Spoilers for Life

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

The “conceit,” or unifying thematic idea, behind Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats is not simply “Millennials are spoiled” or “Millennials are silly,” as so many surface-skimming reviews and blurbs suggest. Rather, some stories in the collection, like a piece where aging parents are represented by prideful, over-the-hill chimpanzees, and one where they are oblivious, backward-looking ghosts in the modern world, poke fun and point a thoughtful eye towards the older generations as well. The object of exploration here is interaction and change: between generations, between individuals and groups, between the young and their changing ideas of themselves, between dreams and the pragmatic onslaught of maturity in the real world, between a person, culture, and life.

And the real “conceit” that Rich employs is a fun one: extreme, exaggerated what-if scenarios played for dry humor, like a teenager’s self-absorbed obsession with her shallow relationship during her study-abroad semester on Venus, where alien races are engaged in a fierce and genocidal battle. Or a rock band of young adults on the cusp of pursuing more practical life paths like law school and finance being visited by the literal Angel of Death at their big show (it’s not what you think).

All of these idea seeds are brought into intelligent, self-aware short stories that play as fun speculative shorts on their own – and most of them will make you laugh out loud in your pajamas, like it or not. Together, though, they create an extended allegory that speaks to the unique and yet universal experience of growing up – in your late 20s – in a world with mixed feeling about us Millennials: some justified, some not, some simple, some as complex as the strange places we inhabit.

I defended Millennials in a previous post on this blog in response to a viral article that I felt grossly over-simplified and pandered to generalizations that, in most of the individual cases I personally know, simply aren’t true. I also highlighted there that in addition to the broad brush-strokes of our joint negative traits, there are broad brush-strokes of positive traits: the level of supportiveness we exhibit towards each other, the earnest desire to make the world a better place through activism and choice, the eagerness with which we hold onto a drive for personal growth and cultivation.

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One Must Change or Die

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Studies have shown smell is the most evocative sense for remembering, just like it’s the most evocative sense for sex. I knew this before they proved it, though, and maybe so did you if you think about it. The smell of a place, of a person, of a time: it doesn’t really “take you back” or “throw you” into anything, which would be the trite things to say. It doesn’t. What it does, in my experience, is it suddenly, sneakily, altogether implicates you – it accuses, interpellates, decries you with the realization that you were a previous version of yourself once. It’s a sense so sharp and bare it grazes guilt, teases embarrassment. Oh.

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Every Hand’s A Winner

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I’ve been a male cheerleader for Matthew Quick’s writing since the quirkily insightful and laugh-out-loud-worthy Silver Linings Playbook, which he followed up a few months back with the Young Adult novel Forgive Me Leonard Peacock (which I reviewed). Now he’s back with another novel for grown-ups, The Good Luck of Right Now. It follows his trend of an emotionally damaged main character most people would call “different” on a journey of self-discovery with a colorful cast of friends. Does it find another strange formula for meaning, or just re-hash the same old ground? Continue reading

All the Small Things

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Some people like to start conversations with “What would happen if.” What would happen if there was a black-ops team that hired out to help you get actual closure after a relationship by erasing all traces of the ex’s existence? What would happen if the guy who invented that “A train leaves Chicago at” math problem was upset that he never received adequate compensation? What would happen if you secretly won a big cash prize in a box of Frosted Flakes when you were 10 but your parents were staunchly opposed to sugar cereal– you get the idea. 

For most people, these become a running gag of conversation with the kind of friends who tolerate that sort of thing. For author B.J. Novak, famous from his work as actor and producer on The Office, they became a book of stories: One More Thing. The question is, is it any good?
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Rigid Rules for Writer Originality

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The one valuable part of the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference I went to last year was a class on creative writing structure. The instructor brought to us forms and techniques from screenwriting, well-known building blocks of stories like Three-Act Structure, and The Hero’s Journey, which underlie great tales from Homer’s Odyssey to Pulp Fiction. Learning these structures was like the day someone finally tells you how sex works: you’ve seen all the parts before, and you’ve seen the results, but oh, so that’s how it works.

Since then, I’ve read my way through Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler and the essays of literary critics from Mythological / Jungian schools and Reader-Response schools and if you want to write stories, you should too. 

A few months ago, I re-read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and again I was fascinated by how the way the story is written sucks you in and keeps you reading. Ender’s Game is a great book but it’s not a Great Book, and I don’t mean that in the snooty or academic sense: Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451 are Great Books, and they have time travel and aliens and robot dogs, in different degrees. Continue reading

New Years Resolutions

I can’t remember the last time I actually made a New Years resolution. The concept of it is so of hollow and trite, and obviously people rarely act on their good intentions. But for reason or another, I’ve decided this year will be different. This year – 2014 – I will have resolutions.

What’s different this time? I think it stems from my inner guilt about not reading or writing enough. I buy books at a much faster clip than I read them, and I often find myself renewing library books twice only to get bored and not finish them. And while I think everyone has the right to put down a book they get bored of if you’re not hooked in the first 5 or 10 pages, I let myself do it more often than I should.

I also don’t write short stories nearly as often as I should or could. I don’t believe in making excuses when it comes to doing things you should do. So I won’t. If it’s important to you, you should make time for it.

And like reading, writing fiction is important to me. Very important. Part of my identity, even. I identify as a writer more than I identify as anything else. Yet I still struggle to make myself sit down and do the work that I enjoy. Hell, I struggle even to write a couple of blog posts each week. What is it that makes people like that, avoiding doing things they like because they are harder than watching TV or wasting time on Facebook and Twitter?

I can spend hours upon hours reading ads on Craigslist and fantasizing about moving into the ever elusive affordable studio or bedroom in an interesting, relatively clean and un-sketchy neighborhood, which will have a reasonable commute that I always hold out hope exists somewhere out there. I can do that, but I can’t open up a Word doc and start inventing a story, even though making up stories about people is second nature to me. I come up with a story for strangers I see every day.

And then I forget them and they disappear into the creativity abyss.

So here are my goals for 2014.

  • read 50 books
  • write 20 stories

Wish me luck!

e-Books Smell Like the Future, That’s What

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I have big news that you were all wrong about.

Economic research says printed books and e-books have reached an equilibrium now, with neither one spelling the doom of the other. This makes sense, and I’ve been urging people to shut their traps about the danger of e-books for a while now. Fuddy-duddies obsessed with the “feel” of a book aside (feeling other human beings’ myriad parts is very important, but a book is just pulp and glue), there were real businesses at stake. Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” division is going under, killed by the Kindle and its ilk, but B&N as a whole is doing okay.

This is good because bookstores are nice places to go and I like going to them. However, I worked as an office temp for Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” Digital Content Division when I lived in New York City, and I’ve owned plenty of Nooks, and you’re all wrong about e-books. Continue reading