Thursday, March 27, 2008

Growing Up With Goosebumps...

On R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, long summer afternoons, sacred texts, Stephen King, and, of course, Harry Potter:

Was anyone else pleased by the NY Times' article "Goosebumps Rises from the Literary Grave"? This former R.L. Stine fan was anyway. The afternoons I spent fighting slimy monsters or conversing with aliens all from the comfort of my bed are too numerous to count and almost all courtesy of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series. The occasion on which I handed those books over to my younger siblings was frankly ceremonial, attendant with solemn promises that they absolutely would NOT wet them, tear them, draw in them, get food on them or in way disrespect my former sacred texts of horror.

I had, by this time, moved on much more scarier things than Stine's really only slightly frightening Goosebumps series. Apparently, during the height of his popularity - a popularity I was completely unaware of until reading the Times article 20 minutes ago - Stine was called the "Stephen King of children's literature." As a twelve year old, I must have thought so too since King is exactly what I started reading when I decided that evil ventriloquist dolls were just so elementary.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't greet the news of Goosebumps' rebirth with not a little hint of nostalgia - and a bit of chagrined surprise since I wasn't aware Stine had stopped penning them in the first place. Which only goes to show just how completely I left the Goosebumps series behind when I decided to move on to more "adult" material.

I don't know how well the new Goosebumps books will go over with this new generation of children, especially following the Harry Potter series, which I can admit has a more sophisticated plot and better character development than most of the Goosebumps books. But what Goosebumps lacked in sophistication it made up for in the kinds of scary thrills that come cheaply and most welcomely on long and hot summer afternoons. Those it did well. Even now, thirteen years later, I'm still not too old or sophisticated for cheap and scary thrills. I'd like to hope that a large portion of today's children aren't either.

Stephen King wrote an interesting article for Entertainment Weekly some time ago on Harry Potter and his unacknowledged predecessors - the books by R.L. Stine.

What Novelists Strike?

For those of you who missed this very funny article in The Onion: Novelists Strike Fails to Affect Nation Whatsoever --

The strike kicked off last fall when the NGA announced it had hit a roadblock in negotiations with the Alliance of Printed Fiction and Literature Producers, failing to resolve certain key issues concerning online distribution, digital media rights, and readers just not getting what writers were trying to do with a number of important allegorical devices....

So far, sources say, no one has attempted to cross the picket lines, most of which are located in private homes. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that at least one novelist may be breaking the strike by writing under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman."

"We must, as a people, achieve a resolution to this strike soon," novelist David Foster Wallace said at a rally Monday at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where he is a professor. "The thought of this country being deprived of its only source of book-length fiction is enough to give one the howling fantods."

"I thank you both for coming," he added...

"If this situation is not brought to a halt soon, it could have serious ramifications for, you know, literary culture, I guess," said Kyle Farmer, a Phoenix-area real estate consultant and avid golfer. "It would be tragic if we had to go a whole year without a new novel from Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer," he added, unaware that both authors died in 2007.

Wallace is right - I'd have the howling fantods if I was deprived of any new book-length fiction. Then again, I would have time to read those previously published stacks of un-read books I have scattered around my apartment...

Some Furry Confusion...

On George Saunders' "The Perfect Gerbil" in THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE, weird adult-sounding children, death, life and affirmations thereof:

In the blank space which follows the end of "The School" in my much-loved SCRIBNER ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SHORT FICTION (oh yea, marketing editors at Scriber, I am forever in your debt) I penciled in, "Uh...what?" An articulate expression of my confusion if ever there was one.

After reading George Saunders' lovely and convincing argument for Donald Barthelme's "The School" I decided to revisit "The School" hoping that Saunder's essay would elucidate some of those items which I found particularly problematic.

No such luck. While I do appreciate Barthelme's expert use of the "death" pattern in a way I hadn't before ("Mr. Lesser Writer...realizing with joy that he has a pattern to work with, sits down to do some Thinking. Barthelme proceeds in a more spontaneous, vaudevillian manner. He knows that the pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts."), the ending - oh the ending - still left me feeling as confused as ever.

I mean really, what is up with those suddenly intelligent adult-talking children? What's up with the students asking the narrator to have sex with Helen, a heretofore unmentioned character, so they can watch? Okay, I probably get this one - sex is an affirmation of life in the face of death, but really, two paragraphs ago I was under the impression that this was a class of five year olds who used words like "mamas and papas" and now they're asking the narrator for a sophisticated affirmation of life? What's happening here? And finally, what's up with the walking and knocking gerbil - the development which really left me scratching my head?

Saunders writes, the ending is "ambiguous, and it is funny, and somehow perfect: this little expectant rodent, politely waiting for its knock to be answered, all set to die, or to live. We, like the children, 'cheer wildly.'"

Hold up there, Saunders. I'm probably just being slow here, but while you're cheering I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that last furry paragraph. What purpose does the gerbil serve other than simply being the unexpected? Why does it exhibit anthropomorphic qualities that the other dead animals hadn't? For the life of me, I can't figure it out. Beyond thinking it exciting, Saunders doesn't seem to have much to say on the matter either.

Having said all that, I do agree that "The School" is good at doing what it does - giving us those little "pleasure-bursts" of excitement and unpredictability. I only wish a bit more had been given over to explication.