Archive for August, 2004
I was reading this Wired article about the American military using video games to train soldiers, when I came across the follow paragraph, at the top of page 4:
JFETS occupies a wing of the battle lab at I-See-O Hall, named for a Native American scout who helped the Army discourage local insurgents from raiding Texas border settlements in the 1890s. The skull of Geronimo, Fort Sill’s most illustrious prisoner of war, no longer occupies his tomb on the base; the Apache warrior’s cranium was reportedly exhumed one night in 1918 by a group of Army officers and smuggled to Yale, where it resides in the vault of the Skull and Bones society. The young officer who wielded the shovel, according to university historian Alexandra Robbins, was the President’s grandfather, Prescott Bush.
I suddenly felt as if my reality had branched off into some aberrant, Illuminatus-like parallel universe. Geronimo’s skull? Skull and Bones society?? Prescott Bush??? And what does all this have to do with war simulators? You can’t just unload an anecodete like that for no reason and then walk away like it ain’t no thang. Wired magazine was clearly trying to communicate something; I had to look deeper.
Like Fox Mulder, I desperately needed to uncover the Truth, which, I am led to believe, is Out There (on the Internet). After coming up empty-handed on Snopes, I tried Googling for “geronimo skull.”
My relentless, dare I say heroic, pursuit of truth finally paid off: the Yale Herald, October 24, 2003
Of particular interest is the interaction between Ned Anderson, an Apache chief trying to recover the skull, and Jonathan Bush, brother of George H. W. Bush. Jonathan Bush agreed to meet with Ned and return the skull.
Anderson recounts that Bush sounded “very encouraging” during their initial meeting. Eleven days later, Bush presented the display case. Anderson refused to accept the skull because it appeared to belong to a small child. Bush acknowledged this fact but claimed that it was the only relevant artifact in the society’s possession.
Ah-haha. The old bait-and-switch. I can just imagine how that conversation went.
“Thank you, Mr. Bush, for returning the skull of our ancestor, (which your ancestor graverobbed). It means a lot to the Apache people who, as you know, fear and respect death.”
“Well ok here you go,” said Bush, grinning, as he slid a foot-high cube covered by a drape of crimson velvet across the table. “Now please sign this legal document stating that the Skull and Bones society does not have the skull….”
Removing the cover, Anderson peered inside the display case at the diminutive skull, no more than four inches across. Trying to control his temper, Anderson replied “Sir, this is not the skull of my ancestor. This is the skull of a small child.”
“Well, people were a lot shorter back then… anyways you can’t expect us to keep careful track of every skull we come across. We are the Skull and Bones society after all,” Bush explained. “Ia Cthulu fhtagn!,” he added, before vanishing in a puff of sulfrous yellow smoke.
Left unexplained is Jonathan Bush’s possession of the skull of a small child.
Here’s a memo for John Kerry: you must find and destroy Geronimo’s skull. It is clearly the source of the Bush clan’s malevolent power; you must make it your number-one priority to free the tortured souls which are no-doubt imprisoned within this unholy artifact. If you fail in this quest we are all surely doomed!
“George Bush, DC ’68, and John Kerry, JE ’66, both members of the society…”
84. A week ago, I was buying iced coffee. I buy it from this abandoned gourmet deli, the type with all the different sorts of cheese, but it’s odd, because it, the deli, is sort of in the middle of a black area, and so seems under-shopped. The man who works the deli counter resembles an older, more Italian singer from Blues Traveler. So, the other day, while he was over getting my coffee, he started singing. My first thought was that he had a beautiful voice. I wondered if he sang in jazz clubs one night a week. I got a picture of him at some sort of jazz club, wearing a Mexican wedding shirt, singing. I then started to think, I don’t know, that I should get some salmon. I drifted off, and when I snapped to, I noticed he was still singing. It was just he and I in there, and he was several phrases (as in stanzas) into a song now. There was something self-conscious and oppressive in it, because it continued, on and on, he was really singing it, really giving it his all. I don’t know how long he sang, but it was so long, I felt I was going to vomit. I felt like I was being molested. When you are trying to seduce someone, say this to yourself: I have the subtlety of that man from that deli.
There’s much to be said in favour of repetition. Repeating choruses and looping rhythms are fundamental to music and poetry, and Japanese calligraphers know that you can spend a lifetime exploring, contemplating and perfecting a single brush-stroke.
Repetition is also necessary condition for mastery of anything worth taking seriously. All good writers churn out endless pages of truly awful dreck before coming up with anything worth anyone else’s attention; creative genius is one possible, though rare, endpoint of this tedious deathmarch of practice. The other potential outcomes, in descending order of frequency, include: perpetual mediocrity, insanity, and for the lucky few, financial success.
An artist who uses repetition in a way which fails to conspicuously strive towards perfection, or at least growth, who seen as applying a formula instead of refining a technique, faces the charge of ‘sell-out’. At the limit, style reduces to mere branding, and expression reduces to mechanism.
Whatever his motivations, Chuck Palahniuk writes punchy, dark-humoured novels aimed at your viscera. This is his brand promise, and it’s clear that he’s struck a rich vein in the strip-mined modern zeitgeist. However, early success often has the effect of freezing the author in place, like a baseball player who, before going to bat, compulsively performs some ritual associated with hitting home runs, for example wearing green underwear or injecting steroids. See also: M. Night Shyamalan.
The paradox of being marketed as offering something new and surprising is that you can do it once, maybe twice, before you just can’t trick people any more. Then they start paying attention to the aspects of your oeuvre that don’t impress them as much, or at all. Not only that, but the strain this expectation places on the story leading up to the obligatory twist makes it nearly impossible to have an ending which is simultaneously unexpected and heavily foreshadowed by what preceded it. Palahniuk, victimized by success, exhibits a hyper-self-awareness about structure and theme, echoing many of the techniques used in Fight Club.
Just like in Fight Club, there are several slogan-like choruses which repeat throughout the book. “_______ isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.” For example, “”Charity” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.” Other inappropriate first words applied using this template include: “Pilgrimage”, “Freedom”, “Savior”, “Hero”, “Ponzi scheme”, “Vandalism”, “Tombstone”, “Defused”, and “Widower”. This list is a pretty good overview of Choke, a meditation on shame, sacrifice and sex. The story is written as a sort of self-help confessional by Victor, a sex addict who goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings to bang the other addicts in bathrooms and broom closets.
The connection between shame and salvation is a major theme. This is made explicit in the description of a series of photographs Victor encounters in his youth; the pictures show a baboon stuffing chestnuts up a man’s ass. The photo series is revered by Victor, who describes it in a tone of sacred awe. Victor sees the chestnut-recipient as a Christ figure, who suffers not for the sins of man, but for the shame of man. In this godless modern world, you see, the only real sin is social embarrassment; having pictures taken of a baboon cramming chestnuts up your poopshute is the shame-equivalent of being crucified. Conquering embarrassment is offered as the only kind of salvation possible. Our Father, who art in goatse.cx, hallowed be thy anus. Palahniuk is at his best when he’s describing these sorts of satirical scenes, which are abundant.
Once we arrive at the obligatory twist ending, however, Palahniuk’s self-consciousness is palpable. Here’s some advice from me, some guy with a blog, to Chuck, a bestselling novelist: if your shocking conclusion requires revealing that one, or all, of your characters is completely insane, you need to try harder. You must be forthcoming about your characters’ self-delusions if their motivations are to seem plausible. Elias Canetti pulled this off brilliantly in his masterpiece of synchronized rationalization, Auto Da Fé. Victor’s motivations, (the only ones to which we are privy), as a sex addict and professional choking-victim, are twisted yet plausible. His narrations are honest and self-deprecating; he has no illusions about his own destructive behaviour, and engages in them without passion or purpose, at the bitter terminus of addiction. This makes him a seemingly reliable narrator, and certainly an interesting one. The revelation that Victor, a medical school dropout, had been taken in by the fantasy of a paranoid schizophrenic, is vapid and disappointing.
The best surprise endings are those which reveal a crucial piece of information which has been left out, but not obscured. The revelation of insanity, just like the cliché “it was all a dream OR WAS IT??” fantasy ending, does not resolve the plot so much as dissolve it. I believe this is symptomatic of the author’s formulaic reliance on the details of previous success. Ultimately, this self-plagiarism is a constricting, suffocating influence on what could have been a really excellent book.