The Metamorphosis

One of my very first English professors, a kindly old lady at Chaffey College, once told us not to bother reading boring books. "There are too many good books out there," she said, "to waste your time reading something you're not enjoying."

It was great advice, which I still adhere to almost 17 years later. Of course, I also understood that she was talking about our personal reading preferences, as opposed to what we were assigned to read as students. In the course of my education, I had to read a lot of stories that I would otherwise not have entertained had my grade not been on the line. I came to equate—as so many students do—school reading with boring reading.

That was all before I read Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

"As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard armorlike back and when he raised his head a little he saw his vaulted brown belly divided into sections by stiff arches from whose height the coverlet had already slipped and was about to slide off completely."

-Franz Kafka, 'The Metamorphosis' (translated by Donna Freed

There I was, in my bedroom, reading about this man, Gregor Samsa, who woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant cockroach! (Note to reader: The Metamorphosis has been translated several times and in the first version I read Gregor Samsa was transformed into a "cockroach," as opposed to an "insect" or "vermin.") Of course, my immediate thought was that Kafka was speaking metaphorically and Gregor simply felt like a cockroach. But, as I read on, I discovered that Gregor actually had transformed. And, while there are plenty of metaphorical implications in the subtext, it was, on its surface, a story about a man who turned into an cockroach. And I was reading it for school!

When I first encountered The Metamorphosis about 11 years ago as an English major at Cal State San Bernardino, I felt like I'd discovered some wonderful secret, some hidden gem buried in my otherwise boring textbook. Perhaps because I was so excited about The Metamorphosis, I sort of dominated the discussion we had about it in class. Soon thereafter, I ended up writing my first English paper as a university student about it, analyzing Gregor Samsa's relationship with his sister (which I argued could be viewed as an incestuous longing on his part). And a few weeks after that, I gave an oral presentation on The Metamorphosis for extra credit. I didn't really need the extra points, I just didn't want to stop talking about it.

"He would have needed arms and hands to prop himself up, instead of which he had only the many little legs that continually waved every which way and which he could not control at all. If he wanted to bend one, it was the first to stretch itself out, and if he finally succeeded in getting this leg to do what he wanted, the others in the meantime, as if set free, waved all the more wildly in painful and frenzied agitation."

-Franz Kafka, 'The Metamorphosis' (translated by Donna Freed)

A few years after reading The MetamorphosisI started writing articles for a movie blog called Criticide. One particular week, having not watched any of the movies that were out in theaters, I decided to pay homage to Franz Kafka by writing a fake movie review for a fake film adaptation of The Metamorphosis. The fake review was titled "Being Franz Kafka."

Around the same time that I was writing for Criticide, I started working on my debut novel, Inside the Outside. Had I not been introduced to The Metamorphosis, there's no telling what story I might've written. But, because of Kafka, I felt emboldened. He made me feel like it was okay to embrace my imagination, to write the sort of (strange, dark, surreal) stories I found most interesting. Were it not for Kafka, I have no reason to believe that Timber Marlow—the cannibal heroine of my novel—would ever have been born. I knew this even as I was writing my novel and, wanting to pay tribute to Kafka's story, I made it part of my book:

Before reading The Metamorphosis, I assumed that the world of academia was a place for "proper" stories. Perhaps because I spent so much time in the exercise of literary analysis, I was haunted by the notion that my stories wouldn't be taken seriously. 

They wouldn't be discussed in classrooms or written about in term papers. And, while I knew that's not what made a story good or bad, I couldn't help but feel slighted.  I felt that way all the way until I read The Metamorphosis. 

So, for me, Franz Kafka literally changed my perception of what literature could be. Because of him, I learned there was a place for writers like me. Or, at least, a place for the writer that I hoped one day to become.

Mortality

Christopher Hitchens died a year ago on December 15, 2011, after suffering from esophageal cancer. He fought the disease off for over a year, before succumbing to his inevitable fate—the same fate that awaits all of us. It's no fun to think about, yet Hitchens, a brilliant writer and thinker, did that and more.

He spent his final months writing about the process of facing death; the essays that came from his writing have been posthumously published into a poignant memoir called Mortality.

"It's normally agreed that the question 'How are you today?' doesn't put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, 'A bit early to say.' (If it's the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, 'I seem to have cancer today.')"

-Christopher Hitchens, 'Mortality'

I don't think it's a stretch to say one of my great regrets is I'll never have an opportunity to meet Hitchens in person, especially since I feel like I've come to know him so well these past few years. He was smug in a charming sort of way. He had a robust air of confidence about him, palpable through the TV screen. His confidence, it seemed, was fueled by his intellect. He was a man who knew things—a lot of things. And, of course, he was a man who knew he knew things, which for some might of made him insufferable, but, for me, made him completely engaging.

He first came to my attention when he was a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher. I forget the exact year, but I know it was nearly a decade ago, as he was speaking favorably of President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. I assumed that, since I didn't agree with America going to war in Iraq, I wouldn't agree with anything else Hitchens had to say. It was a knee-jerk reaction; one, it seems, most Americans have about anybody who holds opinions contrary to their own. But, as Hitchens spoke, it became clear to me that he was thoughtful, highly intelligent, and had intellectually grounded reasons for believing what he did. I appreciated that about him.

I don't remember anything else he talked about that night; I do, however, remember liking him a great deal. After that, I started noticing Hitchens everywhere, from cable news programs to the shelves of Barnes & Noble. I picked up his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens, if you weren't already aware, was one of the worlds most well-known and outspoken atheists. The title of the book itself was indicative of Hitchens spirit, which was to speak in plain and unapologetic language about issues that most folks feel a need to tiptoe around. And, of course, when reading the book, I came to find exactly what I expected: thoughtful and intellectual prose about a topic in which Hitchens was exceedingly informed, more so than most of the people who would assume him to be wrong.

In Mortality, Hitchens spends a fair amount of time reflecting on matters of religion and how they intersect with matters of death. He shares an entry from an unamed website in which the messenger writes: "Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God's revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?" It goes on to say that Hitchens would "writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he's sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire." While I wasn't there when Hitchens first read these remarks, I like to imagine that, rather than feeling hurt by them, they provided a source of amusement. Hitchens was well-versed in all the major religions, having studied them on the page and engaging with them all around the world.

"[W]ould this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? [And] why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former 'lifestyle' would suggest that I got. [And] why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: It's an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain."

-Christopher Hitchens, 'Mortality'   

As I read Mortality, I was continuously  struck by the realization that the vibrant voice on the page, buzzing with life as it did, came from a man who had not lived long enough to see his book published. And, more than that, the words on the page came from a man who, while facing death, was still holding out hope that he might survive his disease. In fact, some of the more bittersweet passages in the book are when Hitchens writes about encouraging doctor visits and experimental treatments; as he was writing, he didn't yet know that the encouragement of those visits would be short lived, that the treatments would ultimately be for naught.

Even in these thoughts, weighted as they are with sadness, I'm brightened by the inherit optimism of their promise. While Christopher Hitchens' body was mortal, his words are quite the opposite. One of the great reliefs I felt upon publishing my first book, Inside the Outside, was that my words would now live long after I died. In my fervent effort to complete my novel, I was constantly pressed by the morbid thought of dying before having an opportunity to complete it. So, for me, reading Mortality was something of an affirmation, a testmanet to the death-defying nature of our words.

While we never met, I will always consider Christopher Hitchens a friend, so long as his prose rests on my shelves. And whenever I care to speak with my pal Hitch, I need only to turn the page and say hello.

*          *          *

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Like 99.99% percent of the literate world, I first became aware of Seth Grahame-Smith when I came across his novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first time I can remember picking that novel up was at Costco, where the first thing I always do is head to the book section. The cover was very neat looking, the title was great, and the premise was intriguing; Grahame-Smith had taken Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and re-imagined it with zombies. And then there was that wonderful opening line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains." I'd never read Pride and Prejudice, despite taking a Women's Literature class in college (in which the featured novel was Jane Eyre) and, honestly, I've never been much engaged by most of the canon of classic literature, primarily because my tastes lean towards stories of a more fantastical nature (such as Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis). So, in that vein, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies appeared to be the perfect mashup, but, after a few chapters I realized I was simply reading Pride and Prejudice with an occasional smattering of zombies. I quickly became bored and did something I almost never do: I returned the book and got my money back.

A couple years later, I saw a book trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which seemed like one of the coolest, most original ideas I'd ever heard of it. I wasn't surprised to find out that it was written by Grahame-Smith, but I also became less interested.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

But, for months and months, it seemed to be turning up everywhere I went (i.e. the mall). Finally, I picked it up and was pleasantly surprised by the first couple of pages.

"Vampires exist. And Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest vampire hunters of his age. His journal—beginning in his twelfth year and continuing to the day of his assassination—is an altogether astonishing, heartbreaking, and revolutionary document. One that casts new light on many of the seminal events in American history and adds immeasurable complexity to a man already thought to be unusually complex."

Seth Grahame-Smith, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"

While the same general formula was there—a mashup of something classical with something fantastic—I found the prose to be engaging, probably because Grahame-Smith wasn't simply painting silly mustaches on someone else's canvas. So, I bought the book and knew pretty quickly I was going to love it.

What's fun, even charming, about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is it reads like an earnest biography of Lincoln, chronicling his life from childhood to adulthood. Knowing very little about the man himself (save for trivial bits, like being on the penny), I actually learned a lot about him, which is a tremendous testmanet to Grahame-Smith's book. And it's that straight-forward biographical voice that makes the book so much fun, as it adds a tone of legitimacy to Lincoln's fictionalized life as a vampire hunter.

Grahame-Smith tells much of the story in Lincoln's "voice," purportedly pulled from a series of secret journal entries. These entries play a significant role in breathing life into this fictionalized view of history, such as the first time Lincoln attempts to kill a vampire.

"I threw myself at her with the last of my strength and thrust its blade into her belly. This only improved her good humor, for she grabbed my wrist and dragged it along her gut, cutting herself and laughing all the while. I felt my feet leave the deck; felt her hands on my throat."

Seth Grahame-Smith, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"

What most any storyteller does when taking on the vampire genre is find a happy medium of paying homage to traditional vampire mythology, while adding their own wrinkles, essentially creating their own unique vampire world, which is what Grahame-Smith has done here.

The vampires in his book can be killed by sunlight, but the older they get the stronger their tolerance; after a century or so, they can walk outside during the day with dark glasses and a wide hat.

Since Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter's publication, a movie has been adapted from it (which, as of this writing, I've yet to watch) produced by Tim Burton, using a screenplay written by Grahame-Smith. Around the same period of time, Burton directed an adaptation of the vampire television series Dark Shadows, using a script penned by Grahame-Smith.

My impression is he'll continue to work in Hollywood, as writing screenplays pays more than writing novels; but, thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith's flair for prose fiction, I'm certain that, as his career evolves, he'll never stray too far from the gal who brought him to the dance.

The Color Purple

The Color Purple, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, is a beautiful story that has, for nearly the entirety of my life, lived quietly in the marrow of my subconscious.

It is, in fact, a story I encountered for the first time on three separate occasions.

My first encounter with The Color Purple came in December of 1985, when I went with my family to watch Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Walker's novel. My godfather, Willard E. Pugh, had secured a starring role in the film, playing the character of Harpo. Harpo is the husband of Sofia, played by Oprah Winfrey, the son of Mister, played by Danny Glover, and the step-son of Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg. While Celie is the central character of the novel and Goldberg, by extension, the star of the film, Willard, so far as I was concerned, was the only reason the movie existed.

Willard, along with my parents, brothers, sister, grandmother, and myself, went to the Edwards Cinema on Haven Avenue (which, sadly, no longer shows movies and is now used as a church), next to the Brunswick Deer Creek Lanes bowling ally in Rancho Cucamonga. We saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon and, in my memory, there weren't many people in the theater, which bothered me, because, for obvious reasons it was the most important movie ever made. I was eight years old that Saturday afternoon and as I sat in the theater watching Spielberg's film, I had no idea what it was about.

Not a clue.

I knew that Willard played the character of Harpo, but for the first twenty or so minutes of the film, Harpo was a little boy. That boy felt to me like an impostor, taking up the precious film time that belonged to Willard. I wanted him to hurry and grow up. And when finally he did, there was Willard, putting a saddle on a horse. It was a small miracle seeing him on the screen, though I was far too young to appreciate the complexities of Harpo's character. Harpo is, at his core, a kind man who grew up under the violent hand of a cruel father. When he wasn't getting beat himself, he watched his father, Mister, beat his step-mother, Celie.

"Harpo complain bout all the plowing he have to do.

His daddy say, you gonna do it.

Harpo nearly big as his daddy. He strong in body but weak in will. He scared.

Me and him out in the field all day. Us sweat, chopping and plowing. I'm roasted coffee bean color now. He black as the inside of a chimney. His eyes be sad and thoughtful. His face begin to look like a woman face."

-Alice Walker, "The Color Purple"

While, at the end of the film, I had no idea of what it was about, I was nonetheless satisfied with the experience.

My second encounter with The Color Purple came ten years later, when I was about 18 years old. Having been watching and enjoying movies for, literally, longer than I can remember, I considered myself something of a film buff. I watched any and every movie I could get my hands on and at some point, not long after my eighteenth birthday, it occurred to me I should watch Willard's film again—this time with a more mature, sophisticated eye. So, on a random weekday afternoon, I made some popcorn and sat alone in my room watching The Color Purple.

More than once, I found myself crying during the film, which was both tragic and uplifting all at once. I also had a much better appreciation for the power of Willard's performance, the way he articulated, with his beautiful acting ability, Harpo's sensitivity, the way he wanted to love his woman, Sofia, but didn't really know how, because of the ugly example set for him by his father.

"Harpo want to know what to do to make Sofia mind. He sit out on the porch with Mr. _____. He say, I tell her one thing, she do another. Never do what I say. Always backtalk.

To tell the truth, he sound a little proud of this to me.

Mr. _____ don't say nothing. Blow smoke.

I tell her she can't be all the time going to visit her sister. Us married now, I tell her. Your place is here with the children. She say, I'll take the children with me. I say, Your place is with me. She say, You want to come? She keep primping in front of the glass, getting  the children ready at the same time.

You ever hit her? Mr. _____ ast.

Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarass."

-Alice Walker, "The Color Purple"

When I finished watching The Color Purple again for the first time, I felt like I'd discovered this amazing jewel that had been hiding in plain sight since 1985. It was a movie that, to me, felt important, both cinematically and socially, and for Willard to have been a part of it left me feeling an overwhelming sense of pride.

Clearly, I figured, it must have been well represented at the Academy Awards. So I did a bit of research and found that it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg and Best Supporting Actress for Winfrey. It didn't win any of them. Out of Africa won the Academy Award for Best Picture and it remains, out of equal parts loyalty and animosity, a movie that I have never seen.