I Want To Live On an Abstract Plane

I make stuff up for a living.  It’s a good living (and this year may prove to be my best ever – details forthcoming) but I’ll admit it’s an odd existence.  Doing my job means creating a fictional world, populating it with fictional characters, and then making things happen.  I’ve written sci-fi and fantasy, horror and historical action, and am working on a novel set in 16th century Italy, and a comic book set in the 1990s.  These are places that don’t exist, and populated by characters that aren’t real.  Even a world set ostensibly in our reality is a fiction; I just finished a spec set in Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan that is strongly based on real NY streets and buildings and events, but is still a story that happens only in my mind, and the minds of the people reading it.  The characters do not exist, the setting is real, but you can’t go into that world and inhabit in it.

It can be lonely, leaving these worlds behind, when I finish writing them, or when I take a break from them.  Immersing yourself in a fictional construct can be the best and worst thing about this job (well, that and the sporadic pay, lack of medical coverage, pension, benefits, sick days, vacation days … and so on).  When I’m really enjoying the time I spend in a fictional world, the crash back to reality indeed feels like a crash.  Take my Mixtape project; a story set in a small town in the early 1990s and based largely on my own life’s experiences.  I get sucked into the world and the time and the people and when I’m done, and return to 2011, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed I have to leave.  So I compensate for that momentary malaise by the act of decompression through art.  Like a deep sea diver returning to the surface, I have to equalize slowly to avoid getting the bends.  I do this the same way you do after a rough day at work.  You watch TV or a movie.  You play a video game, or read a book.

I bring this up because recently I’ve found the line between fiction and reality blurring.  Not in a Philip K. Dick crazy way (at least I hope not), but in the way a fiction can become reality.

As part of my work on Mixtape I’ve been reading comic books and graphic novels set in the same general (non-superhero) world, and if you’re a comic reader, you probably know the name Scott Pilgrim; a comic book by Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley.  A movie adaptation his theaters last summer and promptly bombed (teaching Hollywood the oft-forgotten lesson that cult comic book = cult comic book movie).  It’s set in Toronto, and is about – well, I won’t get into that.  That’s why Al Gore invented the internet; look it up.  It is, however, set in the “real Toronto” and features the usual prominent landmarks – as well as some less prominent ones.  The most notable for me is the fact that Scott Pilgrim’s neighborhood is the same neighborhood I lived in when I was still a resident of Toronto, to the point the tiny shed of an apartment he shares with roommate Wallace Wells is right around the corner from my old apartment.  Given the timeline of the writing and illustrating of the books, it’s possible and quite likely that Bryan Lee O’Malley and I were crossing paths constantly during our time in the same nabe.  The Second Cup coffee shop Scott frequents is the one I frequented when I lived further north on St. Clair Avenue.  Lee’s Palace, Sneaky Dee’s – places I frequented in college.  The Toronto Reference Library, Honest Ed’s, Pizza-Pizza … the list goes on.  And as a result I briefly experienced that rare case of déjà vu in reading a fictional story set in a world I know much better than I have any right to.

There are people – devoted fans of the series – who make their pilgrimages to the various Pilgrim-related points of interest in the Pilgrim-verse.  They want to see “the real places” this fictional character inhabited.  This is not limited to Toronto either.  New York still runs a Sex and the City Tour, and you’ll find tours for Gossip Girl, Seinfeld and the Sopranos.  Lovers of The Catcher in the Rye will visit the same locations as Holden Caulfield, their aged and underlined copies of J.D. Salinger’s tome in hand.  Visitors to the MET will recall it as the setting of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil. E. Frankweiler (and I’m sure at the height of that book’s popularity there were more than a few “sleepovers” organized.

People want that tangible connection to a story that moves them or inspires them.  The comfort that comes in reading or re-reading a book, or re-watching a film or TV series; those stories we return to over and over again provide comfort food for the soul.  Reading an old comic book becomes less about the story as it does about the whole package; the ads, the letters page – re-reading it carries you back to the first time you read it and the person you were when reading it.  Ditto with books, ditto with movies and TV shows; watching Twin Peaks on Hulu again gives me an appreciation for the show itself, but it also forces me to recall the first time watching it more than 20 (gasp!) years ago.  It’s the same reason we all have our favorite bands and favorite albums and songs; listening to them acts as something of a time machine.  I can’t listen to Nevermind or Bossanova or Doolittle without flashing back to Fall of 1991, Fall of 1990 and Summer of 1989 respectively.

All of this prompted me to ask some friends this question; what fictional world would you most want to take a vacation in?  More than a few mentioned the Star Wars galaxy or the milieu of Max Brooks’ World War Z.  Others think it would be cool to kick it around the Springfield USA of The Simpsons, visit the Duff Brewery, attend a pizza party at Wall E Weasel, and a summer trip to Mt. Splashmore.  My wife, without hesitation, picked Oz – but specifically the world of the L. Frank Baum books.  Not the 1939 movie.  Not the prison drama.  You can’t be the star of the story; you don’t get to be a Jedi or a bounty hunter, or wear the ruby slippers.  You can visit Tatooine or the Emerald City, or you can run for your life from the hordes of zombies rampaging through the world (maybe you get an “ejector seat” to blast you back to our reality in that case).  You would just be yourself, in that world, just like spending a week in Martinique doesn’t make you Bogart wooing Bacall and running weapons to the resistance.

For me, I’ll stay on home turf; put me in the NYC of the Marvel Universe circa the MARVELS series of the early 1990s.  Make me my ordinary self, writer extraordinaire, writing stories set in a New York without super-heroes.  Have my A-train downtown held in a station because Spider-Man is battling the Lizard at Columbus Circle.  Have lunch in Bryant Park interrupted by Juggernaut battling the Hulk.  Have the tech convention at the Javits Center interrupted by the Mandarin as he squares off with Iron Man.  Make me an ordinary man in a world of extraordinary beings, and see how I cope.  What is the impact of being a mere mortal in the face of actual living Gods —

Hang on …

That gives me a great idea for a story …

Sugar Never Tasted So Good

So if you’re at all into rock music and tend to keep up with what’s happening, you learned the other day that the White Stripes are officially no more.  I say “officially” since they abruptly cancelled their 2007 tour mid-way through, due to Meg White’s acute anxiety problems.  For a band that released 6 albums in almost as many years, anything more than a two year gap between recordings would seem to indicate they were done.  The release of 2009’s live album seemed one of those gestures made to fans when you know no new music is coming.  You held out hope, and rumors swirled that they were returning to the studio in 2011, but deep down you knew it was over.

Well it is over and they’re done.  They are and were a favorite of mine, which is why I’m not sad to hear the news.

Sad to see them go?  Yes.  I never got a chance to see them live and always wanted to, but at the end there’s something you have to respect about an artist who looks at their body of work and says “that’s enough.  We did what we wanted, we didn’t compromise, and we left behind something we’re proud of.”  They never fell into that trap of churning out music that came more out of duty than real love.

It makes me glad, in a way, that they knew when to leave.  Many bands do not.  Others seem to fall into that category of dutiful releases, even though the passion (theirs and yours) seems to be gone, or at least not burn as bright as it used to.

REM is one of these bands, for me. From the late 80s well through the 90s they were one of my favorites.  I waited with breathless anticipation for each new release, with 1992’s Automatic for The People being the peak.  I used to be a fan, and I still like REM, but not like I used to.  Their last batch of albums has been okay, but not spectacular.  2008’s Accelerate was solid, but I never even bought 2004’s (reportedly terrible) Around the Sun.  They have a new one coming in March – Collapse Into Now, and I probably will grab it too, out of duty more than anything. I still like them, but that flame doesn’t burn quite as bright.

[Addendum: Of course, REM announced they were calling it a day in Fall of 2011, which makes the above paragraph come off as snarky.  And ‘Collapse Into Now’ ended up being their best album in 15 years.]

PJ Harvey is another who’s faded for me at least.  I loved her through the 90s, and that love climaxed with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.  I saw her perform late that year, and that act seemed to represent the closing chapter.  I actually missed her previous White Chalk, but what I’ve heard about her upcoming Let England Shake may bring me back into her orbit.

[Addendum: It did]

And then there’s U2.  The 2-part look back at Achtung Baby was surprisingly the most popular entry on this site and I do still consider myself a fan.  The day the Stripes announced it was over was the same day U2 manager Paul McGuinnes told a panel at Cannes that a new album was due from the band this May, intriguingly to be produced by Danger Mouse.  The lackluster response to 2009’s No Line on the Horizon – an album I actually liked – can be either a good thing or a bad thing.  This is a band that loves to be the biggest in the world, and their next album, whenever it comes, will either be a bold success, or a timid failure.  I’ll buy it, obviously, but in reflecting on AB, I realized that they will never recapture that era of excitement for me.  It’s impossible to do what you did at thirty when you’re pushing fifty, just as it’s impossible to respond to music the way you did in your late teens as you do when in your late (gasp) thirties.

[It should be noted that McGuinnes was blowing smoke — there was no new album in ma.  The 20th Anniversary Achtung Baby set, however, comprised nearly 2 albums worth of never before heard material, so win-win]

The other way a band can soldier on is to follow the Pixies example; no new album, just touring, playing to fans, playing the songs we’ve been listening to since they broke up in 1993.  We’re glad too, because we know, as they do, that a new pixies album wouldn’t be the same Pixies who recorded Trompe le Monde or Bossanova.  It would be the sound of a bunch of forty-somethings soon to be fifty-somethings trying to appeal to the fans they had, and the people they were twenty plus years ago.  It’s impossible.

The White Stripes will last and be eternal.  Kids who came of age in the early-mid 2000’s will listen to Elephant and White Blood Cells and recall past times and past lives, to the degree people my age will listen to Nevermind or Doolittle and remember when music was the most important thing in our lives.  Jack White will form another band – he already has The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, so he’ll be around for a good long time. Meg will enjoy retirement, and probably form the most awesome stitch n’ bitch circle on the face of the planet.  Could there be a reunion tour?  Unlikely.  A reunion show, or special performance ten years down the road?  It’s quite possible.

There’ll be more to come from the White Stripes; live recordings and videos, unreleased tracks and merchandise.  I’ll be really interested to read a definitive biography of the band too, but in the meantime, there’s those six studio albums and an impressive live one in heavy rotation.  I’ll keep listening to the sound of dead leaves and the dirty ground.  And so will all of us.