Is this a uniquely American genre, I wonder? Repeatedly finding the holy in the banal, the ridiculous, the tasty, fatty, and scrumptious? What a weird, weird type of news item to keep popping up over and over again. Who knew the Almighty worked through Frito-Lay products? The things is, it really does look like a crucifix.
If you spent much time in Iowa City in certain years immediately straddling the millenium, it's likely you had the good fortune to knock back a few while standing around on someone's porch engaged in a hilarious conversation with with that chill-yet-dashing gadabout, Josh Emmons. The author of The Loss of Leon Meed is out with his second novel, Prescription For a Superior Existence, a thinking person's adventure story of a man ensnared in the machinations of a fictional California suicide cult. The book is a delicious read, an un-put-downable Bay Area philosophical thriller that rockets to its satisfying finish all too quickly. We caught up with Josh on the Internets, and the results are available now for you to savor:
EG: What was the genesis of this character Jack Smith and his story? He is a man of extreme appetites and multiple addictions. Is there something in you that can relate to him?
JE: It's tempting to repeat Flaubert's line about Emma Bovary ("C'est moi") when discussing Jack Smith, so I'll do it. He's me. Or: he's a version of me if I'd continued a druggy through line I began in high school, and if I'd leaned toward business instead of English classes in college. His compulsions toward sex, alcohol, food, work, pills, and television are different from mine in degree but not in kind, which made it easy for me to write him in first-person. As a teenager, for example, I loved getting high and was drunk and stoned for two years solid, until I had a minor breakdown and joined Narcotics Anonymous and thought that I was, as Elvis Costello put it, "living a life that is almost like suicide." Some of the despair of that period shows up in Jack in a stylized, fantastical way.
EG: Is it your sense that the world is careening toward unavoidable disaster, and is this book your way of dealing with conflicting impulses in your own life? Was it hard to write about this feeling that the world is going to hell without ending up sounding cliché or trite? Did you read other end-of-times/cult fiction as research? For example, I wonder if you read The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq?
JE: I'm pretty convinced we're headed toward disaster, and PASE is a product of that (dark, destructive) thinking, which began around the time I had to evacuate from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. A few months ago I diagnosed myself with what some psychiatrists are calling "eco-anxiety," wherein fears about global warming have become all-consuming, so since then I've tried to think about it less. Not because there's less reason to worry, but because besides recycling and taking public transportation and eating/shopping organically/locally, I'm not taking any radical steps like getting off the electricity grid or becoming an activist, and don't think that ringing my hands and rending my garments and whatever are helpful.
While writing PASE, though, I was totally eco-anxious and seized on the idea of weaving the most sensationalistic part of climate change projections—the end-of-the-world scenario—into the religion's doomsday prophecy. Unlike real historical millennial movements, which have used the Book of Revelations and other arbitrary systems for determining the world's end, PASE's environmental forecast was believable to me (and continues to be, sadly), so I was able to write
about it credulously. I'm glad this part of the book doesn't come across as too cliché or trite; I worried that it could with a plot as over-the-top as PASE's. I haven't read Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island (though I love his Elementary Particles) and wasn't reading other apocalyptic cult fiction at the time, but I thought about The Matrix (Jack's possible messianic role is distantly related to Neo's) and A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker. And Cat's Cradle was rattling around in the back of my head.
EG: How did you go about creating Montgomery Shoales and his new religion? Did you take any real-life movements as a starting point? Have you ever been involved with a fringe religion?
JE: PASE is basically a Buddhism/Scientology/Christian-Science mashup. One of Buddhism's core philosophies, that desire (or attachment) is the root of all suffering, runs through most religions in some fashion or other and seemed like a good sound baseline for PASE, both because there's an element of truth in it and because the world's in a materialist place right now. Of course human life has always been about getting and retaining things, from food and water to shelter to gaming consoles to stock options, but given the volumes we're working with these days, as Americans' credit problems attest, the situation seems extreme. I thought that a religion like PASE, while unattractive to most people, could find followers in a climate like ours.
I haven't been involved in any fringe religions or cults—my own spiritual journey has been from atheist to agnostic, where it's forever ended—though I'm interested in them. My parents grew up in a conservative Christian sect, the Church of Christ (there are two groups with this name, and they were in the more mainstream one), but had converted to Buddhism (my dad) and a kind of open-air Catholic mysticism (my mom) by the time I was born, so I grew up exposed to a couple of traditions that I found equally attractive and untrue. The idea for PASE came to me one afternoon when I visited the Scientology Center at the corner of Sunset and L. Ron Hubbard Blvds. in Los Angeles. I was given a private showing of an introductory film that was so cult-like and off-putting that by its end I had a moment's panic I wouldn't be allowed to leave. Jack's story gradually developed from there.
EG: It's impressive how you were able to manage to tell Jack's spiritual journey from his point of view, going through so many belief/unbelief flip-flops while maintaining his voice. I mean, he lurches from extreme to extreme fairly rapidly but his voice is somehow the same throughout. Was that hard to do? What inspired you to try that?
JE: I thought that because he's narrating the novel in flashback, it'd be best to keep his voice consistent throughout. He is not the Jack, or Jacks, he was even a week before the book begins, and so describes his former selves and states of mind with a kind of distance and dispassion in order to decide what's ultimately true (he's hoping to will into existence a great clarity of thought). The trick was to make each of his shifts—from doubt about PASE to faith in it to something else, from wariness of Mary to love for her to rejection of her to something else—seem plausible and true while he's presenting it.
EG: There's one scene where a PASE-produced video is being shown. You write:
The screen then sequed into a montage of people representing nearly every race, culture, age, gender, class, and physical condition ... either seated against a solid white backdrop or engaged in charitable activities.A Japanese schoolgirl pushed an elderly Egyptian man in a wheelchair into a PASE station. A Dutch businessman read from The Prescription to barefooted Mayan Indians in a hilltop Guatemalan classroom as an ox stuck his head through the glassless window.Aside from being hilarious, it really captures the banal, absurdly PC essence of so many religious propaganda efforts. I'm thinking of pamphlet illustrations I once saw, of lions and lambs and attractive children holding apples and learning from wise, smiling leaders. It's always on hills, like the default Windows XP background.
JE: Yeah, for a second I was going to say that new religions, unlike old ones, have to keep going and growing in order to establish their legitimacy in front of a skeptical world, and so try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I was thinking of the mandatory mission year that Mormons go on. And the fact that Judaism doesn't lift a finger to attract new followers. But Christianity, a fairly old religion, still wants to convert everyone, so I don't know. Maybe we should remember Tracy Flick's observation in Election that "Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink in the world, and it spends more money on advertising than anyone."
EG: When I got to the end of the book, I could almost see it as a movie. Have you licensed the film rights? Any thoughts about how you'd like the film to be made if it is made? Or would Scientology sense it was hitting a little close to home and use its grip on Hollywood prevent its production?
JE: I have a film agent for PASE, but so far no one has optioned the rights. I suspect this is because its prose is less commercial (or friendly or whatever) than its plot, though it could be because of PASE's resemblance to Scientology, a sensitive subject in Hollywood. Not sure. I'd love Charlie Kaufman to turn it into a film if he were in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mood (as opposed to an Adaptation mood), and would only really be disappointed if it became a boilerplate thriller (though it's hard to imagine anyone bothering to do this).
EG: How was writing your second novel different from writing your first? Did you have a two-book deal?
JE: The first book is all about regular people tentatively working out their problems, and I wrote it quickly, a completed draft in a year, whereas the second is more concerned with ideas than characters and required more research and time, about two years to finish, even though it's a hundred pages shorter. They're so different that I can't say one was more enjoyable or satisfying than the other, though The Loss of Leon Meed appears to be more broadly appealing to people. I had a one-book deal for Leon with an editor who then moved from Scribner to Riverhead, so PASE went to another editor at Scribner, the great Nan Graham (who edits Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx and others).
EG: Have you read anything recently that knocked your socks off?
The last few books that blew me away were Stendhal's The Red and the Black (I'd read it in college and found it boring, whereas really it's one of the ten best novels ever), Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (though it aids and abets eco-anxiety), and Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji (damn this is good). Something I'd never heard of but greatly enjoyed recently is John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra.
EG: What are you doing nowadays besides writing? You went to Iowa recently to teach a summer course, but the flooding canceled that.
JE: I'm not doing enough. My Iowa class was canceled due to the flood, but in May I taught a two-week class at Northern Michigan University, where the lovely Rebecca Johns-Trissler works. Right now I'm at Yaddo until the end of August. When I go back to Philadelphia, I'm going to try to get a job at Greenpeace, though I doubt it'll be possible.
EG: What's next on your to-write list?
JE: I'm in the middle of a novel called Ambleside, about a couple that have been married long enough to wonder which is more flawed, them or the institution. At the moment it's a closely contained drama about relationships in the Revolutionary Road and Scenes from a Marriage vein, though it might open up to include more about the town where the couple is staying. I've also started writing a romantic-comedy screenplay that's shamelessly (shamefully?) commercial.
What am I more excited about? The Batpod? Ledger's joker- a psychopathic misfits fan with Chicago accenting his voice from behind his nose? Or that Chicago-cum-Gotham itself-- the boyhood home of the Nolan boys, a city they apparently see, as I do, to be our nation's most achingly poetic? It's an unanswerable question. Whatever the case, I can't wait for the 12:15 matinee.
Still, perhaps two years after it was first released, the above image still defines my expectations for this movie. Nothing in the trailers I've seen or previews I've read contradicts it tonally- in fact, those original inferences have mostly just been deepened and refined. And that's a good thing.
UPDATE: Yeah, it was great. Ledger was very good- didn't change my life or anything, but I guess if he wins an oscar he'll deserve it more than most. He was a good actor.
I spent the last third of the movie naggingly distracted by something I read this morning in Dana Stephens's review- a too-clever-by-half comparison of Batman to George W. Bush.
Fallacious parallels between reality in fiction are sort of the problem with that guy in the first place, aren't they? In other words, our president's problem isn't so much that he's like Batman, it's that he thinks he's like Batman and that this supposed similarity justifies his decisions. But an important part of the point of a character like batman is that he is wholly fictional-- a psychologic totem, an ethic manifest-- not only not a real person, but not of a real world. Batman's world exists for one and one purpose only: to test him so that he may overcome and so be more his true batman self. I don't envy our president the choices he's had to make but that doesn't make it any less clear that he's made them the wrong way-- something Batman is incapable of doing in any meaningful sense.
As a new feature of Earthgoat, I bring you "El Gordo De Amore's Lost Sounds." I've been trolling the few remaining record stores and pawnshops of this great nation to bring you the best in lost music. Today, I give you: MeeMee and Maia's "It was a Dog that Peed on My Baby."
As far as I can tell, MeeMee and Maia released only one record during their short lifetime, Honestly, Move Over, a collection of lo fi, droney songs in the tradition of the Velvets. MeeMee, 23, and Maia, 26, were "Siamese twins" joined at the hips, the result of an explosion in the glue factory they worked at in Nova Scotia. This accident left them connected until they died in a freak heli-skiing accident in 1995. "It was a Dog that Peed on My Baby" has all the classic pieces of a MeeMee and Maia tune, including rudimentary drums, rudimentary guitar, and somthing they called "The Lander," a space-noise generator that appears on every single one of their songs.
MeeMee and Maia -- It Was A Dog That Peed on My Baby
Fun Fact: MeeMee's real name was "Tony."
Highest Chart Position: None.
There's a new literary mag afoot called The New Anonymous. It's just what it sounds like. No name on your submission, the readers never see names, the editors are anonymous. Here's how to submit your stuff there:
1. All submissions should be e-mailed directly to The Mediator. It is The Mediator’s responsibility to a) protect the identity of the writer throughout the editorial and publication process and b) assure that all work is forwarded to the editorial board anonymously.
2. Attach your submission as a single word file (.doc format). This applies to poets too, i.e., if you are sending six poems, put them all in one document.
3. Do not include your name anywhere in the document. Time permitting, The Mediator will relieve your submission of your name; otherwise, it will simply be rejected.
4. In the body of your e-mail please include only your contact info.
5. In the subject of your e-mail, please write
a. For fiction/prose: “Title of Submission”
b. For poetry: “Poems”
Your submissions, which will be processed solely by The Mediator, should be e-mailed to:
We want to keep this process as pure possible, so if you want to submit using a pseudonymous e-mail address, that's okay with us.
If you have questions concerning your submission status or the journal in general, please use the following e-mail (not the one above):
Upon receiving your submission, The Mediator will send you a document—tendered by our attorney—which ensures that your submission will be, henceforth, relieved of its authorship. Your submission will then be sent, via e-mail, to the editors.
You may submit as many submissions as you wish. We accept simultaneous submissions, but please inform us if your piece is accepted elsewhere. We embrace previously published work as well.
We are open to a range of fictions, prose and poetry. We accept anything from experimental fiction to cultural critique, from the uber-elliptical to heroic verse. Of course, the idea of Anonymous translations of Anonymous work appeals to us as well.
No more than 1 piece of fiction/prose per e-mail submission.
No more than 7 poems per e-mail submission.
I won't do the offended two-step here, because I'm no good at it. But really, what's most obnoxious about this image isn't in the image itself but in the vibe of superiority. "We," the sophisticates reading the NYer, are so much better than "them," the trogs still reading email fwds at all (let alone ones so coarse as to include sublimated racism!) that our mockery of their ignorance will go right over their heads. That they will miss the point will only validate what we knew all along: we are so great! Too great for them to ever understand! Persuasion would be pointless! When they use this cover as further "evidence" supportive of their hatefulness, well, at least we'll be able to smugly sneer over it! Once again, our superiority will be affirmed! In fact, that sneering is an end unto itself, is it not? It keeps us warm at night and nourishes our children, body and soul!
Satire, particularly political satire, works best from a position of morality, not pointed amorality. Not self-absorbed and thoughtless arrogance. That's the real issue here. Thoughtless irony isn't irony- its just an excuse to say what you don't have the courage to say straight. Truth via untruth is a legitimate tool of artistic expression, but the danger is the way it slides so seductively into self-congratulation. A good satirist polices himself first. He holds himself to a higher standard than this--or at least his editors usually do.
My feeling is that good satire always has a place, but this is lazy and sensationalistic, and if this does anything, it will be bad for Obama. Anyone else?
Watching this put me in mind of the dramas over "security" coming this fall to a Denver near you.
As I watch the saccharine meanderings of Calliou on Children's Television, I hark back to the really weird and wonderful thing that was Sesame Street when we were little.
Above, Stevie Wonder, Sesame Street, 1973.
Supposedly, the DVD releases of the first few seasons of Sesame Street came with a warning to parents that it was much grittier than what we watch today.
No kidding. The above looks like Saturday Night Light circa 1977.
I think one of the kids in the background is smoking.
But, as a side note, Jimmy and Mary Frances absolutely adore dancing to this song as I cook dinner.
With the death of adventure playgrounds, the rise of bike helmets, and the disappearance of lawn darts, I worry for the next generation. The world is a much richer, deeper, scarier, and even darker place than Barney would lead you to believe.
Plus, the above is simply the coolest thing I've ever seen from the Children's Television Workshop.
(Gotta go to work, can't make the links. Sorry, you'll have to use the google. I'm too lazy to be a blogger anymore).
A Drink Before the War (Lehane)
Darkness, Take My Hand (Lehane)
The Technics of Time (Mumford)
Our Story Begins (Wolff- reviewed for TOC- the section's second ever six star review)
The Soul Thief (Baxter- I'm not so sold on the ending but its baroque cleverness was perfectly appropriate)
Some I've picked up but not read yet:
The Torrents of Spring (Turgenev, not that American guy)
The Lost World (Doyle)
Some I read less recently but have not sufficiently praised in these particular environs:
You Remind Me of Me (Chaon-having replaced "The Count of Monte Cristo" as my favorite ever)
The Tesseract (Garland)
Some books I didn't love so much but finished anyway:
Bright Lights, Big City (Mcininininininery)
The Sun Also Rises (That American guy-A good friend practically took this personally. I hope no one here does).
Judge orders YouTube to hand over pretty much everything ever to Viacom, including who you are and what you have watched
I was surprised and, it must be admitted, titillated when I received an email a few years ago from a publisher offering to send me a book to review here on Earth Goat. Once I took down the balloons and said farewell to the clowns and dancing horses, though, and actually sat down to read the book, I decided against doing the review. The book just wasn't good. This happened again and again, and each time the book I received was just not worth the time or effort. And as for books by us or other Workshoppers, reviews here would be suspicious, of course, which is why we interview Iowa people here instead of review their books. Well, I’ve finally been sent a book that is causing me to break both rules at once: Undiscovered Country by Lin Engler.
Lin Enger teaches writing at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, and is an Iowa Writers’ workshop graduate, but I had never heard of him before. He has updated a classic tragedy while admirably avoiding the problems that could accompany such an endeavor. Undiscovered Country is Hamlet meets
At first I thought this sounded like a good idea, and then I decided it would be too hard to pull off and began the book skeptically. During the first 20 pages or so I wondered how my interest was going to be sustained, since I knew the basic plot already. Turned out, as is proper, it was the characters that drew me in and kept me going. Jesse is a thoughtful kid who, like Hamlet, is justifiably confused about whom he’s supposed to believe and what he’s supposed to do. His mother (Genevieve) is a distant, ambiguous figure in his life. The scenes with her are really creepy and uncomfortable. Ditto the scenes with the uncle (Clay), a jealous younger loser-type brother who never measured up to Harold, mayor of the town. As you would hope, Harold’s ghost keeps coming back to urge Jesse to action, each time more decayed and ragged and disgusting.
How can Jesse determine Clay’s guilt or innocence? His satisfying schemes are exactly what a kid would come up with. The awkwardness and horror of dealing with such stuff at such a tender age, of accusing your uncle of killing your father, is correctly milked for all it’s worth in the book. The action builds quietly while the reader squirms in the proximity of such a close, almost stifling small-town family drama (one unforgettable scene between Jesse and his mother takes place in a sauna). There are some pitfalls Engler could have fallen into. One would be pretending that the story wasn’t Hamlet, as if Hamlet didn’t exist in the world of the story. What Engler does instead is nifty: He makes Jesse grow up to be an English teacher and he directly addresses the Hamlet parallels. Yet he doesn’t go overboard with it -- he mentions it a few times and moves on.
The tension isn’t resolved until the very end, and the ending, I’ll just say, is gratifying as hell. It reminded me a bit of Antoine Wilson’s The Interloper. Both books are suspenseful and hard to put down, written in deceptively plain and simple prose, depict awkward family struggles with steadily mounting intensity, and sport a vein of disturbing darkness running through them. Recommended summer reading if you like a sort of innocent creepiness that becomes very addictive.