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Powers of Attraction

The narrator of Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse takes detours to odd roadside attractions. This aspect of the book reminded me of Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction. I’m in the middle of reading Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point and he, at one point, writes about roadside attractions:

Michael Carmichael, of Alexandria, Indiana, is the owner and keeper of the World’s Largest Ball of Paint. According to the website RoadsideAmerica.com, this is not to be confused with a paint ball, “which is a hollow shell filled with paint,” but a “ball of paint: a solid mass of thousands of hardened microscopically-thin layers, methodically applied atop each other.” As of 2205, it had almost 19,000 layers and weighs over 1,300 pounds. Carmichael is making a pavilion for it, to keep it safe from the weather, and as a point of pilgrimage for those who, like readers of RoadsideAmerica.com, go out of their way to visit weird and often over-sized (and hence mystical or at least puzzling) sites while touring through this country with its lot after lot, its quads, its hectares, its acres, of open space.

So what’s so attractive about roadside attractions anyway?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

15 thoughts on “Powers of Attraction

  1. Well, I think they split into maybe three basic categories, which I’ll list in a descending order of personal interest:

    1) many roadside attractions are natural formations or historical points of interest. sometimes these interest me, but i’ll rarely leave the road for one. It’s not that I don’t like nature or history, but I’m not going to pull off the road to see where General Sherman took a shit.

    2) what I find more interesting are those, like the ball of paint, which result from someone’s neurotic tendency to either collect, create, or obsess. These, like Simmons’s House of Telephones, can be eerie reminders that many people have a lot of time on their hands, and can have a kind of dizzying effect for the sheer scope of their sickness.

    3) my favorites are things erected by small communities (or individuals) in a sane but ultimately tragic attempt to draw attention to themselves. There’s such an attraction an hour outside of Tucson called “The Thing,” and you start seeing billboards for it like 300 miles on either side. It turns out to be–well, I won’t ruin it for you–but it’s at a truck stop, essentially, and represents one man’s attempt to build business. The attraction itself is so dilapidated, so sorry, that even the people who sell you tickets to see it can’t muster anything other than disdain for it. It’s this kind of bald attempt to fight the essential and terrible loneliness and alienation of life that I think lies at the heart of much entrepreneurialism, and nowhere is it balder or more terrible then in a roadside attraction.

        1. I haven’t been, but on I-whatever-#-that-is, there’s a series of billboards extending quite far (like several hours worth of driving) in either direction announcing it’s coming, how much longer, etc. The billboards seem almost better than the attraction itself.

    1. I did know about “The Thing” though I’ve never seen it. Bizarre.

      And that scene with the 2000 telephones in A Jello Horse is fantastic.

      I can definitely see how these attractions can be, as you write, “a kind of bald attempt to fight the essential and terrible loneliness and alienation of life that I think lies at the heart of much entrepreneurialism…” I wonder if it may also reveal a desire in the makers for some kind of mystery, for creating some kind of mystery, and also for the thrill of causing other people’s wonder. Couldn’t these attractions also be based on bringing some kind of pleasure and delight, not only on a need to fill some kind of existential sinkhole?

      1. I think maybe sometimes it’s also the tension between pleasure/delight and “existential sinkhole.”

        Certainly the jackalope ranch in Jello Horse seemed simultaneously depressing and fascinating/wonderful… which maybe fits the tone of that whole book.

  2. Another great story w/ roadside attractions is “Tiny Ron” by Suzanne Burns.

    I think I agree w/ much of what Shya said re: emotional and dramatic appeal.

    I also think roadside attractions provide rich and sometimes obscene imagery, lots of shiny toys and surface to play with.

      1. “Tiny Ron” is a fantastic story… I think it’s the only “must read” for me from the collection, but the rest is worthwhile. Sometimes she does this thing where the sequence of her sentences seems slightly off… for me, anyway. Throws me out of her text a little bit or produces confusion that seems not entirely deliberate. I’m not sure whether that makes sense.

        (I hope she doesn’t have google alerts).

      1. that looks like the exact one. the paul bunyan talks (sometimes, if they actually have it working), i remember it freaking out my younger brother. there’s a weird pathway through the woods, too, and a cruddy gift shop, etc.

      2. Um, totally creepy, I swear this exact same conversation happened somewhere else recently, about the multiple Paul Bunyans.

        Maybe it was in Google Reader? I have a vague memory of Peter Cole being involved, but I might be entirely wrong about that.

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