Due to the oh-so-timely nature of single/hand/clap’s triannual posts, pop culture bits of the here and now are subject to be spoiled at any time. Unless the spoilery feature in question is inspired by wheat beer, however, I’ll try my best to offer a warning. This is that. If you haven’t seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere” and don’t truck with that study about spoiled stories being more enjoyable, I would recommend coming back later. Please, come back.
This week in internet rage, once-mild-mannered Walgreens cashiers throughout the Midwest leveled pyroclasmic paragraphs at Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, hoping their sweaty words might banish his corporeal and ethereal forms from the extant realm. Of course, these are folks, like me, who hadn’t read the books and as a result lacked the hindsight and conditioned, Zen-level self-restraint of readers who had no doubt drafted the same livid letters on Windows ME, a dozen years earlier. I get it. I was gutted, too. The red wedding of “The Rains of Castamere” gives the show’s fans about as much quarter as it spares for its blindsided guests. It’s going to take a lot of Tide to save those tablecloths.
If you sense a shade of twisted glee in my words, you’re not mistaken. Fiction without misfortune is a game of Twister without sexual tension. Discomfort, grief, and pain provide the bursts of euphoria that many readers, viewers, and video game players, myself included, continue to chase in their pop culture diet. “The Rains of Castamere” is one of only a handful of wedding episodes I’ll defend to Internet Death (this season’s hard-earned Parks and Rec union being another). I don’t donate hours upon hours upon hours of my life to make-believe bullshit just to experience fleeting happiness spurred by a protagonist’s easy achievement. Success in fiction is the necessary relief of tension before plot can resume. Stories need conflict like Batman needs Joker, like Maher needs Coulter; otherwise, where’s the beef?
Okay, so I hope Bill Maher isn’t Batman; forgive the squeaky metaphor.
My favorite part of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, outstripping Trent Reznor’s grinding compositions and James Bond’s best performance since that time he went gambling, is the trailer. As the camera creeps toward an icy manse, propelled by Reznor’s torturous static, the tagline boldly asserts itself as “THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS.” Okay, we’ve all seen a handful of other films that are arguably feel-worse: Stoker and Sucker Punch both come to mind for two completely different reasons (guess which one I hate). Considering books, the selection of spirit-eroding fair expands to an incalculable list. For a novel to be considered Real Literature, an element of Total Bummer seems mandatory. When the commercial yang of Real Literature has the Happy Ending covered from every sun-soaked angle, however, a reprieve in the shade is refreshing.
I’m not a sadist. I’m not fixated on the battered adjectives “dark” and “mature.” I don’t obsess over the character studies of Neon Genesis Evangelion or blare Smashing Pumpkins in my black bedroom with a skip-protected Sony Walkman. In my experience, however, the day-to-day of a human being doesn’t feature much closure. The tidy, satisfying, “agreeable” narrative is a human invention, born out of a distinct lack of poetic justice on Earth. To support that claim, here’s a repulsive anecdote plucked straight from my own, pathetic day-to-day. It’s no red wedding, but it’ll do just fine.
A few days ago, I drove past the local strip mall and settled at a stop sign. A young woman standing at the sizzling street corner grabbed my attention. Her clothing–a brown knit cap, a green hoodie, dark jeans– struck me as somewhat insensible given the weather, the humidity being one step above swamp and one step below Swamp Thing’s anus. She pivoted her ragged cardboard sign, a prop of hardship nearly as iconic as the plaid knapsack and bindle, to appeal to passing traffic, to appeal directly to me. I only read as far as “Out of —–” until I was overcome with a volatile mixture of shame and selfishness that pinned my eyes to the intersection ahead.
Some psychological defense mechanism buried in the reptilian region of my shitty psyche prompted the following rationalizations:
She might be a crook. She just wants money. I could be robbed. Even if she doesn’t rob me, she’ll probably just waste my twenty bucks.
Causeless suspicion gave way to an inflated sense of futility.
I could give her less but then I’d have to go all the way to the ATM (a whole quarter-mile away). Anyway, there really isn’t any room for me to pull over (except for the nearly empty Arby’s parking lot on the corner) and I don’t have time to talk to her (the iced coffee I had left for being the far more urgent matter).
And then, because it was inevitable, the washing of my hands entirely:
Someone else will come along.
Deep down, I knew she wasn’t a thief. If I had actually suspected her, I wouldn’t have arrived at the weak conclusion that her knight would come along with his twenty bucks and fulfill the destiny bequeathed unto him and certainly not me. I wrote that happy ending as a psychological tool, a rusted shovel to bury the nagging, inconvenient truth in its tiny coffin.
So I kept driving, obviously. My glance only wavered toward the rear view mirror a few times on that long stretch of road between Sonic and my secret shame. Once I tasted the needless cream whipped atop my deliberately chilled, chocolate-flavored coffee, I had nearly forgiven myself for my valiant failure. Then, I turned back onto Washington.
Is she still there? Oh, please let her not be.
She was, of course. As I approached that contentious corner, a spontaneous burst of neurosis froze my hands to the wheel and my foot to the pedal. I drifted on for three blocks, detouring. She probably hadn’t even noticed me pass; thank god for that. I’d have felt way worse if she’d made eye contact or if, like, I’d spotted a single, tiny tear crawling down her cheek. Or if she slowly mouthed “why” and fell to her knees in my rear view. Good thing I didn’t look.
Back at my lot, I rattled a coffee-bereft Sonic cup and peered in at the remaining pile of ice, unrecognizable as such having been completely transformed by whipped cream.
Maybe they won’t know it’s just frozen water if we fucking murder it underneath this sugary cow shit.
My left leg dangled from the car door, not ready to commit to pavement.
I should go back.
I spent about fifteen minutes deliberating, swinging my foot like a pendulum, weighing my guilt against my willingness to be inconvenienced.
I should do it. I’m going to do it.
As I doubled back to satisfy my conscience, a Hallmark Original Movie premiered inside my head, without commercial interruption. I was already doing it.
I smile as I see her leaning against the stop sign, still doing her thing. She wipes beads of exhaustion from her brow until the sweat overwhelms her hands, runs down her face, from the creases of her hazel eyes. I coyly slip into Arby’s and emerge after five short minutes, carrying a large sweet tea.
“I hope you like sweet tea,” I say sheepishly as I approach with drink outstretched. It’s a funny thing to say because that’s exactly what I brought. My joke isn’t lost on her.
“Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice,” she laughs, flashing her whites. Somehow the single gold tooth only enhances her charm. She’s a tramp with a heart of gold and a tooth to boot. I hold her bindle while she accepts.
Voracious, she empties the cup in moments and pries open the lid to scoop out whipped cream. While we chat, she swirls gobs of the stuff onto her finger and into her mouth. I’m tantalized by a speck of white hitching a ride on her dimpled chin. Soon, I can’t resist the temptation to dab gently at the cream with a thumb. I’m surprised; I had no romantic intention, just an unwavering sense of humanism and a few bucks to lend, but now it seems that my measly twenty dollars is the least pressing matter on both of our minds. Her false tooth testifies with a sensual glint. Using my opposite thumb I tap her button nose affectionately while the same hand’s pinkie finger tucks a few adorable strands of dirty blonde hair behind her ear, with some effort. As I lean in to impart her with a taste of my altruism,
she crosses her eyes,
grunts like a caveman,
and takes a frothy dump, right on the dry grass.
She was gone. The street corner had been vacated.
As fantasy disintegrated, disappointment faded into a vapid smile.
Someone else came along. That’s great.
After pulling into Arby’s and ordering a large sweet tea, I counted the change.
I’d had to break that twenty.
Schoolhouse Rock tells us that Necessity is (literally) the mother of Invention. With fiction, that’s true in a couple of ways. The sunny tales we tell our children, those were invented of the necessity to explain a reality so incomprehensible and frightening in its totality that it needed to be divided into verdant meadows and creaking forests. The grass of the idyllic meadow is soft and inviting; provocative fairies and vaccinated animals drink from dinky acorn tea cups and recline against La-Z-Boy mushrooms. There will always be time for excursions to the meadows, but be wary: the tea cups brim with high fructose corn syrup. A protracted visit will leave you fattened, sluggish, and entirely devoured.
If you can crawl away, do so. Pull yourself up, careful not to tip over, and let that momentum carry you stumbling into the sanctuary of the abyssal forest. The sun of the meadow cannot penetrate the forest’s thick canvas. Slivers of light skip across the suggestions of a world primordial. Your eyes slowly adjust to the hue of obsidian. Rustling leaves are drowned in the ringing of ears are drowned in perfect silence. The thrill of fear urges your limbs forward.
George R.R. Martin’s squat outline leans against a mossy rock. He lives here, apparently, and listens as the trees whisper tragedies. You wave but he evades eye contact and turns his head affectedly. He’s thinking of killing someone. You attempt to conceal your bruised ego with a cool-looking shrug before carrying on.
The forest can never be fully learned. Its trees uproot and shift with each visit. However, the mementos you return with are precious. They inspire further exploration. As you continue, you note that the forest has another constant: this land is at an incline.
You ascend into new darkness, pioneering the black, and begin to feel good about feeling so bad.
Yeah. Just don’t kill Arya.