THE YEAR OF THE MK III SONICARE ULTRASONIC TOOTHBRUSH
Hal Incandenza started reading fan fiction late in the Year of Glad; his own works did not appear until the following year.
This was the same year that Hal found his capacity for self-expression or maybe let’s call it “other-interface” rather diminished, to put the situation generously, about which diminishment Hal eventually harbored his own private dark suspicions; memories of an almost grotesquely beautiful woman looking down at him, something terribly sad for which she is apologizing over and over, focus wobbly and infantile, a surge of pre-sexual attachment and delight, never ever ever wanting to look away, then something happening which might have hurt and then nothing happening at all for a while.
And then feeling his face to check for a grimace or exposed tongue or drool. Hours in front of a TP console. Trying to think about anything else. More hours in the E.T.A. Library, face illuminated by the cool hi-def glow of the InterCrystal display, devouring anything that led him away from the atavistic consuming memory of it. Constant fantasizing about this or that felo de se. The terror of death roughly equal to the terror of living another second. Wet palms pronate on the library desk, dry eyes staring not at but like through the display.
Upon his discovery of the neuron-curdlingly vast plains of alternate narrative that fan fiction represented, Hal consumed and commented on it rapaciously. Once over the course of seven sweaty-browed late-night hours, in a hotel room between the Friday and Saturday of that year’s O.N.A.N.T.A. Northeastern Regional Junior Open, he wrote a 30,000 word analysis of an 823-word piece of fan fiction, which fiction involved a tentative homoerotic flirtation blooming between a young orphan wizard and his (much older) misanthropic potion-mixing instructor1. Hal soon discovered that he could feel more deeply and genuinely and un-ironically about the first- and second-order fan works2 that increasingly dominated what little personal time he had than he did about his college admissions troubles, or getting to the Show, or the unfolding horror that was the Moms.
Because Jesus fucking Christ the Moms.
World-famous prescriptive grammarian Avril Incandenza née Mondragon (A.K. to Hal and the rest of the Incandenzas A. “the Moms”) began what amounted to a jihad—albeit a pathetically futile one, many, many orders of magnitude more futile than her campaign against signs in supermarket check-out lines reading “five items or less”—against the distribution of “fan fiction” late in the Year of the Mk III and c, the trajectory of which jihad she would claim was completely orthogonal to Hal’s obsession.
Hal, expression-impaired but not born yesterday, found this difficult to believe.
Halation Hallster Halerino Hal-fwit Halleluya
Long time no see. Or type. Or whatever. Listen man you didn’t look so great last time I saw you. I heard you went catatonic or something at a college interview. But hey hell of a match against Wayne. That fucker. You almost had him.
So listen hey I’ve been keeping the old peepers open and your mom has really gone off her indoor-type rocker. That shit with the site with all those terrible nerdy stories that got some kind of insane DMCA-fueled takedown or something was some shit indeed. Who the fuck cares about a couple of paragraphs of James O.’s terrible dialogue or something. And suddenly she’s like uxorially-faithful to his estate and the attached intellectual property? Note my use of the word “uxorial.” Figured you’d like that one.
Anyway I’ve been doing some playing around on the old computer, and I’ve got a little thing I put together. Kind of a side project. I don’t want to go into details but if you want to hit Avril where it hurts you just say the word, Hal old buddy old pal, if you can say words anymore that is.
“Hal, is it true Hal?”
“…It might be true. I guess that depends on the antecedent of ‘it.’”
“I do not mind telling you that it is not easy to call you on the telephone these days.”
“You are not the first to point out the difficulty in interfacing with me. Nor, I suspect, will you be the last. I’m working on it. It’s a work in progress.”
“Hal, please. Don’t make that noise. I heard they locked her up. Institutionalized. Avril—your mother. But these days it’s really quite difficult to know what is true.”
“The Moms is having a rough time of it, that’s true.”
“Steeply said you would be hard to talk to.”
“I’m doing the very best that I can.”
“Holy shit you cannot yell at me like that.”
“I’m sorry. Of course I cannot tell that I’m yelling at you.”
“They said she went crazy. Driven outside by everything inside going haywire. HVAC thrashing from burning hot to freezing cold. Microwave exploding. Nothing working. Something about a computer virus? A lot of it doesn’t make sense.”
“I bet Pemulis knows something about that.”
“Peem? What does ‘Peem’ mean? That’s not a word. You need to use words.”
EXCERPT FROM TRANSCRIPT OF DRAGONCON YGL PANEL ON FANFICTION WITH HAL INCANDENZA, 6 SEPTEMBER, YEAR OF GOOGLE LIFE
Q. [A boy, maybe 12.]
A. I read an awful lot of fic before I first put pen to paper, so to speak. When I finally did, I worked on two pieces pretty much simultaneously. Despite never really being invested in that whole nerd-jock dipole, becoming a like quondam jock gave me serious pause. My first fics were as a result defiantly obscure, out of a misplaced sense of not wanting to be a real nerd. I didn’t realize how far down the rabbit hole I’d already gone, you see. But yes anyway, I pretty much did fic backwards; I wrote historical RPF before I did anything else. One story was this turgid thing that came from an obsession with early Roman Christianity—don’t ask—and it was all about St. Augustine’s homosexual affair with this androgynous Manichaeist from Persia, and how his girlfriend in Carthage was a total beard. It was pretty awful. At the same time I had this ongoing fascination with Arthur Rimbaud. I self-indulgently identified with his whole early-peaking genius thing, which was total horse-pucky, but yeah—ultimately I decided that maybe Rimbaud wasn’t the healthiest guy to be sympathizing with. Both of those fics are still floating around somewhere, you can probably look them up.
Q. [A woman in her 50’s, wearing a jean jacket half-covered in pins, buttons, and assorted geegaws.]
A. It’s funny, I told the moderator I was fine with questions like this, but I didn’t think anyone would actually ask any. No but so to be honest I’m not sure what to make of it. Like why was she suddenly on about fanfiction particularly. I mean for obvious reasons I don’t want to do too much armchair psychoanalysis of my own mother, but—ah. But I guess you want to know what I think of her crusade, as opposed to the woman herself. Well I mean doomed, obviously, the crusade. It was like she lined up all the fanfiction on the internet and just chose targets stochastically. Like what was even the point. And I think the point was the audacity drove her crazy, that all these amateurs were out there doing to narrative what she’d always tried to stop people from doing to language—which is to say, whatever they wanted.
Q. [A woman dressed as an alien character from a popular science fiction InterLace Cartridge.]
A. You mean of mine, or somebody else’s?
Q. [Clarification from same woman.]
A. Well there’s this guy up in Maine that’s been writing fic for decades now. And he hardly ever participates in mainstream media fandom, but he and a few of his pals write these expansive crossover epics where the label “fanfic” is simultaneously pro forma and totally crucial. And some of it’s really terrible, particularly the sexual politics of it, but… anyway, yes, he wrote this really carefully-structured thing that crossed over a Japanese robot show with X-Files and Tomb Raider… and it was just like, flaws aside, the deep and totally unselfconscious love for these works that’s evidenced in the fic just gives me a literary almost priapism. That somebody can love something that much and not be even a tiny bit embarrassed or self-conscious about it.
Q. [A woman in her mid-30’s dressed as though she wants people to think she is a librarian.]
A. I guess the short answer is that sure, I’ve thought about writing tennis fic. But there’s sort of two ways to approach tennis RPF—one would be to write fic about tennis which in that case why bother with the fanfic part of it? And there’s a constant worry I would have that what’s interesting to me about tennis isn’t really what’s interesting to other people, which taps into my fanfic fear numero uno, which is being boring or wasting a readers’ time. And so then the other approach to tennis fic would be to write about tennis players, which… I still know a lot of those guys, and it feels like it would be kind of presumptive. I did once write a Prince of Tennis story that I think nobody read.
Q. [A guy, late 20s, in horn-rim glasses and a black t-shirt on which are screen-printed the words “VULCANS DO IT LOGICALLY.”]
A. It’s enormously flattering, both when that happens, and that you’d use that specific terminology to describe the phenomenon. And… it’s been years since that got around, but as I get older and think about it more, I keep wondering how much sense it makes to pay a lot of attention to how putatively objectively original3 a piece of writing is. Like the more you think that narratives aren’t owned but shared, then what it feels like is that a new work of any kind is like a what, like a polder, where you’ve got this new, fecund land that’s just been drained and on which you can plant all sorts of whatever. And everything you write is potentially another polder. I don’t know. I don’t know if that answers your question. I’m sorry.
Q. [A teenage girl, not more than 14, whose trepidation makes her look physically thinner and wobblier than she should look.]
A. This sort of goes back to that last question, that with fanfiction you can say anything about anything and nobody can tell you not to. I don’t want to go into a whole sob story, but I will say that the fact that I’m up here with the microphone pointed at me at this sudorific angle implies a not-inconsiderable amount about the power of that idea, the idea that nobody can force an ending on you. So yes, I really think fanfic is good for people.
1 Later in his fandom career Hal’d eventually gone back and given the opus a title and some cursory edits; it appeared in various internet archives as “The Intertextuality of Desire: Harry Potter and the Buggering of Foucault.”
2 In attempting to catalogue and analyze the absurd amounts of material available, Hal resorted to a fractally-complicated classification scheme that was predicated on (among other things) the notion of first-order and second-order fanfiction. First-order fanfiction was derived directly from the source narrative, while second-order fanfiction took its cues from first-order fanfiction. Hal started thinking about the distinction between the two upon discovering the term “fanon,” the aptness of which neologism delighted him for days, although not of course visibly. Once the terms had been introduced to fandom, certain sub-communities began to take the categories very seriously indeed, and although Hal’d never meant the first/second distinction to indicate anything about the objective quality of a work, accusing an author of leaning too far towards second-order characterization soon amounted to throwing down a fando-textual gauntlet. It was in one of the deeply heated arguments that that ensued that Hal learned about “wank.”
3 Hal here makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers.