November 4, 2014

Is Tom Hanks’s story collection about typewriters? A MobyLives investigation


This is a picture of a Crandall New Model typewriter (via Wikipedia)

This is a picture of a Crandall New Model typewriter (via Wikipedia)

Alex Shephard: Someone’s poisoned the water hole!

Mark Krotov: This is not off to a great start, because I had to look up that reference and have not seen Toy Story in many years. But in the words of soon-to-be-further-humiliated President Obama, please continue.

Alex: You should watch Toy Story and then watch Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. You will laugh AND cry. I love all three of those movies very much.

So maybe that wasn’t the best way to start this piece. How about this: “Publish, Forrest, Publish!”

Or just this: “Tom Hanks Got Mail And In That Mail Is A Book Deal From Knopf.”

Mark: I like “Publish, Forrest, Publish!” That’s a reference I understand. But much as I’d like to mock potential titles that other, lesser blogs are probably entering into their CMS at this very moment, I want us to discuss the big issue here: how do we write about Tom Hanks’s book deal without making any obvious jokes about “up-and-coming writer Tom Hanks” or about how we’re hearing good things about this hot new writer, Tom Hanks.

Alex: There is only one hot young writer that I have heard good things about: Chet Haze. We should do a book with Chet Haze. Is he still a thing? Chet Haze? He seemed cool. I think I just like typing “Chet Haze.”

Mark: I would be thrilled if we could publish Chet Haze’s debut story collection. As a proactive editor, I will chase our mutual dream.

Alex: Chet Haze’s book should be called “My Struggle.”

Mark: Okay. Let’s discuss this: “The stories are not about the typewriters themselves, but rather the stories are something that might have been written on one of them.” That’s what Tom Hanks said in a statement about this book. I suppose my first question is: do you understand what this means? If I understand it correctly, Hanks is going to write a book of stories sort of about typewriters without actually writing those stories on said typewriters. Is he out to capture the spirit of typewriters?

Alex: Can you capture the spirit of a typewriter? Because as I understand it the spirit of a typewriter is that it is a shitty version of a computer and/or the only thing keeping the Whiteout family in business. (They own the company that produces whiteout and no, I will not make a joke about the fact that they are probably racist.) Why is Tom Hanks talking about typewriters? It seems to me that he amassed a collection of typewriters and then suddenly realized how dumb that is. “Why do I have all of these typewriters?” Tom Hanks probably asked himself in the midst of one of his many existential crises. “Maybe I’ll justify having spent $40 million on typewriters by claiming that my collection of short stories is somehow dependent on my collection of typewriters, even though I will write my stories on a computer because I’m not an idiot.” Is he going to look at the typewriters while he writes? I don’t get it. There are chemtrails all over this statement. I heard Tom Hanks’s typewriters were actually actors paid to resemble typewriters that don’t really exist and also that there weren’t any Jewish typewriters in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Mark: I was going to say that I would totally read a collection of stories by Jay Leno inspired by his car collection, but I can’t say that, because Jay Leno is horrible. But yes. The typewriter angle here seems . . . contrived. But as I wrote on Twitter (sorry), I admire anyone who succeeds at making a collection of stories sound like a unified whole. Usually descriptions of story collections are variations on “each of these stories captures a dimension of the human soul in a different register” or “these stories add up to a powerful, luminous vision of of life on the American fringe.” Whereas Hanks is all, “these stories have something to do with typewriters. Maybe.” He should be commended for this.

Alex: The jacket copy for short story collections often reminds me of the wall text at art shows, mainly in that it is terrible and makes absolutely no sense. I guess you don’t want to write “Alice Munro’s stories are all about people staring at lakes,” so I get it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

But here’s the question: Should short stories have something to do with typewriters? I think they shouldn’t. Typewriters are fucking terrible. They’re loud. They have “electric” typewriters now I hear, but that seems like somebody’s idea of a sick joke to me. What is this, AMC’s Mad Man? I think not. This is 2014, and there are computers and apps, and LEGO is now a media company. Forget about the bricks, dog: LEGO is in it for that app money. In conclusion, I don’t like typewriters because they make a sound that is bad.

Mark: Speaking of app money, can you explain Slack to me? Aldo, did you mean to type “AMC’s Mad Man”?

Alex: That’s the name of the show—it’s about Don Draper, a man who is mad—so yes of course I did.

Slack is an app that helps you buy khakis.

Mark: Wow, no wonder everyone’s so excited about it.

I noticed that Hanks didn’t mention typewriters in this interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. It’s a funny piece, because Treisman usually interviews writers like Tessa Hadley, not writers like the guy who appeared in that movie with the big piano. (Was it Philadelphia? I was born in the Soviet Union, which didn’t have big pianos, or Tom Hanks, so this is another cultural touchstone I missed out on.)

Alex: That movie was Big, and it is very different from Philadelphia (the movie and the place) in that it is about a child who gets turned into an adult by a possessed ring toss game. More importantly, he doesn’t play a piano, he plays a keyboard—and nothing says “exciting new technology” like the keyboard. This level of attention to commerce/freedom/technology is what allowed Ronald Reagan to destroy the Soviet Union.

That Treisman interview is interesting, though. Hanks, like many baby boomers, is obsessed with space and astronauts, neither of which are really of any interest to me because I was born in the golden age of the NBA. Is Hanks just nostalgic?

Mark: It’s unclear if the other stories in Hanks’s forthcoming collection will be space-themed, but it’d be nice if a few more of them were. The knock against publishing celebrities is that they’re celebrities and don’t need new outlets or new ways to make money. To that I’d say that if a celebrity happens to be smart and talented and, crucially, weird, he or she can sneak in something unusual and unexpected. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that had B.J. Novak’s collection of terrific and strange stories not been written by B.J. Novak, the book would not have been published by a big house. But it was! Maybe Hanks will use his perch as a famous actor, director, and typewriter fanatic to remind us to be more nostalgic about the space age. Other than Ray Bradbury, who does just this in his forthcoming book of interviews, we don’t have many visible literary advocates on behalf of space exploration. Also, Bradbury is dead, so he’s not really the best advocate, come to think of it.

Alex: Along those lines, I should also say that I agree with Jaime Green, who tweeted earlier that “Tom Hanks didn’t steal your book deal.” These kind of celebrity deals are a fact of life and I don’t think there’s necessarily any takeaway right now about the merit of Hanks’s writing.

That said, I think dismissing any criticism of Hanks’s book deal to jealousy strikes me as a mistake. Justin Taylor made a good point (also on Twitter) that Hanks’s book will attract significant review attention yesterday and will take away attention from books that are on the cusp of mainstream coverage—and books on the cusp of mainstream coverage tend to be by young/debut authors or from small, independent presses. These books aren’t necessarily more deserving of coverage—and they’re certainly not inherently more deserving—but they undoubtedly need that attention more.

Mark: Agreed. And I thought the story was fine, but that might be because Hanks never once mentioned typewriters.

Alex: Yes, that story was about some space men, but it was definitely not about typewriters. Though I guess they had typewriters back in space times (the late-1960s), so maybe it really WAS about typewriters. Maybe everything is about typewriters? Maybe we are living in The Matrix and Tom Hanks is the only person who took the red pill? Or the blue pill? I haven’t seen that movie since I was eleven, but Tom Hanks took whatever pill makes you see the truth, which is that everyone without a typewriter is a slave with no free will.

Mark: What should I watch first, The Matrix or Toy Story 3?

Alex: You should watch Tom Hanks’s best movie: Wild Hogs.