The Making of Zombies and Elephants

ZOMGThere once was a short story called Elephants and Zombies. It was written in 2010 and didn’t have a very happy childhood, because the author (that would be me) was never quite happy with the first draft. She opened it up a couple of times, moved a few bits around, and then sort of forgot about it. And then a man named Richard Goodness came along…

That could be the story of how Zombies and Elephants happened, but it isn’t. It’s more like the second act of that story. Here’s the first act:

I once had a dream. In my dream I went to a small house in Cape Town (only it sort of looked a lot like Dover, which I’ve never really been to… never been to Cape Town either… ah… go figure). In the small house in Cape Town a very nice old man who used to direct plays at university was tending bar and I gave him a banjo. Might also have been a guitar, I’m not so sure anymore. The nice old man was happy and then some shit happened and at the end of the dream I was somehow up on a tree on the slope of a hill and before me a zombie elephant was eating someone’s brain.

And I thought: “Cool, I wonder how that might have happened.”

That’s how Zombies and Elephants got started.

So. Yes… fast forward to December 2013. That was when I first heard of Fear of Twine. And it sounded like a darn good opportunity to make my first game. Only I didn’t have a story. Which, if you consider that Twine games are exclusively text-based, was a little bit of a problem. But no worries… still plenty of time until the deadline.

Weeks and weeks pass, with every little spark of imagination scurrying for cover whenever I come near. I stalk the ideas, set traps, put out little bits of cheese… all to no avail.

Deadline week. Still no idea. Richard is nice enough to extend the deadline a little (not only for me; at that point I’m still not sure whether I will participate at all). Second deadline week arrives, stares at me angrily. I cower in fear.

And then while I’m talking to Jonas about his game, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, I suddenly remember that old story. And I realize that it would really be much better as a Twine than as a short story.

Three to four hours of fruitless searching on at least five hard disks reveal that I must have at some point become so frustrated with the original story that I deleted it. Oops. But what’s there to worry about? It’s four days to the deadline for Fear of Twine. Piece of cake.

And I work. I learn all I can about Twine code, I read up on South Africa, Mozambique, Kruger National Park, Limpopo Transfrontier Park. I spend a great deal of time on the names, languages and other aspects of the near-future setting. And I write like mad, pulling two all-nighters. Somewhere in-between the kind, wonderful Richard Goodness extends the deadline by a couple of days (again not only for my own sake). I forge on.

My keyboard breaks. G, H and F only work if you ask them nicely. While I’m away at my day job (with 0 hours of sleep), Jonas spends a lot of time putting Gs, Hs and Fs back into the game. I also owe him many thanks for suggesting a few brilliant changes to the game; his background in postcolonial studies comes in handy as we discuss semi-satirical ideas like the Great Limpopo Special Economic Zone.

Friday, the 7th of February. Zombies and Elephants is finally finished. (It’s called Zombies and Elephants because Jonas has convinced me that it’s much easier to say. Elephantsnzombies…. see what I mean?)

I’ve finally made my first game. And people are apparently playing it. There are reviews, most of them quite favourable. Emily Short, a living legend of the interactive fiction scene, says that it was among her top three games in the exhibition. Other reviewers, while saying that zombies are getting really old (yeah, I know, but what was I supposed to do) say that at least the writing is rather nice – or even really frightening. (Since I primarily see myself at a writer, that’s what really makes me happy.)

So yeah, people seem to be enjoying the game. That’s so cool… I can’t even begin to say how happy it makes me. I made something, and people actually like it. After trying for so long to find some sort of recognition as a writer (as opposed to as a painter/graphics artist), that is the best thing that could possibly have happened. Moreover, it is something that I urgently needed, because I was halfway ready to just chuck the whole writing thing out the window.

So people like my game. Wonderful, but am I satisfied with my game?

Mhm… I do love the game. The experience of finally producing a game of my own was awesome. I mean, obviously I’ve been making games all this time, and I do love working on the Lands of Dream games… but making something yourself is something else entirely.  And mastering Twine (which in all honesty isn’t all that hard to do… go on, try it) gave me this cool “I’m-a-superhero-programer-girl” feeling.

The story manages to get the things done that I wanted it to do. Strong focus on character. Exploration of racism and class and exploitation, but without being preachy and turning the characters into mouthpieces. And I feel that the end is horrible and gory and pulpy in just the right way. So yeah, I’m happy with the story.

StructureBut the game is still terribly rushed. Currently I have seven different kinds of hell going on at work (the paying kind of work that keeps me from making games), but as soon as that is over I intend to give the game a much-needed update. It’s not only a lack of polish and some minor spelling mistakes that still bother me.

For example: a lot of people seem to think the game is terribly linear. Well, let me tell you something: Zombies and Elephants tracks over 40 different variables. Almost everything the player does has some sort of effect on the story, but this being my first Twine, I failed to realize that most of these things, like for example whether or not you get the chance to fix the car, wouldn’t be apparent to anyone playing the game. You never know that you just narrowly scraped by the other ending, the one where everyone decides to walk to the city. My bad. I would quite like to fix some of that, making the game less linear in the last third.

And then there’s a million other, smaller things that I wanted to put in. Character moments mostly, because I am ever so fond of some of the relationships that developed between some of the characters as I was writing them. (For example: I initially wanted to have only one doctor, with the second one dying either off-screen or fairly early in the beginning, but then I ended up liking the way they interacted way too much to lose them so quickly.)

I want to expand the (well-hidden, randomised and hard to get) cure ending quite a bit, because that was the last thing I put in, mostly frantically copy-pasting at six in the morning from existing bits of the game to have something, anything, in place there. And there’s an entire other ending that I always meant to put in but never had the time.

So… um… if you find the cure ending, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, don’t be disappointed please, it’s a work in progress.

A note on the endings: The cure ending isn’t only rushed, it’s also not what I consider to be “The End”. I was innocently researching (fictional) drugs that could be used against a zombie outbreak (preferably without landing me in jail for copyright infringement) when I stumbled across this article (and the real-world science article that it links to). Originally I was just going to name-drop a few drugs while you talk to the two doctors, but after I read this I thought “This is way too good to pass up.” And thus the cure ending, and just why it is so terribly rushed. Now the *real* ending for me….

(Avast! Here be spoilers!)

…the real ending for me is the one where you watch someone else as he is killed by the elephant. It isn’t easy to put into words why I think that this is the true ending. The obvious reason is because that was the ending of my dream. I know that this sounds air-headed and flimsy in a million different ways, but the image stayed with me; it just had that much power. The other reason, the one that is really hard to explain, is that the ending feels right. It seems like a fitting counterweight to the very wordy, sometimes philosophical main body of the game, which is all about slow, creeping horror and which always stays very close to the protagonist. I tried so hard to give a realistic account of how someone in this situation would feel and react that this ending, which leaves the player powerless and which suddenly seems to take a step back and look at the events from afar, feels like the only right way to end it. After all this waiting and talking, the extreme violence of the ending seems carthartic; it dissolves all the tension in one gory rush. And don’t tell me that it’s not realistic that an elephant would suck your brains out through its trunk… this is a game about zombies.

And here’s a final thing. This game never was about winning. I’ve had several bits of feedback in which players were telling me that the fact that the elephants get infected was very upsetting to them. And that’s not really a bad thing. It should be upsetting.

But it had to happen. The fact that the final death blow is delivered by animals that are usually thought of as gentle giants seems to me to only add to the general sense of helplessness that the ending is supposed to conjure. Think more Romero and less Shaun of the Dead… that is what I was aiming for.

(End spoilers)

I think this is more or less what I wanted to say about the game. I still don’t feel like I’ve adequately expressed what I wanted to achieve with the game and its ending(s), but then again I am always ever so uncomfortable with talking about my art. You can’t just separate the imagery from the meaning or reduce it to a “message.”

I am really glad that so many of you enjoyed the game and I promise that this won’t be my last solo game. And I’ll try to update Zombies and Elephants as soon as I can.

The Art Of Selling Art

Preface: My eleventh to thirteenth grade art teacher, Mr. Ciolek, is a very talented, kind individual who has taught many a hopeless case how to paint and draw beyond their wildest expectations. Just thought I’d get that out before I start.

And now a few thoughts about that bane of society, that great misfortune which has befallen the 21st century, so-called “modern art”:

Meet my nemesis. Readers, say hello to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. Pretentious piece of crap, say hello to my readers. Bottle Rack is what is known as a readymade. The more observant ones among you may have noticed that it also happens to be, well, a bottle rack. Readymades are a great way for artists, and I use the term very loosely here, to make a fuckton of money. You take a piece of equipment –  lampshade, fork, bathtub, toothbrush, used condom, pretty much anything will do –  sign your name on it and then sell it for a truckload of money. The beauty is that you can go into a shop, buy more of the same item, and rinse and repeat until you are filthy rich. That’s pretty much what Marcel Duchamp seems to have thought when he came up with his idea for Bottle Rack, which is nowadays considered to be the first “purebred” readymade.

Here’s how it went: In 1915 Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in which he gave her instructions on how to dispose of the inventory of his studio in Paris. He mentions the old bottle rack and tells her to sign it in his name and sell it. Marcel, really, too cheap to sign your own signature? But the trend was born. Bottle racks, bathtubs, chairs… you name it.

And that was the beginning of the end for 20th century art: the readymade. Suddenly it was no longer important if you could paint or draw or work stone. It was enough now to own a pencil and a few bucks (or buckets) and to know where the nearest home improvement store was. Born was a movement that would spawn Beuys’ Fat Chair and Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and ultimately also Damien Hirst’s Pickled Shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (No, I’m not dismissing the damage done by the gradual movement from realism to abstract art that happened in painting and sculpture around the same time, but that’s a different story.)

Why have I got a problem with this? Mhm… let me see.

It all started in twelfth grade, in art class to be precise. We’re doing presentations on a selection of important styles, movements and works. And one of those is the readymade; to be more specific, Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. I knew it then, I know it now, it’s the day I meet my nemesis. A turning point in early 20th century art. I suffer through the presentation. All I want to do is shout: Why is this art? Why? I don’t get it. Didn’t then, don’t now.

Christoph Ciolek, our teacher, does. His eyes are glowing, he is truly riveted: Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso – they are all forgotten in the face of the glory and artistic talent residing in the person of Marcel Duchamp. After the presentation he announces – quite proudly, as if he expects us to burst into spontaneous applause – that our next art project will be to produce a readymade. The rules are simple: create a work of art based on an everyday object that you alter slightly. Find meaning in the mundane. Be artistic and deep, philosophical even. Be… artsy.

At this point I briefly consider killing myself. The urge deepens as I see how all my classmates actually do burst into spontaneous applause. (The reason for this becomes clear after class, when they discuss how to achieve the best results with the least amount of effort – buying and re-painting IKEA furniture is fairly high up on the list.)

Four weeks pass and the time of the project presentation draws neigh. Everyone is terribly busy being pleased with themselves.

And here they come:

1. A lamp (IKEA), its lampshade plastered with Subway napkins. It apparently symbolizes how fast food takes away our knowledge (enlightenment, get it?) of what’s healthy and what’s not.

2. A table (IKEA), with one leg sawed off, which is all about the instability of our upcoming student lives.

3. My own rather uninspired shoe that has a plaster copy of the sole of my foot stuck to it. I didn’t bother coming up with an explanation, so Mr. Ciolek does it for me. It is, apparently, about getting back in touch with nature after being coddled by technology for too long. Interesting, didn’t realize that.

4. A few teacups with plants in them. No idea what they were about, probably something to do with child labour in India.

5. The only good one, a toy gun manipulated to look like a flying dove… which is dismissed as too dreamy. I weep, despite the good grade that I got for my shoe.

What I take away from this class are two things: knowing how to approach an empty sheet of paper and that a true artist can sell anything, as long as he manages to keep a straight face. And that is after all what a lot of modern art is about. None of these people are good at anything. Many of them, just like Marcel Duchamp in 1915, don’t even touch their art personally, they pay other people to create art for them (yes, Damian, I’m talking to you, now put that skull down and be embarrassed like a good kid). Art is about doing the newest, most unthinkable things until these revolutionary ideas have actually become standard. Then you keep doing them and just pretend to be revolutionary. It’s all about keeping a straight face, love. When have you last seen a modern artist put effort into something? I can’t find the quote right now, but I believe it was Pablo Picasso who once said that in order to paint like a child one must first learn to paint like an adult. And you can see that he was good. There’s talent in all those abstract and cubist paintings. Some of his pencil drawings are spectacular. With a lot of his contemporaries and those who came after I’m not so sure of that. I’m not just talking about readymades anymore. I’m talking about how art just went down the drain in the 20th century. Just look at this guy, Alexej von Jawlensky, a particular favorite of mine. Notice how anything he made after 1919 looks kind of the same and… shit. The head to the left is one of about twenty virtually identical pictures that he did around 1930. Needless to say that they’re all considered timeless classics. One story among many. Here’s another one: Mark “fields-of-color” Rothko. An abstract expressionist. What was he trying to express, I wonder? Maybe that he really liked colored boxes. You know what Jonas calls these? Wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Where are the Rembrands and the Van Goghs and the da Vincis? Why can’t anyone just paint a landscape anymore? Because that would be boring, profane, old-school. Hell, it would almost be like actually dealing with the world that we live in. Can’t have that. Art has become afraid of saying anything other than: life is shit, nothing is certain and I’m not sure if the universe actually exists, what’s this “science” thing you speak of. Art isn’t dealing with life anymore. I don’t usually make political statements on this blog, but I assume that this decay in the meaning of art is also to a large part due to the fact that art has become nothing more than an investment opportunity, a toy, for the super-rich. Art sells for as much as never before. Art has become almost akin to stock options. To be sold and bartered and kept until it’s worth a few millions more. This gives us works such as this one: For the Love of God, by Damian Hirst. A platinum cast of a genuine 18th century human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for 50 million British pounds. I can’t even begin to say how wrong or pretentious this is. (Although, for some reason, the thing my minds keeps coming back to is this: Why an 18th-century skull?) And Damian Hirst didn’t even touch the bloody thing.

And that is what I realized that day in art class. If you can only keep a straight face and come up with a really, really good story, then you can sell anything. Or maybe an art critic will be nice enough to come up with a story for you. Like with my shoe. Or like Gertrude Stein did for an understandably baffled Picasso:

Those who attempt to explain a picture are on the wrong track most of the time. Gertrude Stein, overjoyed, told me some time ago that she had finally understood what my picture represented: three musicians. It was a still-life!

But that, I fear, is a story for another blog post. Critics, be it of paintings, movies, or literature, are a subject I’m also keen to write about. For now I merely ask: Whatever happened to works like this one? Or maybe the one below. That I’d put up in our living room.


Stone Lion
Here are some cool things from around the net. Wouldn’t want you to get bored until I post the next proper article in a year or so.

  • Before this degenerates into a stupendously long list of entirely silly things that caught my attention randomly, here is one important thing: Four of Jonas’s games from 2012 are nominated in this year’s Best of Casual Gameplay awards over at Jay is Games. (Arcadia: A Pastoral Tale and The Fabulous Screech are under Interactive Art or Experimental, Traitor is under Shooter and The Sea Will Claim Everything is under Narrative. But feel free to vote in the other categories as well.) The polls are open until the 23rd of January.
  • And while we’re on both the topic of Jonas and of important things: here is one of his articles. It’s saying some very important things about games, gender and privilege. I suggest you have a look at it. And here is a follow-up article, which should clear up any confusion on the subject of identity politics that you may or may not be experiencing.
  • And now for some silly things: It's a caterpillar, but it's also a wig!(Image courtesy of icanhascheezburger)
  • This must be the most geek-tastic invention since the wheel. Or sliced bread. I’m a bit late with this, they had a lot of publicity and a kickstarter-esque opening sale around Christmas, but as far as I can see you can still order these little beauties. I’m still going to if I ever get to have a bicycle again.
  • Here’s a comic by the Oatmeal about going to the cinema. After seeing Cloud Atlas being subtly enhanced by the soft rustling of popcorn and low whispers of “is that Tom Hanks too?” I couldn’t agree more with the Oatmeal.
  • The Oatmeal has also done another comic about being creative, but that’s gone a bit viral, so linking to it is probably futile, right? Oh… what the heck. He’s so very, very right.
  • Having a link to my Flickr account somewhere in here is a contractual thing… don’t mind it, I haven’t put up anything new in the last century or so. What do you mean you’ve never ever looked at it?!? Go, stand in a corner… and look at it.
  • I’m on Twitter now! Follow me!
  • I made these for our new year’s party. Before you ask: Yes, they do come out just as gorgeous as they are on the photos. I highly recommend this recipe.
  • And while I’m promoting other people’s cooking blogs/videos… here’s something that I accidentally found while researching gnocchi sauces the other day. It starts slow, but trust me, this is one of the best cooking videos you’ll ever see.
  • More videos: I read Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg just before Christmas. (After ignoring it for almost two years just because sampling the first page turned me into a weeping wreck for the rest of the day. I’m silly that way). I absolutely recommend the book, it is both sciency (I feel so eloquent today) and deeply moving. So here’s Alex with Alan Alda and here’s an African Grey Parrot on a buggy. And do buy that book, really.
  • Boing Boing already linked to this list of words that don’t have an English equivalent, but I still loved the list and maybe you’ve not seen it yet. My favourite might be kaelling, but I really don’t have much use for it in everyday life. (Tonight we’re having dinner with friends, so I’m thinking I’ll try out most of the food/drink related ones… mhm…shemomedjamo.)
  • And for those of you hipsters who can’t stand using lorem ipsum because it’s just been done a million times before here’s Riker Ipsum! (Although I think someone should really do a Lore Ipsum generator…)
  • Incidentally, here’s The Captain’s Summit, which is worth watching in full just to find out what Data’s three settings are. (Part one is sadly missing, but I’ve linked to part two and trust that you’ll be able to take it from here.)

And that, as they say, is it. I’m currently still in shock from having recently read a book that pretty much slaughters my all-time favourite short story and then shits all over its bleeding carcass… so yes, expect a review of The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard as soon as I feel up to it.

What Happend in 2012 and What Will Happen in 2013

As Jonas has said over on his blog, 2012 has been a turbulent year. Difficult, but also hugely rewarding.

This post was supposed to be about what we did in 2012 and, more importantly, which creative projects lie before us in 2013, but as I sit here and try writing that post I become aware of something that needs to be written first.

I had an accident in May 2012. I haven’t written about the incident on this blog, but this will come as no surprise to those of you who read Jonas’s blog regularly.

The accident itself has left little in the way of permanent physical scars. I have a patch of pink skin on my shoulder that will probably never tan again and a smallish scar above my right eyebrow. It will remain visible for the rest of my life, but as the months pass I’ve more of less gotten used to the sight.

What’s more shocking are the psychological scars. I’ve always been someone who just got back on the horse after falling off. I believe, firmly, that since the past happens to be unchangeable it’s no bloody use lamenting it. What’s done is done. The accident was maybe the first time in my life where I played the “what if”-game to exhaustion. What if I’d gotten out of the house earlier that day? What if I hadn’t ironed the blouse that I wore? What if it had rained? What if I had stopped at the bakery for a bun? And all it did was depress me, deeply, because “what if” could never happen.

Depression didn’t end there. Self-pity aside, and there was a lot of self-pity in those early weeks, there was also the enormous injustice of it all to deal with. Not only is the German legal system heavily weighed against the poor (doubly so against the non-motorized poor), I was also faced with a more criminal kind of injustice. There was, suddenly, a witness to the accident that was willing to testify against me. I was supposed to have crossed the intersection in the red. This wasn’t only infuriating because it is a lie, but also because walking/driving across a red light is a personal pet peeve of mine. In my life I’ve maybe crossed a handful of intersections in the red. All as a pedestrian, which doesn’t make it any less wrong, this is just to illustrate that I remember these incidents because they bother me. The latest one, ironically, was just two weeks after the accident, when I was so distraught over the whole wittness-appears-out-of-nowhere-thing that I crossed a street without looking. To make matters worse, the first police officer that I spoke to seemed to be convinced that I was guilty. He, a life-long car-driver, seemed actually convinced that cyclists should be shot on sight. Would you like a helping of injustice with your injustice? My mother once told me that she feels ashamed, bordering on angry, when she goes grocery shopping and the cashier asks her to lift her shopping basket from the cart to see if there’s stuff hidden underneath – I fear I’ve inherited the same impulse. Only the cashier from the story is probably only following orders whereas what I was experiencing was downright malice.

(The “witness”, incidentally, only contacted the police via the phone and could never be reached again. It’s no longer a problem.)

I apologize for rambling. I suspect that I could keep talking and writing about the accident, adding detail upon detail, and I still wouldn’t have recounted all the things that made me depressed in the weeks and months that followed. What of my bicycle, for example? I loved that bike. It was old and worn, but if I could save one object from our burning house (cats and husbands are not objects!) I would have picked that bike. (It’s a thought experiment I sometimes make… don’t ask.) The bike is trash now. The fork burst in the impact, the frame has micro-fractures. It’s very uncertain if I’ll ever see any money for that. What of the taxi driver? I never thought I was vengeful, but if he never gets behind the wheel of a car again… well, that would be something, wouldn’t it? Won’t happen though. All praise the German legal system.

Rambling. Again. Sorry. The point is that I was very depressed. So depressed that at times I would do nothing but weep for hours. I lost my creativity. Everything seemed pointless. If something like that can happen, what point is there in attempting to create something? Jonas did his best to help. And he did. He was my rock. He was relentlessly positive. Wouldn’t let me depressed, no matter what. He took care of me when I felt too miserable to leave the house. He was, maybe the biggest balm of all, outraged and fuming at each new, horrible turn that the whole affair took. His own creativity suffered, and for him being uncreative is intolerable, but he wouldn’t give up. But sometimes it wasn’t enough. And so, for months and months on end, I vegetated. I only left the house to go to work, avoided meeting friends and family whenever I could.

It improved when we went to Greece in September, but my creativity still was AWOL.

The funny thing is that I don’t quite know how it came back. I know when, though. One week in late November we were talking about making a new Lands of Dream game, maybe in time for Christmas (haha) and there it was. Suddenly I was drawing again. It was as if something inside me suddenly said “now, now, young lady, that’s enough moping, let’s do something.”

Not writing, not yet. The thing that really stopped me from blogging, besides the fact that everything seemed just too much effort in post-accident-life, was that I knew that I would have to write about the scars at some point. I started writing that article a dozen times, and never finished. Not only did it depress me, I also was never happy with what I said. I’m not happy with this post either, but I think I’ve finally understood that it just needs to get out. Capturing the accident in writing seems to rob the beast of some of its strength.

When I started this was supposed to be a post about what a great creative year 2013 was going to be and this is now how I’ll end this post. Jonas recently wrote a short overview of what he is going to be doing in 2013 and I’ll be involved in some of these projects, so you might want to have a look at that.

Besides that I will try to focus on getting back on top of writing things. Not only blogging, that goes without saying, but also short stories and my novel (which is still, sadly, in need of editing). Maybe even a screenplay or two. I always, foremost of all, wanted to be a writer. Drawing, painting and cooking is all very well, but writing is what I need to do.

Speaking of drawing… there will be at least one Lands of Dream game in 2013, maybe even more than one. And painting. Lots of painting. We’ll re-open the Compendium soon, and I’ll also try to get some sort of exhibition space for my acrylic-on-canvas Lands of Dream paintings. Or a way of selling them. Or both. But definitely something.

And finally there will also be lots of cooking in 2013. I have dozens of recipes that I want to share and a dozen more that I want to try out. This obviously also involves doing more episodes of The Starving Artists Kitchen.

So yes, 2013 is going to be great.

No Bears But Lots of Beaver

So I’m reading A Son of the Circus by John Irving right now. I used to love Irving, but as I grow older (and have more Irving reading experience) my opinion of his books has shifted from “wow, this is some crazy imaginative shit” to “oh bother… another story about bears, midgets, rape and weird sexual disorders.” Irving is the Joseph Beuys of the writing world, and his fat and honey are bears and prostitutes. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. The rest probably haven’t been paying attention.

I have, at this point, read 30 pages of A Son of the Circus, and although the story hasn’t even properly begun yet, the book is already worthy of review.

The circus referred to in the title is an Indian circus, so this book’s ursine content is probably relatively low. As a matter of fact that’s the reason why I chose this novel over the other Irvings that are still loitering in our bookshelf, a low bear quota is always a plus. It’s got midgets, though. Let’s see how Irving will manage to annoy me with those.

For now I have two other bones to pick with this novel. One of them, the smaller bone, is that the book is set in India (a country in which Irving has spent under a month in his entire life) and has an Indian protagonist who was schooled in Austria (another Irving favourite) and lives in Canada. And like all good transcultural protagonists he’s uncomfortable in Canada, feels alienated in India, and is generally at odds with where he belongs and who he is. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of similar people out there, people who for one reason or another have left their country of origin and now have trouble settling down and adjusting to a foreign culture, I think that this has become such a cliché of modern writing that it should be outlawed. Ask anyone who’s studied English Lit with a focus on transcultural studies. If they’re clever they’ll tell you that you can’t poke a stick at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who’s written extensively and stereotypically about this subject. If they’re less clever they’ll tell you that Mr. Irving is writing the shocking truth about these poor, uprooted people.

But that’s a minor complaint. Here’s the bigger one:

The 30 pages of A Son of the Circus that I’ve read make up three chapters. The first one concerns itself with how wonderfully quirky and eccentric (with just the right dash of melancholic) our protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is. And that’s okay. The second one briefly tells the story of Farrokh’s best friend, a dwarf, and how they met. Then, somewhat less briefly, it relates the story of how Farrokh once broke his nose on his best friend’s wife’s vagina while in a trapeze safety net. See what’s wrong with that? A lot, seems to be what comes to mind. And it gets better. Chapter three is all about Farrokh being at a private golf club and contemplating an image of the founder’s wife, Mrs. Duckworth. Mrs. D., now long deceased, apparently had a slight problem with exhibitionism. And Farrokh, his imagination now sufficiently fueled by this titillating bit of information, spends about five pages musing about the feel, bounciness and general aerodynamics of Mrs. Duckworth’s breasts. Now… see what’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you. Why, for the love of all that’s good, do modern writers need to obsess about sex like that? I’m not a prude, really, but I find this fixation somewhat disturbing. What happened to good old “plot”? Rhetorical question, I fear. Plot’s out of fashion, because plot means talking about the world, and civilisation, and meaning. Maybe even politics (gasp!). So instead sex has become the written equivalent of what in theatre is “naked man and a projection”. It’s what once was new and daring, something to shock the elderly out of their stupor, and what’s now so commonplace that it has become the new establishment. Absurdly, sex has become safe, and plot has become something uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this, Solar by Ian McEwan had similar problems, but this morning while talking to Jonas I suddenly happened across the explanation. And I was astounded. It’s nothing but fear of plot. A story allergy. A postmodern disease, if you will. It permeates modern literature and sucks all meaning out of novels. I wonder what Freud would make of this.

Now, I’m not saying that A Son of the Circus isn’t still going to get around to having a little bit of plot, if there’s time between Farrokh thinking randy thoughts and all the embarrassing accidents that are bound to ensue, but I still think the absolute vacuum of meaning generated by these opening chapters is worth noting. I’ll continue reading, if only because I hate not finishing a book. Check back in a week or so to see how it went.


My grandmother died today. Just like that. She wasn’t sick, not that anyone knew of anyhow. It just happened. One minute I’m calling my mom about meeting up later, the next minute mom calls me back to tell me that my gran just died.

I really don’t want to write anything about how it happened. Or when. Or who showed up to express their condolences and what they said. It really doesn’t matter. All that is family business and it doesn’t contribute anything to what kind of person she was. What I want to say, what matters to me now, is the following:

We weren’t close, to claim so would be hypocrisy. To say that I am grief-stricken would be false. I’m in mild shock. I still say “my grandparents” not “my granddad”. My brain hasn’t quite caught up with the present. But, at the end of the day, she was kind and she genuinely cared for her family. And the most surprising thing, given just how German she could be, was that she had a real sense of humour. She could make me laugh.

Adventures In Customer Support

Note: I originally wrote this several  months ago, but neglected to edit and post it. Since our phone and internet contracts are now finally running out, I thought it would be appropriate.

This is an age-old tale. Age-old in that it all started more than two years ago and age-old in that it surely has happened before to other people from other countries – in other centuries, even. As a matter of fact, I am sure that in ancient days cavemen were waylaid in their caves by travelling wheel salesmen who, unimpressed by the fact that the axle had yet to be invented, wanted to sell them Authentic Neanderthal Copperworks Wheels with Matching Sabertooth-Hide Hub Caps. And before that some guileless amoeba was wondering why that strange bacterium in the pinstripe suit kept insisting that it needed to buy ten pairs of gloves (special offer, only valid as long as the Hadean eon lasts!), when it didn’t have any hands and the primordial  soup it was swimming in was quite warm enough on its own.

Some of you may already have guessed what, or rather who, has made me so exceptionally aggravated. Right. Salespeople. To be more precise: telephone salespeople. Not as in telemarketing, those ones are bad enough, but as in people who are trying to sell you telephones and telephone contracts.

(Telemarketing is fun too. There’s one company that keeps calling to invite us to a totally free exhibition of totally high-quality totally authentic French kitchenware. Or something like that anyway, the people who call have at best a tenuous understanding of the German language and ridiculously thick French accents. It’s rather amusing, really.)

But back to my tale. Jonas and I got married in the summer of 2009. While the actual wedding was great and something that we both wanted, the event also brought us a whole lot of paperwork, mostly connected to changing my name with insurances and internet providers and the like. The one that I sort of left until the bitter end was our telephone provider. (Bitter end meaning until about a year later.) I won’t name any names, but let’s just say that their logo is sort of sickly pink and they used to sponsor a cycling team that didn’t do much except use lots of illegal substances and lose a lot. Got it? Yeah, that’s them. I should have guessed after that cycling debacle, really.

Instead of writing them a letter you only had to show up at one of their stores and say “hey, I got married the other day, could you change my name please?” That, incidentally, is the other thing that should have made me a little suspicious. I used to work for one of the bigger German cellphone providers and there you couldn’t as much as ask how long your contract was still going to last without a passport, a birth certificate and a signed and stamped horoscope. At the pink place I only needed my phone number.

Name changed. Done. Wonderful. “Can I interest you in one of our internet flat-rate offers?” asks the woman behind the counter. “No,” I tell her. I also add, quite truthfully, that I had only recently renewed our contract with our current internet provider and wouldn’t be able to get out of said contract for at least another year. “Oh”, she says, “but you’ll think about it, yes?” I answer, quite politely, that when the time comes I will weigh all my options and maybe change providers or maybe not or whatever… a year is a long time, lady. The woman behind the counter only smiles, gives me her card and wishes me a good day. And at the precise moment, in the far-off distance, the God of Fuckwits can be seen to cry tears of joy.

Three days later we have an envelope from the Tele… our telephone provider in the mail. I ignore it, they send enough adverts to deforest the South American rainforest to our house alone.

Six days later I get a phone call from them. Customer satisfaction survey, they say. “How did you like your recent interaction with our company?” I am a little flummoxed, but I answer quite pleasantly “fine.” The man seems eager for more. “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate our handling of your request?” Flummoxation increases, seeing that changing my name in my account information doesn’t leave much room for grey zones. Surely this is more of a binary-type answer? Still, they changed my name, so I say “ten.” The man continues. “Were you satisfied with the information provided by our employee?” I frown, wonder if they maybe think that the employee chose my new name for me or something, but I still say “yep.” “On a scale of one to ten?” I sigh. “Ten, very satisfied.” I reason that this is probably some sort of standard questionnaire. So I relax and let the whole thing wash over me. And then I forget about it. They’re funny, these telecommunication people.

Two weeks after that there’s another letter in the mail. Might have been three weeks, not quite sure, because (guess what) this one goes straight to the trash as well.

Five weeks after the original visit to the shop another letter arrives. Number three. This one I open, because it looks like it might have some actual content. And boy am I right.

“Dear Mrs. Kyratzes,” the letter says. “We’re very sorry to say that we haven’t received confirmation of the cancellation of your internet provider contract yet,” it goes on. “Here’s another cancellation letter that you just need to sign and send to them, in case the first one got lost,” it continues. If it is feeling ashamed of itself, it doesn’t show it. My right eyelid starts to twitch. “As soon as we get the confirmation,” the unblushing paper proclaims, “we will send you your new digital TV receiver (199,- €) and you will have access to 34 channels as well as unlimited telephone and internet usage with our new BloodyExpensiveDeluxe Package (54,99 €/Month).”

Jonas looks slightly concerned now. I am standing next to the mailbox, open letter in hand, frothing at the mouth and screaming incoherently. I concede that he might have a point, wipe the froth from my mouth, and we leave on some errand or other.

Later that same day: “[Redacted] customer service, how may I help you?” I take a deep breath. Shouting at that man won’t solve anything. Yet the temptation is there. I manage to contain my temper, but what comes out might still be the most heated telephonic monologue that I have given in my life so far. I explain. I explain about my visit to the shop and about the letters and about the frequent phone calls at increasingly ungodly hours. I especially explain about how I am not ever going to buy anything off them again even if they should turn out to be the last telephone provider on the planet. That last bit gives the guy some pause. “So you don’t like our BloodyExpensiveDeluxe Package (54,99 €/Month)?” he asks. No… I don’t. In the end I get transferred to another desk, because the first guy is bleeding from the ears and maybe also because my problem is outside his area of expertise. First day on the job, poor guy, hasn’t even learned how to butcher babies. Right.

Next dude. “Hello. [Redacted] customer service, how can I help you?” I have to repeat everything again. I can only assume that Dude #1 is sitting next to Dude #2 and that he is smirking. Maybe I’m being paranoid. When I’m done this creature doesn’t ask if I would like to switch to a different service package, thus proving that he must have some semblance of a self-preservation instinct tucked away somewhere, but instead begins to take down my complaint. Very. Slowly. When he is done enough time has passed to copy down the Bible… in Maori. He reads the thing back to me, a task which isn’t made easier by his thick Bavarian accent, and would you believe it, a tiny mistake has slipped in there. Wonder how that happened. “The customer will sign a new contract with [redacted] once her old contract has run out in eleven months,” he reads. Aha, I think, is that so? This isn’t good for my heart. I point his mistake out to him and he’s all sorry-and-forgive-me. Dude #1 is still sniggering, I presume. Never call me again, I say. Or write or anything. Close your shop in our part of town. Whatever. I make him take that down too. Then I hang up.

The moral of the story is that you should never, ever, not under any circumstances, talk to salespeople. Honest. It will be bad for the rainforest and it will be bad for your blood pressure. And doping is bad. Yep.

At least I haven’t gotten another call, letter, telegram, email or smoke signal from that bloody pink madhouse since then. That’s something.

And this is why we’re doomed

This is a fifteen-minute video in which the 51 contestants in the 2011 Miss USA pageant tell us if and why evolution should be taught in schools. Yep, you heard right. Evolution, taught in schools… yes or no? As the people at BoingBoing, where you might have already seen this video, rightly pointed out: why aren’t they asking whether creationism should be taught in schools?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why am I expecting any kind of reasonable, sane answer from the participants of a beauty pageant? There’s several reasons, actually.

First of all: these pageants, Miss America more so than Miss USA, claim that they are judging their contestants not only by how hot they look in a tiny bikini, but also by their general knowledge. Okay, I admit, Miss USA is rapidly devolving in that department. The big interview was discontinued in 2001 and replaced by a single current events question, but still…

Also: this is 2011, might I hope for a little bit of thought and knowledge from children of the internet generation? I haven’t got the strength to watch this sad testament to the state of the human race yet again, but I think none of these girls are older than 24. TV, internet, radio, there are plenty of effortless ways to get information these days (note I didn’t say libraries, I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually pick up a book, certainly not Miss New Mexico).

Thirdly: Jesus, I know a lot of these girls have been put through the pageant-grind by their overambitious parents since they were three, but does that seriously mean that they all have to be the intellectual equivalent of a small, grey pebble? I know the stereotype of the starved model whining that she’s not automatically stupid just because she’s absolutely stunning and never has more than 500 kcal a day, but has anyone ever considered that she might be right?

Apparently that is too optimistic. Yes, of the 51 contestants only four actually say that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools, but a whopping 21 add to their more or less hesitant yes that creationism should be taught as well. Or creationitism, as Miss Hawaii would say (3:30 into the video).

Ten of the contestants say that they don’t believe in evolution and I would like to add another four or five to the tally where the careful avoidance of the “do I believe” question sounds a lot like a heartfelt “suck on this, Darwin.” For comparison, only three of the girls admit to believing in evolution. It gives me hope, though, that the eventual winner was Miss “I am a science geek” California, although that could also just be put down to the fact that she’s a hot, skinny redhead.

But seriously, these girls get judged by how well-spoken and knowledgeable they appear. Note that I say knowledgeable and not knowledged. You hear that, Miss Georgia?

As it is, I hear Miss Kentucky (5:06) say “[I] honestly don’t think you can have too much knowledge about any one subject […], but I do feel evolution shouldn’t be taught in school, just because there’s so many different views on it. So many different definitions, how do you teach a child about evolution when so many different sciences won’t agree [incoherent bit]. It’s just not a subject that I feel everyone will agree on.” Ya think?

Or Miss Mississippi (7:41), who believes that ” evolution should be taught as what it is, a theory, but it shouldn’t be taught as fact.” Miss Washington (13:35) helps clear up any confusion on this count: “[…] I think science is great and that when it comes to teaching facts should be stated and we should know that facts as to how the world evolves, because it does, but as far as it comes to, y’ know, little theories and what not, I’d probably want to stay away from those […] I think facts, not theories should be taught.” Aha, thanks, I see. I think. No, wait… I’m confused.

Miss Virginia, who does look very bouncy and cheerful, very pageanty, favours a safe approach. Better not overload their little heads with too much thought, but little bits of evolution, that’s okay. I guess. What’cha call them fancy houses where them kids get that learning stuff?

And Miss Nevada doesn’t get it at all. Which would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. “I think there’s different ways to view evolution, but as everyone can probably agree upon, everything evolves. We evolve as communities that build themselves from scratch [promotes Nevada for a bit here], so I think evolution can be taught in many different ways and doesn’t necessarily have to be about people and how people have evolved, but it can also be about communities.” Aha, mhm, very interesting, but what about that Darwin fella?

Yes, well. Even if I assume that a lot of these girls were just playing it safe in order not to get into trouble with the religious parts of both audience and jury, I still think that this video shows a disconcerting trend. Many of these girls treat evolution as a theory at best and as a bat-shit-crazy idea that is to be indulged by the truly tolerant at worst. The idea that evolution should be taught in schools is often smiled at, more often met with carefully-controlled incredulity. That is scary. I would have hoped that young women (and, incidentally, men) of this day and age would be a little more tolerant and a little more knowledged knowledgeable, but apparently they aren’t. I wish I could say that I fear for America, but I mostly fear that the rest of the world isn’t very far behind.

Some nice places on the interwebs

Instead of the Epic Announcement™ that I had planned for today (which will be postponed until Sunday or possibly Monday due to a) me being too optimistic and b) things outside of my control), I’ll drop you some links instead. Because I promised a post for today and breaking promises isn’t nice.

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on the subject of Modern Art and, more specifically, Postmodern Art these days. This is one of the things that make me despair when it comes to modern art. “I wanted to give something back to the city that gave me so much,” says the artist. And that‘s what you came up with?

Luckily sometimes things happen in Germany that take my level of general despair down a notch, like this. A hotel that looks cool and that lets you pay how much or little you want/can afford. Of course they’re booked out until just after the heat death of the universe.

And here are a few videos. If you’ve never heard of Saturday Night Live’s version of Celebrity Jeopardy you lead a sad and miserable life. Here’s my favourite skit. Or, if you’ve got about two hours to spare, you could have a look at the Spoony Experiment‘s review of Final Fantasy X. And if that doesn’t cheer you up, you could always take a look at ninja cat. If that doesn’t cheer you up, you’re probably a cyborg.

Also, if you’re tired of me constantly shamelessly promoting my own pictures on Flickr, here’s me promoting someone else.

A few blogs/web-thingies that I regularly look at. The Atlas Obscura is a wonderful compendium of silly, secret and surprising places all around the globe. And Everysaturdaymorning’s Blog is a thought- provoking (and sometimes infuriatingly, stubbornly misandrist) blog run by a volunteer escort for an abortion clinic. If you’ve got a problem with abortion clinics please go away and never come back again. I mean it. Most of the women have got very serious reasons for going there. No one just wakes up one morning and says: “I think I’ll have an abortion today.”

And here’s an Asian mimic octupus chaser from XKCD for all those who are freaked out by the mention of reproductive justice issues on this blog.

Finally, and then I’ll shut up (honest), The Book of Living Magic is still out and it still needs your love and cuddles.