Candy Everybody Wants.

faked by Friday, February 3rd, 2006

There’s nothing wrong with a little fluff. I grew up flat-out addicted to Stephen King books, and I still consider IT and The Stand important works of recent American fiction. Sure, they’re bloody, and they’re crass (or, as they’d say with a sneer on Project Runway, vulgar)—but they speak to and inform the larger culture.

The Da Vinci Code is a another masterful recent example. It might as well be written in crayon, and it reads like a screenplay, but the pace and the details are exhilarating. The depths of the plot—that Jesus had a family and his lineage extends to the modern day—is stunningly confrontational in terms of traditional Christian religion and culture and it brings a refreshingly head-shaking experience to bought-at-the-grocery store paperbacks.

I think the best art does that. Sure, you go into the Naked Lunch expecting “art” and all the accompanying bodily fluids and struggles with morality; you don’t do that with yr standard television cartoons of Friends and Four Kings, but does Naked Lunch really challenge you to your norms, your standard operating procedure? Or is it so self-contained that you’re just dipping yr foot in the “art” pool?

Alec Eiffel and I were having a discussion recently, which ended with a mantra: reading should be fun. You should love what you’re reading, and want to read it. There can be a pleasure in struggling through a difficult text, or grappling with heavy issues, but you shouldn’t hate the book you’re reading.

The Pretty Fakes slogan is “Pouring bourbon on the line that separates art from trash. And then? Setting it on fire.” My favorite media is in that same space of art and trash. Probably the most financially successful example of that being Pulp Fiction.

“Trash” introduced me to the first struggles with morality I remember acknowledging. I remember watching Magnum, P.I., when he refused to murder (via sniper rifle) the man who killed his wife. Even at eight years old, I wanted to know Why Not? I told you how I became a vegetarian because of comics, and Professor Fury has detailed the role of comics in awakening in him the idea of complicity in societal sins of the past. Are we just flat-out deluded? Or are there secret depths in pop, just waiting for a receptive mind?

On the same branch of a similar tree, why is the post-Vietnam experience of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” so soaked in anthemic synth, or the heartrending ennui of “Dancing in the Dark” set to a dance beat? Were these accidental depths plunged by the artist, or are they consciously orchestrated to trick as many people as possible into self-reflection? Are James Frey’s lies a forgivable offense because it made so many of us look inward at the darkness and failures of our own lives?

Perhaps the best candy tricks you into swallowing the big questions when you think it’s just something sweet and light. King, Springsteen, Animal Man, and the adventures of Thomas Sullivan Magnum have some deceptively simple stories that have transported me to much more complex worlds. What are some of yr favorite bits of trick candy?

8 Responses to “Candy Everybody Wants.”

  1. The Diplomat says:

    but you don’t like whoppers, gorj.

    my favorite candied whopper: Lonesome Dove. Oh God, Lonesome Dove. I tore through the 800 pages of that mofo in like 2 days and had Lonesome Dovey dreams for, well, to this day. I read all the sequels and prequels but none measures up. Lonesome Dove me any day of the week.

  2. Sally says:

    Teenybopper books set in the 50s! Ahhhh! I still read Fifteen and Jean and Johnny all the effing time. I’ve mentioned recently that I was warped by watching too many episodes of “Father Knows Best.” These books made a much bigger impression on me, although they still deal with idyllic 50s teenagehood, and do not really help you be an 80s teenager at all.

  3. vendela says:

    i think he’s talking about chocolate whoppers, dj diplo, not the beefy kinds.

    i love fifteen, sally. i forgot about that book! thanks.

    also, i simply have never been able to get enough of the trashy, straight-to-paperback bios you can get at the dollar store. fave examples being vanna speaks and america’s sweetheart: the sandy duncan story.

  4. Mr. Satsuma says:

    Yes yes. It’s fun to take apart the commercial fiction to see how it works. For example Grisham. He’s great at setting up smaller suspense goals inside of the bigger overall scheme. Brown in Davinci code does this too, but he does it rigidly, with the chapter as the end all cliffhanger. Grisham will not necessarily end the chapter with a plot cliffhanger, but yet he ends the chapter with one left wondering about something. King is the master of the premise. I would argue that King is not a suspenseful author. He really works on the engine of neat things happening that you say, “wow, cool”, and then “oh shit this is not happening.” It can be suspenseful, but that’s not the engine. And take “A Secret History” by Tartt and “American Gods” by Gaiman and “The Rule of Four” by the two Ivy League kids – all of these work because the engine is “What the hell is going on?” One keeps reading just to fill in the gaps of the mystery. Notice all these were written in first person.

    Anne Rice has the atmosphere engine along with the vampire premise which can drive a story without as many cliffhangers. I don’t know. I love figuring out how commercial fiction works because it is impossible to figure out how good literary fiction works. I completely agree. Reading should be fun. That’s why I do not hesitate to put books down halfway through if I’m not enjoying them. “Aren’t you curious about what happens?” Screw it. No I’m not. It was their job to keep me and they lost me. I’ve got plenty more books where that one came from.

  5. Or are there secret depths in pop, just waiting for a receptive mind?

    I’d say yeah, but change “receptive” to “active”; that is, maybe it’s not that there are always depths there just waiting to be plumbed, but rather that your looking creates those depths—Cave Carson carving tunnels in unliving stone.

  6. joncormier says:

    This is a great post. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot because of the stress at work. Did I really need comics? Or, more importantly, was reading them actually fun?

    It’s gotten me to sit down with myself and remember what I told myself when I started buying comics again. I promised I wouldn’t buy anything just to buy anything. I’m here to read good stories, not shell out money for a title. Simple as that. If I don’t like it, it goes. If it’s been collected and I’m interested I’ll buy that rather than hunt for the single issues.

    I’ve had enough years eating a full meal of literature and I’ve had enough years enjoying my dessert of pulp, sci-fi and comics. Now what? Basically, is it a good read? And good is entirely fickle. That’s not a bad thing.

  7. Regulator says:

    Great post, fellow Magnum fan. Is there a defensible definition of “art”? Probably not. How about of “literature” or “literary”? I will suggest that, for better or worse, what we mean by “literature” is something that is part of the critical tradition of public discourse. That’s why Burroughs is in and King is out. Burroughs challenges conventions, even if they’re only aesthetic, King upholds conventions. I would like to hear responses to this, I really believe that if you try to justify what is taught in Lit classes and what is included in Nortons and Heaths in any way other than as critical public discourse, eventually you will run into real problems. Literariness, thus defined, is applicable to stuff other that poetry and fiction. In another response to one of the Profs great musings on Springsteen I allude to this idea. I don’t think of either intention or reception as monolithic in the dividing line between literary and nonliterary.
    As for fun, hmmm. “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man.”
    I hated watching Dogville, but I’m really glad I did. What category does that go into?

  8. [...] Do all comics have at least the potential to produce this degree of deconstructive complexity? Perhaps. Though even those great Marvel comics of the 70s can be just as guilty of “assembling” and reinforcing normative codes of identity as “disassembling” and reconstituting them. But as I argued in the epic debate with Marc Singer, the mixed messages of pop culture forms are at least as much an opportunity as a liability because the contradictory, double-voiced messages of superhero books make them potential points of intervention into the normative cultural scripts they both echo and distort. Like Defenders #53, the best comics dangle the bait of normative pleasures before us, only to ensnare us; then they spring the trap: cultural scripts, Disassemble! (Gorjus, of Pretty Fakes, aptly dubs this phenomenon of trash culture that “trick[s] as many people as possible into self-reflection” trick candy.) [...]