Patton Oswalt has long had a reputation as an unusually literate stand-up comic. True, his interests veer far more lowbrow than high-, but the 41-year-old Virginian’s psyche is so obviously branded by the formative genre novels and comics of his youth that occasionally he’ll even forego a punchline or two onstage just to namedrop some of his favourites. There’s a moment on his bravura 2007 album Werewolves and Lollipops where Oswalt mentions his love for the sci-fi writers H.P. Lovecraft and Harlan Ellison—and is met with a rare moment of silence from the audience. They have no idea who these guys are, but you get the sense Oswalt doesn’t care. It matters to him, and that’s enough.
So a book makes perfect sense: a chance for Oswalt to stretch his legs a little, move away from the demanding laughs-per-minute quota and let his ever-nimble, ever-fiery mind hum at its own sustained pace.
Unfortunately, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is not that book.
The most glaring problem is that it doesn’t feel like a project that Oswalt has spent years, or even very many months, crafting. In fact, it doesn’t feel like it was his idea at all. I’m willing to bet that it was instead pitched to him—and, not wanting to recycle old material, but not having a full-length book project readily at hand, either, Oswalt instead rifled through an old notebook or two and transcribed 180 pages’ worth of bullet points.
Sometimes the result is inspired, like the title essay, where Oswalt posits that all introverted teenage nerds latch onto one of three crucial storylines: zombie (society is simplified down to a core group of archetypes/survivors), spaceship (society is replaced by a brand-new world), or wasteland (society is obliterated altogether). These decisions, he argues, fundamentally shape the rest of those people’s lives. Zombies constantly roll their eyes at how stupid their fellow humans’ pursuits and neuroses are. Wastelands tend to wear backpacks and trench coats—because “[a]t any time, [they] suspect they’re going to need to grab whatever’s at hand and head for the horizon.”
But too many of the pieces are little more than a premise with a few colourful turns of phrase sprinkled on top. Again, you’re reminded of a handwritten list in Oswalt’s Moleskine. How else to explain the pseudo-intellectual parsing of a bunch of fictional hobo songs? The series of inappropriate greeting cards? Or the illustrated comic about vampire hipsters, which ends with the surprise appearance of a character called Fat-Positive Gay Frat Werewolf?
It’s all the more frustrating because Oswalt is exactly the kind of comic you wish would occasionally let his guard down a little. There are a few memoir-ish pieces in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland that make feints toward vulnerability—including an origin story of sorts, involving Philip K. Dick, R.E.M., and Adventures in Babysitting, set at the decrepit movie theatre Oswalt worked in as a teen—but even during these quieter, more melancholy moments he’s pulling his punches.
Symptomatic of this are the recurring “Full Disclosure” gags, where Oswalt lists the things he did on the internet while procrastinating writing the chapter you’ve just read. While funny, these bits are ultimately hollow, and self-defeating to boot—they undercut whatever seriousness Oswalt might have been half-heartedly aiming for. He’s not just keeping you at arm’s length; in most cases he’s actively pushing you away.
By this point, Oswalt has a substantial fan base—thanks to wide-ranging work in the alternative comedy world, as well as providing the main voice in Pixar’s Ratatouille and his long-running stint on TV’s The King of Queens—and many of them will probably snap this book up. But they’re right to expect better. This kind of tossed-off material is, frankly, beneath a man of Oswalt’s talent and craftsmanship. (If there are any skeptics out there still dubious of his skills, look up his ecstatic, polysyllabic screed against the KFC Famous Bowl; if this bit were plainly transcribed it’d still be head and shoulders above most of the content here.)
I have no doubt Oswalt has at least one genuinely heartfelt, deeply funny book inside of him. Maybe with Zombie Spaceship Wasteland out of his system, we’ll get to see it sometime soon.
Scribner, 208 pp., $27.99, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, January 13, 2011)