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Transcript, America This Week Discussion: Fritz Leiber's "Coming Attraction"
Walter and Matt on the Lovecraft devotee's mordant and predictive work of "social science fiction," describing post-nuclear relations between the sexes
Free transcript of the short story discussion from this week, about Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”:
Matt Taibbi: This week we read a story I’d never heard of. For me, this is one of the favorite stories that we’ve done on this show so far. It’s by an author named Fritz Leiber, and the story is called Coming Attraction. This is an admirer and devotee of H.P. Lovecraft, a very interesting dude and kind of tragic, but we’ll get to that. Walter, can you tell people about Coming Attraction?
Walter Kirn: It’s a very twisted story. It is very cynical, and it’s what I call social science fiction, in that it’s really not the technology in the story that’s interesting. It’s what’s happened to people in this hypothetical future.
So you’ve got a guy, he’s out on the street, New York City. New York City is recovering barely from nuclear war. The Empire State Building is a stump. There are areas of high radiation that you have to go around. And he’s looking at a woman standing in the street, as a car sweeps by her, a car with hooks welded on the side, that grab her skirt. And he sort of pulls her away and rescues her. And she’s wearing a mask, because in this version of the American future, all women wear masks. And sex is kind of outlawed for some reason. There’s a kind of prohibition on sex, such that it’s been driven underground. Women wear masks, people to get their ya-yas have to drive by with hooks on their cars to pull skirts off.
And so, the guy saves this masked woman and she then says, “Hey, can you come over tonight to my place? There’s maybe some other way you could help me.” Now, the guy, the narrator, is a British businessman in New York, and he’s here to trade British electronics, which is kind of a joke.
Matt Taibbi: That was the least believable part of the story!
Walter Kirn: For American wheat, because at this stage in what is an ongoing World War III between Russia and New York, where there’s a big contest for the moon going on. They’ve kind of devastated Earth and moved on to the moon as battlefield. And somehow America needs these wanted British electronics, and this guy’s come to get wheat for them.
Anyway, he goes over to the woman’s apartment that night, saying he hasn’t had a date in years. Oh my gosh, this is one sex-starved society. It’s not so bad in Britain supposedly, but he’s been in America for a while. And he talks to the woman and she says, “I got to get out of here. I got to get out of the United States. Is there any way I can get a British passport?” And he’s like, “No, you can’t get one.” She says, “How do I get an American passport?” And he says, “Well, Americans don’t like people to travel anymore. I don’t know.” Anyway, they decide to go out to some weird club, which is an underground speakeasy fight club place, because the major entertainment in this New York of the future is this weird kind of fixed UFC wrestling that is between men and women, in which…
Matt Taibbi: “Masked wrestling.”
Walter Kirn: Yeah, masked wrestling in which men beat up women. Women win a lot of the time, but sometimes men do, and they press their advantage and it’s horrible. And they go over to this nightclub in a cab when the cabbie’s watching one of these fights, and the woman’s just glued to it. So we’re in an almost official S&M dystopia after this World War III exchange. And the Brit, the narrator, is just really funny. He’s mordant and dry and very black in his humor. He even has a line where he says, “There are times when an Englishman simply must be maltreated.” And anybody who knows any Englishman knows it’s fricking true.
Matt Taibbi: We should all have one, like The Gimp in Pulp Fiction, in the basement.
Walter Kirn: Well, and there’s another line that he uses that I just have to quote where he tells the woman, “‘I’m not sure you’d like England,’ I said. ‘The austerity is altogether different from your American brand of misery.’” And what he means by the American brand of misery is what’s going on in this club, which is full of these weird gangster wrestler tuffs who beat up women and get beaten up by them.
And a crew of these guys comes over to the table, and the Brit stands to protect this poor woman who has already suffered the hook to her skirt in the street. And instead, he watches as this gross wrestler, it kind of reminds me a little of the Ukraine spokesman frankly, sits down next to the woman and starts stroking her hair. And the Brit is just astonished. He’s like, “Why is she letting herself be petted by this abuser? What’s with these people? I thought she wanted me to rescue her. What sick society have I found myself in?” And then, the guy kind of turns to the Brit and says, “She likes it, man. She likes being mistreated” and dah, dah, dah, dah. And then, somehow, I can’t remember how, the mask of the woman comes off. And the Brit, who has been coveting the thought of a bedtime romp...
Matt Taibbi: Bless him. These last lines are so horrible.
Walter Kirn: He compares her taking off the mask to turning over a rock and finding the ground covered in grubs.
Matt Taibbi: Let’s just read the line:
The eyebrows were untidy and the lips chapped. But as for the general expression, as for the feelings crawling and wriggling across it -
Have you ever lifted a rock from damp soil? Have you ever watched the slimy white grubs?
Walter Kirn: Right. And so, it’s not just pure horror of the feminine that’s being expressed here, or Lookism in extremists. There is the excuse that this nuclear exchange has scarred a lot of people, and that maybe one of the reasons women wear masks is to create an equal playing field between those who’ve been scarred and those who are beautiful. But nonetheless, the guy doesn’t spare any language in making vivid her ugliness to the reader.
And then, the end of the story is basically saying, “I got to get back to England.”
What you realize is that you’ve gotten this multimodal story about how fucking weird America is, and how its weirdness has been exaggerated and intensified by nuclear war.
Matt Taibbi: The World War III convention is kind of a standard in almost every work of dystopian fiction. But there’s a lot of other stuff in here that’s kind of suspiciously right on the money about modern society. We are still… basically he describes an ongoing dualistic power struggle between us and Russia that’s just endless.
But there’s a sort of fear that runs through everybody. You can’t tell exactly what they’re saying. There’s a scene where it says the second policeman said, “Girls going down the street bare from the neck up” was his quote. It was not clear whether he viewed the prospect with relish or moral distaste, likely both.
This is the way people express themselves now on all kinds of things. You’re afraid to say exactly what you mean about certain issues, and everything’s been de-eroticized… There’s this total elimination of things that we would once have considered kind of normal erotic relations between the sexes, like the Englishman’s chivalrous attempt to get up and protect the woman at the table is suddenly markedly out of place in this new dystopia. That seems to be kind of true, too. There’s just a lot that he got right.
But as you say, there’s also this very witty writing style full of great one-liners. There’s another one, “An Englishman shouldn’t lie, at least not on impulse.” Which I thought was really funny. But of all the dystopian literature, this one got the relations between the sexes the closest, although they all kind of have this theme, don’t they?
Walter Kirn: Okay, Matt. This story was written in 1950. Okay? 1984 was published in what year, ‘48?
Matt Taibbi: Something like that.
Walter Kirn: Wasn’t the idea that it was reversing the numbers in 48 to 84? In any case, let’s look that up. It’s as though the Englishman has come from Winston Smith’s England, London, to a New York that isn’t covered in 1984. See, in 1984, we don’t know what’s going on in New York. But I think is Leiber’s either conscious or unconscious attempt to show us what’s happening in the dystopia across the Atlantic.
Matt Taibbi: That’s interesting.
Walter Kirn: And it’s not the gray somnambulistic, dreary affair that it is in England. It’s a kind of raucoused 1920s meets post-nuclear destruction, in which people are going to nightclubs, beating each other up, watching wrestling, drinking, having weird sex, maybe not even sex, because he’d suggested like in 1984, there’s kind of an anti-sex league at work in the United States.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Yeah.
Walter Kirn: But the United States, instead of reacting by just repressing it as they have over in England, or being completely furtive about it as they are in 1984, has developed this toxic underground of sexualized wrestling.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah. Right. At least in 1984, it actually was kind of an erotic atmosphere a little bit, because they were so repressed you could at least imagine it. Here they’re playing out this sort of speakeasy underworld, but it’s like speakeasy asexuality or it’s confused. It’s like violence in place of sexuality.
He talks about this though. They’re playing the end of an “anti-sex song” being sung by some religionist half a block up from the circle and cross insignia of a femalist temple. That’s odd. But yeah, it’s differentiated from the kind of gray, quasi-Soviet misery of victory gin and crappy cigarettes that you got in 1984. This is something else. It’s like a play-acted version of sexual relations that’s just as horrifying and just as unpleasant, but it’s different from the British version. And it feels very close to the current situation when you read it.
Walter Kirn: It really does. Our era of billion dollar porntubes available on every computer, UFC fighting, strange arguments over gender and power that have extended to every single aspect of life. And also, but like 1984, there’s a sense of sort of infrastructural deterioration. Everybody wears a badge or some kind of patch on their clothing that shows how much radiation they’ve gotten that day. And this guy is sort of suspicious that the Americans have set the level of radiation too low. He’s gotten his fill, but he doesn’t worry about it, stiff upper lip and everything. But the Americans have sort of panicked about radiation to some extent.
When he goes to the restaurant with the lady, they order some miserable, fake fancy dish to eat because you get the sense there are food shortages, and it comes and it’s got ice crystals in it like it hasn’t thawed correctly. They didn’t have microwaves in those days, so it was kind of startling to see that detail, which we’re all familiar with from microwave cooking. But he says there just aren’t enough handymen left to keep things really rolling. But they’re still trying to be fancy, whereas over in Winston Smith’s England, it was just this pallid victory gin and crappy cigarettes. But this was, “The sauce on my breast of chicken was a delicious steaming compound of almonds, soy, and ginger. But something must’ve been wrong with the radionic oven that had thawed and heated it, for at the first bite, I clenched a kernel of ice in the meat. These delicate mechanisms need constant repair and there aren’t enough mechanics.”
And that’s just what we’ve been talking about for a few weeks now, the incompetence and breakdown trend in America at the moment.
Matt Taibbi: I forgot to mention, is that the widespread, jarring breakdown of things we used to consider normal, like cities that were once kind of livable suddenly crumbling and dysfunctional. That’s in here as well. And there’s a line here which I think is interesting, “The masks, which are definitely not as the Soviets claim a last invention of capitalist degeneracy, but a sign of great psychological insecurity.” I think there’s something to that too, that a lot of the crumblingness of modern America is a reflection of something that’s also falling apart within ourselves.
And then, he has the description inside the club. “A man and two girls had paused opposite our table. The girls were tall and wolfish looking with spangled masks. The man stood jauntily between them like a fox on its hind legs.” This is like everything is wrong at a place. It doesn’t strike you the way a description of say, a 1920s juke joint or gin joint. Everything’s backwards and off about this world. And man, that feels familiar.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. He’s suggesting that America has become a primal jungle. It’s a weird perversion of the frontier, this vision. It sounds like a saloon in Tombstone or something, only with very ugly dance hall girls in masks and freaky wrestler guys who either like to beat up women or like to get beaten up by them. And we see it all, as I say, through the eyes of this kind of repressed Englishman who’s just at the end going, “Get me out of this fucking circus.” We had the movie Brazil, which was kind of a take on 1984, push the surrealism.
But this isn’t a very surreal story. Some of the things like guys driving around with hooks catching women’s skirts seem a little imaginative. But at the same time, it gives you the feel of a night out in a screwed up, bombed out, mentally twisted American place. And it feels very true. And as you go through it, the pleasure of the story is, you at first think that this is a kind of, as you say, outrageous scenario. But you start recognizing point by point, paragraph by paragraph, similarities to our world today. And it was written in 1950. I’m not sure how far it was supposed to be set into the future. I didn’t get any cues on that, but he did talk about radionic ovens, so I guess there must have been, even in 1950, some expectation that microwaves would come along.
Anyway, I love the story, it’s atmosphere, it’s language, it’s culture clash, it’s truth about American degeneracy and the way it’s sort of mixed up with American aggression. And his thesis that what will happen if there’s a World War III is that it will kind of bring out the worst in all of us; whereas the conventional British view was, “We’ll just live in these gray ruins and troop along like ghosts and keep our heads down and maybe have furtive little dalliances in rented rooms” like Winston does with Julia. But no, this is just some kind of WEF meets Dante meets Times Square horror show.
Matt Taibbi: I love that he is sort of a self-hating American, but he makes sure to whack the Englishman with a 2x4 every couple of paragraphs, which is really funny. It’s very in the spirit of an American author, humorously written, well put together, and as these dystopian stories go, very predictive.
Walter Kirn: Matt, you suggested earlier that you were going to say something about Leiber himself.
Matt Taibbi: No, I looked him up because I didn’t know a whole lot about him.
Walter Kirn: Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: And he had troubles. He was found living in a single room apartment in San Francisco with only books to cover the squalor on the walls. He was an alcoholic. He was basically in this debilitated situation among other things because of barbiturates… And he was living off, I guess, royalties from Dungeons & Dragons, which used some of his characters. So he had a tough time, didn’t really get into why exactly that was. I don’t really know a whole lot about him, but I think it seems like there are a lot of these writers, dystopian writers, who kind of end up that way. PKD certainly did his share of amphetamines.
Walter Kirn: So did Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. It wasn’t that.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Of, course.
Walter Kirn: Who were trained to take pep pills. And Jean-Paul Sartre, I was told the other day, wrote Being and Nothingness on speed. We’ll see if that’s true, but I like the idea. But science fiction fans might quibble here, because Leiber was for a while, one of the great literary innovators in the sci-fi genre. He’s credited with the sword and sorcery mode as his personal invention. And when he fell apart from alcoholism and pills and so on, he had already created a pretty extensive body of work. And he had a lost period, but he came back. So, so productive was he and so long was his career, he started as an actor actually, that he was able really to have a great period followed by a long fallow period, followed by a comeback. And a writer of this vigor and intensity and imaginative, I don’t know, perversity could not be expected to have led a very simple life.
Matt Taibbi: True. And it’s also unusual to have that, what one friend of mine calls the “dragons n’ shit” genre mixed with the sort of future dystopic. That’s not a common combination, but I like it. It’s like Elmore Leonard’s westerns and modern crime stories. It’s always impressive when an author has total command of two different genres or multiple, different approaches. That’s very cool.
Walter Kirn: And if the dragon genre can actually be laid at Leiber’s feet, that makes him one of the five most influential authors of the 20th century. Because you pull away dragons from the library shelves and half the books disappear. Because we don’t call it science fiction anymore. We call it science fiction and fantasy, and that’s because of the dragon.
Matt Taibbi: And he did both. So anyway, great story. We recommend everybody read it, or at least I do. And thanks, Walter, for introducing me to Leiber. I’m going to read some more of his this weekend. We’ll see you all next week.
Walter Kirn: We’ll see you then.