Storyological 2.02 - On Masks, Meteors, and Privilege (transcript)

(listen to the episode)



CK: [00:00:03] We'll figure out what we're doing as we go.

EG: [00:00:06] Shit. Oh no. I am recording it's fine. I'm sorry.

CK: [00:00:12] Beware the orange man because he does not know what he does not know. And you do not know what he knows about what he doesn't know.

CK: [00:00:27] It's good stuff.

EG: [00:00:28] Delicious and upsetting. Um.

EG: [00:00:32] This is Storyological. A podcast about amazing stories.

CK: [00:00:36] That we kind of like.

CK: [00:00:37] I'm Chris Kammerud.

EG: [00:00:39] And I'm E.G. Cosh.

CK: [00:00:40] My pick for this week is The Venus Effect by Joseph Allen Hill. It was in Lightspeed at the end of 2016. Joseph Allen Hill, if you will remember, Emma picked one of his stories in the premiere issue of Liminal. That story was called.

EG: [00:00:55] You Can't See It Til It's Done.

CK: [00:00:57] And it was about pizza.

EG: [00:01:00] And existential angst and friendship.

CK: [00:01:03] I remember they were on the beach. There was a bit where they were on the beach where they were on the beach and there was a dinosaur.

EG: [00:01:08] In the stars. It was a good time.

CK: [00:01:09] This story is very similar to that story and that it's more than a little bit meta. The authorial persona is inside the story with us. And what it is it is a series of eight stories, told over the course of nine thousand three hundred words, that in some sense are the same story which is the story of a writer trying to begin and finish a story about a boy named Apollo. And unfortunately what happens to Apollo, as the author finds, is no matter what situation Apollo is in--whether it's a kind of realistic setting where he is in love with a girl who ultimately might be sleeping with someone else or he's fighting aliens in a galactic conflict or he's trying to win the big game on the basketball courts of his dreams or he's underwater fighting in submarines--no matter what happens Apollo, who happens to be a young black man, when he comes near to the end of the story, sometimes not even the end of the story.

EG: [00:02:08] Sometimes he hardly gets to begin.

CK: [00:02:09] He hardly gets to begin. Um.

CK: [00:02:12] The man in the police uniform arrives and shoots him and he is very dead. Over and over again. And that very simply is what happens in The Venus Effect. But there is a lot to talk about within its nine thousand some odd words.

EG: [00:02:32] Oh god where to start.

EG: [00:02:33] There's just so much so so and so incredible meat on this story. At pretty much every level that you can think of. So, in terms of the thematics and what this story is about, a black man trapped no matter what story he's in, no matter what he tries, no matter how reasonably he behaves...

CK: [00:03:01] Or spectacularly...

EG: [00:03:02] Or spectacularly...

CK: [00:03:03] Magically, heroically.

EG: [00:03:04] Yeah, exactly. That he is trapped in this cycle of death; that he has no option.

EG: [00:03:11] And one of the things that I loved about this story is I had this kind of dawning feeling as I got into maybe the third or fourth story I was like oh, okay, this is just an endless cycle and I see what he's doing and he's building this sense of suffocation, this sense of being trapped by the structures and culture that he lives in and that there is no way out.

CK: [00:03:38] Yeah yeah for Apollo or ther writer I wrote down maybe near around a little bit after the moment you're discussing, where you begin to realize this endless cycle, and the word I wrote down was exhaustion. Because there's there's a feeling that you will probably feel as you read the story, there is a moment where it begins to feel exhausting and almost tedious to read because by the seventh story when you begin you know...

EG: [00:04:01] already know he's going to die...

CK: [00:04:03] how it's going to end.

CK: [00:04:03] It doesn't matter. And of course that's that's part of the point is that the feeling of exhaustion of having your story continuously co-opted by someone else's actions or some some system's actions and that among many ways is how Joseph is able to bend the structure of the story to his will as a storyteller to inflict the pain of the reality of the story on you the reader. And what speaks to his skill is, that however much the story is shaped by its conceit by its thematics, however much you could imagine a version of the story where the characters matter less than what the story's message is, where the lives of the characters and their particularities get drowned in whatever the rush the rush of the conceits rage. This story is funny and alive and the characters live and breathe and love. Having the scope of the big idea all the way down to the particular person gives it thematicalness and just the pain of each ending more force.

EG: [00:05:16] Absolutely absolutely.

EG: [00:05:17] And then and then just on a sentence to sentence level he made me laugh so many times and kind of made me gasp in delight at how he smashes together these different registers. In some places high brow ideological philosophical challenges put into the mouths of his characters and then right next to it'll just be like yeah it was so dope. And in fact I got quote here.

EG: [00:05:43] So at the end of one of the one of the stories there's a moment where one of the characters is trying to justify to themselves what has happened and they say, "It is in no way necessary for me to consider the ideological mechanisms by which a community and society determine who benefits from and who participates in civil society thus freeing me from cognitive dissonance stemming from the ethical compromises that maintain my lifestyle that we engage in a manly handshake. It was so dope."

EG: [00:06:12] And I'm like ohhh yeah.

CK: [00:06:15] There is a feeling in reading it that there is someone there with you, reading and making this story along with you. A feeling that gets reinforced in that section right before the final bit where--I'm going to say the author--the author says, "I can't fight the man in the police uniform. He's real and I'm an authority construct. Just words on a page, pure pretend. But you know who isn't pretend. You. We have to save Apollo. We're both responsible for him. We created him together. Death of the author you know. It's just you and me now. I've got one last trick. I didn't mention this in the interest of pace and narrative cohesion, but I lifted the Omega question off Lord Tklox before he died. I don't have the answer but I know the question. You've got to go in. I can keep the man in the police uniform at bay as long as I can but you have to save Apollo. We're going full Morrison. Enage second person present. God forgive us."

EG: [00:07:13] Words as weapons. Amazing.

CK: [00:07:17] It is definitely a call-to-action. It is words that drive into your brain.

EG: [00:07:25] Maybe maybe more than words I mean story. Like narrative structure as a weapon.

EG: [00:07:30] You know when he says engage second person present tense, I laughed out loud because...because of how ridiculous and wonderful and literally powerful it is.

CK: [00:07:42] Yeah it is making. A lot of his fiction that we've read, and this story in particular, is making apparent, as is said in that section, the complicity and cooperation that is involved in creating a story's reality both in this reality outside here readers where we exist in the real world, but also on the page and how those things intermingle. And if you are exhausted by this story then there's something you can do.

EG: [00:08:15] Imagine what it's like to live this life.

CK: [00:08:16] Yeah. And what is...what I think we will probably talk about again and again over the course of our podcast series. What I feel like sometimes separates a story that veers towards something that is less satisfying to me which can be a polemic--make which can be this is my message and I understand it so clearly, I will push it through your skull--is that in that final section when you are asked to engage the second person present, it is not to step into the body of the black kid again, it is to step into the body of the cop and put yourself in a situation of maybe being afraid, maybe having been, in a sense as is mentioned in that section, constructed out of the context of the stories you live in, to behave and believe a certain way and how are you going to answer the question differently.

EG: [00:09:08] Very wonderful. He's constructed this story like an argument. Right. He posits his theme at the beginning. Where, his approach even at the beginning where he's watching what seems to be his ex-girlfriend dance with somebody who has zero amount of funk--like he's just going through the motions and what is the point in that. And it sets up the story. You may think this is ridiculous. It's got superheroes and authorial voice and a crazy kind of structure. But listen I am not just going through the motions here. This is fucking necessary. I enjoyed that right from the get go he's kind of putting out what his intent is. And then he points out...hshows us exactly what the problem is right? Young black men being killed needlessly by police. And he does it in a way that doesn't just point the finger at that particular situation...the one off incident...he does it in a way that talks much more broadly about about culture and about collective responsibility. But he also points out kind of why... something I find really powerful was a moment where he seemed to get out why we don't do more about it. He talks about--after they kill the bad guy in one of the stories, the story toward the end--and Apollo says I don't know what to do here now. The movies always end at this point. And it's like yeah we have learned our behavior and our expectations of how things work from movies and from a simplified narrative structure and culture is different to that.

EG: [00:10:49] Culture is much more complex and contains much more responsibility for us as individuals. And then it ends with that kind of call-to-action. And I thought that it was a very elegantly constructed argument.

CK: [00:11:04] You know what it reminded me of?

EG: [00:11:05] I do not.

CK: [00:11:06] Oh it reminded me of Duck Amok again, but more I want to talk about meteors and privilege.

CK: [00:11:12] Because what it reminded me of.

EG: [00:11:14] You me might meteors that come down from outer space.

CK: [00:11:18] there another kind of meteor.

EG: [00:11:19] I couldn't tell if you were saying media like referring to newspapers.

CK: [00:11:22] Oh, because you're British.

CK: [00:11:23] Right. Meteor.

EG: [00:11:25] Meteor.

CK: [00:11:25] Meteor.

EG: [00:11:25] Meteor.

CK: [00:11:26] Alright. That's different. Yeah though media exists in satellites--the thing that you thought it might be saying-- no metors, meteorites, those things that fall out of space. Because it reminded me of a morning when I was very frustrated and my stories weren't working. My scenes weren't working and suddenly I just had a memory of one of my friends criticize something happening in a story in one of our workshops assaying this thing that had happened was totally random, "It was like a meteor fell out of the sky and killed your character for no reason." And that morning that quote came into my head and I just started killing the main character in each of my scenes by a meteor and suddenly it was way more fun and it was interesting. And I was like wow. Each scene will be like you know whatever the hero is doing. Ultimately fate or the universe intervenes. You know which is similar to this story no matter what this black kid is doing the cop intervenes...but that in itself is a really good definition of what privilege and what systemic bias creates in that the place my head when it is actually also a place that Shakespeare, a lot of writers go to, which is what is the hero's ultimate battle against? Fate? The universe? Something falling out of the sky. Something out of their control which exists in the cosmos.

CK: [00:12:48] And this story creates a counter-narrative to that which is that it's not that we are fighting against fate or even against ourselves we are fighting against the stories, the institutions that have been created by other people. Apollo doesn't get to battle fate.

EG: [00:13:06] No.

CK: [00:13:06] He ends up being killed by the system he's inside. Over and over again. Before he can ever start fighting the so-called larger and more universal battles.

EG: [00:13:14] I highly recommend listening to the Lightspeed episode because--I'm afraid I forget the name of the reader who works on the Lightspeed podcast--but his rendition of it is amazing and I had to kind of rewind and re-listen to him say the line, "...intimacy rendered and thigh meat again and again...."

EG: [00:13:34] It's just perfect.

CK: [00:13:35] Intimacy rendered in what?

EG: [00:13:37] Thigh meat.

CK: [00:13:38] Oh, thigh meat. Oh, yeah. It's delicious.

EG: [00:13:42] Delicious and upsetting.

EG: [00:13:45] So my pick for this week is "Where We Must Be" by Laura van den Berg which I found in the Non-Essential American Reading in 2008, but was also picked up a while ago by Electric Literature as one of their recommended reading.

EG: [00:14:00] Literature?

EG: [00:14:02] You can't see people but he's giving me the look.

CK: [00:14:04] I don't even have to ask anymore...just one more time.

EG: [00:14:07] Literature.

EG: [00:14:11] So, this is a story about a failed actress who takes a job at a Bigfoot recreation park where she has to dress in a Bigfoot costume and sneak up to scare people who pay for the privilege of being scared by Bigfoot apparently according to this story. There's a whole swath of people who enjoy and will pay for this experience.

CK: [00:14:32] Oh yeah. It's based on real life.

EG: [00:14:33] Yeah I think so. I think so.

EG: [00:14:36] Meanwhile her boyfriend Jimmy you know, in a kind of a parallel thread of the story, is dying of cancer and the two of them are choosing their own ways to isolate themselves from each other and from the world. And that is what keeps me going back to every paragraph and every line of this story...the different ways that Laura has picked to demonstrate to us that this isolationist, damaging kind of...isolationist is not the right word.

CK: [00:15:10] It was fine. I just...I felt like you were channeling U.S. policy at the moment.

EG: [00:15:15] Yeah. OK so that maybe is more of a political term but I think it's... I think that it scales.

CK: [00:15:20] The political is the personal. The personal is the political.

EG: [00:15:25] So what's very beautiful is that Laura has chosen the metaphor of this Bigfoot costume that, um--Jean turns out to be the characters the female character's name although is only used once in the whole story.

CK: [00:15:43] Well yeah book is all about subsuming her own identity as she's not one to put her name out there.

EG: [00:15:48] So it's all about how when she puts this costume on...when she puts this mask on...she is finally able to, or suddenly able to connect with this kind of raw deep emotional human person that she is. Which she cannot do outside of that situation. But when she's in costume she roar like a Bigfoot.

[00:16:14] Yeah, which speaks to something I loved in this story which is...I'm going to call it a kind of earnest indirectness. An earnest indirectness which I would posit like.

EG: [00:16:31] It's not gonna come... Thought I was going to sneeze eat so I made him stop talking. Please continue.

CK: [00:16:40] Which opposed to like like a total flat directness of Hemingway say, or a certain kind of realist author, where they do, as opposed to other literary authors, just flat out state whatever the emotions of their characters. It is more akin to what I associate with a certain brilliant strain of children's literature like Where the Wild Things Are, where the metaphors, the masks, the monsters that are chosen are there in a way that is scary but not scary and allows the author to struggle very directly and earnestly with whatever they're dealing with. And sometimes that mode, you know that I liken to children's literature, is likened to the ridiculous way children are described sometimes as innocent and the innocence partly comes from the idea that it's not really scary. That no one's really going to get hurt which of course ridiculous. But anyway.

CK: [00:17:42] And that also sometimes gets applied...less now fantasy in general, to its escapism. And innocence.

CK: [00:17:50] I feel like with exactly what you're describing, what this story does with having the two parallel stories of her and Jimmy where Jimmy is dying of cancer and of her and Bigfoot where it's made literal her tendency to dress in the dreams and mythologies of other people as a way to escape whatever's going on in her life--is actually exactly like what dreams actually allow you to do, or fantasy in this case allows you to do, which is to look your monster in the eye and converse with them. Which in this case is the you know is that that horror of finding your strength inside of losing yourself into someone else's fantasy.

CK: [00:18:32] And that's something we can you know you and I can probably identify with since it is really all writers do we just make up other people to have other dreams that we can get lost in and roar.

EG: [00:18:43] That thing that dreams and fantasies do for us which is allow us to experience feelings that we have repressed within ourselves or even not specific feelings just any feeling. The ability to connect to our emotions. That is what the people who are coming to the Bigfoot recreation park are doing. To me they very much symbolize that thing--well I want this experience because I want to feel and I need to feel because society, parenting, culture, whatever has told me that expressing my feelings connecting to my feelings is inappropriate and not something that I should be doing.

EG: [00:19:27] We talked before about about fractal stories and about how great ones reflect the themes in every detail, in every scene, and every moment. And one of my favorite moments in this story is where Jean and Jimmy. They live in houses across the street from each other and at one moment they are on the phone to each other but standing in their front windows so that they can see each other. And Jean is lying to Jimmy about why she can't come over. She says she's late for work; she's not late for work. And it's so beautifully captured the kind of disguises that she's wearing in her life in every moment. Yeah it really articulated that. It really captured the sense that she is cutting herself off at every opportunity. And I don't know if she's really aware of even those opportunities of connection when they come. And that's the saddest. Does she even realize it.

CK: [00:20:29] I love that part of what bracket's the story is a question of love. Which is often referred to as a kind of dream state--delusion some some would say--at the beginning Jean describes being with Jimmy as not love, at least not what she thought love would feel like. And at the end of the story you know after we've gone through as you say these beautiful fractal images of parallel themes in the story which is for example Jimmy knows that he's going to die and he could go to the Grand Canyon or he could just think about how he could go to the Grand Canyon and not be disappointed by whatever the Grand Canyon actually is. And you know that kind of image recurs again and again of somebody ultimately holding onto the dream rather than face the reality and it's a question that Jean considers for herself in terms of loving and being with a person who is dying because she's like you know what I mean it's kind of cool because I'll be the last and only person this person loves before they die. And I will be their life love for you forever. But immediately right there, this is near the end of the story, that peak of a kind of fantasy of yourself that obliterates someone else, she realizes and she expresses to Jimmy actually that if she could allow him to live and love someone else she would do that. And he says I think that's what love is. And she's like maybe that's right.

CK: [00:22:04] And I was like...yeah that's in a way part of the answer to the questions the story is asking which is...allowing someone to exist outside of the dreams you have of them is, if not the definition of love, one of the definitions of love one should possibly pursue.

EG: [00:22:26] Yeah. I wanted to talk about the final scene and how I was initially when I was reading this story, and when you find out that the partner has cancer and he's very close to death I thought oh you know OK so if they...fine that this story has an ending baked in already because he will die and that will be some conclusion. But no that's not how she concluded the story because she knew that it's Jean's story and it's about Jean needing to be the person who pulls off her costumes. Who doesn' one point she talks about having been married before and it didn't work out. B, she gets fired from being from the big job and that she talks about maybe going to become a clown. Right. Oh my god just another costume to put on. Another way to stay away from her own emotions but instead what happens is we get a scene of her and Jimmy going for a swim in the lake because Jimmy gets very excited that this is something he wants to do. And after all that she's experienced with him and getting fired from her job she has this moment or they have this moment where Jimmy asks her to roar like a Bigfoot---something which she said that she can't do when she's not in costume before. But that moment when they've gone into the lake and she's washed away all her costumes know it's very biblical and sort of baptizing as they go into the water...and she's able to do it. She's able to connect with her own emotion and deliver that roar.

EG: [00:24:02] And the paragraph where she describes it, it is like it shakes heaven and I mean A, it was incredibly satisfying and beautifully written. But B, my respect for the author was like BOOM. Sky-high. She went to a much better place than I thought the story was going.

EG: [00:24:21] And I loved it. I love it when a story does that.

CK: [00:24:23] That's the bare minimum.

EG: [00:24:25] I expect the bare minimum and when you shoot past it.

CK: [00:24:29] I mean that's the bare minimum I expect is you to shoot passed what you've set up.

EG: [00:24:33] Yes.

CK: [00:24:33] Yeah because when we were at Clarion, Holly Black said something about how novels and stories work best if you plant a time bomb at the beginning so that there is a clock ticking in somebody's head that is going to take them to the end. And exactly, there was a place where I made a mark on the story was like oh my god Jimmy is the time bomb. Jimmy is the ticking clock that will at some point go boom or not go boom. And that is the thing. Right. Like what you're saying and most of my favorite stories while there is a time bomb, as Holly described, in my favorite stories that time bomb never goes off because this is exactly what you said. The time bomb isn't the story. It's just a trick to make you read the story with a sense that it will end which for some reason readers need to be reminded of at the beginning because they're afraid it won't end.

EG: [00:25:25] Otherwise. Yes. It's too big a commitment. I don't know.

CK: [00:25:28] Right. Yeah. Yes. So I feel like that's just a good bit of advice that came to me when I was reading this story that I will try to remember which is to place a time bomb and make sure it doesn't go off.

EG: [00:25:39] Yeah. I like it.

CK: [00:25:39] Thanks for listening readers.

CK: [00:25:45] This has been Storyological, that one podcast that talks about stories. We probably did not talk about all the stories that exist in any of the worlds.

EG: [00:25:55] And we certainly didn't say everything about even these two stories.

CK: [00:26:00] No. No. I would almost say that's impossible.

EG: [00:26:03] Yeah. But you know we just got to start making such great stories that we could talk about for hours and hours.

CK: [00:26:08] I think the mark of a great critic is that no matter the story you could go on endlessly. I mean I know some people say concision is the better part of wit, but I'm pretty sure all of those people are dead so they didn't figure it out.

EG: [00:26:29] So if you want to share your opinions with us or let us know about some amazing stories that you found you can hit us up on Twitter we are @Storyological...which is story.

CK: [00:26:39] Like the word.

EG: [00:26:41] O.

CK: [00:26:41] Like the letter.

EG: [00:26:42] And logical.

CK: [00:26:43] Like Aristotle.

CK: [00:26:44] You can follow Emma on Twitter. She is at @egcosh.

EG: [00:26:48] And you can follow Chris on Twitter. He is @Cuvols.

CK: [00:26:51] If you're on Facebook and you want to join us and like us and send us your reactions.

CK: [00:27:00] God knows we don't need any of your words just find the little icon that appropriates your general feeling.

EG: [00:27:05] We do, we do want words and interactions and human beings.

CK: [00:27:09] That's true.

CK: [00:27:10] You can do all of that at

EG: [00:27:14] And if you have enjoyed this podcast, and we hope you have, please head over to iTunes and leave us a many-starred review. It helps people find us and we love it when that happens.

CK: [00:27:24] And if you are eligible to vote in the Hugo's.

EG: [00:27:27] Oh, yes!

CK: [00:27:27] Consider nominating us for Best Fancast. I believe the deadline is coming up in the middle of March. It does cost money to be a member. I believe it is $40 to be a voting member.

EG: [00:27:39] Oh, ok, You can be a member without actually going to Helsinki.

CK: [00:27:43] You can. But alas the registration has ended. So if you're not a member just tuck this away for next year. If you are a member.

EG: [00:27:53] You're good to go.

CK: [00:27:53] Yeah.

CK: [00:27:54] This the time to say many nice things about us unless you don't have any nice things to say and then it's a time to be quiet which is a bad paraphrase of what Joss Whedon said about when Firefly came out.

EG: [00:28:07] Fair enough.

CK: [00:28:07] notes, links to past episodes, gifs of an appropriate and inappropriate nature, as well as now articles occasionally including one where we've listed all of the Hugo eligible works that we discussed last year that you could vote for this year. You can always find us at our home on the Web.

EG: [00:28:28]

EG: [00:28:30] Thanks for listening.

CK: [00:28:31] Happy reading.

CK: [00:28:37] I need to be at the mike. You know what it does. It wears its metaphors proudly and thinly. Like Buffy. Probably all of my insights could be appended with the phrase, "Like Buffy."