Literature, possibly more than even indie cinema, takes the question of ‘what does it all mean?’ further than any other media. I think it has something to do with the dearth of a book. Most novels are about 300 pages or so, and for the average ham and egger out there that’s a long trip, and if the trip is going to be that long there had better be something about the meaning of life, dammit. The two books I’ve chosen this week ask the big questions, but they also ask ‘what’s the point of asking big questions?’ They also ask ‘what’s the point of asking about the point of the big questions?’ You could say both of them are think pieces, but then again one is about an actor on America’s Most Wanted and the other is about a guy who likes Nirvana, so how deep could they possibly be?
I Dream of Microwaves by Imad Rahman is a first person account of a Pakistani (though American-bred) actor who gets by, at the beginning, by taking roles in criminal re-enactment shows like AMW. Each chapter is treated almost as it’s own short story, since each exist (almost) in a vacuum of an alternative view of acting. In one chapter he’s posing as a poor African kid so his girlfriend can convince her grandmother to give her the money from her will instead of the other sister, the one with the cannibal for a boyfriend. In another he plays a Mexican guy helping out two southern white folks on the lookout for terrorists in Florida. The funniest one involves him playing an Italian thug trying to get back a copy of Forest Gump from a Bollywood film producer while having to deal with his girlfriend who only speaks in dramatic movie quotes.
Every situation is absurdly hilarious on two levels. The first is obvious; he’s not white (or black) so he has to take all these alternative acting jobs that most of us don’t realize exist. The second though, is the one that illuminates the theme; not only is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (main character, only once confused with the basketball player, and another excellent subtle note at acting) an actor in each scene, so is just about everyone else. It’s one thing to laugh at all the funny jobs Kareem takes, but to realize that almost every other character in the novel is also an unhireable actor scraping for a buck brings you to another level of feeling creeped out. It won’t keep you up at night, but it will certainly make you trust the guy who buys you a Red Bull in a bar a hell of a lot less.
With a plot this interesting it would almost be acceptable to have substandard writing, but this is not the case. Take the first paragraph for example: “I was trying to get my mind off drinking by pouring hot coffee on my arm when I got a letter out of the blue from an old girlfriend, Eileen. There was a one-way Greyhound ticket to Ohio and a handwritten note. “Good News,” it said, “I am through with big dicks and henceforth thinking constantly of you.” Now that’s how you begin a book. Another theme begins there, as well, though you don’t really see it for a while. Every now and then, Kareem will burn himself with coffee or cigarettes for no apparent reason. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that he’s really trying to wake up and escape the reality he has little control over (being an actor and not a director in a world where acting and real life have so much in common).
Will, the co-star of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, begins his story doing the opposite. He is comfortable being asleep life-wise. He has his TV, his music, his magazines, and that is seemingly all he cares for. Early on, when two of his friends (who have recently given birth to their second child) ask him if he would be their childrens’ godfather, he refuses. They mention that he always seemed shallow, but they figured he always had these hidden depths. “Ah, but you see I haven’t” he says. “I really am this shallow.”
About a Boy‘s strengths is in it’s snarky English humor melding seamlessly with constant philosophical banter that makes a hell of a lot of sense. Will figures that since there’s all this media and he doesn’t have to work (he lives off the royalties of his father’s famous Christmas song), he doesn’t have to bother himself with the drudges of life. Marcus, the 12 year old counterpart to Will, needs people more than anything because he has no friends at school and his mum is suicidal. Through interesting (and not at all cumbersome) events, these two come together and throw each others’ lives around until everything is completely different (and, depending on how you look at it, better.) Will is the much more interesting character, however, since it’s pretty likely we’ve all felt like we might want to be him at one point in time or another (no job, no fear of financial insecurity, lots of interesting and attractive women in your life, etc) but throughout the novel, he does come to realize that life is more or less worth living and having a bit of it around isn’t all that bad.
Kareem is sort of in the same way. His life is filled with so much drama and fakery, a little real life would be nice. Perhaps that’s why he burns himself; to feel real pain instead of what he gets to act out all the time (not to mention fake pleasure). Or, perhaps he’s always found real life to be too boring (or himself to boring) and thereby became an actor. Will does the same thing when he realizes he lacks a certain…anything to impress Rachel in the second act, so he invents the idea that he’s Marcus’ father (which succeeds, where his previous attempt to invent a two year old that never existed in any form didn’t necessarily). The characters are rather different at the beginning, become similar in the middle, and then come to two very different conclusions. Will ends up more confident, less secure, and more fulfilled by realizing that life—and not just the entertainment section—is worth living. Kareem realizes that his life is his life, and no matter what he does he is seemingly unable to stop the roller coaster of alternative acting practices. Both aren’t really that reaffirming to the whole ‘what does it mean?’ line of questioning, but they do wonders with ‘what is the point of asking what does it mean?’
Both books are increasingly absurd, to the point where the reality loses it’s grounding and both feel like fantasies that couldn’t actually exist. But think for one second how easy it would be for a person you never met before and would never meet again to lie to you, and both fictions become hilariously (and scarily) real. I have to commend both writers for coming up with alleyways in this world I never thought went anywhere and taking them for miles. As well, both writers take the imagery of sticking one’s head in an oven to heights I never previously thought worth it. Good job all around.