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: 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.

Can we talk about this Simpsons gag from 20 years ago?

The scene above is from the “Last Exit to Springfield” episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer becomes head of his union and negotiates a new contract with Mr. Burns on sheer strength of idiocy. Dorks will remember it as episode 9F15 of season four, which my college roommates and I remember as the Era of Big Pupils. This model style roughly coincides with Conan O’Brien’s tenure on the show and, probably not by coincidence, some of its most surreal gags. For example: On a tour of his mansion, Mr. Burns shows Homer a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters, who will soon produce “the greatest novel known to mankind.” He checks one monkey’s progress. “‘It was the best of times,” he reads, “it was the blurst of times?’ You stupid monkey!” That was your last chance to enjoy this joke, because I’d like to talk about why it’s so funny.

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Read “The Stench of Honolulu” by Jack Handey


You probably know Jack Handey from the “Deep Thoughts” series of sketches on Saturday Night Live, which, along with PJ O’Rourke and Carolyn Jacobson, were probably the most significant influences on my writing before age 21. If you don’t think Deep Thoughts is funny, you can safely disregard the rest of this post. You and I will meet at Grown-Ups 3 someday, each of us wiping away a type of tear. Everyone else can read this excellent profile of Handey in the New York Times, in which we learn that A) he is in fact a real person who used to live next door to Steve Martin, and B) he has recently published The Stench of Honolulu, a comic adventure novel. I bought that novel and read it last week, and it is very funny. Excerpt after the jump.

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Glenn Beck writes book of “faction”

We’re fucked, you guys. Glenn Beck is a genius, and there’s no way to undo him now. Like Ozymandius before him, Beck has moved from crusader to architect of worlds. The conspiracy-oriented, anti-progressive television host has written a conspiracy-oriented, anti-progressive thriller called The Overton Window, which he describes as a work of “faction”—”completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact.” Exactly how faction differs from realism is not explained, although if early reviews are any indication, it has something to do with motivations, emotions and dialogue. I haven’t read The Overton Window yet—and I’m not sure whether my schadenfreude receptors can handle doing it—so I’m going to stick to what’s known: Glenn Beck has written a novel about a progressive conspiracy that attempts to install a one-world government by unfairly demonizing a grassroots patriotic organization called “The Founders Keepers.”

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