In “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” from her excellent last collection of essays and reviews, Words Are My Matter, the recently departed and much missed Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “Kids are taught writing in school as a means to an end. Most writing is indeed a means to an end: love letters, information of all kinds, business communications, instructions, tweets. Much writing embodies, is, a message.” Not surprisingly, Le Guin despised writing as “merely…the vehicle of a message,” because for her writing’s purpose was to write “as well as we can.” And in another essay, “The Operating Instructions,” she writes:
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
That last sentence hammers at my head. I worry about getting made up by other people’s language; and I worry about the same for my students, my friends, my community. How should one address this? Through science fiction. And while science fiction novels and stories have a long history of dealing with language (1984, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and China Miéville’s Embassytown), I think a cult film serves us best right now.
I’m referring to John Carpenter’s sci-fi movie They Live (1988). Here’s why: the plot and dialogue talk right back to Le Guin’s concern about who gets to invent whom nowadays. The plot of They Live is plain as pancakes. A drifter arrives in Los Angeles and stumbles upon a world-wide alien-robot conspiracy to keep the human race in submission through subliminal messaging through all forms of media. The drifter discovers the alien-robots with woo woo science sunglasses. A battle between undeceived humans and alien-robots ensues. So the plot is nothing if apt to the world in which we find ourselves. Sort of.
The film was based on Ray Nelson’s (very) short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. The story has nothing to recommend it (other than sheer bloody forward momentum), as it’s more of what Le Guin called “a vehicle,” an extended scene that allows the flat main character, George Nada, to act simply as an idea (rebellion, waking up to authority and consumerism) charging through the landscape murdering disguised and oppressive aliens. (It was turned into a much more interesting and funny graphic story called Nada with artwork by Bill Wray.)
But I want to give They Live a bit more room to breathe. I want to look at it as Le Guin would’ve, as a way not to have “our lives get made up for us by other people.” Mostly because I think the film comes off (unfairly) as schlock. It is, no doubt, a clumsy movie. A product of its time: a reactionary (if cartoony) condemnation of Reaganomics and ’80s hyper-bourgeois materialism. It’s also admittedly a B-movie (alien-robots, guns, violence, cursing, blatant and needless nudity), one that doesn’t take itself too seriously or try excessively to prove its credentials. That sort of insouciance is in the movie’s favor.
To me, the oddest trait of the movie is a lack of dialogue. Again, much of the film silently follows the main character, now styled John Nada (Roddy Piper), in his travails around the down and out of Los Angeles. Famously, there’s a six minute fight scene between the two main characters in the middle of the movie. (Slavoj Zizek has humorously made much of this scene regarding the role of ideology. Do with that what you will.) There are a couple of scenes where I jolt and go, What the hell was that dialogue for? And what can it tell me about how language is working for me and working on me?
Odd Scene #1: Frank (the badass Keith David) asks Nada if he wants some hot food and shelter. If he does, he knows a place. Nada silently declines. Frank, rebuffed, cuts his losses and leaves. Nada trails behind more like a confused dog than someone with a lot of confidence. After a half-minute of this on screen, Frank turns and makes it known he hates being followed. Nada replies stoically: “Well, I don’t join up with anyone, unless I know where they’re going.” My immediate reaction to this was Yeah, okay, Big Shot. Nada’s so independent and hardy. What a stud. But as I thought back on it, this doesn’t make any sense in relation to the rest of the flick. It’s an outright political and ethical statement nailed right into the script without any softening or rhetorical care. Just, thwack!, right in there. Deal with it.
Odd Scene #2: Here’s dialogue from the movie. The main characters are hiding out in a hotel room after escaping the alien-robots.
Nada: A long time ago things were different man. My old daddy took me down to the river, kicked my ass, told me about the power and the glory. I was saved. He changed when I was little. Turned mean and started tearin’ at me. So I ran away when I was 13. He tried to cut me once. Big old razor blade. Held it up against my throat. I said “Daddy please”… Just kept moving back and forth… like he was sawin’ down a little tree…
Frank: Maybe they’ve always been with us… those things out there. Maybe they love it… seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fuckin’ hearts…
Nada: I got news for ‘em… There’s gonna be hell to pay. ‘Cause I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more.
Again, I thought What the hell is this doing here? None of it really lines up with the rest of the movie, and in and of itself, doesn’t make much sense. (Moreover, the dialogue was more “believable” in Nelson’s story.) But I kept thinking that there had to be some connection between the dialogue and the violence (both on screen and in the movie). Again, the Long Fight Scene between Frank and Nada was (perhaps) a way to show how deeply rooted and difficult it is to change ideologies. When Nada falls into this reverie about “a long time ago” I thought maybe he was trying to connect this up with the fight. And maybe he is. Maybe his dad’s rough handling was a change of ideology. Clearly the father had gone from wanting to save his son (with religion) to wanting to kill him (for whatever reason—one assumes that 13 is a classic age for rebellion and questioning authority). His father saw him as a thing (a little tree, a sapling) not as a person. So it was a negative change of ideology—that is, Nada lost his ideology through violence; he didn’t gain an ideology in return.
If we follow the idea that Nada’s father wanted to threaten him at 13 for doing what 13-year-olds do, then it makes sense that Nada has been a drifter. A quester. A journeyman. He’s skeptical. He questions everything.
To say that this is commentary on “staying awake” or “paying attention to propaganda” or (god forbid) getting “woke”—is an overstatement at best and a banal observation at worst. So then, what can we do with it?
I’d prefer to use it, as I’ve said, as a way to think about language. Most of Nada’s lines are goofy, and now famous, (“I came here to do two things: kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”) but memorable for that exact reason. (And, as has been pointed out to me, many are in popular culture now, especially through video games or Shepard Fairey’s OBEY artwork.) Nada’s language is tortuously precious in its idealism (see the exchange between Nada and Frank above) and awkward in its earnestness (“Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat.”). In a way, Nada is speaking through memes (even if no one spoke of them in the ’80s) and talking in the way of magazines and ads, short memorable snippets, the sort of language he reviles and which the magical resistance sunglasses translate as coded messages of consumerism and obedience (OBEY, CONSUME, CONFORM). So where does Nada’s language fall? Nowhere? Into nothingness?
John Nada’s language is a warning. If you want, call it Le Guin’s Warning: a warning to those who dare to break away and question and turn skeptical—and the warning is this: “If you reject following, of any sort, don’t banish all language of power, because you then end up taking on whatever is around.” And that move is just as dangerous as obeying because you have to have language to function. But how to tell which language is oppressive and which isn’t? Especially when one might be “ideology-less”—if such a position even exists. What kind of language is a function itself of propaganda or bullshit, and what is Trying to Get It Right? (I’m not sure what that last phrase means, but it seems correct to have it in all caps.) The conclusion I come to with They Live is that we can follow John Nada and Frank (who, himself, is just that: frank and forthright and pulls no punches, literally) and use them as models: Question, but have trust. Do good work, but don’t let others take advantage of it. And so on.
As for the alien-robots, it seems that they are whatever hi-jacks or forces language on us. Are we to obey or follow what’s around us just because we see it? How much pressure is there to follow and ape it? And how much of that pressure is real or made up? How much of forced or obedient language is in your work, professionally or artistically or otherwise? When I ask questions of my own writing, e.g. What does this sound like? I’m often thinking of answers like: “This sounds like a bank teller, or a barista, or a grandmother, or a presidential candidate.” Or I’m thinking, “This sounds like an economic report from the Secretary of the Treasury or a salesman on QVC or it sounds like the guy at the end of the bar who’s been drinking for too long.” John Carpenter got it because Ray Nelson got it. John Nada got it. And Le Guin got it. Learn how to invent your own life through language and don’t get made by another. The Voice of Ursula is, and always will, gently hammer inside my head. Who do you sound like, and why do you want to sound like that?
In 1934, the year Flash Gordon and The Three Stooges debuted, A.J.A. Symons published his great “experiment-in-biography,” The Quest for Corvo. In it, Symons, an aesthete bibliophile, describes first reading Hadrian the Seventh, an obscure Edwardian novel. The author, Frederick Rolfe, is a dazzling eccentric. Without any link to aristocracy, he assumes the name Baron Corvo and claims that England should submit to Italian dominion. Symons spends several years tracing the history of the painter-novelist from his dismissal as a young ecclesiastic to his last days in Venice. A prolific, irascible writer, Rolfe becomes increasingly frustrated by his own obscurity and failed commercial success: in the words of Rolfe’s acquaintance, Leslie, he was “a self-tortured and defeated soul, who might have done much, had he been born in the proper era or surroundings.”
Reading The Quest for Corvo, from a safe distance, I relished reading Rolfe’s vitriolic letters, excerpts from his novels dense with Latinate neologisms and anecdotes about his idiosyncratic behavior. Chris Offutt, though, experienced first-hand life with The Difficult Writer: his father was a Rolfe-like pornographer and science-fiction writer named Andrew Offutt, who wrote under the alias John Cleve.
My Father, the Pornographer contains reflections on Appalachian childhood, the portrait of the artist as a father, and literary analysis of mid-to-late-century genre writing. Most of all, it is a heartbreaking, hilarious, and humane exploration of the filial relationship. The father is a cankered patriarch right out of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He grew up in Appalachia, eventually getting married and starting an insurance business. He had literary ambitions from the age of 14, though. One of the pleasures of My Father, the Pornographer is watching Chris, the accomplished short-story writer and author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, attentively reading his father’s work, trying to understand the man and the author. While at the University of Louisville, his father wrote a short story, “Requite Me, Baby,” or “The Other Side of the Story.” Chris writes:
In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught creative writing at a number of universities, colleges, and conferences. If I’d come across this story in my teaching, I would have considered it among the most promising works I’d seen. A remarkable intelligence operates behind the prose…The voice is reminiscent of contemporary writers at the time, a combination of Salinger and Hemingway. One strong note is the handling of time…If I were a teacher conferring with the twenty-year-old who wrote it, I’d be extremely supportive.
The reader asks: How much of this is filial loyalty, the impulse to protect or defend your father’s achievement? The allusion to J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway seems hyperbolic. It would be unthinkable that a writing teacher today would compare an undergraduate student’s story in a contemporary workshop to, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro. But My Father, the Pornographer is a better book because it doesn’t assume a phony “objectivity” or “distance;” it’s a searching, open-hearted memoir that doesn’t contrive an easy position for its author in relationship to his father.
Though he was raised in the Depression and succored on Silent Generation values (family, duty, community), he inadvertently is drawn into the world of sci-fi conventions. It was a heady time to be working in science fiction: books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 were winning Nebula Awards. Chris’s mother cuts her hair, his father doesn’t cut his, and the house takes another spiritual direction:
The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of the Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationary, and bank checks.
Over his career, his father wrote porn that touches on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections. Chris, the son, tries to catalogue the hundreds of published books but becomes “bogged down in subgenres.” He cultivated a porn-author persona, John Cleve, and ultimately in 1994 alone wrote 44 novels, including Punished Teens, The Chronicles of Stonewall 7: Captives of Stonewall, and Buns, Boots, & Hot Leather.
To meet market demand, Andrew created a highly efficient system. He “created batches of raw material in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders.” Sections were dedicated to descriptions of the female body: breasts were “meaty pendants,” “bulging sides of her shapely creamballs,” and “thrusting artillery shells.” As he wrote, he would cut and paste the scenes into his novel and black out the used material.
Like Rolfe, he was easily offended but pathologically incapable of physical confrontation or reconciliation. Apparently, he had an entirely one-sided but long-running feud with Harlan Ellison. He aired his grievances in compellingly splenetic correspondence. When a fan wrote him describing his own wife’s painful and tragic death, with a post-script pointing out a grammatical mistake in one of his books, Andrew Offutt lashed out:
Yes, of course it is nitpicking to PS an otherwise nice letter, requesting time and money-effort from a writer — or any other human being, surely — with the quoting of a slip on p. 24, in which “less” appears rather than “fewer.” Nitpicking and dumb, because it is designed to lose friends and intimidate people. Everything else is fascinating, though, including the ghastliness of your wife’s dying.
My Father, the Pornographer manages to give full expression to all the melancholy of his life — the intellectual insecurity, the fiercely-protected isolation, the heroic work ethic, the creative tenacity, the protean gifts — without losing sight of just how difficult the man was to be around.