Empty Words

My friend, whom I hate, just had his second book optioned, a fact that haunts me because “The Killness” is not a good book. And it’s not as good as his first book which, though it was spectacularly bad, was also optioned.

“So what?” he says, “All books are optioned these days.” Mine wasn’t. “They’ll probably just end up sitting on it anyway.” The book isn’t good for much else, but my disappointment stems from a larger question. Namely, why is banality not only accepted, but so consistently rewarded? I don’t put the question to him quite this way, but his explanation goes, “It’s got a compelling hook, and that’s what sells. Think about it: Peace, it turns out—peace among humans—is the result of a genetic defect from way back. A mutation at some point. And when modern scientists accidentally develop a cure for it, we’re all savages again! Killness. That’s totally pitchable.” Indeed, I might have said the same thing. “And it’s got style. It’s Crichtoney. Or no, it’s like… Dean Koontz meets George Romero.”

“No,” I say, “it’s not any of that.”

“Come on,” he says. “Look, you’re just anxious about your book being published. And no worries there—it will be. Mainstream potential!”

Mainstream potential? That’s not even a sentence. To me it sounds more like the prognosis of some terminal condition. It makes me nervous when people start speaking in quotable jargon. If I nodded and said, “Mass appeal!” my friend would kiss me on the lips, clearly.

No, if I’m anxious then maybe it’s because it’s taken me three months just to start on the last chapter of my own book. I reached a point where even thinking about getting back into it was enough to fill me with dread and revulsion. And not even the story per se, but the physical act of writing. Articulation is taxing. Sometimes just writing my name seems to be pushing the limit of my abilities. Take for example the writing of a check. I’ve found myself in a self-destructive thought spiral that goes like this: Begin to sign name. Realize that I thought about signing my name last time I signed my name, and the act of becoming conscious of the activity caused me not only to lose my place, but temporarily to lose the ability to write at all. Try not to think about it. Concentrate on finishing what I had begun. Squeeze pen in hand and make illegible marks on check. Neck muscles strain, and I raise my pen arm over my head and bring it down repeatedly on the table while making torn, hoarse woofs and swinging my head back and forth. Warden puts me in solitary.

Writing is an odd thing. Muses run hot and cold. Agents are fickle. I’ve never considered myself a writer except in contrast to other people—particularly those who find a way to succeed in spite of having burned all their bridges, hacked some bit of fluff inspired by the back of a cereal box, and had a tryst with their own agent’s wife. I guess I’m thinking about this one person in particular now.

When he told me that he’d been made an offer I had one of those moments where things stop and you’re suddenly at the center of the universe, and the audience is waiting to see what you’ll do so they’ll know whether to laugh or hide behind their hands. See, I knew this guy’s work. I knew it for what it was: logorrheic dandruff. And there we were standing on the sidewalk and he had the nerve to tell me that he was going to be published?

Later on, when I was by myself, I finally summoned the nerve to read the draft of “Jejune Moon” he’d given me. A quick scan reminded me how wretched it was, but I’d forgotten the exact flavor of wretchedness, or emotionally blocked it off. To be fair, it was conceivable that I’d missed something redeeming about the work, a small thread of satire perhaps, or a bit of self-referential sarcasm. Or maybe something so extremely subtle that it’s not actually there. An implied wit.

I opened to the first page, which was typed and formatted just like a real book, except the words were arranged in this manner:

“You know what? You can’t stand that you lost. You can’t believe that you lost and that I won. Well you’re going to have to believe it because its true. There can be only one winner here, and that is me, and that is more than you can handle. But you’ll have the next twenty years to get used to it. Not to get used to losing, but to get used to the way you have been put in your place so firmly, so decisively. Your loss will be with you like a child now, and when it finally leaves you in twenty years you’ll be left with nothing. And in a way you will miss the loss, because you are comfortable with it, and are quite familiar with it. Incestuously so. And you will miss the loss because, finally, it was all that you ever really had.”

The problem with this setup, other than the fact that it’s terrible in so many separate and unique ways, is that it’s never resolved. Never, never ever. Indeed, it’s never explained in any way whatsoever, not in this book or any other. We never learn who is being addressed, who is speaking, or what was won and what was lost. And most importantly, we can never come up with a reason to care one way or the other.

I told him later that I thought the loss concerned that of the reader who, after reading this opening, would never be able to care about anything that might follow. And that wasn’t really a loss, because there never really was a chain of events, as such. Oh sure there were paragraphs strung one right after another, but they were more like people shoved together on a subway train at rush hour. They didn’t know each other, didn’t really want to know each other, and couldn’t wait to be home. His paragraphs were vignettes from the uninteresting parts of other stories. I told him that if there was any karmic justice at all, after reading this offal the reader could take comfort in the fact that the next ten books he or she read would be brilliant. I felt righteous.

I don’t know why we’re still friends.

Related Tales

» “Hair” (21 of Dec, 2004)
» “Reality” (22 of Jan, 2004)
» “Figuring It Out” (11 of Jan, 2004)


  • “My friend, whom I hate”, is utterly fantastic. You rock my world.

  • Your friend’s book sounds like it is begging to be made into a bad movie. I think anything of that species does get optioned.

    When I see the words “mainstream fiction” I always think of old science fiction fans and writers back when the world did seem divided between them and what they called mainstream (e.g., the old Saturday Evening Post).

    Best of luck.

My friend, whom I hate, just had his second book optioned, a fact that haunts me because “The Killness” is not a good book. And it’s not as good as his first book which, though it was spectacularly bad, was also optioned. “So what?” he says, “All books are optioned these days.” Mine wasn’t. “They’ll probably just end up sitting…