W. P. Johnson

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Bridge Burning Blog (and a top ten list)

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2012 at 6:36 pm

The first rule about Fight Club is never talk about, er, ugh, never mind.

     Hi everyone. Welcome to the bridge burning blog where I will most likely alienate myself, severe friendships, and trash a literary holy shrine of my generation, after which I will incur the wrath of my peers and ruin any chances of being invited to write an article or submit a story to a handful of places I actually enjoy.

     But let’s back things up a bit…

It all started with my goal of publishing god knows how many stories per month in hopes of having between 20-30 stories published by the end of next spring. This was back in April when I was all full of piss and vinegar. Well (or welp, as my girl is fond of saying), it’s been about four months since I’ve had anything accepted. I’m working overtime at the bar about twice a month, I get up every day at eight to write for an hour before going to work, write between shifts at work, guzzle as much coffee as I can, and write on every single day I have off. I have eight stories I’m currently waiting to hear back on and another three I’ll have out by the end of this weekend.

In short folks, I am pooped. Burned out, smoked, spent, running on empty. Just a few days ago I got a rejection letter for my short story “Cut In Half”, a tale I’m especially proud of and one that has already been rejected quite a few times. So, being the solider that I am, I dusted it off, queried another publication, was given the okay to send it, and was summarily rejected again. Within three hours.

That, my friends, was a tough pill to swallow (boo hoo hoo, I know, but I was still bummed out).

Fast forward a few days and I see an online contest being run by Manarchy Magazine, a zine that I’ve peeked at now and again since its inception. I like Manarchy Magazine. It’s simple, fun, a bit eclectic and geared towards writers and pop culture. The contest in question was for people to submit their best Fight Club pictures.

Now… I like Fight Club. I like the film adaptation. I also like several other books by Chuck Palahniuk. But when I saw this contest the first thing I thought was: can we, my generation, please get our dicks out of this fucking book already?

I mean, based on the amount of times I’ve seen it referenced and referred to you’d think it was the only book worth reading in the last fifteen years (or maybe it was the only book ever written! I don’t know). It’s become the goddamn bible for my generation despite its inability to hold up to intellectual scrutiny for all its watered down Nietzschesque-high-school-stoner-just-shaved-my-head-cause-my-girl-broke-up-with-me bullshit.

And you know what? It’s a decent book. I don’t think it’s an amazing book, but it’s decent. Just like Survivor was a decent book. But that’s kinda it for me and Chucky P. after those two I thinks. And trust me folks, I’ve read a TON of his books.

Call me a snob, or a twat, or late for dinner (oh ho ho, but I kid). Over the years my appreciation for Chuck Palahniuk has waned so severely that it passed the threshold of neutrality into hater territory. The guy is a fucking hack but no one will say so because he puts out a book every year so people don’t forget that he exists and goes on another wacky book tour to give out a bunch of horse shit linked to the new book but all anyone ever says about him now is that his new stuff is so so and that he hasn’t really written anything decent since Haunted (I actually liked Rant, surprise surprise). But we keep buying his fucking books! Despite everything, despite the formulaic, fragmented style of his first person narratives, the choruses, the repetition of catch phrases, the lazy exposition of interesting facts through a character who is an expert at some random thing, the twist endings (oh god, the twist endings NEVER FUCKING STOP), we keep… buying… his books.

Though, admittedly, his live readings are a lot of fun.

But I digress. After all, you’re probably so disgusted and annoyed with my reaction to a fun little contest, there’s no need for me to keep digging this hole. Besides, Fight Club was, admittedly, a pretty big part of pop culture in the late 1990s and the popularity of the author went on to start two writer’s workshops that I’ve been a part of (also the contest is timed with the 13th anniversary of the film’s release). That said, I must confess: I too was annoyed by my own emotional reaction to this contest. I mean, it’s just people fucking around and having fun. So why fly off the handle and trash a book/author just because it’s popular? What contest should they have? Something with Philip Roth maybe?

Everyone, send us pictures of you dressed up as Nathan Zuckerman!

There’s a reason I’m not in charge of fun contests…

Truth is, this reaction of mine made me realize two things about myself: one, is that I’m burned out and extremely jealous of the success of other writers, especially those whom I consider peers (though am conflictingly happy at the same time). And two, is that my interest in Chuck Palahniuk slowly waned not because he’s a hack, but because I’ve read too many of his books! In fact, the same thing happened to me with Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, and Stephen King. And while I certainly don’t think any of these guys are hacks, I do notice their tricks, their routines and the things they do as writers that makes them unique. I know their strengths but I also know what their crutches are and like a magician whose slight of hand I can not spot, I must move on.

So goes the way of Ray Bradbury, and Douglass Adams, and John Steinbeck (though in defense of Bradbury, I just ran out of books to read). Bye, bye Ernest Hemmingway and Charles Bukowski. Sorry Cormac McCarthy, but after reading five of your books, I feel like I’ve read them all.

Considering all of this, it made me reminisce on my history as a reader, remembering the books I ate up when I was a kid, books I read when I was a teenager, and the stuff I was initially forced to read in college but ended up loving when it finally clicked for me. So, dear reader, I would like to present to you a top ten list so that you may know what this douche bag considers to be good writing when he has the audacity to trash one of the nicest people he’s ever met at several book signings years past. It’s not in any particular order, and it’s not even a top ten list of books that I think are, objectively speaking, the greatest novels ever written. These books are the books that changed me, the books that made me completely reevaluate myself as a writer and challenged everything I was doing. These are the game changers, the holy-shit books, the you’ve-gotta-put-down-whatever-shit-you’re-doing-right-now-and-read-this-fucking-book-right-now books. These are, in short, the books that keep me reading new books.

1. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

     Ahhh, you see what I did there people? I threw you a curve ball! But I have to admit it, this book really did change and inform me as a writer when I first read it. I was 17-18 and a friend of mine in high school had just seen the movie. He tried to half-hazardly explain the film and quoted several lines, clever bits on consumerism, I am Jacks whatever. Afterwards he insisted that I read the book without seeing the film as to not have it influence my opinion on the novel, and tell him if it was worth reading or not. So I went and got the book, read it in a single sitting, and decided right then and there that if this guy could write a book, why not me?

Funny thing is… there are A LOT of people who have told this very same story. That they read Fight Club and it made them want to be a writer. It was so short and easy to digest, yet smartly written, funny, and darker than anything I’d read before (they make soap out of Marla’s mother for Christ sake). It was something intelligent that wasn’t hard to read. Before that the only book I had read that was as easy to read as Fight Club was Catcher In The Rye, and I found that book to be as boring as watching flies fuck. Imagine my excitement when I found a book that was barely two hundred pages about a nameless narrator who suffers with insomnia, hangs out with people that are dying, starts a fight club, nearly destroys the city he lives in, makes soap out of human fat, and then shoots himself. That’s way better than some dork that won’t stop going on about how everyone is “phony.”

2. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

     This is easily the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Period. To try and even explain what Perdido Street Station is about is simply an invitation for someone to stare at you in confusion as you prattle on about dream shit, the remade, a wingless garuda, slake moths, and a multidimensional being that takes the form of a giant tarantula who speaks in a never ending torrent of free verse poetry.

Right…

Yet somehow it works. It’s a novel that blends horror, science fiction, steam punk, and fantasy. It’s one of those books that makes me want to give up writing and just take up something simpler, say goat farming perhaps, or maybe work in a box factory. In contrast to Fight Club, and many of the other books I’ll be listing, it is not an easy read. I don’t say that snobbishly as a way of suggesting that you won’t get it. What I mean by that is that despite the fact that I have a degree and English and read all the time, I found Perdido Street Station to be a difficult book to read and actually put it down upon the first attempt, only to try again later with the knowledge of certain events to pass pushing me along. After finishing it I found the ideas within the book weird, horrifying, and incredibly ambitious. However, this is not just a book of weird shit stacked back to back. It’s also an amazing story, one that pulled at my heart strings more than once.

3. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

     This is one of those college books I had to read that I ended up loving. It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it? At first you’re just dreading reading this damn thing because at some point you’ll have to write a paper on it, then all of the sudden you don’t stop reading after you’ve met your goal for the night and before you know it you’re behind on all your other course work because you can’t put this damn book down. I remember when I handed in my term paper on the book, my professor said it was a muddled mess and not what he asked for, to which I replied, “I’m sorry… but the book really effected me.”

Like Perdido Street Station, it’s a tough book to explain to people. It’s not a weird book by any means, but very little happens in it. It’s like a really long episode of Seinfeld, only it’s dark, cryptic, takes place in Europe after World War I and features a cast of some of the oddest and saddest people I’ve ever read about. There’s Guido, the wandering Jew who can’t let go of wanting some kind of noble lineage, going as far as to name himself a baron without having any right to the title (and it would seem that titles are a thing of the past anyway). There’s Robin Vote, who marries Guido and goes on to have a series of affairs with various women, sleep walks, and has some kind of odd hyper sexual compulsion to remain anonymous in her love life. This compulsion is what effects most of the characters that fall in love with her. Nora Flood is a lesbian lover who somewhat represents the American tendency towards more puritanical sensibilities. Then there’s Dr. Matthew O’Conner, a transvestite who pretends to be a doctor, performs deliveries as well as abortions, and was a soldier in World War I yet wishes that he was a female lover of soldiers instead. His narrative alone makes the book worth reading and to this day, having not read the book in years, I still remember snippets of some of the stuff he said.

To quote, “The face is what anglers catch in the daylight, but the sea is the night!”

Just thinking about this book now makes me shiver and want to read it again.

 

4. It by Stephen King

     I have a problem when it comes to pitching things. In developing my first novel, a thing which I won’t really start to work on until I’ve gotten enough short stuff published, I’m troubled at the prospect of describing it to another person. I won’t say too much now except that it’ll be about comedians, takes place in Philadelphia and New York City, and that the antagonists are a group of emotional vampires that worship rats (the tentative title is Mouse).

Not a terrible pitch, though vague. But just imagine pitching It if you were a nobody: a clown that only children can see eats fear, can turn into any monster that you’re afraid of, and it’s true form is a giant spider that gives off some kind of bright light that makes you go insane. Also the first draft is over a thousand pages. Would you like to publish it?

King is lucky that he was successful with his earlier work to get down and dirty with something like It and other long books such as the Dark Tower Series, Insomnia, The Stand, and Under The Dome. Or rather, I should say, we are lucky as readers that he’s able to try something this ambitious and weird.

It is also the only book that ever truly scared me. I read it first when I was fourteen, read it again at around twenty, and last year I downloaded it on my kindle and proceeded to read it a third time. All three times I stayed up way past my bedtime and then proceeded to have trouble sleeping afterwards because I couldn’t stop thinking about a cluster of balloons floating against the wind towards my bedroom window as a clown with no shadow waved at me from down the street. It got to the point where I read it just to see things through and be done with this clown already, because until I saw this thing dead it wasn’t gonna stop giving me nightmares.

Granted, it’s not the greatest American novel, but as far as horror goes, it’s one of my favorites and if I had to put these ten books in order I’d probably put this at number one.

5. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

     Like Fight Club, The Hellbound Heart also has a simplicity to its language that is very easy to digest. Most of you already know the story of this novel through the Hellraiser series featuring the renowned horror icon Pinhead (never mind that the lead Cenobite, known as “The Engineer” is an average looking human being whose only fantastic attribute is that he/she/it glows). Following his collection of short stories, Books Of Blood, I was hungry for something longer by Barker and this book not only delivered, it exceeded expectations. It’s dirty, smart, gory, and just plain weird. The kinkiness of the Cenobites never seems corny or overdone but, rather, elicits an honest discomfort at the idea of beings whom find pleasure in pain.

Barker as a writer is simply wonderful in this book. He can be wordy at times (as demonstrated in his later experiments of fantasy fiction), but when he keeps it short, his prose really shines.

To quote: The woman beneath was gray yet gleaming, her lips bloody, her legs parted so that the elaborate scarification of her pubis was displayed. She sat on a pile of rotting human heads, and smiled in welcome. The collision of sensuality and death appalled him. Could he have any doubt that she had personally dispatched these victims? Their rot was beneath her nails, and their tongues – twenty or more – laid out in ranks on her oiled thighs, as if awaiting entrance. Nor did he doubt that the brains now seeping from their ears and nostrils had been driven to insanity before a blow or a kiss had stopped their hearts.

Hellraiser didn’t quite capture that, did it?

 

6. All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

     Another college read turned favorite. This book almost made me cry in public actually, it had such an effect on me. It was for a class in Southern Literature and after nearly killing myself reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (which I’m willing to say, while brilliant, was by no means an easy nor pleasurable read), All The King’s Men was a piece of cake.

The story is about Jack Burden, a political reporter who starts working for Willie Stark, a politician who becomes the governor of Louisiana. But it’s also about fate, nihilism, original sin, the consequences of our actions, love and hate, the amoral perspective of human history and the uncontrollable nature of events (something Jack Burden refers to as “the twitch”), and then a denial of this very idea that all things happen randomly.

There are two different versions of this book: go with the full version. It includes more narrative on Jack Burdon’s personal life and the Cass Mastern story, which I believe was cut from the original edition, though I could be wrong.

And, why the hell not, here’s a quote from the book on the relationship between history and historians: And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth.

Don’t watch the movie version of this book. While well casted, it’s shit due to the fact that it’s impossible to even scratch the surface of all the stuff that happens. It’s a movie that only readers of the book will have any grasp of and does not stand alone.

7. Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

     This is another book that I read every four or five years. I can’t explain why, but it’s just soooooo damn good that I keep coming back to it. It’s also the only book out of all the dystopian novels I had to read in high school that I still like (Brave New World was kind of a bore in retrospect, and Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t really satisfy my suspension of disbelief like it used to). Yet there’s something very honest and realistic about Orwell’s dystopian universe; newspeak, the Ministry Of Love (which mostly just tortures people), Inner party/Outer party, Proles, and the concept of Big Brother, a governmental boogie man that can monitor everything you do through your television screens (a concept that isn’t very far-fetched considering the fact that every cell phone has a camera on it and would not be difficult to access without the user’s consent). Even the simple phrase “room 101” sends a fucking chill down my spine the same way room 217 does from The Shining.

While many writers out there try to do their “end of the world/dystopian novel”, many manage a good yarn of a story but few manage to pull off anything as interesting and as smart as Nineteen Eighty-four. It’s a novel that’s relevant to past culture and government and it’s something that will continue to remain relevant as long as a ruling class continues to try and keep the middle struggling through daily life with the single solace of not being a prole.

 

8. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

     Chances are if you’ve read and enjoyed Fight Club, you’ve probably also read American Psycho. This is another book that I come back to now and again. Like Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis was another writer whose tricks became all too clear to me as I continued reading his work, so for the most part my fandom starts and stops with American Psycho (Less Than Zero is too vapid and pointless in my opinion, though Rules Of Attraction had some decent parts).

The book is about Patrick Bateman, an affluent white male who works in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street in New York City, eats at the fanciest restaurants, and goes to the most exclusive clubs. At night, however, he rapes and murders numerous women, has psychotic episodes and bizarre hallucinations, and rents the movie Body Double a hundred times so he can jerk off to the scene where the girl gets her head drilled in. It’s dark and serious and satirical of American culture during the decadent eighties. It even got a shout out from Norman Mailer, who claimed that Ellis was taking on “Dostoyevskian themes” with this novel. It’s sharply written and, while monotonous at times, it’s a narrative that I never really tire of due to Bateman’s numb perspective on life in New York City. As Ellis has said of his own work, “everything is surface” and this book is a great example of that idea. Even the murder scenes are described with little flowery language, using the neutral tone of text book terminology.

What most people don’t realize about this novel, though, is that it’s a very funny book. Bateman is, in some respects, a complete dork. His album reviews are a thing I usually pass in rereading the novel, but first time readers should take the time to really soak up this idiot’s taste in music; it’ll soften the reality of all the gore when you realize that Bateman is just some nerd and probably not even really performing these murders (though that is a thing of contention). Bateman often confuses famous people and the people he works with as someone else, and despite his own successful career on Wall Street and despite the fact that he takes pride in spending three hundred dollars on lunch, many of his peers confuse him as someone else as well or they claim to have seen him at a place he simply wasn’t. This is because Patrick Bateman is a pathetic loser.

At several points he even confesses his murderous lifestyle to his peers. Of course, they’re not listening to him, because a dork isn’t really worth listening to.

 

9. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

     Written in “Spanglish”, this was another college book that I ended up really loving. It focuses on the life of Oscar de Leon, a fat Dominican kid growing up in Paterson New Jersey who is obsessed with speculative fiction, thus the book is loaded with science fiction and fantasy references. This alone made the book an excellent read for any nerd worth his salt. In contrast to the chapters which take place on the Dominican Republic and the reign of the dictator Trujillo, the more speculative elements of the novel informs the reader’s perspective on just how truly strange and fucked up a third world country can be. The book is also something of a meditation on story telling itself, as it narrates Oscar’s life, as well as his mother’s and the life of her parents as they all encounter Fuku, a curse that ends up plaguing their family for generation after generation.

In the end, the story is about finding love, a thing that every fat nerd longs for and smothers with role playing, science fiction, nachos, and compulsive masturbation. Though Oscar eventually does find love, its heart breaking to know the struggle of his adolescence as a fat bookish geek living in Paterson New Jersey (a thing that Diaz describes as akin to being a mutant from the X-Men). Any fan of genre who grew up feeling awkward will certainly relate to the misery that is not getting laid, being acne scarred, and having nothing but comic books and candy to sooth your pains.

Quite a few people in my class had a hard time with this book due to all the Spanish used, though I don’t think it’s that tough of a road block if you don’t know any and more often than not you can understand what’s being said out of context. Think of it as a “Spanglish” Clockwork Orange; tough at first, but overtime you get the hang of the language.

10. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

     Stephen King described this book as being one of the best horror novels of the decade. I’m a hesitant to agree without reading all that came out in that decade, but I wouldn’t be surprised if after I did manage to soak it all in that Carrion Comfort remained at the top of my list.

I didn’t really start reading Dan Simmons until this past year so I was hesitant to list him here at one of my game changers, but I simply can’t shake how impressive and grand this novel was. Like Clive Barker, Simmons has a simplicity to his language that I absolutely love. Call me lazy, but I like it when I don’t feel like I’m trudging through a narrative, and I enjoy colorful language when I don’t have to pull out a dictionary.

The book is about psychic vampires that have something called “the ability”, which is essentially mind control. The use of another person to perform acts of violence keep these people young and as the book progresses, we discover that some of the most horrific and senseless acts of violence in history were nothing more than a game these strange beings are playing for their own enjoyment. At more than seven hundred pages, Carrion Comfort is one hell of a ride, and it’s a ride that doesn’t stop for gas or bathroom breaks.

Despite its length, the book’s plot remains taut from beginning to end. Simmons as a writer is impressive in how he sets up his stories. More often than not I find myself bored and confused with all the stuff that’s happening only to have the final piece put in place and realize I’m looking at completed puzzle of something completely horrific. As such, even when the concept of a psychic vampire is explained and revealed through plot, the idea is turned on its head over and over and over again. And then it’s turned on its head again!

However, if you’re having doubts about a book of this length, you can try out his first novel Song of Kali, which was also very good and much shorter. After, you can try out Carrion Comfort or his Hyperion Cantos series, a science fiction epic that blends horror and fantasy and would’ve made this top ten list if it wasn’t for the fact that I just finished reading it this past week.

Runner ups: The Plot Against America, Portnoy’s Complaint, and American Pastoral by Philip Roth, The Stand and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K Dick, Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, The Passage by Justin Cronin, Horns by Joe Hill, All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (currently on book two and it’s so good!).

Hope you enjoyed the list, the trashing of an icon, the embarrassing confessions of all my jealousy, burning out, etc. Until next time, here’s to being scary.

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