A number of years ago — four? five? — I submitted a review of The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz to the venerable Believer magazine. Much to my delight, they accepted the review and planned to run it in a forthcoming issue. Then, much to my dismay, the magazine folded, and my review never saw the light of day. In the intervening years, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on to write a bestselling work of nonfiction titled Dr. Mutter’s Marvels while my review languished on a hard drive somewhere. But then I learned that the Believer was coming back, and now, years after I wrote the review, it’s finally up on the magazine’s web page: A Review of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes by Marc Schuster
As he waits for the gunshot that will kill him to sound in the final paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, protagonist Eric Packer catches a glimpse of his own death in the crystal screen of his smartwatch. It’s a haunting way to end a novel, but also a frustrating one. How, after all, did Eric’s watch both predict and display his untimely demise?
Fortunately for anyone still wondering about that passage fifteen years later, Aetherchrist, the latest novel from Kirk Jones, starts at least nominally and more than likely coincidentally where Cosmopolis left off. This time around, though, the protagonist who catches a glimpse of his own death on a tiny screen is not a billionaire asset manager but a down-on-his luck knife salesman named Rey.
Unlike Eric Packer, however, Rey sees his impending doom on an old analog television set rather than a digital screen. More to the point, he has time to change his fate. Yet every move Rey makes further entangles him in a bizarre plot to rewire the collective consciousness of a nation and thus to usher into being what could either be a golden age of harmony or complete and utter chaos. Spoiler alert: This being a Kirk Jones novel, the smart money is on the latter.
In many ways, Aetherchrist serves as a meditation on the personal isolation inherent in the digital age. Lamenting the cold nature of online relationships in the early goings of the novel, Rey notes that he has to pretend that all he wants is sex when what he really wants is for someone to validate his existence. Curiously, the bulwark against this sense of isolation is the unfolding plot to plunge the world into chaos.
Indeed, as the forces he’s battling gain the upper hand, Rey experiences a curious sense of communion: “It’s actually happening. I can feel it, a faint transmission like the one you get when you watch a late-night movie that you know hardly anyone is up for. You don’t watch the movie for the content. You watch it because you can feel a small population out there like you, riding the airwaves for a sense of connection.” Arguably, the hopeless search for this sense of connection is what Aetherchrist is all about.
Hot on the heels of last year’s bizarre dance with death, Die Empty, Aetherchrist positions Jones as an author who’s clearly and solidly hitting his storytelling stride. Though dark and twisted, his imaginary universes allow for sharp plot twists and solid character development even as the characters in question face certain doom. Indeed, perhaps it’s their proximity to death that makes Jones’s characters so compelling. In their struggle for survival, they cling to hope in the unlikeliest of places and situations.
Although Lovepain is by no means a suspense novel, Curtis Smith proves throughout to be a master of the suspended moment and a connoisseur of unresolved tension. The novel centers on a cuckold named Eli whose precocious young son, Mark, is as obsessed with birds as he is the disappearance of his mother. Eli, meanwhile, struggles to right the wrongs of the world by day in his capacity as a social worker and by night as the assistant director of the parish Christmas pageant, a role, like so many others in his life, he appears to have stumbled into by default. Complicating matters, a lynx has escaped from the local zoo, and one of Eli’s clients has found herself pregnant with the child of a small-time drug dealer.
Given the relative brevity of the novel (146 pages) in relation to the number of story elements, it isn’t surprising that Smith spikes the narrative with plot twists at fairly short intervals. As a veteran storyteller, however, he has the patience and wisdom to let each twist hang for a while — and often a very long while — before returning to it and eventually resolving it. When Eli spots a car accident on the side of the road in the opening pages of the novel, for example, something terrible is clearly afoot, but it isn’t until some pages later that the true nature of the unfolding tragedy becomes apparent. No spoilers here, but it has little to do with the car-wreck per se.
All told, Lovepain is an emotionally mature novel by a seasoned author with the good sense to let information sink in before letting the reader move on. The result is a haunting novel that explores the all-too-human desire to make the world right even as it crumbles around us.
Douglas Lain’s Bash Bash Revolution is an intelligent cyberpunk novel that comments — as cyberpunk novels tend to do — on the increasingly blurred line between reality and virtual reality in all of its forms. The narrative centers on a high-school dropout and semiprofessional gamer named Matthew Munson who watches somewhat helplessly as his world turns into a massive augmented reality arena almost overnight. Complicating matters is that his father is largely responsible for the shift. Further complicating matters is the looming threat of nuclear war. Even further complicating matters is the fact that Matthew has fallen in love for the first time in his life. As the complications pile up, the young gamer struggles not only to save the world from drifting inextricably into an artificial gameworld mediated by a computer program called Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky” to his friends), but also to consider the most foundational of existential questions: Does reality really exist? If so, what is it? And not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s so great about reality anyway?
Reading Bash Bash Revolution, one is reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode titled “The Game” in which a sinister plot sees the crew of the Enterprise turned to zombies after becoming addicted to a video game. Indeed, one of the more moving passages in the novel has the young protagonist bearing witness to his once-upstanding socially-minded mother succumb to the pleasures of game play after only one hit. Upon physically breaking the connection between his mother and the computer that holds her in its thrall, the protagonist-narrator relates the following:
“Wow,” she said. “That was amazing. Really real.”
“You were totally zonked out,” I said. “You fainted.”
“I…” Mom was looking in my direction but not really meeting my eye. What she was looking at was my hand, the hand I was using to hold her phone. “Matthew,” she said. “I’d prefer you not play with my phone. I don’t want you to waste my data or my minutes.”
That’s really what she said. That’s what she was worried about, apparently. Her data plan was suddenly of the utmost importance, and she snapped her fingers at me and made me hand her phone over. She didn’t want to hear about it, she said. She didn’t care what the phone had just been doing to her… She just wanted her phone.
So I did as she asked.
Needless to say, the novel speaks not only to issues that we might face one day with respect to virtual and augmented realities, but also to present-day concerns regarding screen addiction and our tendency to prefer data over lived experience. Fittingly, then, the novel is not set in some not-too-far-off future but in the not-too-distant past — 2017, to be exact. As such, the cultural references are chillingly relevant, and even as Lain paints Donal Trump with a somewhat comical brush, the humor is dark, dry, and of a gallows variety.
Ultimately, Bash Bash Revolution is about programming and the many forms that it can take. Yes, there is computer programming, But, as Matthew at one point reflects, “Human beings have programmed themselves” as well; “they have given themselves goals and set up axioms in order to live. They have done and continue to do this individually… They have done and continue to do this collectively… But all the while, as human beings make themselves, they also hide from themselves, they hide how they make themselves from themselves. They refuse to take responsibility for how their world works.” Or, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
A page-turner with a strong philosophical bent, Bash Bash Revolution is up there with some of the best VR-influenced sci-fi of the past thirty years and will sit comfortably with works like Snow Crash and Ready Player One on any reader’s bookshelf, virtual or otherwise, for years to come.
First, a disclaimer: I’m the author of this book! With that in mind, allow me to note, in all humility, that Tired of California, brief though it may be (weighing in at a mere 25,000 words) offers an extremely thorough account of the Beach Boys’ career in the early 1970s, culminating with the recording of their landmark (if oft-overlooked) Holland album.
For decades, the story of the Beach Boys has been the story told in the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy: Brian was the genius who put the band on the map, but a combination of drug addiction and mental illness led to his downfall. Some versions of the story, like the TV movies Summer Dreams and The Beach Boys: An American Family also portray Brian’s “bad-boy” brother, drummer Dennis Wilson, as a doomed romantic figure whose drowning in 1983 cast a pall over the band’s fun-in-the-sun image. While all versions of this story have the band returning to their former glory in one way or another, they also leave out a brief period in the early 1970s when the Beach Boys were producing critically acclaimed albums that barely made a dent in the record charts. This period of dramatic artistic growth culminated in a prolonged visit to the Netherlands, during which the Beach Boys recorded the subject of my proposed book, Holland.
One thing that makes the Holland era so interesting is that it represents a time when the Beach Boys were trying to reinvent themselves. Central to this endeavor was the work of Jack Rieley, a somewhat shady character who insinuated himself into the Beach Boys organization and gradually took over. To give the Beach Boys new life in the public imagination, Rieley urged them to drop their greatest-hits concert act and focus on new material. He also launched a public relations campaign insisting that it was cool to listen to the Beach Boys again. This campaign, however, was built around the myth that Brian Wilson was still an active member of the band when, in fact, his participation in recording sessions was minimal. Nonetheless, efforts at conjuring the illusion of Brian’s participation led the Beach Boys to produce gems like 1971’s Surf’s Up and 1973’s Holland.
I could go on and on about this topic. Indeed, I have gone on and on about it, and I put all of my thoughts, not to mention a lot of research, into the project. If you’re curious, check it out on Smashwords: Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited.
Hard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.
The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.
As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.
Michael Eury’s Hero-A-Go-Go! is a loving and meticulously-researched tribute to the Camp Age, an all-too-brief bygone era when superheroes and other pop-culture phenoms didn’t take themselves so seriously. Fittingly, Eury’s study begins with a meditation on what may represent the pinnacle of 1960’s camp culture, the Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Arguing that Batman in particular and the camp movement more generally emerged at a time of great tumult and uncertainty in American history, Eury provides a convincing context for anyone wondering how heroes like Super LBJ and Fatman (The Human Flying Saucer) ever gained traction — even briefly — in the American imagination. To wit: Camp provided an amusing and much-needed distraction from the heaviness of world events.
Beyond the first few pages, Eury shifts from examining the social context of the camp movement to cataloging the wide range of characters that the movement spawned and offering the inside scoop on how many of these characters came into existence. In addition to Batman, Hero-A-Go-Go! examines a wide range of (relatively) well-known campy heroes like Plastic Man, Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, and the Mighty Heroes, but where the book especially shines is in Eury’s excavation of obscure camp figures like Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, the Fighting American, and the Fat Fury (among many, many others).
Also noteworthy are Eury’s examinations of comic book incarnations of pop-culture icons like Jerry Lewis (whose adventures as a DC comics character had him somewhat inexplicably crossing paths with Superman, the Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman) and former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose comic book alter-ego, Super LBJ battled Super Commie, Super Poverty, and Super “Ignerance.” Along similar lines, Eury also reveals some camp-ified versions of well-known comic books that (perhaps thankfully) never made it past the earliest pilot stages, the most egregious example being a proposed Wonder Woman series that imagined the title character as a socially awkward superhero living with her nagging Greek mother in a cramped apartment.
Eury also provides readers with a healthy selection of interviews with those most intimately involved in the creation of camp-age classics: Bill Mumy (Will Robinson of Lost in Space fame), legendary cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, and Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean, regarding their album Jan and Dean Meet Batman) to name just a few.
All told, Hero-A-Go-Go! offers an exhaustive compendium of all things camp from the 1960s, the perfect read for anyone who loves comic books or simply thrives on historic pop-culture arcana.
Side note: I found Eury’s book to be so inspiring that I had to try my hand at writing and illustrating my own campy comic, the questionable results of which can be found here: The Indelible Half Halbert.