How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 4

Something is happening.

I was at the grocery store when a wave of thankfulness and love hit me. I loved the old ladies who park their carts in front of everything I need. I loved the smell of the seafood counter. I loved cart boy who was mopping isle 6 because he was whipping that thing.

I especially loved that I was doing something other than staring at book, at the written word, at scribbles on dead trees or darkened pixels on a screen. I loved that I was using my legs rather than sitting on my ass. Even if this was just walking through a grocery store a block from my house. Even then.

In the parking lot I smelled the sunset and thought, this is what it is to be illiterate. Just for a moment, to see the world as it is rather than the representation of characters as they shop for groceries and maneuver around old ladies’ carts and smell the seafood isle.

This euphoria is still echoing in my calves as I type this (yes, back in front of the screen) because behind my monitor I can see pink and purple clouds over the mountains. Not even the screeching of the neighborhood cat in heat can ruin this (Oh. We will discuss this cat. This fucking cat. In. Depth.)Image

This is what happens when you read a novel a day for three weeks and then, suddenly, find yourself doing something, anything, anything at all, other than reading. It feels like one big orgasm by absence (of reading) and presence (of god damn everything else).

Even as I’m starting to feel the accumulated exhaustion not just in my brain, but my body, I am, at this moment, in love with this Colorado summer because it links back to every other Colorado summer I’ve ever had where reading was something I did when I wasn’t chasing snakes in a creek bed or dip-shitting it up at some mall or standing so utterly bored in the outfield of a little league game.

Sometimes it’s good to remember that I wasn’t always doing this.

The other day I read a novel without reading it. My eyes passed over the words. When I finished I had copious notes. I thought, good job. I thought, another one down. Then I realized I couldn’t recall the main characters name 30 seconds after finishing the book. (The character’s name is Abel if anyone wants to guess what it is. And no, it’s not the Bible).

The other day I became aware of the other cars on the highway. I mean really aware, to the point I felt the panic of a 16 year old. There are so many. So fast. What if. What if.

The other day on the frisbee field I lined up one of my oldest friends. I looked at him dead center, let the frisbee fly, and then called him the completely wrong name.

The day I learned that caffeine isn’t nearly as effective as a nap.

The other day I saw a kid at the park and felt so happy for him because he can’t even read yet.

The exhaustion is worrying. Yes, I am just a bit over a third done with my time in comps. And, according to my very rough calculations, I’m about a third done with my primary sources. Here’s the bad news, those calculations don’t include the secondary sources (we may go into this math in more depth another time). So this euphoria, through absence, through exhaustion. Yeah, it’s going to muddy.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 2

One week into comps and I’ve given up on pants. Apparently, if I’m going to hack my way through this jungle of words, I’m going to do it in basketball shorts. I don’t see any reason to wear anything else. I can do all my required activities in them: read, sleep, run. My reading schedule by and large keeps me clear of any social event that might require something with a belt. So far I’ve managed to put a shirt on each day, but this practice may to go by the wayside.

Classes, finals, my papers, my students papers all seem like they are part of another world, a world in which I had things to do other than stay awake and flip pages. Because of this, I feel my social skills atrophying at an alarming rate. I’m a social person. I often joke that a person’s abilities to write are closely tied to their ability to bullshit. I love to shoot the shit, sling lies, crack wise, make dubious statements just to see if I can make ‘em stand up in an argument. But all this reading numbs my brain so that I have the wit and social grace of a dying slug.

For instance, my sister had a birthday bbq a few days ago. I like her friends, mostly in the medical field or businessmen and women, but I don’t especially know them. These are, by definition, the people which you are required to bullshit. But that evening my conversations were all a distorted version of this one:

Sister’s Blond Friend: How are you?

Me: Good. You?

SBF: Good. What have you been doing?

Me: Comps.

SBF: (stares blankly.)

Me: Reading my ass off.

SBF: (searches over my shoulder.)

Me: Read some Blake Butler today. It was awesome.

SBF: (finishes drink) I need a refill.

The little, day-to-day things that fill our lives (getting a flat, staying at work late, finding $20 bucks in a shoe, seeing an ex at a restaurant, wandering into the wonder that is the outdoors) are the very bits of ammo that we fire off when making small talk while sucking beer at a barbecue. The exquisite bullshitters are the ones who are able to spin these pieces of info in an interesting/amusing/charming/flirtatious/unexpected way. So unless I’m talking with someone about the intricacies of Elisabeth Sheffield’s Gone (fantastic), I’m shit out of luck. And considering the reading habits of the public at large, I’m not hopeful that this situation will present itself anytime soon (unless I’m talking to my classmates, but considering they’re in the same mental state I’m in, the conversation isn’t going to be grand anyway).

Thus, I’ve developed two strategies to compensate with my lack of everyday actions:

Strategy 1: Really make the few things I’ve been doing besides reading seem epic in scope. Everyone’s been getting an earful of my grocery shopping excursions (the sale price of peanut butter, the old lady who parked her cart so I couldn’t get at the taco seasoning, the length of the checkout line) and ultimate frisbee experiences (I have discovered in myself the ability to give complete play-by-plays of entire games).

Strategy 2: Flat out make things up (Climbed Mount Elbert today, yeah, it was pretty bad ass).

If I get really desperate to keep a conversation from trickling into silence I’ll resort to peppering my companion with questions. I don’t mean polite, soft-pitch questions, but aggressive, in your face, Barbara-Walters-fuck-yeah kind of questions (What’d you do last night? Where’d you go? Was it a date? What was his name? He has slicked-back hair doesn’t he? Did you guys practice making babies? At your place?  His place?  The car? What’s he drive? Was it good? Hypothetically, was it good? You going to have his babies? Are you guys a thing? Why not? Who said his mother mattered anyway? How would you like it if she disappeared? What do you mean you need another drink? Is that a lie?).

Thankfully most people really like to talk about themselves.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying

This is my first in a series of blog posts about something of which the internet seems oddly devoid (no, not squirrel porn. Seems the web is dripping with that). I’m speaking of information on the experience of taking English doctoral comprehensive exams. Do a quick Google search. The first page is full of .edu addresses, giving the requirements and official descriptions of this activity. But I wanted to add something more personal by going into detail about what everyone refers to as “an exhausting experience.” This series will be a record of my mental, emotional, physical, and moral state as I read for these things, and at the beginning of September, take ‘em.

I imagine that doctoral students who haven’t yet taken their exams might be interested in this. But, also the non-doctoral type who’s curious about what happens to someone when they read 8-10 hours every day. I expect wildly colorful things will happen, probably mostly in some shade of burgundy.

While most programs give you six months to a year to read everything on your list(s), DU’s English department gives its doctoral students three months (cause we are that good… Or because that’s what our funding says we need to do). If your average comp exam is a marathon, mine will be closer to a half, but as with any shorter distance, the pace picks up. So I’ll be putting in longer hours.

I have three lists: a major figure, (the amazing) Stephen Graham Jones; a genre, The 20th and 21st Century Innovative Novel; and a special topic, Myth and Literature of the New West. Each list is comprised of between 40 and 50 texts. A text can be anything from an Infinite Jest-length novel to a journal article. Because I’m fiction writer, my texts are heavily novels, usually about 30 per list. So, to use the parlance of our times, I’m going to be reading my balls off.

Considering I finished my grading yesterday and have had classes 19 of the last 20 weeks, I’m starting my comps on an already depleted tank. I may start out limping a bit, but as my old track coach used to say, “Run hurt.” This saying would usually be accompanied by details of athletes who suffered gruesome injuries followed by their amazing triumphs. I expect nothing less.

Gambling the Aisle Chapbook Prize

Gambling the Aisle Chapbook Prize

Gambling the Aisle is happy to announce our first chapbook contest. It is open for both fiction and poetry submissions.

Prize: Publication, 25 copies (sent upon publication). Five runners-up will receive recognition in the winter edition of Gambling the Aisle, a free copy of both the winter issue and of the winning chapbook.

Judges: The Gambling the Aisle editors will select the winner and runners-up in November.

Entry Fee: $12

Submission Deadline: October 31

  • Fiction or poetry can be entered.
  • Length: 16 to 36 pages
  • All submissions should be complete with a title page, table of contents, and if needed, an acknowledgement page. These pages do not count towards the page limit. ·         
  • Individual poems/stories that have been previously published are acceptable; however, this should be the first time they are printed as a collection. Self-published or previously published collections are ineligible. Longer, chapbook-length stories that have been previously published are also ineligible. 
  • Writers who are affiliated with the Gambling the Aisle editors or staff are ineligible to enter.      
  • You may submit more than one entry; however, the fee must be paid for each entry. ·
  • Unfortunately we are unable to accept submissions that incorporate visual images. ·          
  • All entries should be single spaced, using 12 point font (unless form is relevant to the work’s presentation). Your name should only appear on the title page.
  • Please include a bio.
  • Simultaneous submissions are acceptable and encouraged, but please notify us by withdrawing your manuscript on Submittable immediately if it is accepted for publication elsewhere.


Submit through Submittable:

Thompson and the (sub)urbanized American Dream

When I first read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke and his attorney’s search for the American Dream riveted me; however, I quickly began asking questions about the location of this search. Did it need to take place in Vegas? If not Vegas, where else might the American Dream appear so corrupted and derelict? Then, one day while I was in college and had returned for Thanksgiving Break, I realized that my “hometown” (I use this word hesitatingly because it isn’t much of a town at all. It’s more of a collection of houses that lay to the south of Denver) was the result of the very same search, and, (not so) shockingly, when one looks one sees that the American Dream is warped there as well.

Despite the misleading dissimilarities between the lights of Vegas in the 60’s and a Californian style suburb that began in the 80’s, Highlands Ranch, Colorado is what Vegas would look like if you replaced the casinos, gambling, and “millions of colored balls running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filigree, giving off a loud hum” (27) with thousands of homes all based off of the same handful of floor plans (National Geographic once featured it as an example of suburban sprawl), pastel colors, and a fierce case of “keeping up with the Joneses.” While the way in which these two communities express their overindulgences are different, they are both points along the same axis of excess.

Because I am discussing a Thompson work, I feel I must quickly address his use of drugs as a tool to create confusion and “fear and loathing.” His characters’ constant consumption of illegal substances add to the disorientating nature of Vegas, and I argue that while drugs could be read as the main subject of his novel, they are simply a means to heighten the outlandish weirdness his characters encounter in the cityscape.  While grass, mescaline, blotter acid, cocaine, “uppers, downers, screamers, [and] laughers” (4) are not the main motivating force of life in Highlands Ranch, I find that the overriding ideology is made up of something equally exhilarating and disorienting: consumerism. If Vegas’ depravity is the death of the American Dream, Highlands Ranch’s addiction to consumerism is its zombified resurrection.

To understand the philosophical core (and thus how the American Dream is corrupted and/or absent) in both Thompson’s Vegas and the Highlands Ranch of my youth, let us start with a search for the “ideological” apex of each. Both are filled with surreal spectacles: Thompson’s Vegas has drug induced delirium. Duke exclaims, “Here I am sitting out here alone on this fucking desert, in this nest of armed loonies, with a very dangerous carload of hazards, horrors and liabilities that I must get back to L.A. Because if they nail me out here, I’m doomed” (71).  Highlands Ranch has fully-paved, six-lane roads leading into the middle of cow fields where they dead-end at the skeleton-work of planned, but not built, subdivisions (complete with cul-de-sacs, stop signs, power boxes, and street lights, but not a house in sight).

My friends and I used to force our cars into high speed doughnuts along these empty, icy roads until our engines overheated much the same way that Duke and his Attorney terrorize the Strip, “the Ford bolted off like a rocket. I stomped on the accelerator and stayed right next to them for about two hundred yards” (152). While there wasn’t any reason for either of our parties’ actions, we were all “watching for cops in the mirror” (152) while our friends “kept screaming” out the window.

However, these empty cul-de-sacs are at the fringe of Highlands Ranch, while the Strip is a center, but isn’t the center. Duke and his attorney think they find the center of Vegas at the Circus Circus Casino, a space where, “right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego” (46). More importantly, they find what they believe to be the American Dream, “’We’re right in the vortex’… ‘You must realize,’ I said, ‘we’ve found the main nerve” (48).

However, this “main nerve” contains nothing but some inebriated, paranoid conversation, two women “fucking a polar bear,” and a rotating bar (48). There isn’t any revelation or even further discussion of the matter. In fact, the mere thought of being so close to the American Dream gives the attorney “the fear” (48). The characters realize that this is not the American Dream because they continue to search for it for the rest of the novel, but this is the only time they claim to find it.

While Thompson gives his characters a (mistaken) feeling that they’ve discovered the center, one may not be so (un?)fortunate to think that he has discovered one in Highlands Ranch. Can there be a center to a suburb preplanned ten years in advance? It can have a middle (a physical location between all of it), but this is no more the center than Duke’s mistaking Circus Circus to be the center.

Can conformity have a center? Or is the whole suburb only an endlessly reoccurring pattern like the carpet in a Vegas casino? The repetition in Highlands Ranch is dazzling, from the floor plans of each house, to the small yards, to the small trees, to the HMO’s. Even the street names are recycled, so that to navigate you need to know that you are looking for Meadow Lark Circle, not Meadow Lark Place, Street, Corner, Lane, etc. How disorientating is it to try to pick up a date on a Friday night at 321 Bentwood Circle only to have a ex-flame from the 7th grade answer the door and realize after the most hellishly awkward of conversations you were really looking for 321 Bentwood Court.

If there is a center to Highlands Ranch, it’s Park Meadows mall (which is, oddly enough, located in the neighboring city of Lone Tree [HR doesn’t even own its own center!]) Inside, you’ll find something far more vicious than Thompson’s Vegas. This place is drenched with a near crippling consumerism. You can valet you car at the food court. Tee-shirts are priced because of their label while quality is completely inverted (it costs more because it is ripped). The mall originally declined to have its own light rail stop, which can only be read as, if you can’t afford drive here, you can’t afford to shop here. If Circus Circus gave the attorney “the fear,” perhaps this (sub)urban space would push him over the edge.

If Circus Circus is the closest Duke comes to finding a center in Las Vegas, to finding the American Dream, Park Meadows Mall is the closest one will come to finding the American Dream in Highlands Ranch, and neither are a pretty sight. Duke watches in horror as the people in a casino turn to lizards “Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge” (24) but in Park Meadows a drug addled mind would be lucky to hallucinate about reptiles, instead shoppers would most likely morph into plastic Gap (or for those who have a different style, Abercrombie and Finch) mannequins.

Just as Duke and his attorney are unable to locate the American Dream in Vegas, one cannot locate it in Highlands Ranch, despite the initial outward appearance that such a suburb is, in fact, a product of the American Dream. When these locations are placed next to each other, we can see that both contain a similar depravity and decadence.