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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: T. S. Eliot The Waste Land

Is it bad etiquette to blog about your wife? If so, I’m requesting an exception. Lesley Wheeler just published the sort of book I most love, and I’m here to blab about it. The Receptionist and Other Tales is exactly the kind of boundary-bashing, genre-twirling, high-lowbrow mash-up that could save the antiseptically quiet world of literature from lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

I teach a contemporary novel course titled “Thrilling Tales,” so I always have an eye out for literary writers willing to plunge head first into the deep end of the genre pool and splash around with zombies and superheroes and dark lords. And Lesley is swimming laps with them all.

I’ll get back to the main tale in a sec, but the “Other Tales” half of the title includes a sonnet that debates the relative durability of Captain America’s shield against Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s fist, and the Human Torch’s nova heat. Worshippers of the Weird should not miss the H. P. Lovecraft tribute (the speaker may or may not be devoured by an all-girl boarding school of fox-obsessed teens). My favorite is the T. S. Eliot parody that recasts “The Waste Land” as a George Romero zombie flick. (It’s also set during a Thanksgiving dinner, so the living dead are the least of the horrors.)

And that’s just the dessert tray. The main course is an even wilder array of literary risk-taking. The Receptionist is a fantasy tale inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (required reading for even the most casual D&D tourist), which Lesley warps into a hybrid plot about evil deans and inner Yoda voices calling her heroine to action. It opens with the speaker reading bedtime books to her children—something Lesley and I spent a decade doing with our kids. All those alternate worlds—Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts—get ingrained in the brain, and soon the real world warps too. Even the mundane machinations of college politics can morph into fantastical proportions.

I should clarify: this isn’t autobiography. My wife isn’t an English department receptionist (though she was a chair while drafting), and the college faculty she creates aren’t the people we pass daily on our way in and out of class. The nefarious dean isn’t our dean either. The antagonist of The Receptionist is dashingly handsome and a sexual predator—descriptions I would not apply to our college administrator. That said, I do wonder if my wife has woven some real magic into her tale. The Receptionist ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) the vanquishing of the evil one. Is it mere coincidence that our real-world dean suffered a similar fate after The Receptionist was accepted for publication?

I don’t know what spells her terza rima encodes—only that the improbable complexities of the stanzas create a kind of aesthetic undertow that pulls you backwards as the storyline flings you forward. The effect is dizzying. Like existing in two dimensions simultaneously: a rompingly accessible plot somehow contained in an enchantingly intricate rhyme scheme. It shouldn’t be possible. Lesley’s speaker experiences the same world-split, the ordinary and the fantastic in constant collision, each transformed by the other, always both, always neither. It’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid form. It’s werewolf poetry. It’s cyborg literature. It’s damn fun reading.

I should also say that The Receptionist is published by Aqueduct, a press dedicated entirely to feminist scifi, which, be honest, I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.  And did I mention it’s blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin? Something that impressed both our kids, since Earthsea was another of their bedtime universes. (British readers will be equally impressed by Gwyneth Jones’ back cover rave.) My only complaint? Lesley’s author pic isn’t on the back.

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Last year I gave my wife The Walking Dead Vols. 1-3 for Christmas. She loved it. She had a few other items under the tree too, but The Walking Dead was the only one she went on to teach in her freshman composition course.

My wife loves zombies. Actually, she loves almost anything involving the end of the world as we know it. Survivor tales. I’ve never seen her so happy as when she was filling water containers to store in our basement crawl space in the months leading up to Y2K.

But there’s something particular about zombies that enthralls her. Not any horror plot. Not vampires and werewolves. Certainly not slashers. Just animated, brain-devouring corpses. 28 Days Later is one of her all time favorite films (I know, not technically zombies, but Lesley’s not a purist). We saw it on romantic a date out, left the kids with my parents. When The Walking Dead showed up on last year’s fall TV listings, she was thrilled. We’ve watched every blood-splattering, heart-wrenching episode.

According to her and her first year composition students, the comic book is far more socially conservative. When the world as we know it collapses, somehow family and its traditional 1950’s-era gender roles are all that endure. She shows a season one clip of the female cast cleaning clothes by the lake, how the screenwriters turn it into critique.

This year I got my wife a rapier.

I’ve had a copy of Isabel Allende’s Zorro lying around the house for months, in preparation for teaching it in my Thrilling Tales course next semester. This inspired Lesley to grab the books-on-CD version from the library when she drove up to New Jersey to give a poetry reading. She returned with a surprisingly energetic Spanish accent. The world was suddenly punctuated with exclamation points!

Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 Zorro novel is a hilariously straight-faced argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines and male virility. Allende’s is an equally fun read, but one that is both anti-colonial and rompingly feminist.

My wife was also awarded an endowed chair by our university this year. Dr. Lesley Wheeler is the new Henry S. Fox Professor of English. Zorro, by the way, means fox in Spanish. That’s why she asked for the rapier. It wasn’t easy to wrap. My Christmas high point was watching her face as she opened it, and then her jumping up on the sofa to swish it around. (Runner-up: my son opening the DC Versus Marvel Comics graphic novel and exclaiming, “I really need this! Now I’ll finally know who wins these battles.”) I’m confident Lesley and her Zorro blade will defeat all the legions of undead.

I think I gave her that Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies two Christmases ago. She liked it as much as the original. My favorite of her own poems is about a zombie Thanksgiving modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. This year I’m commissioning a Zorro vs. Zombies epic poem from her. We’re even flying to California, Zorro’s motherland, for a heart-splattering post-Christmas romp with her in-laws.

Sadly, the rapier will never make it through security.

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