Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Tolkien Cure

The release of the trailer for The Hobbit (a full year before the film’s release, which is just plain goofy—like marketing on geologic time) prompted what one Facebook poster termed a collective online “nerdgasm,” and yours truly is one of those who seriously, metaphorically spunked. I’m not generally comfortable with the kind of grown man who embraces the word “geek” as a self-identifier, because most of those who do so seem to me to be hiding…making an active attempt to forestall adulthood by barricading its way with sky-high piles of endlessly replicating, increasingly self-referential, post-juvenile pop-culture junk. But it must be said, those of us who do manage to move comfortably about in the larger world are evidence that a certain Y-chromosome tendency to gibbering fannishness does in fact exist, and many of us have points of contact with this phenomenon that we tend to coddle, and feel guilty about afterwards.

And some of us…some of us wonder why. 

I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in college, in a four-day heat during which I first stopped going to class, then stopped eating, and then stopped sleeping till I finished it. It profoundly reordered my brain, and set me off on a decade-long pursuit of anything that seemed remotely similar…which the good old American marketplace was only too happy to supply in quantity: tidal waves of rubbishy wizards and elves and dragons and swords crested against my helpless psyche and nearly choked it on rank, stagnant ripoffs, till at some point in my early thirties I spat out the whole lot of it, wiped my mouth clean, and swore Never again.

Then, compelled by the first film in Peter Jackson’s adaptation, I reread the Rings several years ago, and was amazed to find myself as deeply enmeshed, as deeply invested, as I had been at eighteen. I didn’t see how this could be possible, since I’d long since settled into a frosty disdain for “fantasy” and its tired, tin-eared tropes; my appetite for the exotic was far more happily fed by stories set in real-world settings: ancient Rome, medieval Japan, imperial Russia, Civil War America.

So how was it that the Rings was hooking me?...After a very great deal of intensive reflection (navel-gazing, if you absolutely insist) I realized that the trilogy’s great appeal to me was the way in which it captured, and celebrated, the phenomenon of Englishness.

Like most Americans, I have a complex relationship with the empire from which our own polity spun off—the parent, as it were, against whom we rebelled and from whom we moved far away and got our own apartment, never to return. Americans have long cherished our highly distinctive national character, but while we may enjoy pretending that we’re our own self-creation, we can’t escape the fact that we speak English, our laws are based English precedents, and our folklore is populated as much by quintessentially English personae (Robin Hood, Lady Godiva, Henry VIII) as it is by our homegrown equivalents. 

Which is a long way of saying, we’re all of us a little bit English; and we have a corresponding desire—even a need—to nourish that part of ourselves. Literature is the most obvious place to go for this, and yet oddly the least satisfying. The great pantheon of English writers—Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton; Defoe, Jane Austen, and Dickens—give us, not the experience of genuine Englishness, but a highly specific guided tour of their own moral and cultural universes. Each of them fails by reason of his genius (while, of course, succeeding immortally on other levels).

The wonderful paradox is that it took an Oxford don, writing about a world that doesn’t exist, filled with strange races and monstrous creatures and so riven by magic that the laws of physics seem not to exist, to succeed in distilling the pure essence of Englishness. And I don’t mean Britishness; that’s something entirely different. I mean Englishness…homey, warm, and high-spirited—principled yet plucky, devout yet bawdy, a study in contrasts, but none so very stark. The Lord of the Rings glorifies these traits—in fact sets them up as the sole hope for an entire world’s survival. What’s thrilling about it, is that ultimately a monolithic, corrosive, expansionist evil is defeated by a few representatives of a people who love singing and dancing, drink and tobacco, and very little else. It’s the triumph of genial anarchy over totalitarian order; it resonated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s time (that of the second World War) and it hasn’t stopped resonating since.

This unexpected Englishness isn’t an accident. Tolkien is explicit about his debt to the bardic yarns of the Anglo-Saxons, their epic songs and fables, the rhythms of their idiosyncratic tongue. He’s able to distill Englishness because he’s dismantled it, gone back to first principles and rebuilt it from scratch, guided this time by his own sensibility—his love of story, of invention, of myth; and thus, Middle Earth has an integrity, a verisimilitude, a realness that no other invented fantasy realm can claim. (The single exception would be that of of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast—another archetypally English creation, and yet so radically different from Tolkien’s in every particular that there are virtually no points of intersection. Which is perhaps why it alone stands toe-to-toe with the Rings as cap-L literature…invoking, interestingly, Britishness as effectively as the other does Englishness.)

I’m not certain whether the pastoral England that inspired Tolkien exists anymore; it might be simply a state of mind, as the Old West has become for Americans. (We still revere the cowboy ideal, in a country now actively hostile to genuine cowboys.) But it remains a potent cultural touchpoint; maybe more potent than ever.

And a universal one, too. How else to explain what is possibly a greater paradox: that an Australian film director, an American film studio, and a cast of actors representing a half-dozen other nationalities, cultures, and traditions, could come together and not only accurately convey Tolkien’s Englishness, its precise tone and textures, but improve on it. It’s heresy to say so, I know; but there it is.

So yes, I’ll be dipping back into that Hobbit trailer over the many months between now and the film’s premiere; and each time the dwarves start singing of the Misty Mountains, I’ll feel the call of something closer to the infinite than I’m accustomed to encountering in the usual megaplex crapfest.

Meantime, feel free to call me whatever name you like. For once, this nerd/geek/fanboy won’t object.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Operation: Kickstarter

These are tough times for publishing—hell, for print—and as I've noted previously, the retrenchment can be felt most painfully in the narrowing market for new fiction; which is why I've gone into digital self-publishing (see "Introducing: The Sugarman Bootlegs" below). 

The comics equivalent is the reduction of viable venues for creator-owned properties. So again, I'm taking matters into my own hands. Sea Monster, a science-fiction series based on the lyrics to the album of the same name by my band, 7th Kind, and featuring art by the amazing Dan Dougherty, is now open for pledges on Kickstarter, the direct-to-your-audience funding website for arts and performance projects. 

The high concept behind Sea Monster is that the CD is the soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist; the graphic novel is the follow-up comics adaptation. A little meta for your morning, friends!
It's like Bergman's Wild Strawberries crossed with 2012...with a little Philip K. Dick thrown into the mix. There's much more info available on the Kickstarter page, plus my used-car-salesman-worthy pitch video, and a list of all the gifts and swag we hope will tempt you into pledging.
So give it a look, then give us a boost, and together we'll blaze some new publishing trails...and have some hella good fun along the way Thank you for your kind attention.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ask Me Anything

Well...I guess that's a tease, because the window of opportunity is now closed. At least it is for the purposes of the following video, sponsored by the fine folks at Mahalo, who gave me this forum to respond to fan-forwarded queries on my thoughts regarding writing, writers, fiction, nonfiction, comics, dogs, Italy, gay issues, and anything else that might fall under my various areas of experience or expertise. Anyway, enjoy.

BTW: That print in the background?...An authentic Palio poster from Siena—the one they slap on walls around the city every summer to announce the event. I managed to snag one (they're not really for sale), somehow got it home (it's enormous), spent a king's ransom to have it framed...and now it's making its video debut. (We've also got an actual, honest-to-god Caterpillar banner, the kind the alfieri toss around in the air. Someday I'll tell you about trying to get that past airport security. It's amazing I wasn't cuffed and Tasered.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

From Siena with love

The Italian edition of Seven Seasons In Siena was published in August (by Betti Editrice, under the title Sette Stagioni a Siena), and that's prompted some very gratifying attention. I did a few TV Italian, thank you very much. There was only one awkward moment, and I wish there were a link to it online so I could finally know what the hell I said to cause it. 

I also received a warmly appreciative letter from Siena's mayor, and was the subject of a profile in the city's major daily, Corriere di Siena. I scanned a copy of the article and was holding on to it with the intention of finding time to do a full translation for you, until I realized this morning, with tremendous self-knowledge and blinding clarity, that that was never going to happen. So I present it to you as is. Enjoy, to the extent you can.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Days of the Palio, August 2011

One year after the events chronicled my book Seven Seasons In Siena, I returned to the city for "i giorni del Palio"—the days of the Palio, the ancient bareback horse race held in the city's central piazza. This is my video journal of the week in all its dazzling color, song, and spectacle.

Episode 1: The Extraction
Episode 2: The Procession
Episode 3: The Race

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Announcing: Robert Rodi Essentials

In 1992 my first novel was published. Fag Hag told the story of a big, flamboyant girl with a big, obsessive crush on a handsome gay artist—and of the increasingly dangerous, even criminal lengths to which she went to maintain her stranglehold over him. It was an immediate cult sensation and made my reputation as a satirist of modern gay life. Over the ensuing years I became something of a cottage industry, turning out novels that mocked the manners and mores of familiar gay character types, with a few forays into other subcultures equally ripe for a good old-fashioned slash-and-burn.

But times change; with the increasing presence of gay characters and themes in mass media, the gay literary genre began to wane; as did fiction itself, in the wake of greater competition and economic unpheaval. I turned my attention to nonfiction, and have not—until recently—looked back.

Now, excited about the possibilities that digital publishing offers novelists, I’ve jumped back into the game, self-publishing my eighth novel, The Sugarman Bootlegs, as an e-book (see the April 21 post, below). That experience has been a sufficiently happy one to inspire me to resurrect my early novels for new digital life as well.

This month, Fag Hag returns as the initial e-volume in a series I’ve brazenly chosen to call Robert Rodi Essentials. Additional entries will be published roughly every two months, until my entire ‘90s output (and a few post-millennial chasers) is once again available.

For right now, you can download Fag Hag for Kindle or Nook at the are-you-serious? price of just $2.99, and be reading it thirty seconds after you’ve finished this blog post. Ain’t technology a pip?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Mother's Day remembrance.

My mother died in June 2009. I gave the eulogy at her funeral; this is the transcript.

My mom was the sixth of eight children in a rural family striving to make ends meet. It can be very easy for a young child, especially a girl, to get lost in a crowded, struggling household; but as a teenager Mom earned a college scholarship, making her the first member of her family to advance beyond high school. Stop and reflect for a moment on the fortitude and determination that must have taken—not to mention the sheer hard work. Janice St. Onge clearly had character.

Her college career was cut short by marriage and motherhood, as was often the case in the 1950s. Once again Mom found herself in a crowded household, this time one for which she was chiefly responsible. Six children before she was thirty; it must have been a round-the-clock job. But from what we know of her, it seems certain that when her kids were grown and her job done, she would have found the strength of will once again to remake herself, to choose a new destiny and follow it.

But something else happened. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with cancer. And she spent the remaining forty years of her life battling repeated occurrences of that disease, fighting literally for survival. Breast cancer…uterine cancer…colon cancer…and finally anaplastic cancer, the one she went two rounds with, and lost.

It’s a difficult task to look back on a life so altered by illness; we can’t help lamenting what might have been. Certainly Mom always viewed the cancer as something separate from herself, even though it was bonded to the very cells of her body; and she did her best to try to subdue it and move past it.

She’d want us to move beyond it as well, and to look between the vast stretches of her life claimed by surgeries and hospital stays, to the strands of beauty and sanctity that twined together to form her lifeline.

She loved the Church and drew tremendous solace from the mass and the sacraments.

She loved music, especially the Romantics, Chopin and Debussy and Rachmaninoff. She played the piano herself, and it was always kind of magical when out of nowhere you’d hear the strains of “Clair de Lune” wafting through the house.

She loved travel, and felt a lifelong affinity for France. In fact she made her last trip there just a year ago.

She loved to cook; many of you here will have fond memories of her garlic roast beef, her duck a l’orange, her vast platters of ravioli, and my sister Lori’s favorite, her Grand Marnier soufflĂ©.

She loved to entertain, and did so in grand style during most of my childhood. Tycoons, statesmen, heiresses, dignitaries—she hosted them all, and she managed to look beautiful while doing it.

She loved gardening; she loved dogs; she loved games; she loved to laugh; and most of all she loved her children and her grandchildren. We were the great gift of her life, the thing that redeemed all her trials. I’m sure that privately, this woman who so identified with the passion of Christ believed that she suffered so we wouldn’t have to.

On behalf of her family, I thank you for joining us in saying goodbye to her today, and ask that you always remember her with joy and with love—and with one thing more: humility. If I had to choose the quality that defined her more than any other, it would be that. Not only did this trait not pass down to any of her six children, I think there may have been times when we criticized her for it; I know I did. Now that she’s gone, I hope we can begin to see her more clearly, and to reassess that humility for what it was: a reflection of the divine—an expression of God’s grace. Maybe each of us can inherit it now that she has no more need of it; maybe we can, as she did, learn to give more in kindness and respect than we would ever dream of claiming in return. Maybe, like Mom, we can learn to look at a room filled with people and ask ourselves, “Who here is more important than I am?”—and answer, “Everyone.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My first (and last) word on the Royal Wedding.

On July 31, 1981, I got up at the crack of dawn to watch Charles, Prince of Wales, marry Lady Diana Spencer.

Impossible to say that now without a slight self-deprecating flinch, as you would if admitting, “I voted for Ralph Nader for president,” or “I once bought a Sony Betamax.” Because the resultant crack-up of the marriage, and the hideous scars it left on the institution it was intended to bolster, have become permanently ingrained on our culture. What we’ve witnessed, over the past thirty years, has been the dissolution of a dynasty in slow motion. It seems a safe bet it will sail on for the duration of Elizabeth II’s life—she’s just a few years away from being the longest-reigning sovereign in English history, and she really hasn’t given anyone grounds for termination; it would be almost ungallant to boot her out of office for doing exactly everything that was asked of her sixty years ago. But after she’s gone…? All bets are off. And another gaudy royal fertility pageant isn’t going to fix that.

In 1981, I was going through a medievalist phase, buoyed by a reading of Thomas Costain’s magisterial series of books on the House of Plantagenet, and by Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays on the same kings. I found it enormously appealing that the same throne that was so hotly contested and so brutally won in the 15th century, was still around in the 20th, though occupied not by a bold young warrior prince like Edward IV or Henry V, but by a pleasant middle-aged woman known for her handbags. I relished the idea that vestiges of ancient pageantry still persisted, like the Order of the Garter, though that honor was now reserved not for the valorous and heroic, but for tycoons and entrepreneurs. And there was something wonderfully exotic about the search for a suitable young virgin to present as a gift to a royal heir who was dutifully, if reluctantly, putting his tomcatting days behind him and getting down to the matter of lineage-tending; though the sacrificial aspect to this wasn’t very different, if you thought about it, from casting young virgins into rumbling volcanoes.

There were a few people at the time who pointed out how embarrassingly anachronistic it was to celebrate a hereditary monarchy in a country that was ostensibly a democratic meritocracy, but we just considered them grouches and spoilsports, and shut them out.

Very different today, in a “won’t get fooled again” sort of way, which is why I’ll be sleeping in on April 29 (and no, I won’t be setting the TiVo, either). To be sure, Prince William and his bride-to-be don’t appear to be the spectacular mismatch his parents were in 1981. They’re roughly the same age (as opposed to the 13-year difference between Charles and Diana), they’ve been a couple for several years (as contrasted to the mail-order-bride aspect of Diana’s recruitment), and it seems inconceivable that Kate Middleton has remained a virgin all this time, which means she’s entering this marriage with eyes wider open than Diana could have managed. Also, thanks to Diana’s hands-on parenting, Prince William seems much more grounded than his dithering, sensitive-to-light father was thirty years ago (or at any time since). In fact, you get the idea that if William were just an ordinary Joe, he and Kate would end up choosing each other anyway.

In other words, they seem like nice kids. I wish them well. And what I wish them, most of all, is that the whole Windsor dynasty is quietly dismantled and put away in a drawer before it has time to suck them into its gaping maw. What I wish for them is what I’d wish for any young couple: let them be free to build a life together. On their own, alone.

Doesn’t that just seem…well, civilized? 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Introducing The Sugarman Bootlegs.

A few years ago, I made the decision—based on the way the book industry was trending—to switch from fiction to nonfiction, with happy results (see my memoir of my year on the canine agility circuit, Dogged Pursuit, now in paperback—and my upcoming Italian opus, Seven Seasons In Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance by Tuscany's Proudest People, due June 21 from Ballantine).

But fans of my novels (I wrote seven between 1992 and 2007) still regularly petition me for something new, which has made me realize that while the market for fiction may have contracted, demand is still there—just not in the kind of numbers that make traditional publishing viable.

So I'm taking my fiction directly to my readers, via the rapidly expanding—in fact, the goddamn exploding—world of e-book publishing.

This week my eighth novel, The Sugarman Bootlegs, went on sale on both the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, as a digital download for their respective e-readers, Kindle and Nook.

And what is The Sugarman Bootlegs...? It's a Hitchcock story for the YouTube age. It starts with two friends discovering old video of an unknown saloon singer, which they try to pass of as archival footage of a long-lost cabaret legend. But their prank backfires when the viral sensation takes on a vivid—and lethal—life of its own...and as its fame increases, so does the body count.

Basically, it's the bastard child of All About Eve and Frankenstein—with the biggest mid-story twist since The Crying Game.'s only $2.99.

So join me in this little experiment, and together we'll see whether my fiction (hell, fiction in general) can come roaring back to life in this crazy new samizdat format.

(Oh, and check back here in a month or so, for some news about those old, out-of-print novels of mine. 'S'all I'm sayin' for now.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers.

In 2005 I wrote a miniseries for Marvel entitled Loki, which was about the tricker god's antagonistic relationship with his step-brother, Thor, god of thunder. There were two things that made if different from any previous Thor-Loki throwdown: first, the story begins not with Loki attempting to seize control over Asgard, but the moment he finally does so (that's right, it starts with Loki winning); and second, the ravishingly gorgeous painted artwork of Esad Ribic.

The series was a runaway hit and was collected in both hardcover and trade paperback. Now, with Kenneth Branagh's big-budget Thor movie coming to theaters, Marvel has repackaged the series in a new hardcover edition called Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers, and even more gratifyingly, has turned the entire story into a four-part animated TV miniseries. And rather than start from scratch and try to come up with graphics that match the majesty of Esad's painted images, they have—by some uncanny, jaw-dropping digital alchemy—just animated Esad's artwork itself.

Throw in some ridiculously gifted, classically trained voice actors and a score that Carl Orff might have written, and you've got an adaptation every bit as powerful as the original—maybe even more so. (And I can say that, 'cause I'm the guy, knowhumsayin'?)

You can get the first episode on iTunes, PSN, Xbox Live and a couple other places on 3/28.  Enjoy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On theatrical jealousy.

Earlier this month—in my capacity as a member of the Gentlemen's Auxiliary of the spoken-word ensemble BoyGirlBoyGirl—I took part in a revue entitled "The Alternative History of Chicago Theater (Abridged)", sponsored by WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio). My colleagues Susan Karp, Rachel Claff and I each did a short piece on the subject of ambition, jealousy, and frustrated hopes. My contribution follows:
For about 50 years in the early 1990s, William Petersen was ubiquitous on Chicago’s theater scene. He took every lead in every production of every play by every company. I was a young writer doing P.R. work for the old Halsted Theatre Centre, so you can trust me: it was my business to know the landscape. And I saw William Petersen tackle every iconic role in the western repertoire, except Lady Bracknell, and I was probably just sick that day. Kings and killers, vice-lords and varsity-men—William Petersen, William Petersen, William Petersen, William Petersen. All over Chicago struggling actors scrutinized themselves in their mirrors and asked, “What has William Petersen got that I haven’t got? What elusive quality does he possess that I don’t seem to generate? Is it already too late for me? What is the point of going on?” 
Which makes you wonder what William Petersen thought when he looked in his mirror. Possibly something like...“What has John Malkovich got that I haven’t got? Why does John Malkovich get on magazine covers? I am so much hotter. Why does John Malkovich get to do movies? Why does John Malkovich get to do movies about 18th century French aristocrats? Is there an actor alive less like an 18th century French aristocrat than John Malkovich? Why does John Malkovich get to do movies about being John Malkovich? Why have I stalled out at this regional level? Why am I only a local phenomenon? Would it help if I grew a beard? Why did I turn down Platoon? Is it already too late for me? What is the point of going on?” 
And then you have to wonder what John Malkovich thought when he looked in his mirror. Probably something like…“Ohhh yeah. Mmmm-hm. It’s all good. I am so glad I turned down Platoon.”

Photo by Jerry Schulman.


Teatro Rodi is the official blog of Robert Rodi—novelist, fantasist, monologuist, memoirist, essayist and musician. It's where you can find news about upcoming projects, publications and performances; it's also the place to find writings that haven't been published anywhere else. (See how deftly I avoided saying, "where I can dump all my stray scraps and blatherings.") Anyway, welcome aboard.