Review: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswalt

>>Published: January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: July 2012

Looking back on it now, I realize I’m a Wasteland. A lot of comedians are Wastelands—what is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs? Or, in a broader sense, pointing out how so much of what we perceive as culture and society is disposable waste? Plus, comedians have to work the Road. We wander the country, seeking outposts full of cheap booze, nachos, and audiences in order to ply our trade. I’m amazed we all don’t wear sawed-off shotguns on our hips.

***

Swap Star Wars with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a shit job at a small-town movie theatre for a shit job at a small-town Canadian Tire and Patton Oswalt lived my childhood. Except he’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than I could ever hope to be. And wealthy—let’s not forget the wealth.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is part memoir, part comic exposé, and part dumping ground for material not quite ready for prime time. Frequently off-colour and funny as hell, Oswalt structures the book more like a memoir than anything else, with occasional forays into flash fiction-style absurdist greeting cards and deliberately god awful screenplay treatments (that I would kill to see made, be they full-length features or manic, grindhouse-style trailers cut together for no other purpose than to shock and disgust).

This is very much a superhero origin story—we don’t get Oswalt’s filmography, nor the sordid details of his television specials, his awards, or even the finer details of his rise to fame as some sort of cultural dividing line between the worlds of the comedians and the geeks. What we do get is a relatively unflinching, names-changed-to-protect-the-not-so-innocent series of fuck-ups and encounters that illustrate the behind-the-scenes of a successful comedian.

Oswalt’s first book is, if nothing, sincere. He does not hesitate to paint himself as a geek, flawed and relatable, who somehow managed to find success—and is still discovering how far that success will take him. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is actually quite tender, though occasionally stomach-turning and deliberately racist/sexist/confrontational (Star Wars Episode II: Jar Jar Keeps Dying is an especially grand example).

Highly recommended. Now give me back my fucking childhood.

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Reflections: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

>>Published: October 1957

>>Finally got around to it: July 2012

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”

“I… don’t know. What… could he do? What would you tell him?”

“To shrug.”

***

This is not a review. Quite simply, Atlas Shrugged is review-proof; those who love it will defend it to their last breath, and those who don’t will condemn it for its many glaring faults, the least of which is that it is painfully overwritten. A good three to four hundred pages of crippling emotional immaturity and self-satisfactory praise could be torn from the book without even putting a dent into Rand’s overarching message.

And just what is that message? For the lucky few that have managed to avoid the shadow this book has cast, especially in recent years (as the adopted bible of the neo-con movement in the United States), let me spell it out for you: Spock was a fool. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Ha! Not in this Objectivist nightmare. Rand’s dystopian future is one of brilliant men and women being unfairly stripped of the ownership of their intellectual pursuits, be they feats of engineering or works of art (or both, given the masturbatory way Rand depicts John Galt’s incredible society-changing motor), by a government working ostensibly for the betterment of mankind—for a public that, in Rand’s perspective, is comprised of nothing more than irresponsible leeches, incapable of achieving the same heights of these gods of industry, and therefore not worth an ounce of self-sacrifice.

The industrialist as god, as the taste makers of society beyond academics, beyond celebrities and politicians alike. Rand’s idealized world is a post-capitalist extreme where luck and legacy never once enter into the conversation. It is the self-made individual who holds all the power, and is asked, always, to abandon it for a population portrayed as infantile, unintelligent, and hungry solely for the accomplishments of others. With so few being of worth and intellectual and creative ambition, Rand, through John Galt, her idealized soapbox, posits a world slowly ground to a halt when those of true value cease to give of their perfect minds.

It’s a disturbing worldview to say the least, and one wholly ignorant of the manipulation and undeserved prominence of so much ill-gotten legacy. Rand’s utopia is one built on the bones of the many, for only those of true greatness deserve to live. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest conceit taken to an unhealthy and manipulative extreme—unhealthy given the universally childish and melodramatic reasoning of those who would seek to limit the power and influence of those most deserving of it. In essence, it is pro-monopoly, anti-distribution of wealth, and in full support of an unsympathetic world that looks down its nose at anyone and everyone without the means to run a cross-continental railroad, or to build a motor to outclass every other motor ever made.

And all that without even touching upon the “romantic rape” and the utter bullshit character assassination that takes place throughout the book—how the book’s protagonist Dagny can be so strong, so completely self-reliant, until she meets the perfect man in John Galt and suddenly one-eighties into the role of an emotional supplicant.

As disturbing as it is at times, there is one thing I can say to Atlas Shrugged’s benefit: it is a genuine artistic expression. One gets the impression, while reading the book, that, however horrifying its central message, Ayn Rand believed every single word of it, right down to her core. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Review: The Hollow City, by Dan Wells

>>Published: July 2012

“How much do you know about me?” I demand. “What’s really going on here?”

“I…,” she stumbles over her words, brow furrowed in confusion. “I don’t know anything, why? Are you a member of the Children?”

“The Children of the Earth are a murder cult,” I say. “They kidnapped my mother while she was pregnant, and when I was born they killed her. I wouldn’t associate with them for anything. I’d kill them first.”

Her face goes white. “You did not just say that.”

“What do the Children of the Earth have to do with the Red Line Killer?”

She sucks in a breath. “Almost all of the victims have been members.”

I curse.

“Someone is hunting down the Children of the Earth and cutting off their faces,” she says. “Someone who hates them as much as you do.”

***

Michael Shipman is a paranoid schizophrenic accused of being a serial killer in Dan Well’s newest work, The Hollow City. Suspected of being the cult member-mutilating Red Line Killer (a name that, once revealed, will give any hockey lover reason to grin), Michael is fighting to understand the nature of his illness, and, more importantly, the division between what is real in his life and what is fiction. With doctors, nurses, FBI agents, and faceless men and women stalking him, tormenting him, and threatening his very existence, Michael is backed into a series of corners with an ever-increasing dosage of medication tight-roping his mind between clarity—seeing the hallucinations for what they are and learning to parse them from the physical world—and confusion.

Told from the first-person, Wells does an admirable job placing the reader in a mind not entirely whole. Michael’s confusion isn’t played for cheap tricks and slights of hand. Instead, Wells uses cascading tactics, layering the possibilities of Michael’s psychosis—are his reactions to cell phones and television signals psychosomatic? Or does he actually have something foreign implanted in his brain triggering vicious nosebleeds and violent outbursts whenever a cell phone so much as vibrates in his vicinity?—on top of one another to upset any sense of narrative stability. We keep guessing alongside him, not because of loose threads or unnecessary red herrings, but because, deprived of his medication and thwarted with repeated troublesome stimulus, Michael, too, is kept guessing. He is continuously unsure of even the antagonists in his life, as his mind works to both enforce and destroy the illusions it has crafted.

The Hollow City is a fast-paced mystery with an unconventional perspective that, more often than not, works. Michael is a great sympathetic character; his relationships—both real and hallucinatory—are tragic, their true natures unknowable and without ground to stand on. The further his layers of psychosis are peeled back, the more unfortunate his life becomes, until there is seemingly very little left to salvage.

Though thoroughly enjoyable, not everything is right and rosy in The Hollow City. While I won’t spoil anything here, I was somewhat disappointed by the final series of events. Michael remains an interesting character right until the end, but the reasons… the machinations behind his psychosis, felt too far removed from what had been previously established. As the story turns away from chemical imbalances in the brain to a straight-up science fiction/supernatural conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been cheated. While there are a few narrative hooks along the way to give purpose and premeditation to the Deus Ex Machina finale, the end result feels a bit too mundane and simplistic for all that came before. When all is said and done, the push and pull of Michael’s mental and emotional journey feels too readily abandoned for what amounts to an X-Files-style U-turn that, unfortunately, does not feel as if it has been earned.

I still recommend The Hollow City. My problems with its ending aside, Michael Shipman is an intriguing, original character, and Wells does an excellent job of constructing a narrative around Michael’s schizophrenia, offering a point-of-view not often seen. The Hollow City is a fun page-turner, perfect for the beach.