Monday, March 24, 2014

Progress ("Tomorrow-Land" by Joseph Tirella)

When we speak of "progress" in relation to American history, we speak of two dichotomous elements: those who envisioned change, and those responsible for making that change a reality. Capitalists, industrialists, politicos, and robber barons dreamed of railroads and oil fields, of rising cityscapes and vast homesteads, of rivers spanned by steel and gateways blasted through mountains; and to accomplish these dreams, they employed the poor and desperate, many of them new to the nation and from the teeming and neglected city tenements. Some were even destined to die in the process, bodies crushed, unrecognizable, unreturnable. For mere change these workers slaved in unbearable conditions, all to realize the visions of men who would reap great fortunes and become immortalized; today, we know the latter--Carnegie for his steel, Roebling for his bridge--while the thousands whose blood and perspiration cooled their foundations have been forgotten, names erased from even the footnotes of history. Just as they were replaceable in life, they have become forgettable in death. And while both of these juxtaposed entities--the rich and powerful few, the impoverished and powerless many--often found themselves in conflict with one another as the growing nation dealt with intolerance, inequality, and disparity, one could not exist without the other, and it's in that symbiotic relationship that American became what it is today.

This uneasy relationship is at the heart of Joseph Tirella's Tomorrow-Land, a thorough and tangent-heavy look at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York City. In this instance, the industrialists of decades past are personified by Robert Moses, the all-powerful city planner of New York whose unchecked powers and unyielding influence made him the most influential man of his day, possibly even after the president himself. The World's Fair was his baby almost from the beginning, and he kept a near dictatorial control over every aspect of its realization, from zoning and legislating to budgeting and hiring practices, a decision that would not only ensure the fair's success but also guarantee conflict.

At the same time, the United States was descending into a level of unrest that was both unprecedented and inevitable. Racial minorities, until now segregated in all aspects of society by powers beyond their reach, were beginning to join one another and fight for rights long denied to them. Their leaders--Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin--waged their individual battles differently, but as a movement their messages were the same:  equality now, at long last, and equality forever. It was a call echoing throughout the entire country--everywhere, that is, except Moses' urban dreamscape, where power and employment were reserved for those of the lightest complexion. For an event claiming to represent the importance of fairness, progress, and togetherness, the lack of diversity among those paid to realize this utopian ideal was startlingly--and unforgivably--ironic.

Similarly, the country was dominated by another force beyond its comprehension and control--the "invasion" of British music, as represented by the Beatles--and before long the four young, mop-haired singers from Liverpool commanded all the attention and deference befitting a single head of state. When the Beatles performed stateside, they themselves could not hear their instruments above the raucous shouts and screams of adoring fans. Venues once considered large suddenly found themselves too small, and once popular singers were relegated to lower spots on the charts, their music now indicative of a fading style. Robert Moses, again presented with a chance to make his World's Fair a true personification of progress by inviting the Beatles to perform in the ground's large stadium, refused, preferring instead the subdued and outdated music he himself enjoyed. There would be no room at his cherished project for a style that he himself did not understand.

In fact, when taken in context with America in the 1960s, Robert Moses' fair begins to seem almost antiquated--an anachronistic relic of the past somehow lodged in the present and proclaiming itself a moniker of the future. And while there were some elements of the Worlds Fair that were truly impressionistic--Walt Disney, for one, funded a series of animatronic presidents, predating the rise of realistic robotics by quite a few years, and there were works of modernist and pop artists featured prominently--much of what Moses looked at as progressive was, in fact, stale, like a tourist trap that attempted to appease Middle America without scaring it away. In such turbulent times, the World's Fair became less of a dream and more of a comfort and escape--a place where everyday Americans, themselves troubled by the rapid changes occurring around them, could bask in a view of the future in which cities did not burn, music did not scandalize, and subjugated races were suspiciously absent.

When the World's Fair closed, it did so without having made back all of the money spent on its construction, and with attendance lower than what had been expected--two indications of the event's failure that many in charge, including Moses in particular, chose to ignore. (When these shortfalls were brought to Moses' attention by a dutiful accountant, the data was ignored and the accountant, in both frustration and disgust, resigned.) Today, the 600-acre fairgrounds still holds many of the fair's most impressive buildings and artistic pieces, including the famed Unisphere, but not what the fair was intended to represent. Because, as history now shows, the World's Fair offered a look into the future while remaining blind to the present--a conflict that embodies much of American history.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Prejudice ("Dog Whistle Politics" by Ian Haney Lopez)

Earlier this year, Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, taped a post-game interview in which he called out a player from the opposing team and pronounced himself "the best corner in the game," adding, "Don't open your mouth about the best, or I'm going to shut it for you real quick!" The video went viral, and in the days that followed it seemed as though people could focus on little else. Unfortunately, much of the public discourse made liberal use of the term "thug," an insinuation that was direct and suggestive but also--purposefully--ill-defined. Later, when he was asked about the reaction to his interview, Sherman--a Stanford graduate and the salutatorian of his high school class--responded, "The only reason it bothers me is that it seems like ["thug" is] the accepted way of calling people the n-word nowadays."* Surprisingly, Sherman's theory--delivered extemporaneously--has a rather strong basis in reality, one that helps us understand the shifting face of America over the last 50 years.

Writing about the racism of decades past, Ian Haney Lopez has little difficulty finding examples of public figures--elected democratically, supported by the American people, cherished today as American heroes--who openly and unabashedly employed racial slurs when talking about African-Americans. Decades ago, there was little shame in identifying oneself as a racist, and as Lopez himself documents, being identified as such was often necessary for some politicians to be elected. For example, when George Wallace first ran for the governorship of Alabama in 1958, he was a racial moderate pitted against an outspoken racist: Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP, while his opponent was endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan. After being handily trounced on election day, Wallace remarked to a confidant, "And I tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again." This one loss--an indication that the voters of Alabama preferred virulent bigotry to clear-eyed moderation--would forever change the political landscape of America by birthing one of the 20th century's great unrepentant roadblocks to progress and equality.

However, in the years that followed, holding racist views and harboring prejudicial tendencies became a drawback rather than a benefit for anyone running for elected office. The media became more diligent in rooting out and confronting those who espoused vile, outdated ideas related to ethnicity, and now, in the age of social media, when a single gaffe or verbal slip becomes a worldwide sensation in mere minutes, public officials are increasingly scrutinized for their views on race, and rightly so. But while our culture has changed, our electorate--at least in some rather large circles--has not. There are still wide swathes of voters who hold the beliefs of George Wallace to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal, and sadly, these people number in the millions. Sadder still, they are reliable voters who are identified almost singularly by their attachment to one of our country's two major parties:  The Republican Party.

Lopez goes to great pains to qualify his remarks and underscore the fact that not all Republicans are racist, just as he strives to note that not all Democrats are immune from intolerant ideas or race-based pandering. But statistically and historically speaking, it is the Republican Party that has not only appropriated what Lopez calls "dog whistle" politics--that is, the use of sly code words and clever phrasing to make racist entreaties to particularly receptive groups without actually sounding racist--but transformed it into the ultimate political weapon, sharp enough to energize its base while also remaining dull enough to pass by a thorough, scandal-hungry press. Two of the most frequently employed code words, "welfare recipient" and "food stamp recipient," are weighed down with racial implications--the idea that those on government assitance are lazy, fraudulent, and often drug-addicted minorities, a stereotype that has its roots in Ronald Reagan's first run for the presidency more than thirty years ago. However, the caricature has become so ingrained in our collective subconscious that politicians don't ever need mention the ethnicity of those being referenced, and when confronted with accusations of race-baiting, they have distance and deniability, claiming they were simply talking about "entitlement reform" or our nation's growing budgetary crisis.

For decades this tactic has shown itself to be quite successful for Republican candidates:  Reagan's Cadillac-driving welfare queen; George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad; the rebranding of immigrants as "aliens" and "illegals" during the presidency of George W. Bush; Newt Gingrich complaining that "poor children in poor neighborhoods" have no "habits of working" and should be employed by schools to scrub toilets; Paul Ryan stating that "inner city culture" makes men unable to think "about working or learning the value and the culture of work"; and so on, ad nauseam. In each instance, these politicians--all Republicans, all with national name recognition, all seeking or holding the highest offices--used loaded, dog-whistle terms in order to get a point across to their voters that, while they could not specifically comment on the habits and predispositions of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans and other non-Republicans, a few double-edged words could sooth any confusion about where they stood ethnicity-wise.

However, all of these examples pale in comparison to the now-infamous 2012 video of Mitt Romney speaking to a supposedly press-free gathering of his supporters: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax." In just a few short breaths, the nation's leading Republican managed to utilize an impressive slew of dog-whistle words--dependent, victim, entitled--to explain away the massive support Barack Obama had among the young, the poor, and the non-white. In Romney's skewed view of the world, anyone who supported the incumbent president--a Democrat, a liberal, an African-American--was weak, lazy, immoral, lecherous, or all of the above.

In the inevitable fallout over Romney's remarks, the press harangued the candidate over his detachment from how millions of Americans actually lived--a condition, they implied, resulting from a comfortable, sheltered upbringing. Romney did not understand that the men and women who claimed to be victims might actually suffer from a system built against them, keeping them away from financial independence and stability because of their skin, their gender, or the place where they were raised. Romney did not understand that those who use food stamps do so not because they're unwilling to work but because the American economy has been so thoroughly corrupted that getting a meaningful job is actually less beneficial than simply going on government assistance. Romney did not understand that 47% of Americans are free from income tax, not because they've found enough convenient loopholes for themselves, but because they do not make enough money to pay an income tax, even if they're working multiple jobs.**

What the press neglected to focus on was how the Republican Party had commandeered the English language--common, everyday words without any racial undertones--and weaponized it, using it time and again to dehumanize millions of their fellow citizens by depicting them as unmotivated, ungrateful, and dangerous, and always couched in racial undertones. The words they use are picks and shovels chipping away at the land we share until a river divides us, and those on one shore are allowed to look across at the other shore and pronounce the division unfair. By refusing to see other people for what they are and instead see them only as a series of words--dependent, victim, welfare recipient, illegal--we remove their humanity and make them less than us. They become an "other." And it's much easier to attack a nameless, stereotypical "other" than a friend, a neighbor, a family member.

At the very end of his 2012 remarks, Romney said, "[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." This is, by far, the most horrifying aspect of dog-whistle politics--the belief that those who are being demonized through an abstract code are unworthy of anyone's attention, even a president's, even though, statistically, these Americans are those most in need of attention and assistance. Romney is not entirely to blame for his own worldview; instead, it's the effect of a long-simmering change in our culture, one fed by the way in which politicians have adapted our language to fit their own selfish, inhumane ideologies. In this way, the river between us grows even wider.

*Later in the interview, Sherman added, "I know some thugs and they know I’m the furthest thing from a thug. I’ve fought that my whole life, just coming from where I come from. Just because you hear Compton, you heard Watts, cities like that you think, ‘Thug. He’s a gangster. He’s this, that, and the other.’ And then you hear Stanford and that doesn’t make sense, it’s an oxymoron. To fight it for so long, and have to hear it come up again, it’s frustrating."

**According to the Tax Policy Center, 60% of Americans who don't pay income tax are employed, which means they still contribute to Social Security and Medicare; 22% are retired; and 7% make under $20,000 annually, which is the threshold for taxation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Honesty ("The Splendid Things We Planned" by Blake Bailey)

There's a frustrating paradox involved in the writing of a memoir--namely, the very people who've lived lives interesting enough to write about also have legacies and careers to preserve, making true honesty downright impossible. Which is why, year after year, the bestseller list is dominated by memoirs of the famous and influential--actors and actresses, politicians, writers, pundits--that are both massive and hollow. Even when these public figures manage to create something bordering on honest--the infamous "tell-all"--they always manage to portray themselves as pinnacles of purity and rational thinking amid the thoughtless, impure masses.*

In other words, they skirt the truth if not lie outright--an act that violates the very agreement between themselves and the people who read their work. In order for a memoir to succeed--in order for it to actually have a purpose beyond feeding the ego of its creator--it must be brutal and unadorned, with explanations instead of excuses and clarity instead of self-preservation, even if that means poisoning otherwise healthy relationships or scrutinizing an otherwise incorruptible career. If a memoirist isn't willing to sacrifice everything they hold dear in the name of truth, then the story is best left untold. This is the danger and the beauty of autobiography.

Blake Bailey's The Splendid Things We Planned is danger and beauty as it should be. Subtitled "A Family Portrait," Bailey's memoir is ostensibly the story of his brother Scott's decades-long drug abuse, underpinned by an undiagnosed mental disorder, which builds towards a tragic but inevitable conclusion.** Along the way we witness Scott's rambunctious younger years, where signs of his upcoming struggles are indistinguishable from cliched adolescent tribulations, all of which slowly builds into his wandering college years, failed jobs, dalliances with harder drugs, and crumbling relationships with almost every member of his family, including the author himself. At the same time, Blake struggles with his own problems--a jealous temper, rampant alcoholism, an unsteady series of jobs--and at times the brothers seems to juggle their respective roles, with Scott cleaning his life up while Blake's falls apart, only to reverse a year or so later. As Bailey notes in his  "Acknowledgements," he and Scott were eerily similar--a truth that is both comforting and heartbreaking when taken with the 250 pages of unsettling recollections that precede it.

What makes Bailey's memoir so effective--that is, what makes it so representative of what a memoir can and should be--is how honestly he recounts every detail, even when it means revealing his own failures and shortcomings, as well as those of his otherwise wonderful family. More often than not, Bailey is downright vicious towards Scott, antagonizing him over the sundry trials of his past to the point where our sympathies are suddenly confused. We know that Scott has problems and needs help, just as we know the severity of his past mistakes cannot be ignored or blamed away, and yet we cringe in these moments--and there are more than a few--knowing even without being there the weight of these actions on those involved. Towards the end, after his family has endured decades of Scott's instability and abuse, their conversations with one another turn to the possibility of Scott committing suicide--sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes hopeful--and we find ourselves shocked but also unable to judge them fully. We may not agree, but we understand, and that--perhaps--is all the author asks of us.

Blake Bailey's family is portrayed as uncharacteristically open-minded for mid-century Oklahoma--they are atheists, and their home is open to gay and Arab friends--and this belief in openness is obviously part of the reason why he is able to bleed onto the page without concern. When the story ends, few if any of the people featured in its pages are without a reason for shame or guilt; even those with no connection to Scott's failed rehabilitations have moments of anger, pettiness, or cruelty. But that's the point--they are forced to deal with situations beyond their control, and in the process they make mistakes and grow frustrated, revealing their humanity. Bailey could have easily glossed over these instances and focused solely on his brother, but in doing so he would've been lying about the impact of drug abuse and undiagnosed mental illnesses--the two chains that dragged down every member of his family and quite a few friends and bystanders. After all, a memoir is more than just the story of the writer's life--it is the story of all lives.

*The one exception to this rule is memoirs by musicians, where the exact opposite seems to apply:  the harder you lived, the better your story and more worthwhile the purchase.

**Scott Bailey is diagnosed only once in the story, with paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis that is dismissed as inaccurate.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Perfection ("Bark: Stories" by Lorrie Moore)

During my senior year in college, after almost eight full semesters of undergraduate literary analysis, I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. It would become only the third book that I would read for pleasure during college; everything else--every textbook, novel, article, essay, and work of poetry--had been food for my insufferable and inescapable need to analyze everything..for symbolism, sexism and heteronormativity, historical accuracy, bias, and whatever else I was told to focus on. In those five years, some of my favorite authors released some of their best--and, in a few instances, some of their last--work, all of which I dutifully requested from the local library and never once attempted to read. I knew that the cracking of their spines would lead to a dissection by analysis, page after detailed page, rendering even the best book a worthless exercise in Purpose over Story. But Marquez was a different adventure altogether, and every day I would sneak away after my last class, plant myself in an isolated corner of the university library, and read the book oh-so slowly, taking in every analysis-resistant word. The entire process lasted two long, glorious months. To this day I don't know how this one novel was able to resist the poison that infected so many others--perhaps it was the density of the text, the hefty characters, the bewildering magical realism--but once I finished the last page, I instantly knew two things:  first, this was not only the best book I'd ever read but probably one of the best books ever written; and second, I never wanted to read it again. Ever.

Which is an interesting distinction that has reasserted itself quite often in the following years--an ability to recognize the meticulousness and superiority, even greatness, of a book while also acknowledging how little I enjoyed reading it. Or, to say it simpler, a different between what I considered a "great" book and what I considered a "favorite" book. When I'm reading Dickens, for instance, I marvel at the man's use of language to convey what should be an otherwise tawdry and melodramatic story--his ability to take a droll, ridiculous idea and make it stellar literature--all the while thinking to myself, "For God's sake, will this thing ever end?!" Even today, when I'm asked for my favorite book, I blanch, stumbling through an excuse that, no, I don't like revealing this information, as though it were my Social Security number or the passwords to all of my online banking accounts.* I don't feel like making my qualifications a topic of conversation, which would inevitably end with an embarrassed apology on my part and confused sideways glances on the part of those who asked what they thought would be a simple question.

Marquez's book still sits on my bookshelf in a place of honor, and I often find myself toying with the idea of reading it again--partly because I want to marvel like an undergraduate, and partly because I don't remember 90% of what was in that book, so complex is its story--but I know I never will, at least not until I'm much older or find myself bedridden with a horrible (albeit nonfatal) disease.  Regardless, I'm reminded of One Hundred Years of Solitude every so often when I pick up a novel or story collection that manages to be both perfectly written and incredibly boring. Bark, Lorrie Moore's most recent collection of short stories, is one of these books.

In Moore's defense, I've never exactly been one of her loyal readers. I was assigned a few of her more famous stories in college, enjoyed them as much as the next assigned reading, and thought nothing more about them. At the time I knew that Moore was a gifted writer who understood how the seriousness of our lives is often balanced with a sadness and humor that often lie beneath (and often lie together, inseparable and sometimes indistinguishable). Her characters were flawed, awkward, lonely, and unable to solve their own problems, like sleepwalkers who wake up just long enough to realize they're standing in a faraway intersection, lost. Her stories were not overdone--there were no overly pitiable characters, just as there were no saviors or illicit mistresses--and every word was heavy with implication. Each character seemed to live in their own moving reality--a walk-in closet on wheels, where they could retreat when everything became too much--unaware that its walls were transparent and stripped them naked to the world.

These tropes remain at the forefront of her newer stories--there are still the crossroads populated by restless sleepers, the ineffective sanctuaries to escape everyday life--but there's a disappointing weariness now, as if even Moore herself were tiring of her own characters. Almost all of them seem to be outspokenly and irritatingly liberal--bumper stickers show up more than once, and for no clear reason--and while this does make for a good subplot in "Foes," it also makes you wonder if people who shop at Whole Foods are the only ones gifted with nuance. Are there no Christian conservatives befriending neighbors for murky purposes? Are middle-aged Evangelicals incapable of feeling inadequate next to the children of their new boyfriends or girlfriends? Are Obama supporters the only ones who eat silly foods and think of their ideologies as superior?

The answer, obviously, is no, but even for someone who writes of our self-restrictions and reclusive nature, Moore's narrow world makes her stories--especially when placed side by side--downright claustrophobic. Which is too bad, since every single piece is otherwise beautifully written, so much so that I often found myself in awe, struggling to understand how one person could craft such evocative sentences out of such lackluster words and images; even the bark of trees, a motif that not only appears  throughout the collection but is also the title of the first--and best--story, fits with near perfection. In fact, much of what Moore does, both here and elsewhere, could easily be classified as perfect--precisely why she has such a fierce and loyal readerships. The problem is that perfect does not always mean interesting, and in this case, the excellence of her writing cannot rise above the flatness of what she's writing about.

*I've only revealed my favorite book once, to a co-worker at a summer temp job, who promptly went out and bought himself a copy. We never spoke of books again.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

We ("The Wives of Los Alamos" by TaraShea Nesbit)

At some point in the of development of their skill, a writer will want to experiment. They'll read other writers who've successfully challenged the tropes and structures of literature--Vonnegut, Grudin, Calvino, Oates--and want to do the same, and at some level this is understandable. For all the freedom and opportunity provided by literature, there are also borders:  stories are told in chapters, the audience is never addressed, dialogue is accompanied by verbs and adverbs to signify the speaker and their state of mind, and so on. Writing is, for lack of a better analogy, a prison with no walls--a democracy of one constrained paradoxically by history and tradition. For most writers, open defiance is an understandable--if short-lived--impulse that often produces little publishable material and a large sense of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, the products of these rebellious little diversions find their way to print.

TaraShea Nesbit's The Wives of Los Alamos is told entirely in first person plural and by the titular figures--dozens, then hundreds, of women whose husbands have been relocated to New Mexico to help develop the atomic bomb. This itself is not unusual--quite a few books have been written from a collective point-of-view, the most famous being Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides--but it's also a difficult mode in which to tell a story, as it requires consistency. The reason Eugenides' first-person-plural novel works is because all of his narrators share the same memories:  their infatuation with the same five girls gives way to horror as each girl commits suicide for no discernible reason. By retelling the story with more than one narrator, Eugenides builds a sense of inevitability and complicity beneath the events, like bystanders watching the injured crawl away from a traffic accident without helping:  the boys observe but don't act--cannot act--as though each has passed off responsibility to the next, over and over again.

Nesbit's narrators, while sharing the same basic experiences--the loneliness of the desert, the loss of family life, the growing distance between spouses and neighbors--are also different, pitting themselves against one another as they attempt to reconcile the  mundanity of their lives with the need to feel important and do important things. (At one point, the collective women talk of pregnancy as the only true method for getting a better house.) Nesbit's narrators write about neighbors being exiled from house parties, gossip about bed-jumping and thievery, despondency over what they've each given up. And because Nesbit wants to strike this balance throughout her book--individual lives and shared experiences--she is forced to write all 230 pages as a compromise that justifies neither side and makes for a book that is both dull and without a clear destination.

Take, for example, the passage--chosen randomly--about how their husbands' new assignments have affected their marriages:  "Sometimes our husbands returned from the Tech Area and said they could not stand it anymore. We did not know if it was us or here or their work, but we were concerned it was us. We could not talk to our best friends about this suspicion, because they were back in Idaho, or in New York. A couple of us said, I can't take this, either, and actually left. We returned to our mothers. We became Nevadans and moved to Reno for a quick divorce. And our husbands moved into the singles dorms and were unofficially, or officially, separated." The occurrence of "or" in this one passage--four notations of difference, of other possibilities and realities--is minor compared to the volume of conjunctions that haunt every chapter. From one chapter to the next, this balance--between the singular and the all--threatens to shake Nesbit's entire story apart.

In a way, the plural narrators are an intelligent, intuitive idea for this subject. Writing of an era when women were relegated to the duties of a mother and housewife and little more, the protagonists serving together adds to the sense of one war being fought alongside another--the soldiers of the United States and the soldiers of feminism, each fighting against dehumanization and tyranny, and the latter looking for a way to assert their own individuality, make their own choices, and be themselves, even--and especially--when conscripted into a faraway domestic-military bureaucracy that prohibits all three. Both are wars for freedom, though one is waged on a global scale while the other is waged quietly in millions of living rooms. And in that sense, yes, Nesbit's gamble makes sense. But attempting to tell the story of strong, independent women by lumping them all together as one voice--except when there is tragedy, gossip, backstabbing, and other sordid events--seems somehow counterproductive, maybe even paradoxical, and it hurts any point Nesbit may be trying to make. Her book is the story of women, pure and simple, but because of a silly narrative choice, The Wives of Los Alamos becomes a book with hundreds of hearts but no soul.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Delusion ("Notes from the Internet Apocalypse" by Wayne Gladstone)

Within the first forty pages of Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, Wayne Gladstone offers a comprehensive inventory of all things modern and online: Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Reddit,  Chatroulette, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Excel, Chrome, Netflix, Google, IMDb, YouTube, IMs, poking, Daily Kos, SOPA, pop-up ads, apps, Rickrolls, LOLcats, 4Chan, chat rooms, and webcams. He also enlists elements of our culture that go beyond the Internet--DVDs, Hot Topic stores, Starbucks, IMAX movies, Jack Kerouac, novelty t-shirts, Jason Bateman, McSweeney's, and Michelob Ultra--to establish the world in which his novel takes place...a tactic that is often frustrating and transforms every paragraph into a challenge:  to continue on or abandon. The temptation to do the latter is not just understandable but seemingly encouraged, as these incessant allusions seem like the tools of an author both  inexperienced in the ability to edit himself and desperate to make his satire all the more painfully obvious. However, these allusions are not Gladstone's  unstoppable  need to date his prose. In truth, they are a palace.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published Notes from the Underground, the short but powerful story of a nameless bureaucrat--retired, it seems--whose ramblings about the people around him are nothing short of delusional. He is narcissistic, jealous, angry, and spiteful--a living concoction that perfectly describes Internet "trolls," a moniker bestowed on Internet users in recognition of their unyielding hunger for attention through pure, unabashed vitriol. Much like Dostoyevsky's nameless man--the prototypical unreliable narrator--trolls work anonymously, their identities hidden behind screen names and farcical profiles, and the only logical way to engage them is to not engage them at all. Which is, in its own way, ironic when we talk about Dostoyevsky's 19th-century antagonist:  by reading his words and using our minds to understand his, we are in essence acknowledging his delusions as legitimate, even as we dismiss them as worthless. We are feeding the troll. It is one of the central paradoxes of the so-called Underground Man, one that modern-day incarnations are unable to duplicate.

Regardless of paradoxes, Dostoyevsky wrote his novella in an age before the Internet and its multitude of possible allusions. Instead, he had the Crystal Palace--a beautiful work of both art and architecture, now long gone, and the only item that dates Dostoyevsky's work in any way. A masterpiece in its day, the Palace was a building expensive in appearance but inexpensive in details--a contrast typified by the mixture of glass and cast iron that constituted much of its make-up. It spoke of wealth and exclusivity while being open to all and featuring exhibitions from around the world. Even after it had exhausted its presence in Hyde Park, the Palace was reassembled elsewhere with ease. To the Underground Man, however, this massive structure--both beautiful and practical, one large juxtaposition unto itself--was nothing short of vile, a symbol of conformity and thoughtlessness by those blinded by idealism; in one instance, he even refers to it as worthy of only chickens and wishes he could be in its presence so he could stick out his tongue at it, defiant.

It's this same attitude that Gladstone's narrator--as it happens, also named Gladstone--seems to take to the world around him. He is connected online in every way imaginable, and yet he is both physically and mentally alone. His wife has left him, and the child they conceived together miscarried. The relationships he has are weak and inconsequential:  his co-workers snicker at him, his boss ignores him, and his online acquaintances are just that and little more. That is, until one of these  friends, Tobey, shows up unannounced at his door proclaiming the Internet Apocalypse--a scene reminiscent of Ford Perfect's hurried arrival in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As we soon discover, this vague similarity to Douglas Adams is more than just coincidental.

As it turns out, Tobey's diagnosis isn't far off:  the Internet has stopped working. And while every other aspect of modern life continues uninterrupted--phones still take pictures, baristas still serve coffee, libraries remain open--the loss of "the Net" sends much of the world into a tailspin. Makeshift porn theatres are set up where, for a fee, any fantasy or fetish can be realized on stage as though it were a real-time, in-person computer screen. A man calling himself Jeeves sets up shop in Central Park and, using his encyclopedic knowledge, answers any question for five dollars, returning two if he is unsure--a fleshen Wikipedia, only more reliable. And roving gangs of Internet addicts, referred to as zombies because of their mindless actions and appearance, satisfy their need for bizarre visual experiences by torturing small animals and beating one another for no reason. Most of society cannot cope with a life beyond the Internet, as it's the only reality they've known, and anything other than their online selves is foreign to them. They are, in essence, strangers to themselves.

As it happens, Tobey is himself a stranger to Gladstone, though until now he was the closest our narrator had to an actual friend. (Much like Ford Perfect in Adams' novel, Tobey is an alien, only less literally.) Joined by Oz, a punk-goth Aussie and former web-cam girl, the three engage in an Everyman's journey across Brooklyn--a search for answers and the Internet, they say, though their search is also for a purpose in an age where, suddenly, a person must live beyond their digital self. A sarcastic pot-smoking blogger before the apocalypse, Tobey must sober up and find an actual job, if for no other reason than to gain information. Oz, now without a paying Internet presence, must find an audience among the living--in this case, paying customers who, one by one, employ her services, only now without physical and metaphorical oceans between them.

And Gladstone--our Everyman, our clueless Arthur Dent, our delusional Underground Man--must wake up to who he really is sans the Internet. He is a former bureaucrat on disability with no wife and no children, and his search for wireless connections is in fact a search of any connections at all. His friendships with Tobey and Oz seem like the relationships he was missing while he and the world were collectively isolated. (As he later says, the Internet "is just a way for millions of sad people to be alone together.") For much of their journey, the allusions that saturate the opening chapters all but disappear like toxins from the body of a recovering  addict,  and for the first time Gladstone seems to be alive, even as he struggles with memories of the life he once lived but nonetheless lost. In the novel's climax, when he faces down his actual online self--a doppelganger professing to be the Internet personified, and living in the crown of the Statue of Liberty--he does so unaware that even this journey has been little more than a manifestation of his mind, as though he had been using his imagination to create a reality where he was important, clear-eyed, and loved.

It cannot be so, unfortunately. Gladstone is delusional, and every single one of the 200 pages preceeding this confrontation--his allusion-laden beginnings, his role as amateur detective, his sudden status as the Messiah--is little more than the real world twisted to fit a fantasy that itself fits the world in which he wants to live. There is a fundamentalist politician who sees the Internet as inherently evil--a parody of Michelle Bachmann, flamboyant husband in tow--who leads a crowd of thoughtless conservatives on a city-wide crusade against the Messiah. There is the Occupy Wall Street protester who cannot identify the target of her anger, cannot express her own opinions, and is terrified of the very power structure she claims to be fighting against. Even the various strangers Gladstone encounters on his journey and engages in thoughtful conversation--the best aspects of the novel, by far--are so deeply, incongruously well-spoken and perfect that they become little more than obvious stand-ins for Gladstone's own subconscious, rendered as cliched wise men in order for the narrator to negotiate with his own ideas.

Perhaps the best example of this--and the most well-written section of the book--is Gladstone's encounter with a businessman named Hamilton Burke. Standing outside the grave of his namesake, Alexander Hamilton, the cigar-chomping Burke exudes the maturity and self-assuredness Gladstone lacks:  "I could tell I was dealing with another adult who had a job I didn't understand, and if I didn't get it I knew I never would. When I was a little kid, I pretty much thought there were only six jobs in the world:  doctor, lawyer, teacher, fireman, policeman, and astronaut. The rest were a blur of things I never took the time to know." Gladstone's acknowledgement that this man is yet another adult whose life is unlike his own, followed by a list of professions so limited in their scope and definitions that they speak to the world as understood by a child, reveals that Gladstone's delusional mindset is not the result of narcissism or anger or jealousy, as they were 150 years ago, but of detachment. Gladstone is a man who does not understand how to function in a world that requires him to be more than just a public profile, a Twitter handle, a Netflix subscriber.

Which is the point of Gladstone's story. If Dostoyevsky spoke of minds poisoned by ideology and narcissism, Gladstone speaks to the mind hollowed out by modern technology. As Burke himself notes, the progress that we believe has made our lives easier has actually trapped us into routines where we work harder for the same, or even less--our own communal delusion, fueled by technological drugs around which our every decision pivots.* When Gladstone reveals himself to be a child at heart--unaware, simple-minded, driven by fantasy and excuse--he stands in for a tech-addled population in need of an intervention. Our minds are rich, Gladstone shows us, but they are trapped by the wires and boxes which keep us bound and asleep, dreaming dreams of everything and nothing.

*"There has not been a piece of technology designed to save labor that has not increased labor. Word processors allow you to do what your secretary used to do for you. The Internet, BlackBerries, iPhones, yes they keep you tethered, but that's not the main problem. It's that along with increasing personal productivity, they increase the expectation of productivity. It no longer becomes a bonus to do the work of one and a half men, but the norm. And then when everyone's working at one hundred and fifty percent capacity, they can fire a third of the workforce and still maintain output."

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hell ("The Wherewithal" by Philip Schultz)

There's an old story by Stephen King, I forget its title exactly, in which a woman experiences the same tragic event--the crash of an airplane--over and over again, unable to recognize the eternal hell into which she's fallen. Instead, she thinks of the repeated event as an extreme case of deja vu, rendering her not only damned but oblivious--a small comfort, we tell ourselves, for anyone who is now both ghost and victim. King's story--brief, poorly written, and wholly substandard--has haunted me for years. The idea of being caught in a cycle of which we are unaware and from which we cannot extricate ourselves is a kind of horror that doesn't involve any of the usual tropes or cliches, and taken in tandem with our world's religious and mythological dependency on a cyclical universe--the Hindu belief in samsara, the Mesoamerican ages of creation--it makes for possibilities both rich and unsettling.

For Henryk Wyrzykowski, the narrator of Philip Schultz's new novel-in-verse, the comforts inherent in this cycle, not to mention the cluelessness of King's protagonist, are cold and unseen. The life in which he finds himself now--a basement file clerk in a Kafkaesque welfare agency--is viewed by Henryk himself as a necessary refuge from the world raging outside. It is 1968, Uncle Sam is in need of able young men, and Henryk is dodging. In fact, he has been dodging threats like this much of his life, only now there is little to protect him beyond his self-imposed exile:  the mother who shielded him from the horrors of the Holocaust now sits in a nursing home, her mind pocked by Alzheimer's; his predecessor has disappeared, fed up with the bureaucracy in which he conducted his own lewd business; and his two lovers, a woman who ended her marriage for him and an unstable welfare recipient named Heddi, are both distant, like dreams that blue unbeautifully when seen close-up. He had a friend once, a young boy named Rossy, but memories of their time together reveal a stark crime--a failed game of William Tell--and he is now alone.

Instead, Henryk has records. His mother's diaries from the war--more than twenty volumes--recounts her attempts to hide Jews in a barn pit while neighbors massacred innocents, a harsh reality she faced head-on. He has notebooks left by his predecessor, all of which rage against the other agency employees and the heartless ways in which they strip the needy from their rolls or make them choose between receiving money or keeping their children. His memories--of driving a cab in San Francisco, of teaching Vietnam vets proper grammar, of playing William Tell with his long-gone friend--sit alongside him among the thousands of files in the basement, each relating the story of another case closed, another person in desperate need of help. Eventually, Henryk's present and past begin to seem uncomfortably similar, and as the novel closes, we understand that this is his hell, his deja vu  masquerade, his universal cycle spiraling further and further down into the abyss.

Because, as he sits among his files, Henryk suddenly becomes the archivist of a modern Holocaust.  Each document tells the story of a powerful government looking down on someone deemed unworthy, stripping them of their dignity and humanity, and casting them into a world being torn apart by war. There are no camps here, no trains or commandants, but the mindset is the same, and the eradication is done slowly and methodically, not in the interest of purification but in the pursuit of a balanced budget. This is a pogrom waged with statistics rather than guns, with waiting rooms rather than gas chambers, and Henryk finds himself keeper of the evidence--the list of those who have been cast aside and quickly forgotten. The basement is his own pit, where he shelters himself from the reality of the world above--the very same world in which he plays no part, affects no change, saves no people. And while his mother fades away, her mind shucking memories of her bravery and preserving only the horrors she witnessed, Henryk has saved himself from the same fate by becoming the kind of bystander who made the Holocaust so easy to carry out.

At the same time, he is surrounded by deadly events over which he has no control--the Zodiac Killer terrorizing the Bay Area, his deciphered letter speaking of slavery in the afterlife, and young men being deployed en masse to hunt other young men in the jungle--and this calls forward the memory of Rossy' grieving father, a survivor of the concentration camps, who was devastated by Rossy's death in a way far beyond what the Holocaust ever did to him. At first Henryk wants to believe in the accidental nature of his friend's death, but even as others proclaim his innocence he knows there was more to their game:  a look in Rossy's eyes that spoke of giving in, a warning called to late. These thoughts are inescapable, and they creep into Henryk's everyday life until his world is only these thoughts and nothing  more. This is his hell, true and simple, draped over him like a patchwork of nightmares, and the very people who could easily walk him through this Inferno are unavailable.*

In the final section of the novel, Henryk's narration breaks, and he offers up his thoughts on suffering--its pains but, more importantly, its permanence:

          The unspeakable things we do,
          the vicious lies we tell ourselves and others,
          the innocence we beat to death
          with and without shame, is always there
          in the smallest gestures of our eyes
          and hands and tongues. There
          [is] the only wealth and meaning
          we possess, the fragile filament
          of our humanity, which perhaps
          is what we envy and suspect and fear
          and want to kill in others.
          Without it there is nothing
          but infinite black space,
          ripples on a lake, screams no one hears.
          Is this why we speak and listen,
          suffer grief and fear,
          and seek forgiveness
          even while living in a hole?

In depicting the violence of his life--the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the death of his friend--Henryk is attempting to make a commentary on what it's like to be a human, always bound by the need to lie and cheat and hurt. What he reveals, however, is how bound we all are to forces beyond even our own control, when even a movement of the eye unveils a history of the wrongs we've committed against one another. We are, in essence, caught in an unending cycle, not just as individuals--a simple clerk reliving the sins of the past, for example--but as a species, forever trapped inside a hell of our own making.

*There is a case to be made that Henryk is, in fact, delusional, or at least lying to himself about his own culpability in the events around him. For a further look at the strange chronology in Schultz's book, see David L. Ulin's review for the Los Angeles Times.