The Worst Story Ever Written
We got a booth at Mylo’s Grill after a Saturday morning Mass. Rob was in his mid-20s, with long wavy pony-tailed hair and spectacles. When he was a student at UMW, we’d occasionally chat about literature and music. We had different sensibilities. He was into sci-fi. I wasn’t. That morning, he told me all about the worst novel ever written. What he described was more like a novella than a novel. It’s so bad, he said, so full of malapropisms, that some literati amuse themselves by passing it around at parties, taking turns reading it aloud. When a reader uncontrollably laughs, he or she passes the book to the next person. It’s like Mad Libs. “The Eye of Argon” is the story, published in 1970 by a sixteen-year-old Jim Theis in OSFAN, a fanzine of the now defunct Ozark Science Fiction Association. That fact alone got my attention. What’s Ozarkian sci-fi like? But that’s not all. A byline beneath the tale’s conclusion says, “By Jim Theis, winner of the Jay T. Rikosh award for excellence.” Is that a put on? There’s more. It was published again in 2006 by Wildside Press, a Japanese outfit. I wasted no time getting a copy on Amazon. I decided to read it this Lent (among other things, of course). The story is not sci-fi. Until about twelve years ago, it wasn’t clear if the story was a satirical hoax or written in earnest. Eventually, a fan by the name of Lee Weinstein got down to the story’s bottom: it was in fact written in earnest by a teenager from St. Louis named Jim Theis, who is now deceased. It’s what it claimed to be.
This got me thinking. When we say something is “bad” or “the worst,” that could imply different things, depending on what we’re talking about. For example, there’s a difference between bad art and bad medicine. Bad art might make us laugh. Bad medicine won’t. Bad art might someday be reckoned a work of genius, whereas bad medicine won’t. Hector Berlioz, a 19th century French composer, used that argument when his dad wanted him to be a doctor. When Berlioz decided to study music, his dad told him that he better not be a bad composer. The young Berlioz replied that a bad composer is less dangerous than a bad doctor. I personally think Berlioz was a bad composer, and for that reason I’m glad he didn’t pursue medicine. But he’s now regarded a genius.
All teenagers are geniuses, like all children are geniuses. Carl Schmitt, an American painter (1889-1989), said “childhood is in a great sense not simply a preparation for adult life, but a thing unique and complete in itself – a masterpiece of God.” So is adolescence. Children have fresh wonder about things in their known world. Adolescents have fresh wonder about things outside their known world. Adolescents are beginning to “see what adults see” and “feel what adults feel,” but with the freshness of a child’s first impressions. Just like children “play adult roles,” adolescents like to “experience adult things” but without the burdens of adulthood. That’s why “The Eye of Argon” is both bad and brilliant. Only a sixteen-year-old could innocently write a story that, for decades, left critics wondering if it’s deliberate satire or just bad literature. Adolescents play tricks on adults, without calculation, because they “say what they see” and “do what they feel.” They’re at once absurd and serious. That’s genius. They’re good comedians because, as Steve Allen said, good comedians don’t try to be funny. They just say what they see.
Also, “The Eye” was clearly written by a mid-20th century teen because it’s more “oral and acoustic” than “literate and visual.” It’s more a transcription of what a sixteen-year-old heard, not read. I’m not saying that a few old potboiler adventure books or some dabbling in Norse mythology had no influence. But I’d bet the tale was gleaned mostly from late night radio shows and old B movies. The misspellings, malapropisms, mistakes and juvenile descriptions preserve the story’s acoustic quality, which is why the publisher rightly retained them as they appeared in OSFAN in 1970. They tell what a mid-20th century teenage boy perceives and processes.
“Glaring directly down towards her was the stoney, cycloptic face of the bloated diety. Gaping from its single obling socket was scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald, a brilliant gem seeming to possess a life all of its own. A priceless gleaming stone, capable of domineering the wealth of conquering empires … the eye of Argon.” (Chapter 3 ½)
That’s worthy of The Onion or a D+ in high school English. True, most bad literature is not second-guessed as genius, though it’s often commercial genius. For example, the 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun,” translated from the original French by Rod McKuen and sung by Terry Jacks, is reckoned by some as the worst pop song ever. To be fair, it’s not as bad as the original French version, “Le Moribund,” sung by Jacques Brel in the early ‘60s, though Robert Elisberg thinks the “cynical” original is brilliant while the “horrifically wimpy” Jacks version makes his “blood curdle” (Huffpost.com, March 18, 2010). But I find it more ridiculous when “Le Moribund,” a song narrated by a dying man, abruptly concludes with a danse macabre: “I want everyone to sing, dance and act like fools when they put me in the grave!!!!!!!!” That may be good “gut-wrenching” French decadence, appealing to a handful of Baudelaire wannabes. Otherwise, who wants to hear that at a funeral, except Uncle Joe after one too many? But when “Seasons in the Sun” dumbly says “the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach,” I can indeed imagine a weepy soul saying that in a eulogy. As a priest who’s heard countless eulogies, I think Brel’s “Le Moribund” is unreal. It can only jar. However, the McKuen/Jacks version is poetic bubble gum. Read the lyrics at a wake, and you’ll make folks weep. Put the lyrics in a ditty sung by a guy with sideburns, and you’ll make 10 million girls cry. And hit the jackpot, to boot. Why? When sung, it expresses what sentimental people really feel about death. Bad poetry has potential. What makes art good or bad partly depends on its context, its timing and how it’s experienced.
Prudes beware: “The Eye of Argon” has sex and violence. But fear not. It’s not an occasion of sin. Suburbanites will find it crass, but give it some rope. It’s written by a kid from Missouri. Lilly-livers will say it’s gross, and it is. The main character is a red headed “Ecordian” barbarian named Gringr who ventures into the Noregolian Empire “hoping to discover wine, women, and adventure to boil the wild blood coarsing through his savage veins.” As he enters the empire, Gringr kills a mouthy comrade: “The disemboweled mercenary crumpled from his saddle and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched dust with crimson droplets of escaping life fluid.” Grignr’s encounter with the Noregolian king is amusingly detailed: “The man upon the throne had a naked wench seated at each of his arms, and a trusted advisor seated in back of him.” Now, that’s an interesting arrangement. The tale goes on: “The man rose from his throne to the dias surrounding it. His plush turquois robe dangled loosely from his chunky frame.” When Gringr insulted the king, calling him a “fool, sitting upon your pompous throne, enhancing the rolling flabs of your belly in the midst of your elaborate luxuryard…,” he was “smote” by a “paunchy” noble whose “sagging round face flushed suddenly pale, then pastily lit up to a lustrous cherry red radiance….” and whose “sagging flabs rolled like a tub of upset jelly, then compressed as he sucked in his gut in an attempt to conceal his softness.” Of course, the king condemns Gringr to the mines. Then he calls the king “a pig who sits on his royal ass wooing whores, and knows nothing of the affairs of the land he imagines to rule!” Then Gringr stabbed Agfnd, the king’s unfortunate counselor: “The fat prince stood undulating in insurmountable fear before the edge of the fiery maned comet, his flabs of jellied blubber pulsating to and fro in ripples of flowing terror.” That’s bad literature but a good radio show. But read it aloud with friends at Starbucks, and it’s hilarious.
Art, literature, sports, love, war, politics, community, commerce, religion, education, study, career, etc… these are all “games people play.” Do these games have meaning? Is there any objective standard by which we can say they’re done “well” or “badly?” Aside from ethics, I’m not sure. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t such a standard. In one sense, I’m a nihilist (i.e. nothing has meaning). Save for one caveat. Absurdity is nothing more than a human vantage point. So is randomness. In fact, I’m a Thomist, a disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas. There’s Providence behind everything, including “meaningless” activity. Hence the Question: What does God think of these games? What does the All-Seeing God “see?” Is human brilliance absurd? Is human absurdity brilliant? “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” said Christ about a 46-year-old project. This makes Monte Python humor – which presumes random meaninglessness – at once bad and brilliant.
Some people think their lives are the worst story ever written. But a bad life is more like bad literature than bad medicine. It’s potentially brilliant. A death and resurrection can make it so. Death – not by suicide, but by humility and penance – infallibly brings absurdity to brilliance. No human activity, submitted to penance and grace, is a lost cause. But it must be submitted and purified. That’s painful and penitential. Jay T. Rikosh is code for Jesus Christ.
“Mounting one of the disgruntled mares, and leading the other; the weary scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists, leaving the Nobles, soldiers and peasants to replace the missing monarch. Long leave the king!” Thus concludes the worst story ever written. By Jim Theis, winner of the Jay T. Rikosh award for excellence.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor