the writing process

Last week I posted my story “Empty Houses” on this blog.  Doing so reminded my good friend Spam about when I first wrote and workshopped the piece in the IRC channel I’ve been hanging out in for almost a decade now, so she jumped back into the logs of yesteryear (approx. 2008) and excavated the following snippets of conversation.

I reproduce them here because 1) they’re hilarious, and 2) they emphasize the work and good humor that goes into revising and making writing better.

It is perhaps self-evident — but I will put this out here now for clarity — that my alias in these exchanges is “Hoot.”  Thanks to all my other strangely named friends for their help and support throughout the years.

<sushi> Man, Hoot
<sushi> That first “when” is unnecessary
<sushi> uglies up an otherwise decent sentence
<gte> What you shave a bit and now you’re Ernest Hemingway
<Hoot> yeah what
<Hoot> with the distance between them when factoring
<Hoot> in the driveways being something like a quarter of a mile
<Hoot> also removing the when from that makes the sentence not make sense?
<Hoot> unless you mean something else
<Foiba> and i would’ve thrown in an “either” after ‘verdant fingers”
<sushi> Replace it with a comma
<Foiba> but now i’m ernest hemingway
<Hoot> hahaha


<sushi> “He held cradled a shotgun in both hands.” is really awkward… how about “He held a shotgun cradled in his arms.” or “He cradled a shotgun in his arms.”?
<gte> “He cradled a shotgun”
<gte> “like a long, hard, thin baby”
<Hoot> gte that is gross sounding
<gte> when I write it is pretty much stomach-turning
<gte> for many different reasons
<gte> so I don’t do it often
<sushi> gte’s is better
<Hoot> yeah I am going to use it
<Hoot> in an edited fashion
<gte> for the love of god don’t use similes
<sushi> It’s like a psychological insight into the dude’s character
<sushi> Like the gun is a coping mechanism
<Hoot> actually it’s not, he wouldn’t like babies
<Hoot> that’s why I’m trying to come up with something that better suits him
<gte> “He cradled a shotgun like a long, hard, thin baby, which is to say he was shaking it violently and cussing between the blows he incessantly rained down upon it”
<Hoot> hahahaha
<Foiba> see, that can be your trademark, Hoot
<Foiba> shakin’ babies
<Foiba> via firearms
<sushi> “He cradled the shotgun like a fine Cuban cigar, waving it under his nose to savour its aroma.”
<Hoot> [Writer Trademark]: Strangely Hilarious Child Abuse
<sushi> hahaha
<Foiba> “I can’t tell if he hates babies or hates guns.”
<Foiba> “I think it’s safe to say he hates both equally. Maybe babies more.”
<sushi> He hates their necessity, Louie
<Hoot> that will be the main feature of literary criticism of my work
<Foiba> “I need another kid like my old one needs a hole in his head.” “… What?” “With this gun.”
<Hoot> “The GUNS AND BABIES CONUNDRUM has stumped scholars for generations.”
<tarosic> hahaha you have to convince them that you hate guns more but that it just gets transferred to your hatred for babies when people read it
<sushi> hahahaha
<Foiba> “What I’m saying is that I want to kill the baby I hate with the gun I also hate. But I don’t know which one I hate more?”
<Foiba> END OF CHAPTER
<tarosic> and then Hoot was full of hate
<tarosic> and a baby
<tarosic> or a gun
<tarosic> or a baby with a gun?
<tarosic> a storyworld built on armies of 9 month olds crawling through trenches engaged in full scale warfare, but written about very derisively
<sushi> hahahaha
<Foiba> “I kept her from the doctors, for they couldn’t possible have understood this problem more than I have. A Cyclopean, eldritch babe, born with a shotgun for a left hand.”
<Foiba> “As soon as he was born, he commandeered my dirt bike and did a badass jump over the creek.”
<tarosic> “God how i saw him mewling in the night and dreamed of crushing his head with a rock
<tarosic> “
<sushi> “The pink and wrigglies crawled through the trenches. They didn’t need a reason to crawl. Anymore than they needed a reason to shoot their guns.”
<tarosic> “At least skullcrushing through bludgeoning made some sort of visceral sense… not like shooting someone with a gun”
<Foiba> “Before he jumped the creek, he used the dirt bike to do badass burnouts to spell the solitary word ‘CYCLOPEAN’”
<gte> The lonely voice of a golden retriever echoes in the distance
<Foiba> “And then a tinyurl that ultimately lead to a You Tube of a Mr. Rick Astley.”
<sushi> Subtle literary references like that make book scholars jizz
<Hoot> noooooooo golden retriever
<tarosic> hahaha the baby armies used golden retrievers as their cavalry

<Hoot> well, I now have my ftp with the campus network functioning
<Hoot> just in case we ever want to do another Tell Hoot He Uses Too Many Goddamn Commas Evening!
<sushi> Too damn many, Hoot
<Foiba> i’ll fix your commas, hoot
<tarosic> Seriously, Hoot, I cannot, nay, will not stress this enough, your comma usage, it, it, it just exceeds sane limits.
<Foiba> (with badass dirtbike jumps)
<Hoot> hahaha
<Hoot> Replace all extraneous commas with dirtbike jumps.
<sushi> Yeah, you put the “punch” in “punchtuation”
<Foiba> “I don’t know exactly what the hell is happening in this narrative, but it’s pretty fucking awesome.”
<Mechant> pretty, fucking, awesome
<Mechant> p,r,e,t,t,y,, ,f,u,c,k,i,n,g,, ,a,w,e,s,o,m,e,

<Hoot> At the beginning of the third week the strange people came and the dirtbike squalled like a demon as it shot off the ramp and into the air a rushing and like some sort comet the bike twirled in the sky before smashing down to earth in a blazing trail of glory unsmiling throng that poured through the valley and down the hill toward the town. 
<Foiba> “We never thought it was possible,” the townspeople said as the dirtbike did this badass flip over the haunted creek
<Foiba> “That the townspeople could rise from the grave,” and do badass jumps over their forgotten graveyard, “and wreak vengeance upon the living.”
<Hoot> hahahaha


<Hoot> man my own ending pisses me off
<Hoot> (just finished my reread)

<Hoot> oh damn better get to bed
<Hoot> sushi if you are still here, later I WANT A FULL REPORT (over how many commas I don’t need)
<sushi> I like the use of “walkers”
<sushi> If you want I could print this off and do a full edit for you tomorrow at work
<Hoot> haha, I will have you and Louie slaving away for me
<sushi> Could you send me the .doc?
<Foiba> you can compare mine and sushi’s edits and choose the best
<Foiba> (mine)
<sushi> steel cage match of the edits
<Hoot> sushi what is ur emailz
<Foiba> i can’t guarantee that your new ending won’t have a dude blasting “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” while doing a badass dirtbike jump
<Foiba> just sayin’
<Hoot> that is all right
<Hoot> we have to make great sacrifices for art

Empty Houses

This story was originally written around 2007,  when I was 19, and was published in the summer of 2010.  It was the first short story I ever sold, originally available on the website for the horror zine Dark Recesses, which appears to have gone under and then resurfaced with new management. The story is no longer there (the site was totally redesigned), so I’m reposting it here for posterity.  I’ve turned to writing scholarship and criticism more generally, but my fictive impulses still find their outlet on this blog and, obviously, my Twine games.

Empty Houses
by Michael Lutz

The house high on the hill was new, state-of-the-art it was once called, a behemoth of glass walls and cool white stone, and it was in immaculate condition. Every morning Argus stepped out of his closet and offered a cheerful greeting to the Housemind, which did not have the capacity to respond, but Argus said hello anyway.

On Mondays he mowed the lawn.

On Tuesdays he inspected the basement and cleaned the walls.

On Wednesdays he washed windows.

On Thursdays he went to town, for though he’d been told not to bother buying or preparing food he hadn’t been ordered to stop his weekly sojourns. He now walked a mile and a half down the hill to Sweetgum Street, stood for a few moments as if admiring the minivan that had been smashed into the light pole there since June, and returned home.

Friday mornings were spent in the attic running diagnostics on the Housemind while Friday afternoons were occupied with making unanswered telephone calls to neighbors who hadn’t visited recently.

Weekends were for inspection of the house’s interior: changing bedclothes, dusting the places the Housemind’s tiny drones could not reach, making sure the canned foodstuffs left in the pantry were not souring.

Every day after making a final once-over of the house and its grounds, Argus bid the Housemind goodnight and stepped into his closest at ten o’clock, leaving the empty house to bask beneath the blackened and pock-marked moon.

*

One day in September three men, a woman, and a small girl came down the dusty yellow road, heading toward town. They were each dressed in rags and coats. Two of the men pushed shopping carts piled high with cans, boxes, plastic bottles, and a half-dozen or so coloring books. A large bearded fellow led the way, cradling a shotgun in his arms expectantly. One of the men pushing the carts also had a shotgun hanging at his side, but the other man and the woman carried only pistols. It happened that this day in the lonesome September was a Monday. Argus was mowing the lawn as the party appeared over the hill. The leader, when he first saw the glitter of sunlight on Argus’s head, shouted something and swung his shotgun to the ready. The young woman cringed, pulled the child to her. The small girl jingled like a set of keys due to a band of bells looped around her neck on pink string.

The other two men readied their firearms. Argus recognized the signs of danger and did what was appropriate: his hands came off the handle of the mower and reached out, empty, alongside his head.

“Christ, Burt,” said the second man with a shotgun, stepping around the leader to get a better look. “He’s just a tinman.”

Burt grunted, the haggard growth of beard on his face rippling like the pelt of a snarling cat.

“He’s mowing the goddamn lawn, Burt. I’m near blind and even I can see that,” the other man said, fingering the rim of a pair of cracked spectacles resting across his nose. “And you know as well as I do that it doesn’t affect mechs, the only thing they got to worry about is being smashed up by the caravans. And besides, what’s buckshot gonna do at this distance?”

The bespectacled man dropped his shotgun and stepped forward to stand between Burt’s barrel and Argus. “We don’t mean to hurt you,” he called, squinting through the cracks in his glasses.

“Thank you, sir,” Argus replied.

“That means you can put your arms down.”

“Of course.”

“Keep on doing your work. We’ll talk more when we get down there, yeah?”

“If you wish so, sir.”

*

“Hello,” Argus said to the group as they drew abreast of him. He stopped the mower and bowed his head. “My name is Argus of the Allendale family. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not in right now. In accordance with the Mandate, the family has vacated the premises until further notice. If you should like to leave a message, I will be more than happy to relay it to Mr. Allendale upon his return.”

The bespectacled man wiped a dirty hand across his brow. “We don’t know your Allendale. We’re travelers, you might say, all from out east. My name’s Jack, from Ohio. This is Burt from Illinois, then Ray from Vermont.” The men nodded.

“And then,” Jack continued, “the pretty young lady is Judy and her cousin Terry, who we picked up on our way through Kansas.”

“If you will pardon me,” Argus interrupted, “while I am most pleased to meet all of you, if you have no business with Mr. Allendale, I will have to say goodbye and get back to my chores. If you are solicitors I should have you know that even if you choose to leave a message Mr. Allendale will not respond.”

Jack returned his attention to the tinman. “Look, I’m sorry, we’re not salesmen. Or anything much, really. We’re just trying to make our way out to Seattle. They say there’s still people there. Not like the caravans… and sure as hell not like the walkers.”

Argus cocked his head to show puzzlement. “I am sorry. I do not understand.”

Jack’s eyes widened as he and his fellow travelers exchanged looks. “You don’t know?”

“I do not know what? I am sorry. I do not understand. If you wish to leave a message for the Allendales I will be happy to relay it to them.”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” sighed Burt. “He’s a goddamn tinman, Jack. He’s not gonna be any use.”

“When did… when did the Allendales leave, Argus?” Jack asked.

“The eighteenth of April, in accordance with the Government Mandate. The sabbatical is indefinite.”

Terry, who until now had been studying the tinman with a mixture of deep interest and deeper unease, turned to Judy. “He’s been alone all this time?”

“It’s all right,” Judy said, hugging the girl. “I’m sure Argus’s been okay with being alone, haven’t you, Argus?”

“I am performing optimally.”

“Argus,” Jack said, “you have to listen and understand something. You know about what happened, right? In New York? And DC?”

“Of course,” Argus chirruped. “What would you like to know? I am sorry I cannot provide live news feeds, those servers appear to be down.”

“Argus, those places are gone. There’s nothing there, it’s all burnt up. Hell, even… haven’t you looked up at the moon? You don’t know anything about that, Argus?”

“I am sorry,” said the tinman. “I do not understand. Would you like to leave a message for Mr. Allendale?”

Jack sighed. “Listen, Argus, if you can help us in any way–”

“I would be happy to aid you in any manner that does not infringe on my present orders.”

“Right, of course. Now, Argus, if we left could you come with us?”

“It is my duty to tend to the house while the family is away.”

“Could you give us any weapons or supplies or–”

“If you would like Mr. Allendale’s business card I may fetch one presently.”

“No, Argus, what I mean is, if you have any weapons, any guns or bullets — or any food…”

“Food will not be served until the Allendales return. If you wish to make a dinner date, please tell me which day of the week you prefer, as well as any favorite dishes or allerg–”

“Goddammit, Jack,” said Burt, “if we need the food we can just go into the house and take it. He can’t hurt us. They programmed that into them.”

Argus swiveled his head, his crystal eyes shining, to look at Burt. “You are threatening force, sir. I will warn you once more, after which if you do not vacate the premises I shall summon the authorities.”

Burt laughed. “Authorities? What authority you know of that’s left?”

“I am afraid I don’t understand. If you continue to threaten–”

“Shut the hell up!” Burt snarled.

Terry jumped, her necklace of bells jingling as she wrapped her arm around Judy’s waist. Her cousin bent down, embracing the child and whispering to her while Ray looked on with empathy.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Jack asked Burt, Argus forgotten for the moment.

“I’m trying to make sure we live long enough to make it over the damn mountains, Jack. It seems one of us is gonna have to–”

“You’re making sure we live, Burt? Cause last I remember, it was us who made sure you lived. Remember St. Louis?” Though he was the smaller man, Jack spoke sternly. He held Burt’s eyes with his own for a long moment, waiting, and then–

Burt looked away, chuffing.

“Argus,” Jack said, “we understand if you can’t help us. You do what you have to do.”

“Of course, sir.”

“But listen… there’s something behind us. Things behind us. We managed to outrun them because they’re not very fast, but they can track you, they just smell something and have to follow. They — they used to be people, but not anymore. I don’t mean like the caravans… Jesus, I don’t know if this makes any sense to you.” He cleared his throat.

“They’ll look like people, Argus, and I don’t think they’ll hurt you because of what you are, but they’re still dangerous for normal folks like us. So if you can somehow tell the difference between us and… whatever they are… you could…”

“I could what, sir?”

The man’s mouth tightened. “Destroy them.”

Argus paused. “I see, sir. Would you like to leave a message for the Allendales?”

Jack let out a long stream of breath. “Sorry, Argus. We’ll be leaving now,” he said.

“Goodbye sirs, miss, and little miss. Please return when the Allendales are here to receive you.”

Jack had only taken two steps when he stopped, his attention caught by something in the distance. “Argus?”

“Sir?”

“Who lives across the road there, in that old house by the pond?”

“The Clemms, sir.”

“You mean they’re… inside?”

“I imagine not, sir, due to the Mandate. But to be honest they have no Housemind for me to communicate with so I am uncertain. They haven’t answered any calls lately.”

“I see. Goodbye, Argus.”

“Have a pleasant walk.”

*

At seven o’clock, just as the sun was beginning to set and the western horizon to glow over the mountains, there was a rapid knock at the door. Argus, who had been cleaning the dust from the crystal, placed a wineglass delicately on the kitchen counter, dried his hands, and went to answer. “Hello,” he began while opening the door, “my name is Argus. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not–”

“Argus,” said Jack, “we need your help.”

Beside him was Ray, hand clutched to his chest and the sleeve of his ragged jacket stained a deep crimson. Behind him stood Burt, looking as dour as always, and further away Judy attempted to soothe a wailing Terry.

“What is the injury?” said Argus.

“A bite, a possum bite.”

“I am qualified to give first aid and dress wounds. Please, come in.” Argus stepped aside, holding one hand out to welcome them.

*

“If I start to go, promise you’ll shoot me.”

“You’re not gonna start doing anything.”

“There was something wrong with that possum, Jack.”

“It was starving, that’s all.”

Ray hissed through clenched teeth as Argus poured disinfectant over the shallow but bleeding gash on the back of his hand, the liquid sizzling as it dribbled down the sink. Jack leaned in the doorway to the spacious bathroom. “Is it gonna be okay, Argus?”

“It appears superficial. I would still recommend seeing a doctor as soon as possible, however. There is a clinic in town. The Medicmind there tells me there is a free appointment slot as early as tomorrow morning. If you like I can make a res–”

“That’s unnecessary, Argus, but thanks. We’ll get to a doctor… at our next stop.”

“Of course. And the next time you and your friends go out hunting, please be sure to remember that opossums often ‘play dead,’ when they appear to be dead when in fact–”

“I think I learned my lesson, Argus, really,” Ray insisted.

“The bleeding has slowed. Excellent. Please, just a few moments more.” Argus patted Ray’s wound dry and wrapped it in clean white bandages. “Change the dressing daily and be sure to apply disinfectant,” he said, releasing the young man’s hand.

“All right, yeah, no problem,” said Burt, who had been watching silently from behind Jack. “Let’s just get out of here.”

The four of them walked to the front room, where Judy and Terry were looking at pictures hanging on the wall. Every few seconds the pictures changed or switched places in their frames. Some were loops, like the one of Mr. Allendale and his son standing together on the beach, laughing and holding a fat catfish between them. “Do you think they’re still together?” asked Terry.

Judy chewed her lip and was saved from answering as Argus, Ray, Jack, and Burt entered. “Oh, hey,” she said, “what’s the diagnosis?”

“He’ll live,” Burt said, and Ray gave an uncertain frown.

“Well,” sighed Jack, “we’ve been a bother for far too long. Even though it’s late, we’d best be on our way.”

“It was a pleasure having you here.” Argus escorted them to the front door and waved goodbye as the travelers walked out into the night, the sound of Terry’s bells growing fainter as they disappeared into the dark.

*

The following night the alarm went off. Wake up, the Housemind shouted in Argus’s closet, wake up wake up in the pantry wake up wake up.

Soon he was in the pantry holding the intruder by the neck. “Hello again, sir. You are on private property,” Argus said. “The Housemind informs me you have broken the lock on the back door. The local Crimemind has been contacted and the authorities are on their way. Until then I shall restrain you, but please remember that I will not injure you.”

“Go to hell,” Burt growled, the mane of his beard bushed up around his face by Argus’s silver hand. “Go to hell, you mindless piece of–”

“This conversation is being recorded. It may be used as evide–”

Burt swung one leg out, hooking it around the back of Argus’s knee, but the tinman did not even waver. “There are no police coming! Not anymore!” Burt shouted.

“I will detain you while we wait,” Argus told the man, his fingers looped about the man’s neck like a steel collar.

Two hours later, Burt was sobbing, his neck chafing and his fingers sore from clawing at Argus’s hand. “Please, I just — I wasn’t gonna do anything, honestly, I just wanna get back to the others… let me go, please…” His beard, puffed up in a mane around his head, was becoming damp with sweat and tears.

“I was ordered not to tolerate trespassers. If the authorities do not arrive I have the option of presenting you myself.” So Argus wrenched Burt’s arms behind his back and they walked out of the house and all the way down the hill to Sweetgum Street, past the minivan smashed into the light post, past the old grocery store and its sickening stench of rotted vegetables, right up to the municipal building and into the sheriff’s office. They passed through a side office where, in an ergonomic chair, was perched a uniformed skeleton, its head thrown back and a revolver still clutched in one withered hand. A dark brown butterfly was unfurled across the wall behind it.

Burt tried his best to vomit at the scene but Argus was unaffected. He saw only that the station was deserted for the time being, so he fished the keys out of the desk with his free hand and unlocked one of the two cells in the back. Again Burt begged to be let go: “Please, the others don’t know where I went. In the morning they’ll be worried about me.”

“They may come to the Allendale residence searching for you, at which time I will gladly redirect them here, explaining that you broke the law and therefore are obligated to meet with the police.”

“But the police aren’t here! You saw that thing in the office…”

“I do not understand. You will remain here until the police arrive. I will return daily to meet with you. If the authorities are not here, I will act as your caretaker until they arrive, at which point you will be transferred officially into their custody. If your friends have any objections I will advise them to wait as well.”

“There’s no one coming, Argus!”

“The authorities have been contacted and are on their way. I will return home now and visit you again tomorrow.”

Argus was good to his word. The next day he came to the station again, saw that Burt was asleep in his cell, and prepared lunch from the stocks at the empty house on the hill. When the man finally awoke he did not speak, but only accepted the food and ate in morose silence. No one came for him, and for the next two weeks Argus’s routine was expanded. He walked to the station and fixed Burt’s meals in between sets of chores at the house.

Once Burt asked if he could watch television to alleviate his boredom, and Argus complied. There was a small portable set on a rolling cart in a cabinet down the hall, but after Argus went through the trouble of wheeling it down and plugging it in Burt was dismayed to see that no channels were broadcasting save one, a skewed view of an empty news desk. The scene, though live according to the logo in the corner of the screen, was completely still and silent. “Shall you watch this?” asked Argus.

“No,” Burt whispered. “No. Turn it off. Take it away.”

“As you wish.”

*

At the beginning of the third week they came, an unsmiling throng that rushed down the hill toward the town. They shuffled and stumbled over the lawn of the empty house, each one moving with mysterious purpose, drawn by a force beyond an outsider’s perception. They staggered past Argus without even seeming to notice him. One might bump into his polished metal chest every so often, to which he offered a polite “Pardon me,” but they never replied. He couldn’t quite understand why no one responded to his medical advice when he commented on a gash across the forehead or the obvious fracture of an arm or leg.

Many of them had swarmed the municipal building, he discovered later. It was a hassle pressing through to get inside, but soon he made his way to the solitary cell. He found an entire silent horde pressed up to the bars, their arms flailing madly within the bars’ confines. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, move,” he said, pushing them out of the way.

Burt was gone. Something had been splattered across the floor and the walkers at the bars were scooping up handfuls and shoving it into their mouths. Argus returned with a mop to clean up the mess but when he unlocked the cell door the strangers poured past him, swarming the mess, and no matter how much Argus complained they refused to move. When the throng finally fell back there was very little left for him to clean up.

*

The walking throng thinned over the months but did not stop. The weather grew colder; there came a hard snow. Drifts were up to fifteen or twenty feet, and though the house on the hill stood far above the worst of it Argus could not go to town even if he were ordered. In dips between the drifts, pallid green fingers poked out of the snow, frozen in curls. The Clemms’ old home across the road collapsed with a shriek near the end of December. A family of mice took refuge against the cold in the basement of the house on the hill, which kept Argus busy for some time.

Spring came, and with spring came the thaw. The ice on the small pond by the Clemm house thinned and cracked. The curled fingers reaching out of the snow drifts blackened and dripped away, leaving only white bones; there was a rancid stink that, though it did not bother Argus, triggered a latent process in the Housemind across the way, and soon the house on the hill was puffed full of an artificial floral scent.

Then the snow melted in earnest and flooded down into the Clemms’ pond. There was so much runoff the pond grew higher until it was more akin to a lake. It enveloped the ruins of the Clemm home and carried them down the hill, whisking away the skeletal corpse of an opossum that had lain on the kitchen floor since the prior September.

Argus came out when the ground was clear and began his chores, raking away dead leaves and branches and whatever bones hadn’t slipped away in the thaw. He bleached the stone walls, cleared the gutters, and polished the windows. The house had been empty for a year.

*

The third group of travelers came in early August, heading east. Through the house’s expansive back windows Argus saw them as they entered town: a wagon piled high with bags and pulled by a team of horses, followed by smaller but similar wagons carrying weary-looking women and men. Many held their arms protectively around young children, at least one of whom jingled when she moved — though perhaps that was only the sound of the chains binding the legs of these riders to their wagons.

The entire procession was surrounded by two-dozen or more men on horseback, all carrying guns. From his vantage point Argus watched as the menagerie stopped at the old grocery store. Several men smashed the windows before ducking inside and emerging with plastic sacks fattened by cans. The bags were piled onto the wagons before the procession began to move again and the men on horseback spoke to one another, pointing up the hill. Argus saw the gestures, and even though the distance was enough to make him indiscernible to the people below, he thought they were greeting him.

He waved in return as the caravan shifted direction, moving up the hill.

On Guy Fawkes in Hell

I missed last week’s blogging the quals, but I’ve managed to keep ahead of my schedule a bit.  So here’s what I’ve read in the past two weeks:

Theory

Protevi, John – Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic
Artaud, Antonin – The Theater & Its Double
Bataille, Georges – Visions of Excess
Foucault, Michel – The Order of Things
Copjec, Jean – Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists
Butler, Judith – Bodies That Matter
Agamben, Giorgio – Homo Sacer
Bennett, Jane – Vibrant Matter
Morton, Timothy – The Ecological Thought

Primary Texts: Drama

Milton, John – Samson Agonistes
Anonymous – Two Lamentable Tragedies
Preston, Thomas – Cambyses
Dekker, Thomas – If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil is In It

My little thought for the week comes from the Dekker play; it ends with a scene in Hell during which various characters from the play proper are submitted to torments, but also, because this was 1611, includes a guest appearance by the illustrious guy Fawkes:

 

In this little snippet, Fawkes is named and discussed by the various demons who surround him in Hell.  The interesting thing about this is that Fawkes does not realize he is in Hell; every other mortal seems aware of their situation, but Fawkes seems a bit mad.

This is due to his punishment, which the demon Shacklesoul explains: Fawkes “Digd cellars to find where hel stood” and now for all eternity believes himself to be in the cellars beneath Parliament, perpetually on the verge of lighting the gunpowder kegs but never actually doing it.

It might be fruitful to speculate why Fawkes is the only person in Hell given such a special treatment — specifically, to never know he’s in Hell.  With Fawkes  traitor and hence doubly abject, Dekker perhaps seizes this opportunity to highlight his own support of James (since the play, overall, is quite critical of James and his court, and in bad need of a balm).

Yet what is also interesting to me here is the rather proleptic (and of course coincidental) way that the scene predicts the appropriation of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary for “Anonymous” and his deployment in other aspects of modern consumer culture: an emblem of political upheaval locked into a moment of fruitless action and paranoia, always on the verge of lighting the fires of revolution, but never actually doing it.

Some very dignified , centuries old poetry in this post

This week I read a rather broad selection of poetry and then moved into the theoretical texts that will provide background and springboards for my overall project.  Since poetry is not my main focus I read “selections,” which basically means “everything for these authors in the Norton Anthology of Literature,” with the exception of Cavendish and Hutchinson, who got short shrift, so I tracked down additional materials for them elsewhere.

Poetry

Shakespeare, William
Donne, John
Jonson, Ben
Marlowe, Christopher
Marvell, Andrew
Milton, John
Crashaw, Richard
Herbert, George
Herrick, Robert
Cavendish, Margaret
Hutchinson, Lucy

Theory

Van Oenen, Gijs – “Interpassive Agency: Engaging Actor-Network Theory’s View on the Agency of Objects” Theory & Event 14.2
Wolfe, Cary – “Introduction: What Is Posthumanism?” in What is
Posthumanism?
Lacan, Jacques – Ecrits (selections)
Kristeva, Julia - Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
Ngai, Sianne – Ugly Feelings

I don’t have a big philosophical point for you this week; Ngai’s work (though rather shaky, in my opinion, when discussing the affect of early modernity and of Shakespeare in particular) produces the idea of the “stuplime,” a specifically contemporary affect combining elements of sublimity and tedium, or “shock and boredom,” which seems to be to have a lot to say about the way games criticism is done — the way we talk about games, especially when we don’t like them, is very stuplime.  There’s a sketched plan for a blog post on that, coming as a full thing sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, here’s a Herrick poem:

Upon Jack and Jill. Epigram.

When Jill complains to Jack for want of meat,
Jack kisses Jill and bids her freely eat:
Jill says, Of what? says Jack, On that sweet kiss,
Which full of nectar and ambrosia is,
The food of poets. So I thought, says Jill,
That makes them look so lank, so ghost-like still.
Let poets feed on air, or what they will;
Let me feed full, till that I fart, says Jill.

Blogging the quals, Week 2

This week’s readings:

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince
Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (selections, primarily Book I)
Machiavelli, The Prince
Sir Philip Sidney, A Defense of Poesie
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors
John Milton, Areopagitica
Ambroise Pare, Of Monsters and Marvels
Michel Montaigne, “On the Power of the Imagination”
–, “On a Monstrous Child”

This week’s quotation I’ll take from the last of the Montaigne essays:

Those which we call monsters are not so with God, who in the immensitie of his work seeth the infinite of formes therein contained. And it may be thought that any figure doth amaze us, hath relation unto some other figure of the same kinde, although unknown unto man. From out his all-seeing wisdome proceedeth nothing but good, common, regular, and orderly; but we neither see the sorting, nor conceive the relation. Quod crebro videt, non miratur, etiam si, cur fiat, nescit. Quod an te non vidit, id, si evenerit, ostentum esse censet (CIC. Div. 1. II.). ‘That which he often seeth he doth not wonder at, though he know not why it is done; but if that happen which he never saw before, he thinkes it some portentous wonder.’ We call that against nature which commeth against custome. There is nothing, whatsoever it be, that is not according to hir. Let therefore this universall and naturall reason chase from us the error, and expell the astonishment which noveltie breedeth and strangenes causeth in us.

Obviously one interesting thing here is the way that Montaigne exhibits a transition from the older mode of thinking about monsters — to briefly recap from well-worn ground, monster from the Latin monere, meaning to warn or advise, and so the monster becomes that which warns or advises.  Monstrous births were commonly taken to be signs of God’s displeasure, or an omen of strife to come; their bodies were exceptions granted by God in order to communicate these messages.  The monster’s body, hence, existed only to be read: it was a medium of some greater message from the higher realms of creation.

With the transition to a “scientific worldview” we begin to get outlooks similar to those of Montaigne above (also exhibited by Ambroise Pare in this week’s reading).  Monsters are “naturalized” in that they are not suspensions of the rules of generation as such, but rather necessary side-effects of some grand mechanism of creation that appears confusing or nonsensical from a human perspective.

For Montaigne, God becomes the vehicle by which this is rationalized: an all-knowing force to whom nothing is strange, who does not break rules to warn us; rather, a proto-Deist Watchmaker who creates every gear to interlock with another, for reasons often beyond the ken of all the other gears.  As writers like Lorraine Datson have argued, this morphed into the prevailing view of the nascent biological sciences: “monsters” became opportunities to deduce the laws of generation by using dissection and anatomy to note precisely where and how the monstrous body deviates from a presupposed norm.

But from another perspective, what we see here is simply two different ways of making deviant bodies signify: whether it’s the displeasure of God and a coming catastrophe or the obscured laws of nature, monsters exist to tell us (‘us’ taken for granted to be ‘normative’ or ‘non-monstrous’ humans) something.  The monster always exists in the state of exception; it is Agamben’s homo sacer.  Montaigne, I think, shows us something in between these views, a world in which monsters exist, but do not need to be studied; they simply are.  Still, the anthropocentric notion of a knowing God necessarily pulls these things into our (normative, human) orbit, but discounting that, how else might we exploit this apparent gap in the regimes of bodily signification: when or where might the so-called “monstrous” creature not mean but simply be?

Blogging the quals, Week 1

This week for my quals I read:

Augustine, Confessions
–, City of God (selections)
Martin Luther, On the Liberty of a Christian
Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Pliny’s Natural History (selections, but focusing most on Book 7, on the creation and nature of humans)

My selection for “most interesting thing I read this week” probably goes to the following bit from the Metamorphoses in Book II, when boy Phaeton has nagged his father Apollo into let him drive the chariot of the sun.  Things go off the rails, of course, and Phaeton initiates a vast apocalypse that cannot help but bring to mind the current issue of climate change:

His Chariot also vnder him began to waxe red hot. 
He could no lenger dure th[e] sparkes and cinder flyeng out, 
Againe the culme and smouldring smoke did wrap him round about. 
The pitchie darkenesse of the which so wholy had him he[n]
As that he wist not where he was nor yet which way he went. 
The winged horses forcibly did draw him where they wolde. 
The Aethiopians at that time (as men for truth vpholde) 
(The bloud by force of that same heate drawne to the outer part 
And there adust from that time forth) became so blacke and swart. 
The moysture was so dried vp in Lybie land that time 
That altogither drie and scorcht continueth yet that Clyme. 
The Nymphes wt haire about their eares bewayld their springs & lakes 
Beötia for hir Dy[r]ces losse great lamentation makes. 
For Amimone Argos wept, and Corinth for the spring 
Pyrene, at whose sacred streame the Muses vsde to sing. 
The Riuers further from the place were not in better case. 
For Tanais in his déepest streame did boyle and steme apace. 
Old Penevv and Cay[c]us of the countrie Teuthranie, 
And swift Ismenos in their bankes by like misfortune frie. 
Then burnde the Psophian Erymanth: and (which should burne ageine) 
The Troian Xanthus and Lycormas with his yellow veine. 
Meander playing in his bankes aye winding to and fro. 
Migdonian Melas with his waues as blacke as any slo. 
Eurotas running by the foote of Tenare boyled tho. 
Then sod Euphrates cutting through the middes of Babilon 
Then sod Orontes, and the Scithian swift Thermodoon. 
Then Ganges, Colchian Phasis, and the noble Istre 
Alpheus and Sperchins bankes with flaming fire did glistre. 
The golde that Tagus streame did beare did in the chanell melt. 
Amid Cayster of this fire the raging heat was felt. 
Among the quieres of singing Swannes that with their pleasant lay 
Along the bankes of Lidian brakes from place to place did stray. 
And Nyle for feare did run away into the furthest Clyme 
Of all the world, and hid his heade, which to this present tyme 
Is yet vnfound: his mouthes all seuen cleane voyde of water béene. 
Like seuen great valleys where (saue dust) could nothing else be séene. 
By like misfortune Hebrus dride and Strymon both of Thrace. 

This goes on for a while, until Gaia herself beseeches God (or Jove, since the two are sometimes conflated in Golding’s translation and sometimes not) to do something:

The Sea did shrinke and where as waues did late before remaine, 
Became a Champion field of dust and euen a sandy plaine. 
The hilles erst hid farre vnder waues like Ilelandes did appeare 
So that the scattred Cyclades for the time augmented were. 
The fishes drew them to the déepes: the Dolphines durst not play 
Aboue the water as before, the Seales and Porkpis lay 
With bellies vpward on the waues starke dead· and fame doth go 
That Nereus with his wife and daughters all were faine as tho 
To dine within the scalding waues. Thrise Neptune did aduaunce 
His armes aboue the scalding Sea with sturdy countenaunce: 
And thrise for hotenesse of the Ayre, was faine himselfe to hide. 
But yet the Earth the Nurce of things enclosde on euery side 
(Betwéene the waters of the Sea and Springs that now had hidden 
Themselues within their Mothers wombe) for all the paine abidden, 
Up to the necke put forth hir head and casting vp hir hand, 
Betwéene hir forehead and the sunne as panting she did stand 
With dreadfull quaking all that was, she fearfully did shake, 
And shrinking somewhat lower downe with sacred voyce thus spake. 
O King of Gods and if this be thy will and my desart, 
Why doste thou stay with deadly dint thy thunder downe to dart? 
And if that néedes I perish must through force of firie flame, 
Let thy celestiall fire O God I pray thée doe the same. 
A comfort shall it be to haue thée Author of my death. 
I scarce haue powre to speak these words (the smoke had stopt hir breath) 
Behold my singed haire: behold my dim and bleared eye, 
Sée how about my scorched face the scalding embers flie. 
Is this the guerdon wherewithall ye quite my fruitfulnesse? 
Is this the honor that ye gaue me for my plenteousnesse 
And dutie done with true intent? for suffring of the plough 
To draw déepe woundes vpon my backe and rakes to rend me through? 
For that I ouer all the yeare continually am wrought? 
For giuing foder to the beasts and cattell all for nought?
For yéelding corne and other foode wherewith to kéepe mankinde? 
And that to honor you withall swéete frankinsence I finde? 
But put the case that my desert destruction duely craue, 
What hath thy brother: what the Seas deserued for to haue? 
Why doe the Seas his lotted part thus ebbe and fall so low, 
Withdrawing from thy Skie to which it ought most neare to grow? 
But if thou neyther doste regarde thy brother, neyther mée, 
At least haue mercy on thy heauen, looke round about and sée 
How both the Poles begin to smoke which if the fire appall 
To vtter ruine (be thou sure) thy pallace néedes must fall. 
Behold how Atlas ginnes to faint[s] his shoulders though [f]ull strong, 
Unneth are able to vphold the sparkling Extrée long. 
If Sea and Land doe go to wrecke, and heauen it selfe doe burne 
To olde confused Chaos then of force we must returne. 
Put to thy helping hand therfore to saue the little left 
If ought remaine before that all be quite and cleane bereft. 
When ended was this piteous plaint, the Earth did hold hir peace 
She could no lenger dure the heate but was comp[e]lde to cease. 
Into hir bosome by and by she shrunke hir cinged heade 
More nearer to the Stygnan caues, and ghostes of persones deade. 
The Sire of Heauen protesting all the Gods and him also 
That lent the Chariot to his child, that all of for[c]e must go 
To hauocke if he helped not, went to the highest part 
And top of all the Heauen from whence his custome was to dart, 
His thunder and his lightning downe. But neyther did remaine 
A Cloude wherewith to shade the Earth, nor yet a showre of raine. 
Then with a dreadfull thunderclap vp to his eare he bent 
His fist, and at the Wagoner a flash of lightning sent, 
Which strake his bodie from the life and threw it ouer whéele 
And so with fire he quenched fire. 

Phaeton’s corpse tumbles to the earth, where it is buried by nymphs and then sought out by his mother, the nymph Clymen, and his seven sisters, who spend the next four months standing by the grave and wailing.  Then something weird happens:

But Clymen hauing spoke, as much as mothers vsually, 
Are wonted in such wretched case, discomfortablely, 
And halfe beside hir selfe for wo, with torne and scratched brest, 
Sercht through the vniuersall world, from East to furthest West, 
First séeking for hir sonnes dead coarse, and after for his bones. 
She found them by a forren streame, entumbled vnder stones. 
There fell she groueling on his graue, and reading there his name, 
Shed teares thereon, and layd hir breast all bare vpon the same. 
The daughters also of the Sunne no lesse than did their mother, 
Bewaild in vaine with flouds of teares, the fortune of their brother: 
And beating piteously their breasts, incessantly did call 
The buried Phaeton day and night, who heard them not at all, 
About whose tumbe they prostrate lay. Foure times the Moone had filde 
The Circle of hir ioyned hornes, and yet the sisters hilde 
Their custome of lamenting still: (for now continuall vse 
had made it custome.) Of the which the eldest Phaetuse 
About to knéele vpon the ground, complaynde hir féete were nom. 
To whome as fayre Lampetie was rising for to com, 
Hir féete were held with sodaine rootes. The third about to teare 
Hir ruffled lockes, filde both hir handes with leaues in steade of heare. 
One wept to sée hir legges made wood: another did repine 
To sée hir armes become long boughes. And shortly to define, 
While thus they wondred at themselues, a tender barke began 
To grow about their thighes and loynes, which shortly ouerran 
Their bellies, brestes, and shoulders eke, and hands successiuely, 
That nothing (saue their mouthes) remainde, aye calling pit[e]ously 
Upon the wofull mothers helpe. What could the mother doe? 
But runne now here now there, as force of nature drue hir to? 
And deale hir kisses while she might? she was not so content: 
But tare their tender braunches downe: and from the sliuers went 
Red drops of bloud as from a wound. The daughter that was rent 
Cride spare vs mother spare I pray, for in the shape of tree 
The bodies and the flesh of vs your daughters wounded bée. 
And now farewell. That word once said, the barke grew ouer all. 
Now from these trées flow gummy teares that Amber men doe call. 
Which hardened with the heate of sunne as from the boughs they fal. 
The trickling Riuer doth receyue, and sendes as things of price 
To decke the daintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice. 

This is par for the course with Ovid — a sort of rambling series of cause-and-effect set-pieces that never quite seem to operate according to narrative logic and payoff in the modern sense.  To be precisely clear, what is fascinating to me here is the way in which the world was very nearly destroyed, it was in so much peril that the king of the gods had to murder someone to stop it — and the overall effect is that some nymphs turned into trees and made the jewel we now call amber, “[t]o decke the danintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice.”

There’s an unusual telescoping effect in which Ovid spins outward and shows us the Heavens themselves lit afire, only to end back in familiar (human) Roman society — and yet nevertheless, and perhaps largely unintentionally, suggests the implication of human luxuries in immense and almost incomprehensible environmental exploitation and destruction.

Blogging the quals

Hello.

You may remember that some point I mentioned I am in grad school.  Well, I am now in a position where I am preparing to take my PhD qualification exams which, in case you’re not already an English grad student or PhD yourself, means I’m going to spend this summer reading something like 150 books.

These will be diverse, though of course largely oriented around my period (Shakespeare and early modern drama) and my theoretical concerns (performance, Renaissance humanism, intellectual history, and contemporary “posthumanism” as it might be broadly construed).  I don’t have any particular interest in saying I’m one type of scholar or another, but I am highly inclined toward what medievalist Eileen A. Joy has called “weird reading.”  Let’s take a look:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes. We’ll call this reading for the weird, which is fitting when you consider that the word ‘weird’ (traditionally linked to ‘wyrd,’ or ‘fate’) is related to the Old English weorðan [‘to become’], rooted in Indo-European *wer- [‘to turn, bend’]. This will entail being open to incoherence as well, as one possible route toward a non-routinized un-disciplinarity that privileges unknowing over mastery of knowledge. The idea here would be to unground texts from their conventional, human-centered contexts, just as we would unground ourselves, getting lost in order to flee what is (at times) the deadening status quo of literary-historical studies at present, aiming for the carnivalesque over the accounting office.

I agree with the general sentiment here.  Joy says in a footnote that she does not mean to jettison historicist criticism entirely, and indeed, I find my current work an attempt to revive some of the stranger, less disciplined qualities of history-making that the Foucauldian turn of New Historicism deanimated.

In order to pass the time by doing something other than simply reading and worrying about my exams this fall, I am going to do my best to post weekly or bi-weekly updates here listing what I’ve read since my last post and, perhaps, some scattered thoughts, impressions, or quotes.  (In this sense I’m taking my cues from when I was in a similar situation as a senior undergrad.)

So let this be the inaugural post in my “Blogging the quals” series.  I’ll list below the eclectic mix of what I’ve read so far this semester, to give you an idea of what’s to come in full force later on.

Lyric poetry (selections)

Lanyer, Aemilia (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum)
Sidney, Philip (Astrophil and Stella)
Spenser, Edmund (Shepheards Calendar, Amoretti, Epithalamium)
Wroth, Mary (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus)
Wyatt, Thomas (Sonnets)

Drama

Ford, John - ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Shakespeare, William - Antony and Cleopatra
– Love’s Labours Lost
Webster, John - The Duchess of Malfi

Period/Field Criticism

Charnes, Linda - Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare
MacKay, Ellen - Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

Theory

Bogost, Ian - Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Latour, Bruno - We Have Never Been Modern
Zizek, Slavoj - The Sublime Object of Ideology

Patrick

New twine piece, playable here.

This is a very short game about having an uncomfortable conversation with a vaguely sinister white guy.

One ending. Or is there? Ask a friend to play and then compare notes.

On related business, Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky recently posted a podcast in which they discuss the avant-garde in videogames, which is filled with many smart thoughts on these things, and points you to a lot of cool little games to play.  But it also (quite surprisingly!) contains a discussion of my last Twine game, My Father’s Long, Long Legs! I am really excited by the response that game got, which quite frankly has been larger and more supportive than anything I ever expected.

I’ll take this moment to say thank you for reading my posts here, for playing my games, and for generally being a cool person.

Spelunky, Replayability, and Performance on FPS

A few months back I wrote a speculative post on how performance theory can help us understand the idea of “replay value” in videogames.  I was shortly thereafter pinged by Steve Wilcox, editor at scholarly games writing site First Person Scholar, to ask if I’d like to work on something of a similar theme for the site.  I did, and so have turned out a little thing on those themes, in the context of my play of the game Spelunky.  You can go read it now!

My thanks for proof-reading the article go out to my pals Spam, Victor, Dan, and Alex Pieschel.  Speaking of Alex, he and Zolani Stewart recently started a little joint called Arcade Review, which provides some cool videogames crit that you might wanna check out.

I’d also like to thank Dr. Gerlad Vorhees for his reply to my piece, which provides me with some avenues of research that would otherwise be unknown to me (coming at games studies, as I do, rather catty-corner).

As luck would have it, Brendan Keogh a month or two back published a critique of videogames criticism that I in large part agree with, and makes in a different way many of the points my FPS piece led me toward, so that can also go into your recommended reading.  Also keep in mind comments by Ian Bogost and Daniel Joseph, as well as this thorough reflection and roundup by Zoya Street.  What Keogh is gesturing toward seems to me very similar to what Peggy Phelan advocates in her theory, an idea of “performative writing” that attempts to capture through “thick description” (as Keogh at one point calls it) the embodied experience of performance/gameplay.

Relatedly, in a few weeks (?) I’ll hopefully have another post here on the replayability issue, because there was an entire half of the FPS article that I imagined but, due to word limits and being sensible, did not write.  There’s nothing fundamentally new, but rather, I want to focus more on what it means to “performatively write” about a videogame (for my money this piece by Leigh Alexander on Bioshock Infinite is a great example, in case you’re tired of me).  But I also want to demonstrate a different kind of re/play experience that I find myself repeating for similar yet ultimately distinct ways from my account of Spelunky.  I tend to work and think in terms of illustrative contrast, so this is helpful for me.  But it will also demonstrate, I think, relayability in its more bizarre, persona, idiosyncratic, irrational mode.  This relates to something Vorhees brings up — a possible desire to escape the buying-the-next-game cycle — though as he concedes, this isn’t something we can necessarily (so to speak) bank on.

Thanks for reading!

 

A Post about Shia LaBeouf

Everyone is talking about Shia LaBeouf, for some reason. Because he is being a jerk, or an asshole, I guess?  I don’t have much in the way of opinions on Shia LaBeouf, which is not to say I have none, but rather that my opinions are not so much about Shia himself and more about a vast web of subjective experience that is honestly far more interesting to me than whatever he is doing now.  So I am going to tell you my story about Shia LaBeouf.

The age at which I should have known, or rather cared, who Shia LaBeouf was, was precisely the age at which I did not know or care.  I am referring to his role on the Disney show Even Stevens, which I was not totally informed about since my family never had money for cable or satellite and I only caught the show after the fact, in syndication, on broadcast television.  Still, he existed as a nebulous presence for me, I suppose.

Since television, deprived of the benefits of cable, was not always enough to hold my interest, I also often took to reading.  I read widely and voraciously, and this was something noted about me in school.  When I was eleven and in the fifth grade, a teacher I admired very much asked if I would please read Louis Sachar’s YA novel Holes and share my opinions and experiences with her, because she was considering assigning it for the following year’s English class.

I was familiar with Sachar, primarily from the Wayside School series (grade school David Lynch, and probably a formative influence in those early years) and jumped at the change to read this new book, despite it having a synopsis that failed to tickle that same Wayside itch.

But I read Holes and I loved it, I highly recommended it be read in the future by any and all students.

It is very difficult for me to articulate now, through the gap of the years, precisely what is was that worked so well in Holes.  Part of it, I think, was that it managed to be completely absurd (in a more-subdued-than-Wayside School vein) while tackling some very serious issues (discipline, punishment, authority, race, family, legacy, ethical duty) in a way that did not feel condescending.  That might be rose-tinting, and it could fall away if I looked back too closely.  But I can recall with stone certainty at least one point on which the book captivated me.

The protagonist, a young boy named Stanley Yelnats, is fat.  He is overweight, unathletic, intelligent but not a genius, and bewildered by a world that supersedes the limits of his comprehension.  But the thing I want to stress here is: he is fat.  He is fat and he knows it, and he feels bad about it, outcast by this one other thing in addition to all the other crazy bullshit in his life.

I was a fat kid, and I knew it.  School acquaintances and family members commented on it in sometimes direct, sometimes sly and subtle ways.  I acted like this did not bother me, and performed this bit so well it eventually seemed like it worked, because while it’s not the best of all possible worlds I think it’s much easier to get through school with an abject body-type as a young man rather than a woman.

Stanley Yelnats and Holes provided the one precise instance I can remember reading a book as a kid and picturing myself in the hero’s position, seeing in the hero someone who was like me — not the bland, slim boys that populated the front lines of so many other adventure novels, but someone who was uneasy in the bulk of his own body, who wiped drops of sweat from the smeared lenses of his glasses, and who felt a vague malevolent pressure on him at all points in his life (for Stanley, this turns out to be a family curse; for me, the issue is a lot hazier).

So Holes got made into a movie in 2003, and when I first heard of this, even at the age of 15, I was at first excited about the prospect of seeing Stanley (who was, in my mind, basically me) onscreen.  But of course, as you well know, the Stanley I pictured and sympathized with was not the Stanley I got.

The Stanley I got — the Stanley we all got — was Shia LaBeouf.  Hapless, tousle-haired, lanky Shia, the embodiment of the bland and slim adventure hero-boy as he is available in the “slightly goofy” custom model.

I think the film version of Holes is actually pretty good, all things considered — the casting is actually pretty excellent, and even Shia LaBeouf brings his charisma (which we must remember he had, once).  But it never sat easy with me — never will sit easy with me — how the boy I pictured who was so much like myself was erased from his own story and replaced by the precise sort of person he (and I) was not.

But at least he’s not famous anymore, I guess.

the peace and safety of a new dark age