Tag Archives: Stephen King

Tales of the Toilet; or, W(h)ither Fiction?

A couple of days ago, The Los Angeles Times reported the following

MADISON, Wis. — Two children and their mother lived for about two months withToilet Art from Jacob Earl the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home’s only bathroom, on the advice of a religious “superior” who claimed the corpse would come back to life, authorities said Friday.

===========When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil …. opened the last closed door, she smelled “decaying matter” and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet. Lewis told her it was Middlesworth’s body, the complaint said.

Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had died about two months earlier, but that God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.

She said she couldn’t say anything more until she spoke with her “superior” — Bushey, 57, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey

She said she propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman alone and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.

The story, wretched as it is, reminded me of another tale of the toilet from a couple of months ago in which a horribly obese woman was found to have been living on a toilet in Kansas for two years, having been fed and tended to by her boyfriend as she refused to leave the bathroom. According to EMT reports she had literally grown to the toilet seat, which had to be removed and transported with her to the emergency room.

It’s hard to know what is more astonishing to the imagination, a disturbed woman who could not bring herself to move as she felt her body melding with porcelain, or the boyfriend who brought her breakfast every morning as he pleaded with her to leave the bathroom. A kind of prayer, to be sure, though one less literal than those of the woman and her children in Wisconsin. One wonders what neural snyapse firing in the boyfriend’s brain finally signaled the end of faith, a loss of hope. Why two years instead of two months? Or why not three years instead of two? What finally says to the self, let’s make an end of it. In any case, a synapse firing that had not yet occurred in Wisconsin as a woman watched her mother decay into “something piled on what appeared to be a toilet.”

One gapes, shudders, cries, or gags. And, yes, one laughs. Hopelessly, hysterically, apologetically. When you are at the bottom of the human drain, what else is left to do but laugh at horrors that we come to.

I remember my own shuddering sense of horror and delight and sorrow at first reading “A Rose for Emily” and saw in my minds eye the decaying corpse in the bed, imagined Emily there in bed beside her imaginary lover. Or Miss Havisham, Emily’s literary avatar, in Dickens Great Expectations. Or the perverse grotesques in O’Connor’s fiction–especially Norton, the grieving boy who hangs himself in “The Lame Shall Enter First” in a twisted and in some sense literal leap of faith.

But one looks at this stuff published daily and has to say helplessly that Dickens and O’Connor and Faulkner have nothing on this. Stephen King could do no better in calling up the bizarre extremes of human existence. No wonder contemporary readers have little taste for fiction, and novelists feel compelled to present their fictions as spurious memoir. With a world as it already is beyond all imagining, what role for the writer who wants to imagine what is not.

Of course, I still hold out hope that one role of fiction is to redeem the time. Imagination isn’t just an effort to invoke the extreme, but to shape it, to tame it to a tale. I think most contemporary fiction has given up on that part of the task, perhaps disbelieving that the rotting something on a toilet stool that is our material can be wrestled into meaning. Itself a kind of collective loss of faith.

Other toilets in the news:

According to Reuters, “A woman in Germany put an end to her troubled marriage by chopping up her husband and flushing parts of him down the toilet, authorities said on Tuesday. ‘You won’t find him, I’ve flushed him down the toilet,’ is what she told (her children).” And Hitchcock thought he was imaginative by having a man bury his wife in a Garden?

The airline Jet Blue apparently required a man to sit in the toilet, discovering after takeoff–after takeoff!!–that the flight was ovebooked. The man is suing… because the toilet had no seatbelts and he was bounced around during turbulence. A man who clearly has his priorities in place

Officials in Montgomery Country Maryland have announced a plan to save money by rationing toilet paper for prison inmates. They are using the savings to requisition more body armor in anticipation of the ensuing riots.

Not to be outdone, a family in Manhattan is going without toilet paper for a year in order to be environmentally friendly. They are also going without friends. Not to be outdone, Will Smith proudly points to his new paperless toilets that clean and dry you. I’ve used a bidet, but I admit that the blow dry effect of Will Smith’s Japanese toilets seems just a bit much. Who knew that toilets would be the cutting edge of greenToilet instructions in Japan awareness.

We can also be glad that some enterprising young fellow has given us the following clever visual instructions for toilet usage. (Is it just me or do some of these look like positions from the Kama Sutra).

Aspiring MFA students take note, I see the makings a collection of short stories here. That they are all factual and more imaginative than anything you could dream up on your own should not stop you. There is still no law against writing the world as it is as if you came up with it on your own.

A final news note: Computer Keyboards can be dirtier than toilets.

On that note, I think I’ll go wash my hands. If I’m gone for two years, please come check on me.

Miscellany: More Literary Politics, Teleread.org, arbiters of celebrity, Technomyth 101

Stephen King, Kingmaker?

The literary sweepstakes continue. News reports tell us that Stephen King has thrown his very considerable weight behind Obama.

This may be a good thing. Barack’s rather weighty reading list, his endorsement by His Weirdness Michael Chabon and by Her Highness Oprah Winfrey, and his rather stunning eloquence have left him in distinct danger of not being pegged as a “regular guy.”

Given that I doubt Obama is going to be out stomping through a field with a 12 gauge in his hand, it’s probably a good thing that a literary celebrity known for mayhem, murder and mystery has his back. Stephen King is the everyman’s literary favorite, and Obama doesn’t even have to read him. (Personal aside: I think King is one of the most interesting and bizarre self-reflexive writers on the pathologies of writing and reading. I hope to have a chapter on him in the book I am currently fantasizing about).

Teleread makes me a star.

Teleread.org’s David Rothman has proven once again why he is one of the smartest people out there writing about the current state of digital books and literature. Primarily because he gave my blog about the pathologization of solitude and its effect on reading a big plug. My blog stats—not that I pay ANY attention to them–nearly doubled. Nice to get in to double figures (heh, heh).

Seriously though, there are literally thousands of sites out there devoted to books and reading in one way or another, many of them very good. So I have been pretty choosey about what I put on my blogroll—only the things about books and reading I actually bother to read regularly set alongside a few close friends who write about various and sundry. Teleread is, I think, one of the best sites for trying to think through—and listen to others think through—the issues and news surrounding e-books and digital literacy generally. There seems to be a sensible assumption that reading books online is not going away, but the site isn’t clogged with folks I sometimes derisively call digital utopians. There’s an effort to be self-critical, and comments that question ruling assumptions about digital books or internet culture generally are welcome. It’s very much worth a look.

Techno myths go to school.

In his most recent blog, Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the huge gap between the mythology that kids can now basically teach themselves on the internet and the actual facts about kids ability to judge and assimilate online materials. He cites an ETS study that gives a rather grim picture of students ability to sort through the waves of things they find on the net:

The report concluded: “Few test takers demonstrated key ICT literacy skills” (ICT is short for Information and Communications Technology). Only 35 percent of the subjects could narrow an overly broad search properly, and only 40 percent of them chose the right terms to tailor a search effectively. In constructing a slide presentation, only 12 percent of them stuck to relevant information.

Among some other things in the report that Bauerlein doesn’t cite is the following:

When asked to evaluate a set of
Web sites for objectivity, authority and timeliness . . .

– 52% judged the objectivity of the sites correctly
– 65% judged the authority of the sites correctly
– 72% judged the timeliness of the site correctly
– Overall, only 49% of test-takers identified the one
website that met all criteria

Even allowing for some margin of error, it still seems we’re a good ways away from the possibility of doing away with teachers entirely. And of course, this says very little about the ability of students to interpret and assimilate such materials into writing of their own—something that the testimony of writing in intro composition classes suggests might be very dismal indeed.

This speaks again to my general sense that the argument offered by digital utopians that people are reading just as much as ever, they’re just reading on the web, isn’t really an argument, it’s a platitude. We need to be thinking about what students are reading, how they are reading it, in what contexts, and how they put that reading to use. We would then be in a better place to judge what we are gaining and losing by the fact that students are no longer reading or wanting to read traditional long form texts.