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: 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.

50 Books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

In my mind there is a class of prose stylists that includes E.B. White and George Orwell—monsters of sentence-level literature who attained their place not by astonishing but by economizing, authors whose lives’ work are scalpels rather than edifices. I like Faulkner and Hemingway, Carver and James. These are eminently recognizable stylists, but we recognize their style the way we recognize a person’s way of dancing. There is another class of author whose style we recognize the way we recognize a person’s gait. They are writers for whom the sentence is a means to an end, and they pursue their ends so diligently that their styles becomes unique not like the shape of an orchid, but like the shape of a fish. Their writing has evolved to move through the medium of consciousness, streamlined and precise. To me, Annie Dillard is the exemplar of this class.

I have read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek more times than I can remember. It is the only book-length work of nature writing I enjoy. People liken it to Walden by Henry David Thoreau—my Picador copy, which I got at a used bookstore in Bronte Beach outside Sydney, mentions Walden five words into the jacket blurb—which is weird, because I strongly dislike Walden. I admit there are similarities: Dillard and Thoreau both go live alone in semi-wild areas not far from human settlement. Both are essentially dilettantes; they experience the natural world first as a novel alternative to civilization. And both are concerned not just or even primarily with nature itself, but rather with the phenomenology of experiencing it. Like WaldenPilgrim at Tinker Creek is about what living in nature does to the author’s consciousness, the changes it wreaks on her soul.

So why is Tinker Creek among the greatest works of the 20th century, even as Walden sucks a fat one? Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and it’s safe to say it influenced her own book-length nature/isolation narrative. One difference between the two books, though, is that Dillard approaches nature critically. She is willing to consider the possibility that the natural world is not shot through with the essence of the divine, as Thoreau found it, but horrifyingly wasteful and cruel. After discussing a glob of tar found floating in the Atlantic covered in barnacles, Dillard considers the millions of barnacle larvae that drift through the ocean and find nothing on which to attach. Mature barnacles release up to four million larvae into the water at a time. “What kind of world is this, anyway?” Dillard writes. “Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death?”

A recurring theme of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the senselessness of a natural world we often imagine to be elegant and efficient. The book opens with Dillard’s revulsion at seeing a frog collapse as its innards are dissolved from below by a giant water bug. We spend a lot of time on parasites, including those wasp eggs that, if they are not deposited in a host soon enough, will hatch in their mother’s abdomen and devour her from the inside out. This is not the living temple Thoreau found. It is a charnel house. Dillard cannily notes, though, that humans are the only ones who seem to have a problem with that. If barnacle larvae experience their high mortality rates as unjust, we don’t know about it. Fairness and efficiency are ideas humans bring to the world. Nature’s failure to be decent might more clearly be seen as our failure to reconcile ourselves to it.

This Sisyphean inquiry—in the sense that it resembles the question asked by Camus, not necessarily in the sense that it is doomed—is what makes Tinker Creek enthrall me where Walden does not. Thoreau goes to the woods and says “wow” for 200 pages. Dillard is out there looking unflinchingly at her own revulsion. Her response seems more true to me, not because I believe nature is fundamentally gross or evil, but because of that prose style. It is so precise and streamlined that it feels honest the way a protractor is honest, the way the Harvard-educated heir to a pencil factory might not be.

That’s a petty swipe at Thoreau, and I retract it as much as I can without deleting it. But I believe there is a morality to craft. It radiates from Dillard’s prose, which is at once plain and rare, like a piece of jade. She never uses two words where one will do, yet when necessary she breaks out “susurrus” or “viscid.” The whole body of the English language seems available to her, even as she cooks mostly with the prime cuts. Her prose reads easily in a way that conveys the tens of thousands of hours she has practiced to make it that way. As I get older, and the flaws in my own style become more evident to me, I find myself loving this kind of prose more than high modernism or the conspicuous minimalism of the last four decades. Dillard has become such a strong writer as to transcend her own style, so that her sentences become something close to their own objects. She is among the best to ever do it, in my opinion, and to say Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book about nature is akin to saying that a glimpse of a woman striding purposefully down the street is about the store.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading Earth Angel by Denis Johnson. Update: No, we’re not. We’re saving Earth Angel for real-life book club and reading Huckleberry Finn. It’s my favorite American novel. Come with me on this one.

50 Books: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

Stanley Elkin

I was setting a nice pace to finish 50 books in 2018, and then I hit A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin. I finished it last night, after three weeks of extremely slow progress—reading twenty-some pages and falling asleep, setting a timer for two hours and abandoning ship after 40 minutes, meaning to polish it off on the weekend and doing any other chore I could find. At almost no point in this book was I reading for another purpose than to finish. As you might remember, we got to A Bad Man via William Gass’s endorsement in On Being Blue. That book is, among other things, a paean to stylistic maximalism. A Bad Man is certainly a work of high style, but I found it utterly unpleasant to read.

What happened? I used to love books like this, from Absalom, Absalom! to Carpenter’s Gothic—books of literary performance, where the important work happened at the sentence level and story was incidental, an occasion to interrogate the bounds of prose. Although Elkin is not as mandarin as Faulkner or Gaddis, A Bad Man is very much that kind of book. The point is to demonstrate how good at sentences Elkin is. Reading it made me realize how such demonstrations have come to enrage me.

The premise of a A Bad Man is that Leo Feldman, department store owner and natural salesman, has been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—although he has done plenty of awful things he got away with—and sent to a Kafka-esque prison. There he is identified as an especially bad man and forced to endure humiliations, both under the warden’s inscrutable system of constantly changing rules, and at the hands of other convicts who somehow recognize him as worse than they are. Also, he has a homunculus in his chest. The dead fetus of his twin brother, who perished in utero, is positioned over his heart in such a way that a sharp blow to Feldman’s chest will kill him. To paraphrase Chekhov, if a homunculus appears in the chest cavity during the first act, it has to go off in the third.

Not that A Bad Man hews to a three-act structure. It has a structure, like all books, but this structure is not narrative. In the fiction workshop, we used to sometimes say to each other, as gently as we could, “That’s not a story; that’s a situation.” A Bad Man is a great situation. It’s Kafka-esque, and the long first chapter promises an extended metaphor on the Jewish diaspora. Feldman’s unnamed crime promises a fun lacuna, and his established guilt combined with his prowess at sales promises a rumination on the morality of consumer capitalism. I also spent the first 100 pages thinking this novel might be about fascism. But none of those promises was fulfilled.

Spoiler alert: Feldman does die in the end, exactly the way you expect, after a long and intermittently turgid trial scene. The Jewish diaspora thread gets dropped early, although it periodically comes up again throughout the book. It’s possible, in the first half, to read the mercurial warden as the God of the Old Testament and Feldman as the Jewish people. That reading falls apart, though, as the focus shifts to Feldman’s interpersonal betrayals in a series of intense, psychologically realistic flashbacks. You think that Elkin has gotten sick of Kafka-esque absurdism and switched to a redemption story midway through, but then the novel ends with no change in Feldman’s character. He dies defiant, insisting on the same self-deception he brought in.

Elkin sets up a lot of interesting points of departure, but he doesn’t go on any trips. He is in it for the sentences, and—like any talented stylist trying to preserve momentum without the benefit of a plot—he winds up writing hard. There are so many similes in this book—similes that are inventive and, at first, unexpected. Then they multiply so numerously as to become mundane and, finally, dreaded. Elkin averages more than one simile per sentence. Everything is like something else, so that his loving descriptions of Feldman’s wares, delightful at first, wind up cloying. You start to think about how many of them don’t make sense, how little Elkin’s unexpected connection between tubes of lipstick and nuclear warheads, for example, contributes to the reader’s understanding. There is so much figurative language in this book that it becomes an argument against figuration. A Bad Man is to fine writing as the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball: thrilling at first, but finally an object lesson in the limitations of virtuosity.

Is it funny? No, not really. I laughed once. A big part of the problem is that Feldman is the only developed character. The warden is interesting, but he is a deus ex machina more than a person. The other convicts step forward as needed to threaten Feldman or act as his stooges in crosstalk scenes, but then they fade into the miasma of non-Feldman personae again. This absence of developed characters rules out a whole category of humor; there can be no moments where we chuckle to ourselves and think, “that’s so Victman” or “that’s just like the warden,” because we don’t have a sense of how those people are. Neither can Feldman’s intentions bring about the opposite of what he intended, because he pursues no significant intentions other than to survive the prison. Like the author, he is doing time, looking for pleasure in the moment the same way Elkin looks for zingers in the individual sentences. As a result, A Bad Man is clever, witty, cynical, audacious—everything a joke can be when it doesn’t make you laugh.

It is, in short, better to think about than to read. It has a fun premise, and it manages to raise some interesting questions about the nature of evil. There’s a harrowing flashback between Feldman and his wife, and the story of his betrayal of Dedman is genuinely inventive and compelling. I found these scenes vivid and emotionally affecting in a way that called attention to the colorlessness of the rest of the novel. A Bad Man is a work of high postmodernism, and above all it serves as a compelling argument that style is a minor effect. I would have enjoyed Elkin’s prose much more were there even a rudimentary plot to pull me through. As it is, this novel is like a bare room with incredibly detailed wallpaper. You can lose yourself staring into the pattern for a few minutes, but ultimately you go stir-crazy.

I got so mad at literary fiction reading A Bad Man that we’re going to read a fantasy novel about a wizard next. I’m ten percent into A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, and I’m already more invested than I ever was in Elkin. I suspect we’ll be talking about it a lot sooner than three weeks from now.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursule Le Guin. Join us!