On humor (and bad medical advice).

On humor (and bad medical advice).

Back when she lived in town with us, Auntie Ferret would often accompany me to the public library to work.  We would sit in the linoleum tiled area near the magazines.  I would type.  She would draw.

Of course, the process of creating artwork, at least in every field I know about, seems to involve several-fold more time spent taking in new information, researching, appreciating at other people’s work, etc., than time actually spent creating.  In my case, the timing usually breaks down to about two hours per day spent typing, six hours spent reading.  Auntie Ferret, because hers is a more time-intensive craft, probably spends equal time drawing and reading.

All well and good.  The problem, from the perspective of someone sitting near her to work, is that Auntie Ferret is a very effulgent reader.  Which can be distracting.  She occasionally saunters to the magazine rack to scoop up another armful of bodybuilding magazines, then chortles with gusto as she read them.  And then, of course, she reads the passage aloud.

CaptureA typical conversation between us:

FC: Huh.  Yeah.  That’s pretty horrible.  But I should get back to work.

AF: Okay, okay… but wait!  Wait, listen to this.  On ViperPRO, I was so vasculated I thought I’d EXPLODE!

An hour might pass and I’d get nothing done.  Whereas the time qualified as research for her.  Her webcomic features a hearty dose of meat-head satire.

Eventually I learned my lesson.  No, not to sit somewhere else, although I imagine that’s what a more timid ferretwrangler might do.  Instead I realized that I should incorporate her research into my own work.

***********************

THIS SHIT SAVED MY LOVE LIFE

There’s lots of dating advice out there.  Tips on what stereo system to buy, which records to play, what wine to drink, which celebrity cologne smells like you.  Lifting guides for omnivores and for vegans and for the gluten-free, for those who augment their training stacks with GHB and those who wanna stick with anabolic steroids alone.  And detailed instructions for how to act — secret secrets of the world’s best pickup artists! — although until they invent a hieroglyphic language that women can’t read, publication inevitably weakens those once-secret strategies.

I read the guides.  Seemed like a lot of common sense.  Maintain eye contact.  Ply her with drinks.  Initiate unwanted touching.  Belittle her relentlessly.  Act like the abusive ex-boyfriend you’d someday like to be.  But, let’s face it, some of us are sensitive dudes.  When there’s an opportunity for a killer neg, we compliment our interlocutor on her witty banter.  Then wreck the moment when we ask before lunging in for a snog.

Does this sound like you?  Striking out cause you don’t have that flirtatious take-no-prisoners attitude?  Are you thinking to yourself, sensitive dudes would enjoy the occasional sexual encounter, too?

Well, I am here for you, man.  I was in that situation.  But I fixed it.  This shit worked for me, and I swear it can work for you.

You need to eat more cat feces.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stalkerr/134280257Not for the fun of it, mind you.  You need to eat cat feces to increase your exposure to Toxoplasma gondii.  It’s a microscopic parasite that evolved to control mammalian behavior.

Maybe that sounds bad.  Parasitic mind control?  That’s some freaky shit, right?  But, let me ask you: do you wanna get laid, or not?

See, there’s mind control like Frank Sinatra zonked by a playing card and realizing it’s time to blow somebody’s brains out, and then there’s mind control like toxo.  What’s it do?  It makes you bolder.  More confident.  It boosts testosterone.  Makes you happier, by helping you synthesize dopamine.  Ever wonder why those gel-heads always duck to the back and snort coke before they make a move?  Dopamine.  But with toxo, you won’t need blow.

Dudes with toxoplasmosis are taller that dudes without.  They’re consistently rated more attractive on Tinder-style image-only surveys.  Ingest enough of this parasite to get cysts throughout your brain and you’ll be a handsome, aggressive, risk-taking sex machine.  And, get this: toxo makes you smarter, too!

(Note: to date, intellectual enhancement has been observed only in females infected with Toxoplasma gondii.  In males, the opposite effect is seen.  Toxo invariably makes males into slower, dumber studmuffins.  But, you’re still with me, right?  What good is your brain if you’re sitting up alone at night, staring at a computer screen, not getting laid?)

Of course, not every cat has toxo.  If you adopt a dud, you’re wasting your time.  Masticating those slimy colon-prints for nothing.  Which, right, here’s something else you should know: cranberry juice.  Nothing else washes out the taste.  Even cranberry juice doesn’t work that well.

Eat a few scoops of feces from some defective no-parasite cat, let me tell you, you’re gonna be pissed.

That’s why my little brother and I are starting this company where we’ll ship you fresh excrement from known toxoplasma-bearing felines.  Each turd guaranteed >100 cyst-forming-units or your money back!, that’s what the packaging will say.  We’re not open for business yet — FDA approval is such a bitch that we might give up on it altogether and market our product as a nutritional supplement — but we’ve already registered the domain name www.toxrocks.com.

Check us out.  Like our shit on Facebook.  And if you can’t wait till our little operation is up and running, go find yourself a parasite-riddled cat and start gobbling that shit up.  Which is advice I’m willing to give gratis, cause I care about my fellow man.

*************

Doling out terrible medical advice isn’t necessarily funny… what if people actually follow your advice?  But my thinking is, the world’s full of medical advice a good deal more harmful than this.  And that’s all given sincerely.  At the playground one day, a mother nodded approvingly at my daughter’s bare feet and told me, “It’s good you’re letting her get rid of some of those excess electrons.”

I was puzzled.  Later I found out that some people believe that wearing shoes all the time makes them build up an appreciable electric charge.

Or the bodybuilding magazines.

Capture

Interspersed with articles like a dude recounting the time he tackled his brown-skinned buddy on New Year’s because the buddy was counting down in a foreign language and so dude thought he was a terrorist (hilarious, bro!) are advertisements for all variety of untested chemicals.  Or there’s the self-generated schemes, like the claim, “I’ve got a pitbull and he’s f___in’ ripped.  And I figured, he looks like that on dogfood?  So that’s all I eat now, too.”

Um, I’m gonna go stand over there now, thank you.

Plus, I think it makes a difference whom bad advice is targeted toward.  I’m not a huge fan of machismo bodybuilding culture.  And I don’t know if you’ve seen many modern dating guides (a la Neil Strauss’s The Game, or the sort of thing that won’t be funded through Kickstarter ever again), but I think it’s reasonable to suggest to readers of such guides that they oughta eat more cat feces.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.