Talk Show 12: with Quinn Dalton, Owen King, Adam Langer, Nelly Reifler
Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and a story collection, Bulletproof Girl. Her third book, Stories from the Afterlife, was published November 2007. Visit Quinn at www.quinndalton.com.
Owen King is the author of We’re All In This Together: A Novella and Stories, and the co-editor (with John McNally) of the forthcoming anthology, Who Can Save Us Now? His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Bellingham Review, One Story, and Subtropics, among other publications. He lives in New York. Visit Owen at www.owen-king.com.
Adam Langer is the author of the novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, and Ellington Boulevard. He is also the lyricist for the musical companion piece to Ellington Boulevard. He is currently working on his fourth novel and a memoir entitled My Father’s Bonus March. Visit Adam at www.adamlanger.com.
Nelly Reifler is the author of the collection See Through. Her fiction has been published in Bomb, McSweeney’s, Post Road, Black Book and Jubilat. A regular column on faith and religion (or the lack thereof) can be found at www.nextbook.org, and her lazily maintained website is www.nellyreifler.net.
––What book would you include in a time capsule and why?
Dalton: My favorite books—A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Pretty Birds by Scott Simon. I would put both in because they so beautifully—and hysterically in the case of Dunces, tragically with Pretty Birds—capture a time and place. They are great stories. They put you on a certain street on a certain day. And readers fifty years from now should know about those streets and the people populating them.
King: I’m going to assume that there’s a compendium version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy available somewhere and put that in. (By the way, we need to be very careful about selecting and sealing our container. For those of you who didn’t see the photos: in Tulsa, a Plymouth was buried in 1957 for excavation at the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial. Awesome idea, right? Not so much. At some point that capsule had flooded, so when the Plymouth emerged from its grave it appeared to have been afflicted with what appeared to be a particularly malignant case of car-leprosy. Yuck. Even fifty years after my own internment, I expect to look better.)
While I believe that Ian McEwan is probably our finest novelist writing in English—with Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon snapping at his heels—Pullman’s fantastical young adult trilogy provides the most timeless evocation of our world that I’ve encountered. The series is essentially the chronicle of a war against god, a god who has abandoned his duties and dwindled to a ghastly little figure in a glass box, propped up as the standard of craven zealots of every stripe. It’s a metaphor for our times, an affirmation of reason and humanity in the face of the pestilential fundamentalism that has so thoroughly infested our world.
Also, the books feature some ass-kicking armored bears. The optimist in me says that the people of the future will still recognize how awesome that is—bears wearing armor and kicking ass.
Langer: If you wanted to reflect what living in 2007 or thereabouts was like, you’d probably have to stick a memoir in there, one of those supposedly all-revealing but actually self-mythologizing books, some purported confessional or tell-all written by some guy who’s name rhymes with schrei or even Chronicles, by Bob Dylan, a book I loved, though I only believed about half of it. Instead, I’d choose a book that suggested we lived in a more elegant, nuanced, and truthful world, one where subtlety reigned and indeterminacy was favored over certainty, a world where people had been so very eager to read The Florist’s Daughter, by Patricia Hampl or Listen, by Wendy Salinger that they had buried those books in the time capsule instead of some more obvious choices.
Reifler: David Ohle’s Motorman was first published by Knopf in 1972—and then it was out of print until 2004, when it was republished by Third Bed. It’s a dystopic little tome. Our hero, Moldenke, once had a life that was “free and new green, bright suns behind him, spirals ahead.” But he has been manhandled and winnowed down bit by bit, through the replacement of his one fragile human heart with multiple sheep hearts; the sacrifice of his feelings to the cause of the mock War; the loss of his woman, Cock Roberta, who has been institutionalized for her compulsive punctuating. When we meet him, he is under surveillance, forced to stay inside his quarters, harassed, constipated, addicted to drugs. He’s unsure whether or not he killed a couple of humanoid jellyheads. In its own queasy way, Motorman is as good a portrait of its era as any of the more literal books that were its contemporaries. But the reason I’m putting it in my time capsule is that it’s also an eerily perfect picture of this moment. Or the way this moment feels to me. Sitting in my apartment on Atlantic Avenue with the monstrous condominium construction grinding outside and shaking the earth, my neighbors gingerly making their way up and down the stairs in their burkhas, the mock War thriving and mutating, everybody’s hearts seeming to becoming sheeplike, I often feel like Moldenke.
Dalton: Bull Durham, not because I think it’s the best movie ever made (even if thought I could say such a thing about a movie) but because, like my book choices, it is a love story wrapped in a lost cause. The original Durham Bulls stadium where the movie was filmed has since been relegated to little league games and what not, just like Greensboro’s War Memorial—both given up on in favor of slicker digs. The movie came out twenty years ago and already the places it depicts have ceased to exist in the same way. I saw it when I was sixteen and I thought it was such a smart comedy—I was so ready for it after the Brat Pack years (apologies, and read my homage to Sixteen Candles in Don’t You Forget About Me.) Plus it’s set in the south and my family had moved to Ohio a few years earlier from South Carolina . When Annie Savoy said “Oh, my,” it was music to my ears. Plus I was on a date and in love. Plus, watching it recently, I thought: no email, no texting—you only see one phone call in the whole movie. Bliss. But me loving a baseball movie? Who knew? I’ve never sat through an entire baseball game…well, I’ve sat through them, but not paid attention. I guess I like the idea of baseball more than the reality. In general, I love the idea of things more than the reality. And I don’t think it was a baseball movie at its heart anyway. It’s a good old-fashioned romance with some well-placed literary references. The quote from Walt Whitman at the end will always make me teary-eyed.
King: No Country For Old Men is the best movie I’ve seen this year, and another work of art that’s representative of our age, albeit in a way that’s a good deal more harrowing than the Pullman novels. This is the other side of the coin, where an apocalyptic force—the crazy-eyed Javier Bardem—cannot be understood or bargained with or stopped, ever. It’s interesting to note that the film has been a box office disappointment. One of the unhappiest tendencies of our nation over these last few years is the collective shying away from the real, repugnant human cost of the war in Iraq. I say this from a position of complete guilt; I recently quit reading the newspaper, cold turkey, because it simply made me too depressed. No Country For Old Men might as well be page A-1 of the Times: good-hearted people strive, and fail, and die, for no reason.
Did I mention that this movie is not the feel-good-hit of the year?
I also want to add that it’s directed by the Coen Brothers with an exceptionally novelistic eye for detail. At the beginning of the movie, Chigurh (the bad guy, played by Bardem) uses a pair of handcuffs to strangle a police officer. The camera holds on Bardem’s face for an uncomfortably long time. He’s pulling so hard on the handcuffs that he appears on the verge of an aneurism. When it’s finally over, when the officer is still, when Chigurh is just lying there breathing, the camera slips away to show us the linoleum, which is tracked with a constellation of black scuff marks from officer’s boots. It’s a horrible, perfect detail. I wish I’d written it.
Langer: I’ve always been a sucker for the overblown movie, the book that reached out for the big brass ring and came crashing down to the ground empty-handed. The more appropriate movie for the capsule would probably be something ironic, smart, and knowing, something from the playbook of Alexander Payne or Richard Linklater, both of whom I like a good deal. But I’d prefer people in the future to think that we lived in more artistically ambitious times, that we were a more warm and open-minded people with greater attention spans. So, I’d stuff the time capsule full of the last three Wim Wenders’ movies (Million Dollar Hotel, Land of Plenty, and Don’t Come Knocking), all of which are beautiful failures. I might even splice bits of them together—the lover’s leap from Million Dollar Hotel, the final breathtaking shot of Land of Plenty, the exteriors in Don’t Come Knocking—to create some crazed triple bill. And if there were room in the time capsule, I might toss in Terrence Malick’s The New World, Alain Resnais’ Hearts, and just about everything that Cedric Klapisch has done, to make the future think that we were watching all these movies. After all, in the future as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy has taught us, the most popular film will be one called Ass.
Reifler: I always thought that if it were the end of the world, or you were about to die with a group of people, you would rise in that moment to your highest possible moral and spiritual potential. I imagined that you’d embrace the person closest to you, absolve them of what haunted them, and tell them that you loved them—even if you had never met before. I’d had a reservation to travel on United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. I cancelled it when I got a cheaper flight on Jet Blue. Flying across country that morning we watched in real time on our little seat-back television sets as the World Trade Center collapsed, and I saw images of the wreckage of the airplane I might have been on. CNN announced that flights remaining in the air would be shot down by the military if they did not land immediately. We were not yet descending. I moved to touch the young woman next to me; we’d been chatting amiably at the beginning of the flight. She pulled away from me and pressed herself against the window, turning her face from mine. I can tell you without giving too much away that in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice we spend time with a small group of people in the hours and moments before Armageddon. But the movie is not about the apocalypse: it is about those people. They don’t hug and console and absolve; knowing the world is about to end does not make them suddenly perfect. It’s a beautiful movie, and it was Tarkovsky’s last opus. He made it in Sweden, using some of Bergman’s regular crew. I can’t tell you about the sacrifice at the center of the movie because that would give too much away. I can say, though, that the ending fills my heart with hope… and that is just one of the many reasons I am putting it in my time capsule. It would be both a warning and a hopeful call.
Dalton: Third Rock from the Sun because it did such a great job of commenting on the oddities of our society through a band of aliens masquerading as humans. Because William Shatner as The Great High Head made me laugh so hard I almost swallowed my tongue.
King: Pants Off Dance Off. This is the show on Fuse where exhibitionists shake it, and then take it off, while a music video plays on a screen behind them. What’s really kind of sweet about the show is that most of the contestants aren’t exactly hard-bodied. I feel like the relative success of this program is proof that our time and place isn’t entirely without a certain charm: we may have irreparably fucked up the world, but we did get naked and dance. We had some merit.
Langer: I wouldn’t be surprised if The Simpsons will still be running in 2058, so no reason to put that in the time capsule. And I’m sure 30 Rock will still be available on DVD too. So no need to stuff that in there either. Instead, I’ll burn a copy of the no-budget show Yacht Rock, the first and one of the funniest shows I ever saw on Youtube, which has allowed me to maintain my familiarity with pop culture without having had cable for more than five years.
Reifler: I’d put in the original Star Trek. Boy, is that not how the future will turn out. But wouldn’t it be cool if it did? And wouldn’t it be cool for the people of 2058 to see what their great-grandparents made of outer space? All the different alien cultures, some complete with empresses in sexy costumes? All the different mental afflictions you could catch from the atmospheres of various planets? Creatures that look like chilled omelets flying through the air and attaching themselves to people?
––What pop ephemera and why?
Dalton: What is pop ephemera?
King: The soul of Lou Dobbs. My thinking here is that if we could somehow extract this tiny, midnight-black moth from Mr. Dobbs, then perhaps future generations could study it, and try to determine how someone can so abruptly go completely fucking nuts. Is it a virus? Is it contagious? If Lou Dobbs’s soul bit me, would I suddenly develop an irrational hatred of impoverished, brown-skinned people? Would I dream of building an impervious bubble over my entire country, a bubble made entirely of quick-drying outraged-old-man-spit, and constructed solely by industrious little angry-old-man-imps? I don’t know. We don’t know.
We just don’t have the scientific apparatus to properly understand Lou Dobbs’s soul. Put it in the capsule—and for God’s sake, wear gloves while you’re doing it. That thing is dangerous.
Langer: It would be nice for the people of the future to wonder if we were Luddites after all. So, I’ll put in my typewriter, my 78 rpm record player, and my Sony Walkman cassette player. Just to keep everybody guessing.
Reifler: The time capsule has a hard drive, right? Into it I will download the 3.8 MB of Outkast’s song “Hey Ya.” The song is insanely infectious, and it spread like the flu for many months before it became a dormant, low-level virus. But there are reasons that this particular addictive song gets included: A) it’s more complex than you might think. Beyond “shake it like a Polaroid picture” and “I don’t want to meet your mama, I just want to make you cumma” is a narrator who mocks the youthful, romantic ideas about love and relationships that he once had—but who, in growing up and becoming rational and realistic about desire and emotional attachments has also become a boor. A boor who rhymes “mama” with “cumma.” But more than that, I’m putting those MBs in my time capsule because B) Outkast is a product of the highest potential and very best qualities of our culture. Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Antwan Patton (Big Boi) became friends and collaborators when they were students at the Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta. It’s a magnet school for the visual and performing arts, and it has a diverse student body. Andre is also a painter; Antwan is a passionate Kate Bush fan. Their influences are fantastically expansive. Outkast, for me, is the best example of popular culture in America. Even if they did get sued by Rosa Parks.
Dalton: Who can say? I am 36. I hope to be around to defend them.
King: Well, I hope they’ll get a small, but accurate snapshot of our world: a world at war, a world of valiance, a world of pessimism, a world of bare-assed dancing, a world where Lou Dobbs was up to no damn good.
What do I think they’ll make of the capsule? I think the people of 2058 are going to be fully aware of the consequences of our behavior, and therefore they won’t have much patience for our explanations. They’re the ones who are going to have to make the peace and build the levees.
Langer: The fun of burying a time capsule would be to attempt to change history—or at least to attempt to change perceptions of history. For this reason, I would try to fill the time capsule with items that perhaps weren’t popular during our time but should have been, with objects that are perhaps all too unreflective of the early 21st Century, giving those who stumble upon it the opportunity to reassess our times.
Reifler: You know what? If there are people alive on the planet in 50 years to open my time capsule, that’s enough for me. Would they have my verbal explanations along with the objects? If so, I really hope they smile and shake their heads at the darkness and confusion I felt about humanity in 2008. I hope that Outkast wins.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.