Short Stories: The Last Girlfriend On Earth by Simon Rich
From his author picture, Simon Rich looks pretty happy (even if his mum probably made him wear a tie). Who wouldn’t be: three books, five screenplays, he used to work for Saturday Night Live (he’s its second youngest writer) and now he writes for Pixar. Indoor work with no heavy lifting and all by the tender age of 26. Did I mention his first collection of short stories was nominated for the Thurber Prize for American Humour? TheLast Girlfriend On Earth (& Other Love Stories) is a collection of 30 humourous short stories about love, subdivided into sections called “Boy Meets Girl”, “Boy Gets Girl” and “Boy Loses Girl”.
They’re funny stories.Beautifully written.Hilarious at times.
But I don’t have much more to say about them.
Which is probably my only complaint: I’ve got little to say because The Last Girlfriend on Earth doesn’t have much to say. They’re a series of comic set-pieces – some sublime, some short, most feeling like they started out as ideas for comedy sketches that didn’t quite make it onto Saturday Night Live. The storiesoften involve a Generic College Guy in a comic situation: his ex is seeing Hitler, his girlfriend’s a Siren, he’s been propositioned by sex aliens.
There are some notable exceptions; “I Love Girl” and “The Present“, the first about a cavemen and the other a tale of lost love and time travel. These two stood out as poignant stories, rather than following the formula.
“I Love Girl” is a heartwarming tale of a lovelorn caveman: “There are many women in the world. By last count, seven. But she is the only one I ever loved.” It’s funny and sweet with possibly the best profession of love I’ve read in a while:
I will clear all the rocks for you and the child until I am eaten by a monster or die of the Great Disease. I will make you many paths so you can go all the places you want.
“The Present” is a touching, rather sad story about a neglectful boyfriend and the perils of present shopping when you have invented a time machine. It’s the age-old dilemma; “quantum physics and nuclear hydraulics were trivial compared to the rigors of gift shopping.” It’s the only story where I didn’t laugh and I think a few more in this style might have served well as a counterpoint to the relentless humour of the book, where every ending is a punchline.
That’s not to say the rest of the stories aren’t acutely observed. This is a smart, polished collection, and virtually anyone who picks it up will identify with the observations and laugh at the jokes.Rich leads with his best story: “Unprotected” is a fantastically innovative journey through a young man’s life told from the point of view of a prophylactic in his wallet. It’s touching and funny, told with control and compassion, building up a picture through the simple addition and subtraction of items to the wallet. There are some other gems, particularly in the “Boy Meets Girl” section, which is by far the strongest: in particular “Victory” and “Occupy Jen’s Street“, which rely less obviously on overtly outlandish situations. In the latter, we see the power of popular protest taken to absurd levels, as a student organises a demonstration against the object of his affection’s indifference. “Victory” recounts the aftermath when Josh, “just like, picked up a girl at a bar.” It’s a parallel universe where the President “phones to congratulate him” and the rest of the world applauds such an unlikely event.
If it weren’t for “I Love Girl“and “The Present“I’d just pigeonhole this as a humour book and leave it at that, but the blurb on the back promotes it as a collection about love.Simon Van Booy, a winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, describes the short story collection as intimate, but I think this is what these stories, for the most part, lack. They’re about intimacy, but they’re not intimate.
There’s a joke I once heard about American stand-up: a comedian goes on stage, adjusts the microphone, and runs a hand through his hair: “Television, what’s that all about?”Cue roars of laughter.This collection feels a bit like that: “Love, what’s that all about?”
For me – at least, with a short story – I want intimacy: the author’s narrative voice, and to be seduced by it and the world it conjures. In this collection, we don’t get enough of it.The Last Girlfriend On Earth is a book I’d recommend reading on the loo the day after Valentine’s Day, if you’re single.It’s funny, but only sporadically ambitious.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Simon Rich could write another Love and Death next year and still be nearly half the age Woody Allen, to whom he’s been compared, was when he wrote it back when.
Buy this book, read it, and share it with your friends – though if one of them meets a girl who lives down by the canal, don’t go along to meet her, even if she’s got a friend. Just keep an eye out for his next book because Simon Rich is only going to get better.
I need to start with a disclaimer: there are a lot of Dicks in this book. There are also lots of long and often obscure words. But while I’m keeping the dicks in my review to a minimum, the words are harder to translate. In fact, you may find them a bit of a mouthful, but you only have your Self to blame. So if you read this and get your haecceity confused with your quiddity, as I’ll do in a bit, don’t worry. I’m just easing you into some of the language of the novel. It’s all part of the fun—and after all, isn’t it Will Self’s own stated aim “to be misunderstood”?
Like many of you, I’ve wondered Whatever Happened to Corey Haim, gone Desperately Seeking Julio (the available translation of Maruja Torres’ Oh es él! Viaje fantástico hacia Julio Iglesias, though you would be mad not to prefer the more literal Oh it’s him! Fantastic voyage to Julio Inglesias) and thought about Being John Malkovich.
The Quiddity of Will Self, according to its author Sam Mills, is the “literary equivalent” of Malkovich—or BJM, as it’s called in the novel. At first, I had difficulty with this concept. After all, one of the main reasons the film works is that Malkovich is in it. He’s there on the screen in front of you, quite literally being John Malkovich. How do you replicate that in literature? You can take an author (as Mills has), you can write like them (as Mills sometimes does), you can put them into your novel as a character (as Mills has), but you can’t ever really be them. Short of Self writing about himself, as he’s already done in Walking to Hollywood, the same idea doesn’t easily translate from screen to page.
The other difficulty I had is that quiddity, the concept central to Mills’ novel, is all about a thing’s “whatness”. Not what makes it unique, which is haecceity or “thisness”, but what properties it shares with others. Often, though, Mills’ fictional quiddity seems more like haecceity. Her book is written in the style of the idea of Will Self: long words and lots of cocks. Characters in The Quiddity of Will Self form a cult to worship the Self, and there is even a drug that allows them to share perspective as the Self. Substance abuse theory aside, if I wanted to get at the whatness or thisness of Will Self, why not just read his books instead?
Which is harsh. The Quiddity of Will Self is perhaps flawed, but it’s also a great and very ambitious book, and it needs to be accepted for what it is. You can enjoy the ideas, the invention, and the constant confusion of fact, fiction and authorship—one reviewer got the author’s gender wrong, not so strange when you consider that the fictional version of Sam Mills is male in part five of the novel—but if you’re looking for a sympathetic narrator, you’re unlikely to find one here.
The book is divided into five sections of varying style, quality and length. Despite having one of my favourite opening lines ever, the first section of the book is much too long. It has more than a whiff of Self’s novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, in which a journalist called Richard falls into the orbit of media monster Bell and his cronies. In Quiddity’s first part, a writer (another Dick) falls in with the inner literary circle of the Will Self Club after his mixed-up downstairs neighbour, who has had plastic surgery so that she resembles Will Self, is found murdered. The victim, Sylvie, returns in part two, this time as a ghost who haunts Self’s study whilst the writer works obliviously. Part three continues the tale of Richard, who has been framed for Sylvie’s murder, as he participates in a New Deal Reintegration program run by Professor Self (no relation) as an alternative to prison, and part four is set in a 2049 where Will Self has finally won the Booker Prize, aged 82.
However, it is part five where the book comes into its own. We are introduced to the narrator Sam Mills, as he (yes, he) tries to get The Quiddity of Will Self published, fails to meet Will Self, and founds the Will Self Club. There’s quite a lot of BJM too. This witty, semi self-referential section really works, and made me forgive some of the weaker parts of the novel as they’re necessary as precursors for this last and strongest section. According to both the fictional Sam Mills in the book and the author in an interview, The Quiddity of Will Self took nine years to write. As a novel it’s perhaps too long and disjointed, but as a set of linked stories (much like Self’s debut The Quantity Theory of Insanity) it stands up, and the final section flies. It is weakest where it feels like the author has written part of it, put it down, and then returned quite a while later with a new idea, but that’s a small price to pay because the ideas themselves are worth it.
As Sam’s fictional agent Archie tells him (with a nod to her real agent, Simon Trewin), “We’re in a recession and everyone is cautious.” Fortunately, though, they weren’t too cautious to publish this strange and original book. Whatever its shortcomings, it remains very much my idea of fun.
The Ghost in the (Fruit) Machine
I think my brother writes computer games for Jesus because, for a long time, he thought, and maybe still does, that our father was a fruit machine.
You may have heard of some of his games. Exodus, where you take the character of Moses; in each level you gather objects to visit a plague upon the Egyptians. The main character resembles a pixelated Rock Hudson, since the digital rights to Charlton Heston’s likeness were deemed too expensive. His other top seller is a first person shoot-em-up; you play Jesus, fighting your way through Romans, using special move combinations to turn water into wine (press A then B on the console), produce fish from nowhere (C, D & X) and heal the sick (A + R1).
[private]Whilst the gameplay is fast and the character of Mary Magdalen is voiced by a former pornographic movie star, the games (and others in this stable) are not meant to be fun. They have a Purpose. Evangelism first, entertainment second. In the twenty-first century the battle for young minds and their imaginations is fierce and the road to salvation is rendered with digital distractions.
My brother is a convert; a true believer in the faith of ones and zeros, heaven and hell, and the binary state, but if there was any form of baptism it was not in the sea but rather above it, on the south coast of England.
We lived with our mother just outside the peeling seaside resort of Hastings. Under the unblinking eyes of a mournful, black statue of Queen Victoria, as she presided over offerings of last night’s salty vomit and rancid chip wrappings, Hastings had expanded from a fishing village to a poorer man’s Victorian Brighton, and over the twentieth century had continued to decline gently as a refuge of last resort. In the nineteen sixties the central government paid increased benefits to those who chose to move to Hastings to not look for work. In the eighties it became the suicide capital runner-up for England, narrowly beaten by Manchester in the young male category. As one letter writer wryly observed in the local Rye Observer, ‘Why can’t we ever win anything?’
It was this blend of economic hardship, depression and the trappings of a decayed Victorian holiday camp that had made the place. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Hastings Pier. It had been half closed for two decades and the chief adult attraction amongst the local cognoscenti was a three-bar portable gas heater, advertised by word of mouth and a cardboard sign proclaiming in black felt tip the legend, “Free and Warm.”
The twin aims of human existence were here, available to anyone. The prime positions right in front of the heater were always reserved for local dignitaries, of which my father was one. Three deck chairs were in permanent residence. The central position of honour was kept for Len, the pier manager. At his right hand sat our father, who notionally ran the Penny Arcade. To the left was Pat, a shaggy redhead of no fixed abode or employment who resided solely by dint of cronyism since he had gone to secondary school, briefly, with the other two men. He had been expelled for selling stolen wristwatches, but not before he’d let Len have one for cheap for his dad’s birthday. Len had never forgotten this small act of generosity.
I had always been closer to my mother so my parents separating had less of an obvious impact, but evidence of my brother’s distress was obvious. When at home he was withdrawn, hardly unusual for an eleven-year-old boy, but his withdrawal was not just verbal but physical. He was increasingly absent from school. My mother resorted to taking a day off from work, something any of us could little afford. Waiting outside the school in a borrowed car she followed him slowly in a pair of superfluous sunglasses down to the seafront and the rusting pier.
My father, apparently, treated him in the same way on every visit, barely stirring himself from his fireside banter with the cream of Hastings’ vagrant greybeards. Often without a word he would dip his hand into his pocket and produce a bag of assorted coppers, and if feeling especially paternal would pat his son, with what he imagined was affection, then gently shove him in the direction of the Penny Arcade.
It was there that the father-son relationship was nurtured by proxy, though increasingly as my brother approached puberty, the attractions became less familial and more like lovers. He would murmur to them, fondle them, coax them deftly to pay out their meagre jackpots with all the attentiveness of a young man in love for the first time. He became a virtuoso, learning their moods, their patterns, their rhythms; when they’d pay out, when they’d clam up. Warm copper coins eased gently into their gaping slots, with a tenderness and patience uncharacteristic of his gender and teenage years. My brother, the Casanova of copper coins.
And then my father died, buried by an avalanche of broken bones and coffins on his way to work. The cliffside graveyard in St. Leonards, as had long been foretold and ignored, after a particularly violent storm, had surrendered its dead; disgorging its contents, which had fled, along with much of the cliffside, at the earliest opportunity, to inter the one living person on the Undercliff path below. My father, thou art in Hastings.
He was buried with the rest, by far the youngest corpse there, in a new plot on the Ridge. For my brother this was not the end, only the beginning. The absenteeism increased until one day he came home red-eyed, with a bruise like a storm cloud just below his left eye. My mother made a lot of noise and fuss, the sort you think is unnecessary when you’re not yet grown up but will miss forever when it’s no longer there. My brother, uncharacteristically, gave what was, for him, an explanation:
‘They’ve banned me from the arcade. They won’t let me see Dad.’
In death it seemed my dear departed dad had become something of a model parent, albeit mechanical. He was utterly reliable, and with time, predictable. He made all the right noises at the right time, and rewarded good behaviour with a series of high-pitched noises and flashes and, if played correctly, was a dependable source of pocket money. My brother had it in his head that my father’s ghost had chosen to inhabit a two-penny one-armed bandit—in itself not the most harmful psychosis, at least until the middle-aged caravan couple who now ran the arcade accused him of nudging the machines, and tried, with success, to ban him.
He fought. He lost. He was physically bruised but emotionally broken. My mother pleaded on his behalf to Len, the manager, my father’s old boss and school friend. His price was too high; he’d made a similar suggestion to my mother at father’s funeral, reeking of cheap spirits as he pressed against her hand-me-down black crepe dress. Whilst she was a devoted mother she was unwilling to prostitute herself indefinitely and he wouldn’t budge his considerable bulk, so that was that. My brother had nowhere else to retreat to and gradually a stilted normality resumed. His absences were now exclusively mental and he attended school mechanically, present to all physical purposes.
It was the closure of the pier that saw hope rekindled in my brother’s eyes. He wrote articulately, politely and unrelentingly to the local council. How were the games machines being disposed of? Would they be sold off singly or en masse? Eventually he received a curt, typed reply: ‘obsolete’, ‘no resale value’, ‘to be scrapped, wholesale.’ Their destination was a local junkyard and there at the bottom, best of all, was the name of the dealer.
So, on my brother’s twelfth birthday we made a family pilgrimage to the tip. My brother was wealthy by juvenile standards: hoarded pennies seduced from the machines had turned into pounds, placed with care in a post office account for an unspecified occasion, until now.
There in a corner, illuminated by a solitary ray of sunshine, on its side, was my father’s immortal remains. My brother, usually soft-spoken, haggled with the fierce and unrelenting tenacity of an Old Town fishwife. The owner knew almost immediately when he was beaten and we returned in the borrowed van bearing our prize with something like triumph. My brother was given permission to restore and maintain our father in the shed. A not entirely novel experience for him if immediate family history was to be believed.
A year or so later and his visits to the bottom of the garden became less frequent. He’d met a girl at the local church. Later still he beckoned me into the shed.
‘I don’t think it’s him,’ he said, not looking at me, ‘but I’d like it to be. I’d like there to be something left.’
And, reflected in the glass of the machine, perhaps there was.
‘The thing is, I’ve brought Sarah down here a couple of times, and whilst it’s good to have him here, would you help me turn him around. I just don’t want him watching us when we’re…’
‘I don’t think I want to know.’
‘It’s nothing bad. We’re just kissing.’
‘Give us a hand with this, if only to stop you talking. I don’t want to know the details, sordid or otherwise.’
A few days later I was surprised to find my brother, red-faced, clearly from crying but now trying to hide it by frowning unconvincingly at a rhododendron bush.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. Sarah dumped me.’
‘Bad luck. What did you do?’
‘Nothing, it was because of dad.’
It seemed my brother’s faith had been misplaced: when she asked about the presence of the fruit machine facing the wall in their chaste love shed, he had made the mistake of telling her the truth. She split with him, not because he was the sort of person who believed his father was an electrical entertainment appliance, but for blasphemy. Paternal ghosts were reserved for Christianity’s first family, not the likes of him. The sad thing was not that they broke up; thirteen-year-olds break up, it’s what they do whenever they’re given the opportunity, and it’d be a stranger world if they didn’t. No, the sad thing was that, via Sarah or her family word got back to the church my brother had been attending. One Sunday soon after, the vicar took him aside after the service, much to Sarah’s father’s highly visible approval. Reverend Little was insistent; faith was a matter of belief, and that belief was quite clear. There was, in his philosophy, one less thing in heaven and earth than in my brother’s and if my brother wished to keep attending the church he had better audit his belief system to the sum of one surplus father. That evening I helped my brother turn the one-armed bandit around.
There it stayed. Girlfriends came and went, though Simon (that’s my brother) became more circumspect about whom he told, if at all. There was also a slight but lingering resentment towards the machine; in some ways he blamed it for his first break up and would continue to do so for any subsequent disasters in his love life. We both went away to university; me first, to London, then him, down the road to the University of Sussex, and the certainties of the Computer Science department. Dad’s remains remained with mum. I don’t know what she thought of it all. I had never asked. I suppose I had assumed she was indulging Simon the same way I had. Was it still wish fulfilment and nothing more? Perhaps I was jealous. In all the time since he had bought the bandit I had never found even the faintest hint of what my brother claimed to perceive. I had always assumed it was because there was nothing there.
My brother’s feelings towards the machine and mine towards him, for seeing something I didn’t, took a long time to percolate, but it happened at Christmas, at the end of the millennium. We had both moved out and my mother had sold the house and moved into a smaller flat in nearby Bexhill. I was in a one-room palace in central London and my brother had bought a house outside Eastbourne. He was doing pretty well in the games industry, even then, and since his place was bigger he kindly invited us to spend Christmas with him. I arrived at his on Christmas Eve and everything was congenial, until I stepped into the front room. It was warm and cosy with a cast-iron log-burner pulsing heat. My mother sat there awkwardly and the cause of her discomfort was clear: in the middle of the room, sporting a Santa hat, was the fruit machine. Mum and I sat uncomfortably whilst my brother fussed around, oblivious to our raised eyebrows and theatrical shrugs.
‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.’
‘Thanks, can I help with anything?’
In the dining room we chatted easily; mum had been quietly seeing Pat. Apparently dad’s death had really shocked him and the closure of the pier had literally got him off his backside. He worked in the local tourist attraction (The Smuggler’s Life, a permanent exhibition in nearby caves) gift shop and did tours. It was company for her and she was bored just being on her own.
My brother was quiet through this exchange. I can only assume he had not known. In a way that he had clearly seen on films to denote vast reservoirs of self-control, he very slowly placed his cutlery on the table cloth.
‘What about dad?’
Mum looked at him, genuinely puzzled.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, don’t you think it’s a bit disrespectful.’
‘Well, we were divorced.’
‘No, I mean talking about this when he’s in the other room. He still loves you, you know.’
‘He told me.’
‘How?’ I interjected. ‘I mean how does he do it. One jackpot for yes, three lemons for no?’
Simon ignored the sarcasm.
‘Not quite, it’s more of a feeling. You wouldn’t understand.’
I nodded, saying nothing, but that was the moment I decided to do something. I wasn’t sure what, but something, if only to remove the look of self-satisfaction from his face. I couldn’t see the desperate sadness of someone who had never got to terms with his parents’ divorce, robbed of any chance to by his dad’s premature death. All I saw was a smug prick with his home-made religion. The rest of the meal and most of the evening continued in virtual silence. It was uncomfortable but my brother again appeared not to notice. Mum decided to head back to Bexhill and I offered to give her a lift, neither of us had had a drink and no one felt like sticking it out until tomorrow. Even so my brother made a big show of disappearing off to go and get our Christmas presents. Whilst he did this, I am not proud, but not particularly ashamed to say I swiped a couple of the fruit machine’s fuses. It was childish and I’m not sure why I did it; on reflection I think it was jealousy. Not of his relationship with the one-armed bandit, but what I perceived to be an impregnability about him. I envied that, and rather spitefully I wanted to take it away from him, however briefly, over Christmas.
He didn’t notice the theft, so intent was he on fetching our gifts. They looked bulky, identical.
‘Well open them now then.’
Mum hadn’t noticed what I’d done, and neither of us had the heart to refuse him. They were laptop computers, identical, expensive.
‘I got them through a guy at work I know. Top of the range. E-mail, the internet, everything. We can all stay in touch much easier.’
He seemed childishly enthusiastic, I hadn’t seen him this way since the penny arcades.
‘Oh that’s really kind love, really thoughtful.’
‘No problem. Well, bye then. See you soon.’
I drove mum home. We talked, by unspoken mutual agreement, about everything except Simon and I wasn’t surprised to see Pat waiting at the flat to buzz her in. I declined the offer of a coffee or a bed for the night and drove back to London. The flat seemed very small and empty and I had already regretted taking the fuses. I popped them in a jiffy bag and addressed it to my brother, no note, and went to bed. The next morning I woke refreshed and with nothing planned, plugged in my brother’s gift. It was a thing of beauty—slim, light, sleek, metallic design. Elegant. I felt clumsy even switching it on. As it booted swiftly and silently I noted the operating system had come pre-installed, clearly by Simon, and the desktop showed an image of the fruit machine. There waiting for me was a solitary e-mail:
Dad’s not in the fruit machine anymore, I built an emulator and transferred him. He’s on the ‘net, he’s on your computer, he’s everywhere. I’ve spoken to him though and we both forgive you. I pity you Jude and I love you.
Outside, snow began to fall. On the screen the reels of the fruit machine simulation began to spin. If there was a pattern I couldn’t see it.[/private]
This is Giles Anderson’s first fictional submission.