's "mind" or her va-jay-jay, and which will he analyze first?

As this title predates the more explicit pulps of the early 1960s, this particular psychiatrist's "confessions" are actually rather tame; in fact, the novel often reads more as a naturalistic "slice-of-life" tale about a struggling young professional than as a steamy potboiler about perversions and depravity.  And yet, the plot of Confessions is so profoundly weird and improbable, so ostentatiously Oedipal, that it is impossible not to suspect the entire thing is a big joke at the expense of psychiatric culture.  Both convoluted and coincidental, the book's plot really must be approached algebraically to make any sense:

Theodore Highsmith (*) is our 34 year-old "confessing" psychiatrist/narrator.  Just finished with his residency, Ted (*) is struggling to establish his own psychiatric practice in Chicago's loop.  For now he lives with his 23 year-old wife Beth (#) in the lakefront Evanston mansion of his widowed father-in-law, P.F.($)

Ted (*) has two principle patients: 1). Barbara Morrow (^)-- a sexy looker who is in distress after ending her relationship with a local mobster; and 2). Thomas Moore (%)-- a 27 year-old graduate of Northwestern who remains, despite his best efforts, a frustrated virgin.

Ted (*) doesn't like living on his father-in-law's dime and wants to get his practice up and running so he and Beth (#) can move out and get a place of their own.  Plus, Beth (#) seems increasingly restless, but Ted (*) thinks it's nothing that can't be cured by "putting an 8 lb. baby inside her," which he also hopes to accomplish as soon as circumstances allow.

But one day Ted (*) comes home and discovers that his impressionable young wife has decided to take up yoga.  This new pursuit comes with an unforeseen complication: "You aren't supposed to sleep with anyone who isn't a yogi until you reach your Overself," says Beth (#), adding this process of self-discovery could take months or even years.  So, unless he's willing to take up yoga, Ted (*) must now come home everyday to see his newlywed wife nude on the bed in the lotus-position--and yet he must not touch her!  

Things get worse the next day when he finds out that his the father-in-law, P.F. ($), has decided to take up yoga as well.  So now when Ted (*) comes home at the end of a long day of head-shrinking, his naked wife (#) can be found meditating on the bed with her nearly naked father ($).  It is truly one of the most perverse articulations of the Oedipal triangle you could ever hope to encounter.  She's still mine, buddy, and you're going to have to kill me to get her!  The scenario is thus:

                                                          ($) <<<<<>>>>> (#)

                                                                         (*) :-(

But it does at least give Ted (*) an excellent excuse to begin fantasizing about seducing his older, less squirrel-brained patient, Barbara Morrow (^).

In the meantime, Wildcat virgin Thomas (%) wanders into the picture.  He talks about the time he almost lost his virginity with a stripper named Miss La Rue (@), but in the end she "slipped him a mickey" and rolled him for his wallet.  He is so despondent at still being a virgin that he is almost suicidal.  Ted (*) decides it is crucial to get Thomas (%) laid by any means possible.  Thomas (%) is grateful and leaves the office energized by his new quest to be more aggressive in meeting women.  And here is how the chapter ends, word for word:

     "Oh, by the way," he said as he was leaving, "I'm a yogi. I forgot to tell you that but I guess it can wait until next time."
     What had I done, I asked myself when I went back to my desk, to deserve two yogis.

Now, this is some spectacularly bad writing: a "casual" remark so glaring in its obvious implication that you'd think it couldn't possibly survive even a cursory rewrite. But this was the age of of the typewriter, after all, and perhaps author Henry Lewis Nixon thought, "hell, I'm halfway through.  Do I really want to retype a more subtle hint here?  Screw it."

Sure enough, Thomas (%) returns a week later to say he met this really cute girl in Evanston in the Yoga section of a bookstore (!!!).  They have a date set for the weekend and Thomas (%) really hopes he will finally succeed in losing his accursed virginity.  Surely, the reader thinks, Ted (*) knows this yogic Evanston girl is none other than his wife...but no, instead he tells young Thomas (%) to go for it, the full Kundalini!  He's not even suspicious when he gets home and his wife (#) is acting weirder than usual.  But on the positive side, at least P.F. ($) seems to have a new dating prospect on the line, so he's beginning to lose interest in yoga and hanging out nekkid with his daughter all day.

Lo and behold, Barbara (^) comes in for her next session to say she just met a new guy--he's a bit older but really rich and treats her swell.  You can tell she likes Ted (*) better, but as that probably has no future, she's obviously looking for some security from a "father figure."  And that man turns out to be.....P.F ($).  Yes, author Lewis treats his story like the Native Americans treated the buffalo--nothing can go to waste, every character must have some connection to every other character, no matter how improbable.   So now we have a second Oedipal triangle.

                                                            ($) <<<<<>>>>> (^)

                                                                         (*) :-(

Hey, guess what?  Thomas (%) is back from his big date.  He tells Ted (*) he and the girl did a few yoga moves and then made out hot and heavy for awhile.  But she put the brakes on and they never made it to the bedroom.  Now Thomas (%) is scheming to give the girl "Spanish Fly" so she'll go all the way next time.  He asks Ted (*) if that would be ethical, and Ted (*) decides, "sure, in your case it would be" (the kid is a 27 year-old virgin, after all, so that apparently constitutes enough of a crisis to break out the strychnine).  And still Ted (*) remains clueless.

But that night Ted (*) has a big fight with Beth (#).  Turns out even though she said she wouldn't sleep with him until she achieved her yogic "Overself," she's mad that he doesn't at least try to seduce her (women...go figure!).  And then she lets it drop that she met this guy in the "yoga section of the bookstore" who really, really wants to explore her chakras.  Finally old fumblin' Freud figures it all out--he just gave his blessing to Thomas (%)  to give his wife Spanish Fly and not take 'no' for an answer.  And there doesn't seem to be anything he can do about it.

Luckily, when Thomas (%) returns for his session in a couple of days, he proves again that he is not one of Northwestern's brightest.  He dosed her with the fly alright, but then got so drunk himself that he passed out!  The sacred vows of marriage have not been broken.  There's still hope for Ted (*) and Beth (#) if those crazy kids can just find a way to work it all out.

Things get a little crazy from here.  Ted (*) meets Barbara (^) by chance in a bar.  If only Thomas (%) could lose his virginity before seducing Beth (#), then he would lose interest and move on.  It's not like he's in love with her or anything, the kid just needs a "notch on his belt."  But what are the odds some woman is just going to come up and sleep with this little twerp (%) before his next date with Beth (#)?  Hey, I've got an idea, says Ted (*), how about you sleep with him, Barbara (^)?  Take that P.F. ($) you patriarchal cock-blocker x 2!  Barbara's (^) response: "Eh, why not, sure, I'll do it." Thomas (%) sounds kind of young and cute and she is just about to marry an old fart ($) in the suburbs--this could be her last fling, she reasons.

But then Ted (*) begins to have qualms of conscience over the whole set-up. P.F. ($) is his wife's (#) father after all.  Maybe it would be a dirty trick to have one patient (^) seduce another patient (%) so that patient (%) won't seduce his wife (#) with that first patient (^) being engaged to his father-in-law ($).  He decides the solution is to pay a visit to Miss La Rue (@) (remember her, the stripper who rolled Thomas (%) about 150 pages ago?).  Ted (*) tells her the whole sob story about the kid (%) being a virgin and all, and that he's about to seduce his wife (#), and it's not like Miss La Rue (@) is a still a virgin herself or anything...plus, he could always go to the police and tell them about the "mickey" scheme she's been playing on young dumb kids from Northwestern.  Alright, she says, I'll do it.  I'll think of some reason to see him again and then seduce him.

Having spent the night getting drunk with a stripper, Ted (*) goes home and has a big fight with Beth (#) that culminates in some wild make-up sex.  Then she put her lips close to my ear and said, "I think I got pregnant that time."  Strangely enough, this will prove to be true.  Marriage saved.  Book pretty much over.

So what happens to Thomas (%)?  "The damnedest thing," he says in his final shrink session.  A woman arrived at Thomas' (%) door and said she remembered him from his football playing days at Northwestern and couldn't get him out of her mind.  Virgin no more!  Ted (*) smiles to himself that his little plan with Miss La Rue (@) worked so well.  But wait.  Not an hour later, another woman shows up at junior's door.  "It was that Miss La Rue who stole my money," says Thomas (%).  Miss La Rue (@) tells Thomas (%) she felt so bad about slipping him the mickey and all that, and she wants to make it up to him.  Now he's even less a virgin!

So who was the first woman?  Oh shit, Ted (*) forgot to tell Barbara (^) the plan was off!  Hilarious!  And even though Ted (*) claimed to feel guilt over old P.F. ($) getting cuckolded by his fiancee (^), it would appear the unconscious wants what the unconscious wants.

Let's review the final equations:

                                            (%) + (^) + (@) - (#)  =  (*) + (#) + (8 lb. baby)

                                            ($) + (^) - (#)  =  (*) + (#) - (^)
So there you have it.  I've read it so you don't have to.  You're welcome.

That Dude in Your British Literature Class with the Backwards Baseball Cap Reviews "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene

When two men are in love with the same girl it’s a recipe for disaster—especially when that girl is a hot Asian dish by the name of Phuong.  This is the main thing going on in The Quiet American by Graham Green, along with some major war action ripped from the headlines of the olden days that goes on in the background.  One guy is a cranky old English journalist who just seems mad at everyone all the time even though he keeps saying he doesn’t really care about anything anymore and would be totally fine if he just got killed already.  The other guy is this totally awesome American dude named Pyle who when the book starts we tragically discover is already dead.  You don’t realize how much this sucks though until you get through the whole book and find out what a cool guy Pyle was, especially compared to the cranky old English fart who is in charge of telling the story.  Then there is Phuong herself but we don’t know much about her because she is so inscrutable and doesn’t talk a lot.  When the action gets going (after we find out Pyle is already dead), the old British guy has it pretty good.  He is in Indo-China to report about the war between the French and the Indo-Chinamen (I thought this was very interesting because everyone thinks French guys are total wussies so the idea of them flying bombers around harshin’ the communists with napalm was pretty rad).  

At any rate, Faircloth (which is the name of the man from England) has it pretty good, like I said.  Every night he comes home from seeing cool war stuff and Phuong is waiting for him with some sweet opium and ready to sex him up.  Things are so good that he doesn’t want to go back to boring old England, even though he might have to, because the job there would be a lot less cool and he has a mean-ass wife that won’t give him a divorce.  But when Pyle shows up (he is “the quiet American”) things start to go to shit fast for the English dude. First of all, Pyle is from Harvard and is super smart and has read a lot of books about all the stuff the English guy thinks he already knows so much about, and that leads to a bunch of boring fights over politics.  Faircloth keeps trying to act all old and wise and superior and says everyone should just leave the Indo-Chinamen alone, but Pyle is smart enough to know that everyone in the world wants to be free and sometimes you have to take a stand against evil-doers who would take the sweet liberty away from people.  As John Cougar Mellencamp once said, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything,” and I think that’s pretty much what Pyle believes too.

But even worse for the English guy, Pyle starts creepin’ on Phuong right away and pretty soon tells everyone he plans to marry her.  And everyone is like, whoa, you 2 just met. And Faircloth is like, hey dude, she’s already with me!   What’s up with that?  You can tell this story is from the olden times because even though the two guys want the same chick they keep on being all polite to each other when most likely today they’d have a big fistfight over her (although I guess one time a couple of my buddies decided who would get to hook up with this smokin’ tri-delt by playing a game of beer-pong, so maybe the times aren’t all that different after all).  Pyle thinks he will win because he’s young and buff and can promise Phuong she will get the reward of getting to live in America (which would be awesome for her!).  But Faircloth acts all sarcastic and pretends Pyle is just a little punk and that the competition doesn’t bother him much, but he also knows he’s getting kind of old and fat and really doesn’t want to do much more than smoke his opium, rub one out, and fall asleep every night.  It’s like so completely obvious Phuong should hook up with Pyle but the author Graham Greene strings it along awhile as if there is actually some suspense—like a hot babe would really choose a fat old boring smartass English opium smoker over a dynamic young handsome and fit-looking American full of ambition and ideas.

In the most awesome part of the book (for me), Pyle and Faircloth have to jump out of a guard tower before a bazooka blows it up and Faircloth breaks his leg.  He starts whining to just let him die in the road (they are surrounded by enemy Indo-Chinamen) but Pyle does the right thing and carries him to safety—even though they both want the same girl!  That’s pretty cool in my book.  For a long time after that everyone waits around for a telegraph from the English guy’s old lady back in England to see if she’ll cough up the  divorce so Faircloth can marry Phoung and take her to meet the Royal family in London.  But the wife writes back and says, “forget it, chump,” and when Phuong finds out she decides to go with Pyle.  In the meantime Faircloth starts figuring out Pyle is up to all this super-spy espionage stuff and I guess that makes him feel even more old and insecure.  The big crisis comes when Pyle helps mastermind a huge explosion in Saigon to help the Americans straighten out the mess the French have made of everything.  This gets the English guy really, really mad.  You’re going to steal my girl and get all super political even after I told you not to?  It’s just too much.  So Faircloth eventually ends up ratting on Pyle by telling some tough dudes where Pyle is going to be one night and those dudes stab Pyle to death under a bridge.  I think this was a really shitty thing to do to some guy just because he stole your girl and disagrees with you about political junk, but in the end that’s what happens.  Plus, like I said, Pyle once dragged Faircloth’s sorry ass to safety and saved his life—so how’s that for gratitude?  Even worse, after Pyle gets stabbed to death, another telegram arrives and now the English guy’s wife says she will get that divorce after all and so he and Phoung will get to live happily ever after, even though she was going to marry Pyle just a few pages earlier.  So I don’t think the ending is very good because you feel all conflicted about who did what for what reason and it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.  It would have been much cooler if the British dude had just stepped out of the way and let Pyle and Phoung do what needed to be done and live the American dream, but instead he gets rewarded with opium and sex for being a back-stabbing weasel.

Alas, Poor Conan!

By the time you read this, there is a good chance Conan O’Brien will have vanished forever from the stage of The Tonight Show, canceled in a very public corporate meltdown after only seven months into his new gig.  Which is a shame, really, not so much because the show was any good (be fair--it wasn't), but because it brings an end to one of the most diverting sagas of entertainment chicanery in recent memory.  We can only hope that CoCo’s likely return in the fall—fortified by 30+ million dollars in mad money, extensive market research, and 8 months of bitter seething—will unleash a renewed airing of NBC’s increasingly long and ugly skid marks.  In the meantime, I look forward to O’Brien’s inevitable appearances on Letterman and Sterne for a truly bloody beat-down of the peacock.

Why have so many become invested in what is essentially a battle of pride fought among 3 multi-millionaires?  The dust-up at NBC is a train wreck of mega-fame, mega-money, and mega-humiliation, but it also speaks to the very ordinary politics of everyday life.  Every working stiff has a dog in this fight.  For example, who hasn’t been screwed by an employer at some point in life?  And how much of that perceived screwing was the result of being misunderstood or under-appreciated by a Zuckeresque idiot?   And how delicious would it be, like Leno, to have your boss admit he or she had made a profound mistake and beg you to come back and save the company?  From the Letterman perspective, finally, who wouldn’t love to have, years after a particularly nasty screwing, the opportunity for full public vindication, a chance to demonstrate to everyone that your former boss was indeed a “pinhead” and your former workplace rival a less-talented, back-stabbing, brown-nosing, kiss-ass, suck-up, sociopath?  

As far as that goes, we should all be thankful for how this entire affair has energized Letterman’s already prodigious talent for extemporaneous rambling and charmingly nasty commentary.  If you didn’t see these any of these segments last week, they are worth seeking out.  Letterman fondly remembers his own negotiations over The Tonight Show in the early 90s and recalls how Leno, “bless his heart,” eavesdropped on the meeting by hiding in a closet (“bless his heart”—some real Midwestern dagger-digging there).  In another segment, Letterman offered to host a summit on his show to resolve the issue for all the involved parties at NBC, even promising to bring out an extra “folding chair” for Carson Daly (burn!).

But beyond engaging in surrogate fisticuffs by the video water cooler, there is another layer of politics at work here as well.  In many respects, the Leno-Conan schism is a reenactment of the McCain-Obama campaign of 2008—only this time “change” most decidedly did not come to the nation and now we must all face the sobering reality that Leno's “Jay-Walking” segments will continue unimpeded and unpunished  (“Hey, here are some more idiots we found wandering around Burbank!  Hilarious!).  Suspecting that a politics of taste might be at work here, some commentators have reduced this conflict to a simplistic red state/blue state divide.  After several days of getting hammered in the court of public opinion, for example, NBC deployed Dick Ebersol to throw down some suppressive fire at Team Conan.  Ebersol—marginally famous for playing tennis and almost destroying SNL in the 1980s-- labeled O’Brien’s time at the Tonight Show an "astounding failure,” called out O’Brien as “chicken-hearted and gutless,” and noted how, on a personal level, he had repeatedly reminded Conan that "NBC hosts beginning with Johnny Carson had recognized the importance of making the show appealing first and foremost to cities in the central time zone like Chicago and Des Moines."   No doubt phoning-in this hatchet job between sets in Malibu, Ebserol only further demonstrated why the broadcast networks are the sputtering Edsels of the new media racetrack (Yes, Dick, even though Chicago has been the most important conduit in American comedy for some 40 years, it just can't handle "Masturbating Bear."  And the people of Des Moines are fine with gay marriage but Conan is just too edgy for them). 

Lost in this “hix in stix love Leno” argument is a more significant political divide, one that will no doubt come back to bite NBC in its 4th-place butt in the near future.  The Leno/Conan wars have not been fought by regional constituencies (Ma, get that fancy-talkin' college boy off the tee-vee!), but have instead revealed a generational divide, and with it, a perhaps irreconcilable antagonism between two very different schools/eras of comedy. In this respect, putting Leno back in charge of The Tonight Show might stop the immediate hemoraging in the ratings by bringing the 40/50+ audience back to the set.  But, like the cornpone music palaces of Branson, this success will only last until his audience begins drifting into senility or dying in fiery Rascal explosions.

You might think NBC would realize this based on the public response to their shenanigans.  Media saavy and extremely invested in the politics of cultural production (either as producers or literate consumers), Conan's younger audience has been relentless and very successful in framing NBC as the villain (Leno made a few feeble attempts to act like he was also getting a raw deal from NBC—but as everyone recognizes Jay is getting back exactly what he never wanted to give up, he has gradually abandoned this strategy). 

If Leno is so damn popular, you might ask, where are the legions of fans coming to his defense, demanding he be reinstalled in his rightful place on the Late Night throne?  That’s just it:  Leno has no “fans,” he’s just much better at attracting a general viewership—the kind who (perhaps quite sensibly) treat television as just another utility in the home.  Leno's typically older and less "hip" viewers have no real investment one way or another in identifying with the victory/defeat of various performers, franchises, and aesthetics.  They just think Jay is funnier because they get his jokes and the “new guy” seems really nervous and uncomfortable all the time.  Replacing Leno with Conan was like being forced to install a low-flow toilet, but now that Jay's back, they can flush again without ironic self-examination. 

Actually, those who would pit “middle America” against the coasts in this flap are not entirely wrong.  There is a remnant of a geographical/ideological conflict at work in the Leno/Conan dispute—only it doesn’t really involve “middle America” at all.  Rather, it is a conflict between the coasts themselves, or more accurately, between Hollywood and the Big Apple as the symbolic centers of two very different relationships to the entertainment industry.  And once again, Letterman looms large in this history.

Although it may seem hard for many to believe now, Leno and Letterman were regarded as somewhat equivalent peers in the late ‘70s--young comedians with unique new approaches to comedy who were gradually working their way into the industry’s mainstream.  But their paths quickly diverged.  Leno continued honing a rather toothless but technically perfect form of observational humor, an echo of George Carlin evacuated of any political edge and reduced to easily relatable tales of everyday incredulity and aggravation—(yet without the inflection of detached irony/Jewish pessimism that would propel Seinfeld to stardom in the ‘90s).  Letterman, on the other hand, collided the Newhart tradition of Midwestern understatement with the emerging wave of “anti-comedy” proliferating in the mid-70s.  When Andy Kaufmann got voted off SNL, for example, Letterman’s Late Show became his only national venue (until agreeing to have his “foreign man” character embalmed as Latka on Taxi).  The current wave of comic anti-performers (like Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric”) arguably traces its origins to Chris Elliot’s early turns at dadaist ineptitude on Letterman.  Who was the most ardent champion of the fundamental, irrefutable comic genius of Beavis and Butthead?  Again, it was Letterman.

As we have all been reminded this week, Johnny Carson’s retirement resulted in Letterman losing the Tonight Show to Leno and moving to CBS.  Significantly, however, he stayed in New York City.  Since then, his already awkward relationship with the world of Hollywood puffery has only become increasingly strained (being stalked by a delusional schizophrenic and targeted by kidnappers probably didn’t help either). Dave seems to have 3 or 4 A-list stars he genuinely gets along with—the rest of the time it looks like he can’t wait for them to get off the stage. In an entertainment universe where everyone is a genius, Letterman has been a foundational architect of "snark"-- willing to make enemies and hold grudges in order to uphold certain standards of intelligence and/or decorum (Cher, Oprah, Madonna, Cripin Glover, Richard Simmons, and now River Phoenix rank among his more famous feuds).

I sang Letterman's praises a few weeks ago when rumors circulated CBS might fire him for his recent "sex scandal"--leaving us with only Conan's Tonight Show at 11:30.  But that wasn't a slam against O'Brien--just a recognition that CoCo in Burbank was NOT working.  Something was just off.  For one thing, the space was way too big for his persona—indeed, the stage seemed to swallow him as he entered each night.  Like the House of Jay, Conan’s set looked more like a tacky furniture showroom than a TV studio.  And as in his earliest days in front of the camera, there was the distraction of having a side-kick (Andy Richter) who can think faster on his feet than the host.

What O'Brien DID excel at was transitioning NBC's Late Show from the era of Letterman's boomer disaffection to the default irony of Gen-X-er's living in a world of the perpetually underwhelming. 
Like Letterman, his persona is one of awkward incompetence coupled with the hard truth that most of the movies, tv, and music we consume is crap…pure, unadulterated crap that makes everyone stupider day by day. That's a tough vein to mine when you've been moved from 30-Rock to the Universal City Walk.  You can't be the edgy, outsider, amateur rule-breaker when you are now expected to be THE MAN.  To have that relationship with Hollywood, you can’t be of Hollywood.  If Fox does sign him to a contract, all parties would be well advised to take the show back east.

And this is where you have to hand it to Leno. He can laugh heartily and sincerely as rich celebrities tell tone-deaf anecdotes about the inconvenience of having a car accidentally towed from Rodeo Drive.  He can show up to work every day, year after year, to read stupid typos from po-dunk newspapers without slitting his wrists.  He can pretend the world sure is a mixed up, crazy place every night in his monologue, and then sit down and listen with apparently sincere interest as a celebutard-turned-"actress" describes how she prepared mentally to play a vampire cheerleader in some god-awful Si-Fi mini-series. And for that he deserves and will once again take up the mantle of The Tonight Show.  It's just incredible that NBC didn't see this coming five years ago.

Rat Control (1933)

I found this pamphlet in the basement of the legendary Renaissance bookstore in Milwaukee.  Appropriately enough for a government brochure on "Rat Control," it was buried under layers of old magazines, sheet music, and shredded newspapers.  This might imply the Renaissance bookstore is a bit untidy.  Absolutely--but it is also a national treasure.  Housed on four anixously sagging floors of a 19th century warehouse in the downtown area, Renaissance is about the same size as The Strand in NYC but filled almost entirely with much older and much stranger books.  The basement is for true biblio-spelunkers only--you have to enjoy the simple act of digging around for nothing in particular, like a government pamphlet on rat control from 1933.

The pamphlet opens with a laughably optimistic statement of public policy circa the early FDR administration.  "Rats are probably decreasing in numbers in the United States, although their decrease is only beginning to become apparent."  Yes, a rodentless future no doubt seemed just around the corner, especially if Farmer John could be impressed to remember that "in spite of all that has been done to combat the rat, this pest is still mankind's greatest enemy in the animal world."  Another campaign a decade later would remind us that rats were so evil that they were in league with the Nazis, willfully destroying grain stocks that could be used to feed the allies.

"Rat Control" teaches farmers to do all the things we now recognize as common sense.  Cover your trash cans.  Block access to natural "rat harbors" (holes that lead into the foundation/attic).  But even after all of this, more severe action will no doubt remain necessary.

In a section labeled "Destruction of Rats," we get a lesson on just how much tougher rats and people were in the 1930s.  Corn farmers, for example, had to find a way to kill rats inside of their corn cribs--large bins full of sweet, tasty, freshly-harvested cobs where rats could both live and eat until they became mammoth, fructose-enraged agents of disease and destruction.  The government's recommendation was to blast them with a good dose of Calcium Cyanide gas.  In the photo below, we see two government agents demonstrating that "an iron pipe driven into the corn aids in getting the fumigants well into the center of large cribs."

As you might imagine, amateurs working with cyanide gas probably had a keen interest in what to do should they ingest said fumigants.  Here is Uncle Sam's advice:  "If calcium cyanide has been swallowed, the treatment to be of any avail must be undertaken with great promptness.  The stomach should be immediately emptied with a stomach pump, as emetics often fail.  Keep on hand 1 ounce of a 23 per cent solution of ferrous sulphate, 1 ounce of a 5 per cent solution of potassium hydroxide, and 30 grams of magnesium oxide.  These should be mixed in one-half pint of water before use."  All well and good--sensible,  practical advice on how to survive an unfortunate encounter with rat poison.  But then comes the final sentence, one that could only have come from the typewriter of a bureaucrat who would himself never be involved in this activity:   "The action from cyanide poisoning is so extremely rapid, however, that there is rarely time for any antidote to be of value."  In other words, Farmer John, you can have Aunt Milly and Doc Anderson mix up as much ferrous sulphate as you want, odds are you're heading to the great corn harvest in the sky. 

If cyanide is unavailable (or even better, "unadvisable"), the government suggests considering "other fumigants."  One effective strategy is to channel "exhaust gases from an automobile, tractor, or other gasoline engine" into rat burrows that might exist "beneath floors, and in other reasonably tight enclosed spaces."  In other words, the government here encourages you to run a rubber hose into your crawl space to pump carbon monoxide directly into your home.  Even better, there are NO warnings here about putting the entire family asleep--everyone knodding off forever as they gather around the radio to listen to The Shadow while the family tractor fills the house with deadly CO gas.   Oh well, I'm sure they updated later versions of this pamphlet.

But in the end, the Dept. of Agriculture makes a nod to the Green movement of the future.  Apparently a small terrier dog tricked out in a badass studded leather coller "will sometimes keep a farm free from rats."  What about cats, you say, legendary comic adversary of the rat?  The Feds appear to have a low opinion of felines.  "Cats that are of real value as ratters are rare, and they are usually destructive to bird life.  When confined, however, in warehouses, produce depots, and similar places in cities, good cats are sometimes of value in destroying rats and mice."  Even more useless--the ferret.   "Ferrets are of little use ordinarily except in the hands of experienced men aided by good rat dogs." In other words, stick with Sparky, bedazzled canine agent of death.

Hello, Cruel World

Professors are generally a whiny and self-absorbed lot, at least in the humanities.  I think this stems from the burden of being so much smarter than everyone else and yet structurally barred from having any real power over anything of actual significance.  Why can’t my field see ‘paradigm x’ is a wankfest for trendy douchebags?  Why can’t my students see that their incessant texting is transforming them into an addled herd of super-morons?  Why can’t the country see that collective investments in education and health care would benefit us all in the long run?  Why can’t the city see that there needs to be a left turn signal at Clark and Wrightwood?  Why can’t the cat see that if he demands food before 6 am he’s just going to be exiled to the basement?  Life for men and women of letters often seems a constant struggle against encroaching idiocy—a condition that begins to accelerate exponentially with age.

Institutions of power occasionally recruit humanities professors to prop up the credibility of whatever endeavor they are trying to legitimate— DOD nods to “cultural sensitivity,” entertainment producers hoping for an injection of academic prestige, Morning Joe looking for someone to elicit sympathetic nodding from Mika Brzezinski and folksy wisdom from the eponymous Joe  (I may just be an old-fashioned good ole’ boy redneck alligator f*#ker from the swamps of Florida, but it seems to me….).  But in the end, the Pentagon, Warner Brothers, or Pat Buchanan are just going to say or do whatever they want anyway.  The professor is there more as a blank signifier of something—a pretense of having some kind of dialogue I guess (when, of course, inclusion in the forum—whatever it is--means your role has been cast in advance).  

Apparently the knowledge possessed by humanities professors is for some reason especially threatening and thus must be positioned as particularly useless.  If you saw The Daily Show last week, maybe you witnessed George Lucas promoting his new book of industry anecdotes by assuring the audience it was no “ivory tower” study of the movies.  Nice.  He also at one point claimed that the new generation of Star Wars fans actually “loves Jar Jar Binks.”  I may be mistaken, but I think both comments probably stem from a former colleague of mine at USC actually deigning to critique the racial politics of good ole shuck ‘n’ jive Binks.  The Jedi King apparently remains unamused by such gestures.       

Whatever the case, the “ivory tower” crack (in any context) always carries an undertone of insecurity, not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of what humanities profs in particular actually do.  Most people assume that if you teach in a literature, art, or media program, you are essentially a failed creator who became an over-credentialed critic and thus a cranky arbiter of what is “good” and “bad.”  Given the absolute victory of commodity culture in all aspects of our lives, I suppose such a distortion is understandable.  After all, what possible relevance is there in studying culture unless one is contributing to some master consumer guide?   And who would be most likely to engage in such bitterly unqualified opinionating other than the dweeb who never finished his novel, made it into the Whitney, or contributed an installment to the Saw franchise?  Hell, I’d hate that guy too.  Not only would I lock him away in an Ivory Tower, I’d help the townsfolk gather the kindling and torches to light it on fire.

It’s generally useless trying to explain the “utility” of studying the humanities, even with something as compelling as Jersey Shore in circulation to help everyone imagine a world of relentlessly unexamined selfhood.  Then again, who knows, maybe the “Situation” is the one who has his priorities straight.  During the sunset years, perhaps it is better to reflect back on a life spent partying, “creeping,” and brawling rather than one devoted to situating historical antecedents for incidental characters in Melville.  I hope not, but you never know.  Maybe God meets academics at the pearly gates shaking God’s head in disbelief: “I created the world, alcohol, and genitalia and you spent all your time in the library?  What the French, toast?”

If you’ve ever pondered these issues, you might be interested in John Williams’ novel of 1965, Stoner.  Williams taught creative writing at the University of Denver for some 30 years, and Stoner is his fictionalized account of a professor’s life pretty much from cradle to grave.  And in telling the story of William Stoner, Professor of English literature at the University of Missouri in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Williams manages to capture with unnerving accuracy both the rewards and vexations that confront academics in day to day life (spoilers galore—beware!).  

The novel begins with a meditation on an inscription found inside a manuscript donated to the University library in Stoner’s name after his death.    

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question.  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Ouch!  That’s pretty bleak.  But that’s what I mean about professors being a whiny, self-absorbed lot.  I doubt existence is any less cruel for plumbers, accountants, or even today’s gold-standard of meaningful existence--rich celebrities.  Sure, Kim Kardashian is living the high life right now—but odds are she’ll end up a crazy old lady poisoning raccoons on her compound in Encino.  And ain’t no one going to remember her either.  But as professors are so much smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, the general humiliations of their existence are felt that much more acutely.

Given this auspicious beginning, Stoner may seem like a total downer.  Truth be told—much of it is.  He marries a lunatic (but that could happen to anyone).  His daughter shows great promise early in life but gets knocked up and becomes a drunk in St. Louis.  He gets in petty fights with colleagues, resulting in a demotion to teaching Freshman comp.  Wiseass grad students assail him for being a relic of older, inferior paradigms.  Oh yeah, and he drops dead from cancer six months after retiring.

But even so, Stoner has some victories.  He writes a book that gets decent notice in the field, and even better, mentors a student who writes a truly brilliant book.  He gets to eviscerate and then fail an obnoxious grad student during his Ph.D. orals (“Can you name any drama of significance before Shakespeare”….No, he can’t!).  He experiences the satisfaction of seeing undergrads energized by their temporary sequestering in a world of culture and inquiry.  A torrid affair with a grad student makes for probably the best year of his life, even though it of course ends badly.   

But most of all, he gets to read and think as much as he wants, which is pretty much all he wants to do.  And grade.  Stoner is constantly marking exams. 

What does Stoner learn?  Your own work is important, of course (as is appearing on television, or testifying before Congress, or setting up panels and think-tanks, or the other things academics sometimes do today to have an “impact” on that elusive “real world”)—but most important of all is maintaining the University as a place that is decidedly NOT the so-called “real world” (and really, is there anything more insufferable than a colleague who endlessly lectures everyone about turning theory into practice and doing something “worthwhile” in this “real world”—as if the crucially important task of teaching young men and women to ask critical questions about their existence was somehow akin to sprinkling pixie-dust on unicorns everyday?  Talk about self-loathing).

Early in Stoner, author Williams lays his cards on the table.  Stoner and his two closest friends in grad school are having a beer.  One will soon die in WWI and the other will become a fellow teacher and then later on Stoner’s Dean.  Dave, the most brilliant of the three (the one soon to die in the war) appraises each student’s relationship to the “true nature of the University.”  You are invited to pick the one that best describes your situation: 

Of Stoner’s future colleague and Dean, Dave says, “you’re bright enough—and just bright enough—to realize what would happen to you in the world…On the one hand, you’re capable of work, but you’re just lazy enough so that you can’t work as hard as the world would want you to.  On the other hand, you’re not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your importance…In the world you would always be on the fringe of success, and you would be destroyed by your failure.” 

Of himself, Dave observes, “I’m too bright for the world, and I won’t keep my mouth shut about it; it’s a disease for which there is no cure.  So I must be locked up, where I can be safely irresponsible, where I can do no harm.”

And of Stoner, he says, “You think there is something here, something to find.  Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough…You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world.  You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what went wrong.  Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be.”

This may seem harsh, but in the end Stoner comes to understand his dead friend’s wisdom.  The University is, in many respects, a place to lock up smart, neurotic people as a type of loyal opposition to the “real world,” and that is actually a crucially important thing for a society to have.  Students will take up their positions in the consumerist-administrative-techno order soon enough—they deserve at least a few years to entertain Nietzche, encounter Dadaism, and ponder a few media artifacts made before 1990.  Let's face it.  This is why people love Harry Potter so much.  There remains a yearning for education to remain magical and sequestered.

When Stoner fails the dissimulating huckster Ph.D. candidate hoping to bluff his way to a degree, he explains the imperative of keeping such people out of academia.  Talking with his longtime friend the Dean (who must persuade Stoner to relent), Stoner says, “Dave would have thought of him as –as the world.  And we can’t let him in.  For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

Meathook of Lust

(AP) Buoyed by ABC-Television’s recent surprise hit, Conveyor Belt of Love, Fox television has just announced plans for their own edgy dating vehicle, Meathook of Lust.  Produced in partnership with the Speck Group, the series is slated to debut this June with a six-episode order.  

Like ABC’s Conveyor, Meathook will feature a panel of five judges selecting potential dates from a pool of contestants.  But Executive Producer Dean Corll promises a more dynamic presentation.  “Conveyor shows their contestants one at a time, but our players will circulate on the ‘meat rack’ through the entire program,” said Corll from his office in Toluca Lake.  “The contestants won’t actually be on meathooks,” Corll added.  Instead, each will be suspended in a special harness that simulates a meathook in the back of the neck.  “We wanted to be sure our players still had the mobility to respond to challenges from the panel.”     

Corll shared further details of the project, tentatively scheduled for Fox's 8pm slot on Wednesdays.  "The judges will have three options. Holding up the ‘Grade A’ sign means they are interested in going on a date.  That contestant will be taken down from the rack and placed in the judge’s ‘Love Freezer.’”  Unlucky contestants will receive the “Maggot Bait” sign and remain spinning on the rack unclaimed.

In the third option, Meathook allows each judge the privilege, once per episode, to call for a “Meat Inspection.”

“This is a really fun segment,” offers Corll.  “If you get a ‘meat inspection’ sign, you have to wriggle out of your clothes and down to your skivvies while still on the hook.”  The judges, meanwhile, will don white lab coats and yellow hard hats and approach the contestant to get a better look.  A special inspector’s flashlight will provide judges the ability to look for incriminating “flaws.”  “Dandruff, scars, semen stains…that kind of thing,” adds Corll. 

In addition to Meathook of Love, the Speck Group is also pursuing a deal for their Jersey Shore knock-off, Nurse School.  “It’s going to a lot of fun too,” promised Corll, who added he could not yet share details of the program due to “legal concerns.”

Electronic Elsewheres (2010)

If you're looking for a good read to get you through the ongoing winterocolypse currently besieging the northern hemisphere, you might consider this diverting new title from the University of Minnesota Press, Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space.  Edited by Chris Berry, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel, the book collects essays first presented at a conference we hosted at Northwestern a few years back devoted to....well, media, technology, and social space.

For a mere $18.75, you get all of the following!

David Morley: "Domesticating Dis-Location in a World of "New" Technology.'

Lisa Nakamura:  "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web"

Jeffrey Sconce:  "The Talking Weasel of Doarlish Cashen"

Lynn Spigel: " Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production"

Chris Berry: "New Documentary in China: Public Space, Public Television"

Ratiba Hadj-Moussa: "The Undecidable and the Irreversible: Satellite Television in the Algerian Public Arena"

Tamar Liebes-Plesnar: "The Voice of Jacob: Radio's Role in Reviving a Nation"

Arvind Rajgopal: "Violence, Publicity, and Secularism: Hindu-Muslim Riots in Gujarat"

Asu Aksoy and Kevin Robins: "Turkish Satellite Television: Towards the Demystification of Elsewhere"

Charlotte Brunsdon: " The Elsewhere of the London Underground"

Marita Sturken: "The Image at Ground Zero: Mediating the Memory of Terrorism"

Shunya Yoshimi: "Tokyo: Between Global Flux and Neo-Nationalism"

My contribution to the volume concerns the story of a family on the Isle of Man that, in the early 1930s, claimed to have befriended a "talking weasel" named "Gef" on their farm near Peel.  "Gef" became somewhat of a minor celebrity in the British press and eventually attracted the attention of England's premiere "ghost hunter," Harry Price.  As an indirect result of Price's inquiry into Gef's existence, the weasel wound up at the center of a libel case involving the BBC and presented to the High Court in 1936.  The account presented in Electronic Elsewheres is a shorter version of a chapter that will be in my forthcoming book on delusional media.  

More info can be had at: