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November 11, 2010

Book Notes - Patrick Somerville ("The Universe in Miniature in Miniature")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Patrick Somerville, in his interconnected collection of short stories, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, has once again amazed me with his characteristic wit and exacting prose.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is a science fiction novel in stories that tackles the fantastic without ever sacrificing character development for plot (my major disappointment with most sci-fi and fantasy fiction). Somerville exceeded my high expectations with this collection. I adored both his debut story collection Trouble and his debut novel The Cradle, and this book only confirms my belief that Patrick Somerville is one of the finest young authors writing today.

Not only is the book's prose worthy and original, but the cover is as well, it can be converted into a mobile?

decomP wrote of the book:

"Just beneath the level of comically self-devouring gimmickry is a righteous rage. You won't wake up after aching from an empathy hangover—as users of the helmet do—but you will likely find yourself consumed by the voices of the characters and realize anew the need to relate to others in this fleeting, lunatic, terrifying, and precious world."

In his own words, here is Patrick Somerville's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature:


The Universe in Miniature in Miniature owes a great debt to a number of authors. I tried to hit on as many of them as I could in the book's Acknowledgements section, but you can never quite know the extent to which this or that story or song, embedded in the swamplands of the subconscious, has had an impact on what you've written. I was once impressed with myself for writing a scene in which a CIA operative "activates" a character by calling her in the middle of the night and uttering a codeword. It took me a long time—too long—to realize I had not only taken the idea from White Noise, which I'd read not one year before, as well as Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which I'd seen, but that White Noise and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion were themselves playfully engaging a trope so ubiquitous in cold war stories that the entire idea was a 50-year-old cliché. It's embarrassing when you don't realize how you've been influenced. Maybe worse than embarrassing.

When I was 17, my aunt sent me a box-set of the radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "He made it for the BBC," she wrote of Douglas Adams. "Before the books!" This fact intrigued me. I knew and liked the books, and I was also a fan of Grant Naylor's Red Dwarf series, which the English half of my family had also encouraged me to read when they realized one of the American members of the clan could be thoroughly Anglicanized before too much damage had been done. The particular combination of wit, logic, science and humor in both series hit upon my dork interests and disposition almost too well—I felt as though the books had to have been written for me. They had a comic spirit that was reminiscent of Monty Python, but it was mapped on top of a space opera. This was essentially my teenage identity.

The radio episodes were and are wonderful creations. If you haven't heard them, or you're one of many possible skeptics—don't like sci-fi, don't like anything but HARD CORE DEAD SERIOUS DEEP FUTURE SCI-FI, DUDE, only like the books, don't like radio drama, don't like drama at all, saw the movie and hated it, etc.—I urge you to put your worries on hold and give the Primary Phase a go, nonetheless. There are already many people who love it, but I'm not sure how many people under 30 have listened to it—especially Americans. Do it!

In anticipation of a cross-country drive, in remembrance of how fond I was of the series the first time around, and (with a little trepidation) wanting to know just how much The Universe in Miniature in Miniature owes to those stories I'd listened to so long ago, I recently downloaded the first two Phases. Thirty bucks for about seven hours of unique and unusual sonic entertainment. Not bad.

The show's theme song, a jaunty, orchestral diddy (which is actually an Eagles song called "Journey of the Sorcerer") with syncopated banjo backing, is a kind of joyful introduction to the coming experience, but also, as an outro to close each half-hour "Fit," as they were originally called, a reminder that you may as well listen to one more episode. Why not? It's quick, and you will smile. This was my experience, anyway. Even though I had also downloaded Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, as I drove I could never quite bring myself to roll my cursor away from Hitchhiker at the conclusion of a given episode and delve into the granular details of Midwestern gentrification. How could you do such a thing just as you've learned the Earth is a supercomputer run by mice?

I've become curious, though, after listening to the first series. What is it, specifically, about the BBC production that I find so irresistible? And found so irresistible back then. The whole idea of radio drama has me wondering all sorts of new questions, too, and wondering what it might tell us about books today, and the future of books. What is it to listen to a dramatized story—one with multiple actors, sound effects, and music—as opposed to a book on tape? How does the narrative itself change when it's not only acted out, but acted out in audio? Does it matter that it enters our minds solely through our ears, and not our eyes?

As a point of reference for those of you who don't know or remember the story, here's a quick version of the first episode of Hitchhiker; this is also how the TV series opens, as well as the book; I haven't seen the movie, but I'm guessing it's the same, too: Arthur Dent, a neurotic English bachelor who is somewhere in his mid-30s, awakens to discover that his house is scheduled to be bulldozed that very morning to make way for a new highway. In order to prevent the demolition, Arthur lies down in front of the bulldozer and argues with the foreman. Soon thereafter, Arthur's friend Ford Prefect arrives, claiming he has something important to tell Arthur, and that he has to tell him in the pub. He convinces Arthur to come, and to forget about his house, and while at the pub, Ford tells Arthur that he is not actually human, but rather a Betelgeusian posing as a human. He goes on to explain that the Earth has been scheduled for destruction in order to make way for what amounts to a galactic highway. The two of them will have to "hitchhike" off the planet immediately. Arthur is incredulous until they actually do hitchhike onto a Vogon spacecraft moments before the Earth actually is blown up. Oh, and when Arthur and Ford are discovered as freeloaders, they are forced to listen to the Vogon captain's dreadful poetry in order to appease him. They end up in an airlock, about to be ejected into space. End episode.

Your typical run-of-the-mill storyline. Despite how intrigued and entertained I was when I first read that opening—the Earth actually blowing up to start a story was, to me, a revelation of scope and scale—I can't deny, especially after listening to the whole thing again, that there is a layer of sensory and human richness to the radio version that simply doesn't carry over to the books. For that matter, I'm not even sure it can be achieved with traditional fiction. And the additional layer is all about sound.

How so? First, the actors. There are two forms of narration—or perhaps we should call it narrative oversight—in the radio show: the "announcer," played by John Marsh, and the Hitchhiker's Guide itself—a compendium of digitized knowledge a little like Wikipedia, actually, but infused with the same benevolent cynicism as the rest of the story. The voice of the book is Peter Jones, but treated and always introduced by a burbling, clicking sound effect. I think it's notable, in terms of storytelling, that this voice is distinct from the more traditional narrator. Both provide context and keep what might otherwise be tedious exposition, a perennial problem in science-fiction, out of the mouths of the characters, but they do so in slightly different ways. The more traditional narrator, Marsh, "knows" of the presence of the audience and provides an oddly friendly link between the story and the listener. Like the old voiceovers in mid-century cliffhanger adventure shows, he says continuity-oriented things like, "Meanwhile" to switch between the A Plot and the B Plot and asks leading questions at the end of the episodes. Once in awhile, he'll provide teasers for the next episode.

The narrative position of the Guide, though, is buried a little deeper in the story. It, too, speaks with a knowledge of the "you," but the "you" is a generalized reader of the Guide, not the "you" in the radio audience—the tonal effect is thus a little but different. Two complementary storytellers. Add to these narrative foundations the expressive, comically nuanced performances of the actors playing Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, Trillium, and Marvin, as well as the multitudinous guest characters who pop up throughout the seasons, and you've got a web of tightly focused storytelling and highly relegated roles that nevertheless carries with it an air of anarchic freedom. This is how you might describe the novelization, too, but I have to say: hearing it from different actors changes things for the better.

Secondly, there are the sound effects themselves. One pleasurable surprise I found with the downloaded version of the series was an hour-long radio documentary telling the story of how Hitchhiker came to be—starting with a young Douglas Adams lying drunk in a field, looking at the stars, and ending sometime around 1999 or so, before Adams' untimely death and before the existence of a Hitchhiker film. Listening to the documentary, one can really see how the show was innovative for reasons beyond its ingenious scripts or the fundamental good idea at its core, and that its initial popularity grew out of an impressive array of novelty—that how it sounded was just as important as the events it described. The sound designers for the show were from a BBC offshoot called The Radiophonic Workshop. The BBC proper had all sorts of creaking doors and galloping horses at their disposal, but the show needed more; what the BBC did not have were the ambient sounds of a Vogon spaceship. That psychedelia had to be created, and the Radiophonic Workshop was the right place to create it. That space had been responsible for, among other things, the sounds of Dr. Who.

Nor did the BBC proper have an 8-Track recording system. (Which seems crazy? But okay.) Since so many voices in the show are treated with various effects—Marvin's particularly echoed and depressive droning, for example—the actors sometimes performed in separate rooms, at separate mics, with their performances all cleanly alone on separate tracks. They oftentimes did this live, however, and you can feel the resultant verve in the conversations. There's a funny story in the documentary about someone walking onto the central soundstage during a rehearsal, hearing the voices coming out of the monitors but finding no actual actors. Instead of being on the stage, they were all tucked away in different closets and bathrooms, performing in isolation.

The sound effects throughout the show are really, really good. They're unique; they take on dramatic weight of their own. They tell parts of the story, but sometimes they go even further—sometimes they have thematic relevance, too. Paddy Kingsland, a sound engineer at The Radiophonic Workshop, tells a particularly intriguing anecdote about inventing the sound effect for the destruction of the Earth in the first episode. Here's his description:

The end of the Earth was a very difficult concept, and a slightly upsetting one, but basically what it was was an explosion, but it just needed a bit of extra something or other in it to underline the enormous effect this would obviously have on everybody. We had a buildup of an eerie wind effect, which was done on a synthesizer. Then there was a big thunderclap, followed by the explosion, and then I found an effect of a train crash, and it had the screech of the train against the rails, and that gave a sort of shrieking noise afterwards. And there was also an animal moan in it as well, you know, as a sort of ecological touch to the whole thing. And a big, long die-away, so that at the end, all you hear is this eerie wind. Seemed to go down quite well at the time.

Isn't that beautiful? It really makes you think.

Unexpected Speculative Section

I'm not the kind of writer who becomes sententious about the future of books, and I don't bristle at the idea of e-readers becoming more than a curiosity. We're already past that point. It makes sense and I think it's a little reactionary, albeit understandable, when people get worked up about the sacred smell of new bindings. It is what it is and we are where we are. Storytelling will always be storytelling.

However, that's not to say different technologies won't tug readers in different directions, and some versions of a digitized experience of literature will not be more successful than others. I have yet to find a piece of hypertext fiction that felt like it worked right, although I admit I haven't looked very hard—it might be out there, and there's a good chance I'm just too ignorant to have found it. Anyone? And the storylines of videogames have become increasingly sophisticated, yes, but it seems to me that the requirement of doing things and making choices oneself, while ostensibly democratic, somehow contradicts an essential, autocratic characteristic of the storyteller-audience relationship: namely, we want to be in the hands of someone else. We want the story to be told. Choosing your own adventure is fun, and different, but it's also a little too much like life, isn't it? It's hard to choose your own adventure. I want someone who's really good at life and adventure to choose life and adventure for me.

Man, though. Despite sometimes being a purist when it comes to traditional books and reading, the writer in me is thinking: What I wouldn't give for a well-placed goddamned sound effect once in awhile. And I would kill for some noises and ambient sounds to surreptitiously fade in as a reader makes her way through a particular paragraph or when her eyes come to a particular word in the text. Right then, right when she reads the word "gunshot," there's a gunshot. Or how about even some recurring music? Something that acts as an intro or outro in a collection of linked stories? A few solitary notes of a recurring motif, just to touch upon the right emotional moment? I'm not talking about Also sprach Zarathustra whenever a character has a minor epiphany. I just mean a simple control of sounds somehow synchronized alongside the reader's act of reading. For example, could an e-reader with video capture capabilities, a few generations down the line, watch the eyes of a reader and know which line he was on? New cars are using biofeedback to read their drivers—why not e-readers? Could the simple, crucial notes of a recurring theme begin to play not at the push of a button, but at the moment the human eye pushes on a word? Maybe this is horrifying to some, but I'm not sure I wouldn't want to hear the Vinteuil, the phrase in the sonata that Swann finds so unbearably moving, every time he hears it, too. Would that make Swann's Way better? Would all those songs Tom Bombadil sings, which I have to admit I find a little irritating and inaccessible, take on more meaning and make The Lord of the Rings better if I could hear them as I read?

The obvious counter-argument is compelling, too: this is gross. What I'm saying is gross. That such additions would corrupt a text, not enhance it. That we writers are working in a pure state of language, and that we can, if we're good enough, render sensory experiences. If people hear, see, and even feel things in their dreams, writers should be able to get in there and pull those levers, too.

Maybe so. But I don't think that's a good enough reason to turn away from new possibilities for storytelling, especially if they line up better with how we live today, and what we want out of our stories today. Isn't opera such a hybrid? Or musical theatre? Surely they were once profane. Perhaps some young engineer will team up with some young writer and together they'll find a way to merge it all—the sights, the visual dramatizations, the sounds, the music, the text itself, but in a way that doesn't require the reader to click things or generally feel like a shithead. Perhaps, too, it will be a fabulous failure, and we'll revert to fireside storytelling, greatly disgusted with our own hubris.

That said, if you're the person who will one day create this fancy machine, reader, I urge you to do just one thing before you turn it on: please listen to the BBC radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It will teach you things.

My Speculative Abilities Exhausted, Back to Douglas Adams

Just like all of Adams' worldview, there's a hint of something newer, sleeker, and fundamentally reasonable in how those shows escort the listener through the story. They're different, yet they feel totally right. It's as though they'd been there all along. All those disparate tracks, but spliced together into a cohesive Master Tape, and in stereo, no less—isn't that what all good stories should be, in whatever medium?

Which brings me back to influence, and the anxiety of influence, although I've never much cared for the phrase. Why should I be worried that I once read, loved, and was profoundly influenced by somebody's work? Only if I were trying to pretend it wasn't true.

Zach Dodson from featherproof books, the publisher of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, sent the proof of the book to press just about a week before I set off on my drive and listened again to Hitchhiker. We spent the last few days beforehand integrating some images and adding a few tweaks here and there—changes at the last second, something Zach calls, "The small press advantage," which means you think of something while you're eating a piece of pizza and staring at the monitor and say, "We should do x," then Zach moves the mouse around a little and clicks some things. And it's done! Very late in the process, I decided to dedicate the book to Slartibartfast, a character from the Hitchhiker series, and I think it was that last decision, which just kind of popped into my head as we were both looking at the title page, that led me to download the radio show again. I made the dedication to Slartibartfast in part just because I thought it was funny (because come on), but also as a more sincere and obvious nod to the profound effect Adams had on me in a time when my own sensibility as a writer was just beginning to cohere. Standing there, looking at the book's layout and the cover and thinking about what was in it, the truth was utterly undeniable. It's not just humor and sci-fi mixed together, it's not just repartee and absurdity. There's a kind, complete, and deeply insightful ideology holding up the circus tent that is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams built it and gave it to his readers right alongside all the fun.

I feel as though I'm always turning to art to find the same thing, even though it's often dressed up in camouflage: what I want is a secular point of view that nevertheless retains a certain joy in creation and a sense of magic—one that acknowledges the sacred by acknowledging people and their pain as important, but also the infinitesimally small importance of an individual life against the backdrop of EVERYTHING. I want a little morality, but not a lot. I want a sense of right and wrong but no preaching. And despite everywhere I've looked, and despite the continued search, it's still pretty hard to find a voice or a sensibility that so clearly recognizes, and celebrates, the same feeling that Hitchhiker captures so well. The series is a comedy, and so no, it doesn't spend much time exploring the real terror someone like Arthur might feel upon seeing his home planet blown up. The conventions of comedy inevitably limit the stakes of a given story, and so if Hitchhiker fails in terms of my desires for art—and perhaps in terms of the larger cultural assessment of Adams' legacy—it fails in terms of dramatizing sadness and strife. But, like I said, it's a comedy. It doesn't try to be everything. And what it does go after, it completely nails.

Douglas Adams is a titan of 20th century literature. I said it. And I hope that one day he's recognized as such, even though it seems as though he's stuck in some kind of cultural purgatory that prevents him from being properly elevated to his due position in the history of literature. I think he's sometimes considered cute, or even worse: mostly harmless. But Douglas Adams—well, the work of Douglas Adams, when looked at as a whole, is tremendous, radio or otherwise. As a kind atheist committed to being reasonable, funny, and environmentally conscientious, he goes well beyond being mostly harmless and remains, in fact, exceptionally dangerous to a large portion of the planet's population. This is good. His work embodies the opposite of fundamentalism and the opposite of blind bureaucracy—two forces in our world that truly could cause the ultimate death of the planet. For those reasons, and for the sheer pleasure of witnessing the man's unending humor, I truly hope he's remembered and adored.

Patrick Somerville and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature links:

the author's website
the author's Tumblr
the author's blog
downloadable excerpt from the book

American Short Fiction Blog review
Chicago Reader review
Chicagoist review
decomP review of the book
Flavorpill review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

Book-Club-Queen interview with the author
Lantern Daily post by the book's designer
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his novel The Cradle
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his short fiction collection Trouble
Rob Funderburk Posts Interests post by the artist behind some of the book's illustrations.
The Spark interview with the author
WUWM interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists