No, sadly, this diamond may really be paste. Read on . . .
Literary scholars dream about spear-heading a critical re-evaluation of the few widely panned works of an otherwise heavily lauded author. (What can I say? We dream small. You’ll have to find my sekrit livejournal page to read about my other dreams.) As we speak, Faulknerians are trying to re-claim A Fable as a wrongly neglected, poorly misunderstood classic; Hurstonites have long beat their drums to a tune called “Seraph on the Suwanee is surprisingly complex”; I’m sure somewhere there’s a Hemingway scholar at a conference arguing that Islands in the Stream is a masterpiece, if only we could see it aright.
It was in this spirit that I recently undertook an examination of Emerson LaSalle’s generally dismissed late work. Generally and wrongly! I wanted to say. I wanted to argue that the stigma attached to LaSalle’s self-financed self-publishing venture You Goddamn Sons of Bitches Press blinded critics to the truly great work he was doing. And I wanted to raise some questions about the notion of LaSalle “self-financing” anything, given that the standard (and surprisingly effective) MO of his later years was to shoplift malt liquor from gas stations Friday nights in hopes of earning a weekend’s worth of county jail cuisine. I’ve always been convinced that there was mob money behind YGSBP —Gischler thinks Russian, but I’ve had my eye on an upstart syndicate operating out of Melbourne up until the big raids of the 1990s—and that in itself might be a story worthy of the great man.
So I picked up a copy of LaSalle’s 1989 Rush-Meyer-goes-cyberpunk paperback original: Modem Mama and the 400-Baud Bitch Brigade. Where might LaSalle’s imagination take him when cyberspace frees him from the (already tenuous) constraints of geography and biology? What surprising futurism might be found here? Was Russ Meyer’s copyright infringement lawsuit justifiable?
Alas, some books come by their obscurity honest. It’s important to remember the circumstances under which Modem Mama was written: LaSalle had been given a modest advance in 1985 to revitalize the moribund Danny Dunn young-adult adventure franchise. The novel he produced, however, was a bawdy road novel in which Danny Dunn and his rival/partner Jupiter Jones, of the Three Investigators books, criss-crossed the globe in a heated race to see who could first lose his virginity. Needless to say, it was unprintable: Even if the editors hadn’t balked at, for instance, a chapter in which Danny and “Jupe” nearly sleep with each other’s mothers at a Caligulesque masquerade ball, his publishers of course did not own the rights to Jupiter Jones, or for that matter to Encylopedia Brown’s Sally Kimball, who makes a brief but memorable cameo as a space prostitute. In order to recoup their investment, his publishers exercised their option to demand the return of the advance, resulting in LaSalle’s losing his Winona, Minnesota home to foreclosure. It is not known for certain where LaSalle lived until he established a temporary residence in 1988 in Romulus, Michigan, though some speculate that he overstayed his welcome at the Playboy Mansion when he took Hugh Hefner up on a two decades-past offer to come visit. Though Hefner’s later statement to the investigating officers indicated that LaSalle only stuck around for about a week, many scholars assume that he was the source of the short-lived and now-forgotten rumors that The Grotto at the Playboy Mansion was haunted by a drunken and malodorous gnome from April 1986 to November 1987.
All that to say, Modem Mama was not written at a high point in LaSalle’s life. Sadly, LaSalle did not take advantage of the comeback opportunity afforded him. Modem Mama is plagued by LaSalle’s characteristic aversion to even the most basic level of research or fact-checking. And then there’s the fact that he’d never used a computer. The protagonist, a hardboiled cowboy type obviously modeled after William Gibson’s Case, accesses something called “The Trellis”—described with an atypically un-LaSallian failure of imagination as “a bigger-than-average Greyhound Station with four kinds of vending machine, maybe five”—through his “Commodore Victrola,” a device which LaSalle variously depicts as a kind of crank-operated jukebox, as a pocket calculator with a switchblade knife attachment, and, in one instance, simply as a very smart monkey.
(The LaSalle archives at Rogers State U in Oklahoma includes four boxes of Run, a 1980s-1990s magazine devoted to the Commodore computer line. Their address labels indicate that they were stolen from a variety of dentist’s office in Detroit’s Chinatown, although one seems to have been stolen from a podiatrist in Boise’s Little Duluth district. Their effectiveness as a source of information on technology for LaSalle was no doubt undermined by the fact that large portions were cut from nearly every page to create the florid, overwrought, and never-mailed ransom notes that have been the source of much controversy among LaSalle scholars. The target of LaSalle’s kidnapping fantasies is not certain, but he was known, when deep in his cups, to say “You know what would be funny? To kidnap John Crowe Ransom! And demand a ransom! And then, when they send you the ransom, say no thanks, I only need the one! And then slit his bastard throat.” Adam Oppenheimer is editing a collection of these letters, due out in 2010.)
So, it’s not a lost classic after all. This is not to say that the novel is without its charms or its insights. A description of one character’s cyber-implant surgery gives the great man a chance to riff once again on the recurring theme of the brutal things we do to our own flesh and the ways we teach ourselves that pain is really pleasure. And LaSalle nailed one aspect of cyber-culture early on: the 400-Baud Bitch Brigade, all improbably proportioned cyborg vixens in their online personas, were in “meat” life in fact a ragtag group of male tweenaged street toughs. They had names like “Yonkers” and “Fizzy Cola.” Hell, as I type this, I begin to think I just haven’t given the book enough of a chance to get under my skin. But ultimately I think these flashes of LaSallian brilliance are few and far between, adrift among long pages of binary code and endless exposition about a half-hearted dystopia in which cats use computers and it is difficult to find Mr. Pibb in a can.
Ultimately, of course, one or even a dozen disappointing works can’t take away from LaSalle’s amazing achievements. His place in history is, or anyway will be, secured. I haven’t given up on the late stuff, though: next up on the late-LaSalle reading list: Emerson LaSalle’s late-70s attempt to launch a “fat fantasy” series, Dwarfquest: Pikes of the Halberd Blades: Book One: The Halfling’s Elves. I hear good things.