It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter V (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed nearly 22,000 words, and has come to believe that he is Winston Churchill.)

The whole notion of an all-you-can-eat buffet is a strange one when you think about it. At the risk of sounding maudlin, there are many places in the world where people have to work tremendously hard just to scrape up enough to eat in order to live. Yet, in developed parts of the world, for the price of just over an hour’s work, federal minimum wage, one can walk into a large restaurant and eat until the button on your trousers pops, not that I’ve personally ever damaged my trousers in this way. I prefer to stop at that point where the belly just starts to distend the waistband.

I suppose the world’s hunger problems could be solved if only, in addition to stopping the wars and oppression that so often incites famine and poverty, we could set up a worldwide chain of all you can eat buffets and price them according to local cost of living. I realise some would consider that a simplistic view, as even a middle class family of three like my own cannot afford to eat out every evening, but just imagine the looks on the faces of a family, stricken with poverty, walking into one of these food palaces. It would be the equivalent of a child walking into Hamley’s toy store in London, or me walking into the Paxton and Whitfield cheese shop on Jermyn Street in London for the first time. My wife complained about the odour after we left, but I can’t see what anyone would find offensive about the smell of a little bit of heaven.

Anyway, obviously there must be some very complex logistical problems with putting buffets around the world. Still, they wouldn’t have to be Chinese buffets. I could see how the twice cooked pork and siu mai pork dumplings wouldn’t go over well in Israel or Muslim countries, but certainly someone could franchise a falafel, couscous, and kebab buffet for some regions of the world, and for others, say Hindu parts of India, an all chicken, lamb, vegetable, and curry buffet.

My favourite part of going through a buffet line is finding something I’ve not had before that turns out to be quite special. Indian buffets always seem to yield a newer, hotter, and more flavourful curry each time I’m lucky enough to visit one. Unfortunately, the ones in our area have a habit of closing down within six months of opening. Then they seem to reopen again in the same places, after another year or two. It’s almost as though the owners have complete faith in the ability of the local population to fall in love with Indian cuisine, but not the cash to tide themselves over until this fait accompli occurs.

It’s surprising to me that my fellow American citizens haven’t caught on to the delights of a really good curry. Americans have fallen in love with a variety of cuisines and traditions. You can regularly find not only Chinese, Mexican, and Italian food in the United States, but also Japanese – sushi and teppanyaki, Thai, Korean, and even Vietnamese. Yet, the likelihood of finding a really good Indian place outside of a large city is sadly dim. There’s a nice little place on the Gulf coast where my mum lives, and they serve a Chicken Korma to die for, but for the most part, Americans seem to view Indian cuisine with the same indifference that they regard traditions such as Russian, Finnish, Portuguese, Algerian, Tahitian, and Klingon. Only French cuisine seems to less regarded outside large American cities, but this has more to do with French waiters than anything else, I suspect.

In England, curry is the most popular food in the country, even rating higher than the noble banger. Curry shops and Indian restaurants can be found in most every part of London and in most towns throughout England. People eat curry there the way Americans scarf McDonalds. If English diners, who for ages had the reputations of being amongst the most unadventurous and taste-challenged in the world, could accept the noble curry, why then do Americans regard it with such suspicion? Curries have a magnificent blend of flavours. They’re both hot and mild. They’re outstanding with a pint of the right ale. They do right by rice as well.

I briefly and unconfidently considered whether this sentiment were a good topic for inclusion in the novel.

“The bloody novel!” I’d forgotten about it in all the confusion over this bizarre DVD and the connexion with Phoenix. It was now six days into November and I’d only managed 3,000 words. I could feel a cold sweat coming over me as I shuffled through the buffet lines, picking out the mostly left over bits of sushi and dim sum from the main lunch rush. I should just abandon it, I thought. There’s too much going on, and too much unexplained. However, I am far too obsessive a person to let a little thing like a 50,000 word book go by without a titanic mental struggle.

“There’s only one National Novel Writing Month a year,” I reasoned. “I can’t simply give up, or I might never write a novel.”

That kind of simplicity sounded utterly daft to me, so I began to wonder why I wanted to write one in the first bleeding place. As I scooped a rather over-moist bit of Sesame Chicken onto my plate, I realised that as a writer, the novel is, after all, the pinnacle of fiction. I fancied myself like a composer of songs who dreamt of writing a symphony or an opera.

I also briefly considered whether I was simply mad. All kinds of writers are mad in some way or another. Hemingway was clearly mad, running off on Cuban fishing trips, and that whole awful business with the shotgun. Virginia Woolf took her own life as well through drowning. Nietzsche ended his life a complete nutter, although many of us would argue it was not a long road to travel for him to get there, and he was a philosopher, which is a role in society not vastly different from the role of a ne’er do well distant relative who spends a great deal of time talking about getting rich, but precious little time doing anything about it except hitting you up for a few notes at family reunions. Tolstoy suffered from mental illness. Sylvia Plath was out of her gourd with depression as well, but she was after all a poet.

After a few moments of this, I concluded that I was not mad. I also concluded that much of the world’s great literature would not have been written had Prozac been invented in the 1,500’s.

It was coincidentally just as I sat down to my lovely little feast that I got a call from my agent, Heath.

Yes, I’ve never written a novel before, and the blog was only paying the bills because we were being sponsored by a local magazine publisher, but I did have an agent, more or less. Stew and I had written a book a few years before, the subject of which was a series of loony e-mails that we sent back and forth. We shopped it around for quite a while and after a long series of rejection letters, of which my favourite is still the one that begins, “Dear Amateurs,” we met Heath.

Heath was short for Heathcliff, which he absolutely hated to be called, not the least because Wuthering Heights was a book he utterly despised, having been named after the leading male protagonist, and having it read to him by his Bronte-obsessed mother, who named her other unfortunate sons Rochester and Shirley.

Anyway, Heath loved our book and seemed convinced that he could sell it to a major publishing house. What he didn’t tell us was that his primary clientele were authors of technical works. So, he had never actually sold a book of humourous letters or a novel or anything that didn’t have “The Handyman’s Guide to…” or “How to Fix a ” in front of it. This does explain why he at one point asked us to consider renaming the book to “The Handyman’s Guide to Funny e-Mail,” which, having some sense of dignity, we only considered for a fortnight. Heath always called me these days, as Stew simply told him more or less to sod off and then hung up.

“Earl, I think I may have a publisher interested in the book,” Heath began. This was the way that almost ever single conversation with Heath started. Even on my fortieth birthday, Heath arrived at the party, shoved a small, badly wrapped box containing aftershave into my hands, and announced in a loud voice, “Earl, I think I’ve finally sold the book!” As it turned out, the publisher had, through some confusion in their conversations with Heath, mistakenly believed that the book was a manual to using Microsoft Access.

“Who are you talking with now?” I hesitantly asked.

“Manchester Technical Printing in New Hampshire,” responded Heath, brightly.

I took a slow sip of my drink and a quick bite of spicy chicken.

“And just why would a printer of technical books in New Hampshire be interested in a three-year-old book of silly e-mails by a couple of unpublished authors?” I continued.

“Well, I didn’t sell it like that, Earl,” Heath said, laughing. I could have sworn I heard him slap his knee with his free hand, but it might have been a pencil he was holding being snapped.

“And just how did you sell it?” I continued, after a quick California Roll, containing a fairly large amount of wasabi.

“Well, I pointed out how your and Stew’s book gets at the heart of how technological communications affect the relationships between people of different cultures and backgrounds, particularly depending on the applications used,” he announced.

I didn’t bother to gird myself with intense food this time.

“So, you’ve sold it as a primer on Microsoft Outlook, then?” I asked.

“Outlook Express actually, but I don’t think it’ll be that big of a rewrite. You and Stew have a bunch of stuff that could easily be shaped around a few helpful tips on organising mail folders and messages.”

“Call me back when you have a real deal, Heath,” I responded, hanging up immediately afterwards. I learnt to hang up on Heath at this point in the conversation because he would simply continue the sales pitch to me if I didn’t. Once, whilst talking with him, I mistakenly put the phone at home on hold instead of disconnecting. A half hour later, my wife attempted to place a call and announced to me, “Heath’s called back, and was telling me how your book would really adapt well to a how-to manual on rebuilding a ‘66 Mustang.”

I decided to enjoy my meal and tried to think as little as possible about the novel or Phoenix or anything else as I ate. I was surprised to discover that this was relatively easy, as the only interruptions to the mix of spicy entrée’s and cool sushi was the regular visit every 3.5 minutes of an attractive young waitress, who seemed politely determined to refill my drink even though it was still almost two-thirds full.

Soon I was comfortably full myself, and ready to leave. The waitress brought the bill and with it, as is the custom in Chinese restaurants around the United States, the ubiquitous "fortune cookie." The fortune cookie is a marvel of cuisine, regularly being the blandest item in any Chinese restaurant. Presumably, it’s there at the end of the meal to cleanse the palate. Given that it’s a crusty little biscuit, it has the added effect of scraping the palate, as well.

As any regular reader of Wikipedia could tell you, the fortune cookie wasn’t even created in China, having been invented in America, which may explain the blandness, since American cuisine of the early twentieth century was rarely more adventurous than the cheeseburger.

The idea of finding your fortune in a biscuit is, to me, quite ridiculous. Being a Christian, I’m very sceptical of ordinary superstitions, believing that if God has something to say to us, He’s much more likely to engage in some kind of spiritual communication, rather than a cheaply printed bit of ticker tape inside a tasteless baked tart. The average fortune inside one of these cookies usually says something like, “Your drive to succeed will bring you success,” or, “Tomorrow brings new challenges – Be bold in them.” …Crap like that.

Still, I’ve had my share of interesting fortunes inside these cookies. My favourite was the one that said, “A nice cake is waiting for you.” I’m still wondering just which cake it was.

My wife likes to tell the story of the night I first asked her on a date. She was dining earlier in the evening with a good friend and her fortune said “Today is your lucky day.” Many far more cynical people have suggested to her that this is absolute proof that fortune cookies are complete bullocks.

I’ve often thought I’d enjoy the job of writing fortunes, although I certainly wouldn’t work within the constraints of the tradition. My idea of a really cracking fortune cookie message would be something like, “You hair will turn green on the 4th,” or, “Avoid driving in reverse this week,” or even, “Sitting down this month could bring disaster.”

I broke the cookie in half, set the message on the bill tray and made a half-hearted attempt to chew up a piece of the cookie. After about 30 seconds of laboured chewing, my sudden boredom overwhelmed me and I picked up the fortune and glanced at it.

It said, “We are watching you. Do not move.”

My first thought was, “Here is a fortune cookie writer who has a bright future!” This happy idea was quickly overcome by the realisation that this, of all weeks, was not the time to receive a fairly menacing fortune cookie, even as a joke.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a joke. I discovered this when two dignified Chinese gentlemen, who were most definitely not waiters, suddenly sat down opposite me at my table. I’m not sure whether it was the dark suits and sunglasses that tipped me off, or the semi-automatic that one of them flashed from under his coat as he seated himself.

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