Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Part One: “I Would Like to Have a Word with You about Songbirds”

Rainbow Captain America and Nebula

When Rainbow Captain America and the Green Squiggle finally confronted Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds, Rainbow Captain America spent much of the time getting the piss beaten out of him.

Rainbow Captain America lived with his sidekick, the Green Squiggle, a single-dimensional literal green squiggle, in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent, quiet save for the delightful daily songbird polyphonies, and their neighbor happened to be a villain called Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds. Despite being composed of songbirds himself, he was a powermongery sadist who got his jollies playing practical jokes on neighborhood songbirds. The “Lord” in his name implied he liked to lord things over his own kind mockingly, as if to say living inside a human house made him a better bird. At first Ondcain was merely dressing the other songbirds in human clothes (business suits and dresses), and he laughed as if to say, “You are not as human as me!”

Rainbow Captain America would come home carrying groceries and see these little business-suited songbirds, and Rainbow Captain America would shake his head (the Green Squiggle had no head to shake because he was a one-dimensional literal green squiggle).

“Somebody needs to teach Ondcain a lesson,” said Rainbow Captain America.

“Maybe he’s just a weird hobbyist,” said the Green Squiggle. “Can you imagine the amount of patience it takes to put a business suit on a songbird? That’s pretty incredible.”

“I guess you’re right,” Rainbow Captain America said in a skeptical tone and continued to stare at the littlest besuited bird who seemed to be screaming in distress.

Then, one day, it became clear Ondcain was supergluing birds to branches. The little birds tried to flap to fly away, stuck fast by this Lord bastard. “That’s it, I’m not going to tolerate this anymore!” Rainbow Captain America said and threw the groceries on the ground.

The Green Squiggle said, “Not cool, dude. My Milano cookies are in that bag.”

Meanwhile, Rainbow Captain America knocked on Ondcain’s door, crossed his arms, tapped a ragey foot. He repeated the knock-and-tap routine until Ondcain opened the door, and Rainbow Captain America said, “I would like to have a word with you about songbirds.”

Long story short, Ondcain beat the piss out of Rainbow Captain America. He didn’t really have a chance.

The Lord of Bluebirds was a conglomeration of thousands of bluebirds, roughly gorilla-sized roughly and gorilla-shaped (as much as a conglomeration of thousands of birds can be any shape). Having a couple dozen bluebirds in the shape of a fist come down all over your body is no picnic. The other problem was Rainbow Captain America had no superpowers or even physical toughness beyond mountainous moral conviction.

He was a fortuitous recipient of a shape-shifting wish from an angelical monster who felt bad for the pathetic little guy, but when the angelical creature asked him what shape he wanted to be, he blurted out, “Rainbow Captain America,” but he should have specified the shield should be invulnerable or that he was at least a little stronger than normal, so he wound up with a shield that was just a bony outgrowth of his arm covered in skin with as many pain receptors as the rest of his body and a body as weak as the body he always had. Still, the yearning to embody the greatness of the identity he chose drove him to always do the right thing.

During his career as sidekick, the Green Squiggle had to witness a lot of unpleasant and painful losings, but as a one-dimensional literal green squiggle, he never actually had to receive any beatings himself, and he had to resist intervention because his one-dimensionality meant he sliced right through whatever fleshy body he’d try to fight. Fighting Ondcain, who was made out of thousands of birds, meant slicing him to a thousand dead-bird bits which seemed hypocritically to be far more songbird-cruelty than they were aiming to prevent. The Green Squiggle had zero anti-murder compunction, but he knew the boss would never go for the Ondcain slaughter. Still, he always made the offer: “I could totally just kill this dude if you wanted me to,” he said to Rainbow Captain America, splattered on the ground, redder than his normal rainbow. “I could slice this dude to pieces with very little effort.”

“No, we do not kill,” said Rainbow Captain America pulling himself together and standing through the pain. That’s the sort of guy he was and one reason the Green Squiggle agreed to be his sidekick. “As long as evil stands, we stand against it.”

“Your morality can be such a pain in the butt sometimes,” said the Green Squiggle. If he had eyes, he would have rolled them. Still, he couldn’t help loving a poor, beaten-down dude who talks about standing against evil when he keeps comically collapsing over his own lawn ornaments.

It happened again the following day even though Rainbow Captain America was totally bandaided up, but the Green Squiggle knew his partner would keep going forever if he witnessed some sort of injustice. He knocked again on his neighbor’s door, said, “I don’t believe you listened to my point yesterday regarding the song birds,” and he got another similar beating.

The Green Squiggle had to find a way to convince Rainbow Captain America to stop cultivating constant losing/beating/breakage, but during this particular beating, the Green Squiggle noticed every punch from the conglomerated bluebird monster broke the necks of a dozen birds that made the first layer of the monster’s knuckles.

He pulled Rainbow Captain America aside, pulling carefully at his rainbow-colored costume at a point before his poor partner lost the ability to stand, and he said, “Look, dude, we got into this business to save songbirds from superglue chicanery, but look at all the mass bird death our confrontation is creating.”

Rainbow Captain America looked around at the bluebird carcasses (wiping blood from his eyes to see better). Ondcain stood aside, agreeing to the momentary pause, breathing hard (or imitating hard breathing) like a dancer too-caught-up in dancing so that the pause gave him an otherworldly disorientation, and dead and bloody bluebirds fell from his fists like dripping blood.

“It’s a no win, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle. “A no win. Let’s go.”

Rainbow Captain America stared at the scattered dead a long time, panting (more legitimately) from the beating he endured for the sake of similar little birds. He finally limped away in silence, clearly knowing his inability to win presently was actually an inability to ever win and an inability for humanity to ever win anything (though the Green Squiggle might’ve been projecting this last point).

“Good,” said the Green Squiggle following him away, uncertain that was the right word.

The bluebird monster laughed as they parted, wiping knuckle blood across his chest (blood from Rainbow Captain America and from the dead blue birds who made up those knuckles), like a badass and also like a terrible person. He laughted the same sort of laugh as all bullies who win.

Rainbow Captain America just moped around the house for a few days after the no win. He fed his chinchilla too many times. He ate cereal for all three meals. He watched a Three’s Company marathon for no reason and never laughed. All his rainbow colors looked a little ash gray.

“Hey, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle patting his back (carefully). “You’re starting to look a little shadowy, buddy. Wanna go throw the frisbee?”

But he didn’t answer until hours later: “Why bother?”

The Green Squiggle had to do something. One advantage of being a superhero is you know a lot of folks with superpowers. The Green Squiggle had this idea to solicit a shapeshifter to cheer up his buddy and flipped through the superhero rolodex under “S” for shapeshifter. He went to this one shapeshifter he knew called the Sea Yak and said, “I need you to imitate this bluebird monster, so I can cheer up my buddy.”

“What’s in it for me?” said the Sea Yak (most superheroes seemed the Green Squiggle like self-centered little glory-loving assholes like this dude).

“What’s in it for you is I don’t kill you. You should thank whatever sea yak deity you pray to every day I don’t slice you to ribbons. How’s that for a deal?”

“You’re a sucky superhero, bro,” said The Sea Yak, but he agreed to do it (he wasn’t wrong about being a sucky superhero which is why he couldn’t let his buddy slip into ashen darkness).

The Sea Yak showed up on time outside of Rainbow Captain America’s window pretending to be the bluebird monster, mimicking the conglomerated bluebird body perfectly (at least he was good at this one thing), and shouting “America is dumb.” He was improvising on the script the Green Squiggle had given him. He may have been a good shapeshifter, but he was a terrible actor. “Also, I tricked you into thinking the beating I gave you hurt the, um, the birds in my knuckles. My beating doesn’t hurt anybody. You only fell for my trick because you’re dumb. That means America is dumb. Because you’re America I guess?”

Rainbow Captain America couldn’t take anymore. He put down his cereal bowl, turned off the Three’s Company marathon, unwrapped the bathrobe and towels he cocooned himself and his unwashed rainbow costume in and marched out to the street, ready to beat some bluebird monster tail.

But he was very bad at fighting. It wasn’t just the complete powerlessness. It was the total lack of skill. He was like an old man doing kung fu if he only saw kung fu on television. The Sea Yak shrugged and dropped and said, “You got me, dude.” Still, Rainbow Captain America kept savaging the monster as best he could.

Rainbow Captain America was deep in the fury and could only release awkward and unpleasant gutteral snarls and slobber until the fed up Sea Yak, bothered more by slobber than the beating, said, “You got me, dude. That’s enough. I’ll never do evil again.” He walked away. Rainbow Captain America stood there panting, his own knuckles bleeding from the ecstasy of monster beating.

The Green Squiggle hoped he’d see his buddy smile again given this chance to beat someone for the first time. But there was no smile, and the color remained ash gray.

Rainbow Captain America did get some of his old color back over time for no reason other than the normal numbing of past misery sinking deeper into the sea of personal history. When he called the Green Squiggle to more adventuring, villainy abating, morality disseminating, all the old inanities, the Green Squiggle said, “Why?”

Rainbow Captain America said with no smile or irony, “Why not?” a certain ineffable misery eternally stuck in the bassline gravel of his response, but that was good enough for now.

Operating on a Higher Plane: The Appeal of Dr. Strange

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The entrance of Dr. Strange into the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives Marvel the opportunity to explore on screen a type of character they’ve left so far underexplored. I don’t mean that he’s magic. I mean that he’s an asshole. But that’s what you love about him. Like all other great Benedict Cumberbatch characters, he just doesn’t have time for your nonsense. He’s too busy being awesome. And saving existence from extra-dimensional threats, yadda yadda yadda, but mostly it’s the awesomeness. Other than perhaps Tony Stark or Thor, MCU has spent much of its time exploring lovable lunks legitimately motivated by decency and good will. Tony Stark and Stephen Strange make no hesitation in demonstrating their inherent superiority within their fields and indeed seem motivated partially by displays of great virtuosity (and maybe saving people’s lives every once in a while, sure, granted). The problem then is how to translate that into two hours and sell it to people who have not yet, as I have, fallen in love with Dr. Strange. An added problem with Dr. Strange is the complexity of his internal mythology. Tony Stark at least exists within a world of speculative possibility. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, has his own otherworldly mythology nearly as complicated as the greater Marvel Universe. But comic book fans are arguably defined by an appreciation of narrative complexity, the capacity to demonstrate and appreciate great virtuosity within arbitrary parameters, and the tenacity to tackle difficult-to-love characters and love them even harder for it. The average movie going audience, not so much. Dr. Strange especially refuses compression or simplification. He always operates on a higher plane, and that’s why you have to love him.

Since the announcement of a movie based on Dr. Strange, who has been my favorite character since I started reading comics, I’ve offered myself as official Dr. Strange scholar to anyone willing to listen, but it takes a lot to explain the Lovecraftian, multi-dimensional mythology-within-mythology (“You see, there are three main god-like beings who give him power, and they’re called the Vishanti, and Agamotto is the one who looks like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and that’s the guy whose eyeball Dr. Strange wears around his neck,” etc.); I readily correct speculation based on nonsense (“Mads Mikkelson can’t be playing Mephisto if he’s a former Ancient One ally since Mephisto is not a dude). I fear I’ll soon degenerate into Ancient Mariner-like babbling to strangers in the delighted delusion that this movie’s existence means somebody cares (“Get this: the god-like being he calls on to generated unbreakable red bands is Cyttorak, the same god who gives Juggernaut his power, so the power of Juggernaut is only one fraction of his awesomeness. That’s an interesting factoid, right? Right?”). However, film adaptations tend to simplify this geek-pleasing gratuitous level of intricacy using cheap tricks to cut through dense mythology and narrative/character complexities that take longer-form stories (like comics) years and years, pages and pages, volumes and volumes to develop. Film is just a structurally limited and inevitably less complex medium than serial storytelling forms like comics.

Marvel Studios in particular, as this decade’s masters of pleasing both general audiences and hardcore geeks, is especially fond of these cheap simplifications, but we tend to forgive the dilution of our beloved complexity amid the rapturous sobs of gratitude. Take, for example, this question: Why does Gamora hate Thanos? That small element of the comic book lore alone has as much complexity as a Thomas Hardy novel, but the Guardians of the Galaxy movie cheaply boils it down to one line: “He killed my parents in front of me.” Well…not exactly…but in just a second of film, despite the extreme simplification, we love Gamora and hate Thanos, and the movie is so great, who cares, right? The fact that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie even exists is enough argument against my overly particular quibbles, right? I fear, however, with the more personally beloved and more internally complex Dr. Strange, the delicate balance between gratitude and my offense at simplification may break the wrong direction.

That higher plane Dr. Strange operates on makes him less like Peter Quill and more like Dr. Who or Sherlock Holmes, struggling to relate to normal humans, having transcended human normalcy through a mix of natural genius, exhaustive self-education, and relentless dedication to his field. He’s more like Liam Neeson in Taken than Bruce Willis in Die Hard: he has a “particular set of skills,” and we delight in watching him practice this set of skills to the mortal detriment of his targets. Dr. Strange’s targets happen to be demonic, godlike, and/or cthuloid entities, but the principle remains the same. Marvel Studios tends more toward the normal, relatable, lovably-flawed Bruce Willis-type of character: Steve Rogers is the bullied, scrawny kid with quixotic ambitions; Bruce Banner is a timid and introspective nerd; Peter Quill is a normal guy acting out an 80s movie fantasy; Scott Lang is a well-intentioned but bumbling dad who Robin Hoods his way to jail (much more relatable than Hank Pym, the genius inventor who more commonly plays the role of Ant Man in the comics). When a character is a less relatable higher-plane-type, like Tony Stark or Thor, Marvel Studios tends to use grounding characters (like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster) who balance the beyond quality with overt discombobulated earthiness; or origin plots, the classic lofty-character-falling-from-grace gimmick that balances out the otherwise transcendent skill set (Tony has his injury, and Thor is humbled in exile, stories already well known to hardcore fans). If you have read the comics in the last few decades, you’ll see Thor is still an arrogant god despite experiences in humbling exile, and Tony Stark is still an arrogant billionaire genius despite various physical or psychological challenges – through decades of history, they’ve had hundreds of falls from grace and glorious returns to create the tapestry of their present character, and longtime fans appreciate the well-worn, threadbare comfort of each characters’ humanity as it weaves in the most complex ways with all their transcendence and brutality. Like any worthy relationship, it takes work over years and massive love/hate frustration.

However, the eternal return of origin stories gets especially tedious, and hardcore fans certainly wouldn’t tolerate hearing about radioactive spiders and cosmic rays a third time, so Kevin Feige claimed early in the Dr. Strange movie rumor-disseminating process that we would not have another origin story, and this came as some relief. But later rumors and set images and the teaser trailer have reversed this claim – Dr. Strange would be an origin story after all – so amid the joyous weeping and the ululations of “Oh, to be alive at such a time as this!” there is the more subtle antithetical “this again” which I have to struggle against hearing inside my own head.

Dr. Strange’s origin superficially reads a lot like Iron Man’s (and Stan Lee, who created Dr. Strange with Steve Ditko and Iron Man with Jack Kirby, loved the physical-injury-as-motivator story as much as he loved the classic dead-relative gimmick). Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange started as an arrogant expert in his field disinterested in humanity; in the case of Strange, he was an arrogant brain surgeon who suffered nerve damage in a car accident and was no longer able to practice, a grounding factor not unlike Stark’s heart injury. Here’s where Stark’s and Strange’s stories diverge a bit: Stark has a family history and natural genius for technology (lumping him with another Hollywood favorite: the chosen one with greatness thrust upon him who must choose to responsibly use his gift); Strange, in contrast, must learn a brand new craft from a base of zero knowledge. Strange, in seeking a cure for his hands, finds the Ancient One who teaches him various forms of magic, and Strange soon becomes the greatest practitioner. Granted, some writers frame this progression from zero knowledge to mastery as a chosen one narrative, but the original and most common version of this story is that Stephen Strange encountered an unfamiliar craft and mastered it no time, a level of unrelatable virtuosity far beyond Tony Stark, a natural tech-genius raised in a tech-genius household. Here’s another basic difference: Stark is limited by what technology has the capacity to do; Dr. Strange is essentially limited by nothing.

A criticism sometimes lobbed at Dr. Strange by longtime fans of other comics is that his presence in the story functions as a lazy deus ex machine for lazy writers. In his defense, he has a long history of being poorly used outside his own comic, but that doesn’t mean his deus ex machina tendencies are necessarily a problem. Sure, when he shows up in a story at the last second – say, when Scarlet Witch has already killed Thor, and nobody else can stop her – and he is the only one who can save the day, sure, that’s a lazy deus ex machina. But his capacity to solve essentially all problems beyond any other character is not intrinsically a flaw. He could generate a spell to eliminate all crime in New York and put Spider-Man and Daredevil out of business, but he doesn’t because that’s below his interest when fundamental natural and supernatural forces require him to focus elsewhere. Here is a brief list of his powers just off the top of my head: flight, teleportation, mind reading, hypnotism, astral projection, generation of unbreakable bonds, at least three varieties of force blasts, generation of fire and mist, and the list goes on. In my favorite Dr. Strange story, he created life out of essentially nothing. However, Dr. Strange is one of the few superheroes whose power functions more like an anime character. He increases his own power to match the situation. He finds a new magical object or he accesses some hidden or forgotten or deep recess of power based on the fact that he’s a badass and a genius and has such a vast store of knowledge and power, not based on sloppy storytelling. If Spider-Man spontaneously manifested the ability to fly because this is the only way the writer could imagine him beating the Green Goblin, this would be ridiculous, partly because Spider-Man’s power range has remained roughly the same for half a century. In contrast, in Bleach, when Kenpachi is fighting Nnoitra Gilga, and he suddenly announces that he can double his power by using both hands on his sword, that’s not sloppy storytelling, that’s badass, but it’s a different kind of storytelling than American comics. Anime characters are constantly expected to increase power and excel at their particular brand of fighting. Likewise, if Dr. Strange meets an obstacle he can’t overcome with his present set of abilities (which is often in his stories) then he finds a way to outsmart his enemy or access new power to win.

Then there’s the other grounding method: Rachel McAdams will appear in the Dr. Strange movie as a Pepper Potts-like character who has no correlation in the comics, but Dr. Strange in the comics most often has no grounding character and arguably has no need for a grounding character. The closest thing Dr. Strange has to a powerless human counterpart or damsel in distress is his servant Wong, but Wong is an initiate in the same cult from which Strange learned his art so hardly a stand in for normal non-initiates. Strange’s most common love interest is Clea, the niece of his greatest enemy, Dormammu, a godlike being whose power is exponentially greater than Strange’s. Clea is also the daughter of Umar the Unrelenting (easily the greatest character name in comics and one of the most underrated badass female villains). Dormammu and Umar are both Faltinians, godlike energy beings who have each on various occasions ruled the Dark Dimension. Clea, in the Game of Thrones-like subplot of constantly-shifting royal succession, has also functioned as queen of the Dark Dimension. As much as I appreciate Pepper Potts as a counterpoint to Tony Stark, Clea as a half-flame-god queen of her own dimension is not quite the down-to-earth gal Friday type. It’s nothing new for arrogant pricks of great genius to be paired with a grounding character – Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who, characters who operate on a higher plane who need the lower-plane normal to translate their geniusness. But nobody reads a Sherlock Holmes story for Watson. He’s that little dash of salt that makes the cake taste better.

This is why Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played Sherlock Holmes and nearly played Dr. Who, is such obvious casting for Dr. Strange – so obvious the announcement of his casting seemed so mundane, I could only say, “Well, duh. He’s been playing Dr. Strange for years now.” The appeal of the Cumberbatchian character, Dr. Strange included, runs counter to a whole batch of not-so-true truisms of storytelling that are ultimately simplifying tricks more than absolutes. The idea that characters should be likable, vulnerable, lesson-learning normals in order for audiences to relate or at least have someone present who stands in for normality is as much nonsense as “write what you know,” the most egregiously false of all writing clichés. Arthur Conan Doyle may have known a lot about crime fighting, but Stan Lee was no magician – thank Hoggoth he wrote Dr. Strange anyway and ignored that terrible advice. More accurately, the material for storytelling is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar in various measures. Similarly, creating a likable, normal, vulnerable, relatable character is only a simple starting point and only vital when placed in contrast with unlikable characters and/or unlikable tendencies within that likable character. A normal character gains most vitality in being placed in contrast with abnormal circumstances or abnormal characters; stasis is the substance of stories only in its interruption.

Likewise, a character who operates above our mundane normalcy may seem unrelatable but becomes vital precisely in contrast to our own mundanity. The appeal in listening to Jimi Hendrix is not in how easily I relate to his guitar playing skill (I don’t play guitar at all, for the record) but in his virtuosity far beyond seemingly-normal human capacity. The appeal of virtuosity doesn’t have to be related to any real skill. Kids could make up a game out of throwing random objects at random targets – the parameters are irrelevant – but the kid who demonstrates greatest virtuosity will become admirable within parameters that only came into existence moments before. This is even more significant in fictional worlds where writers have the freedom to make up all the parameters. Stan Lee and subsequent Dr. Strange writers made up the rules of his magic (with a healthy dose of Lovecraft tributes/ripoffs but based on imaginary scenarios nonetheless) and they set up entirely fictional obstacles, and the capacity of Dr. Strange to demonstrate great virtuosity using made up skills to overcome made up obstacles becomes as exhilarating as the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix. Stan Lee from the very beginning set up seemingly impossible obstacles, unbeatable god-like enemies though we only had Lee to believe about how unbeatable these godlike enemies actually were. Dr. Strange’s first enemy was Nightmare, the embodiment of all nightmares, and Strange demonstrates great magical skill, breadth of knowledge, and practical cleverness in overcoming Nightmare, and in doing so, our admiration comes from this heightened level of skill, not his normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Strange’s appeal is in both his humanity and his super-humanity. The appeal of his humanity comes from the complexity of flaw and failure layered into the sediments of his history but remaining in many stories sub-textual motivations longtime fans know and new fans feel viscerally. Even beyond this, Dr. Strange is unique among heroes informed by intrinsic fractures in that his inter-dimensional travels are often embodiments of introspective journeys inward in which he explores all the unfolding dimensions of his own soul. In this sense, normalcy in art, any art, is grossly overrated, and the delight in the multifaceted complexity of supposed escapism is grossly underrated.

That being said, I am eternally grateful that a Dr. Strange movie exists even if the movie must, by necessity of the form, be a pale shadow of his greatness.

Dr Strange and the Avengers pig latin

Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, vol. 1 (review)

Ziggy first page

In Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Vol. 1, written by Ron Baxley, Jr., and illustrated by Vincent Myrand, a Welsh Corgi named Ziggy bravely navigates multiple familiar fantasy worlds (Neverland, Oz, and Wonderland), and Baxley likewise bravely and expertly navigates multiple conflicting narrative rule systems to create a prime example of the inevitable endpoint in the development of fantasy, what you might call the exponential pastiche.

Pastiche became catch all term for a variety of techniques for intertextual referencing in analysis of postmodern fiction (e.g. Slaughterhouse Five is a pastiche of war fiction, sci fi, and confessional memoir), as if such a technique suddenly came into existence after WWII, but pastiche has been intrinsic to children’s narratives from the very beginning. Fairy tales passed down orally inevitably mixed up multiple narratives elements and styles with anachronistic present day cultural elements for maximum (exciting or terrifying) impact. As cultures increasingly intermixed, the pastiche mixed even more erratically. Witness, for example, how Norse and Greek myth mix freely in Medieval tales or how the pagan King Arthur is searching for the Christian Holy Grail.

Then came the golden age of children’s book publication (heavily referenced throughout Ziggy) starting, arguably, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and spanning through the publication of the Peter Pan books and plays and L. Frank Baum’s massive oeuvre of Oz sequels and other similar fantasy books. This great golden age had such a significant impact that other great periods in children’s book publication seem to be echoes of this period. For example, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak published during what was conventionally identified as the postmodern period, but their pastiche was more in keeping with Wonderland and Oz than the current trends in novel writing. Another monument to the value of this period is the continuous publication of Oz sequels (several of which Baxley himself has written) after Baum’s death and the posthumous publication of his last Oz novel, Glinda of Oz, in 1920. What defines the post-Wonderland style of pastiche is placing the protagonist firmly in the present (Alice is unmistakbly a girl of the 1860s), and the fantastical elements he or she encounters are a mix of familiar elements from across the culture (Carroll, for example, did not create Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, characters from orally passed down and apparently authorless nursery rhymes – let alone mythological creatures like gryphons or unicorns) mixed with original characters. This is done with a heavy sense of ironic humor that predates postmodernism by a century. The Alice books are able to manage the necessary chaos of this pastiche technique with charm and cleverness, but this chaos is hard to manage. The significant development of Peter and Wendy and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the inclusion of a definite plot thread, identifiable geography (including maps in many cases) that can’t be simply dismissed as dreams, and, most significantly, an internal rule system. The internal rule system is the most important feature of any fantasy series since the fantasy world has no necessary obligation to follow the rule system of our world, but audiences can view the fantasy as a success or failure by its consistent adherence to its internal rule system: an elf must act consistently like an elf in Middle Earth, and so on.

To take a preexisting and already heavily pastiched story world like Neverland or Oz is to tiptoe the minefield of conflicting narrative rule systems, and Baxley, as an experienced Oz chronicler, manages this feat expertly. Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic starts by rooting Ziggy, the Corgi protagonist, in Welsh mythology where Corgis are treated as steeds for elves. The narrative moves quickly to Neverland where pixie dust and happy thoughts allow any sentient being to fly though animals are not endowed with speech. Baxley then introduces an original reinterpretation of a preexisting element: the crocodile has become essentially a demon lord of undead pirates. Baxley introduces several villains throughout the first volume (some familiar, some reinterpretations) that seem to be set up for pay off in later volumes because, in the episodic structure true to the source material, Ziggy moves on to another adventure instead of fully culminating this crocodile conflict. Ziggy next enters Oz where animals can speak, but flight is only possible with wings. Since the pixie dust retains its efficacy from the previous adventure, this is a direct overlay of Neverland and Oz rule systems. In this adventure, Baxley further integrates superhero tropes as Ziggy accompanies a flying monkey in his conflict with an evil mad scientist right out of old Captain America comics. Baxley doesn’t take the easy way out by segregating tropes and rule systems; he piles it all on top of each other. It’s remarkable that this pastiche-of-pastiche actually works. Part of its success comes from the charm of Ziggy himself who must overcome his anxiety (framed anachronistically in a contemporary manner just as Alice’s own concerns are anachronistically Victorian) to defeat overwhelming odds and eventually face all the accumulating villains, but that’s the key to managing the superficial chaos of cultural mix-and-match: a charming character like Alice or Wendy or Dorothy or Ziggy can guide us delightfully through any scenario.

Let me not forget to give credit to the illustrations of Vincent Myrand who is more reminiscent of Quinten Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl stories than John Tenniel’s clean-lined, relatively realistic Alice illustrations or or John R. Neill’s similar illustrations of the Oz books. It may have most in common with W. W. Denslow’s original Oz illustrations: the playful lines, the more childlike sense of proportion, the vibrant colors. However, the squiggly quality of the lines and the loose color fill is so reminiscent of Blake’s technique, it makes me wonder if Ziggy will soon enter one of Dahl’s worlds in future volumes. Together, Baxley and Myrand give plenty to look forward to in future volumes.

Information from the author:

Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Volume 1 is available in the comics section/front of Book Exchange of Ft. Gordon Blvd. in Augusta, Ga., Top Dog Pawn (and comics) on Washington Rd. in Augusta, Ga., Silver City Comics in Cayce, S.C., Scratch N Spin in W. Columbia, S.C., Punk Monkey Comics in Forest Acres in Columbia, S.C., Planet Comics in Anderson, S.C., the Little Red Barn art shop on Hwy. 278 in Barnwell, S.C., and The Caroline Collection antiques in Denmark, S.C. It is also available outside the region at the All Things Oz Museum gift shop in Chittenango, New York and Comics ‘N More in Easthampton, Massachusetts. It may soon be available in Bodacious Books and Baubles in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and The Book Tavern on Broad St. in Augusta.

Ron has a contest going on where if people find a custom mini-figure of Ziggy from Skittychu Clay and Art in Augusta at one of these places in S.C. and Augusta above and agree to have their photo taken with the figure and his graphic novel and have their likeness used via social media, they will be able to keep the mini-figure absolutely free.

Ziggy figure

Oz, fantasy, and science fiction children’s and young adult author Ron Baxley, Jr., a former educator of approximately 20 years and published author of 25 years, has most recently had an Oz collection, The Oz Omnibus of Talking City Tales and an Oz/Wonderland combined co-written with James C. Wallace II, Of Cabbages, Kings, Queens, Flying Pigs, and Dismal Things, published by Maple Creek Press of Mysteria Filmworks in Cincinnati Ohio (http://www.maplecreekpress.com ) and has independently published a volume of a fantasy, Corgi graphic novel with some Oz content, Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, with art by Maine artist Vincent Myrand and layout and lettering/bubbles by Ali Tavakoly (email rbaxley37@gmail.com for information on obtaining Volume 1 of this independent project or look at the list of stores in which it is available). Ron Baxley, Jr. has been formally invited as a guest author in Authors and Artists Alley in Oz-Stravaganza, a festival in Chittenango, New York in the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, for six years, has been formally invited as a special guest author or guest author at Oz festivals and science fiction cons since 2010, and was recently awarded the honor of a lifetime membership by the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Foundation in Chittenango, New York in June for his lifetime achievements in the world of Oz.

For more information, go to http://rbaxley37.wix.com/ronbaxleyjrofoz, search for the Ziggy Zig-Zags the Light and Dark Fantastic group Facebook page, seek Oz fan Sera Alexia Starr’s Facebook page, Ron Baxley Jr. An Official Author’s Group Chat With Book Updates (https://www.facebook.com/groups/196187527438597/ ), and/or befriend Ron on Facebook.

The Horse with a Jellyfish Belly

Horse with a Jellyfish Belly collage

Junior Magicolo felt a little embarrassed to walk down the halls of his high school with his best and only friend, his Living Nightmare named Moths and Bats, fully aware most other kids (probably all other kids) lacked the delights of a flesh and blood nightmare as their best friend. Moths and Bats was made of two interlocking tornadoes of literal moths and literal bats, the moths part of his body billowing downward like a billowy hoopskirt, the bats part of his body billowing upward like a hoopskirt-wearing lady standing on her head, both funnels spinning and churning, eternally eating each other (or eating himself more accurately (the bats part of his body eating the moths part of his body, the moths part of his body constantly breeding to replace the parts of himself he’d eaten))(This awesomeness was detrimentally distracting in class, and Junior Magicolo had to constantly apologize to his teachers (“Sorry for my distractibility, but my Nightmare is too awesome.”))

Still, the other kids would whisper and turn away (even though Junior had a note from a psychoanalytical professional called Dr. Jason Oppenheimer Sophen that said, “Junior Magicolo is allowed to bring his Living Nightmare, Moths and Bats, to school; other students are not allowed to whisper and turn away under threat of psychoanalytical reprimand.” (Junior had a hand in shaping the phrasing of authoritative Nightmare excuses under threat of his own emotional manipulations (Junior may not have known much about making (non-Nightmare) friends, but he knew a lot about emotionally manipulating psychoanalytical professionals))).

His mom and dad didn’t have much appreciation or understanding of the need among kids of this generation to be cool and well liked. His mom, Lyn Magicolo, was a nurse (or a “semi-doctor” as Junior called her for no reason) and what does a nurse know about being well liked? His dad, Junior Magicolo Sr., was a part time stage magician and most of the time stay at home dad. The stage magician part of him was undoubtedly cool, but he manifested that aspect of his identity so infrequently anymore.

But then his mom told him about the Estonian exchange student.

Junior exploded in rage. At least he did on the inside. On the outside he said, “Oh, that’s nice. Except for four flaws in your plan: 1) Where’s he going to sleep? 2) He’s going to be inside my immediate and Nightmare-populated space for God knows how many bloody centuries. 3)What if Estonians are naturally very cool people, and you (my so-called ‘parents’ (why ‘so called’ was necessary there is a mystery but it felt good at the moment)) have this stubborn deafness to what coolness is. 4) Where’s he going to sleep? Our apartment is too small. He’ll have to sleep on the balcony with the pigeons. Or otherwise I’ll run away and hunt for jungle chickens with bow and arrow for the rest of my life. I bet you regret not getting me archery lessons. Oh well. Too late now.” But the truth is Moths and Bats had to have a place to sleep, and he didn’t feel like explaining that to some Estonian. For all he knew, Estonians were far cooler than the cool kids at school, and this Estonian Satan (for surely he must be equal to Satan) would spend the whole time saying things like “Nightmares are so nerdy and un-Estonian and in Estonia we define cool things by being Estonian.” And when he went back to Estonia, he’d tell all his cool friends, “You’ll never believe what this nerdy un-Estonian American kid had living in his bedroom: a Nightmare. A real Nightmare in the flesh, a Nightmare made of moths and bats – can you believe how uncool that is?” Junior was destined to be an international disgrace.

But the Estonian kid showed up one day, and he had a horse with a jellyfish belly. He was called Clearance Liquidizes, a name that didn’t seem Estonian, and his accent seemed more American than Estonian (of course Junior had no idea what Estonian names and accents were like). When Clearance arrived at his little apartment followed by a horse with a jellyfish belly (really just luminescent blue jellyfish-like tendrils hanging down from the horse’s belly) Junior wondered if this was just another thing he didn’t know about Estonia. Maybe all Estonians had such magnificent horses.

Clearance said (in his suspiciously American accent), “This is my Nightmare. His name is Pride in the Backstretch (based on classic racehorse naming rules).”

Junior decided to take the shame blanket off of Moths and Bats after all since this Clearance kid was likewise a Nightmare-having loser. “This is my Nightmare,” he said. “His name is Moths and Bats. He is literally moths and bats. In case you didn’t notice.” Junior was ashamed again at how uncreative his Nightmare naming was. Considering this was a fleshy outcropping of his subconscious, a completely literal name seemed to be a clever irony until he said it out loud.

Junior sat in his now crowded bedroom (with Clearance Liquidizes and the two Nightmare monsters) and said, “Kids in America like things like food and game playing. What do kids in Estonia like?”

“Mostly the same,” said Clearance Liquidizes and then silence (except the regular monster noises (breathing in and breathing out and self-eating moth/bat activity)).

Kids at school seemed even more intent on avoiding him when Clearance and his jellyfish-bellied horse walked down the hall with him. “This is American school,” he said. “We learn about math and animals. Also, cool kids are kind of mean to everyone else. What’s school like in Estonia?”

“The same.” Again, they had run out of things to talk about.

Then Junior said, “I think we should have a death match between our Nightmares.” Junior came up with this plan as the words left his mouth, but it was the most perfect plan in existence.

“Why?” said Clearance.

Junior said, “Because I kind of hate you right now. Plus also a Moths and Bats monster versus a horse with a jellyfish belly seems kinda rad and the sort of death match everyone on the planet should enjoy. Mostly, however, it is the hate I have for you.”

The next day, Junior made the poster and plastered it on all the viable spots. He shouted out, “Death match will begin shortly!” in noisy spots where no one heard him shouting.

But then the death match came, and Moths and Bats and the horse with a jellyfish belly just spent the whole time standing there looking at each other (as much as a creature made of moths and bats can stare).

They were alone. None of the other kids gave much interest in his advertisements.

“Why don’t you fight each other to the death?” Junior said to Moths and Baths. “It is the point of a death match, in case I have to inform you.”

“I’m honestly not cool with this at all, dude. I am not a fighting type. Man, I’m a Buddhist, for God’s sake.”

“Not cool, Junior,” said the horse with a jellyfish belly. “Not cool at all.”

“You realize they’re afraid of you, right?” said the Horse with a Jellyfish Belly. “That’s why kids don’t like you. They’re terrified.”

“Why would they be afraid?”

“It’s probably because your best friend is a tornado made of moths and bats.”

“That makes sense,” said Junior, and again they ran out of things to talk about.

It was pretty nice in the week of fear that followed in the wake of revelations that Nightmares made of moth-and-bat tornados might frighten normal kids. He didn’t know what to do with this power and spent most of the week planning scare pranks with Clearance and his horse with the jellyfish belly, but then he’d say, “Nah, better not,” because Jr was a good kid. Like “We can spook the football players when they kick the ball except, nah, maybe better not.”

But then Clearance said, “Dude, I gotta go back to Estonia now, so…” Right in the middle of school one day. He got up to go, and that was all there was to it.

They stood there staring at each other, making subtle protohandshake motions, initiating a hug but aborting it when it barely even started. Junior wanted to say, “You mean so much to me,” and “you are my best and only friend,” but he couldn’t.

Then he was alone again. He had the power to cripple others with fear, but he would never use it and he would always be alone because Junior was a good kid.

Four Chord Fiction: A Better Understanding of the Genre Born from Workshop Clichés

Sparks_Fly_-_Single

I finally came up with handy name and metaphor for the genre of fiction MFA programs and creative writing workshops seem to produce: Four Chord Fiction. You see, it’s like formulaic pop music where the musician plugs in a few unique elements into a set structure and out of the other end of the machine comes an audience-pleasing pop song. That’s not to say there is anything universally bad about a pop song, but understanding pop songs and the way they manipulate the listeners’ impulses requires recognition of the formula. In the same way, the workshop system indoctrinates young writers with four clichés (“Write what you know”; “Find your voice”; “Show, don’t tell”; “A character must want/learn/change, etc.”) and out of the other end of this machine comes a story with four corresponding elements (Domestic Realism; Naturalistic Free Indirect POV; Meandering Detail; Iceberg Conflict/Joycean epiphany) engineered to please, in this case, a much smaller audience: the workshop.

In fairness, this is an understanding of the workshop clichés and genre that can aid any writers who likes to write that way: understanding it as a genre is much more honest and helpful than treating the clichés as inviolable truths. But I also wanted language to critique the genre, the clichés, and the teaching technique for those, like me, who utterly disdain it.

As with pop music, part of the value of the Four Chord Story is that anybody can create a basically pleasing piece of fiction without a lot of legitimate work, just a lot of simple techniques that disguise themselves as work, and readers can critique Four Chord Story within the narrow bounds of the genre and the clichés without putting much effort into considering whether these clichés actually apply or if the clichés are even true to begin with. However, like a pop song, a Four Chord Story really should grate on the nerves of anyone with an understanding of the mechanisms at work. In both cases, if you like the Four Chord Story or not, lack of awareness of these mechanisms serves no one.

a-ha

I’ve struggled in the past to explain how my experiences in writing workshops were entirely useless to me – because the workshops seemed to all be teaching a genre I was uninterested in writing, whether or not the workshop leader was brutal or kind (and I hate to critique the kind ones but I have to confess they were all equally useless) – but the problem was the genre had no convenient name. I sometimes call it the “workshop cliché story,” but this genre need not necessarily come from an actual workshop, just exemplify the same clichés. The genre is sometimes called, in a self-congratulatory manner, “literary fiction,” but “literary” is egregiously inaccurate and unhelpfully broad (and placed in opposition to the even broader and less helpful and less accurate name “genre fiction”). In my opinion, “literature” functions in precisely the opposite way. Literature challenges conventions and clichés, exemplifies excellence and virtuosity within a full range of possibilities, etc., while the Four Chord Story functions merely to please in the easiest way possible. Literature creates, innovates, fosters originality, and so on, but Four Chord Fiction actively discourages creativity in many forms and depends on preset structures and story elements far more frequently and pervasively than so-called genre fiction. Hypocritically, this version of “literary” fictions sets itself in dialectic opposition against “genres” like science fiction with exponentially more originality, creativity, vitality, and intentional violation and deconstruction of expected generic elements than Four Chord Fiction could even allow.

The other major distinction between literature and Four Chord Fiction which troubles me deeply in explaining the difference (a problem which proper naming helps me resolve) is that anybody could write a Four Chord Story, and “literature” implies a level of elite virtuosity. It’s by far the easiest type of story to write. I can appreciate this egalitarian principle without necessarily liking the result. I love Tristan Tzara’s concept of creating a poem by cutting words out of a newspaper and arranging them at random partly because that obliterates poetic elitism, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily like every poem that results from cutting up a newspaper. I support on principle any democratization of art. However, the more significant problem here in democratizing the fiction process is the tie between Four Chord Fiction and creative writing education which seems to be the place of this genre’s birth and proliferation. While elitism may be a problem society, a school is designed to set the elite level as a goal for any student (equally, democratically) to reach while not alienating or dehumanizing anyone who fails to reach that level. An educational system can affirm inherent equality of all students while retaining the elite level as a goal for all students without hypocrisy; an educational system designed to foster mediocrity in the name of egalitarianism fails in its most basic purpose. The writer in a writing class should train like Rocky in all of his Rocky montages (working class underdog everyman striving with great physical difficulty and passion for a goal far beyond his present skill level) with the writing-teacher-equivalent of Burgess Meredith barking “Do it again! Do it better!” until our writing muscles bulge with Apollo-Creed-beating perfection. Whether or not Rocky beats him is irrelevant, but that is the goal of the training montage. But Four Chord Fiction is like Burgess Meredith handing Rocky a TASER and saying, “This is how you beat Apollo Creed, and since beating him is the only goal, this is the only tool you’ll need,” and nobody ever pointing out how this is a cheat and a complete misconception of the purpose of training. It’s like going to finance school and only learning about credit default swaps (I’m hardly knowledgeable enough in finance to make this metaphor work, but Four Chord Fiction makes me scared that literature built on such a hollow structure is bound for a collapse like the Great Recession). It’s like going to a math tutor who says, “Look at the answers in the back of the book, and do everything else on the calculator.” It’s like teaching students how to use the grammar check on their computer instead of actually teaching them grammar. It’s not real training. But these metaphors are inadequate because they imply a definite rule system, and this would run counter to another major criticism of creative writing education, that there can be and should be no objective rule system in artistic expression.

singer-john-denver-smile-best-concert

Thus, I arrived at four chord songs as the perfect metaphor. This music metaphor appeals to me partly because I have throughout my life been surrounded by fans of indie music or art music or classical music who complain they can’t enjoy pop music because it is overly simplistic and formulaic and repetitive. Music experts know the tricks that allow any musician, irrespective of any legitimate creativity or originality or skill, to make a piece of music which casual fans will enjoy. Full disclosure: I got this idea from an Axis of Awesome video called “4 Chords,” and any formulaic pop song structure could work just as well, but that video thoroughly demonstrates how any musician could plug in new lyrics to essentially the same song and make something basically pleasing. Mix and match these four chords, insert various other components, and you get “Someone Like You” by Adele or “Take Me Home, Country Road” by John Denver or “Sparks Fly” by Taylor Swift or “With or Without You” by U2 or “Let it Be” by the Beatles or “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins. These songs seem superficially quite different, but a music expert can hear the underlying structure. While I appreciate learning about this perspective, I am no music expert myself and couldn’t explain it any more thoroughly than that. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant to the flaws and clichés in popular music. The songs I picked as examples are songs I like. This hopefully proves my total honesty and attempt at fairness since nobody pretending to be cool and smart would admit to loving “Sparks Fly” as much as I love “Sparks Fly.” I’d even call “Let it Be” one of the greatest songs ever. That’s a safer position in terms of coolness, but I’d rather remain in an ignorant world where “Let it Be” really can be one of the greatest songs ever. You might also consider Prince and David Bowie who both died this year. Both were lauded in their many eulogies as creative geniuses and many of their most beloved songs are pop songs, so this clearly demonstrates pop music is far from universally bad. My point is that if writers use the cliché components I describe, that does not necessarily mean they are bad writers. They could be like Adele whose virtuosity compensates for any structural deficit, or they could be like Prince whose monumental creativity forced something unoriginal to metamorphose into something entirely original.

But here’s the problem: if I went to music school and all I learned was how to play a four chord song, I’d be pissed. If I wanted to start a rock band, I’d study “Let it Be” to figure out how it was made, but I wouldn’t need to go to school for that. If I wanted to be the next Beethoven or Arthur Schoenberg, I could go to school to learn the essential structural components beyond this singular form. The level of expertise necessary to be the next Beethoven would require extensive study and training even if my aim was to break it down and create something entirely new like Schoenberg. My hypothetical Four Chord Music School would be even more problematic if it had no way to teach me anything about Beethoven, if it was designed to only teach students how to create this one type of song (no matter how good or how superficially different these songs might seem), to even imply that Beethoven was a bad musician because he didn’t fit the four chord formula – this would be egregious educational malfeasance, yet we tolerate it from fiction workshops and programs.

Here are the four structural components, or “four chords,” that make up the clichéd workshop story paired with the cliché advice at the root of the component, set up like a listicle since creative writing classes, in my experience, are more like “tips and tricks” listicles than anything legitimately called education. I also deconstruct each chord to examine what is really behind it and present an alternative version that works much better in understanding how a story works.

man-in-the-mirror-michael-jackson

Chord 1: Domestic realism

Cliché: Write what you know.

A better understanding: “Write what you know” is the most insidious, anti-imaginative advice that proliferates workshops despite the monumental evidence of its falsity. The other three chords have relatively redeemable bits of advice at their core, but “write what you know” is a parasite, sucking creativity out of all other aspects of writing as well. I’m trying to be fair with Four Chord Fiction, but it’s hard to be fair with this one. It perhaps aids new writers in mining material for stories, hence the four-chord-based over-simplification: no need to imagine anything or put much work into the creative process if the material exists already in “what you know.” It becomes further problematic when the story material outside of this very limited range is deemed implicitly unfit for writing. By implication, if we should write what we know, we shouldn’t write what we don’t know. That would eliminate the vast majority of good writing. Writers would then no longer exercise their imagination, and fiction would become a sub-species of memoir. Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good, and it certainly doesn’t mean those who choose the more difficult option (e.g. making stuff up) are wrong to do so. Instead of following clichés, it’s much more important to recognize the stimulant value of story elements, and understanding the mechanism behind “write what you know” could, possibly, hopefully, fairly render it legitimately useful. First, the framing effect – taking any real object or event and simply reframing in the context of fiction – has a basic stimulant value, and writers can train themselves to recognize objects and events with optimal stimulant value the same way photographers develop an eye for compelling pictures. Those who disseminate this advice/lie/misconception “write what you know” may simply derive more stimulation from the framing effect than others. The subjectivity inherent in recognition of stimulant value is what gives art such variety, so limiting the possibilities of this variety to a single effect that happens to work better for some than others is counterproductive to teaching writing. Also, certain particular story components could benefit from application of “write what you know”: characters, for example. Applying this advice to plot is bound to limit a story to the blandest components, but applying this to character could aid in fostering empathy. I prefer to rephrase the advice “Write who you know, but write whatever you enjoy.” It’s important also to note that readers may reject signs of overt manipulation (most of the Four Chords seem to be aimed at eliminating signs of overt manipulation as if that is the only problem in a story). Audiences might reject some plot twist that comes off glaringly as a trick (which is ironic that this advice is essentially a trick meant to counteract a trick), but that’s why it’s important to free characters and events from conscious manipulation, to let them be and live and interact like hypnogogic hallucinations. Writers can train themselves to think in this way, but the comparative uselessness of “write what you know” is no substitute. Perhaps realists can help other realists by saying “write what you know,” but most great imaginative writers of any type, realist or not, will say “Characters write themselves.” In direct contradiction to this cliché, a writer can find great delights in not actually knowing everything about a character and discovering moment by moment places your character can lead you far outside of your knowing.

Chord 2: Naturalistic Free Indirect POV

Cliché: Find your voice

A better understanding: Crafting prose to enhance one’s own authorial voice is where much of the hard work of writing resides, so a scheme to make writing overly easy would seem to fail here, but the Four Chord concept of voice and prose present two contradictory notions that provide writers the same effortless cheat as “write what you know” and give writers the false impression of actually having done valuable work. “Find your voice” seems like it’s guiding writers toward originality, but that soon meets the supposed rights and wrongs of prose – for example, dishonestly favoring concision over euphony. “Find[ing] your own voice” matched with “writ[ing] what you know” leads to narrators who are simply speaking like the writer speaks. This avoids the legitimate effort of creating compelling narrators and is a stimulation cheat similar to the framing effect: any writer speaking honestly is going to be compelling at the base level. Any character or narrator based write-what-you-knowingly on the writer or the writer’s acquaintances is going to be nearly as empathetic and complicated as the actual person and requires the writer to little more than accurately frame. Readers may enjoy a narrator with a naturalistic voice the same way they enjoy a conversation. Chord 1 and Chord 2 effectively extract the effort and creativity out of plot, voice, prose, and character – a feat so impressive, no wonder it’s so popular. But why do so few people complain about the laziness of such overly simplistic advice? That’s where the direct contradiction of “find your voice” functions effectively to mask the laziness. It turns out that “your voice” is inadequate since an Ernest Hemingway-like or Raymond Carver-like concision is apparently the only valid voice any writer can have, and there is a whole swath of tips-and-tricks and lightweight exercises a writer can apply to any prose to make it sound like Hemingway or Carver, get rid of compound sentences, get rid of repetition/redundancy/parallelism, get rid of passive voice, get rid of essentially everything but nouns and verbs, etc. But this is not creative work. This is busy work. The computer programs I use to write will sometimes convert “&” to “&” and it takes a lot of necessary work to convert all of those to “and” (especially since some of them seem to be random conversions of entirely different formatting quirks), but I would never call this the hard work of beautifying prose. The Carverization of prose is hardly much different, but it may trick naïve writers into thinking effort has paid off with sharpener sentence. In fairness, maybe they did sharpen a sentence, but it’s in the same way a beginning guitar player comes up with a chord progression that sounds kind of like the Beatles after a lot of practice: the dopamine hits get them hooked on this type of practice, but this does not equate great musicianship. The bigger problem of this sort of busy work is it aims for robotic conformity, not the originality “find your voice” implies. I blame the workshop system for this since a workshop is structurally designed to foster this variety of conformity and not to foster legitimate originality partly because of the various social forces inherent in the workshop itself (as all social interactions foster conformity as the easiest, most painless choice) matched with the need for ease of transmission of supposed advice and ease of identification of supposed problems. It reduces the infinite variety of possibilities of voice development to a single choice: concision. Concision is fine in certain circumstances, but I often (in the legitimate hard work of prose crafting) find myself choosing between concision and euphony and falling more often on the side of euphony (as most great writers who are not Hemingway or Carver or any of their children (it’s a delight to imagine those two in the act of breeding) choose euphony over concision), but concision is appealing to the workshop system because it comes with its own Buzzfeed-like tips-and-tricks listicle that is (overly) easily disseminated. I imagine a clever programmer in the future creating a Carverbot 5000, running student prose through the system and producing the same concise and monotonous prose that finally causes the workshop system to collapse. Here’s a personal example: I remember when I came to the realization that I like strings of compound sentences, and I especially love coordinating conjunctions and the euphony of long lines. This is an example of a writer discovering his own voice which “find your voice” is supposed to celebrate. To develop my own voice, I would explore the proper placement of coordinating conjunctions to optimize the euphony of the long line. This discovery happened before I ever entered a workshop. However, without fail, someone in every workshop told me I used too many coordinating conjunctions. The only response I could give is that I like coordinating conjunctions and that I’m going to keep them. The exchange was as time wasting as someone saying, “I like pickles.” Well, I don’t like pickles and never will. I could have used all that time wasted in disseminating false objectivity to invent more monsters. Then there’s the matter of POV. Writers could use objective third, omniscient third, close third, second person, first person, and so on. Great writers can also shift back and forth between various POVs. But the Four Chord Story only uses one: close third – actually, only one species of close third called free indirect (eliminating such non-concise contrivances as “he thought”). I exaggerate, of course, because sometimes Four Chord Stories use first person (based on the illusion of legitimate voice finding) but extract that a slight step into third person (based on the illusion of legitimate crafting) and you get free indirect. The idea seems to be: find your own voice, choose any POV, use it consistently, but there is only one good POV, and that is free indirect. By the end of my MFA experience, it seemed like all I had learned was to write with a consistent POV since I knew all the other clichés already. I can’t really call this something I learned since it’s just plain wrong – read any story by Kafka (“Sorrows of a Family Man” uses four POVs in one page) or any work of fiction published before Carver, and you can easily prove how wrong this is – but the whole program seemed to be desperate to teach this to me. Based on other so-called teaching, the only acceptable POV that I must, must, must use consistently is free indirect, but this makes sense considering the pyramid-scheme-quality of the whole system: it’s like saying, “This system requires you to cheat, but we can’t actually tell you to cheat, so you just have to arrive at this conclusion by working out all this contradictory advice.” Full disclosure: I use free indirect most often in my stories, but I feel lazy doing it because it is so easy to generate empathy that way while maintaining the suspense and focus which first person can undermine. I wish I could accomplish the same thing with a different POV – I idolize Harold Pinter and other playwrights for their ability to accomplish this with a pure objective third POV – but admittedly my fixation on free indirect is a character-based bit of bitterness related to stereotypes of my so-called genre. I use a lot of tropes from magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, anime, comic books, etc. I could just imagine if I took on the challenge of objective third, some misguided stereotyper might say, “Of course you use objective third because you are writing science fiction which has flat, allegorical characters and requires narrative distance.” Everything about that claim would be so enragingly wrong and could occupy a dozen other ranty blog posts (most relevantly and enragingly: the character complexity of so-called literary/more accurately Four Chord Fiction is hypocritically accomplished by the laziest possible means), I’d have to be ultra-delicate with my objective third to be the champion of character complexity in all of my so-called genres. Instead, I favor the characters over the POV challenge as a proud and sentimental character father. But at least I do it consciously.

Chord 3: Meandering detail.

Cliché: Show, don’t tell.

A better understanding: In my experience, “Show, don’t tell” is the most pervasively dogmatic of all workshop clichés. This is due to the magical way in which it seems to make a story pop. Like the other elements in Carverian tips-and-tricks listicles, spotting the “show[ing]” and the “tell[ing]” is a fairly simple technique to transmit in a workshop setting and can easily trick the young writer into thinking this is real work and learning. But it’s only a trick, and it can easily slip into hollow dogmatism – resulting in strings of meandering detail – unless the writer understands why it works. The legitimate effect at the core of this cliché is the relative stimulant value of concrete images compared to abstractions. Compare these two descriptions: “He was embarrassed.” “His face went red as he averted his eyes.” The first (“tell[ing]”) is a relatively unstimulating abstraction, and the second (“show[ing]”) is relatively stimulating series of concrete images: an object, a color, an action, etc. Consciousness of the relative stimulant value of abstraction and concrete images is a great place to start for young writers, but “Show, don’t tell” narrows that consideration down to small percentage of the multitude of choices between abstract and concrete. A writer could validly choose to skip useless details to get more quickly to a story beat, to gloss quickly over necessary exposition for the sake of timing, to effectively employ abstraction for the sake of ambiguity or mystery. But, no, the dogmatism of the cliché implies that concrete description is always the right choice. This leads to narratives utterly packed with concrete detail with seemingly no purpose other than to fulfill this inviolable doctrine. Concrete detail may be intrinsically stimulating without any purpose other than its own value, but the more of this purposeless detail you pile into a story, the more its stimulant value becomes blunted. Let’s say I was giving a meta-narrative of my own present process, I could say, “He paused to think of what to say next. Then he continued typing.” This is too abstract to have much stimulant value. Compare this to the following description: “He took a sip of black and bitter coffee from his blue cup and put it back on the desk, the thud of the heavy mug muted by a homemade paper coaster. He looked at the broken blue stapler beside the computer monitor. Soon he heard again the rattle of his own typing.” Relative to the abstraction of “He thought of his next line,” the concrete detail is more stimulating, but if I pile on more purposeless description, I blunt the effect: “He had a white and yellow pencil beside the keyboard.” So what? That pencil is hardly beautiful, and my plain description hardly endows it with beauty, so why describe it other than dogmatic adherence to cliché? How does that description advance the story or reveal anything about the character? I could point out that I keep a broken stapler on my desk because I hate to throw anything away, and I like the translucent blue as it catches the window light. That would reveal a lot about me as a character, but that white and yellow pencil does nothing. I have no association with it, and I don’t even know where it came from, and it’s just not pretty, no offense to white and yellow pencils. It creates no stimulation, and it has no place in my story. I would be the last one to argue that art ever needs an end point value or that that should be the sole reason for a story element’s existence. I’m thoroughly untroubled by detail with a purely aesthetic value. For example, a writer can further enhance the stimulant value of a concrete detail with consciousness of poetic euphony. For example, if I used those details in a story about my inability to throw away broken staplers, I would keep relatively unrevealing details like “black and bitter coffee from his blue cup” partly for the visuals but partly for the alliteration and the iambic rhythm. Following that with the “white and yellow pencil” continues the iambic rhythm to the point of rendering the sentence bland with the mechanical repetition of detail and rhythm. It would be utterly counterproductive. This consideration of euphony can also be an effective counterargument to another clichés nearly as dogmatic: “Kill your darlings,” a cliché at the level of inarticulate offensiveness with “Write what you know,” as it seems to encourage the elimination of all story elements not purely purposeful, yet it seems to lack the dogmatic efficacy of “Show, don’t tell,” so Four Chord Stories become more commonly populated by purposeless detail than euphonious “darlings.” Better advice is to turn everything in your story into a darling so that editing becomes a choice between two darlings and not a process of destroying that which you love for the sake of a conformity to some false rule system. Euphony and concrete detail can be two “darlings” a writer must choose between. I run across this constantly because of my addiction to adverbs. I mostly overuse the word “mostly” for the sake of rhythm (this is part of recognizing my own voice, a voice which throws in many gratuitous mostlys, and precisely the process that the conformist, anti-adverb Carverization of narrative hypocritically works against). For example, I might change the above line to “black and mostly bitter” to break up the artificiality of the alliteration, but “mostly” is an abstraction. Recognizing that “mostly” lacks the stimulant value of a concrete image but may enhance the poetics of the line, I must choose which “darling” best enhances the stimulant value of the line as a whole. In this case, consciousness of the interaction between story elements is far more effective than the narrow focus on “show[ing]” and “tell[ing].”

Chord 4: Iceberg Conflict/Joycean Epiphany

Cliché: A character should want/strive for/do/learn something; good characters end the story by changing or coming to some epiphany.

A better understanding: To give young writers simple tricks to improve their characters, especially as it relates to story structure, workshops often give an extraordinarily simplified version of principles championed by the two Modernist darlings of workshopping: Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce (but only the Joyce of The Dubliners). Certainly, beginning writers may write passive characters unconsciously as much as they write passive voice sentences unconsciously. Writers are often passive and introspective people, and being a beginning writer in a workshop only heightens this, so if they “write what they know,” they’ll often write passive, introspective characters. So telling young writers that good characters are also introspective but still strive for something gives young writers a license to write about this highly internalized characters and give a simple fix to the characters’ bland passivity, enhancing the character’s vitality in the simplest way. Furthermore, workshops justify this oversimplification by claiming Hemmingway supported the same technique with his “Iceberg” theory: the conflict, according to this interpretation of the “iceberg,” happens under the ocean surface. Hemmingway, furthermore, is cool and active and tough and confident, so no wonder he becomes the heroical darling of passive introverts. But if conflict is internalized, how do you actually end the story? For that, workshops turn to the other oversimplified, overly narrow sliver of modernist technique: the Joycean epiphany. Instead of the artificial external conflict that ends with a fight to the death, a character must learn something and change. This also helps resolve the difficulty of determining an active drive for characters with internal conflicts: their drive is the drive to learn. They’re driven to overcome some misconception. They’re driven to change. A lot of supposed creative writing instruction books read a lot like self-help books, so no wonder the characters seem so thoroughly like the embodiment of self-help pop psychology (another metaphor I considered before Four Chord Fiction is self-help vs. legitimate psychotherapy). This self-help version of Hemmingway and Joyce is a poor understanding of characters on so many levels rooted in the same oversimplification and false dogmatism of the rest of the three chords. You could easily disprove it by naming any number of great characters who fail to conform to these standards. Taking the Four Chords as absolutes seems to disqualify half of all literature that came before Hemmingway, and certainly these standards of good characters seems to apply to only about half of all good characters ever. One of my all-time favorite characters is Dorothy Gale, a very active character, certainly, but she embodies all internal desires in external actions, and by the end (in the book version which I like better than the movie version) she learns nothing and she has not changed a bit. Workshop dogmatism implies that Dorothy Gale, despite being beloved by millions, is just not a good character. I would certainly never argue against internal conflict since interiority is vital to the stimulating vicarious experience, but the dogmatism seems to place internal/external as a binary choice, implying stories with external conflicts must lack internal conflicts. That’s pure nonsense. Claiming all good characters must learn something is even more egregious nonsense. Epiphany is one of many choices in character and plot development. Beyond that, the gross simplification of Hemmingway and Joyce does Hemmingway and Joyce a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Hemmingway or Joyce. In fact, I hate most Hemmingway and Joyce stories. I spent a lot of time in workshops “learning” the supposedly inviolable truths of Hemmingway and Joyce, wondering why I was supposed to write like two writers I really hate. Was I supposed to hate my own writing? It made no sense. My favorite modernist fiction writers are Franz Kafka and Daniil Kharms, and the failure of Kafka and Kharms characters to ever learn anything enhances the mysterious quality of the stories. Hemmingway characters, for their part, may have the Icebergian internal conflicts but very rarely ever seem to learn or change. One of the few Hemmingway stories I can tolerate is “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place, and the power of the characters in that story is in their routine intransigence. Furthermore, epiphanies in Four Chord stories tend to have these very simple and obvious lessons – as simplistic in their stimulant effect as structuring every pop song with a bridge at the end – that are patently un-Joycean in their simplicity. What do the characters in The Dubliners actually learn with their epiphanies? It’s hard to identify in a single statement, and the power is partly in the ambiguity and complexity. Simplification of epiphanies as something identifiable is another effect of the workshop structure. In my experience, much of the workshop time was spent on useless “I don’t understand why” statements. If a reader in a workshop has a limited amount of time to read a certain amount of stories, the false impression may be that difficulty to understand something is a flaw. Joyce, despite the reverence, would fail to get very far in the workshop structure, a system designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to encourage conformity and clarity and discourage experimentation, difficulty, ambiguity, etc. – the precise qualities that garner Joyce so much praise (even though I’m reluctant to admit it as a Joyce hater). Beyond this, the two worst effects of the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification are to reduce character drive to a singular, identifiable goal and to misplace the value of the story in its endpoint, at the completion of that goal. A better way to approach character is to identify characters’ paradoxical drives and to recognize the story as a disruption of stasis. Beginning writers may start by identifying characters’ internal drives, but to make the character far more compelling, empathetic, complicated, potent, etc., writers should also identify the exact opposite: the paradoxical drive that runs directly counter to the first (relatively superficial) drive the writer identifies. This could be opposition between an internal drive and external actions, or this could be two directly contradictory internal drives. It’s easy to see how much more effective this is in understanding a wider variety of stories than the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification: Dorothy Gale only ever wants to go home, and her external actions are driven by this, but paradoxically, she also grows to love the friends she makes in Oz, rendering the completion of her quest more complicated (certainly not a lesson or change, by a potent endpoint nonetheless). Gregor Samsa may desire the return of normalcy, he may desire to fulfill his responsibility to his family, but that life also sucks, and he likes being a monstrous vermin. The waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place may superficially want a clean, well-lighted place as a refuge, but he also believes in “nada” and recognizes all temporary comforts are useless. Character paradox has such intrinsic vitality, I would recommend that as the starting place of any story for any young writer. If you can’t think of a story, imagine a character, imagine what he/she wants, and identify the opposite drive. Likewise, in starting a story, the writer should recognize that the story gains vitality by the disruption of stasis. Epiphany or change represents only one type of return to stasis. In a traditional heroic story with external conflict, the hero starts in a story world in peace with citizens upholding morals designed to maintain stasis; then a villain enters this environment and disrupts the stasis; the hero then defeats the villain to cause the story world to return to stasis. Similarly, Dorothy gets lost (disruption of stasis) and must return home (return to stasis). No epiphanies are necessary for this type of story. A story with internalized conflict, like the Four Chord style of realism, starts with the story world in a similar sort of stasis. There may be pre-existing internal conflict numbed by some realistic routine. Say, for example, the main character is in a bad marriage, but she has learned to live with it. Then there comes an inciting incident that disrupts the stasis. Say, for example, the dumb husband says something he doesn’t realize is emotionally abusive. How can that story end? She comes to the realization that she has to leave him, thus establishing a new stasis. Epiphany works for this set up, and an effective way for this type of character to return to stasis is to change, but that fails to prove there is any necessity for universal application.

Workshops seem to promote the notion that this is the only valid way to create a good story, and the only trajectory of a good character. In reality, this is a paint-by-numbers method of story creation. It clearly works for many people, and many people love the end results of this paint by numbers method. I may rail against this method because it limits the imaginative possibilities of fiction, stunts the evolution, kills experimentation and originality, etc., but that is merely what I value in writing. After all, formulas in pop music result in perfectly good songs for listeners who don’t care as much. Great performers like Adele, Prince, David Bowie, and, yes, Taylor Swift can take the formula and make it something original, dynamic, exciting, vital, beautiful, etc. However, I wouldn’t expect music schools to teach students this type of music. That would be ridiculous. And writing schools that promote this same sort of simplistic formula are equally ridiculous.

Monster Heel : oR : Heat in its Eight Varieties

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Monster Heel : oR : Heat in its Eight Varieties

E-Jo the Bull Mountain was ten feet tall (when he decided to be that small) and billed as being from the mysterious sounding L’Ile de Pieces Inconnus and composed of stone like the Easter-Island-like island statues and empowered by the same gods of otherness. Thus, E-Jo at the beginning of his professional wrestling career elicited the first type of heat.

“Heat” is a specialized term for audience passion and one of the most complicated words in the English language. Heat has at least eight identifiable varieties though gradients and combinations make Heat nearly infinite in its possibilities, the way notes in a symphony may be distinguishable if the listener disregards microtones and all the other complexities of tonal interactions. Still, just as the novice musician must begin with “do-re-mi” to reach Beethoven’s Fifth eventually, E-Jo started his career with the first variety of Heat, given him at birth:

1) Otherness Heat.

With Otherness Heat, the audience excavates its guttural, self-defining rages based on a comforting forced-doubling antipathy toward otherness and internal shadows, to rage for life by raging against the unbeatable blackness we’re all bound to, etc. It’s the rage that takes us from the fear delights of shadow monsters to veneration of monster conquering. But Otherness monster is only a shadow making the light around the hero lighter..

The audience booing E-Jo in his earliest matches (as a wrestling audience is an audience with superior emotional intelligence) was fully aware of the ceremonial quality of this othering so held no legitimate animosity toward him. It has the same sense of vicarious hate tribesmen who hated masked demons in ancient dances. By being able to maintain this paradox of rage-despite-conscious-awareness (a level of ceremonial complexity beyond even the Judeo-Christian worshipper who needs belief in the devil for self-defining but can’t effectively negotiate all the necessary paradoxes of an omnipotent God who allows the devil continued existence) and such an appreciation of paradox transcends the potential taint of dualism.

The truth is E-Jo really was born an inhuman other: he was born a Lithopedian, meaning he was genuinely made of stone, more like a kidney stone than a human baby. Lithopedians, normally thrown away by parents who assume they’re little more than disturbing tumor, continue to grow and gather, driven by a migration impulse, in a land called Lithopedia.

E-Jo, unlike his Lothopedian brethren, didn’t so easily dismiss the possibility that humans had compassion. This was only an impulse, as deep and irrational as the migration that brought him to Lithopedia in the first place, since no humans lived in Lithopedia to teach him language or rational thought. He was the only Lithopedian with this impulse. This was a birth defect like all his other birth defects. He walked away from Lithopedia, hobbling on stone legs barely designed for human mobility.

When the first fleshy human said to him, “You okay, mister? You need help?” he would have cried for joy if he had any tear ducts in his stone body.

It was the regional booker and E-Jo’s manager (Baron Steve Faberbacher) who led him to a life of theatrical violence. “It’s all a work my friend, all a show. You’ll never hurt anybody. Not permanently.” Baron Steve let E-Jo live in his waterless pool and gave him all the praises that seemed to feed the rock monster more than human food.

But there was no way to logically beat E-Jo (considering the literal stone of his body) making him like death or other natural force no single man could stand against. But E-Jo, unlike death, never wanted to hurt anybody.

Still, the audience expressed their hate and E-Jo absorbed the hate into his rocky body. Like all Lithopedians made of black stone, hate turned the rock into jags poking out all over making him even more terrifying and hateable.

One day the Baron told him, “I paid a lot of money to have Sin Cara come in for a feature performance, so I want you to do the job.” The Baron wanted E-Jo to lose. The truth is E-Jo would willing lose to anybody he fought. He wanted the Baron to make the most money. The pool he slept in at the Baron’s remained waterless for a reason, and half the house remained roofless and cocooned in contractor scaffolds for a reason. Of course E-Jo would lose to Sin Cara, no question. But Sin Cara was only one tenth as big as E-Jo.

The crowd was going to hate this the wrong way.

This leads to the second and third types of heat which (considering the the elevated complexity of heat compared to all other fan reactions) sometimes coinciding and sometimes contradicting:

2) Meta-Failure Heat: This is the type of audience hate – a genuine hate in this case – reserved for failures in storytelling and performance that violate fourth wall conceit (considering the level of complexity we’ve reached with only the second type of heat, you can imagine how complex these fourth wall conceits can get). One might consider this type of heat merely criticism of a wrestler’s poor skill, but the worst reaction a wrestler can get is no reaction. One might think fans of professional wrestling might be extra cruel to poor performers, and certainly a sort of afterthought cerebral criticism is common for those who fail in basic ways, but this is not heat. Heat is a passionate response and the merely bad can hardly hope for that. Live performance likewise makes vocal criticism of the basically bad unlikely considering the face-to-face proximity – you want a live performer to succeed. The most passionate genuine hate elicited by bad wrestling is Meta-Failure Heat usually reserved for the booker or writer or whatever invisible force audiences can blame for making bad narrative choices. There is a level of embarrassment and shame in this narrative development or performance failure revealing the fakeness of the situation or in its badness. It is not the fakeness alone – audiences don’t hate most fiction for merely being fake – it’s the forcible waking from a dream. Chants of “b.s.” are more accurately “please don’t remind me it actually is b.s.” This most commonly occurs when a booker pushes an undeserving performer or a clearly weaker wrestler gets an unearned win.

When E-Jo knelt to receive the loss from Sin Cara, a human one tenth his size (E-Jo exhibiting more pain in his knees from the willful kneeling for loss than any pain Sin Cara could give him), he felt this variety of hate, hate for the Baron or whatever invisible force made this decision, but in his absence, E-Jo took all the rage sinking deep in his stone body.

Mixed in with the genuine hate was the third type of heat:

3)Pity Heat. Clearly, all of this hurt E-Jo on a deep level. Clearly, he was physically ill equipped to be a wrestler. Plenty of people in that audience went from genuine hate at the narrative failure to sympathy for the handicapped man who meant well. Since heat is the greatest affirmation a heel is doing well, a few in the audience gave away a sad fake “Boo!” as an apology for the earlier and entirely different type of “Boo!”

To build toward the Baron’s big moment, E-Jo had to beaten one beloved guy in the Baron’s promotion called “Dr. Axehandle” Holt Hefter (a sort of Duggan/Hogan hybrid) who played up a purely good and simple-minded persona driven by the immorality and chicanery of heels to axe-handle-based brutalization. In reality, Holt Hefter was kind and clever and well-versed in ornithology and could pick out various birdsongs all day (Holt met the Baron because the Baron’s uncle Goose was a legitimate ornithologist and Holt’s lifelong neighbor). He was also well-versed in cryptozoology (bird monsters were his favorites though rock monsters were a close second) and knew all the literature on Lithopedian biology. He went on and on in lectures to the silent E-Jo (the only wrestler still willing to listen to his lectures) about how Otherness Heat reflected ancient mythological dynamics of death personified.‬

He took to caring for E-Jo in the manner of a pet owner and a curious biologist.

When the Baron told Holt and E-Jo how their story would develop (they’d tease out the possibility that the morally pure axe-handle brutalizer might have a chance to beat the unbeatable rock monster but switch it up (good would lose to evil) and let the good kind of heat build so that when the well-paid guest star (Sin Cara) finally beat E-Jo, the audience would go nuts in the right way, having been properly emotionally abused for weeks beforehand).

But in their match, when Holt finally got E-Jo down for a two-count-near-win (even walloping E-Jo with the signature axe handle for about five minutes, it had to strike the audience as having as little effect as Holt beating a brick wall), E-Jo knelt down with his terrible and pained knees, willfully giving over this near win in obviously fake ways, but then the narrative upheaval: he took away the near win and beat Holt in the end as planned. Laying beaten on the mat, Holt spent some time listening to the inevitable boos with more of a curious expression than anything.

Later, in the back, he told E-Jo, “It’s the wrong kind of heat. It’s Meta-Failure Heat. We need Otherness Heat. When Sin Cara beats you, it’s going to be bad, real bad.”

So then, when E-Jo a horizontal stone slab on the mat in defeat, Sin Cara’s arm and leg over the little bit of E-Jo he could cover, the waves of disdain from every human in the audience sank into E-Jo’s body like sun soaking into green leaves. His body swelled. He became too heavy. The ring broke beneath his weight.

E-Jo couldn’t move in the middle of the nest of ring debris. The crowd filed out slowly past the fallen, face-down E-Jo. Some were brave enough to reach out and touch him. He seemed so weak now. Curiosity about whether his rock body was real overwhelmed any old gut-deep terror at the sight of him. When they found out the rock was real, the terror returned, and they moved along more quickly.

When everyone else was gone (and Sin Cara got his payout and bolted forever) the Baron sat beside E-Jo, the swelling in his body receding like any wound, and he said. The Baron, touching E-Jo with more gentleness than every other human, said, “That was brutal in all the wrong ways. You’re winning every match from now on, buddy.”‬

E-Jo did win every match from then on, and it was perfectly logical for a giant rock monster to do so, but this leads to the fourth kind of heat:

4) Anti-Mechanical Heat: This is very similar to Meta-Failure Heat in that the anger is generated by storytelling failure, but in this case the problem, instead of being the embarrassment-tainted revelation of falsehood, is rooted in being too logical and too real. Lives are built to be mechanical, to reduce the daily temptation to degenerating into rages, by repetition and predictability. Of course the strong beat the weak as predictably as heavy things fall to gravity. It’s a practical life free of dangers for those who aren’t the conquer-targets for the logical top of the hierarchy. The ideal of the logical dictatorship is logical efficiency where citizens remain safe and peaceful in acknowledging inferior positions.

But the soul needs heat, the free ecstasy of rage. Anti-Mechanical Heat explodes from the numbed soul like a thunderbolt from a too long dormant cloud. A seemingly simple chant like “Bo-ring! Bo-ring!” is a desperate cry for the return of humanity.

So the crowd rejected E-Jo’s illogical loss, and the crowd nearly as passionately rejected E-Jo’s logical constant winning, so the Baron paced back and forth around the pool where E-Jo slept, uncertain how to even honor the divine providence of a wrestling promoter happening upon a giant rock monster. But then E-Jo reached out a hand to stop the Baron’s constant pacing, a “there there” patting to calm the Baron’s anxieties (and it did seem to work as if E-Jo soaked the anxieties into his body). E-Jo was so gentle, the Baron wondered if there was a way to work gentleness into a wrestling narrative and again became blank and anxious. Good thing E-Jo was and would always remain terrifying.

There was another heel in the same promotion named Ford Fordham who had given himself the nickname “Murdergod” which is not the sort of thing people should have the capacity to do for themselves, but this is who Ford Fordham was. He told the crowds week after week, “I can break open the Bull Mountain Monster and give you all the blood you want!” and he’d get them chanting “Blood! Blood! Blood!” even though everybody normally hated Ford Fordham. This leads to the fifth variety of heat:

5) Pure Blood Lust Heat: This is the most basic and guttural form of heat, the kind of heat that most wrestlers would be love to hear. It’s at the base of so many other types of desired heat, but it’s different from, say, Otherness Heat because there is no love and sympathy for the hero necessary. The crowd wants both sides to beat each other to a broken bloody mess. It’s resistance to the entanglements of dualities makes it among the most powerful in any form of narrative.

Its nature as root/most basic of all heats is clear when examining a heel vs heel scenario. The common way to generate passion in an audience is to give them a vicarious hero to win with, to become one with and shape their desperation to magically aid their hero in fighting that which they most fear/hate. But can a narrative succeed in generating passion without this vicarious hero? To find the root value of any narrative, ask yourself if that narrative can succeed without a particular element. If you have stripped away all unnecessary elements, what remains is the most essential source of narrative vitality. One can see this most glaringly in heel vs heel matches stripped of vicarious heroes: only blood lust remains. This is a vicarious sensation audiences desire as much as hero victories. It is a secret shame that all of humanity is so thoroughly masochistic, but this is direct extension of Anti-Mechanical Heat. We desire the vicarious experience of pain because we are human, and our humanity needs pain as an antidote to the numbing machines of safety. Most days this desire is hidden shamefully (most people wouldn’t say in conversation, “I love to watch others in pain”) but in the brutal and bloody and primal ceremonies that crept into our so called civilization disguised as unsophisticated delight, our pain-loving humanity is set free without shame.

Ford Fordham went to the Baron and Holt Hefter and said, “The crowd is so hot for me to draw blood from E-Jo, I want to beat the crap out of Holt and leave him bloody in the ring. I mean I want to paint the mat red from edge to edge. Holt, you mind if I use your own axe handle to beat you to a bloody mush?”

Holt said, “That’s fine, Ford. You know I’m up for anything, but I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

“Are you kidding?” Ford said. “Listen to those chants for blood.” He cupped his ear to listen to the “Blood! Blood! Blood!” chants still going on. “We haven’t gotten heat like this since E-Jo started winning everything.”

“I think they’re chanting that because they hate you.”

“Of course they do. I’m very good at my job.”

“No, I mean they hate hate you.”

This leads to the sixth variety of heat:

6) Genuine Personal Disdain.

When legitimate paramedics carted Holt away on a legitimate stretcher, Holt looked back at Ford stoking the blood passions of the audience, sploshing in Holt’s blood on the mat, holding Holt’s reddened axe handle high, Holt listened carefully to the heat and said, “This isn’t good.”

“We’re taking care of you, sir,” said a paramedic confused, like most normals, by the multitude of heat paradoxes.

“I’m not worried about me,” Holt said as the paramedics set a broken bone. “The crowd hates that guy. This is going to go very badly.”

The paramedic glanced at the ring and back at Holt, utterly baffled.
“I mean they hate hate him. It’s complicated. Nevermind.”

Anyway, long story short, E-Jo killed Ford Fordham.

The day of the match, the first minute of the match, in fact, E-Jo hit Ford once with his legitimate power, for the first time ever, sending him flying across the room, over the crowd, splattering him against the wall of the middle school gymnasium until what used to be Ford Fordham was hardly identifiable as human.

The heat that followed was a complex mixture of other forms of heat, including a seventh paradoxical form:

7) Legitimate Moral Disdain:

This went beyond merely disliking a wrestler’s personal qualities. You could still indirectly access Blood Lust Heat that way and have a great match. This was disdain of every moral implication inherent in the scenario. It was less a “boo” to say “I hate you,” and more a “boo” to say “I hate everything about this.” It was much more difficult to shape this into something audiences enjoyed. But there was a fascinating effect with Legitimate Moral Disdain: sometimes audiences hated the scenario in the moment but loved it later, looking back on the disquietude of emotional extremes with fondness.

Crowd members present to witness E-Jo turning Ford to jelly told the news reporters afterward, “It was the worst thing I have ever seen,” but they told each other honestly for many years to follow, “It was the greatest thing I have ever seen” (those, at least, who didn’t get a chance to see the manifestation of the eighth variety of heat soon to follow which took a step beyond this greatness).

E-Jo, for his part, swelled so thoroughly from absorbing all this hate, he couldn’t exit the gymnasium. The police couldn’t arrest him and called in construction crews to take the wall down. E-Jo slammed against the door opening over and over, weeping, trying to expel all the hate from his dry tear ducts, from his moaning, but nothing seemed to work.

Then he witnessed the final kind of heat that unified all dualities, good and bad, love and hate, man and woman, self and other, and so on.

8) Perfect Heat.

It has been achieved by few living wrestlers and very few if any wrestling fans can name a practitioner of Perfect Heat since this level of heat leads audience to such extreme ecstasies they must reject it as the stuff of dreams to go on living. Even “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who achieved Perfect Heat (secretly) in 1988, had to reign it in during television appearances to keep from blowing out all the electrical systems and causing heart attacks nationwide.

One man who achieved Perfect Heat was Frank Gotch who wrestled and beat ‪TeddyRoosevelt‬ and used the vitality of the heat he generated from that and other matches to go on living a hundred more years, wrestling only in local matches and dedicating his life to honing his art. He now had empty arena matches where the whole audience left the building and imagined what was happening inside and they felt the rippling waves of heat coming from the building.‬‬‬‬

When E-Jo got stuck inside the middle school gymnasium, Frank Gotch arrived because of course he would. He could smell it from miles away or feel the vibrations in the tectonic plates – how he was able to sense it was far beyond the capacity of normals to know.

He went in the gymnasium. He came out soon after. He escorted a mute young man wrapped in a rescue blanket and shivering, his skin like the pale and cold skin of a limb coming out of a cast.

Everyone crowding around was exhausted by waves of Perfect Heat ecstasy, so they hardly noticed.

Later in the gymnasium, they found a mound of black stone like a statue collapsed. E-Jo had fallen, and inside only a hollow absence. The shell of E-Jo must have been empty this whole time.

You’re Not That Special

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2014

Secret Hero, soon before realizing she was one of 2100 of the same human, posted a sign that said, “Needed by the Needy” in front of her DJ booth. “Needed by the Needy” was the title of her mix tape, and the excuse would be advertising this mix tape, but also this was the motto she wanted to plaster on everything as new subtitle to Secret Hero. She put “Needed by the Needy” sat in front of her turntable like a name for it, like knights name horses. The turntable functioned as an exteriorization of this defining power. People shouted at her, she’d tap her earphones. Shrug her shoulders. She’d mouth “Can’t hear you.” It was a loud club, and her job to make it loud and make everyone deaf to everyone else. Nothing she could do. No interaction. Sorry, humanity, out of luck. Keep spinning.

But “Needed by the Needy” was also a hobby in her off hours, as pride driven as big game hunting. The way she’d prey on the Needy Ones developed from simple drink buying. They’d sit at the bar, converse with her. More like converse at her, as unidirectional as dancers shouting up at her DJ booth. Early on she tried to say with her eyes, “I’m using you purely for the self-importance dopamine, so shut up,” but they’d keep yammering. When later at the turn table they tried to talk to, the pain when she pretended she didn’t even see them was delicious.

The problem with this variety of dopamine addiction is the effect wears off too easily. When the simple drink buying failed to feed her like she needed it to, she started the friendship racket. She’d single out the most pathetic ones and say, “You’ve been coming to the club so much I feel like you’re my best friend.” The look in their eyes like witnessing paradise, for Secret Hero this was better than a megahit of any drug. She didn’t do drugs, and she didn’t even drink, but she couldn’t imagine simple consumption could equate to destroying lives.

In the middle of the friendship racket, she’d tell herself over and over as her predatory mantra, “Pretend to Care.” That’s what she was best at. She was the queen of Pretend to Care. If she could have two mottos they would be “Needed by the Needy” and “Pretend to Care.” She’d watch them crumble as they failed to reach her pedestal or get her real attention or know her outside of this. Soon the black ocean when Secret Hero, through force of pure will power, would turn these fake friends into pure nothingness. The total crumbling, from head to toe to soul to will to live, man, it was tasty.

There was this one guy named Arthur she used to know in high school (and she used to know everything about people then) but now not so much and everything she used to know and care about was jettisoned into a waste incinerator in her soul fueled by pure hate. This Arthur guy wanted to meet after this long set for drinks. It’s not like that, he told her. He’s married, he told her. He just wants to catch up, blah blah blah. Turns out after a couple times of Pretend to Care, they’re all of a sudden best friends, and he’s there every night. This would be her masterpiece, almost too delicious.

It got better: his wife beat him, scratched his face until it bled, and Secret Hero was the only one he had in the world who’d listen. He’d come in with scars up and down his body, bruises and black eyes, one time even a broken pinky. “My wife has a bad temper.” Who cares what the ogre’s name was, the more monstrous his stories and scars, the more monstrous Secret Hero imagined her. She delayed and delayed the final breaking, like a great tease artist, but when she cut the tie, ignored him like a nonexistence, it was a masterpiece.

Maybe he killed himself, maybe left his wife, who cares? Secret Hero saw herself as a herd-thinning wolf, killing the weak. If she ever did drive any of her victims to suicide, all the better for the gene pool, but she never cared enough to do follow up research.

But then she swallowed the wrong prey with Eve Eeny. She had the crazed look of a crab snapping but delicate otherwise. When Secret Hero saw that look in her eyes, she wondered if she could finally drive someone to orgasmicly commit suicide right in front of her. Eve Eeny tried to signal “We need to talk,” but Secret Hero was smarter than that (as she was smarter than most things). Later at a picnic table behind the club smoking a secret cigarette (her lone substance addiction she would always only ever do alone and kept secret from everyone for no real reason), Eve sat down beside her. Secret Hero wanted to scream but swallowed it. She’d already hooked Eve with her indifference, and displays of legitimate fear would ruin her hard work.

“Sorry to scare you,” Eve said.

“You didn’t.” Secret Hero looked around for weapons just in case. This could be the karmic consequence of her consuming friendship victims, one wacko she didn’t even know offs her in a back alley.

“It’s just I have…There’s things you need to know.

“Like what?”

Then Eve said, “We are the same person.” She left it at that as if that was clear.

“I don’t follow.”

“We are the same human being.” That didn’t clarify as she only changed one word. “We were born simultaneously. There are 2100 of us. We’re having a reunion.” She gave Secret Hero a flier. “The 2100,” it said. “Reunion of the Co-Born.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” said Secret Hero, giving up the mystique of superior knowledge for the sake of better understanding. Her gut, normally used for optimal predation, told her that this Eve lady was being genuine, and there was some connection between them she couldn’t quite place. “What do you mean we are the same person?”

Eve said, “Do you covet the regard of others just so you can reject them because you get a high?”

Secret Hero said, “Who doesn’t?” as if this was a common practice.

“That’s kind of our signature move. I do it with ghosts. Man, the heartbreak on a rejected ghost, unbelievable.” She was clearly a crazy person, but still Secret Hero wanted to know more.

She wanted to go to the reunion of the 2100 if only to solve the mystery of its existence. She made a mixtape for the occasion called “Myriad Stolen Night Cars,” decided to bring her boombox in her backpack, just in case demonstrating a singular skill could give her any advantage.

For many years, Secret Hero had worked on isolating this one pure sound she heard in a dream. She spent hours every day on that one note. She wondered if isolating this pure sound was her life’s mission, why she’d been given the fuel of misery. In the small part of herself that regretted all her destructiveness and delight, she wondered if this elusive purity could compensate for anything she’d done.

Most of the people at the 2100 reunion (and Secret Hero had noticed only the humans at first) remained isolated with those judgmental eyes Secret Hero must’ve given everyone. Imagine a meeting of vampires who are only capable of interacting with victims. The first step is to find the weak and open. To prey on an equal parasite would be a contradiction to the essential principles of soul destruction. But outside of this, there was nothing there, the 2100 were too untrusting of nonvictims (in this way “bestfriend” was less a lie and more complicated than the prey ever understood).

Eve Eeny was somehow different. This distrust seemed absent. This may be what real kindness looked like, but Secret Hero would never fall for it. Eve introduced Secret Hero to two friends (or “friends,” who knows?) sitting at a table together unlike anyone else there. “This is Dr. Havelock.”

Secret Hero said, “What are you a doctor of?”

Dr. Havelock said, “Just a doctor.” Good one. No hierarchical comparisons plus mystery plus she could go crazy on you any minute. Secret Hero regretted not thinking of that.

Eve said, “Show her your zombies.”

Dr. Havelock said, “Okay but brief background: are you familiar with the singer John Denver?”

“Yes” and Secret Hero rolled her eyes. They were both slipping into subtle habits of soul crushing. She tried to stop herself, certain the other versions of herself must know her tricks.

Dr. Havelock said, “John Denver has tiny people living inside him. Or used to. When he died, I dug him up and stole his tiny people. I made them all zombies.”

She was crazy. They all were crazy. But then Secret Hero saw the first proof that maybe there was a little more to this than some mass mutual insanity. Dr. Havelock pulled a breath mint can out of her pocket and dumped the contents on the table. Zombies. Tiny zombies. Hundreds of them stumbling all over the table as Dr. Havelock gently wrangled them. “I love these guys.”

“I named them all after sitcom characters. There’s J.D. and Dr. Cox. This is Donna and Donna (Donna Reed and That 70s Show).” And so on.

Eve introduced her to another friend: “This is June Einstein.”

June said, “I’m a world traveler. I develop relationships with buildings that become sentient.” She started showing wallet photos of her world travels and the sentient buildings as if anybody cared. “I started out with movie houses, gas stations. Boy those waitresses were pissed when I brought the restaurant home. Here’s me with the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Secret Hero said, “That seems painful.”

June said, “I’m sure he’s still recovering.”

“I’m glad you three are nice,” said Secret Hero. “This whole concept seemed like a terrible idea. Who would even propose this reunion? I mean knowing what we’re like. I mean you bring together a lot of people who define themselves as special and above everyone. What’s the point?”

Eve said, “It is possible to get over this sickness of our shared being. I used to have a ghost addiction, and I’m over it.”

Secret Hero said, “That can’t be common. The only purpose I would imagine for a meeting like this is kill us all. Whoever planned this wants to kill us so she could be the last remaining special one.” With this declaration, Secret Hero may have won the table. Just being a DJ seemed so far below creating tiny zombies, Secret Hero needed something beyond them. She’d be smartest by pointing out what seemed to be an obvious murder plot (but she saw obvious murder plots everywhere). They were silent. They changed subject. There was nothing else to do. “So I hear the monsters and superheroes are coming up soon.”

They spent the following half hour sharing techniques like a professional conference: “My favorite technique is the intervention. I corner the prey and tell him just how wrong and weird he is for his own good.” At “for his own good” the whole table howled with laughter. The old Pretend to Care line. “We should mail each other all our techniques.”

Then it was time for the parade of monsters and superheroes. They came into the convention center accompanied Led Zeppelin music. They probably thought they were original. Superheroes mostly chose “Kashmir.” Monsters mostly chose “When the Levee Breaks” or “I Got a Girl Who Can’t be True.” Most of the superheroes and monsters were males, surprisingly.

There was one called The Wound with a gaping chest wound. The Wound sort of created an “i” with a split through the body from the sternum all the way down so he had long legs and too many joints.

There was one called The Ring who had a shimmering gold ring inside of which everything was indelible and inviolable. Anyone who blasphemed that scared ring was cursed to deteriorate into nothingness to a barrage of “How. Dare. You.” Say, for example, The Ring placed a random fork inside the sacred circle, and even if you joked “Let’s outlaw spoons,” The Ring would say, “How. Dare. You.” and made the blasphemer collapse into a tiny ball until soon there was nothing left. Secret Hero’s table saw this happen. “Serves him right.”

Then there was one called Schadenfreude who was all gray scraggly stone in monstrously strong gorilla proportions. Schadenfreude had porcelain fangs and strapped on his back a sword and a hammer bigger each than most humans present. All his old man wrinkles had humans inside them engaged in trench warfare. “I love Schadenfreude,” Dr. Havelock said and gave a wink like this love was the worst variety. “He’s a Promusaurifex like John Denver. That means he has tiny people inside him.”

Secret Hero said, “But we’re all the same person. That seems incestuous to love yourself like this.”

“Loving ourselves is kind of the whole point of our existence,” said Dr. Havelock.

Next the Lava Popes entered to “Misty Mountain Hop,” the obviousness of which became clear when they formed a lava mountain. Lava Popes were very literal. An army of popes made of lava erupting from the ground. One wall collapsed. But it seemed like a work, like the wall had been gimmicked to collapse this way. All the lava that splashed them was cold. “It’s only bodily fluid. Pretty gross,” said Eve. They formed a mountain so tall, they also disintegrated the ceiling.

Then Secret Hero saw something far above them descending like a meteor. She guessed this is the one who gimmicked the ceiling for this entrance. “My guess is this flying self would be the murderer,” Secret Hero said pointing upward to the meteor.

“That’s the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks,” said Dr. Havelock. He was another literal one, a man shaped giant of black stone filled with sharks. The screaming seemed to emit a sonic blast that scattered members of the 2100 to atoms. Witnessing the death of multiple selves hardly elicited any emotions, and Secret Hero was shocked by how cold she had become. She was right about the murder. She loved being right, but she hated being right. The Lava Popes were wiped out first. They collapsed into cave-like wounds. The Wound and Schadenfreude fought valiantly, but they had little defense against the sonic screams and inevitable atomization.

Secret Hero suddenly found herself jealous of this miraculous heroism. If only she could be like that. Of all the feelings she could have felt at this moment, jealousy was the most surprising.

The Ring put the ring around herself and made herself indelible. Secret Hero could understand this.

Secret Hero ducked behind a table with Eve and Dr. Havelock as if this could do anything to save them (June skipped out when business got real).

Eve suddenly started laughing. She said, “‘All the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”’’” Eve laughed an even louder and crazier laugh. “Somebody had to make that reference,” she said before dissipating as atoms along with Dr. Havelock.

As Secret Hero ran away and ducked into the kitchen, she remembered a story Arthur told her during her friendship racket and the Pretend to Care. He and his wife were going to see Watchmen with some friends. The wife wanted to sit near the aisle because of bladder problems. When the two friends arrived, Arthur stood to let the two friends have the aisle seat, and the wife in rage dug her claws in so deep she drew blood all the while smiling. Four beads of blood remained on his arm even later when he saw Secret Hero. She refused to save him like she refused to save anybody.

Now she put her mixtape in her boombox and fast forwarded to the pure note she found. This was her purpose. Stop the Mountain. Save the 2100. But it didn’t do anyting. Maybe she had to get closer, hold the pure note aloft against the sonic screaming. Maybe it did little good to hide away in the kitchen now. She looked at the door going into the ballroom and the door going out to safety. She could get away so easily, out to a world where there was no more 2100. Except maybe a handful of survivors who would know better now than to have a reunion. Then there was the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks who may seek her out some day, but she was so small. Why would he care? Why would he put the effort into finding little her?

The choice was simple really. She tucked her boombox under her arm and got the hell out of there.