March 26, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "Just A Geek," by Wil Wheaton

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Just A Geek, by Wil Wheaton
Just A Geek (2004)
By Wil Wheaton

In case I've never mentioned it, since opening CCLaP I've had a growing amount of friends here in Chicago start to loan me older books on a regular basis, simply because they're interested in seeing what I have to say about them; that's how I ended up with Just A Geek, for example, the 2004 personal memoir and "blog-book" by former child actor and now respected writer Wil Wheaton, loaned to me by my friend Jude the other week, while I was over at her place watching the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. (And speaking of which, whoo man what a series finale...but that's a whole other frakking essay for a whole other frakking day.) And indeed, it's highly appropriate that a show like BSG should lead to me reading this book; because for those who don't know, Wheaton is perhaps best-known among the general public for his teenaged role in the seminal '80s science-fiction TV actioner Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show so immersed now in the popular culture that it still follows/haunts him to this day.

What many people forget, though, is that Wheaton was already a gifted and celebrated child actor even going into that show; his breakthrough performance in Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, for example, is considered by many to be even better than most adult actors, and the film to this day still holds up surprisingly great. And so like David Caruso and Julianna Margulies and a thousand other arrogant young actors before them, Wheaton famously quit Star Trek in his late teens before the series had run its course, in order to go off and become the big movie star he was convinced he was destined to be; and it was then that his acting career promptly fell flat on its face, with Wheaton suffering years upon years of constant second- and third-place auditions but never once actually clinching another major job. And so like many others in that position, that led him to the so-called "Hollywood ghetto" of fan conventions, eBay auctions and more; but unlike most others, Wheaton also turned to confessional writing at the same time, not only putting his life back together again post-child-prodigy but also publicly chronicling the process, starting with a personal journal at the old Geocities online community long before the invention of the term "blog."

And that's when the big surprise came out -- that Wheaton might possibly be just as good a writer as he is an actor, and that his blog is far more than the whiny navel-gazing exercise in egomania we expect from celebrities in that position. (And to make it clear, I've been a reader and fan of Wheaton's blog itself for years now, long before reading this bound collection.) Because the fact is that Wheaton as a confessional writer is sweet and disarming at points, opinionated and political at others, with an intuitive understanding of the three-act structure and how to apply such a thing subtly to almost all of his entries; his blog posts tend to be much more like standalone literary stories than the Twitter-like stream of inane babble so plaguing the internet these days, and reading a chunk of his archives in one sitting can be surprisingly similar to sitting and reading a short-story collection. And along the way, of course, he dishes up just a whole mound of the insider Hollywood dirt we expect and love from such celebrity blogs, stories of humiliating auditions and assh-le directors and megalomaniacal actors and all the rest. (For example, a running joke at the site is that William Shatner is always referred to as WILLIAM F-CKING SHATNER, because of a hilarious story concerning one of the first times Wheaton ever met him; and I have to confess, I still laugh out loud each and every time Wheaton refers to him that way.)

So it would make sense, then, that a publisher in the early 2000s would end up putting out a bound collection of Wheaton's best entries; after all, these were the same years that dozens of other so-called "blog-books" were being pumped out by a floundering, clueless mainstream publishing industry, desperate to grab ahold of any fleeting trend no matter how worthless and then proceed to beat that worthless trend right into the ground. Because that's the problem with blog-books, as we've all learned by now; blog-books f-cking suck, and have turned out just a few years after their popular height to have all the staying power of some crazy little old woman throwing her hands in the air and screeching, "WHERE'S THE BEEF! WHERE'S THE BEEF!" And that's why it was so smart of Wheaton to do what he did for his own blog-book; namely, to make the actual blog entries take up only half or so of the finished manuscript, with the other half being a much more traditional memoir that ties all these scattered postings together, and helps give them behind-the-scenes context away from the blog itself.

Because if there's one thing to be learned from that horrible spate of other blog-books in the early 2000s, it'd be this -- that the mundane trivialities of a complete stranger can actually be kind of enjoyable when read in chunks of only a few paragraphs a day, every single day, but quickly becomes an unreadable mess when trying to consume dozens of pages in a single session, and without knowing anything about that author beforehand. And in this you can view personal blogs much like little soap operas, where the enjoyment is not necessarily from the quality of any particular episode but rather in getting swept up in the grander overall scheme, of getting to know these characters and their lives in the same complex way we know the people in our own personal lives. And I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying a creative project in this way, and indeed there are several dozen personal blogs I too follow along with regularly; but there's a reason that Hollywood doesn't just grab four random episodes a year of Days Of Our Lives and release them as a big-budget feature film, just like we've now all learned what the problem is with doing the same thing concerning blog entries and full-length paper books.

Wheaton understands all this, and so did something even more remarkable than usual with Just A Geek; he not only reprinted many of these original entries, but also wrote a brand-new concurrent tale about what a bunch of half-lies so many of them were when he originally posted them, of just how many of his cheery, optimistic entries concerning "just-missed-it" auditions (to cite just one good example) were in fact masking the overwhelming frustration and depression he was actually experiencing at the time. (And in fact Wheaton even cleverly personifies this narcissistic self-doubt in the actual book, naming him "Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake" and constantly getting into fights with the arrogant doppleganger.) And this is courageous of Wheaton to do, because it confirms the fragile egos and almost pathological self-loathing that so many of us suspect reside in the hearts of most celebrities; and this from an industry, Wheaton himself reminds us, where most celebrities spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on publicists precisely so such information won't get out to the public.

It's what saves this manuscript from the usual trappings of both blog-books and celebrity memoirs, and what makes it by the end a legitimate piece of decent literature, despite the admittedly sometimes subpar quality of the writing itself (be prepared for lots of emoticons and stories about boobs); because Wheaton understands what the true power of a personal memoir is, the chance to honestly and unflinchingly look back on a life experience and actually learn something from it, to not only change as a person but also describe the process to others, in the hopes that it will help them understand something about their own lives too. This is the real reason to read Just A Geek, apart from the titillating schauenfreude of, say, learning what a dick Rick Berman is (I knew it!); it's to understand much more universal truths than this, to learn for example that changing careers at the age of thirty can certainly be challenging but is also certainly possible, even if you happen to be a celebrated child actor who once starred on a beloved Emmy-winning television show.

It's details like these that show what a naturally solid writer Wheaton is; and although it has its faults (Cheese And Rice, Wil, enough with the f-cking pets), I have to admit that I found Just A Geek a rather remarkable specimen, perhaps the only celebrity-memoir blog-book in history to read neither like a celebrity memoir nor a blog-book. It makes me intensely curious now to see what Wheaton could do with other long-form writing formats, and I would highly encourage him for example to finally sit down soon and try his hand at a full novel or screenplay. If this book is any indication, there's a very good chance of something like that coming out surprisingly great; and that's the best reason I can think of to read this memoir in the first place.

Read even more about Just A Geek: Official website | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:23 PM, March 26, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |