Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Selections: HUMOR in the form of Scanlon, Thurber, and Dennett (plus a Thin Man, the Whitest Kids, a loved man, a Ramen Girl or four, and a tweeted dad) Book Selections of the Month (June 2011): Forecast by Shya Scanlon, Thurber Country by James Thurber, Inside Jokes by Daniel Dennett et al –and more

Helen does not emote normally, displaying none of the usual reactions exhibited by her fellow citizens – with their guilty consciences and sorrows – even when contemplating employment that takes advantage of her interest in sadomasochism, and so, it seems, she must be kept under constant surveillance by a panopticon-like government, and by a man a bit too fascinated by her psychological development from youth to young adult and her romantic infidelities.

That is the plot of Forecast by Shya Scanlon, a book about which I literally knew nothing until the author himself handed out free autographed copies at one of the Literary Death Match events Todd Zuniga hosts.  But you may want to pay for a copy.  If nothing else, the book is a very good example of the way in which sci-fi sensibilities – especially cyberpunk – have blended with what has become the default tone of hip literary fiction, which is a sort of whimsical, game-playing, fanciful, clever – but sort of fey and non-commital – one, not so unlike what has happened to indie music and TV/film comedy, I suppose. 

Even the most ardent capitalist – by which I mean me, compared to whom your are all communists – has to love the way he depicts a future so media-saturated and preference-satisfying that holographic corporate logos literally crawl continually all over one’s apartment, attaching themselves to products that could be replaced or upgraded and giving you a holographic glimpse of a better future.  All too plausible – and more than a little creepy.  (Likewise, we all knew that one scene in Minority Report with the personalized advertising was too logical an outcome to avoid for long – and indeed we didn’t, yet that was still ostensibly sci-fi when it came out in 2002.)  It is not, I suppose, a coincidence that Scanlon went to Brown and that the world he imagines rings true to me. 

The funniest (yet still creepy) conceit in Forecast is that in a post-electrical near future, the grid is powered by negative and repressed emotions (in an artificial-raincloud-shrouded Seattle, amongst other places).  That’s why Helen’s failure to generate her share of power – and thus her unusual psyche – is of interest to the authorities and one tracker in particular.  With no trustworthy allies besides a talking dog, she will attempt to escape observation and her husband.

Scanlon manages to tell a very human, even poignant story, and if he can do that while being hyper-postmodern and sci-fi-satirical, I hope he’s showing us a bit of the real human future after all, as good sci-fi usually has, instead of just showing off his present-day writer chops.  Bravo, Scanlon!  (Or perhaps I should say, “Good boy!  Here’s a Dirty Dog!”)

Whether the topic was mysticism, literary theatre, comedy, the inevitable comedic-argumentative non sequiturs on the show Politically Incorrect, or postmodern fiction – I’ve seen that the easiest route to success is often to confuse people.  But that’s not what I want to do.  Magicians have their place, but the truth will set you free, and I’m on the truth’s side.  People do not appreciate, I think, how much this constrains a conscientious writer (in much the same way that refusing to base verbal wit on insults does, on which more in a moment).  If you want kindness and honesty in the real world, I think it has to show in your aesthetics, no matter how much that ties a creative hand behind your back. 

An interesting debate could be had about whether Scanlon’s foray into a very media-saturated sci-fi future, one that is in a way more Blade Runner than Blade Runner, enlightens or confuses, but I think it ultimately does the former.


Speaking of a man whose wife Helen probably dreamt of escape, James Thurber – whose essay collection Thurber Country was given to me by very nice sex columnist Tracy Quan recently – is hilarious, but he has made me even more acutely aware of a troubling literary tradition peaking, by my crude estimation, around mid-twentieth-century, which is writers who are (A) acerbic, (B) clever, (C) obsessed with wordplay, (D) nasty and misanthropic, (E) slightly “off” sexually, and (F) severely alcoholic.  I spotted him as one of those types (I’m getting better at that in recent years) while reading this collection – much more readily than I spotted the pattern when I was reading him as a teen and merely thinking he was funny ha-ha.

I don’t know exactly why the qualities listed above keep going together, but it seems to
be one of those constellations of psychological attributes that just occur in a batch for reasons future neurologists may understand better than we do.  Just ask Dorothy Parker, Patricia Highsmith, Christopher Hitchens... 

But just because wit and viciousness and alcoholism are sometimes found lumped together in the psyche does not mean items 2 and 3 in that list are mandatory or desirable, as the literati should be reminded from time to time when they get out of line (I always thought The Thin Man, which is being remade for good or ill, was a great model for a romance, but it was more the love, wit, and crime-solving that hooked me, not the alcoholism – yet life, like art, offers you many package deals that you don’t always have time to unpack and examine in pieces).

Speaking of lineages combining creativity and substance abuse, check out Courtney Love’s grandmother and, yes, even her great-grandmother, who was not only a drunk but was described by none other than Graham Greene as having co-written one of the worst films he ever saw.  It is less shocking after reading those entries that we still today see headlines such as “Courtney Love [says]: Andy Dick & Winona Ryder Gave Me Drugs.”  (I assume that happened in the 90s, when they all still mattered.)  Those mid-century drunk writers might not be so unlike the late-twentieth-century heroin-using rockers.  And do not forget the resulting early deaths. 

Maru the cat, by contrast, is punk-rock simply by being drunk on life.

And let the record show I did not read Thurber because of Keith Olbermann’s well-known fondness for the writer.  Nor did my parents get a Scottie (named MacGregor) because of Olbermann’s decision to read from Thurber’s “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much” on the final broadcast of his old show. 


I got an unexpected dose of more-libertarian comedy last night when (along with Allison Oldak and other NYC libertarians) I saw the troupe Whitest Kids U’ Know live – including a screening of their funny film The Civil War on Drugs – and got firsthand evidence of troupe member Trevor Moore’s libertarianism.  It wasn’t just that the film he co-created mocks slavery, war, government, and drug prohibition alike (all things a leftist film might in theory do, albeit in slightly different ways) but that the other cast members onstage noted his hatred of government.  I loved the way the no doubt lefty audience went silent when he explained that his reaction to the Weinergate controversy was mainly that anything that makes life worse for political insiders, especially one married to a Hillary Clinton staffer, is good.

That was pretty much my reaction to Lewinsky back in the day.  The less time they have for governing, the less time they have to devise new forms of predation for attacking the private sector, which is about all politicians do, after all.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.


Continuing the easy-going pattern of me reading things because an author asked me to (which will certainly continue in July and August), I made good on my promise to philosopher Daniel Dennett (made back at the American Philosophical Association convention that I tweeted from in December) to read the book he co-wrote about why humor exists, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind

Inevitably both enlightening and at times very funny precisely because of the dry dissection job it must do, the book makes the very convincing case, rooted in evolutionary psychology, that for something as odd as laughs to be generated by highly specific types of information, there must be some evolutionary advantage to the kind of attentiveness involved in spotting a comedic moment or grasping a punchline (or at the very least it is likely that the intense and special pleasure we get from jokes is a side effect of, or closely related to, some important mental function). 

Once the authors describe what they think is going on, it seems so intuitively obvious that it almost doesn’t seem like it should require a whole book to explain – but read it anyway! – and their theory, which no one before them quite got right (despite various approximations, such as the view that humor is simply joy at triumphing over idiots or noticing an odd juxtaposition), is that laughter is one of the brain’s many specially-evolved types of pleasure-rewards for motivating thought and action, in this case a reward (with survival advantages) for spotting (and being able to spot) situations in which you very suddenly realize that you have been unwittingly making false assumptions that must now be abruptly adjusted. 

(This may also explain why certain similar experiences – such as unexpectedly bumping into an acquaintance on the street while you were thinking of totally unrelated matters – can also feel a bit like comedy.)

It sounds so simple, yet it explains virtually all jokes you can think of like nothing else does – and you can see why it’s an important thing for the brain to do and take pleasure in (otherwise, you’re liable to end up like Wile E. Coyote at the end of virtually every bit he does).  This insight – and thus perhaps this book – could change your life almost as much as, say, discovering that you enjoy food. 

It also strikes me – though I may be biased by my own intellectual proclivities – that this confirms my suspicion that comedy, philosophy, skepticism, and sci-fi all bear some resemblance to each other (speaking of false assumptions, a Google double-check reveals that “bear a resemblance” is only just slightly more popular a phrase than the incorrect “bare a resemblance,” and that’s not surprising, given that you could make a case for the latter making more sense – but I cannot think of a good pun using this point at the moment, so let us move on). 

One of numerous jokes quoted in the book, by the way:

MAN TO BEGGAR WHO ASKS FOR MONEY: Neither a borrower nor lender be – William Shakespeare!

BEGGAR: Fuck you! – David Mamet!


Though she didn’t ask me to watch it, I recently saw a semi-romantic comedy film written by a woman I dated years ago, an interesting experience.  Becca Topol’s Ramen Girl is the cute story, heavily influenced by Becca’s own experiences living in Japan years ago, of a sad American woman (played by the now-deceased Brittany Murphy, just to make matters weirder for the viewer) finding herself during an emotionally-confusing time – and in a confusing foreign culture – by becoming the apprentice of a grumpy taskmaster ramen chef. 

The oddest thing about all this for me is that, in what may not be wholly coincidence, the film was written by one of my exes but actually reminded me more of two others.  Becca, as far as I can tell, is pretty well-organized business-wise and emotionally (she’s gotten married and gotten a film produced, among other things, after all), but her heroine is a crying, fragile, clumsy screw-up of the sort who keeps thinking that the more intensely she emotes and the more she cries, the more people will react as if she’s “helping” them through her self-sacrifice.  (This is made more comedic and less annoying in the film by our sympathy with subtitled Japanese onlookers who conclude “She is insane” with some justification.)

But the thing is, bizarrely, I actually have another ex who more closely resembles the well-meaning burdensome-martyr Ramen Girl character and who herself considered writing a screenplay about lovers transformed by contact with a magical noodle shop (and there is an odd waving cat statue in Ramen Girl that must either be attributed to magic or to the main character being truly nuts, at least enough to hallucinate in times of stress, which apparently isn’t that uncommon – or at least it happened to one of my other exes...sigh...).  The main character’s closest female pal in this film, by the way, is a fellow American with a Southern accent, a drinking problem, a retro-film-noir wardrobe, and too many sex partners.  Everything works out in the end. 

For another look at being an American woman navigating Japan – this one by a libertarian friend – check out Bretigne Shaffer’s newly re-released book Memoirs of a Gaijin

This might be as good a time as any to mention the (Japan-related) most metafictional experience I’ve ever had, which was when Nybakken and I tried watching a copy of the anime Ghost in the Shell 2 – and both started falling asleep – and then, precisely as it reached a scene in which the two heroes are lulled into a hypnotic state by reliving the same virtual-reality scene over and over again – and I for one really started to get droopy-eyed – I realized that part of the reason we were both a bit bored was that we had actually watched the movie before, about a decade earlier, and forgotten about it, unusual for both of us nerds. 

Our protagonists managed to escape the hypnotic trap – and haven’t watched too much anime since, though Nybakken rightly urged me to check out an episode of the stylish jazz + noir + sci-fi series Cowboy Bebop.  (And I don’t mean to completely dismiss Ghost in the Shell 2, either.  The fembot fight is awesome.)

On a more disturbing and more funny foreign-film-related note, by the way: the Onion parody of the work of sadistic Danish director Lars Von Trier.  I think people are catching on to the fact that his work is for psychopaths. 


You know, that Shatner-show-spawning Twitter feed ShitMyDadSays really is pretty wonderful (almost Yogi Berra-level).  Since they had to come up with a way to make the title PG for TV, maybe they should have called it Shat' My Dad Says.  Ha!


And speaking of male bonding, I have Nick Slepko to thank for my DVD of the fairly-funny I Love You, Man, to which there is now a FunnyorDie coda sketch in which the two main characters really get to meet the members of Rush.  Far more important, though: Slepko, a notorious globe-trotter, also gave me the copy of the novel World War Z that I reviewed in a prior blog entry, and I’m delighted that it looks like the J. Michael Straczynski-penned film adaptation is moving forward.  We’re all about sick of zombies at this point, but that one may be the appropriate finale.

In next month’s Book Selections entry, though, some real-world politics (and punk).  The month after that, some more cog sci-related stuff as we look into whether the mind can be not only reverse-engineered but reprogrammed to combat sociopathy – or even to make us gods.  

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