Charlie Jane Anders’ novella Rock Manning Goes for Broke (2018) is manic and absurdist, but also tragic. Though Anders is predominantly a science fiction writer, she also has a wicked sense of humor, and is a master of mixing genres and mixing tones. In this case, the novella’s over-the-top ridiculousness somehow allows it to get away with presenting a harrowing vision of America in the End Times. There is no single cause of catastrophe in the novella, but just the overlapping intensification of trends that already actually exist. Anders’ eponymous narrator-protagonist, the good-hearted but hapless Rock Manning, spends his life doing pratfalls for his best friend Sally Hamster’s video camera, while the world falls apart around him. The novella continually juxtaposes Rock’s mindless pleasures with a near-future America that is in the grips of economic collapse, riots and looting, continual media overstimulation, widespread drug addiction, endless overseas wars, xenophobia, fascist thugs operating with Presidential approval, and massive physical harm.
Rock Manning is well-meaning, but he has almost no attention span. He casually mentions all the social afflictions surrounding him, even as he bounces crazily from one outrageous occasion to the next. By his own estimation, Rock is “good for exactly one thing, and one thing only, and that’s turning people’s brains off for a few minutes” (ch 2). First in everyday life and then in movies, Rock takes monumental pratfalls, repeatedly injuring himself in the process, but spreading comedic chaos all around him. Rock’s heroes and role models are Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Jackie Chan, but to my mind his stunts are more reminiscent of the Jackass reality television and movie franchise, in which performers, for the amusement of their audience, pull stupid, embarrassing and dangerous stunts that often fail.
Rock’s friend Sally Hamster is an aspiring filmmaker. She orchestrates and photographs Rock’s self-destructive stunts, adds special effects and nondiegetic inserts, and posts them online to wide popularity and acclaim. Sally eventually goes off to film school. She has ambitions to be an avant-garde creator, and starts making “serious arty movies” (ch 2), which seems to mean that they have a slow-cinema style, deal with feminist themes, and highlight feelings of alienation. Nonetheless, Sally keeps on finding herself drawn back into making “dumb little action comedies” (ch 2) with Rock. Here I am reminded of the film theorist Scott Richmond, who has written both about Jackass and about avant-garde experimental film, and insists upon the affinities between such seemingly incompatible genres – they both produce a kind of intensity that is “vertiginous” (Richmond 2016), “unassimilable,” and “destabilizing (Richmond 2011). In the novella, as the political and social situation spins further and further out of control, Sally finally decides that her work with Rock, even though it involves “turning people’s brains off,” actually means more, and matters more, than anything else she can do
The world we live in now, the only time things make sense is when I’m coming up with bigger and crazier disasters to put on film… sl --apstick is the new realism. (ch 2)
In this way, Rock’s and Sally’s ridiculous movies transform slapstick into a survival strategy. As social reality becomes increasingly traumatic and deadly, these films provide a “wacky escape from reality” (ch 3); and yet at the same time, as Rock and Sally distance themselves from that reality: they find ways to dissent from it, reflect back upon it, and perhaps even change it. Rock shuttles back and forth between sheer escapism and what “seemed like the opposite of escapism to me — which I guess would be trappism, or maybe claustrophilia” (ch 3). The entire novella is structured around this ambivalence. China Miéville, commenting on J. R. R. Tolkien’s avowedly escapist fantasy fiction, acerbically notes that “jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape” (Mieville 2002). Rock Manning Goes for Broke explores this dichotomy, as it fluctuates wildly between the poles of mere escapism and actual escape.
Already in high school, Rock’s penchant for theatricalizing his own injuries works to protect him from the bullies who have it in for him:
Bullies learned there was no point in trying to fuck me up, because I would fuck myself up faster than they could keep up with. (ch 1)
But the worst of the bullies, Ricky Artesian, still won’t leave Rock alone. As the novella progresses, Ricky becomes the leader of a fascist militia that is largely engaged in “keeping order on our streets” (ch 3), in “round[ing] up the homeless people and undesirables” (ch 2), in “beating up subversives” (ch 3) and in “killing everyone who got in their way” (ch 3). Ricky demands that Rock and Sally make propaganda movies for his movement. They cannot afford to say no, but the result they come up with is so over-the-top that Ricky can’t really make any use of it.
As the disasters pile up, more and more hyperbolically, Rock’s and Sally’s movies are the only things able to transmute the horror of reality in such a way as to avert total despair, by offering a respite, and suggesting a viewpoint from which all the troubles seem ridiculous. Sally’s boyfriend Raine is murdered by the fascist thugs, shooting guns into the crowd during a protest rally. Rock is next to Raine when it happens; he sees bits and pieces of Raine’s brain exploding in all directions, and even finds himself inadvertently swallowing some of them. I cannot imagine anything more horrible; yet when I reach this point in the story, I also cannot stop myself from laughing out loud. Raine’s exploding brain is a gross-out-comedy special effect, of the sort found in a gross-out comedic horror film by George Romero (the Living Dead series) or Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead series). And indeed, Rock himself can only process the trauma by imagining how it could have been a “real cool set piece” in one of his movies (ch 3).
Later in the novella, a secret American superweapon goes off and shatters everyone’s eardrums. The entire world population is rendered permanently deaf. Rock and Sally are shattered emotionally like nearly everyone else; but they come to realize that even an extreme event like this is survivable and negotiable. Rock notes that “only the people who had already been part of the Deaf community stayed calm, and they posted teach-yourself-sign-language videos” (ch 2). As far as their filmmaking is concerned, Rock and Sally aren’t too discomfited. Their slapstick movies emulate silent cinema already; they conclude that “it’s actually funnier” without the extraneous use of “dialogue or sound effects” (ch 3).
Even after this catastrophe, Rock and Sally are unable to escape Ricky’s attention. He approves of what he sees as the escapism of their movies, saying that the people “needed their cartoony entertainment to keep their minds off things” (ch 3). And so Ricky once again seeks to put Rock and Sally to work manufacturing fascist propaganda. The novella ends with Rock and Sally making one last movie, “probably one of the last movies anybody ever made” (ch 3). This final work marks a definitive shift from escapism to escape. The movie’s production provides cover for an actual physical attempt to escape from territory controlled by the fascist militia and the United States Army. Rock and Sally orchestrate a situation in which the militia and the Army unwittingly fire on each other, “getting drilled by each other’s bullets until they did a garishly herky-jerky slamdance” (ch 3). It’s all captured on film. In this way, the militia and the Army play themselves in a gross-out comedy movie without realizing it. The escape gambit is only partly successful, however. Rock gets shot in the leg and is caught by the fascists. He is sent to a concentration camp, “where [he] nearly died” (ch 3). But Sally gets away and finishes making the movie. Rock ends the novella by saying that he “never saw Sally again”, but he notes that, in the impoverished, post-apocalyptic world that he now inhabits, the movie is passed around in samizdat form on “pinky drives,” and watched on the rare occasions that people still have “access to electricity” (ch 3).
Rock Manning Goes for Broke has just about the grimmest content imaginable, and yet it manages to be both silly and hilarious. The novella does not quite fit into the categories of either satire or cognitive estrangement that are generally taken to be characteristic of science fiction – even though it has aspects of both. It’s not really satire, because it makes clear that we live in a time when satire is impossible: no matter how extreme and exaggerated a situation you envisage, you can bet that some right wing politician or other will advocate it for real. As for cognitive estrangement, it doesn’t quite fit because of how the novella immerses us in its excessive and scarcely believable action rather than providing any sort of critical or reflective distance from it. Scott Richmond, in his discussion of Jackass, describes its action in terms of mimesis, which he defines, following Walter Benjamin and Roger Caillois, as a “destabilizing encounter with alterity” (Richmond 2011). We imitate what fascinates and captures us. Mimesis, Richmond says, mobilizes “our capacity for becoming unbounded or disorganized in collaboration with an other.” Rock Manning is a mimetic personality par excellence. He is most fully alive in those slapstick moments when he finds himself enthralled by whatever objects he encounters, “ninja dogs and exploding donuts and things” (ch 1). The novella is filled with Rock’s manic, detailed descriptions of his slapstick stunts: for instance, there’s the time when he is
trying to make an ice cream sundae on top of a funeral hearse going 100 mph, while Sally threw rocks at me… I was scooping ice cream with one hand and squirting fudge with the other, and then Sally beaned me in the leg and I nearly fell off the sea-cliff, but at the last minute I caught one of the hearse’s rails and pulled myself back up, still clutching the full ice-cream scoop in the other hand. (ch 1)
There is nothing distanced or ironic about Rock Manning’s naive enthusiasm as narrator and protagonist. He may not understand everything that he does, or everything that happens around him; but his responses, however bonkers, are always also humane and empathetic. Even as he falls into one dreadful situation after another, Rock is continually rethinking the question of why he does what he does, and what effect it has. Towards the end of the story, during his final inept performance-cum-escape-attempt, he tells himself that this “might be the reason why people root for the comic hero after all: the haplessness” (ch 3). Rock is lovable because he is so hapless, and yet at the same time so vigorously engaged in all the Rube Goldbergesque schemes that he concocts because they are the only responses he can conceive to the insane horrors that surround him. If we should still be around ten years from now, and somebody were to ask me what it actually felt like to live in Donald Trump’s America, I would tell them to read Rock Manning Goes for Broke. Charlie Jane Anders’ novella intensifies our sense of reality, rather than estranging us from it; in this way, Rock Manning Goes for Broke’s over-the-top slapstick is social realism for the age of Trump.