Posts tagged ‘postmodern’

the truth of what happened

Nick Walker
Black Box (2002) and Helloland (2003)

Today’s quandary: to review a Nick Walker novel is to spoil the pleasure of reading one. In fact, it’s difficult to enjoy even a second read, compared to chewing over the vivid complete picture it has left in your mind. I was lucky, picking up Black Box and Helloland together with a handful of other secondhand books, and in the weeks they sat on my to-read pile I forgot their spoilery blurbs.

Thus: the short version: worth reading, just not on a flight. Trust me on that caveat.

Walker has a consistent style, presenting snippets of a disparate group of people, grounded in one method of information dispersal. In Black Box, the method is a series of audio and videotapes, and in Helloland, calls through a hotel switchboard. The stories move through one story in “real time”—a transatlantic flight or one morning shift in reception—interspersed with flashbacks. The effect is playful even when the subject matter is grim, a winking reference to the flashback episodes of slight tv sitcoms, and reflects an internal discipline that imposes artificial frameworks for the challenge of solving them in prose.

The experience of reading is similar to putting together a massive puzzle on a rickety card table. Opening the book dumps a mess of unrelated colors and shapes in your lap. The spare wording offers a few clues to latch onto and set aside. Then, a flashback puts together a corner and two borders begin to stretch along the table’s north and east borders. Characters form just enough to fill the bulk in ourselves. The final chunks fall into place more quickly than hands can put grooves and protuberances together and the full picture becomes obvious—shocking and unintuitive, but obvious once complete.

This archly postmodern style will enthral or repel the reader within five pages.

Both novels thematically centre on the temporary escape of travelling, specifically travelling in climate-controlled technological wonders that create an artificial world—one that could seem like slipping into heaven compared to the chaos of the natural world below. Each also offers the hidden threat, or enticement, of death in the hostile airless vacuum that surrounds it. What brings people to escape or die, indifferent chance or the malicious actions of others? In all situations, others are blamed for the work of fate and vice versa, while those affected stagnant in obsession with their traumatic moment.

Those who focus on the past, demanding remittance or trying to make amends, are doomed; escape is only possible for those who forget and choose to live without past or future.

One glaring flaw in both novels: relationships fall apart in grandly realised detail, but characters come together because one has nursed a resentful crush and sufficient wacky, offputting events have passed between them—which the object of affection ignores without explanation rather than quickly changing her address and routines. All of these objects would be played by Natalie Portman—unbelievably pretty and blandly quirky, with no awareness of her attractiveness or potential solo success: the educated boy’s fantasy girl.

This affect, however, is potentially balanced by the choking cynicism of both books. All lives begin as compressed and plagued by unsatisfying human connections—palpable pain of life ticking away unlived—and most pathetically focus on the magic bullet of a new relationship or affair with someone they barely know, more fantasy than reality. Other people’s wants and thoughts don’t exist in their plans.

The connections that do form—if weakly made—are meant to contract that futility. Does it matter more that the relationships won’t last beyond the final page or first honest conversation, or that in connecting at all, both partners have stepped out of their solipsistic malaise? Only outside the navelgazing of one’s past and current needs lies any hope for a future.

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hope and shovels

US!
Chris Bachelder
2006

upton-sinclair.jpg

Early in Chris Bachelder’s latest novel, US!, the often-resurrected Upton Sinclair tells his reluctant secretary-cum-protector of an early job writing for the funny pages:

“I will tell you the secret of joke writing,” he said. “Jokes are made up hind end forward, so to speak.”

Beginning with a subject—the great Socialist chooses tramps, in this case, and their distaste for bathing—he comes up with a joke clever enough to amuse the secretary, who is occupied in scanning the road for assassins, and then stumps him with a classic joke from “aught-three”:

Mrs. Jones goes into her grocer’s and asks for a dozen boxes of matches. Says the grocer: “Why Mrs. Jones, you had a dozen boxes of matches yesterday!” Says Mrs Jones, “Oh yes, but you see, my husband is deaf and dumb, and he talks in his sleep!”

“It’s a little mind-puzzle,” Sinclair tells the scared young man, refusing to explain the punch line. Much later, when the answer comes to him, at the same time obvious and impossible, he finds himself once again stepping up to save and follow the stubborn, naive old man in his quixotic cause to bring Socialist utopia to the United States.

Both a political novel and an exploration of the value, if any, of political novels, Bachelder avoids the literary criticisms levied on Sinclair’s own prodigious output—namely a general bludgeoning of characters and plotlines in the service of his political manifesto. Bachelder’s Sinclair, who continually returns to a nation that needs his ideas as much as it violently rejects him, is a tragic would-be hero whose political plans are as hind-end-forward as his jokes. The end of his revolution is clear, and clearly necessary: a society in which citizens are voters and workers rather than consumers and disposable labor, and a government that both regulates big business harshly and provides an adequate safety net for individuals. Sinclair preaches—or tries to preach—the evils of unbridled capitalism and the better life for all under a Socialist system without providing a real-world plan for implementing it. When people are convinced of their own best interest, they’ll rise up. Obvious—and impossible.

In fact, a combination of corporate and government pressure (and hired assassins), along with individuals’ knee-jerk hatred of Communism and love of a celebrity spectacle, prevents Sinclair from speaking in public or publishing his books in anything but small batches. His body carries the semi-healed scars of bullets, knives, even a harpoon. His presence galvanises the opposition, providing them with a figurehead of evil that whips the working-class masses into ill-informed frenzy even as it distracts them from the universality of their setbacks. His continual returns from the dead, which one would expect to generate shock at least, are instead condemned merely as unseemly; it’s his beliefs that are unnatural.

What is Socialism? It is Un-American. It is Communists who want to come into your house and take away your tv, your Cuisinart, the SUV in your driveway, leaving you with lower pay and higher taxes, with less food in your children’s mouths and no hope for their future. It wants to take away your American Dream of success through hard work.

The Socialists, many of whom have a small red shovel tattooed on some hidden bit of skin, meet in secret, drinking hot coffee, to watch a film of Sinclair spontaneously preaching, thinking that it’s bad fiction like the reviewers say, but it’s also their lives, and they are moved. The Anti-Socialist Leagues meet in elementary school cafeterias, drinking coffee and organising volunteers to pick up litter, teach parenting classes, and raise funds for public services. The multiple Sinclair assassins are national heroes, nominally punished with jail terms and easily paroled, celebrated in the corporate-owned media and as individually sponsored as Nascar drivers. The content generated about them is based in their skill and personalities, with glancing references to them protecting American society in some abstract fashion. There is no mention of what place debate has in a free society, or what a society has become when threats and murder are acceptably used to stifle dissenting voices.

The people are too tied up in their own problems—layoffs, uninsured health problems, the growing threat of outsourcing—to consider such abstract concepts, like what this ‘America’ is that needs to be protected at all costs. They’re happy to be distracted by an exciting performance, or a good old-fashioned book burning.

US! doesn’t end particularly happily or hopefully for Upton Sinclair or the United States, as one would expect given the current state of the Murrican Left. There’s a moment of shared plenty and happiness, of community and family wellbeing, in a destructive spectacle. The moment for Sinclair’s peaceful revolution has passed, if indeed it ever existed even in the depths of the Great Depression. The human impulse toward community action is safely tucked into bed with the system that erodes it.

As a political novel, however, perhaps US! can motivate readers where Sinclair’s stridently upbeat endings fail. It’s satire, yes, but it’s my life, and I am moved.

jaws and smokey fistfight in heaven

Bear V Shark
Chris Bachelder

2001
Found: Original Soho Bookstore

 

Best read twice, BvS is a pre-9/11 book unfortunate enough to be released in October 2001. Drawing heavily, and (of course) post-modernly self-consciously, on Neil Postman, Henry David Thoreau, Guy Debord, and even a little Lacanian-influence Zizek, this novel twists from comic to tragic while maintaining its ironic timbre—a neat trick, that.

The second reading—and this is a quick read, despite some depth, making a second trip through no onerous task—retains the comedy of disconnected suburban people seemingly composed of nonsequitor soundbites, but the impending tragedy, and the anger, isn’t a distant spectre but the invisible engine of this world.

Bachelder asks us to imagine this novel, “based on a true story”:

…not unstable in its own right but perched upon, based on, the cautious steady slope of the shingled roof of Truth and teetering, teetering, the whole damn situation fixing to collapse into tainted wreckage, in which wreckage lie nearly equal parts Truth and Lie, irony and That Which Is Not Irony, such that context and purity are forever lost, and the pieces are indistinguishable.

This couldn’t have been written in 2002 with any comfort, and in 2007 is written not with comparatively safer angst on the nature of fiction but with anxiety over the major US news outlets. Likewise, the BvS victims of crime and terror, unseen to those attending to their entertainment-saturated frontal lobes, can no longer be conceived of when victims of terrorist actions (in the US, at least) are immediately made faceless political celebrities. They are part of the Why We Fight narrative, often championed by the same people who refuse others the right to contextualise their lives and deaths. They may be metaphorically raised high, trampled, and buried, but they are not ignored.

I ask myself now, why I am nattering on about the nightmare that is current Western/Middle Eastern politics? Do I love the sound of my keys clicking so much I pontificate through a book review?

Yeeeeeeah. I do. Best get used to that.

But I justify: BvS is fiction that inhabits the place where entertainment supplants living, where infotainment displaces journalism, where half-remembered juxtapositions smother education. BvS warned us of the dangers of itself, of clever bits of amusement we become accustomed to contextualising the moments of our lives for us. On the bus yesterday, watching a young, over-accessorised mother push her SUV of a stroller into traffic without a glace, punching buttons on her cell phone, and saw the scrunched face of her toddler inches from the bus’s wheels, I thought of the worried baby sitting next to the cash register in a roadside diner, unclaimed.

Not JesusChristWomanBabyNotTougherThanCars!!!

We’re now just as distracted by fictions and repackaging our lives into something suitable to multimedia blog entries. (This being the royal ‘we,’ of course…most of the world and the majority of living generations have no interest or access to this level of exhibitionist navel-gazing.) The important shift in the last seven years has been the conscious and sinister use of focus-group researched gut-level infotainment prevarication to shape national debate. Allowing myself to be more or less permanently distracted is to be part of the obfuscation. Dammit.

 

(q) aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place and furthermore sort of believe that it could be a kinder place and it is therefore tragic that it’s such a cruel and stupid place?

 

It’s entertaining, but not distracting. And there are flaws, connections that aren’t quite made—are the men who approach Mr Norman with cryptic comments the same as the Zizekian jouissance–loving terrorist group, the same as the luddites outside Vegas, the same as the folksingers and protesters?

I’m left wondering: is there reasonable hope this world will become a slightly less cruel and stupid place after viewers turn away from BvS, or will they demand less violence, less sex as well, less thought and investment in more shallow entertainments?

I can’t wait to read more from this guy.

Also, assuming equivalent sizes? The Shark’s got one weapon, teeth, in a relatively small and immobile mouth, which would be hindered by the bear’s shaggy coat and thick layer of fat. The Bear has five potential offensive points, can swim with some dexterity, and may mistake the shark for a large salmon. Advantage: bear, all the way.