The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

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A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for. Continue reading “The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives”

9 Reasons to Start Reading Moby-Dick on its 166th Birthday

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big Moby-Dick fan. Or, if it was a secret to you, then this might be the first thing you’ve read by me. Which is cool, if that’s the case (thanks!).

Anyway, in honor of Moby-Dick‘s 166th birthday, here are nine reasons that you finally need to read it. Now.

Ishmael is an extraordinarily funny narrator.

You’ve probably heard a lot of reasons to read Moby-Dick in your life. Great American novel and foundation of all literature and a genuine masterpiece and so on. But something that seems to be often lost in its recommendations is that it’s a genuine laugh riot.

Oddly enough, I’ve noticed a trend in which readers of Moby-Dick find it funny, yet think that the humor is something they’re discovering for the first time, like this listicle of all the sperm references and this thread in the /r/mobydick subreddit.

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Admittedly, not all of it is funny. The cover page is a little dull.

The reality is that, yes, Ishmael is a very funny narrator and Moby-Dick is a very funny book. As pointed out in this NPR article, it’s a good idea to read it looking for humor and “see almost immediately that Melville’s tongue couldn’t have been more in his cheek.” And yes, you’re not imagining it: there really are tons of phallus jokes, with the entire 95th chapter dedicated to “a very strange, enigmatical object” which is none other than a whale’s penis.

Ishmael is a wise and thoughtful and oddly progressive narrator.

He’s not just funny, of course. He’s also wise and poignant, with enigmatic, zenlike musings including:

“It is not down in any map any map; true places never are.”

And:

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

And:

“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

It’s that third one that has sparked endless conversation, centered around the relationship between the “heathen” Queequeg and his bedmate Ishmael. Of course, the line above isn’t the only reference to the depths and threads of their relationship. Throughout the entire book, Ishmael and Queequeg form an intimate bond, to the extent that Moby-Dick has been considered the first depiction of same-sex marriage in American literature.

Of course, there are many stories and subplots in Moby-Dick, but the liberal Ishmael (and his partner Queequeg) is a constant reason to keep reading. Continue reading “9 Reasons to Start Reading Moby-Dick on its 166th Birthday”

What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?

Or, When Did We Start Living in a Fictional Satire?

I’ve compared recent events—and, in particular, this presidential election—to many things: Armageddon, Alien, every Batman story, and almost every ’90s action movie.

But there is one painful metaphor that I have not explored: the 2016 election appears to have been written by writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut.

I first started pondering the question of did Vonnegut write our current political climate this spring, when my aunt (a librarian) pointed out to me how much Donald Trump resembles a Vonnegut character.

I soon googled trump vonnegut and was surprised not to see more about it. I found a handful of articles, but none that fully explored the extent to which the candidate Donald Trump seems to have sprung straight from a Vonnegut novel. Nor did anyone mention the extent to which this entire election resembles a Vonnegut-penned narrative and universe.

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The classic cover of Vonnegut’s masterpiece.

Listen:

America has become a Kurt Vonnegut novel.  Continue reading “What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?”

The Short Story I Wrote Inspired by Wes Anderson and Carlos Castaneda

You may have noticed this blog’s recent lowered activity. Nothing new since early August, with only a handful of new posts since the beginning of summer. What is the deal, you may ask.

Where is your latest needless fan theory? Where is my latest exhaustive Batman dissection? How have you still not reacted to the most recent Bond film? Have you finally tired of comparing the 2016 election to your favorite action movies? 

The answer to these questions is simple: I have been busy with other projects. One project, in particular: The Moonborn, an e-novel I will be self-publishing this November.

I have also been busy with another project: Wildcat, a short story I wrote years ago that I finally decided to dust off and self-publish. Here is its cover, created by artist Dusty Conley:

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Wildcat!

I wrote this story as a student at Denison University, and I think it’s the first thing I ever wrote that I still take pride in today.

Continue reading “The Short Story I Wrote Inspired by Wes Anderson and Carlos Castaneda”

Happy Black Friday 2015 from David Foster Wallace

A week ago yesterday – on Wednesday, November 25 – I came across a deal on Amazon: a free digital download of the SD version of the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour.

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This movie.

The deal materialized as part of Black Friday Week, the manic celebration of capitalism that has eclipsed Thanksgiving during the final week of November.

The odd thing was that it was being advertised as “Buy Movie SD Free,” a concept that’s hard to wrap your head around. You can buy this movie, to keep, digitally, Standard Definition (SD) for free.

But part of what makes it stranger is the idea of David Foster Wallace’s life being sold, for free, as a build-up to the biggest sales day of the year. Continue reading “Happy Black Friday 2015 from David Foster Wallace”

Why Are Trigger Warnings Less Accepted Than Spoiler Alerts?

I haven’t had anything to say about trigger warnings until now. I had been leaning on the side of “not necessary” or “too coddling,” as most of the media I consume had been framing them in this way. But I’m surprised to say that I think I’ve had a change of heart, inspired partially by this editorial published in The Guardian, “Trigger warnings don’t hinder freedom of speech; they expand it,” by Lindy West.

As West argues, a trigger warning is actually mean to “increase engagement and increase accessibility” and that paying attention “to the needs of students with PTSD doesn’t hinder academic freedom; it expands it.”

But I found myself getting distracted as I read her article, going down a thought tangent. It occurred to me that I constantly write things in which I warn people at the beginning of the article that they might not want to keep reading. I begin blog posts with “notes” and “warnings” and “spoiler alerts” all the time. Why? Because if someone hasn’t seen Fight Club, I don’t want to upset them. If someone doesn’t know what happens at the end of the ninth episode of Game of Thrones, I don’t want to ruin it for them.

"No spoilers."
“No spoilers.”

Continue reading “Why Are Trigger Warnings Less Accepted Than Spoiler Alerts?”

What Would Faulkner Say About True Detective Season Two?

In a previous post, I’ve argued that no one should call a show good or bad until the end is known. Which means, now that the end is known, we can decide if True Detective‘s second season was good or bad.

People love complaining about how confusing the plot of this season was. And I won’t disagree. The show’s storylines sprawled and overlapped, losing its audience. Some moments lingered, while other plotlines appeared and disappeared without explanation.

You didn't like it? Shhhhhh.
You didn’t like it? Shhhhhh.

But why is this a bad thing? Are we supposed to understand all the media we consume? Do things have to make immediate sense in order to be good?

TD’s second season and its response reminds me of a famous anecdote about William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler. Faulkner had adapted Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep into a film, and during filming he and director Howard Hawks realized there was something they didn’t understand. Had a certain character committed suicide or was he murdered and, if murdered, who did the murdering? And the best part, the part that makes it an anecdote worth repeating, is that Chandler couldn’t figure out the answer either. Chandler didn’t understand the plot of his own novel. Continue reading “What Would Faulkner Say About True Detective Season Two?”

Why Harper Lee’s “New Novel” is the Literary Equivalent of Greedo Shooting First

People love pretending that there is a new novel by Harper Lee, available in stores now. But we all know there isn’t.

I’m not going to go into all the details of it, because there are enough articles that already do, but basically: it’s likely that Harper Lee is being exploited, her supposed new novel is really just an early draft of the famous novel everyone has already read, and lots of highly questionable things have happened in this whole situation.

The main reason that I’m not going to read it is simple. I like To Kill a Mockingbird, and I don’t want to ruin it for myself.

Society has one simple trend: whenever something can have more money squeezed out of it, it will have more money squeezed out of it. Oftentimes, this takes the form of toys, food, spin-offs, sequels and prequels. But sometimes it takes a more sinister form.

What's next? Boo Radley action figures? Atticus Finch style guides?
What’s next? Boo Radley action figures? Atticus Finch style guides?

Of course, there are times when Director’s Cuts are needed. Blade Runner is a great example. The original film is so chopped up and bizarrely edited that the story lacks continuity and swims with nonsense. The Director’s Cut, for the most part, fixed those flaws. Continue reading “Why Harper Lee’s “New Novel” is the Literary Equivalent of Greedo Shooting First”

The Beginner’s Guide to David Foster Wallace: Five Things to Read, for Free

Perhaps you want to see the new David Foster Wallace movie, but you aren’t sure why. You know that you like him, or that you might like him, that you are supposed to like him. Or maybe you just like Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg. Maybe you just think that the movie looks really good, or really sad, or you just want to understand why people are talking about it so much.

Maybe the only thing you know about David Foster Wallace is that someone made a video about fish and he narrated it, and that it’s one of your favorite motivational YouTube videos. Or maybe not.

Regardless, DFW is one of those authors who can be extremely inaccessible, especially if you haven’t ever read anything by him. It can feel like trying to start reading graphic novels or listening to Joy Division: you don’t know where to start and none of it makes any sense.

So here you go. Five things by David Foster Wallace that are both readable and that will give you a good idea of who he is and why he matters. And they’re free.

1. Consider the Lobster

I recommend one starts with the essay “Consider the Lobster,” published in Gourmet Magazine in 2004. If you don’t like this essay, then you won’t like David Foster Wallace. But chances are that you will like it. It’s fun, informative, intelligent and bizarre. It’s also non-fiction and not too long. And it gives you an idea of how wild his footnotes can be. Continue reading “The Beginner’s Guide to David Foster Wallace: Five Things to Read, for Free”

Why Everyone Should Calm Down and Take Vonnegut’s Approach to Talking about Big Game Hunting

People love to shame these days. They also love to shame the shamers. And with the tendency for the internet to get hysterical about anything that seems worthy of hysteria, we have turned our outrage to the recent poaching of a beautiful and famous African lion, named Cecil.

The entire world appears to be dividing into two camps: a) those who are outraged over the recent death of this beautiful beast, and b) those who think that the people being outraged over this beautiful beast makes you evil. There is, unfortunately, like most political issues, very little middle ground being sought. On one side, you have people calling for the death-by-hanging of the wealthy and unethical suburban dentist with a history of killing animals, both legal and illegal. On the other side, you have people who think that the real problem here is that people are talking about a lion when they should actually be talking about abortion (yep, that’s something that people are saying, including presidential hopefuls. I guess you have to say whatever it takes to be heard over the screaming of Donald Trump.)

Poor Jimmy Kimmel misses his friend.
Poor Jimmy Kimmel misses his friend.

And then you have all the sane voices, on both sides of the issue and in all the places in between, being drowned out by the hysteria.

When it comes to saner voices, there is one who I wish could still be here today: Kurt Vonnegut. He died a few years ago, but during his lifetime he consistently wrote intelligent, calm, thoughtful words about the things that troubled him and the things that faced society. Continue reading “Why Everyone Should Calm Down and Take Vonnegut’s Approach to Talking about Big Game Hunting”