In honor of Paris Hilton’s sentencing…

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… I’ve decided to reprint, for your pleasure, my 2004 review of Paris’s “Confessions of an Heiress”:

“All Ways We’ll Have Paris”
by Sean Ferrell
A response to “Confessions of an Heiress” by Paris Hilton
Cecil Roethke and Mr. Smith waited in the empty warehouse. The dust kicked up by their shoes glowed in the sun shouting against the grimy eastward windows. It wasn’t yet midmorning, Cecil thought, and I’m already exhausted.
“I don’t get it,” Mr. Smith said, his camouflaged blazer and vest making him both hard to see and dapper. “Why so close to L.A.? Shouldn’t we be somewhere out of the way?”
“She’s in the middle of a book tour and she’s got high profile fashion shows and sporting events to hit. She could barely make time for this meeting as it was.” Cecil looked at his watch. Not yet midmorning and she was almost two hours late. Right on time for her, probably.
“How come a top level assassin is writing books and starring on television and all those movies I hear about.”
“Part of her cover, Smithie. Illusionist’s technique. Make everyone look one direction, go in the other.”
Mr. Smith nodded as if understanding but Cecil knew he didn’t get it. Unless there were shivs and garrotes involved, Mr. Smith didn’t understand anything. Cecil dabbed at some sweat budding on his forehead. Not yet midmorning and it was hot as an easy bake in the CIA’s only remaining warehouse in L.A. The other warehouses had been rented out to the Immigration Department for “storage.”
Mr. Smith coughed. “She’s late, right? When was she supposed to get here?” He was sweating too. Cecil could tell by the way he was walking.
As Cecil lit another cigarette a voice from the rafters answered, “We were supposed to meet ten minutes before you guys arrived. I’ve been waiting to make sure you weren’t followed.” The figure of a woman in a skin-tight, black leather catsuit, Dolce & Gabbana if Cecil knew his catsuits, descended on a nearly invisible silver line from the ceiling. Mr. Smith already had a gun pointed and warily circled to her far side, made her the mid-point on the line between Cecil and himself.
Cecil took a drag from his cigarette. “You keep a close eye on your appointments, Ms. Hilton.”
As she ripped the leather mask from her face Paris Hilton said, “Always, when my life is on the line.” She threw a hip toward the west wall creating a healthy curve on her good side. Her smile was vacant, inappropriately perfect for any occassion, Cecil thought. Her left eye squinted a little more than her right.
“Tall drink of water,” Mr. Smith observed. Cecil waved him quiet and tossed his cigarette in the direction her hip pointed. Clattering sounds came from the roof. It was Fatty and Dunkirk, two more from Cecil’s team, handpicked by him and “Those In The Know” in D.C. His team answered to an acronym inside an acronym. He’d long ago forgotten what the acronym’s acronym was. Fatty and Dunkirk stood guard up top and amused themselves with throwing stones at pigeons.
After several odd moments of staring at Paris’ impossibly thin nose Cecil croaked out, “You have the book?” Why were his cheeks so flushed, he wondered.
“Right here.” She heaved a leather satchel up from her side. It was from the Gucci espionage line. It wouldn’t blow up if tampered with by the wrong hands as much as revert to an out-of-fashion model when in a highly embarrassing public setting. Then it would blow up.
“How do you move so quietly?” Mr. Smith asked as he watched the book trade hands. Another rattling of stones from the roof.
“Nike Airs, 2006 model*. From after Jordan’s next comeback.”
Mr. Smith nodded approval.
Cecil flipped calmly through page after page of “Confessions of an Heiress.” One-hundred and seventy-eight pages, nearly all photos. The brilliant pink cover screamed both “Run away” and “Look at me” at the same time. The Daisy Duke pose on the back was ironically ignorant, or ignorantly ironic. Cecil’s brain stopped functioning for a moment. When it unfroze he said, “Your list of ‘Instructions on How to be an Heiress,’ that’s a little dangerous don’t you think? “Number 13: Act ditzy. Always lose things.” You’re revealing that it’s an act aren’t you?”
A click and squawk from above. Fatty’s high pitched giggle squealed out.
“Not a chance,” Paris sighed. “It’s written in such a way that people will think I’m trying, but failing, to be funny. Those who like me will love it. Those who don’t will see it as unintentionally funny. They’ll make fun of me for trying to make fun of myself and still being blissfully unaware.”
“They won’t buy it. How could they? No one is this–”
“Trite?” She laughed. “You black ops guys are so silly.” She swung her body to the other side. Now it was her good side. How is it possible to have two good sides, Cecil wondered. Or are they just equally not bad?
Paris strutted toward him. “It’s all based on my show and the sex tapes. I’ve positioned myself to live down to the worst qualities expected: ignorant, entitled, slutty–and I’ve made them my strengths. There’s no going up in the public’s eye, but no going down either. I’m just there, constantly. And since I’m always there I’m constantly re-suggesting myself. I’m that jingle you can’t get out of your head. I’m the chain of stores that is around every corner. I’m a pop-up window. I’m spam.”
Cecil was just starting to understand when two loud thuds from the roof made him jump. Mr. Smith pulled out his .357 again and Paris pulled out a gold plated Louis Vuitton semi-automatic. Pearl handle.
“That was no pigeon,” Mr. Smith whispered.
From the corner came a snapping sound, a camera flash, and an evil chortle. A small man in a Nicole Ritchie mask ran across the dirty floor and dove at an open window. Leaping to the ledge he spun around, gave them the finger and shouted something meant to curl their toes, and dropped out the window. Cecil couldn’t understand through the Nicole mask. He made a confused grunt.
“Huh?” Mr. Smith echoed.
Paris, shifted her weight back to her other good side and snarled, “It’s the North Koreans. They’ve been trying to blow my cover ever since the first sex tape.”
Before Cecil could even realize that a picture of them would blow all their covers Paris sprinted across the warehouse floor. She hurled herself, not through the open window the spy had used, but headed for a large, dirt smeared plate glass window at the east end. Just as the silhouette of the spy fell on the glass Paris leapt high into the air, curled upon herself and cannonballed straight through the glass.
Mr. Smith lowered his gun and said, “Is it just me, or is it getting turned on in here?”
Karate chop sounds could be heard coming through the broken window as small glass shards fell from the frame and tinkled on the ground below. Before the final piece dropped Paris re-entered through the door. She dragged the limp body of the spy with her, the Nicole mask dangling from one ear.
Paris’ skin tight leather was shredded. She pulled disdainfully at it with a loud shout, removing the tatters. “Italian crap! D&G my ass.” She was left in nothing but a bright pink bikini, silver dollar sized bra cups with a tortilla chip sized panty triangle at the crotch. Her hip bones pointed at the two men standing before her, each at an enticing angle matching that of her pistola.
“You boys want to put your tongues away and take care of this guy for me?”
Mr. Smith’s gun dropped to the dirt. “Boss, I think I’m in love.”
“We all are, Smithie. And we hate it.”

*Note: this story was first published in 2004. 2006 was the future back then. How naive, right?

Reading PKD

phil_dick.jpgIt’s exciting when writers you admire get a write-up in the NYTimes. In this case, it’s almost a belated obit. Charles McGrath does a nice job of paying homage to Philip K. Dick. Like the Times’ obituary for Vonnegut, this hits me in an especially sensitive spot because Philip K. Dick is a very influential writer for me. I discovered him through the movie BladeRunner and have read I don’t know how many of his books. I try to space them out lest I finish all of them and have no new books to pick up. I reread him several times a year and have two short stories which, while not sci-fi related at all, include scenes which are heavily, heavily influenced (no, not plagiarized, I didn’t go that far) by Mr. Dick’s writing in “The World Jones Made.”
Mr. McGrath rightly touches on Mr. Dick’s obsession with reality, divinity and authenticity. He ignores the author’s politics for the most part, which is unfortunate, because Mr. Dick’s writing was especially timely in an era of governmental distrust of the populace, popular disconnection from government, and general abuse of power for short-term, banal gain. His writing included political elements, responded to the era he lived in (Viet Nam, Nixon, political assassinations de jour), and offered very little in the way of remedy. That’s a good thing. He was descriptive, not prescriptive in his political writing (possibly due to his paranoia causing him to see no solutions other than death/divinity), and that’s what I’m trying to do right now in my current work in progress.
Overall, a wonderful, touching tribute to one of my favorites. Its conclusion:

The books aren’t just trippy, though. The best of them are visionary or surreal in a way that American literature, so rooted in reality and observation, seldom is. Critics have often compared Mr. Dick to Borges, Kafka, Calvino. To come up with an American analogue you have to think of someone like Emerson, but nobody would ever dream of looking to him for movie ideas. Emerson was all brain, no pulp.*

*Note: not to take away from Mr. Dick’s talents as an author, but Mr. McGrath’s argument that it’s hard to come up with an American analogue to Mr. Dick is to ignore the talents of authors like Steven Erickson whose surrealism moves in a direction clearly inspired by Mr. Dick but which explores its own unique territory. I’d also mention Mr. Pynchon in any discussion of exploration of reality/divinity/politics.

Interlude

Not much time today (I have to hurry off to watch my son while my wife gets an all too seldom day-off from Mommying) so I thought I’d just share a doofus moment.
At work, I regularly get e-mail notifications about projects which are ready for my review. When I get them I forward the email to a coworker with the brief request, “please print”. I typically get the emails in batches, so I’ll type “please print,” copy it and then go from email to email pasting it. Today I got a batch, did as I usually do, then started reading a few websites for relaxation during breakfast.
One of the sites I visited was Miss Snark. One of the writers on her site wrote a really funny line which I wanted to share with someone else and I copied and pasted it into my email to them. I then returned to my work email. There, I found several more emails for proposal, and began to forward them with my customary “please print,” only I didn’t paste “please print”, instead I pasted this:

am I pounding sand in my desires

I caught myself as my cursor hovered over the send button. I don’t think my coworker would have been offended, but he might have been curious as to why I was asking him this.

Books I can’t wait to not read, Part 1

Seems that there’s a problem on the internet. That problem? The internet. Andrew Keen’s “Cult of the Amateur” is a book I can’t wait to not read. Why? It’s a reactionary “Day After Tomorrow” screed against the democratizing nature of the internet, and it sounds like trash. Mr. Keen would have enjoyed the similar debates that surrounded the invention of the printing press, the car, airplanes, the computer…
Key section of the story:

What’s more, Keen doesn’t seem to understand that mainstream media and user-generated content are enjoying a symbiotic existence. Bloggers and amateur videographers spend so much energy reacting to traditional staples of pop culture that they wouldn’t have much to do if they didn’t exist. Even if mainstream media is dying, Webheads will feed off its bloated carcass for the foreseeable future.
The Viacoms and Time Warners of the world likely will cede some ground to amateur creators. But there is another way professionals and amateurs will co-exist: The best of those amateurs will simply be co-opted by the professionals. It isn’t quite the either-or equation Keen imagines it to be.
“Cult” applies a blind faith to the media powers that be without ever considering that this creative Internet subculture he rejects is getting traction precisely because the studios, networks, etc., aren’t quite perfect, either.

This is akin to the “online writers are hurting traditional writers” argument which spawned the Pixel Stained Techno-Peasant giveaway. The idea at work is that gatekeepers are a necessary part of consumable culture. Without gatekeepers the masses will wallow in their own filth. Eventually someone will smear feces on themselves and call it art and everyone will go gaga over it. The only problem with that argument is that all that fecal-smearing has already been done. People are drawn to what they are drawn to, and web-based writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, etc. fill in the gaps between what the mainstream cultural gatekeepers (i.e. huge publishing conglomerates interested in reaching the widest possible audience to sell the most product) finds marketable. Note that I didn’t say what they find “acceptable” or “artistically meritorious.” Marketable.
This got me thinking about the “culture” that Mr. Keen seems hell-bent on saving. That would be the culture of “According to Jim,” “Yes, Dear,” “Paris Hilton*,” “Girls Next Door,” Rob Schneider, Ashlee Simpson, David Hasselhoff, and Clive Cussler. That would be the culture that Mr. Keen sees as threatened? This is marketable culture, according to the gatekeepers.
* “Paris Hilton” is in quotes because she is actually a robot.

Cliches that are as old as the hills… um… I mean…

I found myself in a stragely familiar place this morning. I was in a conversation with a forboding older man who seemed to have all the answers. He must be behind the mystery I was pursuing, and he and I were playing a game of cat and mouse as we danced around the issue of what I knew and what he knew.
Well, it wasn’t me, really. It was my main character.
I had written myself into the well-worn scenario described above. Scenes like that are comfortable, familiar, and hard to avoid. There’s something about them that makes writers find them. Perhaps it is the deep routes in our subconscious that have been dug out by similar scenes going back through movies and books and myths (the darkly foreboding witches in the woods who direct MacBeth to his future; the mirror on the wall which reminds the Queen that her beauty isn’t all that she might like; the Catepillar on the Mushroom asking Alice “Who R U?”) I suspect it’s that combined with their ability to make writers feel incredibly productive: they write themselves, so before you know it you’ve churned out a thousand words and think, “I can’t be bad if I just got 1000 words in 20 minutes. I’m a friggin’ genius.”
Cliches provide for lazy writing–they hide lack of quality inside quantity. They must be undone. So, I got to some undoing. In the end I was pleased with what I scribbled into my journal, and thought that a few of my detours through the cliche I was unknotting might be helpful to others. First, I had a character state that he was locked in a cliche. The other character agreed and they moved forward outside the cliche. No more “games” were being played. They talked openly about what was going on.
Second, the scene became about something other than the conversation. I never really wanted their conversation to be the focus of the scene in the first place, but by falling into the cliche it had done just that. By undoing the cliche and allowing the conversation to be more above board the scene returned to its true focus: body-language and symbols which the main character found in the setting took on higher importance. With the conversation being so, in a word, plain, I was forced to heighten the tension by creating layers to the antagonists actions–subconscious ticks came to the fore. Finally, by undoing what would have been game-playing dialogue (lies, half-truths, feigned surprise) I opened the door for more of the main character’s personality to come through (sarcasm, intelligence, puzzle-solving) in the dialogue. It went from being hack dialogue to original dialogue where protagonist and antagonist traded verbal jabs in a knowing, almost enjoyable way.
Cliche happens. It’s how we deal with it that’s the trick. Sometimes a cliche can get us into a scene, keep things moving, and allow us to prime the pump. Once the words start to flow, that’s when you have to redirect that energy.