Though I don’t listen to altogether too many comedy albums, I’m a fan of Patton Oswalt, who I think is one of the smarter mainstream comics working today1. To the best of my knowledge, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is his first serious attempt at a published book, and while it’s short and somewhat inconsistent, I think it’s shows a great potential for grander works.
Generally, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland reads like one of Oswalt’s standup sets: funny vignettes that border on narrative, sometimes wistful and sometimes full of dick jokes and LSD. In the book, however, Oswalt gives his natural tendency toward storytelling a little more room to breathe. This, I imagine, may be a sore point to some of Oswalt’s fans who have grown accustomed to a more immediate payoff in the brevity of his routine. But his first “real” chapter, which tells the story of his time working at the local three-screen cinema in Sterling, Virginia, is both poignant and slapstick, and is actually handled like a proper short story; the characters are built up and given personalities, the story is given context and meaning, and there’s a sense, however small, of personal engagement between the narrative equivalent of punchlines.
Oswalt proves he has chops, at least stylistically, or some larval stage thereof which could be excellent someday with proper care. In the midst of this, however, he does what many comedians will do when venturing into books: pad the pages with filler. There are short sections which would play better as stand-up bits, a graphic novel portion which, though I suppose well done, has no real business in an otherwise text-based book. This is not America: The Book wherein the premise is as graphical as it is comedic; nor is it as consistent. The first story is a high point, and at no other point of the relatively short book he he regain that peak.
The closest he comes is the title essay, which is a somewhat confusing categorization piece which labels all young personalities as either a Zombie, a Spaceship, or a Wasteland. Zombies are the lumps whose defense mechanism makes them shuffle and stumble through life in apathy; Spaceships are the social outcasts (he uses computer nerds as an example) who seek to flee the earth and watch it from a distance. Wastelands, finally, seek the scorched earth option, obliterating their past lives in an apocalypse and thereafter roaming the deserts as changed men. Oswalt counts himself among this last group (fleeing the boring safety of a planned suburb to becoming a coastal comedian and do LSD), though in fairness, this taxonomy is not particularly wonderful or insightful. What makes it compelling—maybe—is that Oswalt insists on science fiction tropes; he’s a geek’s comedian (and therefore a geek’s writer), and much of what he jokes about is informed by a childhood of progressive rock, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, and a general Cheetos-eating, scifi-loving, fat-kid-at-dodgeball sensibility that makes fans of the same disaffected stripe love and respect him even more.
For my part, I enjoy both Oswalt’s standup and his serious writing, though I’m somewhat annoyed by this book’s tendency to conflate the two. At his best, Oswalt gives Chuck Klosterman a run for his money, and with thankfully more disdain for the sickly and sickening bits of culture that make Klosterman’s glasses fog up. At his worst, however, Oswalt’s book is a throwaway; it’s a motley of verbal bric-a-brac that doesn’t reward the effort of acquiring and reading the book instead of searching for clips of the guy on Youtube2.