Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Postmodern Selfhelp

Two dazzling but very different forays into metafiction, yet with curious similarities. In each the protagonist is searching for his father, and in one he is also searching for his son.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the name of a self-referential manual that the protagonist writes in the future and gives to himself in the past. It is "a copy of a copy of a copy" containing excerpts from itself, such as:

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How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive takes its title from a 1969 repair manual of the same name. It uses actual chapter titles from the original manual. More recursion appears in the chapter subheads, one of which is always the chapter title.

Metafictional Transport

The protagonists tool around in vehicles seemingly worlds apart, a time machine and a 1971 Volkswagen. Both however are based on similar concepts.

The TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device is powered by a six-cylinder grammar drive with temporalinguistics architecture. It navigates within "a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe." "Running out of fuel" is another way of saying "we're running out of book."

The Volkswagen runs on stories which can either be read to it or scanned in, and its mechanical components include a narrapedal, storypump, pagewheel, scene clutch, and engineheart. Its wordoil has to be changed every 50 pages.

Strange Characters

The author and protagonist of How to Live share the same name: Charles Yu. The author of How to Keep is Anthony Boucher, whose protagonist has pawned his name and has to go by __________. All he can remember about it is that it's French Canadian.

The vehicles are also characters with whom the protagonists have a relationship. The Volkswagen is __________'s son, while the time machine has an operating system named TAMMY whom Yu flirts with. The paradoxical nature of these vehicles is evidenced by __________ being able to climb into the Volkswagen (his son) and drive it around, while Yu shoots/gets shot by himself when he exits/sees himself exiting the time machine.

Two of __________'s girlfriends are the Lady from the Land of the Beans, and the Lady Made Entirely of Stained Glass. His friend is a Chest of Drawers and his boss a cheese named Louise. The police are dogs.

Two of the characters in the other book are named the Woman I Never Married and the Woman My Mother Should Have Been. Yu's boss Phil is married to a spreadsheet program. He has a dog named Ed, "a weird ontological entity" who "doesn't even know he doesn't exist."


Both books have a terrific sense of playfulness.

How to Live:

Had a one-night stand with something cute a couple of years ago. Not human exactly. Humanish. Close enough that she looked awesome with her shirt off. We hung out a few times, tried messing around but in the end I couldn't figure out her anatomy, or perhaps it was the other way around. There were some awkward moments. I think she had a good time anyway. I did. She was a good kisser. I just hope that was her mouth.

How to Keep:

Step 6. Open the sufferoil and pour it in. Don't touch it or contaminate it in any way. And again, make sure that it is good oil. Good sufferoil will be fine, almost cocky, when you pour it in. You want it to be saying things like, "No sweat" or "Fuck it--this is no problem." If it's hedging (talking about a loved one, asking questions like, "Are you sure this is a good idea?") don't use it.

Get Serious

But it's not all fun and games. The books also have a serious side.

How to Live:

At some point in your life this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

And in How to Keep, __________ is a single parent. Before she left, the VW's mom would...

...stay in bed until one or two in the afternoon, completely unresponsive. Even before she was gone, she was gone.


The original version of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.

Third Class Superhero is a great short story collection Charles Yu.

Calvin and Hobbes time travel machine.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tex and Molly in the Afterlife

Middle-aged hipsters Tex and Molly drive a rusty Saab and live in a houseboat whose decor falls "somewhere between Hiawatha and Jimi Hendrix."

They've donned Bear and Raven costumes to celebrate Beltane, a pagan planting festival, along with a group of ecology-minded strolling players. Afterwards they smoke up and visit a boulder formation – left by Druids, Tex insists – in the middle of which is a bottomless well.

Perhaps not the best place to go when you’re stoned, a fact amply demonstrated when they both fall to their deaths.

End of book? Nope, we’re only on page 19.

Tex and Molly managed to invoke a pair of ancient deities as they fell. Now they awaken back at their houseboat and hang around for a while as spirits, in the course of which they become acquainted with the designs of a large corporation to turn the forests of Maine into a monoculture using a genetically modified tree, the "Dawkins spruce".

What follows is a rambling, hugely entertaining tale that veers between the scientific and the magical. The writing is clever, literate, and whimsical both in form and content, incorporating headings, stage directions, lists and diagrams, "afterlife factoids," bits of verse, chunks of playscript, and the narration from a corporate slide show.

If you like Cheech and Chong, you'll like Tex. He's delightfully unfazed by the various deities he meets, including a "Primal Entity" known as the Bishop of Worms, who according to Tex is missing the big picture, without which "It's the roomful of monkeys with typewriters all over again." The Bishop responds by devouring him.

But it's still not the end because Tex is already dead, right? And we're not even halfway through the book. Tex wakes up in a squirrel's nest. He's an acorn.

You could see the roots of the yew tree overhead, swollen with vital humors they were pumping around, and huge flakes of leaf mold, rotten wood disgorged by beetles, worm castings, fractally intricate fungi, nematodes squirming through the gaps, and a ceaseless oozing of dark teeming water.

Partial List of Characters

This sampling gives a good idea of the book's comic, semi-serious intent.

1. Cold Bay Street Players:

Rainie Moss – a shade gardener
Deep Herb – a Taoist waiter
Pippa Rede – a welfare witch
Sarah Clump – a self-realized electrician
Indigo Jones – a community radio station manager

2. Other Humans:

Syzygy Prague – "some kind of gypsy"
Jesse Openhood – a Passamaquoddy Indian
Burdock Herne – Gulf Atlantic's CEO
Thistle Herne – his runaway daughter
Saintstephen Bax & Shadow Malqvist – teenage eco-hackers
Hoot Banebook – reverend at the Church of Mankind’s Destiny Among the Stars

3. Non-Humans:

Idho – a yew woman
Beale – a homeless dryad
Goblin the Cat-person – Tex and Molly’s cat
Neman & Arth Vawr - raven and bear deities invoked by Tex and Molly
Bishop of Worms – "sort of like a cross between a white hole and that thing in Dune"

Cultural References

A lot of the fun comes from the many references to music (the band Love being a particular favourite), books (Tibetan Book of the Dead, of course), and cultish consumer items ("frankincense from India imported by the good sidhas of Farifield, Iowa"), as well as quotes, signs, aphorisms, bumper stickers, and loopy sayings:

Hack the rich.
I'm OK, You're DOA.
Quoth the raven: "Never mind."
The antichrist always rings twice.
Agriculture is mechanized land-rape.
If you don't like it, you can't have any.
Randomness is a statistical hallucination.
Beatrix Farrand Memorial Refrigerator Walk.
Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.
Ban firearms – make the streets safe for a government takeover.

The End

The only thing I didn't dig about the book was the rather apocalyptic ending, but that hasn't stopped me from eagerly seeking out more books by the author. It also reminded me of somewhat similar books: The Paper Grail by James P. Blaylock, The Magic Journey by John Nichols, and Little, Big by John Crowley -- all of which I highly recommend.

Let me leave you with a final quote:

Beale spat into the dust of the roadside. Where the saliva spattered on the gravel, a tiny seedling sprouted, grew rapidly, fattened and matured, spread its limbs, showered acorns, began to decline, rotted, and vanished.