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Friday, November 2, 2018

Conclave Noir (Fiction)

“It’s a Studebaker Sky Hawk.”
My answer sucked the air out of the room. My intention was to enlighten. But I had not answered the question.
The question was “Is this an exotic, fantasy or foreign?”

The ‘this’ in question is a three-inch-long replica auto, with an aluminum body, plastic wheels and computer guts going on inside. It’s a small, programmable, toy car, identical under the body shell to the some two hundred other such cars found here, parked inside automated rotating trays in three illuminated glass display cases.
They’re all the rage. You can buy them cities to rove around in. Or they will just drive around on your floor, making turns and sounding their horns, as if some commuter mouse man was attempting to navigate his way to work through your kitchen. Depending on what they “are”—and they are all the same inside—they retail for between $47.95 and $265.95.  
The Sky Hawk is currently parked in the palm of a black suit clad thirty-something, here fresh from some office job himself.
I haven’t helped. I should go back to my dusting.  The miniature car dealer behind the display case is a full-sized woman-sized woman. Right now I know her expression without looking at it. I have Biblical knowledge of this woman. Satisfied that the thirty-something is a non-buyer, she lights palms to the toy’s fore and aft and lifts to withdraw it. (Analogous to the method in which she ended my biblical study of her, and for the same reason.) He’s already bought two cars. I haven’t killed the mojo entirely. There are other buyers present. 
Dust, you nitwit. I have done something bad here. Our suit was probably out to buy three cars. The Sky Hawk caught his eye. He issued a multiple guess test, based on some factoring of preferences for useless crap. Answer one of the three options and there’s a chance of being helpful in the sale. Make something up and POOF. I have a stupid mouth. Dust the Hummel figures. Dust the Precious Moments. Dust the discounted Magic the Gathering Cards. Dust the pile of Beanie Babies taken in trade many, many moons ago. Dust the tin packaged nostalgic candy assortments.
Dust and clean it good, because I am here at the car dealer’s sufferance, because without all these little useless things, Conclave Noir falls down. Once I am through, I move to the rest of the shop, the majority of the floorspace, the uneven isles filled with larger objects. The collection is an idiosyncratic menagerie of twisted neon, pottery with vague animal outlines, motorized windchimes, painted fantastic plastic portions of the mundane.   Once labeled as art or sculpture or miniature installations or unique decorative accents, they are what Conclave Noir Artistic Studio Curios was created to purvey and promote. Having filled all the space possible on the floor of this pie slice shaped storefront and splayed themselves on windows facing two busy streets, they have remained here, gathering dust and no interest from decorators, art critics or any manner of human. Like the Beanie Babies there are no price tags on them, the tags having long ago been removed with previous cleanings.
I hold off on the vacuum. Sally seems to have moved it. And Sally still has customers. A balding fifty something is haggling. He’s buying a city. Or he’s ordering it. And he would like one of the little car charging stations in the form of a garage thrown in with the rest of his microscopic municipality. My thinking is that he’s more interested in talking to Sally than he is in making a deal. It’s not beyond reckoning that Sally is his taste in women or that he is attracted to women who might share his interests.  Sadly, none of Sally’s actual interests are on display.
I don’t know if he chatted her up or talked her down. My own concentration was broken by an utterance from behind the wall to wall giant bookless bookcases behind Sally. “Tell Nadia it’s the conductor.”
I’m not the only person who heard that. One of the other shoppers immediately looked at me. I wasn’t in full uniform, but the patent leather Red Wings and navy slacks with yellow pinstripe is disclosing.  I have no shame in what I do, as I have no shame in dusting.
I was about to dust the clock thing. The clock thing, a box made from stained glass with an animation cell for a face and wispy cat silhouettes dancing stenciled on its interior, is my personal contribution to the collection of economic still-life’s on the window. I was proud of it at the time. But it has not sold and it does not keep time.
The last of Sally’s customers has his receipt tucked into his bag and leaves, parting into the night with a boyish smile. At that moment I am feeling disgusted with myself, with my planned venture. It is bad enough that I am in Sally’s space. And I am not here to see her. I am here to see Nadia. And I am not here to see Nadia. I am here to brag through Nadia, to politick through her. I should be ashamed of myself. I am this low.
“I think they know you’re here,” Sally says without looking up from the rotating garage of cars she’s neatening  
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “Please don’t jam a Beanie Baby down my throat and make me poop it out.”
“At last, a use for Beanie Babies,” she says. “What are you sorry about?”
“The car thing. I should have just shut up.”
“Now I know what the thing is. It wasn’t on their website. They’re recycling stock numbers.”
“You getting these things on spec?”
“Nooo. Historicals are a bridge too far, too. The distributor must have slipped up or slipped it in. Dovetails too close to die cast. I’m not going there.-- I think this whole thing is about to Beanie Baby on me.”
“Any new ideas?”
“More candy. Liquor candy. Candy in boxes. Candy that doesn’t require refrigeration.”
The door in the middle of the bookcases opens. Nadia appears. And Sally shuts up.
Sally becomes a still-life, her thin brown pantsuit bent forward over the case, her bowl of yellow hair fencing off her eyes. Nadia takes center stage. Does Nadia glow? She is a bundle of earth tones in a long wool jacket, a white muffler stuffed around her shirt, a jaunty beret nearly slipping left off her head. She is a mass of long brown hair and big brown eyes and full red cheeks and a broad brown haloed smile.
“Sorry. So Sorry,” she says. “Did I keep you waiting?”
A little over an hour and fifteen minutes. But what is time?
I think I’m smiling back. She doesn’t wait for my answer. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge that I have an answer. She twitters on “There’s been a thing. You heard? I don’t think we are going to have much time.”
Nadia makes a determined sway for the door. I take this as my cue to open the door for her. We are outside in the pre-Halloween night air, tinges of the nastiness about to sweep Chicago any day swirling about us.
“You heard the podcast,” she says, the matter of fact tone smothering whether it is a question or a statement. “This changes things.”
The two tickets for the art movie I don’t want to see cost $45. If we leave right now, we will be on time. Nadia is not moving. Am I slow on picking up some hidden context here? If ‘podcast’ is the clue, I am drawing a blank. I look about. No evident zombie apocalypse.  No Gamera landing.
Out of the Conclave’s door is Jerry, tall, imperial and thin. He should have his fist forever jammed defiantly in the air. His black stringy fuzz face in grim mode, he pronounces “The entire community needs to be alerted to this.”
He is then joined by Thing One and Thing Two, a pair of male trust-fund babies in Northern Face outerwear. They are not quite as tall nor quite as fuzzy as Jerry, but they are in the same idiom. Don and Stu and Jerry are the Conclave’s members currently. For the moment, outsized egos are allowing for close proximity. Something is up. They’ve summoned Stu, the one that owns a car.
Stu locks eyes with me. “Pancake house. You take Nadia.”
How magnanimous of him. I had other plans: for myself, for Nadia, for this night.
The glass blowing bender of neon tubes, the potter and the painter turn as one and trudge away in the direction of the car some realtor gave his third born spawn.
I am on my best behavior. I am not sure what my tone of voice is. “Nadia, this had better be good.”
“It’s not. It’s a disaster,” Nadia says.
In moments, we part. I veer off the sidewalk into the street. Nadia stays on the sidewalk and keeps going, maybe five steps before realizing I have left.
She turns as I am opening the driver’s door.  “New car?” she asks.
And it is new, too. The passenger door pops open. I enter. She hesitates for a moment, her eyes sweeping the car’s midnight exterior. Whether it’s courtesy or curiosity driving, I don’t know. Then she slides in over the black leather seats.  “What is it?”

“It’s a Lincoln Continental.”
“Smells nice. Seems in good shape.”
“It should. It has 210 miles on it.”
“I paid cash.”
She appraises me with new eyes, but it is not the calculous I have conceived. She must think the Union Pacific pays more than it does, or that I am miserly frugal when not in her presence. In any case, I have entered the realm of sell-out. It is on that continuum I will now be judged.
The car is here to help me pitch my case through Nadia. Nadia is not biting. End of conversation about my fifty-five thousand dollar brand new car. Instead conversation takes an immediate turn to directions to a restaurant that I can find blindfolded in my sleep.
As for the impending disaster, it is the restaurant. No, not Golden Waffle. Golden Waffle is perfect. It’s a perfect place for the dreamers to spool waffles and sip bottomless coffees. Conclave Noir used to have its own set table, dating back to a time when we could smoke there. And its almost the same assortment of folks congregating there as Nadia and I arrive, some a bit longer in the face. No, the restaurant is ‘the restaurant’ as in a place in Willowbrook, the site of Conclave Noir’s signature achievement. From the sign to the awning to the neon torches on the walls to the mural painted on the bar’s wall, it is the singular showpiece of Conclave Noir’s house style in comprehensive flourish. As a venture, this French Sea-Food purveyor lasted about eight months. It has been shuttered for five years now. The disaster is that the space is about to be filled by an operator who does not want any of the work Conclave Noir installed and is ready to scrape the place clean of it.
Given that Conclave Noir was never given another commission of this scale, perhaps this is for the best. The idea of having a single house style running across several mediums is itself out of fashion. It was not well accepted, at least in Willowbrook. Time has passed. No one will note the destruction of this collection of works. If anything, it cleans the slate of reflecting negative impressions evoked in Conclave Noir’s direction. This is the truth. The consensus at Golden Waffle is 180 degrees from what I have stated. There is talk of protests, of physically blocking the demolition crew. Cooler heads prevail. There is talk of contacting the landlord and the new tenant, of seeing if something can be arranged.
Since it involves contacting real businessmen, or any function other than social networking, I am sure that nothing will come of it.  I feel no risk in offering whatever assistance the team may require.
I am an idiot. Two weeks later I am sitting on a ladder in a darkened alcove in Willowbrook, scraping stucco off a wall.  Nadia is beside me, doing the same. Other Conclave members and adjuncts and family are toiling about, putting down a primer coat, ripping up carpet, sweeping and hauling. The triad of Jerry, Stu and Don are wrapping the dismembered chandelier, awning and light torches in newspaper. The new renter has allowed Conclave Noir the use of a cloak room to store its artifacts, for as long as the cloak room continues to exist. The overall deal is that we are free to take our things with us, as long as bare walls and floors are left behind. And all its costing us is paint.
Luckily, the restaurant chain is not in that big of a hurry. We are told that we have three months. This turns out to not exactly be the case. The sign was bulldozed down before we started. And the interior demolition crew is beholding to none. While Nadia and I are painting and scraping, a demo crew is removing one kitchen and installing another.
I was not asked to chip in for the paint. I think there was some sort of Go Fund Me for that. All I am out are some precious vacation days, all taken to meet the schedules of a critical mass of people, most of whom do not work. We wind up running way behind schedule, missing benchmarks, skirting deadlines.
I would be annoyed, concerned, aggravated—especially on those occasions when only Nadia and I show up.  Or when the triad membership does nothing except appraise what is already in the cloak room.  But I am not anything but overjoyed, because these are dawn to dawn days spent with Nadia. I am her rebound boyfriend. If you can be the rebound boyfriend, by all means do so. It is two day doses, serial uncorking, wave after wave. Spaced out over intervals of weeks, it is exotic, thrilling, the essence of invigorating. In short, at what time the project went sideways is beyond my comprehension. Nadia and I were lost in our own world, painting away, happy as a pair of bugs.
I did make my pitch, partially through Nadia, partially through the occasional presence of my new Lincoln, partially in those instances when the Conclave members remembered that they were supposed to be friends of mine.  I will make it short. Some time ago I began composing puzzle books, crosswords, word finds and the like, all woven around a single story. Each puzzle built on an element of the story and the solution to all of the puzzles led to the surprise ending. The books were in themes, one for Christmas and one for Halloween.  I composed them on my computer. I did the art for the pages. I had the books printed in China and distributed to dollar stores through wholesalers on Lawrence Avenue. They sold so well that I was offered a tidy sum for the rights to what I had produced and a contract to produce an open number of additional editions.  It may not be enough to quit the Union Pacific for, but it is where the new Lincoln Continental came from. My editor suggested doing a detective type theme, somewhere muttering the word ‘Noir’ and I immediately thought of my pals at Conclave.
“Screw them. Do it yourself,” is what both Nadia and Sally told me. Both of them were given my most persuasive version of the pitch, too. My conscious intention is to somehow share my success with Conclave Noir. Sub-consciously perhaps my aim is to gain admittance to cool kids club, to be deemed something of a peer. The reality is that my publisher has an art department, and a fine one at that. Conclave Noir would have to come up with something spectacular in order for me to justify messing with the publisher’s in-house crew. Regardless, I pressed on, never clear of how much of the lip service Conclave Noir spouted translated to actual enthusiasm.
Three months in, Conclave Noir seemed to have lost all enthusiasm for salvaging their masterpiece. All of the components of the glass mosaic awning and other items were now crammed within the cloak room, but the white washing of walls was still missing in parts. There were holes in walls and swaths of carpet squares remaining. No one other than Nadia and myself had shown this time or the last. Although the demolition crew claimed we had left the area as good as could be expected, it was not at all what we had promised the tenant. I was now out of vacation days. Nadia was despondent over how much still needed to be done, how big of a mess we were leaving behind.
We could only do what we could do. After aiding in the field testing of the newly installed cascade of fudge with our tongues, we trudged off to destroy the one work which could not be removed. It was Nadia’s mural, silhouettes of Chicago Blues and Jazz greats, outlined in neon, each interior covered in notes from their most popular works. All of it was against a pointed trapezoid sunburst in the outline of Chicago’s skyline. This was the main wall of the bar. It was unclear if it was ever used as a performance space.

Nadia was a trooper. She put a roller to it without hesitation.
“A lot of murals get covered. You never know, maybe the next owner will uncover it. Chances are it will be restored,” I said.
The words had just left my face when a member of the demo crew came in and sprayed a dayglow ‘x’ over our whitewash. He explained “That wall’s coming down.”    
Later we watched the chain buffet’s sign light up for the first time, took ourselves a hearty last swig of fudge from the cascade and trudged our paint spattered selves back to my Lincoln.
“My place, tonight?” she said.
“But we’ve already broken all of my furniture,” I replied.  Despite my tone, I had a feeling we were entering the coda of this opera, the dead cat bounce.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Nadia had moved back in with her folks. She had an apartment above their garage with its own entrance, all of which seemed new. It was nice, if a bit small. I sensed some sort of compromise agreement in the environment.
We showered and settled down for a night of cuddling. At various points my eyes searched the room. Where were her sketchbooks? Where were the color swaths? Where was the screen press? No smell of inks. In pride of place was a laptop, a Toughbook. A bookshelf held grad school catalogs and primers on taking the LSAT.
Nadia was not the first woman I had escorted out of our world. First you do the conductor, then you get off the art train.  
I called Nadia the next week, but she was out of town. The week after, she was studying. Then it was first year of law school and you know how that goes. Poof!
Good for her. Get your own damn Lincoln Continental. She needs me for nothing.
As vacation days spent went, it was better than any all-inclusive journey I had ever been on. I thought about it every time I accrued another vacation day. My offer to the Conclave remained in the ethers and my life went on.
There’s this disheveled man who rides my current line, from Clybourne to Arlington Park and back. Webs of dirt run over his too tan face. His body is shrink wrapped in brittle sweat-clinging rags. Every day he shuttles six duct tapped large cardboard boxes in and out with him. The boxes are heavy, filled with something akin to paper. Without fail, people help him load the boxes in and take the boxes off.  We help him. It’s a speed drill sociology experiment, taking serial advantage of the kindness of strangers. 
I have seen him each weekday for a year and a half, but have never spoken to him. He stinks and has wild, staring eyes. No one so far has talked to him. We get a lot of people on this line. While people are willing to haul and help him, no one lingers to converse. At length I became convinced that this was the way he wants it.
We had just completed his return stop. It was pouring. A pom pom girl and a stock broker both took up boxes. We had done all we could to get him close to an awning, but he had chosen the wrong car. So we rush to get his hoard out and then he just stands there, no mind to the rain, no urgency whatsoever as he’s pelted on the platform.
The door closed and I’m mopping my face. My phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer.
“Did you hear the podcast? All hands on deck. This is urgent.”
          “Is this Thing One or Thing Two?” I asked.
“It’s Don.”
“Thing Two, I don’t get podcasts. I don’t get email.  I work on a train.”
“Is the conductor coming?” someone on the phone asks.
“Do you have Nadia’s number?” Don asks.
“No Nadia. Nadia is in Law School,” I said. “Is Sally kicking you out?”
“The restaurant. They’re going to throw everything away. We have to get there tonight.”
It’s been months. Did they have to wait until the April deluge, the dead of night?
I show and I am a sweetheart. We had to pull the stuff out of drywall wreckage. The only cross words came from the demolition guys, who had started removing the cloak room only to discover it filled with glass and neon shards.
All of the careful newspaper wrapping melts in the rain, the ink on the various asset tags runs off. By the time it is loaded into the U-Haul truck Stu rented, it is no longer a carefully curated collection of bits for reassembly (God knows where), but rather a lapidary of brittle masts and their equally sharp kittens. Stu then drives too fast. The load shifts.  What will it be when it gets where it is going?
Had I known the destination, I would not have showed up.
We were set to meet at Conclave Noir. Sally had the shop’s door open for us and was generally pleasant as Jerry and I stood shivering, dripping all over her carpet. If Jerry were about to spring something, he didn’t display any hint. Time was not on my side and I was wondering where we would be unloading our treasure from the restaurant.
Then the U-Haul showed up in the alley behind the shop. Without a word of notification, Thing One and Thing Two started carting things in through the back door, leaving a trail of glass bits all the way. They were heading up the landing, putting torches and armatures on the stairs leading up, in the hallway, crowding the door to the second-floor apartment. Jerry soon joined in, wedging a section of awning into the hall.
I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea what they were thinking. One of the doors they were blocking was the fire exit for the shop next door. People unaffiliated with the Conclave lived on the third floor. Sally’s apartment was on the second floor, but the Conclave had no claim to that either.
Stu then suggested that Sally head to the basement storeroom, to see if she could make more room. As I head down with Sally, I hear Stu open the door to her flat.
The basement is where Sally runs the mail order part of her business. It’s where she keeps her packing materials and excess stock. In neat rows on a table in the corner is where she keeps her dreams. Sally is a quilter. Not a tapestry artist, which is where quilting has been heading, but a historical quilter. She has been saving quilt-capable scraps of used fabric for years, each individual piece cut into eight inch squares. She has thousands of them, no two alike. Moreover, she has a business plan with a price point, $350 wholesale $600 retail. Anything less and it’s not worth doing, anything more and you’re pricing the consumer out. Artesian or not, it is bedding. She has the complete fixings to whip up three quilts right now, but she can’t because there is no place to display them, because the Conclave Noir crap never moves. And now more of it is coming, marching like fire ants over the common areas of her dwelling, up and down her stairs, into her cellar, into her home.
Sally loves these people. She’s very tolerant of them, almost to the point of disbelieving in their evident inconsideration. Sally is very bright and she does have a spine, but there is a delay in reaction, stimuli having to overcome a peaceful and loving nature.
How dare they. Even for an hour. Even for a day. Knowing the Conclave I fear that this is the final place for this stuff, that this crap will congeal in piles, never to move again, another imposition for Sally to navigate through. She may say something eventually. Inevitably she does have a breaking point.
The only harsh words I’ve ever heard Sally utter were directed at me. I deserved them. I broke her trust, squandered my standing with her. It is not my place to step in here. If I speak I face an immediate and well-earned blast of venom, a fast exit from any further interaction with her. I chance it. I turned to her, looked her in the eyes and said “This isn’t happening. I’ll take care of it.”
Maybe she’s stunned, but she doesn’t say anything. I might very well be off my mark here. I was willing to chance it.
In a blink I am at the base of the stairs, calling up. My mouth is moving. I had no idea what I was going to say. “Hey guys, I was thinking. I have some warehouse space we could use.”
The puzzle books required staging. The Arab wholesalers on Lawrence Avenue will say yes to anything, but they will only part with cash when they see a physical product. Once the books arrived from China, I had to get warehouse space for them. As sales proved the books, they walked off soon enough. But the shortest lease I could get was eighteen months. I had been making a little extra cash subletting it on an ad hoc basis to a food packager. But it was empty at that moment.
I had made quite a bit of money subletting it. This wasn’t without sacrifice. The moment I made Conclave the offer, I knew it would be utterly thankless.
It got the crap out of Sally’s hair. And it earned me a cut which required stitches and a tetanus shot.
Due to logistics and the nature of the crap involved, it took us several hours to scoop it entirely out of Sally’s store and into its new home, two stories up and five left turns down an emergency-lighting-only warehouse. No tools. No carts. No gloves. We are carting mostly broken glass. And it’s raining. Many obvious things happen. Thing One and Thing Two are oblivious almost to the point of playing in puddles dawdling. I have to be presentable and on a train at the crack of dawn.
I make it. I had to shower at the station and I am paranoid enough to have a cleaned and pressed uniform in my locker there. At 4:38 AM I am on a train, the world moving beneath my feet. I haven’t slept, but I am where I need to be. I have not failed Union Pacific. I am on my feet for the next ten hours.
Don’t ask me what happened the rest of the day. I didn’t eat, either—unless you count a mountain spring of Mountain Dew. I made it back to my place and collapsed.
The phone rang. It was somewhere in the cushions near my head. I rose, digging my hands into the couch around me. It was one of the assigned ring tones. I feared it was work. Did I fail to turn in the ticket record? Did I mess up the cash drop? Dread and frenzy seized me.
It was Sally. No relent. Here comes. Here’s where she chews me out for the final time.
“Are you still asleep? Did I call too soon?” she asked.
I am not reading anything in her tone of voice. I am not awake. But I lie. “Everything’s good here. Everything good by you?”
“I owe you, Mr. Marshland.”
Still not capable of fathoming anything. I go with “Oh. I hope it all wound up ok.”
“You know, I spotted a new sewing machine. Especially designed for quilting.”
“That would be good.” She’s going to sew me to a cross and then kill me.
“It’s used. I guess it was her daughter’s. She won’t ship it to me because she can’t lift it.”
“I’ll get a truck.”
“You will?”
“And a hand truck and packaging stuff.”
“It’s in Paducah.”
“The sewing machine is in Paducah.” I am now half awake. Look, I made a sentence. “Paducah is in Kentucky, unless someone has moved it.”
“Lot of cool things in Paducah.”
“I’ll believe you.”
“Monday good?”
“Monday is my day off.”
“Monday still your day off?”
“Yes it is.”
“Good. See you then.”
As revenge murder plots went, it seemed a little convoluted. That dawned on me when I finally got up later.
I have destroyed a few relationships. Most of them I have left festering, gurgling, spewing lava tar or lashing out pseudopods. Once I’ve broken them, I am at a loss for a method of repair. I’ve heard the words ‘penance’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace of God’ but I disbelieve.
What I do believe in is showing up where I’ve promised to, even half awake. Paducah was fine. She didn’t kill me. To be honest, the sewing machine did not require a truck, although it would have been difficult for Sally to maneuver alone. We made a day of it. We toured the Quilting Museum there. We had dinner at a place where they throw rolls at you. As outings went, it went fine.
I’m not sure what I was doing right, but I kept doing it. One outing led to another. We went to the candy show. We went to a store fixtures auction. It became the outing that has never ended. There’s a rhythm, there’s music to it. Two worlds in orbit around each other, keeping our own time. The music keeps playing and we keep dancing.
If I did not notice the many urgent events involving Conclave Noir, I have no excuse. I was in its midst on a daily basis, seeing all of their faces more than I ever have before. To me, it seemed as if the whole artsy commune thing was melting away. Even trust funders have court dates and alimony payments and growing children and aging parents and there’s only so much playing at the rest of the filigree of life that even the dedicated adrift can do. More of the Conclave’s stuff moved to the warehouse, based on the notion that warehouse shows were where it was at. I am not sure there ever was a show. Maybe I had become so ubiquitous that they didn’t think to invite me—or more probably assumed I was preoccupied. As the Conclave’s stuff receded, Sally filled the seceded space, first with frames for displaying quilts. The quilts sold like bakery items. Three could be made a week. Two could be displayed at a time. When displayed in pairs, they lasted hours on the sales floor. We began spacing their appearances out. At one point Conclave Noir decided to call itself something else, leaving the name to Sally and her store. The increased foot traffic in the store seemed to discourage the artists so much that they all started hosting these events at restaurants where they taught people the distinction between vapid and insipid. I think it was painting classes, honestly. Painting classes where people eat and then paint while the artist-facilitators float about garden sprinkling advice on how to live off your parents forever. Had no one mentioned anything I would have forgotten about the proposal I had made to Conclave Noir.
“Puzzle book project. We have a verdict,” Thing One informed me. He was just back from teaching a high tea how to play with acrylic mud.  Perhaps my description is somewhat off base. They have been going to restaurants and they are carrying less and less stuff with them.  And they’re all gaining weight and the stray Asian girlfriend.
Whatever they were up to they needed some me time alone in the store to podcast socially promote drink bong water estimate belly button lint. Sally had insisted that this time be granted. I opened the door for her and it was again nearly November out.
Down came the rain. Where did the year go? As opposed to bolting from me, Sally turns and makes mincing backwards steps. At that pace, we will go nowhere at all. She has her head tilted up, her wild blue eyes tracing circles in the air, a broad smile parting thin lips. I offer “Golden Waffle then?”
“Neef,” is her response. It’s the sound the little cars make when they can’t get around something. She doesn’t want to go anywhere. She wants to wait this out. Our dialog lights to the subjects of calligraphy and floral place settings and matching dresses equally repellant on women of disparate sizes and banquet hall food options. In less than an hour we have a meeting on these subjects with some professionally female rented navigator who promises to dream on budget.
The short awning above Conclave Noir’s window isn’t protecting either of us. Neither of us are melting, but I can fathom no need for getting watered. We are bathed in photographic light cast from the podcast studio behind the bookless bookcases on the other side of the glass. They have the shade down as Thing One interviews Thing Two. Between the rain and the muffling of the glass and the roll of cars passing, I can hear very little, although it sounds profound. Sally transcends the irritants of our current circumstances, buzzing happy, recounting reactions from showing off the ring I gave her. Her mood infects and I am lost in time.
We did not notice the podcast light go out. Thing One hails me from the shop’s door.
A fraction before entering, Sally shoots a whisper from her perch under the awning ten feet away. “Clifford.” My name. No discernable inflection. Only I heard the heel tone.
My standing orders for life, as it should turn out.

I follow the second son of the best real estate agent in all of Evanston through the swinging bookless bookcase and up the stairs and into what had been Sally’s apartment until two months ago. Now that we have the house in Lincolnwood, the renamed Conclave is free to use this space for whatever it is they take up space for. At least until the new sewing machine and mail order stuff show up.
Other than the stove and fridge, there is very little in this apartment. The boys have taken up seats behind school desks that Sally used as nightstands. We are all seated upon vintage 1940s diner chairs dumpster dived from the Golden Waffle. It’s an all-adult adult-free parent-teacher conference.  
I mention the setting only because I do not see any drawings or proposals for drawings. None of them have a pad of paper on their desks. None of them have a pen, So I already have my answer. 
I am smiling. I am not mentioning the fact that the owner of the warehouse has been leaving me voicemails day and night about the people I vouched for assuming my lease. Or that the only portion of his rant that I understood was the word ‘dumpster’. Because I am counting on these suckwads and their plus ones to fill seats and eat chicken kiev/chicken cordon blue come April in a hall I am about to dump two grand on reserving. I am remaining silent, in as visibly happy of a way as I can pretend.
          “Cliff, as you know, our organization is governed by strict bylaws,” Jerry begins. “We call them the three Ps.”
No. I wrote the bylaws. It’s the three Rs. The three Ps are Pierce, Peerless and Packard. The three Rs are renown, reputation and remuneration.
“The first of the Ps is prestige,” Jerry explained. “Does it add to our collective reputation to have our work appear in a crossword puzzle book?”
Ok, we’re paraphrasing. Probably because they forgot the bylaws, only remembering that they had them in reference to an excuse.  I don’t know where this is going. Right now their work appears in a warehouse, a closed warehouse. Keep looking right at them. Keep smiling.
“Irregardless of that,” Stu adds, using the ignoramus tense of regardless, “How many people would even see our work in a puzzle book?”
The standard print run is a quarter of a million. They make their living on forty percent sales. And the stuff changes hands and lingers for months. In short, about ten times the number of people who have seen your work so far. Please God let me look swayed by this nonsense.
“Finally, pazoozas,” Jerry says.
Pazoozas? I’ll admit remuneration is obtuse, but at least it’s a word. I wanted to go with the three Ms—moxie, mojo and money. Not that there’s ever been any money involved in this clam bake, although I was offering some.
May God keep and love these bozos. They never intended to treat my proposal seriously in the first place. I’m only getting this much because I’m in orbit around Sally. And my motives aren’t pure. I’ve spent the better part of a decade attempting to insinuate myself into their little art club, This excuse was the only creativity that I was likely to inspire from them.
To them, Noir is Art Decco in the darker floral tones. It’s swaths of blacks and tilted ladies hats. It’s moral ambiguity dressed as realism and relativism as religion. I think that spits the bit, sees the trees for the forest.  The seeming no-win choices, stark scenery and motivational ambiguity are decorations, style imposed on what is straight up classical tragedy. And in classical tragedy, your tragic flaw is your destiny.

Conclave Noir promotes noir, claims to give it tribute, has quested for a venue in which to triumph their take on the subject. Yet when they are offered a platform to do so, they decline it.
We all get what we deserve.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Pulp Dystopia

Non Pulp Pulp Genres

As of this writing it appears that the pulp era has finally ended.  The two last pulp magazines, True Story and True Confessions, seem to have suspended publication.  The website of their publisher is no longer active to any degree and subscriptions are not being offered.  There is always a chance that publisher True Renditions may come roaring back and if we see any evidence of this, we will report it here.

The pulp era has, of course, been over for a long time.  It still lingers in the present.  The characters, character archetypes and genres first spawned in the pulps are now mainstays of popular culture.  Many of the escapist tropes displayed in movies, television and video games have deep roots dating back to the first flouring of fantastic magazine fiction in the 1890s.  The magazines may be dead, but pulp fiction moves on.

Pulp fiction is an innovative form, with most of its branches having subdivided from Romance. The broad genres of Western, Detective, Romance and Horror spawned Science Fiction, Jungle Adventure, True Confessions and other offshoots.  In the end it was the Romantic Western and the True Confessions genres which held on as exclusively pulp magazine genres.  Once the appeal of the other genres was proven, they fled to other mediums—following the audience first to radio and the movies and then to television and video games.

During the pulp era, from 1890 to 1950, new genres and slants were constantly being rolled out. Since then, the creation of new genres has massively slacked off. Some of this can be ascribed to the barrier for entry with other mediums.  In the pulps if one wanted to test the appeal of something new and dubious, such as stories centered on zeppelin travel (Zeppelin Stories) or religious setting perverted sex confessions (My Life in a Love Cult) all you needed to do was put out the word, buy 100K words worth of the stuff, commission/repurpose a cover and print. Issued as a quarterly, it flies or dies and the capitalist is not out all that much. With other mediums the sensibilities of external monied interests have to be considered. Sponsors, lenders and marketing departments all have an undo say. The process leans towards building off  themes which have demonstrated a strong draw.  Please no games about directed flower pollination possibilities, we have tens of millions at stake. You want something that’s going to sell—and the best pattern for that is something that sold well before.

That said, 1890 to 1950 is a long time for innovation.  The field of genre innovation may simply be covered.  This type of fiction is reflective of the general human condition in an industrialized society—or those things people would like to escape from or escape into. Not much seems to have changed with that.  There have been some changes in presentation, specific to electronic mediums. Movies manipulate audience reaction through beats, visual and audio ques designed to speed up or slow down the heart rate. (A trick stolen from music.) Television has its encased perception blobs, conditioning to intake content between commercial breaks. Video games have First Person Shooters and 360 perspective.  These are all certainly unique, however they are medium features, not alternative genres. By genre we refer to the theme of the content. Since the demise of the pulps and the rise of these other mediums, there have been all of three new genres which have emerged in popular fiction: Pulp Dystopia, Soap Opera and Reality Programming.  All three forms are thoroughly post pulp magazine, but do have roots tracing to pulp era parallels.

Pulp Dystopia: I am about five years tardy in reporting on the popularity of the dystopian novel. Dystopia is an old novel form, with some early pulp genre convergence in science fiction. It has, however, been largely a literary convention rather than a popular fiction type, at least until relatively recently.  The divergence of Pulp Dystopia from the literary form requires explanation. Dystopia is itself a spin off, a reverse of the classical Utopian novel form. While most Utopian novels have been travelogues of hypothetical perfect places, dystopian works are generally personal horror stories.

Dystopia is literally un-Utopia, a work set in a hypothetical bad place. Dante’s Inferno is one of the earliest dystopian works, predating the term, itself a hypothetical tour of hell and sticking closely to the Utopian travelogue style.  Even the book Utopia is a positive slant to dystopia, although unintentionally and mostly to modern eyes. (Wives having to confess their sins while naked and prostrate before their husbands every evening is only ideal probably for one of the parties involved.) Both forms are extrapolations of an organizing global theme—peak oil, a comprehensive nanny state, zombie apocalypse.

Dystopia writ small is horror. The form can be seen as a subset of large horror themes, a sister genre to Lovecraftian horror or sword and sorcery. There is a certain amount of rules setting—or world building, to borrow a fantasy term—involved in all of these forms. With literary dystopia most of the novel’s words are spent on just this function. After the rules are set, the character moves towards the classic horror results, escape (Logan’s Run, Brave New World) or doom (1984, Night of the Walking Dead). The walls do a lot of talking in literary dystopia, with the ramifications of potential actions and other naval gazing given pride of place.  In literary dystopia the scenery itself is an active menace.

This active menacing scenery is all literary dystopia shares with Pulp Dystopia. The inhabitants of Pulp Dystopia have a wider range of personal preoccupations. (Mostly ignoring the immediate situation.)  High minded Pulp Dystopian protagonists may attempt to “solve” the whole crisis, find a cure for zombie-ism or overthrow Big Brother. But that’s a minority.  Although there is plenty of torture and death lurking in the Pulp version of dystopia, our main characters are seldom involved—in fact, they are seldom the main focus of whatever the overall idea run amok may be.

Pulp Dystopia does not have any direct pulp roots, unless one counts a serial which ran in Operator Number Five called The Purple Invasion. In 13 novels the United States was conquered and destroyed. Prior to that, Operator Number Five took place in the real world, or a world as real as most James Bond movies. From the onset of The Purple Invasion the series was set in an entirely alternative universe. It’s not a stretch to describe it as a dystopia, perhaps the first dystopian serial. Using an established dystopia as a setting for a series of stories is one of the central features of Pulp Dystopia.

Pulp Dystopia’s popularity has been building for decades. At its root is Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation, a real world theme which has lingered for generations.  From there it branched to environmental crisis,  fear of mad science, economic/social domination by the Japanese (now the Chinese), absorption by clans of lawless corporations, to the highly implausible (yet popular) zombie hordes.  Each one of these themes have built up their own fictional architecture, reused over and over.  (Stopping zombies by shooting them in the head.) It may have started in paperback novels, but I am pinning the big blame for Pulp Dystopia’s rise on video games and role-playing games. By the time Mad Max reared his ugly head, the whole post-whatever universe had been established so well that the actual cause of dystopia need not be mentioned.

The form Pulp Dystopia cleaves closest to is the Western.  In my mind this is because Pulp Dystopia is essentially a renamed Western. The drawback to the Western genre is that it is in the past.  Its little clich├ęs and props—high noon shoot outs, the code of the west—have as little to do with life in that historical period as Dungeons & Dragons does with the Renaissance. Like the Western, Pulp Dystopia is a land of minimal opportunity for ambition, remote from fame and fortune. In the evening oppression of it all, the characters are focused on survival and love to the exclusion of all else. Divorced of its no internal logic dystopia, the Hunger Games series is a tale suitable for the classic Romantic Range western pulp. Unlike fantasy or space opera, Pulp Dystopia uses a stripped down version of the commonplace: like here, but without celebrities and Twitter. It’s a Western, only without the livestock and the hicks.  The appeal is in both its familiarity and its general literary democracy.

Now that Pulp Dystopia has been firmly established, it has a long way to run.  The zombie slant is on its way out and quasi feudalism is currently ascendant. The prime conflicts of love and survival along with premixed conventions from the Western and Historic Romance genres will provide material aplenty for some time.  It may even return to its sociology/poly sci experiment in written form roots eventually. Like the Western before it, Pulp Dystopia may die from overexposure, but not anytime soon.  The same cannot be said of our next form…

Soap Opera: Serial stories involving a repeating cast of fictional characters, produced at the hands of several writers, was a advent of the late Dime Novel era.  None of these magazine stories involved female leads or elements of romance, however. Ditto the later pulps, which had an emphasis in character driven titles. Despite the pulps offering several types of romance for female readership, none of them to my knowledge ever involved characters who were reused over the course of several stories. And no pulp series, no matter how convoluted, ever ran several plotlines at once over the course of a single work. Only Stan Lee’s comic books did that—and he was deliberately imitating the soap operas.

Soap Operas have little directly to do with the pulp magazine form in any of its permutations. It origins are in slick woman’s magazine fiction serials and promotions which tied such works with silent movie chapter plays. It was a unique cross-promotional effort. Magazines would run a treatment of the installment concurrent with a release of a short movie which dramatized highlights of the story. It kept people coming back to both the magazine and the movie theater on a regular basis. Some of these tandem efforts, such as the Perils of Pauline, went on for dozens of chapters. Unlike a lot of media inventions, this one was truly international in scope.  The serial novellas were popular from Argentina to Canada, from Spain to Germany. As successful as this was, the arrangement unwound before the advent of talking pictures.

Other than demonstrating that there was a fair-sized audience for serial entertainment targeted at women, there isn’t a lot of similarity in content between these efforts and the style that Soap Operas would eventually take.  They were extremely visual, action-oriented dramas with female leads. This isn’t normally the type of material that women gravitate to.  Its rise and demise may have been more based on novelty than anything else. The Soap Opera form would borrow heavily from the personal adventure slants of these serials, but emerged in the medium of radio.

Radio in the United States went through several phases. Initially the invention was seen as a replacement for the telegraph, with many early systems being dubbed (oddly) visual telegraphs. It was not seen as a method of mass communication, but rather person to person (or ship to shore) contact. Radio’s pioneers, the Marconi Company, envisioned their device as a safety system for transatlantic shipping.  It was only after crystal sets became widespread in the late 1920s that the concept of directing broadcasts widely was first explored. In this, and in every phase of radio’s development, the focus was on monetizing the invention. In the second phase the emphasis was on selling transmitters. Early broadcasters were commercial or community entities—stores, trade unions, service providers—who plied the airways with self-service promotion. In short, radio was wall to wall commercials.

Once the radio audience became established, in the 1930s, the focus shifted first to providing higher quality receivers and then to providing actual programming for the airwaves. (Long story short. It was an uneven process.)  The largest manufacturer of radio receivers, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) successfully petitioned the government to restrict access to transmitters. The newly minted Federal Radio Commission then assigned set frequencies to stations. RCA then formed the first national broadcasting network, the National Broadcasting Company. In fact, it had two networks, NBC Red and NBC Blue. NBC was effectively an advertising agency, selling blocks of time on stations from coast to coast. Other, smaller networks, soon also cropped up: Columbia Broadcasting System, which was purely in the programming business and the Mutual Broadcasting System, which was a coalition of station owners banded together to share programming. (1)

In this phase, the advertisers served as the producers of the programming.  Advertisers conceived the programs, hired all of the talent and paid the network for the airtime. It was during this era that the Soap Operas first emerged.  As the name suggests, most were produced by the makers of household cleaning products.

Then as now, advertisers were interested in getting the most out of their investments—either by reaching the broadest audience possible or making a direct appeal to the likely consumers of their goods. The broad part came first.  Radio was initially an evening medium.  It was believed, fairly, that the bread winners of a family were most prone to listening  after work or after dinner. This span became known as Prime Time and the programming on all networks was built around it. Over time, broadcasters began expanding slated offerings either before or after the Prime Time block. Most of the expansion was in slates of time before the Prime Time block, the audience after 10:00 PM dropping so low that most radio stations simply signed off the air. As opposed to being broadly focused, programs in the earlier slates were targeted at who the advertiser believed had control of the home receiver.

The first additional programming block to develop was the one just previous to Prime Time, called the After School segment.  As the name implies, this block was focused on children having returned home from school.  Many advertisers of the time attempted to tap into existing audience appeal by licensing comic strip characters for their programs. Superman and Little Orphan Annie were two of the most successful of these programs. The majority of these programs were 15 minute daily serial installments, with story arcs which resolved in either one or two weeks. This is also the same format the early Soap Operas used.

The Soap Operas owe a lot to the early After School programs. Many of the programs at the edges of the After School block had dual appeal to both children and adults—as did some of the comics strips they were based on.  Then as now, however, licensing other entities is expensive. Although sharing a similar 15 minute format and serial orientation, the majority of Soap Operas were custom designed original programs. And they were largely targeted at women.

Pulp publisher Street & Smith embraced the medium of radio by providing stories from their magazines, first in the Detective Mystery and then in the Romance genres. (2) The Street & Smith program switched genres with the seasons, offering Detective yarns during the normal season and then switching to Romance during the summer ‘Replacement Season’.  (Unlike TV, the radio era had no off season or summer reruns.) Other publishers in the Romance genre soon followed suit. Stand alone Romantic radio treatments fared well early on, but never became a mainstay of the medium.

Soap Operas are a convergence of the Romance genre and the serial form. They came to dominate the before After School radio timeframe, which became known as Mid Day. Sort of. Only about a third of all Soap Operas aired in that time period. Many Soap Operas were ‘transcribed’ or pre-recorded in advance. Being the products of distinct sponsors, many were aired whenever the air rates hit a certain threshold, either towards the end of Prime Time or as counter programming against higher-rated shows.  This was especially the case when the higher-rated program was not geared to a female audience.

The appeal of the serial form is that it required audiences to make an appointment to return each week day. Beyond form, Soap Operas also adopted the same “Play it Straight” tone common to the adventure serials such as Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy and Captain Midnight.  These were pot boilers, delivered with dramatic flourish, taking themselves very seriously. This may be evidence of the forms reflecting back to the base Romance form. Like the juvenile serials, Soap Operas had a tendency to come off as  breathless dreck.

Once established, the form became widely popular, not just in the United States, but all over the developed world.  Not all of the international efforts clung to the 15 minute serial format—or even the medium of radio. In Argentina and other Latin American countries, Soap Operas came in the form of photo illustrated magazines, reading something like comic books.  The overly serious tone also spread to other genres, the longest lasting of the splices being the Western program Gunsmoke. 

Soap Operas began to diverge from the basic story arc form employed by the other serials early on.  The juvenile serials such as Superman were told in a straight-forward manner, with one plot line moving through its three stages without much sidetracking. By contrast, the Soap Operas often sidetracked their plots, inserting character introductions or dream sequences along the way. They came to adopt what is called an ABC construction, a permutation of the “One Damn Thing After Another” plot form.  The ABC form balances three distinct story lines at one time: (A)  one which is in the midst of concluding; (B) a plotline which is in its second act or mid-resolution; and (C) a story element which is just coming to light. Each segment of a Soap Opera will be dedicated to either A, B or C and usually in this order.

Compared to other forms of programming, radio Soap Operas were inexpensive to produce. Anyone with access to a recording studio and a transcription facility could get into the game.  Many Soap Operas were not networked in a classical sense (delivered to the radio outlet via a dedicated phone line), being sent via transcription disk through the mail. Due to this mechanism, the installments of a program might air at vastly different times in different places—sometimes with a variance of days, weeks, months or years between outlets. It was not unheard of for a program which had gone out of production to start up from the beginning on a new outlet—the new outlet doing nothing more than playing old recordings in order. Soap Operas also benefited from a lowered expectation of production standards.  There was little expectation of realism, originality or wit.  Events which would have blown the budget were explained rather than dramatized. Sound effects were at a minimum and musical accompaniment generally consisted of an organ flourish, right before the commercial break.  All in all, Soap Operas were a good bang for the producer’s buck—and the form proliferated like bunnies.

On radio, Soap Operas clung to two basic story conventions. One I will call the Oracle Formula, wherein the action is centered on a single person who dispenses wisdom. This wisdom spewing gives her license  to  knee-jerk mess with the lives of those unfortunate enough come into her orbit. (Usually younger family members.) Mind you that the other characters in the drama are a collection of nitwits, psychopaths and degenerates. Other than proximity, the various problems endemic to the supporting player’s base state is what qualifies them for the main character’s ad hoc intervention.  And our main character is an intervention dynamo. The second convention I will call the Poor Put On Me Formula. In this formula our main character is deeply mysterious and currently beset by an insurmountable personal circumstance. The character is defenestrated royalty of some sort, broke, a single mother, married to a psychopath or some other dreadful condition. Previously she was a circus aerialist, spy, drug mule. The action floats from the character’s efforts to cope with her current problem, attempts to conceal her past and things from her past reaching into the present. In some Soap Operas you will see both constructions, with one Oracle, one or two Poor Put On Mes and the usual assortment of deplorables. Couple these dynamics with everyone under 60 having the sex drive of a rabbit and the sexual morality of an alley cat and mix to taste.  It’s the formula that made fortunes!

The Soap Opera form reached its height, on radio, by the early 1940s. Nearly every station ran one. And if you ran one, you probably ran a block of them.  Although Soap Opera production was a good business for small time players, about fifty percent of the Soap Operas were created by one of three shops. Many of them were mass-produced entities, sharing writers, actors and recording studios. A few Soap Operas were long lived. Gunsmoke and Edge of Night had enough proven draw to make the jump to television. Most Soap Operas, however, had very short life spans, usually disappearing before their third full season.  It was more the rule that a show lost audience as it went on and that this audience was invariably lost to new Soap Operas. Thus there was a continual drive for novelty.

Setting wise, Soap Operas were fairly democratic. Rural locations were as common as city or suburban ones.  They were Lilly White, although the protagonists came from all economic strata. As a whole, new soaps seemed to follow the leads of trends in Romance literature in general—and quite a few took their cues from what was last hot in Chick Flicks. Oddly, they never went in for historical romance. Advertising considerations are probably the reason for this.

Soap Operas held on in radio well into the television era. They did start to go into decline on radio after the war ended. Two factors led to the Soap Opera’s fall from prominence. First were changes in the radio business itself, brought on by the rise of the car radio and the later advent of television. The end of the Depression factored heavily as well. With radios in cars starting to reach a critical mass, radio stations began grabbing back segments of time from the networks. The orientation came to be catering to commuters, broadly. Morning programming was added and radio became more and more local. The two primary Drive Time slots ate into the Mid day, After School and Prime Time slating where Soap Operas were scheduled. During the Depression, radio stations were used to rather marginal returns. Once the Depression was over, radio stations in major markets became gold mines. They became much less prone to selling 15-minute segments of time or accepting crumbs before or after network shows. Eventually much of what had been radio Prime Time programming migrated to television. As television gained popularity, the radio networks themselves began to dispense with providing anything other than news and sports to their affiliates. Second, even before radio morphed into the form it is today, Soap Operas were losing traction to Game Shows. Game Shows were even cheaper to produce than Soap Operas and were, effectively, long form commercials sans content. Rather a Game Show is a pretext to describe advertising content, the prizes themselves largely being what is advertised.

This rivalry with Games Shows followed Soap Operas into television. In television, the Soap Operas had none of the economies that they enjoyed in radio.  The mediums are quite different from production standpoint. Tying up a soundstage with several sets for the production of a daily hour-long broadcast is expensive business.  The Soap Operas showed up on television because the demand for them had already been well established.  Changes in the working situations of women began to impact their audiences from the 1960s on.  With these changes came a demographic slide towards the elderly and shut in. Eventually much cheaper to produce Game Shows, Talk Shows and our next genre, Reality TV came to replace all but a few of them.

Reality TV: I consider something that is staged, scripted, improvised or otherwise faked to be something other than reality, but is it a genre of fiction? It is at least as much of a fiction genre as True Crime or True Confessions. In effect Reality is something of a mix between True Crime and the Game Show. It oddly normally follows the same basic construction as most Soap Operas, although without the ABC formula.

Reality TV owes its origination to the degrading of the Mid Day audience and its proliferation to the expansion of cable television.  To pick up from where we left off in our history of Soap Operas, the increase in the population of women working outside of the home greatly diminished the demographics of the Mid Day audience.  Today’s Mid Day audience is made up primarily of retirees, the unemployed and assorted shut-ins.  Even with VCR delays in viewing, the demographics of this group were not enough to justify the expense of fielding a block of Soap Operas. (3) Mid Day programming became a quest to produce programs at the lowest dollar costs which had the capacity to outdraw reruns of older programing.  This led to the rise of a new slew of Game Shows and Talk Shows. By the 1980s the demographics had degraded such that it could not support the traditional all celebrity gab fest talk shows—the impetus for name brand entertainers to appear on such evaporating due to the low impact of the audience. Why waste one’s time promoting movies and products to people who are not likely to engage with such.  This led to a degradation of the Talk Show format.

Only Oprah succeeded in the new format, primarily through crafty cultivation of her own media identity and a focus on stunt topics.  All of the other talk shows became freak shows, World Wrestling Federation type screaming matches and fights involving no name nitwits, psychopaths and degenerates. No further devolution seemed possible… then the cable channels got in the act. Today there are several permutations of this format, which we will cover briefly. The rise of Reality has coincided with the revivals of pulp genres True Crime and Gossip, also largely on the same stations. It’s the new low rent pantheon.

Many forms of Reality TV are simply True Crime or True Confessions. A few stumble into the Utopian travelogue format, similar to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  There are three forms, however, which fall into their own subsets of fiction.  

Prison Time: Let’s film prisoners! It’s a dramatic situation, filled with danger and unpredictable actors. And you don’t have to pay the prisoners—in many cases it is illegal to—just get their permission to be filmed. One imagines the prisoners cue up when they spot the production advance men scouting their institution. From personal experience I can tell you that prisoners just love to talk to someone new. This grew out of the True Crime revival and is now quite the enterprise for several crews. I’m not sure this is a great idea or just massively cynical. At this point the appeal is starting to fade. After watching two or three of these most people will never tune in again. (You’ve seen one prison, you’ve seen them all. Ditto crooks.) As a genre it is a mainstay of the Insomniac Slot from 3:00 AM until the very early news. It has very limited advertiser appeal and is deployed by True Crime and News channels.

Let’s Play Games: Uses the Soap Opera Oracle construction. Here the assorted maniacs are set to a task which has a distinct resolution.  Sometimes the Oracle acts as a real judge (Judge Judy decides who wins your civil dispute with the other nitwit) or sometimes they just provoke and guide when the maniacs need prompting. This construction is very popular, taking the form of game shows, rehab sessions and mock court hearings. The settings can either be isolated (remote islands), confined (a wired for sound house) or free range (New Jersey). To “win” the game, you must do one of the following: (1) Avoid being humiliated. Or avoid having the Oracle rule against you; (2) Humiliate the most other people; and/or (3) Be the least humiliated contestant. No one gets out of this with their dignity intact. And I guess that’s the point. Sadly, the appeal of this may be as an analogy to modern occupational situations.

Unfunny Situation Comedy: If you have ever seen the Jack Benny Show then you have the plot of every reality domestic situation program down pat.  Jack Benny’s program was arguably about how he got his program produced every week.  Over the course of the program’s running it was revealed that Jack Benny suffered from numerous phobias, was cheap in the extreme, vain and basically a big goof ball. The people Benny surrounded himself with weren’t much better, but they were able to continually make Benny the butt of numerous jokes.  Nothing about the show was real. Few of the people on the program were what they seemed in real life. (Benny was a very generous performer, always allowing others the big laugh line and flexible enough to act as the universal straight man.) It was extremely well done and the audience played along with the act. This last element is what is missing from most of these shows. Almost all of the main characters are Jack Benny types—venal, insipid minor league celebrities. Few of them have Benny’s timing and most are unaware that they are the butts of jokes. Instead of being interesting or kooky in any developed way, supporting cast members are servile henchmen, fawning entourage, there to reflect glory or collect abuse. (I swear Bruce Jenner drew the short straw at a production meeting. Guess what, Bruce? You haven’t been pulling your weight here. And the DUI homicide is no bonus. You’re going to become a woman. That ought to spike ratings.) Many of the shows revolve around “characters” who previously appeared on the game show version of reality, but most are built around a situation or business. There have been bounty hunter shows, repo men shows, pawn shop shows, foodie shows, business investor shows and a number of shows revolving around antiques.

The granddaddy of these shows might be the old Arthur Godfrey morning radio program, but most seem to be inspired by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Even the better of these programs, such as England’s Top Gear, are highly contrived. As with most split off genres, the best examples appeared early on. The Ozzy Osbourne program came closest to capturing the Jack Benny formula and did best the closer it clung to it.  The oddball Bar Rescue had an intriguing business slant and was well done, early on. Unfortunately Bar Rescue is responsible for the overly serious tone which has now inflicted every show in the business Reality sector. Frankly, the entire Reality field has now resorted to High Camp.

High Camp does have a demonstrable draw, but I am not sure how much of it the public can take. Cable cord cutting will be the real test of Reality Television. Once the medium shifts to ala carte offerings I suspect that many of the channels which rely on Reality are going to find themselves left high and dry. Soap Operas have not died off in other countries and I suspect there will be a revival of the form soon enough. It has the most potential in a form where it can be consumed at leisure. Unless the Pulp Utopias like Star Trek make some sort of come back, the dismal Pulp Dystopia will be crowding out the space once reserved for Westerns and probably for some time.

WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING! Your comments, corrections and critiques are actively invited!

(1)    Mutual produced its own programs and then sought sponsors for them. Their three big hits, all from the same affiliate, were the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet and Challenge of the Yukon. Eventually the networks copied Mutual’s model, purchasing the shows directly. This gave the network more control over content and allowed them to pitch programming at multiple sponsors.  But early on the sponsors were in the driver’s seat.
(2)    The Street & Smith program eventually mutated into The Shadow, a science fantasy adventure show which lasted for decades.  Love Story magazine, True Story and Red Book also had radio shows which were popular. All of the other romance shows faded with the rise of the Soap Operas.
(3)    The audience for Soap Operas remained strong through the 1980s, but only if you included the number of women who taped the show for later viewing. The rating services refused to count these consumers.  They felt, perhaps correctly, that the majority of the taped viewers were fast forwarding through the commercials and were therefore useless to the rating number. 

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