"She cries black tears!"
- Cindy Brady
I don't normally do essay collections on here, or even nonfiction in general. I figure you lot come here to read reviews of books with amputee bikers, zombies, alien cults, and the like, and part of me feels like I should just stick to that. But this one...this one sorta struck a nerve. You see, the past year, I've had to essentially pack up my past into a variety of cardboard boxes and move it not just out of my childhood home, but to two separate houses in parts of a state I swore I wasn't coming back to. This means that I have had to relive a lot of old memories, picking up parts of my past and remembering everything. And it's painful. So very, very painful. Because it's the past, and it's stuck behind that big iron curtain that separates it from the present. And on one level, it can't hurt you any, but on another, knowing that it's always there and you can't go back, can't address the problems with it...that hurts. So an essay collection about essentially a nerdy guy growing up, sprinkled with caustic anecdotes about the emptiness of an MTV gifting suite and nigh-unprintable "hobo songs" seems to hit the spot...it's what I read recently, it involves weird fiction in a very tangential way, and looking back on the past is most of what I'm doing right now.
I came across this book, however, because I'm a Patton Oswalt fanboy. A roommate of mine wound up playing Werewolves and Lollipops in our dorm room during my second year in New Mexico, and about halfway through, it finally took. I got into his other albums, because his cynical way of looking at the world and the constant references gave me something I could identify with. Also, it wasn't that he was cynical...more like a constantly-disappointed and sort of pessimistic optimist. Yes, he was saying, we're all fucked, but there's hope. We're stupid, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. And, at the time, I could get behind that. So when he announced his book recently, I had to pick it up. And while it wasn't the greatest thing in the world, it's still a fantastic collection.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland bounces back and forth between Oswalt's memoirs and humorous pieces he writes, alternating between bittersweet and really, really strange. The pieces range in quality-- one particular piece about his late uncle seems to drag on forever, and the essay on the gifting suite just seems like an exercise in cynicism, but overall, there are more hits than misses and the book carries through.
The title comes from a piece where Oswalt talks about his view on the three types of people in the world, based on the movies they watch when they're younger. Zombies tend to be into zombie movies, more interested in the destruction of things than saving anyone or working with society. They're nihilists, and cynical, and usually believe nothing's really going to get better. The movies they watch deal with having to kill and destroy things, and they're a much angrier group of people. Spaceships are more self-contained. They have their own little unit, and they take care of it. Anything they do, they do their own way. They're not cut off from everyone else, but they have their own path. They have an urge to explore and make their own way. Usually they eventually settle down with families. Spaceships always have the best families. The captain has to take care of the crew, after all. Finally, there are the Wastelands. Wastelands are more about rebuilding than destroying, about taking as many people with them instead of walking alone. The Zombies may scream "We're fucked", but the Wastelands add "but there's hope". There's a certain core goodness in all of it that shines through, a sense that while everything is lawless and destroyed, it can be rebuilt. It can change. It can be made better. Oswalt's theory is that each person has a work of art in them about one of these three topics, and depending on what kind of person they are, they'll produce a work along one of these lines. His was wastelands.
The other essays in the book are equally as well-written, including a history of topics through the routines of three bad stand-up comedians at a comedy club, the running of a corrupt three-screen movie theater (all jobs you get in high school are corrupt to a certain degree. There are no exceptions.), a crazy uncle who talks about the house down the street having inspired The Exorcist, and other subjects that strike the balance between emotion and cynical observations about the way things are, exploring what made him the way he is and why he thinks the things he does, but never tipping over into frothing depressive vitriol.
The more fictional parts of the book are severely twisted in content, like a greeting card company whose card descriptions devolve into eldritch cosmic horror and insanity, or hobo songs that tend to be about prostitution with other hoboes. These are equally as well-written, though they kind of tend to unsettle as much as amuse. In particular, the greeting card piece gets dark very quick and very early.
But in the end, it's a fantastic collection. Oswalt hits much, much more than he misses, and you can tell the care that went into the pieces. There's a great deal of genuine emotion in the book, and the essays are very accessible and quick-moving. Even the unsettling bits are worth reading for the sheer audacity and the fact that while it doesn't make you laugh, an artist's first two duties are 1) Tell a good story, and 2) make the audience feel something. Something, even if it's anger and outrage at the events. Oswalt makes the reader feel a lot of things, some of them not pleasant but all of them very real. This book is definitely worth a read, and it's going to remain part of my permanent collection.
Next Week: I will finally get around to the hilarious, barely-coherent, and utterly terrifying Accomplice by Steve Aylett. It's good to be back.