Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians. I only have one of his albums—Werewolves and Lollipops—but it’s not just his bitingly funny comedy I enjoy. Not only is Oswalt a fine actor and a dedicated writer, but he’s also one of us, us being both readers and geeks; he recently called for the downfall of nerd culture in order to build it up again, a sort of screed against instant accessibility. I don’t agree with the article, but Oswalt’s earnest desire to have his daughter experience, briefly, the secret handshake of underground geek culture is still endearing and well-written. So when I learned that Oswalt had written a book, I immediately swung down to the library to snatch it up.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a collection of pieces by the comedian, bouncing from pieces on the awkward intersection of Dungeons & Dragons and puberty to making a living in Los Angeles to a graphic short story about vampires trying to look cool. Part memoir and part expansion on his stand-up comedy, this slim book is a look into Oswalt’s… interesting psyche.
Fans of Oswalt’s stand-up comedy will note that pieces in this book expand on themes he explores in his comedy—I’m particularly fascinated by his experience of suburbia in the eighties, “trapped, stuck in the syrup of the suburbs … among houses built one year after I was born (I had more history than the streets I wandered)” (9). I wasn’t sure what to expect with Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, but Oswalt’s writing on his youth, creativity, and the intersection between the two is touching, thoughtful, and, of course, darkly funny. “Peter Runfola” focuses on his mentally ill uncle, whose rejection of any reality save the narrow niche he carved out for himself horrified the younger Oswalt, no matter how much Oswalt tries to understand his late uncle now. I mean, this is fantastic stuff:
I watched him because I couldn’t believe that could be anyone’s comfortable horizon. A tiny porch on a dark corner near a highway. We lucked out living on a planet made thrilling by billions of years of chance, catastrophe, miracles, and disaster, and he’d rejected it. You’re offered the world every morning when you open your eyes. I was beginning to see Pete as a representative of all the people who shut that out, through cynicism, religion, fear, greed, or ritual (87).
“Ticket Booth”, Oswalt’s recollection of how The Man in the High Castle and an R.E.M. album affected him so thoroughly, and the titular piece, which explores the creative archetypes of frustrated suburban kids, deserve to be come cold to. There’s something fascinatingly dark that lurks beneath Oswalt’s comedy, and I was riveted to it when it manifested in this book.
…when it showed up. Instead of being a straight memoir, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland feels more like a random sampling of Oswalt’s writing. The punch-up writing he discusses doing in his comedy is brutally skewered here, in a piece where a fictionalized Oswalt tries to rescue what he can out of an appalling unfunny script, and there’s a seriously twisted greeting card catalog. I appreciate that Oswalt took the time here to pursue comedic pieces that can only work in written (or graphic) form, and I’m quite glad he did so—but instead of lightening up the darker pieces, they just feel disjointed after the sincerity (however bitter) of the memoir pieces. However, I do wonder if they work better in the audiobook, with Oswalt’s delivery to enliven them. It’s a fairly even split between the comedy pieces and the memoir pieces, so I feel I can’t like I can pin this on a publisher or an agent asking for more material that would appeal to a broader audience.
Ultimately, I’m left with half of a brilliant and darkly funny memoir I want more of in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, with the other half being remarkably brutal (though funny) comedy that I need to hear Oswalt perform to begin to appreciate. I want to know more about the boy that threw away Dungeons & Dragons for girls and the man that calmly tells R.E.M. in a footnote that “I know I misinterpreted a lot of these lyrics to suit my purposes at the time, but it ceased being your album the minute I “bought” it”, which is so very true (17). I highly recommend the memoir pieces of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, but everything else is sliding off my brain already, and I’m writing this review the day I finished the book. Sigh.
Bottom line: Half of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a brilliant, touching, and darkly funny memoir—but the other half is remarkably brutal (though funny) comedy that needs to be performed before I can even appreciate it. Here’s hoping Oswalt writes that amazing memoir that this book shows he’s capable of; until then, rent this and skip the comedy bits.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Oswalt, Patton. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. New York: Scribner, 2011.