Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
An exciting new project challenges kids to channel their imagination — and focus their attention spans — on reading.
Consider: “Werewolves and mad scientists, real ninjas and fake vampires, one roller-skating baby, a talking pig, creatures from another planet (possibly another dimension), killer poetry, clues from classic children’s books, two easy riddles, several bad knock knock jokes, plenty of explosions, a monkey disguised as a pirate, two meatballs, a blue plastic Star Wars lunch box (missing its matching thermos), three ticking clocks, and not just one bad guy — but a whole army of villains, cads, scalawags, sneaks, rats, varmints and swindlers.”
A B-movie showing tonight on the “SyFy” channel?
Thankfully, no. Better: it’s a project right out of the Library of Congress.
(John Scieszka, http://www.read.gov/exquisite-corpse/Book/#page/10/mode/2up pg 10)
Last weekend the National Book Festival again took over the mall in Washington, DC. It’s a gathering that can seem almost quaint–bringing together authors in a physical space with far too many fans toting their dead tree editions for signatures and crowding in for talks that will be more easily heard when made available as YouTube videos. The influences of digital are creeping in on the edges–a bookmobile at this year’s festival reminded literature-lovers that they could have picked up ebooks without the long drive. This year’s festival also included readings from “Exquisite Corpse Adventures,” a just ended year-long experiment.
No, name aside, it’s not about zombies. But it is the strangest thing to come out of last year’s festival. It’s a new spin on an old idea, officially started by the Surrealists as an exercise in collaborative creation, a way to get unusual ideas flowing. This variant on the old game was spear-headed by Katherine Paterson in the name of bringing young people to literature. Not surprising, as most innovative new stories seem to be pushed at kids: the hope, after all, is that a few of them will put down their video game controllers and pick up the latest book.
But as a project aimed at getting kids to direct at least a fraction of their web-surfing attention to reading a novel, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure still had something to recommend it: it’s actually good, and it doesn’t condescend to its would-be audience to get there. The finished work is oozing with pop culture savvy and a monument to what talented storytellers can do with even the most out-there of ideas. There’s a freedom in what these writers are doing that seems only possible in experimental forms, without the same demands of the stuffy publishing industry.
It helps that this experiment was written by some of the best writers working today: M.T. Anderson, who won the National Book Award for Octavian Nothing, a harrowing account of the life of a slave during the Revolutionary War. Anderson’s also known for Feed, a sci-fi novel that offers a depressing warning to anyone who thinks having the Internet directly in their brain would be a good idea. Jon Scieszka, best known for his cleansing of the Big Bad Wolf’s unjustly earned bad rep in “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs”. Katherine Paterson, whose Bridge to Terabithia was recently mutilated for a Hollywood adaptation; Lemony Snicket of Unfortunate Events fame, Gregory Maguire, who created Wicked and is responsible for rehabilitating Dorothy’s infamous foe; and many others. These are not normally the sort of people who write free fiction for the net.
So what did they create together?
According to the first chaper: “A Very Unusual and Completely Amazing Story Pieced Together Out of So Many Parts That It Is Not Possible To Describe Them All Here So Go Ahead and Just Start Reading.”
Well, if that’s the best Jon Scieszka can do, I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge either. The gist is this: Nancy and Joe, two kids who thought they were orphans, get a mysterious birthday card asking them to rescue their parents by piecing together the “Exquisite Corpse.” The ongoing meta-humor comes from the quest, and even jokes about what it is (a robot they need to assemble? A yoga position invented by Winston Churchill’s evil brother?) Yes, it is “for kids,” but moments in the story remind us that kids aren’t the only ones who can enjoy this–and after all, are they likely to get the “Dewey for President in ’48” sticker on a desk that opens Gregory Maguire’s contribution (153).
The book, to use the term loosely, was written a “finished” chapter at a time, and passed along–so, assembled in pieces, Frankenstein style, without anyone deciding on a narrative arc or planning out the finale. M.T. Anderson called it a process of “sudden creation” in one of his videos describing the project (http://www.thencbla.org/Exquisite_Corpse/exquisite_home.html). This process is in itself very cool, and collaborative in the truest sense, where no one person dictates a story.
Perhaps the part that turned out most “true” to the original concept of the EC game is the illustrations, each done by the illustrator without seeing what the previous illustrator came up with, so the imagery changes dramatically from episode to episode. Check out the weird even today creations the Surrealist artists came up with here (http://www.exquisitecorpse.com/definition/Morgue_[the_corpses].html). Other artists continued in their tradition with exquisite, if you’ll pardon the term, results at http://www.jabcstudio.com/pages/corpse.php, though at times the images meld so perfectly one suspects them of cheating. The colorful 60 panel image is here (http://www.jabcstudio.com/exquisite_corpse/).
Sometimes, it isn’t just kids that need to be reminded that writing–and reading–can be more play than work. In the end, Exquisite Corpse is a game played by a bunch of talented novelists, and the rest of us got a chance to watch and read. Telling a story started with an audience, after all, around camp fires and in communal settings–writing made it a more private practice, with only the final product sent out into the world. The Exquisite Corpse Adventure is a step closer to raw writing, and occasionally it reads that way, but it’s worth the implausible transitions and awkward episode changes to see the monster take shape.
In a world where the expectations for free online entertainment are rising, there’s something to be said for a cheesy serial novel with this much wit to spare. And since all 27 episodes are now online, there’s no waiting to find out how the story ends.