Real People in Fake Monster Costumes

The harder you look, the harder it looks back.

Sometimes I stand in front of words and make wild-eyed faces while visiting friends take my picture.

Sometimes I write words down.

I signed on to be a staff writer for Unstuck’s shiny new blog. My first assignment was “art”, so I wrote about my experience going to Kaiju Big Battel with my apartment’s resident wrestling expert. If giant monster wrestling and narratology are things you like, you may enjoy reading “Real People in Fake Monster Costumes”.

I’ll be writing about a different topic once a month. Non-fiction isn’t something I feel super comfortable with. That’s one of the many reasons this blog tends to languish for months at a time. I do, however, love deadlines. I think this will be a nice way to dragging me away from my comfort zone while getting me to actually write about all those neat things I’ve been meaning to write about.

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Laika (Transmission)

Here’s a story.  Laika was a stray like Sharik.  She lived in Moscow.  The program used street dogs because they thought the dogs would already know how to be cold like space is cold.  Laika was a mongrel.  She was part terrier.  Her other names were Kudryavka, Zhuchka, and Limonchik.  The American press called her Muttnik.

The other two dogs were Albina and Mushka.  One of them flew in a rocket but neither of them went to space.  Gazenko put Laika in a centrifuge and fed her high-energy gel.  The dogs were trained to live in smaller and smaller cages because in space they wouldn’t be able to move at all.

Laika was put in the satellite on October 31, 1957.  Laika left the earth on November 3, 1957.

There are three stories about what happened to Laika.

First she died when the oxygen ran out, or when she was euthanized with a serving of poisoned food.

Second she died on the fourth day when the cabin overheated.

Third she died five to seven hours into flight from overheating and stress.

On April 14, 1958, her body and her ship disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere.

There is a statue to Laika in Star City.  Star City is a real place.  They train cosmonauts there.  It feels good to say, “Laika is in Star City now.”

Gazenko said, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

No one cares about space anymore.  Laika, you were supposed to be important.

Laika I believed in you.  Laika I still believe in you.  Laika we miss you.  Laika we have been writing about space for a long time because we know this world is done with us.  Laika there are no more ships behind you.  Laika we are stuck on the ground.

Laika good dog Laika.  Good dog good dog Laika good dog.

———-

Better late than never.  Included in my thesis collection were two thematic vignettes.  One of them was what you just read.  The other is called “Lake Monsters of North America”.  I think this is the better of the two.  The overarching theme of my thesis collection was what I called “the disappointing fantastic”.  I wanted to take unusual or fantastic situations and take them apart until they were at least a little sad.  One of the inspirations for this feeling was the Cold War, particularly the technological race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  The space race in particular seemed to embody a scientific optimism that ultimately didn’t take us very far at all.  Given my age, I experienced the Cold War only in retrospect: in history, media, and propaganda.  The way I perceive it might as well be the same as how I perceive fiction.  I was also interested in history as narrative, an ongoing body of work that is constantly edited and revived as new narratives replace old ones.  The goal of this vignette was to take historical facts and fictionalize/emotionalize them.

Obviously, if you haven’t already, you should read Nick Abadzis’ LaikaIt does exactly what I’m talking about.

I’ve been slow about posting my thesis stories because I’m not entirely happy with how some of them turned out.  I was pleased with the project as a whole, but there are definitely some clunkers in there.   I’m tempted to just post my favorites and leave out the mediocre ones. I think posting it in its entirety, though, may be helpful in exorcising it from my brain.  I’ve taken lots of notes this summer, but I  haven’t written a single full story.  Maybe when I put my thesis behind me I’ll be able to start fresh.

Words, Words, Words

I might be fictional.

“You look like a character in a book,” said Bethany.

I blinked, taken aback. I felt like somebody had just cracked open my skull and was divining signs from the twists of my brain tissue. “What?” I said.

“I don’t know. The tea. The blazer. The New Yorker magazine casually placed to the side,” continued Bethany.

“Yeah,” agreed Kassandra, “I could totally see someone writing a book about you.”

I wanted to ask, “What kind of book?” I didn’t because I was afraid of the answer. If they said “a 19th century Russian novel” then I’d spend the rest of my life as a bureaucratic cog suffering from existential paranoia. I said, “Maybe I’ll write a book about myself. Nah, I won’t. I feel like that’s too… vain.”

“No, it’s not. It’s okay, because somebody else said it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I take a sip of hot black breakfast tea laced with milk. Since when did I take milk with my tea? “Everyone is always writing about themselves anyways.”

A book, she said. Not just a character. A character in a book. I am leaking literature.

The secret to happiness is to reconcile the internal image with the external self. I always wanted to become my own protagonist.

I had a friend help me re-edit a reportage piece I was working on for my Creative Non-Fiction course. In between correcting my excess verbiage and woefully faulty knowledge of Japanese rope bondage, we got into a conversation about the place of reality in non-fiction. James Frey, of course, came up.

“I just don’t understand why people felt so betrayed by it. Why was it such a big deal? If people researched all the stupid memoirs out in the airport bookstores right now they’d find lots of things that were just completely made up!” I said. I was getting angry and I didn’t know why. No, I did know why. I was getting angry thinking about all those poorly worded, heavily fictionalized, best-selling memoirs. I was getting angry thinking about the lying hacks who made a living off of their writing, something that I’m certain I could never do.

“He pissed off The Oprah,” piped another friend. True.

“I have to admit, the story becomes more interesting to me if I know that it’s true,” said my current editor.

“But why? I don’t get it, It’s all the same! Most of fiction, of good fiction, is taken from the writer’s life or their observations of other people’s lives. They take life and make it better. Rearrange the events, put words in other peoples’ mouths, have their characters say the things they wish was said. And memoirists do the same thing. Life doesn’t have snappy dialogue. If somebody took all their dialogue verbatim from life then nobody would want to read it. It’s all the same fucking thing. Who cares if it’s true as long as it’s good?”

I catch myself yelling and stop. I realize that as I was ranting I was also bouncing aggressively. This odd behavior may have been caused by the fact that my proofreading friend is much taller than me, or it may simply have been an unconscious effort to get rid of some of my buzzing physical rage. I had never realized that the expression “hopping mad” could have some factual basis.

There’s got to be a beginning. First lines are always the ones they quote for posterity.

Allison Rebecca Werner decided she would buy the flowers herself.

I am a sick girl. I am a spiteful girl. I am an unattractive girl. I think my liver is diseased.

As Allison Rebecca Werner awoke one morning from a troubled dream, she found herself changed in her bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.

That’s not even mine. I stole it. I have to be careful, sometimes, when I’m writing, that I’m not unconsciously pilfering a character, a phrase, an image from somewhere else. It’s hard to separate what came from inside of my head and what came from outside it. How can I write something new? How can anyone? I read something and I absorb the ink through my fingertips. The words run up my veins, lodge themselves in my brain and dissolve into my grey matter. My thoughts are not my own. I’ve become a literary amalgamation; even my dreams are clichéd pastiches. I haven’t been real since I learned how to read in 1994.

“If you don’t dress up like Tank Girl for Harvest Ball next year I’m going to be very disappointed,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, looking up. I was looking up because the boy I was conversing with was much taller than me. Most people are. When I asked a small sampling of friends and acquaintances to describe me in a series of adjectives the responses ware varied and often contradictory, but “short” was used fairly consistently. The word “short” can mean both “having little height” and “abrupt”. It can also mean “lacking in a necessary quality”.

“You have a Tank Girl aura about you,” he explained, waving his fingers vaguely. I have the aura of a post-apocalyptic antiestablishment drug-addled superheroine? Of course I do. I read the comics and the character became a part of my collective unconscious.

I might be fictional. Sure, I’m Tank Girl. I’m Sal Paradise, Katurian Katurian, Enid Coleslaw, Ivan Illych, Laurie Juspeczyk, K., May Kasahara. I’m–

Allison Rebecca Werner drank her tea slowly. She neglected to remove the tea bag from her paper cup, instead letting it seep until the brew was astringent and bitter with tannin. Every so often she turned a page of a magazine and it made a sound like the movement of dead leaves.

“Hey.”

Through a haze of text she became aware of someone setting a lunch tray down across from her. Allison made herself present. She looked up, dark eyes clicking into focus, absorbing the rays of light reflecting off alien topography before the facial features registered as something familiar. She smiled, quickly and automatically. She tried to act like she would much rather talk to this girl than continue to read about linguistic anthropology studies in the Amazon. She did it well.

Allison closed her magazine and slid it outside the range of her peripheral vision in order to avoid giving it clandestine glances while making necessary conversation. She brought up the easy topic of their shared class and let the words run from there. Every so often she made eye contact and smiled. Every so often she took another sip of her tea.

She liked people. At least, that was she repeated in her head every once in a while, as if to remind herself. It was just that, at this particular moment, she would obtain much more enjoyment from reading her magazine article than making small talk with the girl sitting across the beige cafeteria table.

“You look like a character in a book,” said the girl, apropos of nothing.

Allison’s smile wavered imperceptibly at the edges. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she replied lightly. It was not a compliment. It was a sentence. Those strange, simple words confirmed Allison’s underlying sense of doom. She looked like a character in a book because she was a character. She’d absorbed defining details from too many other personas and now there wasn’t anything original left. She’d finally ceased to be a real person.

That night, as she lay in bed with her eyes screwed shut, she heard terrible, decisive clacking noises, like someone in the next room was pounding on the keys of a giant typewriter. She was terrified by how resolutely final the typing sounded. A panicked, claustrophobic feeling overcame her, the feeling that her life had already been plotted out for her by some inescapable, unseen force. A few strokes of the keys and her personality would change. A few strokes of the keys and she might be scrapped entirely and cease to exist. Her mind raced and spit out nightmares.

I am being cut out of reality and soon I’ll be nothing but a blank white cut-out with crisp new edges. Cut me and I’ll bleed ink. I am being cut out of reality I am I am I am

I look like a character in a book.

——

An older piece. Written in the spring of 2007 for a Creative Non-Fiction course with Jean Thompson. The italicized portions were originally in a typewriter font. A bit gimmicky, but effective. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of my figure out how to transmit the font changes into blog form. Ah, formatting. This piece still does a remarkably good job at summing up my feelings as a reader/writer and a person/character.