[8 April 2011]
In his recent essay for Wired, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die”, Patton Oswalt mulls over the Japanese concept of otakus. According to Oswalt, “the word otaku refers to people who have obsessive, minute interests —- especially stuff like anime or video games. It comes from a term for ‘someone else’s house’—otaku live in their own, enclosed worlds. Or, at least, their lives follow patterns that are well outside the norm.”
He goes on to lament the shift that’s occurred in the modern geek universe, in which geeks—especially compared to Oswalt’s otaku brethren in the ‘80s who worked hard to obtain their status—are no longer social outcasts. Consequently, he laments the Internet’s ability to make anyone an otaku without the archaic labor of reading zines, trading dubbed cassettes, or descending into a basement with a bag of dice—of having to work for the dubious distinction of being the neighborhood expert on medieval weaponry or British comedy.
It’s an interesting article, and there are legitimate arguments both for and against Oswalt’s position. Needless to say, the Internet let him know pretty much all of them. Imagine a DVD release of Logan’s Run with several alternate endings. There’s the one we all know, in which the young escapees gaze in awe upon the old man in the wilderness. There’s also one in which everyone sits down for a polite roundtable discussion on the relative merits of the old times versus the new times. And then there’s the ending where the old man utters some post-apocalyptic variant of “I walked to school in the snow, uphill, both ways,” and the crowd tears him limb from limb, ultimately using his skull as a goblet in their pagan youth celebrations.
It may seem strange to bring up a pop culture reference out of the blue like that, but only if you’re not familiar with Oswalt’s brand of humor. He’s hardly the first, or only, comedian to mine pop culture. Unlike someone like Dennis Miller, however, who seems to court obscurity for obscurity’s sake, Oswalt comes across as a comedian who uses references to get at the heart of an idea, as a way to find some shared reference point that gives an observation that extra zing.
Oswalt’s approach makes sense after reading the first few entries in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In his “Preface Forward Intro”, Oswalt discusses how reading clued him into the fact that his hometown didn’t represent the whole of human experience. Through what he considers a perfect blend of parental distraction and poor copywriting, a book like the dystopian A Clockwork Orange was handed to him as a book about “a teenager in the future”. The end result of reading Burgess and other dark writers was a young Oswalt experiencing a teenager’s most sanity-saving epiphany: there’s a world outside of this house, this school, this job, and this town. It also laid the framework for Oswalt’s skewed brand of humor and world view.
Throughout Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt’s most effective pieces are the personal essays. Oswalt has proven himself to be a writer for whom the scars of adolescence don’t seem to have faded. Now in his 40s, Oswalt (like all of us) enjoys the luxury of—if he wants to—cherry-picking memories to portray these ideal foundations of the man he’s become, but his narratives of how his geekdom allowed him to escape the spiritual flypaper of his surroundings are consistent and compelling. Throughout his career, whenever Oswalt has talked about film or comics or even gourmet food, it’s always been with an excitement and reverence for the boundary-expanding nature of true art. So there’s never the sense—especially when he can be so candid about his youthful callousness or apathy—that Oswalt’s glossing over anything, or trying to make himself look good.
Of course, Oswalt is also a comedian who constructed a standup monologue about interrupting an orgy while house-shopping, as pure a demonstration of his poetic profanity as you’ll find, so all of his material isn’t dusty with nostalgia and self-reflection. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland offers up “The Song of Ulvaak” (an epic poem honoring his Dungeons & Dragons character discussed in an earlier chapter), a wine menu, a line of greeting cards, a discussion of hobo songs, and a short illustrated chapter in which two vampires argue over a New Orleans street corner. They’re the kind of literate and funny flights of fancy you’d expect from someone who knows his Lovecraft as well as he knows his Cocteau.
But they feel slight in comparison to Oswalt’s memories of working in a movie theater; of fighting the insular impulses that came to define his crazy Uncle Pete; his recollections of being a featured comic for a crooked bar owner in Canada; his attempt to chart modern American history via three standup comedy archetypes; or his idea that people base their lives (and book titles) on zombie, spaceship, or wasteland worldviews. Those chapters are the meat of the book and they’re generally so entertaining that you wish they were longer.