Sunday, July 26, 2009

Episode Five. Literary Lad

Splendid Man tapped on the window while I was in the middle of a story. Ordinarily, he just bores through walls to get into a room, but I asked him not to because I have a finicky landlady. I opened the window and he wafted in.

“Hi, pal,” he said.

“Hi, pal,” I said.

“Did I interrupt anything?”

“Oh no, I was only writing,” I said.

“Can I read it?” he asked.

“Well, it’s not finished yet,” I said. He looked hurt, so I added hastily, “I would like your opinion, though. After all, you’re getting to be quite knowledgeable about literature.”

“Thanks, Will,” he said, going to my desk. “By the way, I really enjoyed The Sun Also Rises.”

“Great. What did you think of the scene where Jake and Bill go fishing in the mountains? Wasn’t Hemingway’s description of the wine being so cold that it hurt the backs of their eyes just great?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about pain,” he mumbled. I could tell he was already absorbed in my story.

I lit a cigarette and paced nervously, waiting for his judgment. Of course, I knew that his opinion wouldn’t really matter, since not even Splendid Man could be objective about a story based on himself.

“This is terrific, Will,” he finally said. “It reminds me of Northern Light’s Casebook, in which Fugface, his Siberian grease monkey, records all of his colorful adventures.”

“Yes,” I said. “It is very much like that, only different.”

“Not that I would call this story particularly colorful. Boy, I really let that movie get me down, didn’t I? You certainly describe it vividly, though. Your writing really seems to be coming along.”

“Maybe so, Cal,” I said. “But will people remember me a thousand years from now?”

“Why, I don’t know, Will,” he said. “But shouldn’t you worry about getting published first?”

“Sure,” I said. “There’s that. But every artist dreams of immortality for his works and fears the thought of someday being forgotten. I know you understand, Cal. You’re always present at the ceremonial unveilings of the many statues and monuments erected in your honor throughout the universe.”

He looked thoughtful and absentmindedly fumbled for a cigarette in the pack I’d left on the desk. “Is this really weighing on you, Will?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it’s just my temporary job sticking those little labels on tomatoes that’s getting me down. But no, there’s more to it than that. I’ve been feeling blue ever since I read the Iliad. I was awed that any book could survive for so many centuries—and then it hit me that my books might be forgotten mere decades after my death. If I ever break into print, that is. Sure, I could be like Dan Brown or Stephen King and make a million dollars on some ephemeral trash. But who’s going to remember The Stand or Carrie a hundred years from now, let alone a thousand? Hell, who remembers Cujo today?”

“Wasn’t that the one about the malevolent dog?” asked Cal.

“Okay, you remember,” I said. “But that’s only because you have the power of Splendid Recall. By the time you and I are gone, Cujo may as well never have existed—a fate I wouldn’t wish on a malevolent dog! How do I know my work isn’t going to suffer the same oblivion?”

Cal mulled over my words for a few moments, puffing on the cigarette, and said, “There’s only one way we can find out for sure.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Simple. We can take a little trip into the future.”

“No kidding?” I exclaimed.

“Now that I think about it,” he said, “I haven’t visited my young friends in the Array of Splendid Striplings for quite some time. We can kill two birds with one stone. Figuratively speaking, of course, as my code prevents the taking of all life.”

“Great!” I said. “The Array of Splendid Striplings!”

Without further ado, Cal bundled me in his cape, opened the window, and shot into the sky, instantly exceeding the speed of light. Braving mortal harm from the temporal winds that would have buffeted me to death if not for the indestructible cape that enfolded my body, I uncovered my eyes for a peak at the trans-temporal landscape. Sure enough, we were speeding through a tunnel of multicolored concentric rings, the dates posted between each ring in blurry black numerals. Within moments, we materialized in front of the Stripling clubhouse in the year 3008.

Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve always wondered how the Stripling Clubhouse can be so vast indoors but appear so unimposing from the exterior. Believe me, this discrepancy is the fault of the comic book artists. The place is huge, easily dwarfing the Empire State Building.

As we landed on Stripling Plaza, a welcoming committee of Striplings emerged from the clubhouse. I saw Uranus Lass and Multi Girl. I saw Mesmer Miss and Kangaroo Kid and Cerebriac 6.2. They were all dressed in their colorful Stripling garb. I expected Splendid Man to introduce me, but before he had a chance to do so, the Striplings crowded around me, exclaiming in chorus, “It’s the Bard! The Bard himself!”

I didn’t know what they were talking about at first, until I noticed that they all carried books in their hands. Multi Girl was the first to shove hers at me, stammering, “M-m-may I have your autograph, M-M-Mr. Jones?”

My heart beat a tattoo against my chest as I took the book from her hands and saw, inscribed in bold red letters across the top, the name “Will S. Jones.” But even more surprising was realizing that the title of the book was totally unfamiliar to me. Here I was, 1,000 years in the future, about to autograph a book I hadn’t even written yet!

When I started to take it from her, she gasped, “J-j-just autograph the cover!”

“Okay,” I said. “But I’d love to take a look at…”

“Er…there’ll be plenty of time for that later,” said Splendid Man. “Now let’s have the Striplings give you a tour of their clubhouse. I’ll tell you what, Will. I’ll leave you here with the teenage Array of Splendid Striplings, who are better known to you from the comics, while I fly a little further into the future to visit my pals the adult Striplings.”

When I saw the way the girls were gazing at me, I hoped Splendid Man wouldn’t hurry back. I hadn’t had so many lovely young women adoring me like that since high school, and then I’d only been fantasizing.

Abruptly Kangaroo Kid, with his overdeveloped legs, bounced between me and the girls. He barked, “Here in the 31st century, we consider you a literary immortal, Mr. Jones!”

“Well, I do like to think I’m ahead of my time,” I said, reaching for the book in his hand. “But I’d love to take a look at…”

“Let’s…er…give Mr. Jones that tour!” blurted Mesmer Miss, pulling me suddenly through the giant doors of the clubhouse.

It was killing me not being able to look in that book. What had I written about? Had I finally found my narrative voice? Had I learned to liven up my dialogue? And why would I have named it Tender Is the August Light? But the kids really seemed to have their heart sets on giving me this tour, and Will Jones was one literary immortal who was not going to disappoint his fans.

My tour guide was Cerebriac 6.2, the futuristic upgrade of that 21st century Cerebriac whose faulty operating system had turned him into a notorious space criminal. “This is the Stripling lobby and reception area, Mr. Jones,” he said, “housing a 31st century Menti-Projector which beams a perpetual tape recounting the colorful origins of all the Striplings directly into the viewer’s cerebral cortex.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said, as convincingly as I could.

From there we went up to Level 1, where Cerebriac 6.2 explained, “Here is where our arsenal and nuclear power generators, both powered by quintile crystals, are housed. To protect them, the walls of the Stripling Clubhouse are reinforced with magno-plastic lined with maxo-inertron, the most durable of all cosmic alloys. Needless to say, they are able to withstand the most powerful of attacks.”

Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic Brain from the 8th Dimension, was as intelligent as I’d always heard. Unfortunately, too much brain can make you boring.

“So tell me,” I said. “How many of my books are still in print here in the 31st century?”

“Er…that sounds like a perfect question for The Marvelous Construct,” he said, “that computational device so advanced that it can discover any information and fabricate any object known to sentient life. I shall be taking you to it soon.”

“Swell,” I said. “And do you know if they’ve been published on many other planets?”

“Since you bring up other planets,” he said hastily, “I’m sure you will be fascinated by the Monitor Cubicle, where the progress of such other Striplings as Pig-Out Boy, the Too-Tall Kid, and Peanut can be followed in their various missions on color screens.”

“Whatever,” I said. “How about movies? Have any major motion pictures been based on my books? And have any biographies been written about me? How well did they capture the man…the artist?”

He opened his mouth, looking a little disconcerted, but before he could answer I was pelted by female voices:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Since all your books are set in the 21st century, does that mean you write from life?”

“Did you grow your beard in honor of Hemingway or did he grow his in honor of you?”

I turned and found all three girls crowding up against me. No, make that all five girls—three of whom were physically identical. For a moment I assumed they were clones, and wondered if by the 31st century the Christian Right had finally been forced to relinquish its chokehold on American progress. Then I remembered Multi Girl’s power of Splendid Self Duplication. All three of her were gazing up at me with big liquidy eyes.

“Did you choose literature or did it choose you?” asked one Multi Girl.

“Do you read reviews of your books?” asked another.

“Do you have to suffer to be an author?” asked the third.

“Well,” I said, “hardship does help the author hone his vision.”

The Multi Girls sighed.

“Hey, Splendid Heroes have hardships too!” said Kangaroo Kid churlishly. “Multi Girl, remember the time I single-handedly defeated the piranha-birds of Alabaster VI? Or the time I saved the people of Diphthong II from a horde of two-legged spider beasts? Or the time I used my remarkable hopping ability to repel an invasion of Ganymedean brain suckers?”
The Multi Girls batted their eyes at me.

“How did it feel when you won your first Pulitzer?”

“Why do most authors commit suicide?”

“Is it true that authors drink and smoke a lot?”

“Well,” I answered, “drinking and smoking do help the author hone his vision. Speaking of which, would you say my vision changed the direction of fiction in general? Did I inspire any literary movements? Did I ever appear on C-Span’s Book Notes?”

Abruptly, Kangaroo Kid, with his commodious limbs, launched into a series of hopping tricks such as no 21st century acrobat could have imagined possible. “Remember this, Multi Girl?” he yelled. “Remember how I repelled the brain suckers? Look at me, Multi Girl! Look at me!”

The Multi Girls rolled all six of their eyes and said, “There seems to be some annoying noise around here. Let’s go someplace quiet where we can talk about literature.”

“Uh, sure,” I said, as two Multi Girls each slipped an arm through mine and the third tugged me forward by my lapel. “And while we’re at it, did I ever win the Nobel? Is there a plaque on my old apartment building in the Richmond District? Have any statues been erected in my honor? Did…”

The words died in my throat. Suddenly a fourth Multi Girl appeared before us, but where the others were Platonic ideals of youthful beauty, this was a parody of adolescence, all acne, braces, and greasy hair.

“You quit that, Mesmer Miss!” snarled the other three Multi Girls in chorus. “You’re not going to make the Bard like you better with a stupid trick like that!”

The fourth Multi Girl dissolved into a golden cloud, and Mesmer Miss stepped through it, gazing worshipfully at me. “I just wanted the Bard to appreciate my Splendid Power of Illusion,” she said, “so that it would mean more when I told him how amazed I was by the illusion of reality he cast in his novels with no Splendid Powers at all.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said. It was beginning to dawn on me that something odd was going on. You can’t blame youngsters for going gaga over a literary immortal, but these gals were just a little too doe-eyed and dewy-lipped for comfort. And the racket of Kangaroo Kid bouncing frantically off the walls didn’t exactly settle my nerves.

Mesmer Miss was getting a little too close to me when words filled my head: “Don’t waste your time with these children, Mr. Jones. Or may I address you telepathically as Will?” That’s when I noticed Uranus Lass smiling coyly at me. “I think you’ll find that with my Splendid Mind Reading Power, I’ve developed an insight into the human soul quite advanced for my age. Of course, it’s nothing compared to yours!”

Suddenly Mesmer Miss turned snarling on her teammate. “No fair, Uranus Lass! I know you’re thinking to the Bard! No fair using Splendid Powers to get him all to yourself!”

“No fair, she says!” Uranus Lass telepathed. “It just so happens that she’s using her Power of Illusion right now to hide a humongous zit on the tip of her nose!”

“You’d better not be telling him about my zit!” screeched Mesmer Miss.

“Just remember, Bard,” thought Uranus Lass, “with me, what you see is what you get—as Negroes used to say before the advancement of science rendered urban slang obsolete.”

Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic Brain from the 8th Dimension, must have sensed the tension in the air, because he suddenly asked, “Mr. Jones, would you care to visit the room in which is housed The Marvelous Construct, which can grant any wish, no matter how subliminal, even if one were to wish unconsciously, for example, for the end of the universe, and is thus the most dangerous device in existence?”

But before the words were out of his mouth, the girls were going at each other, slapping, pulling hair, and kicking each other’s ankles. Appalled, I wondered how these lifelong allies could turn on each other over a man, even if that man was a literary immortal. Had the collapse of sexual morals that began in the 1960s finally undermined the ethics even of Splendid Heroines?

I had to get out of there. It was the decent thing to do, I knew, and the only way I could restore peace and allow them to repair their friendships. Plus I didn’t like the look in Kangaroo Kid’s eyes as he came bouncing toward me.

“Take me to that Construct!” I yelled to Cerebriac 6.2.

But as I turned to run, something even stranger happened. Each of the Multi Girls split in two like an amoeba, and suddenly, while three duplicates kept up the fight with Uranus Lass and Mesmer Miss, three more were running full tilt at me.

“Don’t worry, Bard!” one whispered.

“We’ll ditch those hussies!” hissed another.

“From now on, it’s just you and us!” whispered the third.

The three of them grabbed me and dragged me down the hall. They shoved me into a room and slammed the door behind me. I glanced around. I took in the canopy bed, the stuffed animals, the brightly hued cosmetics on the dresser, the lacy brassieres scattered on the floor, and the poster of what could only be a 31st century boy band, and I realized to my horror that I was in a teenage girl’s bedroom. And by the extraordinary number of mirrors lining the walls I realized it must be Multi Girl’s.

“Now, wait a minute…” I began, hoping some authority was getting past the quaver in my voice.

“Please, Bard,” said one of the Multi Girls. “Don’t leave yet. I just want your autograph.”

“Well, if that’s all,” I said with a sigh of relief, “I suppose I can…”

And suddenly all three of them were gripping the necklines of their bodysuits and starting to tug them lower. “In history class they told us how 21st century groupies liked to have celebrities autograph their chests!” she giggled. “The other girls will turn green when they learn I’ve got the Bard’s autograph on all my chests!”

“W-w-wait a minute!” I wailed, and tried to get around them to the door. But the Multi Girls did that amoeba thing again, and suddenly there were six teenage beauties barring my way, all stretching the fabric of their tops and about to expose an even dozen underage breasts. Visions of spending the rest of my life as the only literary immortal in a 31st century maxo-inertron penitentiary began filling my mind.

“Do you have a Sharpie?” all six asked.

And then I was saved. The door flew open and the malformed figure of Kangaroo Kid exploded into the room. “All right, Multi Girl! Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too far? Just because we agreed to Splendid Man’s scheme to trick Will into thinking that his books survived for a thousand years doesn’t mean you have to throw yourselves all over him! We’re supposed to be reinforcing his literary ambition, not his perversions!”

“Who are you to talk, you lop-eared freak?!” snapped one of the Multi Girls. “How many times have you asked all of me to…”

“What?” I said. They all stopped dead as I tried to find my voice. “Is this true? Has my pal Splendid Man deceived me?”

The other Striplings had crowded in behind Kangaroo Kid, but none seemed to have the nerve to speak. At last Uranus Girl telepathed to me, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, but I’m afraid it’s true. Earlier, when Splendid Man said he was flying to the future to visit the adult Striplings, he was really flying an hour into the past to tell us you were coming and set up his plan to boost your confidence. He made up a literary-sounding book title and then we used The Marvelous Construct to make fake covers and slap them on several copies of one of the classics in our library. Please don’t hold it against us, Mr. Jones. We only did it so you’d go back to the 21st century inspired to keep writing.”

“We never expected that all of us girls would find you so, you know, exciting,” said Mesmer Miss. “Especially considering that Multi Girl has been selected to mate with Kangaroo Kid, Uranus Lass has been matched with Sleet Lad, and I’m been designated a perfect partner for Shaolin Five Animals Kung-Fu Kid. It’s just that were not accustomed to meeting such…well… masculine men from the 21st century.”

“Not to mention that the advancement of science long ago rendered male sex appeal obsolete,” added Multi Girl. “Our bodies just have no natural defenses against your pheromones!”

I was crushed. The other Striplings stared at their feet, saying nothing. Moments later, when Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic brain from the 8th Dimension, began to speak, I realized that they had all been conferring telepathically, linked by Uranus Lass’s power.

“Despite this little hoax, Bar…er…Mr. Jones…and despite the fact that we were unable to find any of your works in the libraries of the seven-hundred eighty-two planets which we scanned before you arrived here...we know you really are a good writer, because we’ve monitored your stories on our time screens. In fact, we all agree that your literary prowess is so impressive as to constitute a Splendid Power. Since this power with words is duplicated by no other Stripling and so does not violate our charter, and in spite of the fact that you are no longer a teenager, which manifestly does, we have elected you an honorary member of the Array of Splendid Striplings, along with Patti Pert in her role as Bug Babe, Bobby Anderssen because of the many times he’s fought evil as Centipede Lad, and Splendid Man’s boyhood pal, Roswell Smutts. I hereby christen you Literary Lad!”

“Gee, thanks,” I said, somewhat heartened.

Just then, Splendid Man returned from his bogus mission into the future. I could tell from his averted glance that Uranus Lass had already informed him of the situation telepathically.

“Well, Will, I guess we should go home,” he said quietly.

“We’re really sorry, Will,” said Kangaroo Kid remorsefully as Cal wrapped me in his cape.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll get over it. In time.”

We flew along the time stream in silence. Splendid Man dropped me off at my apartment, mumbled an embarrassed goodbye, and disappeared into the sky. Only then did I pull from my coat the book I had swiped from the future. I allowed myself one last look at my name on the cover. Then I opened it to see what immortal literary classic it was that the young heroes of the future actually kept in their library. I flipped to a page at random and read: "The dog had shat on the garage floor. He had never known Cujo to do such a thing, not even as a pup."


Pinkhamster said...

Sorry for the delay in readin' the adventure of Literary Lad... Don't want you thinkin' the tale lost my interest -- I was beset with brain fog.

I liked how Will tells us how boring the Striplings are in describing their futuristic headquarters, but we soon learn that the main reason he finds them boring is because all he wants to do is talk about is himself! This is a nice subtle touch, how we are left to connect the dots on this hypocrisy ourselves.

Do you ever worry about posterity like this character does? I guess I've always selfishly figured what happens after I croak doesn't matter to me, but that's coming from someone with no heirs and no published works beyond a few ephemeral magazine articles. If I'd actually written books I might actually worry about how they might be received by the future. My grandmother's sister was a Pulitzer winning novelist and New Yorker short story writer who seems to already be forgotten by most save a few academics, and her writing, as far as I know, is entirely out of print.

Fugface is a great name for a chidren's cartoon character that would make parents uncomfortable.

Adding the pheremone motivation beyond the simple desire of the Striplings to help out their pal Splendid Man was a chaos-and-humor adding touch I liked as well. I wonder if I would have the willpower to hold out against the amorous advances of identical triplet jailbait... The kangaroo kid's jealous frenzy in reaction was great, too.

I'd never heard of "Shaolin Five Animals!" Thanks for raising my kung fu IQ!

Pinkhamster said...

Whoops, I see you'd already answered the posterity question in your latest blog entry at "Undressing!"

Gerard Jones said...

Well, Hamster, sorry to YOU for the delay in responding to your comments. This election had us pretty wound up, and we're just now getting back to the things that really matter.

Glad you picked up on all those nuances, brain fog or no. Glad to know you particularly enjoyed Fugface. He's a character we hope to see more of someday. And yeah, the posterity issue was briefly touched upon at the Undressing of America blog.

But dang it! Now you've got us trying to figure out who your grandmother's sister was! A female Pulitzer Prize winning novelist...unfortunately, the "forgotten" and "out of print" details pretty much eliminate the only female Pulitzer winners we can think of: Edith Wharton, Marjorie Margaret Mitchell, Pearl S. Buck, Harper Lee, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. (They are still publishing The Yearling, aren't they? One can only hope!) Looks like we'll have to do some Googling here...

Pinkhamster said...

I screwed up, fellas. She didn't win the Pulitzer for one of her novels, it was for her short story collection... I guess I'll take some micropayments out of Google's pocket and just tell ya her name: Jean Stafford. Which means in my more ego-needy moments I get to claim I was extremely tenuously "related to" A.J. Liebling as well, 'cuz he was her third and last husband. Her first husband, Robert Lowell, was nuts and beat her up a lot, so I don't tend to dwell on him.

Gerard Jones said...

Yeah, I know what you mean about Lowell. He's one of those guys I lump with Ted Hughes under, "I'll probably never read him, but I know he was an asshole." That kind of literary immortality I could do without!

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, and just in case anyone is using this blog as source material for a college lit paper, don't be thinking that there was a Pulitzer-winning novelist named "Marjorie Margaret Mitchell." That "Marjorie" was a ghost of cut and paste.