Salvatore Pane

Category: Pop Culture

Culture Death Match #2: Tom Bissell vs. Sarah Vowell

What’s that? You read Culture Death Match #1 in which Amy Whipple and I talked Batman and Golden Girls and you’re dying for more? BEHOLD! Amy Whipple and I chat up Tom Bissell, Sarah Vowell, and who is assigned writerly authority and why that is exactly. It’s like a thousand Christmas mornings up in this bitch.

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Curt Moyer Remembers Reach

Let me tell you about the kind of person Curt Moyer is. One time we  purchased soda and then were transporting said soda to our homes. Curt hooked his twelve-pack over his shoulder and started nodding his head to a made up beat. He looked over at me and sang, “You feel them cans jiggling?” That sums up our entire friendship.

He writes poetry too.

Now, without further interruption, I give you his thoughts on the impending release of Halo: Reach.

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September 14th is a day of historical significance, not because it is 3 days after the 11th, but because it’s right around the time George W. Bush told Americans to not worry about anything and go shopping. Given that it is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think it’s best to salvage the important message from that day: buy things to show the terrorists we are not afraid.

September 14th will mark a new era for America as it is the release of Bungie’s Halo: Reach. Reach is one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. Many stores will open at midnight for gamers to get their hands on Reach as early as possible. Some gamers have already pre-ordered copies to pick up at midnight, while gamers like myself chance the hard conditions and possibility all the copies will be sold out. I am willing to take that chance. It will be a tough time, standing next to fellow nerds in the harsh early morning weather for an opportunity to do our part to keep America free.

September in Pennsylvania is mild, but if there is a strong wind, I might need to wear a light jacket and find some cover in order to light my cigarettes. It has been hard living as a young American, but I owe my country this much. It is true what they say, freedom isn’t free, it’s about $60 plus tax (or $150 for the “legendary edition”; this is only for the most financially committed patriots). Ultimately it doesn’t matter what edition you buy, it matters that you show up and put your time in, display your enduring patriotism.

But purchasing Reach is only the beginning. In order to maintain your patriotism you must play. Reach has three modes that will please any Halo fan or average gamer; Campaign (story), Firefight (fight oncoming waves of enemies that get progressively harder), Multiplayer (vs. other real-life patriots, this is the bread and butter of the Halo series). Ultimately it doesn’t matter what mode you play, you must put your time in.

The Reach Spartans

What makes Halo so appealing (apart from pulling off great headshots that make 14 year olds moan and cry mercy) is its allegorical nature. The storyline of Halo is simple. You are a member of the USNC and your objective is to defeat the Covenant. The UNSC is basically your 2-D military heroes, and the Covenant is a bunch of religious extraterrestrial zealots that are attempting to wipe out humanity. Did I mention this takes place in space (Philip K. Dick, eat your heart out!)? You play as a Spartan (yes, that’s what they’re called, why, because of their ability to beat the overwhelming odds that are against them, Thermopylae anyone?) and you have to battle tons of different Covenant enemies (everything from grunts to hunters). Did I also mention that grunts are the smallest/worthless units and some kamikaze with sticky grenades attached to them? Seriously, this game just reaches a level
of contemporary allegory Jonathan Franzen can’t even touch.

Grunt kamikaze with sticky nades

I can tell you the first week after Reach’s release I will be getting little sleep. I work long hours, so my free time home will be eaten up by Reach . There will be no books (which means I might be eligible to join the Tea Party) or blogs, or anything that involves words other than “pwn” and “noobs”. This is what it means to be American, this is what it means to have principles, this is what it means to be a Patriot. Do yourself a favor, remember Reach.

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An Excuse to Talk About Fantasy Football or It’s Prime Submission Season!

For a few days, I’ve been trying to think of a good excuse for talking about fantasy football on a blog that’s supposedly about writing and books and shit. I’ve done this before, coming up with justifications to discuss Scott Pilgrim and Earthbound and and all kinds of esoteric subjects. I thought maybe I could pass the draft day experience as an unfolding narrative, how once choice affects another (for example, if you use your first pick on Chris Johnson, you don’t then use your second on another running back with the same bye week).

But, in the end, I couldn’t think of a single, solitary reason for why I’d talk about fantasy football on this blog which (normally) has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy football. But you know what? Fuck it. This is salvatore-pane.com, so if I want to talk about fantasy football I should be able to talk about fantasy football, right? Here’s the outcome of my draft:

Excuse me? Is you saying something? Nu-uh. Can't tell me nothin'.

How’d I do? I feel good about it with the exception of Winslow (I wanted Visanthe Shiancoe, but I’m in a league with Minnesota fans). Do you guys play fantasy? Or do you think, like Marvel Editor Nathan Crosby, that it “combines the excitement of the NFL with the sadness of role-playing games”? Can you come up with any parallels between the world of fantasy football and writing? Ok. Wait a sec. How about this shit? Assembling a fantasy football team is a lot like assembling the contents of a literary journal. You’ve got to balance things while playing towards your aesthetic. I’m a running back guy. I took one in the first round (then a WR then QB) and then a bunch of RBs in a row. Is this like editing a journal that primarily runs metafiction while still trying to balance things in terms of gender and race and sexuality? Are you also worried about Maurice Jones-Drew (language thugs like me call him The Hyphen) blowing out his knee and ruining your season? Are you too obsessed with the Talented Mr. Roto?

One last thing. And this has nothing to do with fantasy football but everything to do with lit journals. IT’S SUBMISSION SEASON AGAIN! I remember very vividly when I started my MFA program going for drinks with two recently graduated poets. They clinked glasses and made a toast to the new submission season. One thing I miss in an era when so much of what we do is digital is the idea that September 1st is the universal starting day for new submissions. So many online outlets read year round (which is obviously so much better for everyone–writer and reader both) that the anticipation of 9/1 just isn’t what it used to be.

However, I am preparing to send out a shit ton of new work. How do you guys go about this? Recently I told a current MFA student that I like to have no fewer than 30 submissions out at any given time, and she looked terrified. Is 30 high? Do you send to more places than that? Are you like me and get panicky whenever your submissions queue on Duotrope drops below 20? Do you not use Duotrope? How many times will you try a journal before you give up (DON’T GIVE UP; I’ve gotten into a bunch of journals that initially rejected my work)? How do you find new journals? Through the work of your peers? Through lit blogs like HTMLGIANT? If you don’t know Chris Johnson from LaDainian Tomlinson, but know the difference between Ploughshares and Diagram, hit me up in the comments.

What? Deal with it.

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Culture Death Match #1: The Golden Girls vs. Batman: The Animated Series

Earlier this week, The Rumpus ran the first in a series of articles co-written by myself and Amy WhippleCulture Death Match is a point, counter-point feature where Amy and I argue over the merits of various trinkets from the culture at large. For our first feature, we take a look at the gay marriage episode of The Golden Girls and the first Mr. Freeze adventure on Batman: The Animated Series.

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Earthbound: The Best Meta-Satire of 1994?

(Note: this is the first in a series of posts examining formally interesting video games. Check the second–about 1998’s Metal Gear Solid–here.)

Last month, Oscar Villalon wrote a piece on The Rumpus echoing Tom Bissell’s sentiments that many members of this generation do not catalog their lives by albums or movies, but through video games. Of course, I made a few remarks in the comments section. One responder said that while interested like Bissell in thinking about the new narrative opportunities afforded by video games, she doesn’t actually want to play them. In fact, she wouldn’t even know where to start, and instead, she offhandedly hoped that somebody would make a gaming mix tape for those whose only introduction to the form is Tetris.

BEHOLD THY MIXTAPE.

I thought that I might cover a couple video games over the next few months with the same literary lens I’ve been using to look at comic books. And the first one I’ve decided to go with is Earthbound, a 1994 release for the Super Nintendo. That should come as little to surprise to Earthbound veterans, but I’m imagining that most people who read this blog, even some gamers, aren’t aware of this relatively obscure game. The first thing we have to talk about right out of the gate is the box.

The box is bigger than my head.

That shit don’t mess around. And when you’re a ten-year-old boy wandering around the local Electronics Boutique, that giant face-sized behemoth is going to stick out. The box is so big because the game comes with its own strategy guide and a John Waters-esque pack of odorama gross out cards. Imagine me in 1994 utterly captivated by this box, so foreign, so alien, the sleek golden curvature of that figure on its front practically demanding a purchase.

So what’s the premise? Earthbound is about a group of kids who band together to fight hippies, eat cheeseburgers, break up Heaven’s Gate style cults, beat people up with frying pans, put their souls into robots, and ride the Loch Ness Monster. It’s a Japanese Role Playing Game, and for anyone not unspeakably nerdy enough to know what that is, JRPGs are text based narratives where your only method of interaction is steering the avatar (the figure the player controls onscreen) and selecting actions from a text box. Think Myst fused with Dungeons and Dragons. And up until 1994, these games for the most part followed the same formula. Dragons and magic and swords and castles. Plucky young hero watches his village destroyed by an evil empire, then has to fight them to save the world.

What’s so noteworthy about Earthbound is that it takes place in the present (199X to be exact), and the avatars are average kids with yo-yos and baseball bats for weapons. They drink soda, not potions, to repelnish their health. They get money by using their fathers’ credit cards in ATM machines, not collecting golden coins from fallen enemies. They fight crazed neighborhood dogs, not dragons.  They pal around with the Blues Brothers.

 

In 1994, this blew my fucking mind.

The aforementioned would be enough to make Earthbound noteworthy, just one in a line of excellent JRPGs released during the Super Nintendo era. But what pushes Earthbound over the edge from obscure gem into groundbreaking classic is the fact that it’s a satire, and it’s actually funny. Most people who play games acknowledge the fact that they’re funny. But games are rarely intentionally so. Games get chuckles when they have awful translations, not because of in-game jokes. Earthbound breaks that rule repeatedly. Sometimes you discover a trinket called “Insignificant Item” that does absolutely nothing. Other times you knock at someone’s door only to hear the hushed quotations of Beatles’ lyrics. If you approach a character called The Annoying Old Party Man you get one of these two messages: “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler grumbled about today’s youth” or “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler lectured you”. Mr. T makes a cameo. Sometimes, when fighting hippies, the game literally gives you this message: “The New Age Retro Hippie used a ruler! Now he can measure things more easily!” I’m not doing the game’s humor justice, because text can’t do the game justice. Its combination of offbeat soundtrack, Norman Rockwell-cum-Nintendo visuals, and insane story and dialogue in tandem are what make this game so truly bizarre and set apart from all the other deadly serious RPGs.

And did I mention the meta aspects of the game? Earthbound begins when an alien named Buzz Buzz (yes, Buzz Buzz) crash lands in the protagonist’s sleepy American town and explains to the young boy that he’s the inheritor of an important prophecy. This is typical JRPG crap, but Earthbound plays it off with style. Buzz Buzz alerts the player that he is critically injured and about to die, but after hearing his speech about what the game is about, he tells you he can explain it again if necessary, and in fact, can explain it an infinite amount of times despite being only seconds away from death. Multiple times throughout the game, the action will stop and a character onscreen will call to you (the real life sitting at home player, not the avatar) and ask you to take a picture of the avatars. At one point, they even ask you for your real life name and hint that they’re curious to know about the person who’s controlling them (again you) like a god-like figure in their 16-bit “lives”. And in the finale, the game asks you to send all your good karma to the protagonist so that he can defeat the final boss.

 

So meta. SO META!

And the ending? The ending. There’s no cut scene that finishes the game. The player has complete control and you’re free to roam around the massive game world where people thank you for playing or offer investment opportunities or chide you for missing school. There’s no true end other than turning off the power. And in 1994 this was truly memorable shit. Earthbound was the first game that made fun of itself for being a video game. Earthbound was the first game whose characters understood that they existed in a video game world, and they frequently commented on that fact.

I can’t imagine many people are going to rush out and play Earthbound after reading this (unless, like me, they’ve already played through it countless times). But like Bissell argues in Extra Lives, I think it’s important for the literary set to look at games and think about their narrative potential. They require a level of active participation that a book can never have (and that’s not a judgment on either medium). Bissell focuses much of his work on newer games, but my only true access point to gamer culture is fueled by nostalgia. Earthbound is the first game that truly made me aware of the storytelling capabilities within the video game, the first that made it clear that not everything had to follow the tired and culturally outdated “save the princess” plot line. And when I open up my Earthbound strategy guide and smell my Master Belch odorama card? Yeah. That’s a straight snort back to what it feels like to be ten-years-old again.

This reference is not lost on ten-year-olds.

Do I lose my writer card if I call Earthbound the Infinite Jest of 1994 Super Nintendo Japanese Role Playing Games?

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Why Did Scott Pilgrim Fail at the Box Office and What Does That Mean for Stories About Aught-Era Twenty-Somethings?

In 1998, I went to see The Truman Show in theaters. For those unaware, the turn of the century dramedy starred Jim Carrey as an unwitting participant in a reality show that encompassed his entire life. His hometown is merely a Synecdoche New York-esque sound stage and his wife and best friend are actors paid for by the corporation who adopted baby Carrey. I walked out of the theater adjacent to the Viewmont Mall utterly stupefied. Never before had I experienced a story that so perfectly encapsulated the modern day loss of privacy in the digital age. Never before had I seen a movie that so obviously shoved in our faces the idea that in America, stardom no longer had to do with talent, but had become attainable by even our most average of citizens, a harbinger of the rise of social media and reality television. I assumed that The Truman Show would be remembered along with other popular films of that era, The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club. And although Jim Carrey’s first real dramatic turn did surprisingly well at the box office, I rarely hear the film mentioned these days, and instead, see the DVD in the five dollar bins at department stores, occasionally connected via plastic to Ace Ventura 2 or Black Sheep. In most ways that matter, The Truman Show has been forgotten.

I know that pain once again.

Longtime readers of this blog know my fanatical devotion to all things Bryan Lee O’ Malley and Scott Pilgrim. A generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City, the Scott Pilgrim series is for my money the defining text of what it means to be in your mid-twenties during the aughts. Like most comic nerds, I became protective when the movie was announced, positive that Hollywood would screw up what is arguably the best comic series of the past decade. There were pluses and minuses along the way. I was shocked and delighted when Edgar Wright was hired to direct and utterly confused when producers cast deadpan Michael Cera as the hyperactive titular character. The first trailer looked pretty awful but the global one seemed to paint a more representative picture of what the film would actually be like.

I went to see Scott Pilgrim on opening night here in Pittsburgh. The movie opened way in the back of the megaplex, in one of those tiny theaters where the speakers fuzz whenever the soundtrack gets too loud. There were maybe twenty people there tops–and this was a Friday 7:20 showing–and a couple in their fifties walked out after twenty minutes. They mumbled. They grumbled. They reminded me of my reaction to Juno, in which I sat angry and confused, blinking wildly whenever the audience broke into laughter.

Ok. But how about the actual movie. Like many reviewers online, I sat nervously through the first awkward five minutes, but the moment Sex Bob-Omb bursts into their opening song I was completely relieved. Here was the comic I’d spent so much time reading and thinking about brought perfectly to life. This wasn’t the Dark Knight, a distillation of the very best of an 80 year old franchise into a 2.5 hour movie. This was a straight up adaptation–with the emotional development sadly cut for time. This was Bryan Lee O’ Malley’s frenetic vision brought gleefully to life by a totally self-aware cast and director. I loved just about every minute of the damn flick–I saw it a second time two days later–and thought for sure, FOR SURE, that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World would signal a sea change in not only the way movies are made but also who movies are made for–SP targets the holy 18-34 demographic but never panders to its audience; it feels genuine and completely formed by the twenty-something hive mind. Here was the first time where I felt my generation was honestly represented onscreen.

I woke up on Saturday morning, happy with life, happy with the world, only to discover that Scott Pilgrim had flopped. We’re not even talking Kick-Ass flop. We’re talking full on Heaven’s Gate fucking implosion. The movie didn’t come in second behind Expendables. It didn’t come in third behind the greatest travesty in human existence, Eat Pray Love. It didn’t even come in fourth behind The Other Guys. Scott Pilgrim came in fifth in box office totals behind Inception, a movie released an entire month ago!

How could this have happened!? Was it the marketing campaign? Most of my friends who didn’t previously know about Scott Pilgrim were confused by the trailers and marketing, thinking the film was a dopey romance in the vein of Nick and Norah or the scum of aught-teen pandering, Juno. iFanboy lamented the fact that SP ads ran during Baseball Tonight on ESPN, a far cry from their target fanbase. And none of the ads for the film played up the indie rock, 8-bit gamer, hipster comic vibe.

But maybe that’s too narrow a reason. Maybe the film’s box office failure had to do with competing against Eat Pray Love and The Expendables, movies that had the potential to divide popcorn audiences by gender lines. Maybe the failure was because SP had no bankable stars and few recognizable faces other than the still fringe Michael Cera. Or maybe, like many reviewers have said, the video game/comic book/indie rock language of a movie like Scott Pilgrim is a generational dog whistle, a totally incomprehensible mess–there’s literally a cut every five seconds–to anyone beyond the age of 35. Or maybe, as has been suggested, nobody cares about the relationship drama of slacker hipster douchebags (say it isn’t so!).

I imagine that SP will make back its 60 million budget via overseas ticket gross and the home market, but its initial box office failure means Hollywood won’t be attempting a bombastic experiment ala Scott Pilgrim anytime in the near future. And that’s probably the most depressing thought about the entire debacle. I hoped that the Scott Pilgrim film would open doors for other thematically similar properties in comics and television, film and literature. But the Edgar Wright picture is doomed to cult status like my beloved Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey or the great Norm MacDonald picture Dirty Work. And until the powers that be figure out a way to make the graphic-laden, gamer-inspired visuals of Scott Pilgrim for less than 60 million, I wouldn’t expect to see another film like this for a long while.

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Do You Trust Someone With Crappy Taste in Music/Movies/Etc When It Comes to Writing?

This is literally my top 25 list on iTunes. BEHOLD!

I have shitty taste in music. You have no idea how long it’s taken me to admit that to myself. In high school, I spent hours reading reviews on Pitchfork and putting band names into Amazon to see who else their search engines would recommend. I listened to Weezer, Saves the Day, Ozma, Texas is the Reason, the Pixies, the Ataris, and all kinds of bands (good and awful) that nobody gave a shit about in Scranton, Pennsylvania (or at the very least, my shockingly unhip Catholic school). If my plan was to get laid based on my extensive knowledge about the recording history of Weezer’s 1996 magnum opus Pinkerton, it backfired miserably.

In college, I tried to keep up with what was popular with the cool kids. I listened to Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, but what I discovered pretty quickly is that I don’t really like concerts that much. Whenever I go to one, I get bored and start hoping for the whole thing to be over. None of them can ever match the way I felt seeing Weezer in Wilkes-Barre at 16, and I think that’s kind of my problem. Musically, I’m completely stunted. I listen to most of the same garbage I liked in high school peppered with a handful of bands I saw in college and a whole mess of Kanye West. That’s about it. I’ve given up on knowing what’s hot, and most of my friends think it’s hilarious (not to mention sad) when I unironically listen to Offspring’s Smash.

My point: can you trust someone to have good taste concerning literature when you don’t respect their other entertainment choices? For example, if you were exchanging stories with someone who told you their favorite movie was Bad Boys II, would you be able to take their criticism on your short story seriously even if it was totally sound? I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since Inception came out. Almost everybody I know in Pittsburgh claims to dislike it, but I found it pretty enjoyable (look at me defend it in this Rumpus comments section!). The same thing happened when I pulled out Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey after a Mad Men watching party. I claimed the movie was outright David Lynchian during the sequence where Bill and Ted play board games with the Grim Reaper in hell (only moments before they ask aliens in heaven to build them good robot versions of themselves to fight evil robots versions of themselves at a battle of the bands), and the entire MFA community stared at me like I was a drunken moron.

If some of my favorite “films” include Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Santa Slays and Camp Nowhere, can you really trust my thoughts of A Gate at the Stairs? If I enjoy reading comic books where a crazed statue of Abraham Lincoln ravaging downtown DC can only be stopped by a statue version of John Wilkes Booth, can you still listen to my advice on your story? If I have 57 Kanye West songs on my iPod, can you ever take me seriously again? Or is literature so far removed from these other mediums that they’re not even comparable, just like how not knowing about feng shui doesn’t imply that you can’t be a wine critic?

THEY DON'T EVEN MEET THE ANTAGONIST UNTIL THE FINAL SCENE!

Kanye West is the Public Avatar of 21st Century Digital Narcissism

Full disclosure time: I have two short stories forthcoming about Kanye West and a third I’m trying to place. Two are excerpted from my novel which has a section where Kanye West leaves Earth to find eternal life only to end up on Mars a hundred years in the future where he destroys the remnants of our current generation who have all been quarantined there on an Infinite Porch by the New Youth. Oh, and Yeezy’s riding a stainless steel horse and talks in a Shakespearen dialect. Full disclosure two: I love Kanye’s music and once actually went out of the house looking how I do below, and it was maybe only 30% ironic.

Yeah. That's me in Vegas. You wanna ball with the kid, watch your step you might fall trying to do what I did. Mama ugh, Mama ugh.

This is all to say that you should take what I’m about to argue with a grain of salt. But when people used to ask me, “Hey, Sal. Why does Kanye West show up in your novel (The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist currently seeking representation hint hint!) about non-famous white kids?” I used to give some lame answer about how West’s journey mimics the protagonist’s, which in all honesty, it actually does. But today, I think I finally hit on the reason why West keeps inserting himself into my work again and again. It’s because Kanye West is the public avatar of 21st century digital narcissism.

This all started, like so much in this dramatic post-Obama life, over at HTMLGIANT. Blake Butler put up a post that ended with a pretty funny non-sequitor: “Kanye West still sucks.” In the comments section, I tried to convince Blake to come over to the dark side of Yeezy supporters and Stephen Dierks of Pop Serial linked to this awesome article on The New York Times about Kanye’s new video.

In a coming video for his single ‘Power’ that was created by the artist Marco Brambilla, Mr. West is seen standing imposingly with a heavy chain around his neck. As Mr. West raps, the camera slowly zooms out in one continuous, unedited take to reveal him in a classical structure, surrounded by female attendants who are partly or entirely nude; some kneel before him on all fours, others wear devil horns and still others are suspended upside down from the ceiling. The sword of Damocles hangs precariously over Mr. West’s head, and behind him an unseen executioner is preparing to strike him with a blade.

Ah, a nice allusion to the apocalypse. That’s usually all it takes to win me over. But then Stephen linked to Kanye’s twitter which he just started today. Let me share some of the radical highlights.

kanyewest: I hate stickers on laptops

kanyewest: I need this horse… Kings need horses http://twitpic.com/29suqi

kanyewest: I’m just saying… what’s your credenza game…#DON‘TTALKTOME!!! http://twitpic.com/29sqph

kanyewest: I’m not getting paid to say any of this…………. yet…….. hahahhaha

kanyewest: Sipping Molnar Family Poseidin’s Vineyard Chardonnay in the middle of the day sidebar out of gold cups for whatever that’s worth

kanyewest: my thoughts on Twitter so far… at the end of the day, God damnit I’m killing this shit!!!

AND MY FAVORITE:

kanyewest: I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh

Photo courtesy of Anirudh Koul

He has a quarter million followers yet he follows no one. What I realized today is that Kanye West is the summation of every thing I think and fear about this generation distilled into one horrific/totally awesome human being. Facebook, Twitter, and other online outlets have given every one of us (and especially those of this generation) a voice and the illusion that we all have something very powerful to say, when in fact, most of us probably do not. Kanye West is walking insecurity. Despite growing up in the same kind of baby boomer controlled children media era that told kids they were all special and amazing and even their shit smelled like the gentle rains of the Amazon, Kanye is saddled with a crushing inferiority complex. He overcompensates with golden stages to perform on and is constantly barraging us with his opinion. I mean, have you guys read his blog? It’s insanity. And now he has twitter! And what does Kanye do when he doesn’t like something? He stands up and grabs the microphone off some lame teenage girl and tells the world to go fuck itself. His Taylor Swift stunt is the equivalent of writing DISLIKE under somebody’s status update.

KANYE MOTHERFUCKING WEST IS FACEBOOK TURNED SENTIENT!!!!!111

The hunger has returned to Mr. West's brain, but it never really left.

Thoughts on Endings: Lost, Infinite Seriality, The Illusion of Change, and What It All Has to Do With Literary Fiction

People who knew me in college can attest to the fact that I was one of the most fanatic followers of LOST on the planet. My friends and I hit a level of lameness never before seen by human eyes when during our senior year of college, we made Dharma station logos for the room doors of the house we lived in. Each Wednesday, we’d cram into my buddy’s room with a bunch of Yuengling and watch LOST with our own set of bizarre Jacob/Man-in-Black-esque rules. No lights. No talking. No complaining. We taped each episode, and as soon as one ended, we watched it again (usually making plentiful use of the slow-mo button) to see if there were any clues lurking in the background (there never were). Once, we famously threw out a friend for complaining mid-episode about the sudden appearance of Nikki and Paulo. And we made quite the habit of going to the local bar after every week and shouting our favorite quotes while getting drunk (shockingly, I don’t think any of us had much sex that year). 

In the intervening years, my enthusiasm for LOST has weaned. I don’t think it’s because the quality of the show declined (minus the dreadful and drawn out final season), but more because I don’t have that core base of friends who worship the show and want nothing more than to theorize about it and assign it personal meaning. Maybe it’s because of this quote from the immortal Poochie episode of The Simpsons: “The thing is, there’s not really anything wrong with the Itchy & Scratchy show, it’s as good as ever. But after so many years, the characters just can’t have the same impact they once had.” Regardless, LOST ended last night, and despite the fact that I really liked it (it reminded me a lot of a mash-up between Our Town and Neon Genesis Evangelion) the consensus around the interwebs seems to be that the finale of LOST was the worst 2.5 hours in the history of television. 

Neon Genesis, like LOST, set a thousand pseudo-science/religious mysteries into motion, then ended on this clip without addressing even one.

I keep wondering why that is exactly, why genre fiction tends to always have this problem and if it has anything to do with literary fiction. Take, for example, the holy lineup of genre TV: LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks and X-Files. Despite having vocal minorities who love the ends of each of these shows, the majority critical/fan opinion tends to be that they all blew it in their final episodes (or, in most of these cases, the final seasons). Why is that? I always have so much trouble ending my own fiction, and I’ve often thought that beginnings are so much easier. Look at the very compelling openings to the above four examples. A plane crashes on a mysterious island. All of humanity is wiped out by robots with the exception of a lone battleship and handful of civilian ships. The corpse of a teenage homecoming queen is found in a sleepy town. Two detectives focus on mysterious cases. 

Ok. Now look at their endings. In LOST’s case, the main character plugs up a magic hole with a magic rock and then hangs out in a church in purgatory with his father and buddies. One is simply more compelling on a base, human level. And honestly, I can’t think of any genre offerings that have endings that match their beginnings. Look at Star Wars or Indiana Jones: a teddy bear parade on one hand and Shia LeBeouf on the other. I wonder if the same holds true for literary fiction. I can think of so many wonderful openings (“In my younger and more vulnerable years…” or “In walks these three girls with nothing but bathing suits.”), but it’s harder to remember endings that don’t disappoint. Revolutionary Road comes to mind, for example. And of course, The World According to Garp. So does Martin Amis’ wonderful London Fields, a genre mashup that’s a trillion times more cynical than LOST but similar in that it also deals with end of the world scenarios. Why is this? Is it because nothing ever ends(the sentiment used to end Watchmen), so any need to impose finality on a work of fiction seems artificial and rings untrue? 

Heavy handed, but satisfying on the character level.

I think for me, that might be the case and could potentially explain my love of superhero comics. I forgot who said this, but a legendary comic creator (Stan Lee maybe?) once told Kevin Smith that comics are never-ending Act 2’s. They can’t end. They just go on forever. Batman was in his thirties in the 1930’s and he’s the same age today. The only change is the illusion of change. And if you peel away all the adolescent power fantasies and the inherent ridiculousness in costumed vigilantes, maybe this is the appeal of comic books: infinite seriality. In many ways infinite seriality can seem more realistic than works of fiction that close everything up with a neat little bow. Nothing ever ends. Few things change on any fundamental level. There only exist tiny alterations that hint at the illusion of change. 

Or maybe not. Maybe Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse just didn’t know why Claire had to raise Aaron or what the deal was with Walt’s mysterious powers.