Christina Bagni//Blog Writer
Perhaps you heard whispered rumors in the air. Perhaps it happened to a friend. Perhaps it has even happened to you. At the corner of Boylston and Tremont, unsuspecting Emerson students have been handed mysterious hardcover books like prizes on Oprah, with no explanation other than to “download the app on the back.”
It happened to me, between classes last Tuesday. A book was suddenly thrust into my hands on my way to Ansin, the cover a mess of blue swirls and purple ferns, The words, “Arms From the Sea” were stuffed in the upper-right corner in four different fonts, a design student’s nightmare. Above the title was a single man’s name: Rich Shapero.
I had no idea that this moment would send me on a Crying of Lot 49-like quest to find the source of these books, the meaning of the free giveaway and downloadable app, and—most of all—the story behind the enigma that is Rich Shapero.
After digging like a conspiracy theorist for hours, I have found my conclusion: Rich Shapero is a very wealthy artist who seems to have made a fortune in Silicon Valley, and now spends his money creating multimedia story “experiences,” which he promotes through free giveaways and other events on college campuses around the world. These “other events” include a group of dancers in Australia, dressed as “wolf women” to promote an earlier novel called Wild Animus, according to this article from an Australian paper (http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/wolf-pack-of-women-on-the-prowl/news-story/dc25f1b7bdc07c10e43a4c7d1d222d60). You may notice that the article calls Shapero a “composer-performer.” That is because he often releases an album of music along with his novels—all of which are self-published through his company, TooFar Media.
Truly a man of many mediums, his newest endeavor is the world of mobile apps. I actually downloaded said app, which has zero reviews on the app store and is rated 12+ for “infrequent/mild realistic violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent /mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild sexual content and nudity, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references, and infrequent/mild horror/fear themes.” I had no idea what to expect, except that it would be infrequent, and mild.
It opens by reminding me that it is an immersive story experience, then immediately asks me to update. It then offers a tutorial on how to swipe left to turn pages on an e-book.
Turns out, it’s just a digital copy of the book that I already got for free—plus a music album, stuffed with mediocre soft-rock containing lyrics such as “The capsule cracks, a midnight cold/Through the blue stain, what do you see?/Is this death taking control?/Or is it life—Can you hear me?” The only other feature for the Arms of the Sea section of the app (as it includes similar experiences for his other books) was a single photograph of a trippy image like the one on the cover.
After deleting the app, I found Shapero’s website, but it did little to help me understand him. His bio (http://www.richshapero.com/about_rich/) includes photos of what are supposed to be Shapero but look like four completely different men. The bio begins, “Rich Shapero considers himself normal in most respects, unusual in a few,” and then has a quote of his in which he says “The virtue of being at peace with the human condition was not bestowed on me,” among other phrases. Thankfully, he does make mention of how he gives things away for free: “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.” This solves one mystery. Rich is rich, and simply wants to share his art with the world, no matter how strange his multimedia experiences are or how expensive it is to give away thousands of hardcover novels.
As far as I can see, there are no interviews with Shapero online. I emailed him in hopes of interviewing him myself, sadly to no response. The closest thing I could find were from these not-quite-reliable sites (http://www.angelfire.com/droid/deathpestilence/wildanimus.html) and (https://litreactor.com/columns/what-the-hell-is-wild-animus), in which Shapero’s inner Tommy Wiseau comes shining out. “I like to have sex while I’m writing,” he is quoted as saying, which makes so little sense it hurts me.
After I had conducted all this research, there was only one thing left to do: I had to read the book. What does this book, with two stars on Goodreads, have in store for me, with reviews like “Crap” (Kyran) and “I couldn’t even finish this mess, they dumped a sh*t ton of them at Lesley University” (Luci Bailey)? I took a deep breath and dove in.
It starts with our protagonist Lyle climbing a statue made of salt. He is then referred to, by a robot cop, as “Citizen El-mu-zero-five-nine-delta,” and I think I know exactly what kind of book I’m reading. Dystopia, I can handle this.
I’ll give Shapero one thing: he’s creative. The writing itself isn’t awful, but it isn’t consistent, either. One may call it infrequent/mild. Decent lines like “a labyrinth of pale roads and bleached buildings” are sprinkled in next to lines like “A lieutenant led in Clean-Cut, the charismatic leader of Solution who preceded Red One.” Sci-fi isn’t my favorite genre, but the book is punchy enough and reminds me of an action movie. I delve deeper.
It seems like Lyle’s statue-climbing scheme has made him something of a Mockingjay. A character named Audrie enters and says lines like “No one in Salt wants your sea, Lyle,” and “You’re a sneeze to me, Lyle. I’ll blow my nose and forget you,” before suddenly revealing that Lyle’s mother has died. Then the city is engulfed by the sea, and everyone seems to die except Lyle—though I’m not sure. I’m skimming now; it’s losing my interest even with everyone dying and all. Lyle is still on the statue, so he survives.
Here’s where things get crazy. A “seaman” called Blednishev takes Lyle away to meet his god, who has singled out Lyle to save. Blednishev injects Lyle with some blue water, then says, “He’s in your bloodstream.” Lyle goes underwater and meets the god, named the Polyp, who takes the form of an attractive man. The Polyp extends his arms, described as looking like eels, and wraps them around Lyle’s wrists, ankles, and ribcage. I am very scared. The Polyp, a sculptor, shows off his power by reshaping Lyle’s body to look more attractive. I’m still scared. The Polyp then changes Lyle into a woman, and then a fish, then a squid.
Then there’s a lot of sailing around with Blednishev, then more needle injections and time with the Polyp, and the introduction of Spider Legs, the Polyp’s enemy. Then back to the Polyp, with a scene so full of innuendo I doubt I can quote it on this blog—just go read pages 70-76 if you want to see for yourself. The Polyp literally crawls its entire being down Lyle’s throat and narrates the whole thing to him, as they “mingle” their minds.
The book is short, but confusing and boring. The Polyp scenes were never overtly sexual, but considering the Polyp took over Lyle’s body several times via pleasurably entering Lyle’s mouth…I don’t know what to make of it. It’s weird, it’s uncomfortable, and I can’t believe everyone on campus has a copy of something two steps away from tentacle porn sitting in their dorm rooms, and they don’t even know it.
Well. That concludes this mystery. Rich Shapero, a mystery in his own right, has given out his dystopian/sci-fi/LGBT romance/erotic novel, free, app included. My advice? Don’t get sucked in by the Arms From the Sea. You’ll regret it. I know I do.