Books: Based on a True Story, Zagreb Noir, Unlimited Memory
TV: The People Versus O. J. Simpson
Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by Norm MacDonald
This is comedian Norm MacDonald's 2016 memoir.
I cannot recommend this book, but I did enjoy reading it, and it's such a strange beast I feel compelled to talk about it.
First off, nothing in the book is true.
Instead of telling us about his childhood, his early stand-up, his SNL days, and his post SNL career, he just uses that as a launching-off point for a discursive, surreal tall tale that hits all the same marks as his life story, but doesn't match any of its particulars. Sometimes the book's alternative facts do possess a sort of truth — when Lorne Michaels shows up, for example, he's a smiling, friendly Canadian who carries a dagger on his person at all times. That feels right. Hell, I can't prove that Mr. Michaels *doesn't* always carry around a dagger, come to think of it. But it's still wildly counterfactual.
And second, I don't know if I've ever read a book where the author was taking such delight in getting to *write* something.
Let's face it: most books by comedians, even when they are ably ghostwritten, feel like transcriptions. They feel like stand-up material — conversational, interactive, informal — put on the page because, well, the comedian was contracted to write a book, and that's the easiest way to get this over with. Even really good books by comedians — say, Modern Romance — obey this pattern: spoken material, grudgingly transcribed.
What I did not expect from Norm MacDonald is that the man has spent his whole adult life reading, and re-reading, and loving literary fiction, mostly from the late 20th century. And now that he's writing his memoir, which is not a memoir, he finally gets to play in this form that he's long admired. So, yes, his comic voice is in there — more on that in a bit — but he's clearly taking on opportunities that are unique to writing a modern novel.
And you spend most of the book trying to home in on exactly which late-20th-century novelists *he's* trying to home in on. Is he trying to reach for Cormac McCarthy with his grim, hyper-masculine description of growing up on a small farm in Canada? Is he spinning out into Pynchon or David Foster Wallace with his bizarro-world (but *consistently* bizarro) of SNL or of the parallel, modern-day narrative of him going to Las Vegas?
Sidebar: yes, he has two narratives going in parallel. One is his life story, the other is a current-day trip to Las Vegas to try to score an impossibly large sum of money. This is the kind of book that does that, for no better reason than that it's fun.
And this is even before we get into the meta-narrative. About a third of the way in, the author — Terence Keane, a ghostwriter hired by Random House to tell Mr. MacDonald's story, and a man who almost definitively does not exist — butts into the story with long, italicized asides. (So, a third narrative. One in which, at one point, Mr. Keane angrily fills an entire page with the repeated word "splendidly".) And *that* is before the book detours into a multi-page joke delivered by a side character that is designed to read like (I think) Dostoevsky.
I can say with conviction that nobody has ever written a memoir like this before, and nobody will write a memoir like this again.
Then why am I not recommending the book?
Well, let me start here:
There is a stretch of the book where the Make a Wish Foundation puts Norm MacDonald in touch with a dying boy. The boy wants to see the SNL set for a few days. But when the boy meets Norm, he reveals that no, he *actually* wants to club a baby seal to death. And the book follows this quest with journalistic detail — the trip up to Canada, the boat onto the ice floes, and in visceral particulars, exactly what it's like to watch the boy beat the seal pup to death with an axe.
Now: it's funny in context. And it makes sense for this comedian's comic voice — Norm MacDonald has always been a provocateur. Maybe not on the order of, say, Louis CK telling blunt and uncomfortable truths about parenthood, or Hannibal Buress doing, basically, the routine that took down Bill Cosby, but Mr. MacDonald gets a lot of comic mileage out of bluntly saying the awkward things that decent people don't mention.
And there have been times he has put this to good use. For instance, his constant attacks on OJ Simpson are legendary. After the verdict came down: "Well, it is finally official: murder is legal in the state of California." You just didn't say that on the air in 1996, let alone on Weekend Update. Hell, Jay Leno's most incisive commentary about the trial was "here's a can-can line of dancing Itos". (No. Really. I'm not kidding.).
(Lorne was buddies with OJ. Norm got fired not long after.)
But in this book it feels more like he's punching down. He tells jokes about rape. A lot of jokes about rape. And jokes about assault, and child abuse, and stalking. And I feel like I get what it's going for — the frisson of someone bluntly saying something forbidden — and in this book at least, he makes it clear that the book does not have monstrous opinions about these topics, even if characters in the book ("Norm" included) are all jaw-droppingly clueless about them.
But still: you're reading a book that thinks it's okay to joke about rape. And you have to decide how you feel about that.
And the thing is, I *want* to be in a world where nothing is off-limits for comedy. I do believe that the moment you stop having a sense of humor about something is the moment you stop thinking about it. So, even with the most outré topics, usually I want to give the joke a chance.
But I think, now, I'm just done with provocation — with the very act of saying the uncomfortable thing to generate a laugh. Decades ago, it felt like provocative humor was how you "punched up". There was a ruling class that insisted on, say, never talking about AIDS as it killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And so you told jokes like a bull in a china shop, trying to punch through the suffocating, buttoned-down silence of the people in charge.
But now we're in the darkest timeline, full of literal Nazis saying "hey i think we should kill the jews" then "wut that was a joke lol u mad". Our latest plutocrats have dropped any pretense of dignity; they're not even dog-whistling any more. And so, provocation punches down, as a way to normalize cruelty, to berate the oppressed, and to smugly reject logic.
Maybe provocation always *was* like that. Maybe I'm just getting old.
In any case, the comic move is tainted now. It's stopped being fun.
And this is frustrating as hell, because as a formalist exercise, this fake memoir is a goddamn delight. It's *ambitious*, fercrissakes. It's *doing* something with the form, and it's a book that categorically did not have to be even a little bit good. But the price of admission is, you have to read a story where, say, the *existence* of a transgender woman is a running gag. I don't need that from anybody, let alone an old white rich cishet guy.
Why can't we have nice things?
Zagreb Noir, edited by Ivan Srsen
This is a book of noir short stories set in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. It's part of the "Akashic Noir" line, an ongoing series of short-story anthologies mostly set in various cities around the world.
I wasn't blown away by this book, but I did like it, and I think it's an auspicious introduction to this series.
Mainly, it's an impressive demonstration of how a short-story collection can feel like travel, giving you the vibe of a distant city you'll never set foot in. The stories mosaic together a view of Zagreb that's exciting and kind of terrifying — angry, impoverished, unstable, full of seething ethnic tensions and faded glories, rotten with corruption and feverish with incipient fascism.
It's really a perfect venue for noir stories, when you put it like that.
The stories themselves had their ups and downs, quality-wise. They open strong, with a rumor about human trafficking in an apartment block implicating one of the residents at random — he tries to turn this dangerous reputation to his advantage, and things get very bad very fast. But the stories towards the end of the book kind of fall apart. The plots disappear, and you're left with these sort of bleak tone poems. It still helps tell you about Zagreb, but you're not exactly on the edge of your seat.
(Also, there's an uncomfortable amount of violence against women in these stories. I'm sure that's accurate to Zagreb, but still: hard to read.)
Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley
This is the 2014 book by memory world champion Kevin Horsley about techniques you can use to get better at memorizing things.
This is not a good book. I'll just set that down right here at the start. I'm not saying you should judge a book by its cover, but if the cover looks kinda janky and a little MS Paint-y, and then the foreword makes a basic spelling error, then you kind of know what you're in for.
I went into this hoping for a textbook. I'd read about fascinating memory techniques in Moonwalking with Einstein, and I've been sort of dipping a toe in their application with all the bizarre (but effective) mnemonics in wanikani. So now I wanted to try taking them on directly, and learn how to readily, say, memorize a formula, or a string of digits, or a set of song lyrics (god, I'm terrible at learning lyrics). I figured I'd see a chapter that lays out the simplest version of, say, number-memorizing mnemonics, and then some exercises to practice it, and then gradually more advanced versions of the same.
What I got was... not that. What I got was, for fully the first third of the book, a sort of paraphrased Tony Robbins seminar, with homilies like "what would you do if you had no fear?" ("Well, sir, I would likely walk into traffic, convinced that the highway-speed eighteen-wheelers couldn't harm me.") After several chapters of blithe, alpha-male-framed encouragement, it finally settles into real content.
And its real content is accurate — it goes over the basic techniques of setting up mental images recounted in Moonwalking — but it's never covered in much detail, nor is it presented particularly well. The prose usually reads like bulleted lists of weirdly adversarial commands, smooshed awkwardly into paragraphs — perhaps to facilitate the speed-reading he espouses in one of his (many, many) Tony-Robbins-esque tangents.
This book made two points I found useful.
First, it explained the old number-to-sound system for memorizing strings of digits. Basically: you memorize a cipher for converting digits and consonant sounds. Then, when you want to memorize, say, "1776", you can convert that to sounds ('s/k/k/ch') then to a phrase ('sick cage') that is easy to visualize and to associate with whatever it means (I dunno, Thomas Jefferson in a biohazard cage or something; this was a terrible example).
It also talked about memorizing pre-set sequences of images. Then, when you need to memorize an ordered list, you can associate each list item with an item in the sequence. That way you get the order 'for free', and you make sure that, on recall, you don't leave anything out. (This is where the fabled 'memory palace' can come into play — you just memorize a walk through your house and all the locations you come across there.)
And that's it: two somewhat-useful tips among a big pile of successory verbiage. Not recommended.
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
This is the 2016 dramatization of the 1995 murder trial of O. J. Simpson.
It's somewhat surprising that 2016 had *two* shows devoted to 1995's "trial of the century". It's outright shocking that both of them are very, very good. O.J.: Made in America was a riveting documentary miniseries, almost relentless in using the case to examine race, media, and domestic abuse in America, and time and again proving how that double-homicide trial was not just a fascinating story in and of itself, but a fulcrum, an inflection point for a lot of American attitudes.
The People v. O. J. Simpson is every bit as smart as Made in America. I am shocked to write that, because this is a Ryan Murphy joint, but the work stands for itself. They deftly weave in a lot of the thematic material that Made in America explored in detail -- one early conversation, for example, weighs the black community's mistrust of the LAPD against that same community's sense that OJ had abandoned them, finding success, moving to Brentwood, and never looking back. They explore the sexism directed at Marcia Clark, or the way the case opened a lot of white Americans' eyes to racist police brutality.
To watch this show is to learn, by osmosis, a lot about what that case *meant*.
To my further surprise, I highly recommend watching both. Because while Made in America gives you all the facts, American Crime Story dramatizes it. More specifically, it dramatizes the sense that nobody involved knew what was coming. The prosecutors don't know how their city feels about the LAPD. The defense team doesn't know how much this will dominate the news. The cops don't know how fallible forensics can look in court. They're all making sensible, or at least understandable, choices throughout the case, but all of them are fighting yesterday's war.
It's like they're all *feeling* these issues -- the racism, the sexism, the media saturation, the willful ignorance of domestic abuse -- but they can't quite think about them consciously, or name them for what they are. And even if they did, they're issues that aren't part of the public discourse yet -- there isn't the terminology or the awareness to wrestle with them properly.
So you watch a lot of smart people do the best they can, and still wind up in a massive trainwreck.
Even Ryan Murphy winds up being well-suited to the show. The OJ trial pulled a raft of outsized personalities into its orbit -- from the arrogant and out-of-his-depth Robert Shapiro to the Nazi-memorabilia-collecting Mark Fuhrman -- and that's right in Mr. Murphy's wheelhouse. Having these over-the-top characters -- and knowing, every step of the way, that these people *really acted* like that, and these things *really happened* that way -- leaves room for relatable and nuanced performances from Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson.
Adding a tentative, will-they-or-won't-they romance between Darden and Clark sounds like an idiotic soap opera move, but this show pulls off the best possible version of that. The attraction gives each lawyer a confidante in the other, and it raises the stakes on a relationship where neither of them can 100% 'get' what the other one is going through. And they depict romance between grown-ups. People who've been through it before. People with kids. People who seem, at the edges, happily surprised that they can feel this way again.
And I loved how *expansive* this courtroom drama is. Lawyer-show procedurals usually focus exclusively on the trial lawyers doing their thing in the courtroom: that's act three; that's the point of the show; that's where the drama is. But speeches in front of juries comprise a minuscule fraction of the legal system, and these ten episodes explore everything else, mining drama out of selecting the jurors, out of disputing the admission of evidence, out of fraught plea-bargain discussions. It makes courtroom dramas feel like they're missing all the best bits by focusing so narrowly on their courtrooms.
The show is as good as everyone says it is -- a riveting legal drama that leans right into the social themes it includes. You're left feeling spent, like the case had changed everything, but there was still so much conflict and change ahead. It deserved its raft of Emmys, and it is worth your valuable time.
For next week: watching Ladybird and listening to an audiocourse about the legal system. I'm reading two books about math right now: one about using mathematical concepts in everyday decision-making, and one about '17 equations that changed the world'.
 See the inestimable Lindsay Ellis for a thorough, nuanced, and fascinating discussion of this topic.
 They had a massive sale at Amazon — I think I bought a dozen or two of these books.
 "Complement" instead of "compliment", in this case.
 For English: 0 - s/z; 1 - t/d; 2 - n; 3 - m; 4 - r; 5 - l; 6 - j/sh/ch/soft g; 7 - k/hard g; 8 - f/v; 9 - b/p.
 As with (of all things) Hamlet, it's challenging to keep in mind that the characters don't know how this story turns out.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none