Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Best Book That Never Actually Existed (But Should)

October Is Book Month wraps up by considering a book that never existed.

Yesterday, while coming up with a couple of mild japes (it's a real word) about the two NFL teams that have yet to win a game (an annual obsession of mine), I invented, on the spot, a book that never existed, but should (John Tyler: Space President For Hire.) The idea for that book then settled into my imagination as I drove home from work last night listening to "All I Want Is You" from the Juno soundtrack, and I thought maybe that should be a book.

But I didn't yet add it to the list of things I might write someday in my tattered notebook of ideas because I was driving (which wouldn't keep me from writing things in my notebook) and I didn't have a pen (which would.)

I did, though, add the idea of books that never existed to the mental list of things that I wanted to write about on here, and I decided that books that never existed would be a good way to wrap up October Is Book Month for the year.

Authors have to do a lot of stuff in creating a world that allows us to create a world in our imaginations, and most readers don't give a lot of thought to the little tasks and problems that can crop up in the course of writing a story.

But I do, because I not only read (a lot, but not as much as I'd like) but I write (a lot, but not as much as I'd like) and because I'm interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff; it makes the in-front-of-the-scenes stuff more interesting to me.

Like this: when you watch a movie scene, a particularly crazy movie scene, give some thought to how many times they filmed that scene and how many times the actors had to go through that exact scene and hit their marks and say their lines and get the mood right... and then think of how many times the set had to be redone and remade and perfected.

I started thinking about that when I saw a preview of Pineapple Express, a movie I never saw because, to be honest, I don't care all that much for James Franco and I'm tired of Hollywood trying to convince me he's a star...

... that was kind of mean, wasn't it? I have nothing against him personally and I liked him in Freaks and Geeks but beyond that, it's just, pleh. (Those mean little asides prompted The Boy to suggest that I create "The Worst Of Everything," but I don't know if I want to do that...)

... but I did see the scene in the commercials where [IS IT A SPOILER ALERT IF IT'S IN A COMMERCIAL? YES? OKAY, SPOILER ALERT FOR A COMMERCIAL!] James Franco is driving a car in a chase and he kicks the window and puts his foot through it, and in the commercial there are at least two or three different camera shots, and after I watched the commercial I didn't want to see the movie, but I did spend some time imagining how, after each take, they would have to replace that broken car windshield, clean up the fake blood, get all the extras back to their original spots, move the car to its first position, then move the cameras, then shoot it again and how James Franco would have to re-act that scene over and over and over.

Once you know all that, the movies, even the simplest movies, become that much more phenomenal.

Well, if that's tricky, how about all the little stuff that goes into writing even a short story? Not just coming up with the plot. Anyone can come up with a plot. Guy takes his life savings of $200,000 from his retirement account so that he can fly out to Hollywood and convince people he's a producer, which he does because he wants to meet a new pop starlet and try to convince her to marry him, so his plan to do that is cast her in the fake movie he's pretending to make using the life savings he took out without his wife knowing.

I just came up with that just this second; never thought of it before but it's a book I'd maybe think about writing. (After I get through the ones I'm working on and after I get through the next ones I want to work on and after John Tyler: Space President for Hire gets published, of course).

But as an author, sit down to write I'm In Love With Angel Diamond (And My Wife Doesn't Know It) (the title I just now invented for the book I invented a few moments ago) and look at that first blank page and begin to confront the problems of actually writing it, and you see just how hard it is to throw together a book.

In the first place, what are the character's names? I came up with "Angel Diamond" because it seems like exactly the lame kind of fake name a singer might take if it was produced by someone who cynically wanted to package a singer to sell to tweens. (It's also the kind of dumb rock-star name that frequently ends up in books and seems so lame when you read it, so maybe it would work fine for my book, which I'm now much more interested in writing and might just move up ahead of John Tyler on the list of projects.) But what's "guy who takes out the money's" name?

Where does he live? What's his wife's name? Who's telling the story? When is it set?

Once you get past all of that, all important, there's the matter of creating the world these people live in. How realistic is that world? I'm reading A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon right now, and a character in it is renting videos, videos that actually exist (like Volcano) but he's renting... videos, which makes the book seem kind of dated already because who rents videos?

In A Spot of Bother, the use of real movies as props for fictional characters works pretty well, because the story needs to be rooted in the real world even though it's fiction; the main focus of the book (which is very good) is George's discovery of a spot on his body that he assumes to be cancer, and the resulting chaos that causes in him as the rest of his family experiences their own chaos while a wedding is pending. (I'm halfway through the book, by the way, and it's excellent.)

The use of fictional things as props is more problematic, and comes up a lot more often. I'm writing a story right now in which the characters go to bars and restaurants and a jewelry shop and other places. For at least some of those things, I have to come up with names for the place they're going. I have to come up with the names of businesses they shop at, television shows they watch (unless I want to seem dated, maybe, if my characters are watching Gary Unmarried in my book and it comes out in two years and people say "Watching what, now?") and keep doing that, creating fictional item after fictional item. Is my character buying salad dressing? Is it Newman's Own? Or is it Angel Diamond's Ranch Dressing? Is it important at all that the salad dressing have a name? You tell me; you're the reader. One of my characters went into a grocery store and I named that, but I didn't name the kind of apples she fell onto with William Howard Taft and her son. (It's kind of a complicated story.)

The problem is even worse when your character, or one of your characters, is somebody creative -- a rock star or author or playwrite or someone -- because then you've got to come up with things for that person to have written or sung or appeared in or something, and unless you're character is also a real-life person, then your character hasn't appeared in Top Gun, so if your movie star character is in a big hit movie, then your movie star character probably acted in Wings Of Fire, or maybe the domestic comedy Damaged Goods! (Don't google them; I just made them up. But they're pretty good, aren't they? You could totally picture a sitcom called Damaged Goods!, about a guy whose wife dumps him and leaves him with their three young kids and no money so he starts up an online store selling things he finds around town that he then sculpts into art? I imagine Ricky Gervais would be perfect for the lead role.)

(Also, I'm putting that one into my idea book, too.)

Which leads me to books that never existed, but should have. Authors should really have an edge on things like this, shouldn't they? Authors should be able to come up with titles and storylines and books for their characters to read and write because authors, every author I've ever known, is brimming with ideas, has ideas just spilling out and ready to go, and the authors can then dump some of those into their books for their characters to write and even then go write those books themselves, in some cases, like John Irving did.

John Irving is a master at creating fictional books that sound like books you'd really want to read -- probably because he's had so much practice at it. Many of his characters are creative people -- writers or script readers or movie stars -- and so they have to have books and movies and scripts to write and read and act out.

Take just "The World According To Garp," in which several of the characters are writers. In that book, Irving invented at least 8 fictional stories or books, ranging from the autobiography of Jenny Fields to The World According to Bensenhaver (by Garp). He even wrote an entire fictional story -- which raises the question about whether a fictional story is fictional if in fact the entire story exists, as "The Pension Grillparzer" does, a story which is (fictionally) supposed to have been written by T.S. Garp but which actually exists, and was written by John Irving, making it not a "fictional" story anymore, right? Because it was actually written and you can read it?

(And if you think that's confusing, consider "There And Back Again," by Bilbo Baggins, the book Bilbo was always working on writing in The Lord of The Rings... but wasn't "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien subtitled "There and Back Again?" Yes, it was. Which means that the book "The Hobbit" was the real version of the fictional book Bilbo Baggins would later work on writing while he lived through the events that took place after, but which were set up by, the events that took place in the book Bilbo Baggins was writing about...)

Great. Now I'm dizzy.

John Irving didn't stop with just the Garp fictional books; he had other fictional books created by other fictional characters, and so did other authors, including J.K. Rowling's (who presumably will not sue me for my audacity in talking about her writing) creation of books like The Tales of Beedle The Bard which then also became real, too (showing, again, that authors have these ideas that they just want to get out and create) and even fictional books invented by fictional people, like the books "Lemony Snicket" wrote (including "The Big Peruvian Book of Small Peruvian Snakes") and Kurt Vonnegut, who invented an alter-ego writer in Kilgore Trout and then had that writer write a series of books that were distinctly Vonnegutian...

... and the list goes on and on, and oftentimes, like my own John Tyler: Space President For Hire or the Angel Diamond book, I'll be reading a book and a fictional book will come up and I'll think I would really like to read that book, too. And then I wish that I could read that book, and it makes me a little sad that I never, probably, will read that book, just like I get a little sad when I first go into a bookstore or library and see book after book after book and realize that I'll never, in my life, read even a tiny fraction of all the books I would like to read.

I mean, how could you not want to read "Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension," by Kilgore Trout, or "Eight Solid Light-years of Lead" by John Jose Fahey? Just the titles scream out to be read.

But above all of those fictional books stands the one single book that I most regret doesn't exist, the book that I would gladly fund research into discovering whether the hypothetical 10 other dimensions that may or may not exist actually do exist, on the theory that if there are 10 other dimensions, then in one of them, this book may exist:

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

I can actually see that book, invented by Douglas Adams in his series beginning with the book of the same name, in my mind -- something like a Kindle, which probably got the idea from the Guide, with the "Don't Panic" right on the cover and the buttons and the sub-etha updates and the screen.

And I want so badly to be able to pull out the Guide when I'm bored or questioning something, to have a pocket-sized Google with a sense of humor and style, to look up Babel Fish or Magrathea or something else, whatever pops into my head, to see what it says about everything and anything and have most of it not make sense but some of it make more sense than it should, and have the things that don't make sense actually make sense because it turns out we're not living in our world but in the world of the Guide... and to read things like this:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value - you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

Through all of Douglas Adams' books, while I was captivated by the humor and ideas and characters and adventures that seemed both slapped together and carefully plotted out, simultaneously, somehow, over all of that arched this thought, over and over and over: I wish I could read the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the actual book. Entries like the towel entry and the other made-up things Adams threw into his books made me long not just to read the Guide, but to have the Guide be describing the world I lived in instead of the world his characters lived in.

Which is as good a place as any to finish up October is Book Month: I began by talking about the worlds we create reading about the worlds authors create, and I can finish by talking about the worlds we wished authors would create for us to go live in, worlds that are described and hinted at and touched on in the fictional books the authors create for their fictional characters to read and write and make into movies... or the fictional books the authors create to describe the fictional worlds they've created to the fictional characters that live in the worlds created by the authors... books like The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the The Best Book That Never Actually Existed (But Should)

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Children tormented by demons. An old man accidentally killing people. Witches who live hundreds of years and escape from Hell repeatedly. An astronaut drifting through space... these and other great stories can be found only on AfterDark: The scariest things, you CAN'T imagine.

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