50 Books: How I Conquered Your Planet by John Swartzwelder

John Swartzwelder at right

Remember how we said we were going to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer? I downloaded it to the wrong Kindle, and then I was away from wifi—which any husk will tell you is the best time to read—and started a different book instead. I feel like I ditched you. I assume that millions of people are reading along with this intermittently recurring feature about what book I just finished, but I don’t know how to look at the numbers. I hope I haven’t “gone viral,” as the hackers say.

Anyway, I read How I Conquered Your Planet by John Swartzwelder. Swartwelder is best known as a writer on the first 15 seasons of The Simpsons; he is credited with 59 episodes, many during the golden age. How I Conquered is the sequel to The Time Machine Did It and the second novel in the Frank Burly series, about a stupid but durable detective. He’s essentially Homer Simpson without the family, which takes away his primary claim on the reader’s sympathy but also frees him up for weird adventures. In the first one, he’s a dumb detective who stumbles on a time machine. In How I Conquered Your Planet, he’s a dumb detective who finds a martian conspiracy.

These are idiot-succeeds stories. It’s a reliable device that lends itself to comic plots because it is necessarily event-driven. For the idiot to succeed, something has to happen. If we follow our instincts and make the idiot succeed to a position even further out of his depth, the stakes get higher. We’ve read several comic novels this year, and we’ve often found them lacking plot. They’ve either been picaresques that rely on pacing instead, or they’ve been episodic. The linear comedy narrative has proven an elusive beast, but it’s on fully display in How I Conquered Your Planet, which is event-driven even at the level of jokes.

Before we discuss this phenomenon—the way that a high percentage of the jokes in How I Conquered Your Planet abide in events—I want to note that as with any comedy, many if not most of them happen in dialogue. And they’re great! For example, here’s a scene in which Detective Burly is trying to hire a new secretary but instead gets Arthur Gremlin, the alien in disguise:

In fact, everyone in my waiting room was gone, except for one small gremliny-looking man, who I instantly recognized as Arthur Gremlin, the bookkeeper for Mr. Thorson down at the bus company. I said it was a small world and he said he thought so too.

“Small. And weak.”

That’s funny TV writer dialogue, right there. But what’s funnier—and seemingly more interesting to the author—is what happens next: Arthur Gremlin uses mind control to make Frank hire him, then misuses his work time/hypnotic powers to organize a Martian invasion of Earth, which Frank discovers when he finally becomes suspicious of his weird new secretary, leading to his kidnapping…and that’s a story.

We’re clearly in the realm of absurdism, here, and that means we’re not going to get the clockwork logic of a thriller. But the idiot-succeeds joke—which follows the pattern “something happens, so Frank responds inappropriately, but it works”—moves events forward one increment. That’s something a funny line of dialogue doesn’t do. How I Conquered Your Planet is chock full of funny events, not just funny dialogue, and Swartzwelder’s penchant for writing that kind of joke keeps things happening. He doesn’t just pause at a situation and hang jokes on it, because so many of his jokes change the situation.

This is a natural strength of all the Frank Burly novels. It’s also a flaw. How I Conquered Your Planet moves fast. It’s not boring to read, but neither is it filling. It’s like eating a bag of Doritos: satisfying in the moment and better the faster you do it, but in the end you do not feel nourished. The same one-thing-leads-to-another quality that keeps events moving forward also keeps them from taking on a deliberate shape, the way an Etch-a-Sketch can only produce a certain kind of drawing.

I could go on about complicating factors here, such as the problem of stakes for this rootless, friendless, clueless protagonist, but any discussion of those issues invariably comes down to what kind of novel this is. It’s a weird one. The main reason to read Swartzwelder’s self-published comic novels is that they differ from everything else that’s out there to the point of being instructional. They’re like a glimpse of a genre that never was—pulp comedy or something. I wouldn’t bring them to a desert island, but I would put them in a library.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018. How I Conquered Your Planet was number twelve. Next is Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

50 Books: The Serial by Cyra McFadden

An illustration by Tom Cervenak for The Serial during its run in the Pacific Sun weekly

It’s 30 degrees in Missoula, but the sun is writing a check for 30 more, and it might as well be spring. The dew is on the lily. The snail is on the thorn. The yoga dude is on the bicycle and the phone. “Babe,” he says ironically but, like, all the time. “What if we practiced outside today?” On the opposite riverbank, his domestic partner stops fly-fishing to adjust the local-hemp sling that binds their son, Wheelwright, firmly to her breast. She nods into the phone. “That’ll give me time to stop at the bank before Brewfest,” she says. It’s the first day of the new Air BnB season, and everyone else’s rent is due.

One fun thing about living in a Quirky Small Town is that satirizing it is easy. It’s also fun. If you have occasion to live in a QST and write a column in the local paper gently poking fun at its residents, I recommend it. Don’t expect to make any money, though. The cloistered quality that makes small towns ripe for satire and particularly receptive to it also limits your audience. No one outside your small town wants to read of its quirks, no matter how universal they feel. The exception to this historic rule of weekly journalism is The Serial by Cyra McFadden, which began as a running joke in Marin County’s alternative newsweekly but went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

The Kindle edition of The Serial is greatly improved by a foreword in which McFadden describes this experience. She basically got the opposite results of every other small-town satirist: people outside Marin thought The Serial was great, and locals hated it. She claims to have been egged. Her neighbors’ vigorous defense of their own quirks hinted at the influence post-hippie self-consciousness would have on Americans’ thinking in the decades to come. One reason this hyperlocal satire from 40 years ago is still enjoyable to the modern reader is that the Marin values McFadden satirizes have become American values.

Obviously this is not true across the board. With their amoral sexuality and righteous consumption, the characters in The Serial would come off as alien and repulsive to a broad swath of American culture. Your Kiwanis book club is not going to like this one. In order to enjoy satire of a subculture, you have to be in that subculture yourself—ideally mostly in but still a little alienated from it, so you can appreciate the critical view. This is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, but I suspect that The Serial took off when readers around the country realized that although they did not live in Marin County, they were increasingly living in that culture. We have only gone deeper into since The Serial was published.

Some of the funniest moments in the book, for example, happen when characters re-classify their own selfish behavior as self-care. I also liked the parts where they don’t want to put normative judgments on their children’s behavior but do assign moral value to different brands of peanut butter. These comically exaggerated habits of Nor-Cal burnouts as they transitioned from hippie to yuppie 40 years ago are identifiable behaviors of the American middle class today. Recognizing them is a chief pleasure of the book, but it’s also weird to read about 1970s hipsters opening their marriages and having divorce scares as a result, because that’s what many people I know are doing right now.

Such stirring echoes between the local past and the general present sustained me through The Serial, which is a brisk read but still too long. I bet it was perfect as a running column in an alt-weekly, though. The plot, which suffers from a Dickensian overpopulation, centers on Kate and Harvey Holroyd. Kate is trying to be more clear and less hung up—i.e. more Marin—and Harvey is a skeptic. Along with a dozen secondary characters, they keep secrets and pursue affairs through a storyline that operates on the soap opera principle of cyclically destroying and restoring their lives. Only in the last quarter does a linear plot kick in. McFadden steers things to a satisfying ending, which is admirable after so much careening, but this book is not about the arc of events. It is a vehicle for acerbic observations of how people are.

Again we read a funny novel with a weak plot. Were it not for Wodehouse, I would think that comedy and plot-driven fiction were incompatible. Then along comes the Pulitzer Prize committee to tell me what’s what. I’m reading 50 books in 2018. The Serial was number eleven, and next is Less by fellow Montana MFA Andrew Sean Greer. It’s also a comic novel, so maybe our search for a funny story will finally pay off.

50 Books: Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People

Thomas A. Preston, Jr., called Amarillo Slim

Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People goes with Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! in a class of books that, as near as I can tell, don’t exist anymore. It is, first and foremost, the merchandising of a public figure. Published in 2003, presumably to cash in on the poker craze, the book is mostly about proposition betting. Along with his co-writer Greg Dinkin, Slim relates in roughly chronological order various anecdotes about his youth, his career in road gambling, his Vegas celebrity, and his unlikely dotage. It’s all done in Slim’s trademark down-home speech, and it’s easy to discern who wrote which parts: one voice sounds conspicuously exaggerated and fake, and the other is Dinkin. This ersatz country routine is part of Slim’s charm, though. He’s the man who gains your confidence by letting you see that he’s conning you, and the anecdotes in this book consistently hit that note in pleasant ways.

They don’t form much of a narrative. As the most successful gambler of his generation, Slim was by definition lucky. This gives the events in his book a deus ex machina quality. Hark to the tale of the luckiest man in the world! Will he survive the raging river? Yeah, things actually went his way. This certainty that the protagonist will make it is something readers are generally willing to ignore, particularly in memoirs, but chance and uncertainty are motifs of this book. Besides gambling, Slim has no vices: he doesn’t drink or cheat on his wife, and he makes it clear from the beginning that his family life will not be threatened by his “thirst for risk.” Except for a couple of scary stories about getting hijacked, most of this book is about Slim taking risks that pay off. His exploits take on a fated quality, and the modern reader finds fate boring.

Nevertheless, I liked reading this book. It may be for narrow reasons, though. I used to play poker as a source of income, and like most hustlers of that time I took a quantitative approach. When the money I stood to win exceeded my chance of winning it—a concept known as pot odds—I played. When it didn’t, I folded. This approach and the elaborate list of probabilities that undergird it are exemplified by Doyle Brunson’s Super System. Widely revered among poker players, the book is about which bets are mathematically favorable and how to hit as many of them as possible on your way through a hand.

Slim knew those percentages. He was Brunson’s partner for decades. Before 1961, when the Federal Wire Act made a felony of transmitting information related to betting over the phone, he made millions keeping sports book, so he did math. Slim’s book, though, focuses very little on the quantitative theory of gambling. Instead, it articulates an approach that I would call situational. Some of the funniest anecdotes involve his tricks to get an edge in proposition bets. His situational approach to gambling does not go looking for those edges, though. He’s looking for opportunities to break people.

In this book, at least, Slim gives the impression that he operated on the old admonition to play people and not cards. This approach runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of 21st-century poker and the strategy books that shaped it. Super System is definitely about playing cards. So is Sklansky and Malmuth. Even Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, which is almost entirely about reading people, comes down to a theory of mathematical advantage. Everyone in 2003 was looking for a better way to play cards, but Slim’s book suggests that the essence of gambling is in getting the other guy to put as much money  on the line as possible. He’s careful to bet with an edge, but the part he takes joy in is raising the stakes.

The difference between this approach and the prevailing attitude is most conspicuous in Slim’s descriptions of poker games, which are not the detailed, flop-and-turn narratives one endures in every card room in the world. Most of the time, when Slim talks about a hand, he doesn’t say what cards came up. Instead he talks about the texture of the game. His approach focuses on what he calls “decision pots”: hands that affect the players’ stacks or psychology so significantly they determine the course of the game. Slim’s poker strategy seems to be to put himself in positions to win these pots.

Anyone who has played in public games since the poker boom of the last decade knows the primary effect of Super System: losing players now complain that their opponents have broken the rules of Super System. The list of viable pre-flop hands in that book has become so well known as to convince otherwise canny players that no one plays K-7 for a raise. Brunson’s strategy was to play aggressively and slightly tighter than the rest of the game. The widespread popularity of his approach has increased the profitability of playing loose and reactive.

Not that you should play loose-passive in general. It’s just that if you only play tight-aggressive, you will be readable, and you will miss out on opportunities to skin tight-aggressive opponents. The best player I ever knew was beatable by one method: play trash hands agaionst him until you hit a flop, then call him to the river and watch him come unglued at your idiotic play. From that point on, play tight and let him raise your obviously strong hands.

This is the kind of strategizing Slim advocates. In a no-limit game, the expected value of a single hand—or even the aggregate of dozens of hands—may not be worth as much as the chain of events that puts an opponent on tilt. Once people get pissed or start feeling unlucky, they blow off chips fast. These are the chips you don’t need skill play to catch. For all its merits, Super System does not sufficiently account for this aspect of the game, and neither do most of the modern poker strategy books I have read.

The value of this insight makes Slim’s book worth reading to the contemporary player. I’m not sure how much a general audience would find in it, though. It’s definitely written for the reader who doesn’t play poker, and it’s fun for the first 50 pages, but it’s hard to sustain a book of anecdotes. Slim is an extremely likable figure, mixing humility and psychotic confidence in just the right proportions, but ultimately the book feels like a curiosity. If you’ve read the three poker books mentioned in this post, though, I recommend Slim’s viewpoint as a necessary corrective.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018. Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People is number ten. Next, I’m reading The Serial by Cyra McFadden.

50 Books: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming again

Your boy Ben al-Fowlkes was about 90 pages into From Russia, With Love when he texted me to note that James Bond had not yet appeared. Pretty much the whole first act is about people who have been selected by the Soviet government to kill Bond. From Russia was the first 007 novel I read, so I wondered if this odd choice was a feature of the series. Maybe the whole gimmick was that Bond appeared as a kind of secondary character, or as the instrument that obliterates the people we meet in the first act. This conjecture was disproven, however, by Live and Let Die, which starts with Bond on page one and, except for short bouts of third-person omniscient, sticks with him throughout. L and Let D was also deeply weird, though, for its presentation of black Americans as a conspiracy along the lines of international communism. By “weird” I mean “racist.” Yet because it was Fleming’s second novel, and more of a crime story than a spy story, I wondered if maybe it, too, was an exception.

Now that I have read Casino Royale, the first novel in the 007 series, I feel more comfortable saying that they’re all weird. Casino Royal is weird similarly to Live and Let Die, in its deeply chauvinistic attitude toward women. Bond is enraged when he learns that he has been partnered with Vesper on his assignment to bankrupt French investor and Soviet agent Le Chiffre, and his first few interactions with her are larded with internal monologues about how damned emotional women are. Maybe that’s all just setup, though, for the melting of Bond’s heart that ensues after they (spoiler alert) get Le Chiffre.

I read this novel on Kindle, and Bond successfully completes his mission exactly 66% of the way through. The remaining third is devoted to his after-mission honeymoon with Vesper, which I will not spoil for the approximately one percent of you who are reading this post and plan to read the novel but have not seen the 2006 movie. It’s not just denouement. There’s a twist, but it’s strange and unsatisfying, and the whole third act operates as a kind of short story that requires a novel’s worth of setup. It turns out that Casino Royale is also weird like From Russia, at the level of structure.

That doesn’t stop it from being weird in its political and social attitudes, too. Le Chiffre’s role as an agent of international communism is treasurer of a union. Examining the face of one of his murderous henchmen, Bond concludes that it is not greed or sadism that motivates him to kill, but drugs: marihuana. Like Bond’s attitude toward women, these details sound to the modern reader like a parody of the early fifties. Here’s a three-part question: How much do Bond’s ideas about women and unions  reflect the attitudes of the author? How much are we willing to forgive these attitudes as a product of Fleming’s era? And to what degree was Fleming in step with the ideas of that era, i.e. how much of this “unions = communism” business is the especially conservative thinking of a wealthy man who worked for British intelligence as the Cold War was taking shape?

The number of variables at play makes these questions unanswerable. If you read as an expression of your ethics, you probably shouldn’t read any Bond novels at all. If you are willing to read for aesthetics, though, Casino Royale is worth it. Despite its weird, unbalanced structure, it is paced extremely well. At no point was I bored. Even having seen the 2006 movie—which diverges substantially from the original but still hits most of the same beats—the twists were exciting to me. The great strength of this novel, I think, is Fleming’s willingness to treat his hero roughly. Some early surprises convince the reader that Bond is not guaranteed to win, creating such a sense of menace that by the third act, mundane events like the appearance of a man with an eyepatch become sources of suspense. Despite its many faults, Casino Royale possesses the page-turning quality that most contemporary literature conspicuously lacks.

I’ve read a lot of genre fiction in the last year, and this difference from literature has been the most revelatory. We think of literature as insisting on higher quality in all aesthetic categories. In my opinion, though, literature in the 21st century insists on higher-quality tone, imagery, and characterization, while accepting inferior pacing and plot. Contemporary literature is almost supposed to be boring. When I was younger, I accepted the superiority of literature to genre fiction without question, but now I wonder. In its decadent second century, natural realism might be as mannered and clumsy as any spy novel. Consider this sentence from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, helpfully excerpted by B.R. Meyers in his critique of contemporary literature, A Reader’s Manifesto:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

What distinguishes this sentence from pulp boilerplate except for the affected style? I like McCarthy a lot, and there are hundreds of sentences in his work that are better than anything Fleming ever produced. The literary tone is as stilted as the hardboiled, though, and its presence as a generic convention does not excuse the absence of pacing or plot. All this is to say that the modern reader should not understand genre fiction as inferior to literature, or rather that we should understand literature as another genre. What is lacking in one can abound in the other.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018. Casino Royale was number nine. Next, we’re reading Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People.

50 Books: The Twenty Days of Turin by Georgio De Maria

Evidently the only picture of Georgio de Maria

In workshop, we used to say “that’s not a story; that’s a situation.” It was shorthand for a common problem: stories that steadily intensify a set of conditions, until everything comes to a head. Usually these conditions were pleasing and interesting, featuring characters with mutually exclusive desires, natural dialogue, evocative settings. They were deftly rendered situations, but the pleasure of a story does not abide in situations. Narrative aesthetics operate in the relationships among situations, the progression from one to another. A situation is in place, but then something happens, so another thing happens that changes the situation forever.

A situation is the great strength of The Twenty Days of Turin, which most every review describes as “the Italian cult novel.” The incident De Maria imagines—a three-week period during which an epidemic of insomnia drives the residents of his hometown into the streets, where they are mysteriously and vigorously murdered—is uncanny and haunting. It creates an effect of not horror but terror, the fear of a mastering logic we cannot grasp.

The visceral pleasure of this sensation is complemented by the drier satisfaction of parsing two analogies. The first is to the domestic terrorist attacks that frayed the fabric of Italian society in the 1970s. I don’t know much about the history of Italy after Mussolini, but just knowing there were widespread attacks and the government clamped down is enough to appreciate the symbolism. The monsters in this horror story use the people of Turin as weapons against one another, not metaphorically but physically. It’s a touch of pulp gore that is nicely balanced by its political subtext, creating a high-low appeal similar to a Lichtenstein painting. The second intellectual pleasure of this novel comes from The Library, the weird conspiracy that drives the insomnia epidemic and happens to be a robust parody of social media, 35 years before social media was invented. It’s like if Shakespeare had included a machine gun and a trench-based war with massive casualties in Hamlet.

The terror, the analogies to Italian troubles and social media, and the elaboration of De Maria’s golden premise are all great. The problem is that while we learn more about this situation as we read on, it doesn’t change. It just gets fleshed out. The appeal of this novel is the world, not what happens in it.

This problem is endemic to speculative fiction, by which I mean the genres formerly called science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The classy reviews of The Twenty Days of Turin have called it magical realism, but it’s a horror novel. Supernatural forces kill people as the narrator tries to figure out what’s happening. He never really does, though, which obviates the ending to the horror story in which the heroes try to stop what’s going on. This story is about the situation during the twenty days, not one man’s struggle to address it. De Maria is not interested in his hero except as the flashlight on his spooky tour of Turin, so he uses a method for turning situations into stories established by Jorge Louis Borges. He tells the story of the protagonist researching the situation.

Borges’s story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is an exemplar of this approach. The big idea is a land whose inhabitants deny the reality of the world. Borges has lots of fun exploring this idea, including positing a language without nouns, but such conditions make it hard to think of what happens in act three. To get around this problem, he builds a narrative framework from the process of the first-person narrator finding out about this world. His friend remembers reading about Tlön in an encyclopedia, but then it’s not there, so they go looking for it and find a conspiracy to cover it up.

The beauty of this structure is that it allows Borges to substitute pacing—the gradual revelation of interesting details about this world—for plot. The story becomes the change in the protagonist’s awareness of the situation. That’s a thin story, but it holds our attention because we love finding out about this world, too, and we empathize with the protagonist’s curiosity. This solution to the situation-not-a-story problem works particularly well for horror, in which so many aesthetic effects are achieved by withholding information to give shape to the unknown.

That’s why The Twenty Days of Turin works, in my opinion. The story is set a decade after the twenty days, when the protagonist pursues various lines of inquiry about them and encounters mysterious resistance. From the beginning you feel like something creepy is going on, and the morsels of information you get about it only sharpen your appetite. This approach solves the problem of situation and not story, but only temporarily. It erupts again at the end, when the protagonist’s investigation must conclude. The conclusion can’t be him finding out everything there is to know; that kills the horror effect, like when you see the whole alien at the end of Alien and it’s a guy in a rubber suit. So De Maria goes with another ending that feels decisive but also tacked on, a violation of the aesthetic principles that have guided the book so far.

I am better at situations than stories. I think most writers are. The advantage of pacing the story by changing the situation, however, rather than parceling out ever more interesting details, is that it makes the ending easier. When every step takes you closer to the finish line, crossing it is easy. I feel like De Maria reached the last twenty pages of this novel when he was too far from the line, and he had to take an ungainly leap across it. It’s a beautiful day at the track, though. The world of this novel is worth it, even when the story is not.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018, and The Twenty Days of Turin was number eight. Next I’m reading Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, but that’s kind of a lie because I finished it while I was in Denmark. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. If you want to read along in real time, gazing up at the moon and wondering if I’m looking at it, too, I’m reading Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People now.