Don’t Preorder

[I intended to write a new Cannon Corner today, but I had shit to do, so I didn’t get a chance to watch any Cannon films over the weekend. Let’s say it’ll happen next week!]

I cannot express in words my love for Albert Brooks. For Defending Your Life alone, he sits high on my pantheon of comedy gods, just below Woody Allen and George Carlin. But he also created Comedy Plus One, Lost in America, Real Life, Mother, Modern Romance, postmodern standup (a precursor to the alt-comedy of today, only funny), and even Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. That last is the shakiest entry on his list of accomplishments, but give it a chance. It goes down more smoothly if you understand how Brooks’s standup works, but even without that knowledge, it has a ton of genuine, big laughs.

When it was announced, after what many (including me) assumed was unofficial retirement from the cinematic auteur game, his first-ever novel would be published, I got excited. Not many filmmakers can make that transition (ever read Ethan Coen’s fiction?), but I figured Brooks would be a natural fit. Like Woody Allen, his films come across like works of the hyper-literate (he’s just not as insecure and show-offy about it as Allen); his comedy comes mainly from deconstructing conventions and contemplating the human condition. Plus, he knows how to construct a joke, which makes it easier to bear the possibility of slogging through crappy writing.

An effusive New York Times review and compelling Adam Carolla interview had me salivating for it. I did something I’ve never done before: preordered a book at a reasonably high price.

See, the Kindle my parents gave me for Christmas has dramatically altered my life. We’ll first ignore the numerous eBooks I’ve pirated because, let’s face it, virtually all of them are books I already own and feel entitled to not pay money for. I am such a cheapskate that I would literally take the time and energy to hand type them, but why should I bother when I have the resources to nab the books and easily convert them for use on the Kindle? I have purchased plenty of books legitimately, but I’m a bargain hunter. The alleged advantage of eBooks is the lack of overhead. I feel like paying more than $6 for an eBook is patently absurd for a text file rarely exceeding one megabyte. Many publishers set their prices only marginally lower than the cost of the physical book, which drives me nuts and generally prevents me from purchasing.

But Albert Brooks is different. The Kindle Store had it listed at 50% off the hardcover price, but as you may have noticed, hardcovers are kind of expensive. The price was $13, more than double my usual maximum.

Let me repeat: Albert Brooks. I played right into the publishers’ hands and preordered, so convinced that the novel would fill me with the same joy and introspection as his previous worked.

It started off well enough, like a satire of a Tom Clancy novel. A large cast of characters, separated from each other but central to the overarching themes (and occasionally coming together for one reason or another), inhabit a not-too-distant dystopia that takes all of our current problems to their logical extremes. Note I say logical extremes — not comically over-the-top illogical extremes. Because, as I settled into 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, it dawned on me that the book is not a comedy.

Sure, it has some laughs, but Brooks isn’t trying to exaggerate what might happen for comic effect. He paints a grim but indelible portrait of how things could actually play out if we, as a country (and, to a lesser extent, as a planet), don’t get our collective shit together. Parts of 2030 genuinely frightened me, which means it was intermittently effective, but I have to say… I didn’t like it much. I felt a little burned by the overall lack of humor, the often unsuccessful attempts at pathos, and the way it kind of rushes through its climax and then spends a little too much time petering out.

I came away from the book disappointed, but not just because it didn’t meet my expectations — because I paid money for it. I couldn’t wait for the public library to get a copy that I could check out and read like I used to in the pre-Kindle days, so I could feel the crunch of that unattractive plastic dust jacket casing, get a noseful of the antiseptic sting of that fine institution as it wafts from the pages, and come away feeling like I’d wasted time but not money.

Here’s the problem: $13. Do I have any right to get worked up over $13? This isn’t 1931. Thirteen dollars is not a lot of money, to anyone, for any reason. But it’s not just the money; it’s the compulsivity aspect that bothers me. Over time, the money spent on poor decisions like this adds up. What if I spent $13 on a new, exciting book every week for a year? That’s almost $700, which might not be an inherently offensive sum to spend on books unless all 52 of them are as disappointing as 2030. If they are, then it’s become a financial sinkhole, a money pit of my own making, and all I can do is wallow in those poor choices. Because, instead of checking it out from the library, determining it is a work of life-changing artistic merit worthy of numerous rereads (my criteria for paying money for a novel), and buying it, I cut out the practical part of the equation. And you can’t resell a Kindle book!

I can’t stop my compulsive behavior. Believe me, I’ve tried, and the tailspin it creates is not something to be proud of. The best I can do is manage it, and I’ve been fairly successful at manipulating my own neuroses. My brain craves controlled chaos, obsessed with applying order to a disorganized world. So I can manage the compulsive behavior by creating rules that my mind then rigidly follows, curbing poor purchasing decisions by forcing myself to acknowledge I don’t need something. But when something like 2030 comes along — something that meets all my criteria and thus becomes a necessity — holy shit is it on.

When disappointment sets in, it starts with the book and then moves on to me. Because, let’s face it: what isn’t about me? I see cracks in the façade of rules I’ve created. If I can force 2030 to fit into my rules, what does that mean for anything else? How long will it be before 2 Fast 2 Furious shows up on my shelf? Do I need to create a more stringent set of requirements, or do I merely need to be more suspicious of the things I desire? Should I have said, “Defending Your Life! But, on the other hand, The Muse!” to talk myself out of the immediate purchase? Would that have worked? (Probably — The Muse was really bad.)

Why can’t I just relax and be practical and say, “I have bills to pay; I can’t be spending money willy-nilly”? Is it general irresponsibility, recklessly compulsive behavior, or the fact that my high school consumer education consisted of my sociology teacher thumbing through his wallet and marveling at the stupidity of any institution that would give him a platinum card?

Or am I just being too hard on myself? I pay my bills (actually, I pay more than my bills most of the time, to crush those pesky interest charges); I contribute to an alarming number of charitable causes (on behalf of friends, organizations I believe in, and people at whose altar I worship); and I’m still flush at the end of the month, with a little bit of scratch to save and a little bit to spend on frivolities like books I think I’ll love but then don’t.

So is there really a problem? I’ve had pretty serious issues with bona fide compulsive spending (and compulsive eating, and compulsive caffeine consumption, and compulsive masturbation), so maybe I’m just overly sensitive about something that’s a non-issue. I love Albert Brooks; why wouldn’t I expect to love his novel? Why shouldn’t I take a $13 gamble on the expectation that, at the end of 350 pages, I’ll gain a new outlook on life, the universe, and everything?

But will that, then, lead to a compulsive gambling problem?

Posted by D. B. Bates on August 15, 2011 1:42 PM