Category: Books - THE CATASTROPHIZER
 
I am so thrilled by this

Not because I have little respect for lady writers, or because I think there are such things as "lady writers," or because I think as many young people as possible should be introduced to the works of Henry Miller (although I do, because it's never too early to learn that writers can both write about and be full of shit. I have more to say about hating him right here).

And not because it can be so tiring to confront and rebut complex and layered arguments that coming across something this hilariously embarrassing and stupid is kind of refreshing.

No—I am thrilled because I've been randomly kind of mean about David Gilmour for years, and now I know I was totally justified.

At some point, I will write a long and rambling and bile-filled and tiresome screed about my issues with Canadian Culture and Canadian Writing and the terrible Canadian extras on television shows who make you realize those shows were filmed in Vancouver. For now, I will simply say that for no apparent reason—I don't know him, and I haven't read much by him—David Gilmour became for me representative of all the overrated (in Canada), jowly, self-satisfied, probably-all-hands-y Canadian authors I'm familiar with only because I accidentally watched Imprint once in the '90s. 

And my fits of being mean to him are invariably prefaced with..."What's that guy's name again? You know, the one who wrote that book about wearing a blazer and jeans and wanting to have sex with some teenager on the street?"

I don't care so much about the fact that he turns up in the Globe--if I cared about that, I'd be busy writing a searingly honest and breathtakingly erotic semi-autobiographical novel about wearing a sport coat and jeans--but damn it if it doesn't bother me that he's paid to teach undergraduates. I know dozens and dozens of decent people with PhDs who are not stupid and could really use the money. Oh, and his whole "unapologetic misogyny that was considered edgy in underwhelming academic novels from the '70s" bit is probably not the best thing for budding brains already forced to deal with how stupid most things are.

And why are there so many comma splices in this article? I'd be worried David Gilmour was helping to create a generation of comma-splicing, women-denigrating, "I am Henry Miller, and my cock froths pustulant, proud outrage at the shit-lathered moon"-ing half-wits if I wasn't convinced most people have never heard of him at all.

 
I am not posting anything here this week, in part because I feel Murder She Wrote–related anticipation could use more time to really hit a fever pitch, and in part because I recently said some really nuanced and thoughtful things about literature, and they're now posted on my friend's excellent website. I use the word "douchebag" only once.
 
I've been busy doing editing homework—so busy, it seems, that the integrity of my brain has been compromised. Instead of focusing on how best and most profitably to line edit dialogue between two imaginary people I already hate, I've been consumed by my quest for the perfect sentence. By "perfect sentence," I do not mean "sentence that by way of a few, well-chosen words communicates something profound about an aspect of the human condition"— I mean "sentence involving either curse words or scatological references that sounds funny when added to any work of fiction or non-fiction."

And I think I've got it.

I'm sure you'll disagree and argue on behalf of your own personal obscenity, but I like this one. See if you can spot it in the following passage from Henry James's The Wings of the Dove:


Really at last, thus, it had been too much; as, with her own least feeble flare, after a wondering watch, Milly had shown. She hadn't cared; she had too much wanted to know; and, though a small solemnity of remonstrance, a sombre strain, had broken into her tone, it was to figure as her nearest approach to serving Mrs. Lowder. "Why do you say such things to me?"

This unexpectedly had acted, by a sudden turn of Kate's attitude, as a happy speech. She had risen as she spoke, and Kate had stopped before her, shining at her instantly with a softer brightness. Poor Milly hereby enjoyed one of her views of how people, wincing oddly, were often touched by her. "Because you're a dove. I shit you not."


You're welcome, Mr. James.

And here it is working its magic in non-fiction :

Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way.  …if we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments.  We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that – I shit you not – we’re better off that way.

All I did in that passage from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink was replace a "sometimes" with some far superior words. And voilà! One hundred per cent better.

You're welcome, Mr. Gladwell.

I think it works so well because there's something a bit fancy about it. It's kind of like what would happen if "I'm not shitting you" went to college and started affecting elbow patches and a tiny perfect bow tie.

I do not know why I'm taking editing courses: I am already the greatest editor of all time.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you're not entertained, fair enough.
 
The comments I am about to make about the George R. R. Martin books I (and every other person currently not dead) have been reading are not insightful, revealing, or original; they are really just symptoms of the terrible affliction from which I am currently suffering, an affliction which involves me wanting to talk as much as possible about the predictable and unexciting things I have been thinking about A Song of Ice and Fire.

Here are the three things I would like to say about these books (I have just started reading book four, and have not yet watched the series, because each book is 85,000 pages long and so I've been busy):

1) I feel very ambivalent about the fact that each book is 85,000 pages long. On the one hand, that is wonderful, because I would rather read these books than talk to friends (unless it's about how vividly these stories call to mind the murkier, bloodier periods of medieval history), talk to family (unless it's about how hard it is to behave honourably and not get beheaded) or talk to my guinea pig (who is surprisingly uninterested in my reflections on moral ambiguity). On the other hand, I can't take it anymore. It's like The Incredible Journey, if those animals were about to finally get home, but then found their home had been destroyed, and then had to go on the run again, and then were forced to marry a sort-of-villainous dwarf, and then soiled themselves... The lack of closure makes me happy and stimulated and extremely depressed. And the longer the story goes on, the greater the likelihood that the people who don't seem sympathetic but whom you really kind of like will kill someone you also feel that way about and/or get killed in some horrible way.

2) If I were to appear in one of the books, I would promptly die. Not only because I lack physical strength, spiritual courage, and intellectual resourcefulness...but because I HAVE NO IDEA WHO ANYONE IS. I mean, I do, for a brief, clear, shining moment. I know who the Butcher of Khas Dogol is (made up by me) and what happened when the Butcher encountered Durthan the Aggrieved of the web-footed folk (also made up by me - I am, I am not ashamed to say, less creative than George R. R. Martin and the lengthy fantasy novels I am planning feature none of his imaginativeness with all of his people-soiling-themselves-ness). For two or three pages at a time, I can recall who has pledged allegiance to whom, and which coat of arms features eight wizened peas, and which a poxy crab. And then someone else dies in an awful way, or is disfigured, or is betrayed by someone they trusted/didn't trust at all, and I lose track of it all. If I turned up in one of these books, I would almost immediately be killed because I would rush up to some familiar-looking person, forgetting he'd recently changed sides and set fifteen people on fire.

3) Not a chapter goes by without someone shitting himself. When I have the time (because hot damn, I already have the inclination), I will create a version of the series with all the parts that don't feature people shitting themselves taken out, and you'll still be looking at 85,000 pages of classic Martin.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.

 
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Vladimir Nabokov was so much smarter than you are. He was so much smarter than you are, he didn't just school you in literature; he also put you to shame in lepidoptery. 

That's right. He managed to write Lolita and to establish himself as an authority on butterflies. Obviously, being really good at two things is greedy and unnecessary, and I'd be consumed by distaste and embarrassed on his behalf if I weren't still quivering with an intense (and, obviously, unconsummated) passion for Pale Fire

"...in a speculative moment in 1945," writes Carl Zimmer in The New York Times, "[Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves."

"Few professional lepidopterists," Zimmer continues, "took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right."

He has now impressive literary and scientific reputations. Most people will never have either, and are forced to be content with being able to a) occasionally finish a crossword puzzle in one of those newspapers you get free on the subway and b) remember five of the 118 (had to look that up) elements in the periodic table.

However, it's worthwhile noting that Nabokov's theory about the Polyommatus blues was only tested because a Harvard biology professor (Dr. Pierce - let's give her her due) began reviewing his work while preparing an exhibit in honour of his 100th birthday. So even if you do, say, manage to be an inspired lepidopterist, it's entirely possible your claims will never be validated during your lifetime and that you'll never be famous enough in any other discipline for Harvard professors to reevaluate those claims after you're dead.


Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.


 
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Dear Catastrophizer -
A concerned query: is it possible that pessimism could be seen as merelyapotropaic --i.e., unconsciously intended to ward off evil by imagining the worst (whereas optimism could be seen to be hubristic--i.e., asking for it...)?

It's absolutely and entirely possible. In fact, I think it might be unavoidable, especially now that I know it has such an impressive name. All the kids will be doing it ("Johnny, come down from your room right now and stop being so merelyapotropaic!").


It's also something that must be guarded against. Catastrophizers must sincerely and unremittingly expect the worst. They must not go unconsciously doing anything in a doomed attempt to safeguard themselves. No amount of negative thinking can protect you from all the terrible things that will undoubtedly happen to you.

If you wish to remind yourself that the worst really is bound to happen, just follow the following simple steps:

1) Watch any movie by Bergman.
2) Drink a pot of coffee.
3) Go to bed and cuddle up with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych.
4) Remind yourself repeatedly that while optimists and pessimists may disagree over the likelihood you'll be killed in a plane crash or struck by lightning while falling from the 23rd story of a high-rise and suffering from small pox, no one, no one can argue that you're not going to die. Nope. Even if you miss every car crash and disease, you'll be dying at some point. You will no longer BE. Of course, it's also possible that your self-awareness will be compromised by senility before you die, so that might take the edge off.
5) Sweet dreams.

It's in fact imperative you do this, even if you are a devoted and dutiful Catastrophizer. As any PBS special or old person will tell you, our culture tries desperately to deny the fact that we're all going to die. We try to hide our wrinkles and our old people as best we can. We obsess over life-prolonging treatments and diets as though a acai-berry smoothie will cancel out mortality altogether. We avoid confronting other people's deaths by natural causes by, as I said before, shuffling off our elderly to old-person ghettos (unless they're wealthy, in which case they may be lonely and un-visited, but they at least get to play golf on a Wii). 

Our popular culture provides us with no memento mori art. We have Beckett's Pozzo saying, "We give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" in Waiting for Godot, but who reads that past college? Who actually reads that in college? 

It's possible there will be more open discussion about everyone dying when the Baby Boomers get even closer to it. If they haven't already, they will soon be realizing that their generation is going to be dying en masse in the very near future. 

And unless or until you have a human skull to stare at, keep this idea in mind: you won't be far behind. 

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HEREI will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.
 
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What follows is my interview with acclaimed YA author Y.S. Lee, author of the dispiritingly good A Spy in the House (the cover of which I have altered, just in case there was any doubt), the first in a series of three novels set in Victorian London. The book is available in North America as of tomorrow, so rush out to your nearest reputable or disreputable bookseller and purchase it.

Y.S.: Catastrophizer, I need to warn you that all my answers today will annoy and disappoint you. This is not because I’m trying to pre-catastrophize this interview but because I’m a combination upbeat/nervie. Having said that, thank you SO MUCH for having me here – you’re awesome! (Although I’ve probably already committed all manner of inadvertent illiteracies and thus earned only your undying disdain, rather than disgust.) Okay. Let’s go.

C: What do you think about death, and how often do you think it?

Y.S.: My death date is fixed and there’s nothing I can do to change that, so there’s no point in fearing it. I guess I’m either a fatalist or spectacularly in denial. Same difference? 

C.: What has been the greatest disappointment of your life and have you enhanced or rationalized it?

Y.S.: My greatest disappointment is a pattern of quitting things that I wasn’t naturally, effortlessly, instantly excellent at – ballet, music theory, and organic chemistry. I went on to overcompensate for such early scenes of shame by making myself finish things I really didn’t need to – eg, a PhD in English literature. I am intellectually lopsided but no longer 100% a quitter, and that is rationalization enough for me.

C: Your books are richly detailed and inventive, and as such, I resent you. Do you ever fear that the ideas in your head will run dry, as though they were a river made up of ideas that ran dry?

Y.S.: No. 

C: Your protagonist, Mary Quinn, is plucky, funny, resourceful and determined. Why create such an unrealistic and unappealing role model for young people?

Y.S.: It’s essential for all people – not just young ones – to have unrealistic role models. Without these remote ideals, how can we measure the dissatisfying inadequacy of our daily lives? And where would we escape when confronted by the crushing reality? Without escapist fiction, we would be forced to perform clichés like pulling up our bootstraps and changing our ways. With fiction, we can instead feel the benefits of transformation without exerting ourselves.


Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.
 
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A question! A veritable question! From someone I don't know! Or at least, from someone I haven't known for that long! At least, not for longer than ten years! Or so.


Your friend has published a novel. It is, of course, terrible. In fact, it's worse than terrible: reading more than one sentence actually makes you nauseous. And now your friend is asking if you've "had a chance to read it yet". What should a good Catastrophyte do?


1) Feel violently jealous and allow yourself to be seized by a devastating sense of personal failure. The book may be execrable, but it is also now published and it is well known that many consumers lack the gag reflex.

2) Good catastrophytes desperately fear conflict of any kind because it will undoubtedly bring about the end of a friendship or, possibly, yelling. So the first response to this situation should be: stalling. You've been busy at work. You've been sick. You've been sick at work. You've really been feeling down. Pull them all out. If your friend persists, and some strong souls will, proceed to 3).

3) Clearly you cannot tell the truth. That would be both foolhardy and brave. And totally unnecessary. If you told the truth, your friendship would obviously either be finished or irrevocably damaged. If you've been passive-aggressively attempting to extricate yourself from this friendship for years, by all means, be honest. But if there's still something to be gained for you from this relationship, there's only one thing you can do: lie.

4) Lie. I cannot say this enough. LIE. Don't compromise your principles entirely; just lie a little bit. Let's try it. I loved your chapter transitions. The font choice was very believable. I always thought you'd be capable of writing such a book. Or, simply gaze at them, clasp your hands together earnestly and make low, keening noises. That can be interpreted in any number of ways.

5) This is yet another truly delicious catastrophizing scenario because it gives rise to a larger question. Why are you friends with someone who writes nauseating prose? How's your prose?

6) What's so beautiful about this is that it will have a lasting impact on you. If you are really convincing when you lie ever so slightly to your friend, you will learn never to believe any compliments paid to you ever again.

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.


 
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If death were an encounter with an aquatic creature, which one would it be? I tend to think it would have something to do with a member of the cephalopod family, but for the purposes of this post, I am providing myself and you with only two choices: shark or dolphin.

I'm not going to do anything original or creative with these options. As such, the shark is the Bad (BLOOD IN THE WATER) One, and the Dolphin is the Good ("Pardon me, but does your ship need saving?") One.

So which one will you meet when death Comes For You? Obviously, it depends on whom you're going about asking. Those without belief will unerringly go for the shark. It's vicious. It's unerring. It's kind of cool. It will eat you without compunction and then go off to find a momentarily unguarded cephalopod and eat that as well. When death is an encounter with a shark, it means nothingness, extinction, no one being able to hear you scream if you were able to scream anymore which you emphatically are not.

And then you have the dolphin. Ah, the dolphin. Super-intelligent, but somehow not cool because of all the tween girls and "spiritual" adults with dolphin tattoos and necklaces. The dolphin death people are those with a belief in some kind of benevolent post-death experience. You run into the dolphin (death, in this analogy - follow closely, won't you?) and it greets you with smiles (really not a smile, just a physiological characteristic, but in this analogy, it's a smile) and friendly guidance. "Come with me," it says. "I'm like the boats at the end of Lord of the Rings. I will take you to another country. I will not eat you up like that son of a bitch Shark."


So which death scenario is correct? Do we believe in the cool, sharky atheists, or the friendly pious dolphins?

I believe in neither. Because both are based on some kind of faith. If we have a problem in mathematics, we can go and see the best mathematician and he (field still largely dominated by men, alas) will either give you the answer or tell you to get the hell out of his cramped bungalow. Ditto business (except for a far larger house)...English literature (although all answers will be provisional and totally unhelpful)...medicine (actually, still many advances to be made, but my point is that advances CAN be made)...but have a question about death, and where can you go? Whom can you ask? 

"Oh, see a priest," someone would undoubtedly say. And the priest would tell you what he (field still largely dominated by men) really BELIEVES will happen. "Oh, see an atheist with a book on the New York Times bestseller list," someone else would undoubtedly say. And the atheist would tell you what he (it's either Hitchens or Dawkins) really BELIEVES will happen. They don't know anything. Both belief systems are BELIEF systems. There is not an expert in the world who can give you any real insight into death. The smartest people who have ever lived would be unable to help us because they are either alive and therefore cannot research the subject, or they are dead and can't publish the research. 

So choose: shark or dolphin. You have a 50/50 chance of being something close to correct. Or do what I do and choose neither. That way, you can spend the rest of your life haunted by your own ignorance and the malign mysteries of the world. 

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.


 
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I am going to include a whole, unexpurgated poem below (but in tiny font, so that it seems slightly less important than my writing and so that it doesn't make this post look excessively long), both because it helps to establish my intellectual credibility and because it's the complete darn poem that scares me so much. Here it is:

Aubade - Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.


The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Allow me to summarize the poem: we are all going to die. Everyone claims to know this, but if everyone really knew this, wouldn't everyone be rushing about, grabbing everyone else by the shoulders and crying: "Oh my God, we're all going to die!"

We spend so much time worrying about ways in which we can die prematurely. What if we are trapped on this sinking ship? What if we become inside-tummy-friends with that peckish shark? What if this monorail is unstable? We concentrate so much on potentially avoidable disasters that we forget that even if we escape that ship, out-swim that shark (highly unlikely, by the way), travel safely on that monorail, we are headed for death nonetheless.

Have you seen
Up? Don't. It's one of the most genuinely wrenching films ever made. In it, and this is in the first five minutes so I'm not really giving that much away, two people who love one another manage to avoid dying "too soon", spend a great deal of time together, and love one another faithfully and truly for many years. Until they are very old. What happens when we are old? Even if we managed to sidestep the scourge of the flesh-eating disease in our youth? We die. So death happens to one member of this couple, and do you think it's perfectly fine because they are old and have had "good lives"? No. This is one of the few films that depicts a romance between people who are now old, and it indicates that loss doesn't get any easier. 

Now I feel low. But that's how I felt when I began this, so I suppose I shouldn't be astonished. But wait...did I mention that Up also features a genuinely adorable dog? Who talks like a person? That's something.
POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.