Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Fine Art of Getting Under People's Skin

Right now, my bedroom is swamped with partly-read books.

It’s been going on for months: that shiny new cover looks so promising, love how the photographer sliced off the model’s head, very edgy.

Then I dig ten pages beneath the candy-colored photo--down into the ink and paper and flesh and blood of the story--and I’m bored. The book lands on the floor or the teetering stack on the dresser. I promise I’ll get back to it, but I won’t.

None of these abandoned books were bad. The characters are familiar. The author’s voice is soothing dulcet tones. Every major plot point is proceeded by the proper amount of foreshadowing. And if I ever did get to the end of one, I’m sure it would come to a satisfying conclusion. The evil queen would be banished or everybody would learn an important lesson about tolerance or both. True love would conquer all. There’d be just enough loose threads left for the sequel.

These books are worse than bad, they’re perfectly adequate. They’re tidy. They’re polite. They wouldn’t dream of talking over the reader’s head or asking questions they don’t have a ready answer for or making the reader feel uncomfortable or out of place. They’re perfectly adequate except that they have nothing to say and absolutely no reason to exist.

Heartbreakingly, a lot of the books laying on my floor are young adult titles. It shouldn’t be like this. Adolescence is not tidy. It’s not polite. It’s the decade when people ask the most questions, and pound their feet the loudest, demanding the answers. Maybe it’s because the YA market includes as many well-meaning grandmothers and librarians as actual young adults. Maybe we’ve gotten so desperate to get teenagers to read, we’ve stopped asking if any of it’s worth reading. But over and over good intentions gets mistaken for good art, and the horrible beige plague of adequacy spreads.

Finally, I couldn’t take anymore. After throwing one more pleasant, perfectly nice book against the wall, I put on my coat, drove down to Barnes & Noble, and picked up Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.

Nobody would call Philip K. Dick an “adequate” author. Dick got his start writing for the science fiction pulps during the 50s and 60s, and his stories are filled with the whizz-bang fundamentals of that era, rocket ships, telepathy, the whole bit. His writing tends to be... I’ll be charitable and call it “sturdy.” A good adjective to use when describing a toolbox. Not so much when talking about prose. In fact, a lot of the stories devolve into a series of talking heads, discoursing on whatever idea Dick had bobbing around his head at the moment.

But oh, what beautiful, horrible, messy ideas they are. What does it mean to be human? How can we ever separate what’s really real from what the people in charge insist is real? And how sure are we that we even want to know the truth?

The whole of Dick’s work wobbles between modern day prophet and bat-shit crazy. It’s fun to try and pinpoint the exact paragraph where the amphetamines kicked in. But even at his drug-addled worst, Dick always has something interesting to say.

Halfway through the collection and late at night, I turned to “The Days of Perky Pat.”

At ten in the morning a terrific horn, familiar to him, hooted Sam Regan out of his sleep, and he cursed the careboy upstairs; he knew the racket was deliberate. The careboy, circling, wanted to be certain that flukers--and not merely wild animals--got a care parcels that were to be dropped.

The opening lines start something fizzing like a fuse in my brain. That word “flukers” is familiar from somewhere... Mother Teresa on Toast, I’ve read this story before.

Suddenly, I’m two people. I’m me now, laying in bed surrounded by lousy books. I’m also me at a chubby thirteen, on a camping trip with my family. To my mind, the entire outdoors can be roughly divided into things that can kill you and things that merely give you a rash, so I’m hiding in the minivan, safe from all that fresh air and sunlight. There’s nothing to read except a science fiction anthology my older brother brought along, so I flip around, mostly bored by the rocket ships and telepathy, really missing TV. Then I find a story about flukers--survivors of an apocalyptic war--who’ve become obsessed with a Barbie-like doll named Perky Pat.

Letting the world crumble around them, the survivors pull apart radios and computers to build Perky Pat garbage disposals and self-directed lawnmowers, lost in daydreams about how good life used to be.

By adulthood, I’d forgotten the author and title, but a few images were still lodged in my brain like shrapnel: The flukers living in their underground bomb shelters, the children going “upstairs” to hunt while their parents played games, and the simple idea that grown-ups spend a lot of energy and effort on stupid things. (A simple idea, but one that will get you surprisingly far in life.)

I carried those fragments around, and most of the time they didn’t hurt at all. Every once in while, though, they’d act up. Like, say, if there was a war on and the economy was in the toilet and people were actually worried about one of the candidates not wearing a flag pin or or how much money another one spent at Saks Fifth Avenue AND DID I MENTION THERE’S A DAMN WAR?

Then I’d start thinking about that strange story I’d read years back, written by a mad genius who knew the fine art of getting under people’s skin, a story that’s lingered in my memory for years while hundreds of perfectly adequate ones have vanished like fog.

Cross-posted on Kris' blog.


tanita✿davis said...

Worse than bad, perfectly adequate... and with no reason to exist.

Wow, is that well-said!!

Joe Cottonwood said...

Nice rant.

Colleen said...

The flukers living in their underground bomb shelters, the children going “upstairs” to hunt while their parents played games, and the simple idea that grown-ups spend a lot of energy and effort on stupid things. (A simple idea, but one that will get you surprisingly far in life.)

I love it when you get on your soapbox. This is awesome (and a perfect illustration of why Dick continues to remain popular and significant.)

Kristopher said...

Glad my impotent rage amuses you.

Unknown said...

Strange what stories stick with you. I read a book of fairy tales in the fourth grade which fascinated me. In those shadowy tales, "happily ever after" endings were never guaranteed. Now I recognize these must have been older versions of the tales in which violence was included to warn children against the evil of the world. Before that book I had only experienced more contemporary versions from which violence was excluded (ironically) in order to protect the children from the evil of the world.

I have read dozens and dozens of fairy tales since that time, and in a way, I think I am always searching for those old tales that captured my imagination so long ago.

You have given me hope that I might still find them yet.