Are You a Zombie, a Spaceship, or a Wasteland?

By Chantel Delulio
Lifestyle Editor
Comedian Patton Oswalt’s debut book “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” feels as though it’s trying to be the book equivelent of his standup in your hands. All the familiar elements are there. The caustic wit, the sharp and unexpected ways he uses language to elicit laughs, and his preoccupation with the geekier parts of popular culture. Yet it somehow feels like half a book.

And it’s billed as just that, a book. Not a memoir or a collection of humorous essays. The broad definition of “book” allows for the miscellanea that populates its pages. There’s a short comic parodying the Vampire genre, some selections from a fictional greeting card company, and a close reading of “Old Hobo Songs” among others. Each of these are at least mildly amusing but feel too tangential, falling short of the humanity and hilarity that he has proven he is capable of.

Indeed, it’s when Oswalt turns to memoir that his skill as a writer and comedian shines through. The essays are all funny but none are just humorous. Like most of Oswalt’s best comedy the humor has an underlying thread of melancholy.

The memoir sections touch on topics such as adolescence, crazy relatives, crappy jobs and the people that populate them. Well-worn territory for memoirists and stand ups alike. But with Oswalt’s ability to hone a unique perspective and his sharply written prose his essays never feel clichéd.

The first essay, for example, looks at his time spent working in a strip mall movie theater in Sterling, VA. It could have very easily become a run of the mill isn’t-suburbia-dreary type story, but he avoids this pitfall. Oswalt doesn’t merely bemoan the “hipster cred” he lost out missing out on the advent of Fugazi and Minor Threat despite only living 20 minutes outside of D.C. He approaches it with an understated acceptance, even appreciation.

“[Now] I saw Sterling differently. Now, with the sterile, pitiless prose of Philip K. Dick and the oblique, teasing music and lyrics of ‘Fables and Reconstruction’ clanging around the too-tight tent of my mind and its limited experiences, I saw how beautiful my suburb was, like an accidental poem.”

The fact that his essays work much better than the other miscellaneous items in the book is made very clear in the juxtaposition of “Prelude to ‘The Song of Ulvaak’” and “The Song of Ulvaak.” The latter is a mildly amusing verse tribute to one of his old Dungeons and Dragons characters, an ugly and violent brute. It’s fine, nothing more and nothing less.

But the “Prelude,” which focuses on how his relationship to the game changed and how the character reflected his experience making the transition to be a teenager is funnier and just more engaging than its counterpart.

The only let down of the book is that the non-essay portions torpedo its momentum. It’s easy to find yourself scanning a fake wine when you know that the nearest memoir section will make for a much more entertaining and rewarding read. All in all when “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” is good it is very good. If nothing else Oswalt’s debut shows a lot of potential, just so long as the kinks are worked out before his second outing.

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