Published in Cipher in December 2014
One day in Worner, I saw a plastic-wrapped book sitting on an ottoman. I overheard somone say, “Some dude was passing that book out in front of Worner.” Within hours, I saw dozens of copies littered around Benji’s, the Worner desk, the trash and even in the Spanish house, where I live.
The book is called “The Hope We Seek,” and the author’s name is Rich Shapero. It’s 432 pages long, and the cover looks like a cathedral ceiling updated for the Tumblr world. The flap photo portrays Rich Shapero as a profound, insightful older man, and the review on the back cover sounds like it was made with an online generator: “Rich Shapero deftly reveals man’s hunger for gold and sex as mere intoxicating perfume lilting off a far deeper Source. Unexpected and original, this tale is indeed full of the hope we all seek.”
This review is by Rebecca Hoffberger, the Founder of the American Visionary Art Museum. The museum displays “art produced by self-taught individuals,” and is currently displaying the late Donald Pass’ cover art for “The Hope We Seek.” The three seem to constitute a love triangle of mediocre art in which Hoffberger reviews Shapero’s work, Shapero uses book art by Pass and Pass displays his artwork in Hoffberger’s museum.
Rich Shapero’s website features a banner of him against a sunset with the quotation “I’ve attempted to put my intuitions into story form and make them available to others.”
He says in his biography: “The virtue of being at peace with the human condition was not bestowed on me…this outlook may be the result of a genetic defect or some experiential trauma.” It appears he has no religious agenda: “I want people to see what I’ve done. I have no commercial motive. I’m like a street musician playing for whoever might have the interest to stop and listen.”
Where does Shapero get the money to pass these books out? I tried to email him and ask him just that, but his publicist directed me to an answerless website page I had already seen. However, Justin Kirkham of Boise State’s Arbiter did his own report of a Rich Shapero visit and found some information that I didn’t.
“[Shapero] is a partner at Crosspoint and a board member at [the companies] AristaSoft and New Edge Networks. This has allowed him to produce and give away his newest pieces of writing and artwork in such high volume,” Kirkham wrote.
So, in an effort to get a fuller idea of this book, I decided to read it. The whole thing. Before cracking it open, though, I asked some people at my Rastall table what they thought.
“Wait, is that the Christian Fundamentalist book?” said Mark Warshaw, Community Member.
“I heard the dude was mailing the book to students,” said Juan Conejo Avila, senior.
Junior Bo Malcolm looked at me with his watery blue eyes and gave me a more constructive answer:
“It looked like a waste of paper, printing those copies that ended up lying about campus and filling the trash cans. If you’ve written something that you care for, you should be trying to engage in a dialogue about your artwork, not doling it out.”
Sophomore James Dinneen said, “I read the first paragraph out loud with some other people, sort of chuckled at it the way you might chuckle at reading sex scenes out loud in bookstores. I thought it was an interesting way to market something; you almost never see that. I was mostly confused by how handing the book out could be financially feasible. My immediate thought was that this has some sort of religious or ideological agenda.”
So, after spending about 15 hours reading the Hope We Seek, I can safely say it is the worst book I have ever read. It’s also very sexist and racist. Spoilers ahead.
The book starts with guys on a ship trying to find gold. They come across a mining camp called the “Glory Hole” where people mine in devotion to a goddess named Hope. The main character, Zack, believes that Hope has chosen him to be the leader, and that he must overthrow the boss of the mining camp, “Trevillian.” (My favorite name in the book, however, is “True Bluford”). The author proceeds to describe mining ad nauseum. Then he describes the characters’ obsession with Hope, ad nauseum. One of many examples is on page 356: “You accept the worst kind of tyranny from Trevillian because you think Hope is with him. But she’s not. Hope is speaking to you right now, through me.” My favorite is on page 201: “Perhaps it was Hope that transfigured Christ.”
Worse than the plot is the quality of the prose, which reads like sub-par His Dark Materials fanfiction. Some of the worst lines include:
“A scarlet beret clung to one side [of her hair] like an obstinate crab” (page 93).
“The lavender scar twisted like a segmented worm” (page 237).
More on the scar: “The scar on the boss’s chest was purplish. Its color changed with his moods” (page 360).
“Hope tore through me like the jet from a steam nozzle” (page 347).
The book randomly breaks into quasi-slam poetry on page 151:
“You know your mate, you worthless pelt. It’s Zack, the bastard—boon to maggots, nothing else. Slimy entrails—carnival treats! Gall-green syrup on speckled meats. One dark penny, nothing else. Hurry, people! Take your seats!”
Once in a while, there is a sex scene. “The bedframe was squealing beneath him…Salt Lick was straddling him, hunched like a gargoyle” (page 154). Once in a while, there’s some bland violence, such as arson or an evil bear. Once in a while, Zack brings up his status as as an illegitimate child, or, as he calls it, “The ghost of a teenage trespass” (page 39). This family drama subplot adds no depth to the story; it just comes across as an obligatory psychological underpinning that Shapero threw in because it’s what writers are “supposed” to do.
After 300 pages of droning about mines and sexual desires, Zack finds the goddess Hope within the mountain. Then there’s a brawl featuring all 15 utterly flat characters, then Zack kills Trevillian, and that’s it. There’s no explanation of whether gaining the leadership position resulted in or meant anything. The evil bear almost kills Zack on the last page, but it scampers away. The overall message is, “Greed can consume people, especially if it’s driven by something that doesn’t even exist.” Shapero conveniently spells this out on page 377: “Who is Hope?...Something we nourish with our love, in place of a child.”
Then there’s the sexism. The mining town keeps its spirits up via a nearby prostitution ring called Blondetown. Every single woman character in the story is a prostitute, save the goddess Hope, who only appears when Zack has sex. Most appearances of women involve a sexual description:
“Despite the gravity of the occasion, she was wearing a revealing dress… her breasts swelled within, like overripe fruit ringed with mold” (page 177).
Additionally: “It’s a Blonde’s [prostitute’s] job to care, and a doctor’s to heal” (page 272).
And on the morally questionable side: “They appeared not as women do before they’ve been seduced, but rather as the conqueror would see them in the lantern light after he withdrew” (page 29).
Of course, every single male character is a noble miner. By the way, the book is racist, too: all the cooks are Asian, and all the Asians are cooks.Introduced on page 58: “Sephy was passed a plate. A young Asian ladled beans and greens onto it.”
The book has a few redeeming qualities. For one, it’s easy to read. Second, there is a relatively good sentence about every hundred pages. On page 239, we have: “He didn’t play father to his boys. He ate them.” On pages 115 and 116, the main character describes his magic act, which could have been the basis for a decent novel, rather than two pages in “The Hope We Seek.” The book also has a “protagonist becomes a morally grey antagonist” character arc, which Shapero pulls off smoothly. But it’s been done before, and it doesn’t save the book.
“The Hope We Seek” also comes with a CD called “Songs from the Big Wheel.” It comes in a digipak with the vocalist, Marissa Nadler, on the inside cover. She looks like a vampire with a Photoshop airbrush job done by a 16-year-old. It’s solo acoustic guitar with some mandolin, and I knew instantly that if I played it in the car, my friends wouldn’t blink. It was as if Dead Can Dance went acoustic, but worse. Track Four’s clever bluesy twangs are something I could listen to a second time.
Here is an excerpt from the lyrics, which speak for themselves:
“In Lovesick, the threads have dwindled/A flimsy in Giblets. At Peephole, I disappear/The tempting explodes. You feel me near/Spread naked, you hope. But Hope’s not here.”
The lyrics are sure to mention a personified Hope wherever possible. The liner notes claim: “Story detail from ‘The Hope We Seek’ by Rich Shapero.” “Songs From the Big Wheel” is a far better CD than “The Hope We Seek” is a book, but the album is no Pink Moon.
Rich Shapero says on his website: “What I'm doing is reaching out to others like me.” I am not one of these people. Neither are you, Hopefully.