THE NOVEL LIVES: A REVIEW OF THE SILENT END BY SAMUEL SATTIN

The Silent End
By Samuel Sattin
Ragnarok Publishing, 2015
524 pages, $20.95

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“The (novel) form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”

–Will Self, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)” (The Guardian 5/2/14)

 

In the literary world, we spend a lot of time making pronouncements about the death of the novel (or literature, or poetry), not enough trying to adapt the novel (or literature, or poetry) to a changing world. Even writers as astute and successful as Will Self can fall into this trap easily enough, trotting out their clever literary pets (rules and opinions, pronouncements and dictums, even the odd zombie analogy) while continuing to go against their own advice. To, in Self’s case, continue writing these supposedly useless novels, day after day, year after year.

Though we can’t be entirely sure based on the quote above, let’s presume that Will Self is not likening his own books to brutish brain-munchers unwilling to politely lie the hell down. Self is a writer (big W), an artist (big A). He’s trying to accomplishsomething, to make a statement. But maybe Self’s trying a little too hard to make that statement. This would explain why he’s missing the current stage in the novel’s development almost entirely.

Counter to Self’s implication that only a certain type of novel (literary, “challenging,”Finnegans Wake-ish) matters—that since these challenging (often unreadable) novels decline in popularity year in and year out this implies a terminus for the entire form—the current period in the novel’s history has more to do with literary democracy than elitism, more to do with the reader than the writer.

With film’s democratizing influence on 20th century literature as a springboard—the slipstream blending of literary prose, themes, and insights with genre material’s increased attention to plot, story, and dialogue (the qualities that can make for a great movie)—digitalization has, to get a little businessy about it, reduced barriers to market entry, made it easier for books to get to readers without the blessings of publishing conglomerates.

While this digitalization has led to a lot of static on Amazon’s virtual shelves (the million word Marxist polemic, the ten-volume zombie-porn-western series written in a fortnight) it’s also led to real, reader-friendly gems like The Silent End by Samuel Sattin—books that have something to say, do it in a literary way, but never forget the basic reader-writer compact, the writer fails to entertain at his own peril.

In The Silent End, Sattin has created a world instantly recognizable, yet entirely his own, one complete with a spiffy map that makes you feel a little like you’re setting off on an adventure before you’ve even gotten to the narrative. This map, and Sattin’s book, reference the small, fictional town of Mossglow, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Perpetually shrouded by clouds and fog, site of many an unexplained disappearance, Mossglow is home to our narrator and protagonist, high-schooler Nathaniel Eberstark, a lovable loser with few friends beyond the confines of his Sword Star league. (Sword Star is a sort of medieval/futuristic miniature strategy game, yet another nugget from Sattin’s fertile imagination.)

Chief among Eberstark’s friends is his brilliant bestie (and Sword Star compadre), Gus Mustus. Also central to the story is Eberstark’s would-be love interest, Lexi Navarro, a tough, chain-smoking teen with a fashion-accessorized eye patch and a beat-up Ford Bronco she calls the Shepherd. Mix in Eberstark’s haunted memories of his recently disappeared mother, a gang of town bullies (names like Charlene Poughkeepsie and Jesse Maroon echoing Bellow by way of Bugs Bunny), various (mostly nefarious) teachers and school administrators (with their own pithy names), and you’ve got the makings of an exciting story. This isn’t even the end of the ground situation, though.

Eberstark’s father, a grocer who appears to have gone insane in the wake of his wife’s disappearance, keeps to a bunker in the backyard where he and his mysterious, mute accomplice known only as the Hat (Hat for short) work to dubious, quasi-scientific ends. Convinced his father is probably insane (likely dangerously so), fearing the Hat may have sinister intentions, Eberstark nonetheless realizes the general vibe in Mossglow is more than a little off. And that’s before he and his friends find a dying monster in the middle of the woods on Halloween night, a monster whose blood gives life to inanimate objects.

Mysteries abound in The Silent End, danger lurking in even the most mundane places. From the basement of Eberstark’s family grocery store to his high school principal’s office and his father’s bunker, the suspense grows as the pages fly by. As cars and toys and still stranger things come to life, the book builds outward from its base of teen angst to create a crisply written, fantastical coming of age story filled with wry comedy and the honest pathos of a teenager reeling from his mother’s disappearance and semi-abandonment by his father.

There’s a little of everything in The Silent End, the result a sort of critical literary mass that leaves you thinking about things like sequels and movies. These are characters that grow on you as you read, friends you don’t want to see go. (Spoiler alert: Particularly, the Hat…) With exceptional pacing, speedy dialogue, and sharp descriptions, Sattin reveals himself as a major talent, someone who’ll be putting out fresh, exciting, reader-friendly books for years to come. And in the process he gives a sort of answer to Will Self (and anyone else lamenting the death of the novel): the novel is alive and well. And, to put it bluntly, kicking some major ass.

TNB Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister for TNB Fiction

January 07, 2016

Fiction Reviews

20308537“Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.” ― Ernest HemingwaySelected Letters 1917-1961

Even if we take Hemingway at his famously reductive words—doing our best to forget the dead snow leopards and clean well-lit places that haunt so many a term paper—those words weren’t the first on literary symbolism nor were they ever destined to be the last. A century earlier, Hawthorne was spinning his yarn about Young Goodman Brown, a woodland walk with the Devil, and his wife…ahem…Faith. Decades after Hemingway, Salman Rushdie was dropping angels from airplanes at the beginning of The Satanic Verses, Martin Amis styling his unholy apocalyptic trinity of Keith Talent, Guy Clinch, and Nicola Six in London Fields, Ian McEwan compressing the whole of modern European history in the last few paragraphs of Black Dogs. When it comes to literary symbolism, one size has never fit all.

Handed a book with a title as thematically pregnant as Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death, you’d be a fool not to consider all the ways that title might be earned, to not at least entertain literary buzzwords like allegory and representationalism. A love story? Sure, yeah, that might work. A thriller? OK, there’s death in the title, so probably. But maybe there’s something beyond the visceral. Maybe, in spite of what Hemingway said, a sea isn’t always just a sea. Start reading Brockenbrough’s novel, her seventh, and you find all of the above: a romance wrapped in suspense, a dash of allegory thrown in for good measure. And it’s this combination that produces the sort of multi-layered satisfaction, and emotionally rich ending, you get from a book like The Game of Love and Death.

The game in question is quite literal, an age-old contest between immortal personifications of Love (male) and Death (female). Each selects one human “player” at birth. Love then spends the players’ lives trying to bring them together romantically, trying to make them fall in…love. Death tries to nix one or both, to tear them apart forever. Though Death has won every one of their past matches, Love keeps playing, century after century, life after life, hoping this will be the time he finally wins. Mild, kind, and a little bit goofy, Brockenbrough’s Love is a little like a junior angel with a broken wing. Accustomed to loss, he’s fully cognizant of how much more powerful his opponent is, yet still somehow filled with hope for the players, himself, and even his nemesis, Death. In counterbalance, Death is a chain-smoking femme fatale who favors the reddest of lipstick and holds the blackest of desires. She wants your soul—again, literally. Actually, she wants yours, mine, and everyone else’s, to consume them utterly. More than any others, though, Death wants the souls of the game’s players, Henry (the ward of a newspaper baron) and Flora (a club singer and pilot who dreams of being Amelia Earhart).

Though the book opens with the birth of the players and their selection by Love and Death, its present tense action takes place in Depression-Era Seattle with the real game, the end game, fast approaching. With Henry soon to head off to college and Flora dreaming of becoming the greatest of endurance pilots, Love and Death both show up in flesh: Love now disguised as James, “Mayor” of Seattle’s shanty town, Hooverville; Death taking the form of Helen, a lovely, young heiress and cousin to Henry’s foster family.

Brockenbrough’s world in The Game of Love and Death is built on these sorts of dualities. Black and white, day and night, good and evil. Woman and man, rich and poor, gay and straight…love and death. The book’s action relies on the attempted synthesis of these various sets of opposites, moving towards a conclusion that will not only mean the end of the players’ love story (in one way or another), but may also cost them their lives. More than that, the game’s end may mean a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between Love and Death, a relationship that’s not quite as adversarial as it may have seemed.

“Love touched the corner of the paper to the candle. He flung the burning scrap into the air. It flared, split apart, and fell to the ground, petals of a fiery rose. It smelled of smoke and lilies and blood and ash, and it made Death weep once more, tears as black as the hollows of space. But she did not mind this time, because she felt so full, not just of life, but of that other thing.”

Humanity loves definitions, sees the world as fundamentally knowable, even the parts of it we can’t understand. We hope that in creating art, writing novels for example, we can somehow gain insight, even subconsciously, into the mysteries of life. This is part of the lure of symbolism, not only in literature but in other forms of art and, for that matter, religion as well.

Aside from its dark humor, crisp pacing, and clean prose, The Game of Love and Death is a wide-ranging allegory about life and death, wealth and poverty, individualism and coupling; an allegory that helps produce an incredibly powerful ending, the words and emotions of which will be buzzing in your head long after you’ve set this book aside.

TNB Book Review: The Guild of St. Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister for TNB Fiction

November 12, 2015

Fiction

51zq2-7RLLL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)

It’s not hard to see the need to understand ourselves as the central motivation for art. Whether we’re talking about painting or sculpture, poetry or the novel, the fictionalization of reality—its depiction and abstraction, its reordering and refocusing—offers the chance not only to escape into someone else’s life, but a new lens through which to see ourselves and our world, a means to reckon with reality and our place in it.

While this is undoubtedly true for an audience, it may be even truer for the artist himself. Not so much in terms of escape. After all, the artist is the master of his art; or, at the very least the essential force behind it. There are few surprises left for him after the creative process reaches its end. But during that process, in each stage from concept to completion, the artist has a chance (better put, an obligation) to try to understand himself, the world he lives in, and the new one he is creating.

Shya Scanlon’s third novel, The Guild of Saint Cooper, is many things: a fractured metafiction about climate change and collective madness; a social satire about what’s left after society breaks down (after the workings of a city, here Seattle, all fall away); a hybrid of poetry and prose that uses its beautiful language to, in part, subvert traditional narrative. More than anything, though, The Guild of Saint Cooper is a meditation on reality and identity, an attempt by Scanlon to deconstruct and reimagine not just his world but himself.

The book opens unassumingly enough, our narrator, Blake, greeting us from Seattle’s quiet, “post-evacuation” suburbia, a milieu that feels like one part Delillo, one part The Walking Dead, and a third part entirely Scanlon’s own, an absurd, paracomic slice of life that hints at the chaos to come.

“The sun smashed down on her back and on the upturned faces of the flowers and she clipped one—bright orange, many-petaled—then held her bouquet at arm’s length and nodded, turning it slowly in her hands.”

Soon tasked with rewriting the story of Seattle’s demise, creating an alternate history in which a fictionalized version of Dale Cooper (from TV’s Twin Peaks) will save the city from its imminent doom, the reality of Blake’s situation continues to degrade, begins to practically seethe with conspiracies he can’t quite grasp until they’ve overtaken him. Which seems fitting given the book’s focus on a conspiracy-riddled show like Twin Peaks. Equally fitting is this book’s lack of clean answers—every time a conflict seems resolved, the apparent resolution is proven to be a fraud, or at the very least a distraction. For that matter, even the book’s ending is ambiguous, Blake continuing (perhaps indefinitely) his search for Dale Cooper.

“The small gesture was mindless, but it occurred to me that if we were to find Dale Cooper at all, it would be in this way: through an automatic respect for the very real world around us.”

Grounded as the narrative is in impending climatic disaster—the Ross Ice Shelf threatening to collapse any second creating a tsunami that will leave Seattle flooded and uninhabitable; the vaguely sinister Weyerhauser Corporation looming off-screen; and finally the alien lights that seem an obvious symbol for our obsession with energy—it’s impossible not to see this book as climate fiction. The question that presses, though, is to what end?

With its sentient lights and obsession with creating a fictional history of heroism for a fictional representation of a fictional television character, The Guild of Saint Cooper is Scanlon’s statement about how we react in the face of crisis. Are we unable to do anything to stop our impending doom, only capable of finding what solace we can (or, if not solace, distraction) in reinventing ourselves and dissecting television shows, creating excuses (or again, perhaps only distractions) to keep us from focusing on our heart breaking reality? Scanlon certainly doesn’t excuse himself from this question.

If The Guild of Saint Cooper is Shya Scanlon’s recreation of reality, our narrator, Blake, is his reconstruction of himself. From the fact that Blake is a young writer working on a follow-up to his earlier bookForecast (the title of Scanlon’s first novel) to his obsession with Dale “Saint” Cooper (Scanlon’s online Twin Peaks Project has been a focus for much of his creative energy), to the fact that Blake’s significant other is also named Blake, The Guild of Saint Cooper plays with identity, with notions of truth and authorship, self and celebrity. As much as any character in the book, Blake exhibits the obsession with distraction in the face of apocalypse, the desire to calm his own fears come what may for society.

The question that looms over much of the book is what Scanlon is implying beyond this point. Is he suggesting we have limited agency in this, an inability to change our fate, that this need for distraction is unavoidable, terminal? Or, does he see hope for humanity (and himself), the idea that ridiculous as it may sound, our need for these distractions is actually linked to our ability to survive? As above, “The small gesture was mindless, but it occurred to me that if we were to find Dale Cooper at all, it would be in this way: through an automatic respect for the very real world around us.” Perhaps finding Dale Cooper is possible. More than that, perhaps the quest for him, or something like him, is what keeps us alive.

There’s never a final answer given to this question, which is one legitimate test of intellectual fiction. Obfuscate too much and you lose your reader, perhaps prove that you’re not even sure what you mean. Become too didactic, too simplistic, and you lose your reader in another way, move beyond intellectual fiction into polemic. The happy medium is to provide some but not all of the answers. Which is what Scanlon does. He takes us to the water, but doesn’t force us to drink.

The Guild of Saint Cooper is not a page-turner in the traditional sense. Still, it achieves and sustains momentum through the quality of its prose and the strength of its philosophy. Which means that as full-bore literary fiction, there’s no way to see The Guild of Saint Cooper as anything other than a success. If you’re looking for a book that raises new questions on every page, that makes you think about yourself and the world we live in, here it is, the intellectual page-turner, The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon.

Honesty and All its Oddities: This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

This Is Your Life was one of T.V.’s earliest reality shows. Heavily choreographed and notoriously sentimental, it was a weekly salute to the life of one lucky person. Some subjects were famous, others not—the show’s unifying idea that life could be ordered, explained, and dramatized on T.V.. On This Is Your Life, the world made sense. There were always happy endings. The show was tailor-made for America in the 1950’s.

Still recovering from the violence and depravity of World War II—but emboldened and energized by its victory—America was feeling its oats as a superpower; the high, nuclear terror of the Cold War’s zenith still in the future. America’s victory in the war was proof that good would always win, that God would always be looking out for us. It was the beginning of a sort of national faerie tale some of us cling to today.

In many ways, Jonathan Evison’s This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a response to the mid-century American faerie tale. Stripped completely of the T.V. show’s hallmark sentimentality, Evison’s fourth novel is witty, not bland; knowing rather than saccharine sweet; wise instead of clichéd. From his intrusive narrator to his playful, Dickensian use of the metaphysical, Evison’s juxtaposition of literary color with a show cast in black and white presents a core irony that highlights the changes Harriet and America will undergo during her lifetime. Most significant among these is the advent of feminism, and with it the realization of other selves that might have been Harriet’s had she been the product of a time more like our own.

Born in 1936, a girl who came of age during World War II and grew to adulthood in the magically-placid fifties, Harriet is a widowed housewife who once dreamed of being an attorney, a seemingly proper woman with more than a few secrets. Her days a regimented haze of precise calorie counts and appointments planned months in advance, Harriet marches into late life uncertain of her place in the world.

Alternately troubled and comforted by memories of her husband, Bernard, and their life together, Harriet also has to contend with Bernard’s restless spirit who insists on communicating with her from the great beyond. As the book opens, Harriet is dealing with the way Bernard’s appearances impact her physical reality, producing effects she must explain to friends and acquaintances (a misplaced can of WD-40, moved slippers, etc.). More than that, she’s dealing with the obvious complication: no one, including the parish priest, buys a whit of it. Well, almost no one. The reader believes it. And with good reason. Within the confines of the novel, it’s indisputably true.

Told as the book is in third person omniscient, there’s never any doubt about whether Bernard’s spirit is actually communicating with Harriet. We see him doing it in-scene on multiple occasions. We even see Bernard in-scene without Harriet, bucking the instructions of Mr. Charmichael, his Chief transition officer in Purgatory, threatening his chances for heavenly ascension in the process. Bernard has his reasons, though. After their life together—or perhaps because of their life together—he has things to communicate to Harriet. Truths left untold, wisdom thus unlearned. He’s not the only one.

From Harriet’s children to her friends, the strangers she encounters on the Alaskan cruise that forms the story’s backbone, and even our narrator, everyone seems to be trying to tell Harriet something. The problem being they’re not entirely sure what it is they’re trying to say. And this becomes one of the book’s primary themes—the idea that real honesty is an acceptance of one’s lack of understanding, rather than a sudden rush of enlightenment.

Truth doesn’t bring the easy, sentimental answers that were so common to programs like This Is Your Life. Those shows and the version of America that went with them were lies. Self-congratulatory and devoid of purpose besides the perpetuation of clichés, they peddled the idea that life could be understood, that it represented a navigable path, a course ever-seeking some bright North Star.

But there are no North Stars for Harriet Chance. Every one she imagined—and there were many—wound up a counterfeit. Even her relationships with husband, friends, and children fall into this category, or at least show the effects of Harriet’s humanity, the trap from which none of us escape. Life’s not easy. Even when we’re lucky, it makes only the slightest and most fleeting of sense.

In spite of its honesty—an honesty that, at times, you might even call brutal—Evison’s is a bright book, not a dark one. Never weighed down by its topicality or lacking in humor, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! puts off a sort of freeing energy, a feeling of peace for its characters and readers. Wit and empathy, easy lyricality and elegant construction—these are Jonathan Evison’s strengths as a writer. They’re all here. But there’s truth here, too; lest we forget we live in the real world, not the kindly-lit soundstage of some American faerie tale.

The Sounds of Madness: The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” –Joyelle McSweeney

In our world, one in which images of impending environmental doom seem to simmer and bubble all around us—hapless polar bears on melting icebergs, seagulls slicked black with spilled oil, withering farmland and flooded cities—McSweeney’s concept of the necropastoral is at once intellectually vital and darkly comic. On its most basic level the term is ironic, a sort of Latinate, literary shorthand for man’s fundamentally flawed relationship with his planet, a marker for his simultaneous roles as victim and perpetrator, maker and reaper, of apocalypse. It’s also a term that seems uniquely descriptive of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s second novel, The Subprimes. Others would be infectious and breakneck, hilarious and profound.

The latest addition to the growing subgenre of cli-fi (or climate fiction), Greenfeld’s is one of, if not the best. Part satire, part preemptive elegy for a dying planet—and, really, who will be around to write (or read) an elegy if the unthinkable becomes reality?—The Subprimes may turn out to be one of 2015’s most-celebrated novels. With a language that splits the difference between Martin Amis’s slangy poetics and Vonnegut’s jabbing minimalism, more heart than any piece of comic writing I’ve ever read, and a narrative twist or three up its black little sleeves, The Subprimes is the work of a major, emerging talent in literary fiction.

I feel a little silly describing Greenfeld as an “emerging talent.” He’s published six books of nonfiction after all, written for The New York Times, GQ, and Vogue, and placed stories in the Best American Short Story series twice (2009 and 2013). Still, this is only his second novel. His first, Triburbia (2012), was a critical success Jay McInerney (writing forThe New York Times) called “artful” and Publishers Weekly described as “absorbing.” So, I’ll stick with “emerging.” Fair is fair.

The subprimes are average Americans in a near future that may become our own, a growing class of people with bad credit and worse job prospects edged out by the unfeeling (often insidious) forces of killer technology and market economics run amok. In an America that’s fracked its way to energy independence (and become the world’s largest energy producer as a result), families of dispossessed subprimes roam the American countryside in their beat-up, gas-guzzling SUV’s, postmodern Bedouins trapped in an American Nightmare.

The book’s main character (and narrator) is Richie Schwab, a dope smoking, middle-aged hack journalist. Richie’s dual role as reporter and story reminds me of the great, vaguely meta-fictional narrators Martin Amis used in his best novels (the London Trilogy of Money, London Fields, and The Information). A stand-in for the author himself, Richie’s role in both first and third person narrations plays with notions of truth and story, the lines between fact and fiction.

In addition to Richie, the cast is made up primarily of families: one of subprimes (Bailey, her husband Jeb, and their children, Tom and Vanessa), another in danger of becoming subprimes (Gemma, estranged wife of fraudulent energy derivatives trader, Arthur Mack, and her daughters, Franny and Ginny), and Richie’s own (his ex-wife Anya and their kids, Ronin and Jinx). There are two notable exceptions, both spiritual leaders of a sort: Sargam, a young woman who eventually becomes the leader of the subprime community at the center of the book’s drama, and televangelist Pastor Roger, leader of the famed Freedom Prairie Church (and pawn of wealthy industrialists, the Pepper Sisters). Though this list of characters may seem dizzying in the abstract, there’s never trouble keeping them all straight. The book is a smooth speedy read, one that nonetheless has a lot to say.

As the power of government yields to that of the corporation, the subprimes find themselves constantly on the run, moving from one Ryanville (camps reminiscent of the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression) to the next. There, they work wage-unregulated jobs (the minimum wage having been outlawed) at job sites unpoliced by the Feds (OSHA and the EPA, too, have gone the way of big government). It’s not only humanity that suffers in Greenfeld’s world: from whales mysteriously (maybe suicidally) beaching themselves to roving packs of ravenous coyotes and the blasted vistas left by industry run rampant, nature is in open rebellion against humanity in general and America in particular. With global warming accelerating, the wealthy plot their escapes to sanctuary islands where they dream of living untouched by the death all around them. Though they never come out and call themselves “primes,” the derision we hear leveled at the jobless, credit-unworthy subprimes carries echoes of the alphabetic caste system of Huxley’s Brave New World.

At the heart of Greenfeld’s future America rests the abandoned town of Valence, Nevada, an arena in which good and evil (or, better put, life and death) will meet in the forms of Sargam, Pastor Roger, and their respective flocks. Under the cyanide gaze of network news drones (and unintentionally-embedded journalist, Richie Schwab), Pastor Roger’s quest to bless the Pepper Sisters’ latest tool of resource extraction, the massive Joshua machine, will come up against Sargam’s philosophies of nonviolence and “people helping people.”

There will be losses on both sides, the worst of them born by children, which is one of the central points Greenfeld posits: humanity’s relationship with its environment is so unsustainable that it amounts to the rejection of a future beyond that which we can see and, on some level, the rejection of life. Couple this with the role of the supernatural in the book’s conclusion (earned though it is throughout) and we have the final piece of Greenfeld’s satire. In a world so clearly stripped of magic—so obviously a result of the victory of technology over everything including man—the idea of humanity being saved by supernatural means is laughable, no matter how good it might feel dramatically. In the wake of Greenfeld’s last, and maybe his darkest joke, the reader is left with two choices—either stop laughing altogether or laugh loud enough to drown out the sounds of madness all around you.

REVIEW: The Sea-God’s Herb by John Domini

Name your topic, spin the wheel, and the Internet spits back its wicked mix of information and innuendo, wisdom and witlessness. From Kim’s ass to Kanye’s ego, there’s no shortage of expertise in the online world. Literary criticism is no exception. Whether we’re talking about the meat-and-potatoes book review, the ten thousand word think-piece on Proust’s Peruvian gargoyle fetish, or something in between, there are plenty of would-be tastemakers anxious to be heard.

Browse Goodreads or Amazon some time—go on, I dare you—and you’ll find every subspecies of reviewer from the fresh MFA to the self-taught literary gunslinger, from the five-star friend fluffer to the less-than-zero literary lunatic. You’ll find people who don’t even bother to review the book under discussion, proffering instead a link to their own two hundred thousand word, unedited opus. Then, of course, you may also find that most essential and least populous subspecies, the professional literary critic. Somebody, let’s say, like John Domini.

Domini’s latest, The Sea-God’s Herb, represents an attempt at the career-spanning retrospective, a task that seems thrilling and deeply satisfying, but also daunting in its way. The potential pitfalls are obvious. If, on one hand, the critic claims too much ground he may become scattershot or even grandiose in his attempt to tie the whole of literature up in a neat little package. One example, titanic a figure as Harold Bloom, there’s still no getting around the fact that his ego gets the better of him from book to book. But, then, he is Harold Bloom, so we go along with the hubris in order to partake of the genius.

Conversely, there’s the mistake of not trying to do enough with a collection of criticism, of being satisfied with little more than a one-way ticket to reprint city. This seems to me a far greater flaw than bravado or hubris. What do we look for from the critic, especially when considering a career-spanning collection of criticism? We want the goods—erudition and insight, style and grace. We expect to see the critic’s literary vision on the page, and for the critic to examine it with us, for him to provide scope as to what he’s spent several decades doing. This is precisely what we get with The Sea-God’s Herb.

Sea-God is a collection of forty pieces drawn from sources such as New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Boston Globe, Ploughshares,American Book Review, Harvard Review, and Bookforum. Aside from the odd topical lark (the Sopranos, Che Guevara, and the 1995 Italian Metamorphosis Exhibit at The Guggenheim come to mind), the focus is primarily on postmodernism (and a fair amount of metafiction), which makes sense given that Domini studied in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (one of the academic homes of American literary experimentalism). Morrison and Calvino, Delillo and Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and Gass all get their space here, the whole organized around a seemingly unlikely source, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As Domini puts it himself:

“Transformation would be another word for it, a word that gives me my title. The source is Dante, the first Canto of Paradiso, which begins a lot like Coover on Beckett. It begins in doubt, as the Poet frets that he can never get across the wonders he’s seen. He must trasumanar,‘transhumanize,’ in the Divine Comedy’s distinguishing neologism. Yet his guide Beatrice helps him achieve this altered state with a single long look:

Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming

what Glaucus had become tasting the herb

that made him like the other sea-gods there.

The translation is Mark Musa’s, but the myth referred to remains the same in any idiom. A fisherman notices that a certain shore grass revives his dead catch and so he tries the stuff himself; he becomes a god. What’s more, Glaucus stays that way. He gets no comeuppance, making miracles and collecting lovers. Ovid, Dante’s source, no doubt took pleasure in how the story upset expectation.”

Domini is talking about himself here, explaining the impetus for the collection and more still for the decades he’s spent framing reviews and cobbling criticism while his own creative work (three novels, two books of short stories, and a poetry collection) beckoned. He finds himself mesmerized by the power of storytelling, so much that it animates his thoughts (and writing) even when the topic is the architecture of metafiction or the translation of 14th century Italian epic poetry.

And this is the ironic trick Domini gives us, the way he manages to keep to a middle path between excessive pride and lack of ambition: he sets the focus squarely on himself, his own work and tastes, copping to the idiosyncrasy of any career retrospective, any literary criticism for that matter. Much as someone like the eminent Harold Bloom may want to give us The Western Canon, he’s really only giving us one version, his own.

The strengths of this collection are its playful prose, intellectual depth, and the breadth of texts it covers, the fact that it finds space not only for Dante and postmodern giants like Calvino, but younger writers, the “Coming Tide” as the Sea-God motif labels them, people like Matt Bell and Blake Butler. In this, Domini pays tribute to his real aim, the reason he’s spent so much time on criticism, a desire not for self-aggrandizement but at advocacy for what he loves.

As for the individual pieces here, the strongest for me are his multiple (justified) defenses of John Barth, his amusing takedown of Pynchon’sVineland, and his fine, very recent piece on Calvino, Chessboard & Cornucopia: 40 Years of Invisible Cities. Then, of course, there are the two essays that provide the collection’s thematic spine—Tower, Tree, Candle: Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Triumph of the Fragility and Against “the Impossible to Explain:” The Postmodern Novel and Society. All things considered, Sea-God is a treat for the literary geek in each of us (or, at least, those of us who have an inner literary geek), an ambitious grad lit seminar crammed into a single book, one only John Domini could teach.

REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

You wouldn’t think we’d find the apocalypse so compelling. If it comes—when it comes—the end won’t be pretty. In fact, it will almost certainly be grizzly. Still, we love to think about it, to watch films about it, and read novels about it. Some people might call this humanity’s death wish. To me, it seems like the opposite, ironic as that is.

Our obsession with the end runs hand-in-hand with our desire to understand ourselves and our origins, a belief that if we know what’s coming we’ll be able to stop it. In this way apocalyptic literature has the ring of prophecy or fleshed-out fortune-telling—part of its seductiveness the idea that there are secrets hidden within. But there’s another level to apocalyptic literature, the best of it at least. Here, I’d include Emily St. John Mandel’s latest, Station Eleven, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Ultimately, these books fulfill Milan Kundera’s lofty goal for the novel (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting):

“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything… In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.”

Station Eleven is a rare piece of work, one that succeeds dramatically and linguistically, philosophically and thematically. In this, it shares something with one of its great and obvious obsessions, the life and work of William Shakespeare. That’s not to raise Mandel’s art to the level of Shakespeare’s—a comparison the author herself would no doubt shy from—but to say that Station Eleven is a book of its time in much the way Shakespeare’s work was of his, one well deserving of its status as a National Book Award finalist.

The world of Station Eleven is stark and blighted, most of the novel set in the aftermath of the Georgia Flu, a pandemic that has killed almost 100% of the world’s population. Humanity’s remnant clings to the basics of existence, the skeleton of a civilization at once deluded and grand, foolish and hopeful, arrogant and doomed. That civilization is, of course, our own.

With antibiotics, electricity, the Internet, and countless other, modern conveniences stripped away humanity’s survivors don’t so much try to rebuild society as subsist in the shadow of what once was. They live as hunter-gatherers and scavengers, marauders and zealots, such technology as remains both blessing and curse, fodder for children’s stories but also for feelings of despair, a pall of grief fallen across a stricken world. Station Eleven becomes a poetic lament for the scientific magic that has been lost, “These taken for granted miracles that had persisted all around them.”

From the opening chapter, in which famed actor, Arthur Leander, dies during a performance of King Lear, to its dramatic focus on the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of gun-toting, knife-wielding players that roam the pandemic-ravaged, post-apocalyptic world performing classical music and Shakespeare (their motto, Because Survival is Insufficient), to the story of Station Eleven itself (a fictional space station that serves as locus for the novel’s meta-fictional book within a book) Mandel’s novel centers on the struggle between existence and transcendence, a conflict that rests at the heart of the human experience.

This struggle takes multiple forms, the differences between existence and transcendence not always so easy to see. Just as in our world, many are led astray by religion even after “the apocalypse,” none more than the prophet and his followers, their holy books the New Testament (and, of course, the Book of Revelation), but also the graphic novel, “Station Eleven.”

Yes, somehow “Station Eleven” has found its way into the prophet’s hands but also into the hands of Kirsten Raymonde, a member of the Traveling Symphony. A child actress who was performing with Arthur Leander the night he died, Kirsten received her copy from him, as ultimately did the prophet. Over the course of the novel these two characters and their two radically different interpretations of Station Eleven draw ever closer, building towards a final life and death confrontation that comes to feel epic in scope.

Station Eleven is one of the finest novels I’ve read in some time, a book that succeeds sentence to sentence, scene to scene, and as a piece of philosophical art. In spite of its obsession with Shakespeare’s life and work, this book doesn’t set out to court greatness. But with the restrained brilliance of its prose, the humility of its attention to story and dramatic construction, and its unwillingness to give us easy answers it may have achieved that greatness all the same.

POLITICAL TIME MACHINE

 for THE WEEKLINGS

AS #2 AS

 

Nuclear Nightmares

If you lived through any part of the Cold War, you know this to be true: The looming possibility of nuclear war, its lived potentiality, is a horrible thing. But nuclear nightmares are worse. They come when you least expect them, when you’re absolutely not ready. Which may be brutal, but is also fitting. If the end ever comes, that’s how it will happen. Not as something we get to game out for months or years in advance but with an immediacy that forces us to deal, that refuses us the leisure to turn away…

When I was a child I had nightmares about nuclear war, more than I can count, more than I can even remember. Charged with confusion and fear, littered with loved ones, celebrities, and strangers, fleeting safety and last-second countdowns the wars in my head never made sense. They just sort of happened. Oh, there was usually some idyllic ground situation—something about happiness, belonging, or love—but by the time things really got going there was no rhyme to it, no cause spelled out, no sides defined. The dream-thoughts were as base as “I’m going to die, and there’s nothing I can do about it”. Fortunately, I always woke up. The fear was still there even when I was awake, though. (How else could it have gotten into my dreams?) But it wasn’t as strong. When I was awake the world made more sense. Sometimes only a little more.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was what they called it back then. They still do actually. MAD is the idea that if both sides know they’re going to be destroyed by a nuclear war, that will be enough to dissuade them from engaging in one. I won’t belabor the point, but the only time MAD makes any sort of sense is when you look at it as an alternative to the end of the world, to everyone and everything you’ve ever known dying in some combination of fiery rain and endless winter. And, then…well, then, it makes plenty of sense. When you put it like that, MAD seems downright sane.

The trouble with MAD—one of many—is that it relies on rough symmetry both in the potential to incur damage and the ability to inflict it. It counts on the ability to know who the combatants are, their relative sanity, and a certain desire for self-preservation. MAD falls apart if any of these fail on either side. That’s just what’s happening, though, as you sit reading this. As nuclear weapons proliferate, pass first into the hands of smaller countries, then all countries, then extra-national operators, the idea of MAD loses its value. Maybe it already has. Maybe MAD has already become the bankrupt ideology it was always destined to be. That’s not necessarily a good thing, though. Remember, the alternative may well be the end of the world.

I haven’t had any nuclear nightmares in a long time, but I have a feeling they may start again, soon. Yes, it’s true I can’t control them, so I don’t know precisely when they’ll come. They’re not something I want to have anyway. But that doesn’t make me immune. Far from it.

America and the world are moving, changing in ways that have me thinking more and more of the nuclear, not only in a military sense; but politically. The idea of the endless chain reaction of competing extremisms seems to echo yesterday’s Mutual Assured Destruction. Like symbiotic vampires Left and Right feed off each other, each grow more powerful in opposition to the other. They grow more powerful and less predictable, and those nuclear nightmares of my childhood begin to seem more and more like a possible reality. 

AS #2 HRC

 

The Trip to Ground Zero: A Scenario

In spite of Hillary Clinton’s imposing leads in polling, financing, and endorsements Bernie Sanders pulls off one political miracle after another. A tie in Iowa, a win in New Hampshire, another strong showing in Nevada. South Carolina is a close call for Clinton, far closer than people expected. The same with the other SEC primaries on March 1. By the end of March, Bernie is the frontrunner, his support solid among minorities, working people, and younger voters. As Senior Advisor Tad Devine jokingly refers to them, “The three legs of Bernie’s electoral stool.”

Bernie continues building momentum, wins all the major states—Texas and Michigan; Florida and Illinois; Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania—on his way to a sort of coronation Californian-style. Sporting a floral laurel and Foster Grants for his victory speech, Bernie beams beneficently as he flashes twin V’s, dueling peace signs underscoring just how different, just how positive, his campaign has been. Sure, maybe Bernie has gone a little Hollywood, but in a good way; a way that says he’s doing it all for us. And the important thing is that he’s sure he’s won. So is everyone else. As the headline of the LA Times reads the next morning, “PRESIDENT BERNIE: THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!!!”

Alas, once the DNC’s team of actuarial and accounting mercenaries are deployed to “calculate” “the calculations,” to “do the math”, it becomes clear that in spite of Bernie’s lead in delegates, he doesn’t have enough to secure the nomination. Clinton holds out, tries every trick. She’s a fighter who, not surprisingly, seems to want to fight. With Bill growing more vicious by the day, proportional representation, and those pesky, establishment superdelegates in her back pocket Hillary makes a thing of it. She out and out refuses to #feelthebern.

Hillary’s campaign and Super-PACS may be bone dry, but she deploys her massive personal fortune to hire legions of attorneys, theoretical logicians, and rogue mathematicians, to send the Democratic nomination process into an absolute tizzy.MSNBC can’t believe its luck, Joe Scarborough going so far as to pleasure himself on-air. Footage emerges of Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell drunk in a bar, kicking the crap out of a Hillary piñata as they cackle madly.

Bernie sues over the superdelegates. Hillary counter-sues over the fact that she’s going to lose. Debbie Wasserman Schultz counter-counter-sues over the fact that she’s not going to be the first Jewish-American President. The constitutionality of superdelegates heads to SCOTUS for judicial review. Unfortunately, SCOTUS is still down a justice and already busy puzzling over the increasingly complex issue of VP nominee Ted Cruz’s citizenship status.

Various theories have surfaced as to Cruz’s origins. The New York Times breaks a story that he was actually born in Kenya while his father was doing missionary work there. At the age of seventeen days, he immigrated to Canada. Is he Kenyan? Canadian? American? Kenyan-Canadian-American? There are other theories, though. Is he the alien from Alien? The spawn of Satan and an ill-tempered sea lion? Some sort of evil, advanced Neanderthal who time traveled here from prehistory? A werelizard hatched in the swamps of East Texas, an unshakeable case of eczema responsible for his foul humor and perpetual oiliness? Obama’s Bizarro twin arrived from some alternate dimension, the Christianization of America his only goal? Fearing all the conjecture may damage the opinion that Trump himself is the most fearsome creature in American politics, he drops Cruz from the ticket, renaming him Ted Lose.

As the Democratic convention nears, SCOTUS issues its ruling that the party’s use of superdelegates is absolutely constitutional. By that point, though, the superdelegates in question have grown tired of the rancorous obstructionism of the Clinton camp. They begin switching their votes just as they did to Obama eight years earlier. Soon, Bernie has enough delegates to give him the nomination causing Tad Devine to crow, “I told you he was exactly like Obama.”

Clinton concedes before the convention. Rather than agreeing to campaign for Bernie as she had for Obama years earlier, both she and her husband decide to skip the convention, to retire into private life. As do the millions of middle-aged women who supported her. (The skipping, not the retiring. Come on, this is America, who has money for retirement?) President Obama bypasses the convention, too; now convinced that a win for Bernie may mean the destruction of Obamacare. Vice President Biden agrees to headline but comes down with alcohol poisoning the first night and is unable to give his keynote address. Killer Mike subs in, establishing himself as a political force for years to come.

With the two major parties having had their conventions and fielded their candidates, third party action begins to come hot and heavy. In addition to perennial two-percenter, the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein, two more formidable (and paranormal) third partiers emerge. Leveraging disappointment that Trump isn’t really a Nazi and Bernie isn’t really a Marxist, Baby Hitler’s Ghost (BHG) and the Risen Specter of Karl Marx (TRSOKM) throw their metaphorical metaphysical hats in the ring. Soon, BHG and TRSOKM are polling in high single digits. Still, for obvious reasons, the networks refuse to open up the debates. Rabid multi-party-system activists protest to no avail.

There are two Presidential debates, another between the VP candidates (academic/activist Dr. Cornel West squares off against Mountain Dew’s diabolical Super Bowl advertising creation, puppymonkeybaby (who has replaced Cruz)). While Dr. West uses his signature blend of theology, philosophy, and the occasional rhyme to torch Mountain Dew’s celebrity spokescreature in a strict “debating” sense—puppymonkeybaby, it turns out, really is only able to say “puppymonkeybaby”—voters seem to identity with puppymonkeybaby’s creepy cuteness and charmingly limited way with words, likening the situation to the times they elected George W. Bush President. All in, the Vice Presidential debate is its usual electoral non-factor though sales of Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and Mountain Dew Code Red Special puppymonkeybaby Edition do spike.

Going into the third presidential debate on October 19, Realclearpolitics.com shows national polling averages of Trump 38.7%, Sanders 37.5%, 11% each for Baby Hitler’s Ghost and the Risen Specter of Karl Marx, and 1.8% for Dr. Jill Stein.

AS #2 PMB

 

Last Words

And, so, on a bracing evening in late October, Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump meet for their third and final debate…

“Polls show you and Senator Sanders neck and neck, Mr. Trump,” says Megyn Kelly, big, heavily-mascaraed eyes narrowing to set the play.

Trump nods in response, his face a rusty mass of judiciously jowly constipation.

Megyn continues, “As to the campaign’s central issue of foreign policy, does Russia’s so-called ‘friendly’ invasion of Poland require a military response?”

“Thank you for that question, Megyn. And I just want to say how glad I am you’ve learned a little respect over these last few months. By the way, you’re looking lovely, absolutely, humongously beautiful.”

“Uh, uh, Megyn,” interjects Bernie, waving his index finger for an unseen waiter. “Trump is not answering the question. He’s flattering you, using flattery to distract you I mean.”

“Hey, shut up, Bern Out. Can’t you see I’m talking to the lady? Go back to playing with your Josef Stalin action figures over there in the corner, OK, loser?”

Sanders looks expectantly to Kelly and her co-moderator Rush Limbaugh. No luck. The primaries over, Trump’s all they’ve got and the Republicans are sticking to him.

“I love Putin. He’s a great guy. And we can work with him, no question. So, no, a military response won’t be necessary.”

“All right, Mr. Trump, what if, for example, Russia were to move into Germany next. President Obama has already drawn a bright red line across the German border. And Senator Sanders has agreed.”

Bernie nods, raises an index finger once again, waves it frenetically as Trump continues talking.

“OK, now that, Megyn, there you’re right. I can guarantee Putin wouldn’t invade Germany if he was dealing with a President Trump. No way. President Commie over there, who can be sure?” Trump hooks a thumb in Bernie’s direction, exhales dramatically, and glares briefly at the ceiling.

“But if he did…”

“If he did, all options would be on the table.”

“Nuclear?”

“Yes, nuclear. What part of me being the most militaristic candidate ever haven’t you understood?”

Finally grown tired of motioning for service, Bernie busts in. “So, let me get this straight, Megyn, because I think…I think what we’ve got here is Trump saying…Is he really saying he’d use nuclear weapons against—?”

“Listen, Mr. Conscientious Objector…Listen and shut up. I’m going to talk to the guy, work things out. I’ll offer him some sort of split, back like we had in the Cold War. Things were good then, stable. So we give him a slice of Germany, call it a day.”

Bernie: “What if he doesn’t go along, nuclear war?”

“Maybe on a limited basis. But probably not. More likely, I’d invade Mexico.”

Megyn: “Senator Sanders?”

“Mexico? So, Trump is saying he’s going to annex Mexico? I thought your wall was designed to keep all the Mexicans out, Mr. Big Shot.”

“Listen, Bernie, I said invade Mexico. Try listening for a change. We’re going to put up the wall. It’s going to be an excellent wall—the most, best, biggest, highest wall—but walls have doors, right, genius?”

Bernie shrugs.

Trump continues, “We’re going to open the door and send fifteen, twenty massive columns of tanks through.”

“So, again, annex Mexico…”

“No, no, NO. And I’m not talking any old columns of tanks here. I’m talking Trump columns, Roman columns of tanks, but better. Tanks painted gold as far as the eye can see, sprinkled with rhinestones, tanks that come with their own PA systems that blast Wagner for miles. It’s going to be the classiest invasion anyone’s ever seen. We’ll sell tickets to come watch it in the screening room at the White House, make a killing. We’ll give the money to the Lead Water Kids up in Michigan. Once we’re in, we’ll secure the oil fields, then we’ll take the oil as payment for the wall and whatever else. Then we get out. Simple. None of this protracted war crappola. Exit strategy. Plus we’ve got my wall up by then so they couldn’t do anything anyway.”

Rush: “Mr. Trump, I understand you’ve decided to call it the Great Wall of Trump?”

“Not a bad name, Rush. But that’s not really for me to say.”

“Why not?”

“I’ll leave that to the people in charge of monuments, whoever that is?”

Megyn: “Actually, that would be you, Mr. Trump.”

“Are you getting snippy, Megyn? Don’t make me bring Erin Burnett out here again.”

Megyn scowls. “And the Russians?”

“What is it with this obsession for the Russians? You sure you don’t just want a date with Putin?”

“You still haven’t told us what you’d do other than…other than invade Mexico.”

“We do a split like I said. We negotiate. And if that doesn’t work out, who needs sausages and BMW’s? We can make our own over here.”

“Turning to another foreign policy question: Senator Sanders, you said on several occasions during the campaign you see North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace. Do you still feel that way today, in light of Poland?”

“Actually, Megyn, yes, I do. This Kim is a wild dictator and he’s working on nuclear weapons. You have to look at people with nuclear weapons on another scale. It’s a different level of threat.”

“Mr. Trump?”

“Kim Schmim. Wait until ISIS has a nuclear weapon then you’ll see what real fear can be.”

“And what would you do if they got one?”

“Let the Israelis or Putin take care of it of course, no sense depleting our arsenal. Everybody knows if we wanted to we could destroy the entire world including ourselves many times over. And that ability’s just going to increase tremendously with Trump as President. We’re going to be more powerful than you ever dreamed.”

“So, no response?”

“Again, what aren’t you understanding? Of course I’d respond. I’d probably attack, I don’t know, Venezuela maybe. They’ve got a lot of oil.”

Bernie: “Trump says invade Venezuela but the Venezuelans are a peace-loving Socialist people. They give free heating oil to Joe Kennedy’s People’s Energy Program. How can we in good conscience invade Venezuela?”

Donald Trump: “I wasn’t talking about conscience. I was talking about oil.”

Bernie: “And nuclear war. You were also talking about nuclear war.”

Trump: “So were you. But let me tell you something, if Trump starts a nuclear war, it’s going to be a great nuclear war, the most fiery, fallout-heavy, centuries-long-nuclear-winterish war anyone could imagine. And if that war happens you can bet we’re going to win. We’re going to win so well, it’ll feel like we’ve won twice, maybe even three times.”

 

AS #2 TRUMPAS #2 BERN

SCREAM, DREAM, NIGHTMARE

 for THE WEEKLINGS

The American Scream

Scream, Dream, Nightmare

There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile. –Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator

Trump ScreamingBernie Screaming

I.

America is screaming. Can you hear it? High and wild, ragged and angry and more than a little insane. Everyone screaming out their own needs in their own time—the sum a three-hundred-million man opera, the soundtrack to a movie none of us wanted to see.

We’re screaming for shiny guns and safer streets, kick-ass foreign policy and lasting peace. Screaming for babies and women, men and fetuses, law and freedom, money and compassion, a God of love and a theology of hate.

We’re screaming for Star Wars and the War on Terror, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar. Screaming for Empire and Homeland,Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Screaming for emojis, Bitcoins, and Craigslist.

We’re screaming about executive orders and would-be dictators; Marxism, fascism, and plenty of other –isms. Screaming for political systems we don’t believe in, philosophies we don’t understand, and feelings we can’t even name.

We’re screaming for taxes (lower, higher, different, better) and government regulation (more, less, old, new). Screaming for Jesus and Allah, Yahweh and a hundred other deities. Screaming for TV’s and stereos, cars and toasters, houses and vacuum cleaners. Lives and dreams, sanity and charity; salvation, desolation, immigration, integration.

America is screaming for all those things and more. But sometimes, most of the time these days, I think we’re screaming just to hear our own voices. Or, maybe not even that. Maybe many of us are screaming just to scream, screaming as a way to prove we’re still alive.

No matter the reasons, the end result is that these screams threaten to become all we have, to leave us unable to hear each other anymore, to leave us, perhaps, unable to hear each other ever again. Maybe the American Dream was always destined to die screaming—the victim of a blood feud between fascist right and Utopian left; a petty, pitched battle that promises to leave us with the ability to hate, nothing more.

 

II.

The term is real at least. The American Dream, I mean. The phrase is a product of the Great Depression, one of the darkest times of our history, James Truslow Adams credited with popularizing it in his book Epic of America (1931). Which makes sense: The darker things seem the more we crave light. And if you can’t find a real source—if you can’t find the sun or at least a lamp—you have to invent it. You have to dream. Still, the idea of something like an American Dream, a sort of national hope, long predates James Truslow Adams. Elements of it have been with us since before there was even an America.

In the beginning, the American Dream was a colonial dream, a dream of the world’s great powers like England and France, Spain and Holland, a dream of freedom and riches beyond a great ocean. The American dream wasn’t a dream for everyone back then, back when it was the English-French-Spanish-Dutch American Dream. It was a nightmare for the people who were already here, in what would come to be known as the Americas. In many ways it still is.

To the extent there were native cultures in America, civilizations that stem from a time before European colonization, they have been subjugated or destroyed. Go on and ask Native Americans about the American Dream. They might tell you theirs: That America had never happened, that Europeans had found a passage to India, the place they were really looking for. But America did happen and the world changed. This is what we tell ourselves. What we don’t tell ourselves is that the American Dream itself changes over time. It changes to meet our needs and sometimes to suit our purposes.

We’ve dreamed of land and money and gold. We’ve dreamed of innocence and peace, good and evil, God and country. We dreamed an end to British tyranny and (eventually) an end to Southern slavery. We dreamed of the farewell to kings World War I became, the defeat of fascism that was World War II, the Cold War’s defeat of totalitarian Marxism.

We’ve dreamed medical and scientific breakthroughs and accumulations of knowledge greater than humanity had ever seen before. We’ve dreamed of being the Great Melting Pot and the Arsenal of Democracy, dreamed of being a nation where everyone has the same rights. We’ve dreamed of religious liberty and a free press, opportunity, fairness, and freedom.

We’ve dreamed Jefferson’s dreams and Martin Luther King’s dreams, Obama’s dreams and JFK’s dreams. But we’ve had our nightmares, too. In fact, in many ways it seems the American Nightmare is inextricably linked to the American Dream. Maybe in the end, they’re really the same thing, two sides of the same coin. Slavery, Women’s Rights, Segregation, Wealth Inequality. We’ve watched all these things be dreams to some, nightmares to others.

And maybe the American Scream, the one we hear today, is born of the reconciliation of the American Dream with its sometimes-nightmarish consequences, of the certainty that the American Dream is never everyone’s dream, that there are always winners and losers. Maybe that’s why we scream. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing will ever be enough. Neither ourselves nor our neighbors, neither America nor the world.

 

III.

Different people would trace today’s screams—today’s anger—from different events. Conservatives might look back at Watergate and Roe v. Wade or what they see as the unfair treatment Bush 43 received. They might look back on President Clinton’s in-office sexual escapades, see those as a lapse of integrity, an abuse of power. Progressives might look back at the way Clinton and his wife were dogged by Congressional investigations, decades of fishing expeditions that have ultimately come to nothing concrete. They might look at the 2000 Presidential election—the voting and governmental irregularities in Florida, the Supreme Court’s surprising, partisan decision. They might look at the War in Iraq or the Bush tax cuts, the Tea Party movement and the disrespect President Obama has received from his opponents.

Whatever the reasons, there’s plenty of anger to go around in today’s America, plenty of screaming, right and left. But over time, as a steady state, screaming is not the activity of great nations. It’s the province of the world’s problem children, countries wracked by religious and political extremism; militarism, racism, and classism. In a greater sense, humanity measures progress not in terms of anger but in terms of civility, in terms of the average life lived.

If, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then, we must hope, the arc of history, long as it is, may bend towards democracy. Real democracy, that is; which means, one person, one vote, regardless of race, gender, religion, or wealth. And with democracy must come some measure of civility, the confidence to be able to listen to those with opposing views, to be able to see areas for compromise and expand on them. This is the charge of government throughout history: to negotiate, to moderate.

History is discussed in measured tones, sometimes even whispers; as though its wisdom is certain, its truth unassailable. The way back always seems clear in history, the tipping points obvious, the events that drive the course of humanity sure. But the path to history is never clear. That path, reality, is confusing and messy, filled with false starts and head fakes. Reality is filled not with dreams, or even nightmares, but with screams. We rely on our leaders to make decisions in spite of the screams, not to be the loudest voices wailing in the darkness.

Is 2016 a tipping point, one that will be spoken of in grave tones at some point in the future? The year fascism began to take over America? The year socialism did? Or, will we just look back on it as another point in time, a crisis narrowly averted; yet another point when sense prevailed in the country’s broad middle, when the screams of right and left were loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to drown out democracy, the understanding that we must compromise, that both right and left fail when they claim too much ground, when they come to believe their voices are the only ones or, worse still, the only ones that matter.

The screamers are loud this year, their champions with names like Cruz, Sanders, and Trump. They’re attracting followers, claiming territory. But one set of extremists craving (and delivering) a knockout punch to another set of extremists isn’t how you govern a free society. It’s the path to dysfunction or worse.

As the models of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia prove, totalitarianism can come under guise of right or left. It can come first for the Jews or the aristocracy, the Muslims or the bankers. It can even come under the guise of good. But it never comes clothed as moderation. Totalitarianism is always sure of itself, always willing to tell you who it is and why it’s right. It’s always willing to scream in your face, to scream that it’s the only way. It’s that sure of itself. Which is when you have to recognize just how wrong it is.

THE BITTER AND THE SWEET: MY UPGRADE TO WINDOWS 10

 for THE WEEKLINGS

 

shutterstock_113271826

 I.

Like an electronic Benjamin Button, like a newborn at death’s door, my laptop was only a year old but it was already feeling its age. The sadness of that statement shouldn’t be lost on you, nor should the facts that we’re actually talking about a computer and Benjamin Button wasn’t real.

All the same, whether it had been the two weeks in Europe, the three in Alaska, or something else entirely, the problems were there for my Toshiba. The screen freezes and start-up shudders. The unresponsive keyboard and hypersensitive touchpad. The clicking and clacking. The fucking clucking.

I knew I needed to do something, but what? I didn’t want to take the risk of putting my machine in the shop. Sure, I had the accidental computer death-and-dismemberment plan, but the idea of subjecting my poor Toshiba to the Geek’s Squad’s tender mercies, to losing my office for a week or six, was just too much.

What about the software, though? What about Windows? Maybe the operating system upgrade I’d been putting off for so long would do the trick (or part of it), at least enough to spare me my twice-daily reveries of glare-and-prayer as I cold-rebooted out of this screen stutter or that systemic kvetch? Maybe Windows 10 was the answer?

Looming at the lower right of my screen—a tiny, white, four-part flag, ubiquitously available and purportedly perfect—the new Windows was supposed to be just that; a tanned, toned, rested and ready 10, a Bo Derek of operating systems. Still, I had my doubts, more than doubts really. I had battle scars, trauma, probably a legitimate case of computer-generated PTSD. I’d been through this sort of upgrade (as they insisted on calling it) many times before.

There’d been Windows for Workgroups 3.1, 3.10, and 3.11; Windows 4.0, 4.1, 4.9, 95, 95 OSR 2, 96, 97, and 98; Windows NT OS/2, 3.5, and 4.0; Windows ME; Windows 2000 64-Bit; Windows 2001; Windows XP; Windows Vista; Windows 7 and 8.1. That wasn’t even it, though. There’d been cute codenames for these and other aborted Windows—names for things that we didn’t really need names for, things that had never commercially existed, never taken shape beyond the mind of some faceless developer.

There’d been Winball and Sparta; Snowball and Chicago; Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Millennium, Razzle, Daytona, SUR, Cairo, Janus, Impala, Neptune, Odyssey, Whistler, Longhorn, Blackcomb, Vienna, and Blue. I’d been through all of them, lived through all of them at least. Sure, there’d been good points (solitaire, Word, post-its, screen savers), but there’d been problems, too. Lots of problems. So, like I said, I had doubts, questions. But who to ask? Who to go to for help…

“You’re having problems,” intoned a woman’s voice. Light and sweet, yet resonant—as though gifted with a permanent background vocalist—the sound was otherworldly but pleasant, beautiful even. It was…angelic.

I turned right and left, looked up, down. But there was no one anywhere, not a soul. Was I having auditory hallucinations? Had I finally, predictably, cracked under the weight of reality? But just as I was doubting my own sanity, I heard it again, realized that yes, definitely, I had lost my mind.

“You have questions?” asked the voice.A tap on the shoulder followed a split-second later.

I turned to see an angel before me (err, behind, actually), hovering a foot off the ground, outlined in a cloudy, gilded nimbus. Beautiful and blonde, she wore rainments of white, silken light. She looked exactly like a young Bo Derek, but with a halo and wings. Wings that went flap, flap, flap.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m your Microsoft guardian angel, Scrimshaw. I’m here to help you with your upgrade.”

“You look exactly like Bo Derek.”

“I know.”

“Why?”

“You’ve seen our advertising. How else would the Customer Support Angel for a product as perfect as Windows 10 look?”

She had a point. But doubts lingered. As I said, I’d been through this Microsoft rodeo more than once. “So, what is this then, like point oh?”

“Point oh?” Scrimshaw replied, smiling winsomely, her wings going flap, flap, flap.

“Yeah, like, point oh, point one, point two?”

“Oh, point oh!?” She laughed.

“Right, that.”

“No problem,” she said.

“Can you be a little more specific?”

She raised a single, tanned finger skyward. She pulled out her IPhone 6 (From where, who knew?), put us on speaker, and dialed up Redmond.

“Scrimshaw,” a team of attendants answered in chorus.

Obviously they’d been waiting for our call ever since Microsoft had first invited me to upgrade. I felt like we’d dialed up Heaven, like we had a direct line to the Almighty. And, hell, I did have a computer support angel flapping her wings right there next to me. How wrong could I be? How bad could things go?

“I have Mr. Baumeister with me,” Scrimshaw offered.

“Good morning, Mr. Baumeister,” they chirruped.

“Good morning…” I turned to Scrimshaw, realizing I didn’t know what to call them. I’d never been confronted with a customer service legion before. This was like Greek tragedy, but without the Greek or the tragedy.

“Staff. You can just call them staff.” She nodded. “Or the Borg if you want?”

“Borg?”

“Little Star Trek joke. Go ahead.”

“Err…Good morning, Staff.”

“Good morning, Mr. Baumeister,” they replied again.

Scrimshaw nodded with satisfaction. “Mr. Baumeister has a few questions before we go through with the upgrade.”

“Of course,” they sang as one.

Me: “This isn’t going to damage my computer, is it?”

Microsoft: “Absolutely not.”

“There are procedures in place, protocols to guard my personal data, to make sure it’s not destroyed in the upgrade?”

“Absolutely, yes. Plus…”

“Plus what?”

“Plus, Scrimshaw will be there to assist should you have any problems.” I turned to her, there she was still holding the IPhone 6, still flapping her wings and smiling. Good old Scrimshaw. “Of course, you’re right, I don’t know why I was being so silly.”

“She’s one of our best and brightest.”

Scrimshaw nodded confidently.

“Will that be all, Mr. Baumeister?” asked the chorus of Microsoft staffers.

“Yes, it will,” I replied. “And thank you.”

“No, Mr. Baumeister, thank you.”

And that was it. The upgrade worked perfectly. And we all lived happily ever after…

320682-bo-derek

II.

There are no angels, Peggy Sue, not for you or me. And if there were—if we lived in a different, better world—those angels wouldn’t be brought to us by the grasping ministrations of the Microsoft Corporation. I can fairly well assure you of that.

Now, this is the truth. Listen…

The part about my Toshiba being glitchy was real, the fact that I did upgrade to Windows 10. The further reality is that Windows 10 killed my computer, took it to a point at which I had no choice but to return my Toshiba to its factory presets. It was either that or brave the Geek Squad, and the laptop privation I’d feared (most likely, based on past experience, with no better outcome than this). Thus, I suppose, I technically upgraded twice: first to, then from, Windows 10.

The truth about the protocols that were supposed to protect my personal data is that they either didn’t really exist or didn’t function properly. (Likely the latter, since Microsoft no longer provides Windows 10 upgrades for my make and model of computer.) As for my own personal protection protocol, the Norton online backup? That didn’t work either.

The worst part of this whole endeavor, worse than the eight hours it took, is the information I lost when my hard drive was wiped. Everything from tax and financial files to drafts of poetry, nonfiction, and a novel, a sort of mythological crime fantasy called Loki’s Gambit.

Now, I hadn’t been happy with the progress I’d made on Loki’s Gambit in 2015. Sure, I’d made headway from the often meaningless page- and word-count standpoints and, perfect or not, there was a sure comfort, a steadiness, in having those pages and words, those bits and bytes. I had the physical proof the year hadn’t been a creative waste. Now I don’t. When I un-upgraded, everything that had resided on that hard drive went zippety-zap.

After I checked my online backups and realized they hadn’t executed properly, my initial response was shock, a sort of semi-stupefied horror. I sat there for a couple minutes, repeating the word “fuck” again and again. But, as I had more of a chance to think about what I’d lost, I began to focus on how unhappy I’d been with my recent work, that beyond the conceptual loss, the piece of Loki’s Gambit that had just died didn’t seem that great. Which got me thinking on a more basic level about what had happened, made me consider whether I’d actually meant subconsciously for it to happen. Was this a sort of unwitting assisted suicide for a novel gone awry?

There are plenty of ways to kill a novel, almost all of them subconscious on some level. There’s lack of skill or talent, luck or work ethic, bad dialogue, scant plot, wooden prose, an unintelligible story, any number of different forms of execution by lack of execution. There’s clinging to a bad idea. No matter how much effort you put into your western romance formed of a thousand linked haikus, it’s not going to work out. Sorry, cupcake.

There’s excessive focus on the superficial, too; making something so pretty or mannered that it can’t stand as a piece of narrative. There’s obsession with theme or overwhelming politicization; also ways of creating a beast that seems viable in your mind, but can’t live in the real world. And then there’s the simplicity of what happened to Loki’s Gambit, death by deletion, making it so that whatever it was, whatever I’d once had, now no longer existed. Which was when I remembered that this had actually happened to me once before.

The first time was just after I’d finished my undergrad. Back in those days, back in the 90’s, there wasn’t nearly as much memory on home computers. You couldn’t store data on them the way you can today. Not that our advanced technology did me much good in my recent Windows 10 debacle. But, at that point, we were still keeping files on these little things called floppy disks, silly little wiggly-woggily things that looked flimsy at the time and seem even flimsier now. And they were flimsy, not only physically, but electronically, in the ease with which they could be destroyed, their data rendered irretrievable by a computer virus or magnetism, heat, cold, or any number of other physical effects. Which was what happened to me. One morning, I turned on my computer, put in my flimsy little flippety-floppety disk, and couldn’t retrieve the files from it. Boom.

Was it a virus or just that the diskette had gone bad? Who can remember now, and who cares really? Honestly, I don’t even remember the title of the book I lost. I do remember that it was a disjointed fantasy of sorts, an allegory for the political climate at the time. Was it any good? Probably not. But that’s not really the point. The point is that it happened, I kept going, and I will again.

There’s a long history of writers growing frustrated with their work and destroying it. Lake Poets burning reams of sestinas. Naturalists burying their heroic epics. Formalists feeding sonnets to their dogs or shredding their odes to use as kitty litter. Oh, those old school poets. So drunk, drug-addled, and depressive. So dramatic!

Was that me, though? Am I a spiritual descendant of some lunatic Lake Poet? Worse still, am I a serial euthanizer of unsuspecting fictions, novels that never did nothing to nobody? Am I just too passive-aggressive to do what other people do, commit out-and-out literary murder by consciously giving up on work the way poets of yore did? Am I too weak for the modern equivalent of literary death conflagrante?

We chase the world, try to catch it and make it do what we want. I’m not just talking about writers, here. I mean all humans. We’re responsive creatures, only proactive with respect to potentialities, not actual events. We never get anything right, not really, not exactly. Because we don’t have the facts, just our guesses, about future time. In the end, though, we deal with what we’re given. We have no choice.

There’s a reason why this piece had such a strange delivery, why it’s deconstructed in a way, beginning as a piece of fictionalized “nonfiction” about me, Windows 10, and an angel named Scrimshaw, why it ends with confessional about failures past and present.
Sometimes I think we write to escape the world, sometimes to understand it, sometimes to do both. Is that because we can’t make up our minds? We both want to—and don’t want to—understand ourselves and our world? There are mysteries in this world and beyond, mysteries like art and the human heart; questions we know we’ll never answer but must seek to answer just the same.

Did I mean to kill Loki’s Gambit? I guess we’ll only know if and when I finish it, if and when I’m able to snatch back what I can from the funeral pyre in my head. And, even then, I won’t bring it all back. I’ll never again see the precise literary creature I deleted. But that’s OK. That creature wasn’t perfect anyway. Honestly, it wasn’t even a creature really, just an artifact born of someone’s mind. Perhaps not as artful as Benjamin Button, but a fictive creature just the same; one you won’t miss. After all, you never really knew it.

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