In 1988, William Poundstone—author of numerous books, including the “Big Secrets” series and the recent corporate-brainteaser bestseller How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?—started recording what Thomas Mann called “the flattering inventions of a dream, which the waking sense proves worthless and insubstantial.” To wit: seemingly brilliant ideas that occurred to the slumbering Poundstone, which (alas) proved to have no merit whatsoever in the morning. An acclaimed web artist, Poundstone has posted these dreams on his site, williampoundstone.net. A selection follows.
10 JULY 2003
I was in heaven, and it was cheap and flimsy, like it had been built quickly with substandard materials. A lone Mini Cooper drove by. Cars were rare; most people took public transportation. I spoke with a being who may have been God. “You can’t understand our affairs,” “God” said. “To us, you’re like a microbe!” It was hilarious because I knew he was really trying to convince himself.
EARLY DECEMBER 2002
I acquired a rare promotional kit for shrunken heads. It had certificates of authenticity for the heads and a newspaper clipping about the first shipment of shrunken heads arriving at Macy’s. All of this dated to an earlier era when shrunken heads were mass-marketed to the American public. I realized that the promotional kit could be the basis for the definitive magazine article on the whole shrunken-head phenomenon.
15 JUNE 2002
I was reading about Mexican cat pornography in the New York Times. They use female cats that have just given birth, and are “bloated.” An actress uses these cats as a cushion or pillow. The action is filmed “under harsh Mexican light.”
The article reported the discovery of a cache of this Mexican cat pornography (known as “MCX” for short—as if law-enforcement officials had to deal with this so much that they couldn’t be bothered to say the whole phrase) starring the actress Kirstie Alley. The cache had been discovered in Alley’s hometown of Lynn Grove, in or near White Plains, New York.
In the next part of the dream, I was in Lynn Grove, in a small house or apartment, with Alley and an unidentified man. I was some kind of reporter. I asked the man (adopting an ironic, stagy tone), “Is there any of this stuff about? I mean, just for reference purposes!”
Alley pretended to be offended. But really, she was taking this all as a good sport. She had been young and unknown when she did the cat pornography. It was all a big joke to her now.
The room contained a large number of encyclopedia volumes, which I understood to contain the pornography. I woke before seeing any of it. On waking, the premise of “Mexican cat pornography” seemed transcendently wonderful.
23 JULY 2001
I had just won one award for television writing, whichI did not deserve, when they gave me another one. The second award was for a set of four comic sketches, “What If Red Skelton Were Real?”That is, what if he were a real skeleton? These were Halloween-themed sketches.The thing that was funny was not the sketches but the idea that I would be given an award for such incredibly lame work.
12 AUGUST 1997
I was back in school, and they had just handed out a new textbook, a collection of short stories by Karl Lagerfeld. I opened the book at random to a story about Jesus. It was written in what was intended to be gay dialect.The first word was “Girlfriend,” in italics; there were lots of words in italics and gay slang terms.The premise of the story was that Jesus was gay.The idea of reading short stories by a fashion designer struck me as ridiculous.I turned to some friends and said,“In college I took a course in Flannery O’Connor’s perfumes.” Funniest line ever.
10 JULY 1997
I absentmindedly bought a ticket to a movie in New York. […] The “movie” was actually a half-play, half-movie hybrid. At the intermission, there was a unique gimmick. Each and every member of the audience was paged to take a call at a pay phone in the lobby. Upon lifting the receiver, each heard the play’s aged narrator speak. The narrator was a marmoset. That was another gimmick: A real marmoset had been trained to deliver a few lines in the play.
“It’s going to get really exciting!” the marmoset on the phone promised.The voice was throaty and sounded like an old woman’s.“The door! The door!” it said.“And then I go the hill!” Not everything the marmoset said made sense; it was only parroting words it had learned phonetically. I nonetheless interpreted this statement to mean that the marmoset, and the audience, would attain the very peak of emotion in the next act.The recorded pitch over, I put down the phone.The curtain was rising.
The business about getting a phone call from a marmoset during the intermission impressed me as solid gold. It is just the sort of thing Broadway needs.
17 OCTOBER 1996
Europe was a fake. It didn’t really exist; it had been fabricated as a hoax. Every half hour “emissaries” were sent to a theme-park simulation of “Europe,” so that they could return convinced of the reality of the continent.Somehow I was watching the preparations for the arrival of a new group of emissaries. Someone noted the shortness of time and commented,“There are queens to be made up, old masters to be forged!” That seemed such a funny, yet apt, way of putting things.
C. 14 FEBRUARY 1996
The X-Files was on TV, and someone was telling me that the FBI had been created entirely for publicity purposes.The agency had the effect of making people think that the government was doing something about crime—but actually, it did very little. Not wanting to look ill-informed, I implied that I knew that. I made the bon mot:“If the FBI didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be necessary to invent it.”Totally superb.
9 FEBRUARY 1995
A friend in a bookstore showed me a Hardy Boys book, The Vegetables in My Strange Garden. The cover showed an open window looking out onto lush plant growth and monstrous animals. One creature, which resembled a giant snail, appeared on closer inspection to be a jackrabbit.The Hardy Boys had used special hormones on their vegetables, and this caused animals that ate them to mutate into giants.
Mainly it was the title that was great.
5 NOVEMBER 1994
An eccentric millionaire had manufactured immense “quartz crystals” of faceted glass, and set them in a landscape with the intent of creating the effect of a fairyland. I said dryly, “Unusual rock formation, wouldn’t you say?” It was the all-time masterpiece of deadpan.
27 OCTOBER 1994
I was at a TV production company discussing the Guinness Book of World Records. “The great thing is to have been in the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records,” I said to someone. I was referring to the fact that the “human achievements” section of the book consists largely of feats that people did specifically to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. “The first edition had records like: ‘Eating. Kathy Poundstone ate a carrot.’ ‘Sleeping. Kathy Poundstone slept eight hours.’ ‘Holding your breath. Kathy Poundstone: eight seconds. Not verified.’”
C. 20 JULY 1994
I was in crowded parking lot and saw William S. Burroughs with his boyfriend.They had just taken a photograph and gotten into an argument. I wasn’t going to speak to Burroughs. Then he pulled up beside my car and yelled,“Poundstone!” It was agreed that we would park so we could talk. It was difficult to find a parking space, and Burroughs almost ran his car into mine. While parking, I saw the following text on the back of a car:
APPLE POP S TESTICLES
This was the unintended result of a chance combination of overlapping, partly peeled-off bumper stickers, logos, and/or license plates. It was a “natural” instance of the cut-up technique, which seemed a mind-boggling idea. I thought it funny that the driver might not be aware that he had the word “testicles” on his car.
9 FEBRUARY 1993
I was attending a movie with someone named Francis Bacon (not the painter, nor the Renaissance philosopher).We ran into someone else named Francis Bacon.This Francis Bacon was a modestly famous screenwriter. He was upset that the first Francis Bacon didn’t recognize him. Hilarious predicament.
5 OCTOBER 1992
Two girls were in an empty summer house looking through the rooms. One girl found the other staring in puzzlement at a closet full of clothes.The clothes were ripped, the buttons torn off.“What happened?” the first girl asked. “They were just like that,” the second said. Actually, it was she who had just vandalized the clothes.
1 SEPTEMBER 1992
A bad novel consisting entirely of a negative book review of itself. It would say all the things that a reviewer would have to say, e.g., it’s a gimmicky premise that might have been worth a short story in abler hands but here it’s drawn out way too long and is boring. When the book was reviewed, the reviewer would have no choice but to paraphrase the book itself. It would be a self-perpetuating text.
14 MAY 1989
I was in the Tonight Show green room, watching Johnny Carson’s monologue, which consisted mostly of jokes about candy.There was a vending machine in the green room. Johnny popped in to look at the candies inside. One of the candies was Chihuahua Peonies.This was a candy you don’t see much anymore. Chihuahua Peonies were, or used to be, sold at movie concession stands like Milk Duds or Good ’n’ Plenty. The box of Chihuahua Peonies had a picture of the candy.They were mounds of coconut, some covered with chocolate. When somebody mentioned the name “Chihuahua Peonies,” I said, “Doesn’t that sound like a euphemism for their excrement?” Hilarious line, but I was only getting started. I said, in imitation of someone using the term,“Hon, there are Chihuahua Peonies on the carpet. Clean them up before company comes!” A laugh riot.
23 FEBRUARY 1989
My grandmother was showing me ads she had clipped from old magazines.They were advertisements for home products, from 1950s issues of Good Housekeeping and Life, where the artwork and copy seem funny now. My grandmother fully appreciated their retro quality.The ad that most impressed me was for a substance used to make chandeliers. It was called “Mondocaneonert.”This was a trade name like “Formica” or “Teflon.” I discussed the name with my grandmother, speculating on where it came from, and how it was pronounced.The first part, we concluded, must have referred to the movie Mondo Cane. This evidently was supposed to epitomize gracious living and sound like something you’d want in your home.There’s also the word “neon” in there, and “nert” may have come from “inert.”
But “inert” was wrong. Looking at the ad, we knew in retrospect that Mondocaneonert had turned out to be extremely flammable. A lot of houses with Mondocaneonert chandeliers had burned down. It was like looking at an ad for cigarettes with asbestos filters.
I was told to slice potatoes and stick the slices on the walls of my home.There was a logical reason for this: it was a “household hint” or something. I asked, “Why not fry the slices for potato chips and kill two birds with one stone?”This was the most hilarious quip ever uttered. I planned to slyly work it into conversation somehow.