I’ve been thinking a lot about realism in fiction lately. I’ve said several times before that I don’t expect strict realism in my fiction, and it’s trueâ€”if I did, I wouldn’t be as big a fan of fantasy and science fiction as I am. Having the fantastic happen in fiction is to be expected, in both big and little ways, even if the books try to adhere to real life as much as possible. Think about it: if mystery novels strictly reflected reality, then the majority of stories which featured cold crime scenes would end with the mystery unsolved, and serial killers and multiple murders would make up only the tiniest fraction of all mystery books instead of the fairly healthy percentage they enjoy today.
Then as I was reading Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk the other day, I was forcefully reminded that there’s a definite difference between making shit up and getting shit wrong, and that there’s a huge divide between making shit up convincingly, and making shit up in such a way that suspension of disbelief is impossible.
For those of you who are planning to read this book and can’t stand spoilers, stop reading right now. The rest of this entry is going to discuss this book in great detail and give away critical plot points. Also, don’t bother reading if you’re not interested in reading me nitpick about somewhat geeky science shit.
The book has an overarching storyline about a writer’s retreat gone horribly wrong. Interspersed with this main story are a host of short stories recounted by individual members of the retreat, all of them borderline (or outright) sociopaths and murderers.
The first short story, “Gut,” is really fun. As a teenager, the narrator for this story masturbated in his swimming pool while sitting on the inlet port of the circulation pump, which resulted in, erm, a rather visceral experience. That part of the story I had no problem with. It made me cringe and howl, but I bought it. One of the finest examples of making shit up I’d ever read.
Then at the end of the story, his young sister found out she’s pregnant, presumably with his child. How? Because of the sperm he blasted into the swimming pool while whacking off.
Now THAT gave me pause. First of all: the dilution factor would be immense. IMMENSE. Yes, there are billions of sperm in semenâ€”but they’re contained in, what, a couple teaspoons of fluid? And it’s hard enough for a woman to get pregnant when the all those billions of spermatozoa are deposited DIRECTLY in the vagina. Disperse that sperm by many, many, many gallons of water and figure out the odds of somebody becoming pregnant because somebody jacked off in the pool. Answer: not bloody fucking likely.
Second of all: the chlorine in the pool would kill off a lot of those suckers. Not all, but a lot.
Third of all: The narrator noted that he removed much of the semen from the swimming pool after his aquatic jack-off sections, which means the vast majority of sperm would’ve been removed anyway, further decreasing the numbers of spermatozoa present in the swimming pool.
Fouth of all: Sperm can live outside the body for a maximum of 96 hours, but that’s assuming a friendly, stable, moist, pH-balanced environment like the Cowper’s gland of the penis, not a chlorinated swimming pool with water that’s constantly being circulated and filtered.
Fifth of all: Unless the sister liked to swim nude while douching herself with spermed-up swimming pool water, I find it difficult to believe that what few swimmers remained were hardy enough to penetrate her swimming suit and make it all the way to her uterus.
When ONE sentence in a short story makes a reader bust out a detailed five-point list on why she finds it highly implausible, I’d say that would be an example of making shit up that has failed, and failed rather spectacularly.
On to the “getting shit wrong” part of this rant: About 50 pages into the book, I started feeling bored, so I flipped way ahead and skimmed to see if the stories got any more interesting. I came across this sentence near the end of the book:
Among the dead celebrities roamed animals extinct on earth: passenger pigeons, duck-billed platypuses, giant dodos.
Wait a fucking second. What in the hell? The duck-billed platypus is extinct?
Such was my faith in Palahniuk that I actually looked this up. Hey, it’s not as if I’m a zoologist specializing in monotremes or Australian wildlife; maybe it had become extinct in recent years and I hadn’t heard about it.
No, the platypus is still alive and well and frolicking in the waters of the antipodes.
OK, fine. It’s an honest mistake, though one that a decent editor should’ve caught (a decent editor would’ve also caught and corrected Palahniuk’s tendency to switch from past to present tense for no discernible reason, or addressed why all these different stories narrated by extremely different people all sound as if they were being told by the exact same person, but those are other issues and beyond the scope of this particular rant). At any rate, shit happens, so while this mistake was startling, I didn’t hold it against the book too much.
I flipped back to where I was and continued reading. Ooooh, the people were being fed nothing but freeze-dried food at the writer’s retreat. A bit eccentric, but hey, the whole book’s eccentric. Then I came across another example of Getting Shit Wrong. The bags of freeze-dried food were filled with nitrogen to “keep the contents dead.”
Actually, that’s untrue. Nitrogen is often used in food packaging to keep oxygen out, certainly, but the lack of oxygen doesn’t necessarily retard microorganism growth. Freeze-drying does that much more effectively. Keeping out oxygen prevents spoilage by preventing the oxidation of nutrients, especially fat. Oxygen and light contribute to make fats rancid, which in turn affects fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. Other vitamins are also notoriously sensitive to oxygen, such as vitamins C and E, which is why they’re such effective antioxidants.
Besides that, many, many pathogenic organisms can multiply and spoil food just fine in the absence of oxygen, thankyouverymuchâ€”that’s why bacteria and other microorganisms can be classified as “aerobic” (requires oxygen), “anaerobic” (requires absence of oxygen), or “facultative” (able to function with or without oxygen). Clostridium botulinum is anaerobic, for example, while salmonella, listeria and staphylococcus are generally considered facultative species.
Mind you, I’m not and have never been a biology major; I took two years of biology classes in high school and one 100-level biology class in college, and I managed to pick up enough knowledge to de-bunk THIS bit of bullshit.
This wasn’t the dumbest bit about the freeze-dried food, though. The worst part came when some people decided to deliberately sabotage the food supply by cutting open the Mylar packaging. Within days, the food was rotten, stinking to heaven and leaking pools of noxious fluid.
Excuse me? I thought the food was freeze-dried.
1. How in the fuck did it get bad so fast? Dehydration is one of THE most effective protections against food spoilage. Forget oxygen; water is one of the biggest (and most consistent) requirements for microorganisms to flourishâ€”mostly because cells consist primarily of water.
Want to know how effective dehydration is in retarding spoilage? Just look at your average bag of dog or cat kibble. The moisture content can vary a little bit, but generally speaking, they contain less than 10% water (from the figures I’ve seen, 4-5% seems the average). Think of how many months you can keep that bag of kibble after breaking the seal without it going bad.
Or if you want another demonstration: How many of you have gone on weekend trips and just dumped a bunch of kibble into bowl or a timed feeder and called it good? When you came back, was the kibble rancid, stinking and dripping?
Yeah, didn’t think so.
2. Where in the hell did the fluid come from? Oh sure, freeze-dried food will absorb some atmospheric water, but so much that the bags actually leak and drip stinking fluid? Bitch, please. Here’s an experiment: leave out a small amount of freeze-dried coffee in a saucer on your kitchen counter and see how long it takes for it to gather discernible amounts of water from the atmosphere. Don’t have any freeze-dried coffee? That’s OK, leave out a bowl of cornflakes, which is basically dehydrated corn. See how long it takes before ANYTHING happens, aside from the flakes losing some of their crispness.
But then having the freeze-dried food remaining good for the duration of the story would not have served, because the story required the writers to starve and do drastic, gruesome things to stay alive. Why the hell Palahniuk didn’t just go with canned or frozen food instead is beyond me, because canned food that had its seal broken or thawed-out frozen food WOULD spoil quite spectacularly in a short amount of time. Maybe because canned corn, Hot Pockets and TV dinners aren’t as weird and cool as Mylar bags of freeze-dried space-age kibble? Who the hell knows?
I guess the point is: I am so much easier to piss off when an author gets science shit wrong vs. history shit wrong because I know more about science than I do about history.
No, wait, that’s not it. The point is: if you want to make shit up, make sure you do it WELL. I can buy into a story about a dude who has multi-colored chimps flying out of his ass, as long as I’m given sufficient backstory to explain the simian presence in his rectum. A genetic experiment gone wrong, an ancient gypsy curse, hey, sure, whateverâ€”make it convincing. Make it detailed. Make it consistent. In short: Make it GOOD.
Most important of all: don’t get shit wrong. Especially basic shit.
Hmmm. Maybe I should re-title this essay and call it “Chuck Palahniuk’s Literary Offences.”