ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND
Patton Oswalt’s long, twisted journey from suburban boy to comic uber-nerd.
Patton Oswalt’s standup, at its best, is like a nightmarish cosmic stew of Stan Lee, Gary Gygax, Harlan Ellison (the cranky and the adorable), George Carlin and The Sex Pistols, with a hint of perverse, impish, Freddy Krueger glee sprinkled on top.
It’s a potent blend, one that has given the world legendary rants on subjects ranging from KFC’s “Famous Bowls” to the Star Wars prequels to how religion is all built around the promise of cake. Oswalt’s worldview is one that seems to naturally absorb the minutiae of the culture around him, mutate it like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, then spew it back as an absurd revision of its former self, held up in the fluorescent glare like a lab experiment. When he really gets going, his work on stage is a primal snarl of social commentary and poo jokes.
With Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt continues his long tradition of bizarre slants on the world around him in print, and attempts to place his skewed vision in some kind of context. The slim volume chronicles select portions of his childhood in Northern Virginia, his teen years working part time at a movie theatre and losing himself in sci-fi paperback and R.E.M., his insane relatives and their contributions to family gatherings, his beginnings in standup and his theory that all creative young nerds lacking in social skills but brimming over with ideas about how they’ll change the world will choose one of three initial storylines/idoms to hone in on: zombies, spaceships or wastelands.
Oswalt labels himself a Wasteland. “Wastelands destroy,” he writes. “They’re confused but fascinated by the world…But the blandness of the world we’ve built – a lot of Wastelands come from the suburbs – frustrates and frightens them as much as the coldness of space…A lot of comedians are Wastelands – what is standup-comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs?”
If you’re thinking this is some sort of book-encompassing theory, it isn’t. It’s just another way for Oswalt to let us in on the secrets of his own demented head. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is refreshing for many reasons, but perhaps most refreshing is that Oswalt never treats the book like a treatise on comedy, or a manual on how to follow in his rather herky-jerky footsteps, or even a psychological analysis of the more “out there” brains in comedy today. It’s just a collection of memories, ideas, comic bits and stories, all of them funny, all of them peppered with the kind of manic wisdom followers of Oswalt’s standup will remember.
Peppered in with the autobiographical bits are other…things, unclassifiable bits of prose, verse, blurbs, lists and even illustrations. Here, interspersed between Oswalt’s tales of stealing ninja stars from the assistant manager of the movie theatre where he once worked and attempting to make sense of the bizarre gifts his grandmother gave, are things like a mini vampire comic, a collection of greeting card doodles and their meanings, a study of hobo poetry, even a list of faux-pretentious wines with names like “The Sensitive Teen” Charonnay and “Freshman at Thanksgiving” Pinot Noir. At the end of each chapter is a section titled “Full Disclosure,” in which Oswalt lists all the things he did on the internet while writing. As with his stand-up, he doesn’t follow the rules. Print is just another delivery device for what’s in his head, and if it doesn’t want to work his way, he makes it work, harnessing the written word, the power of the information age and his own ferocious wit and riding it like an armored chimera.
What makes this all work, believe it or not, is that Oswalt can really write. The creative, oddly-literate phrases that make their way into the ether during his stand-up act (“Uncle Touchy’s Puzzle Basement” and “Failure pile in a sadness bowl” are two gems that come to mind.) translate well to the page. There’s a true, palpable style to what’s happening in these pages, somewhere between the drug-fueled sail of Hunter S. Thompson and the analytic tunneling of H. P. Lovecraft.
But more important than any of the insight, or the language, or the developmental chronicling, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a damn hysterical book. I laughed until I woke other people sleeping in my house, until I went tumbling off chairs, until I choked on whatever I was drinking and was in danger of smacking my head against the coffee table and taking some sort of Big Lebowski-style journey into a world of bowling pins and White Russians. I laughed far more than the low page count suggests I should have laughed. I laughed an unreasonable, ridiculous, diaphragm-spasming amount.
Therefore, even if you don’t read books by comedians, or books about comedians, or books about zombies or spaceships, or books at all, even if you’ve never heard of Patton Oswalt, you should hunt down this book, read it, and laugh until you fall over, drool like a child, and pass out.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is in bookstores Jan. 4.
Advance Reading Copy courtesy of the publisher.