What moved you to write JR?
Even though I should have known from The Recognitions that the world was not waiting breathlessly for my message, that it already knew, and was quite happy to live with all these false values, I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern. In many ways I thought . . . the childishness of all this. Because JR himself, which is why he is eleven years old, is motivated only by good-natured greed. JR was, in other words, to be a commentary on this free enterprise system running out of control. Looking around us now with a two-trillion-dollar federal deficit and billions of private debt and the banks, the farms, basic industry all in serious trouble, it seems to have been rather prophetic.
“Novels Are Fantasies of Powerlessness and Power” — Biblioklept Talks to Adam Novy About His Novel The Avian Gospels
Adam Novy’s debut novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a surreal dystopian magical romance set against the backdrop of political and cultural repression, violent rebellion, torture, family, and birds. Lots and lots of birds. (Read my review).
Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his work over a month-long series of email exchanges; the interview presented below reveals much of his generous, creative energy.
Adam currently teaches writing at Scripps College, Pasadena City College, Long Beach City College and Orange Coast College.
The Avian Gospels is available now from Hobart.
Biblioklept: I have a lot I want to ask you about what’s in your novel, but I have to start by asking about the physical book itself. The Avian Gospels is a lovely little two volume pocket-sized monograph—textured oxblood covers, gilded pages with line numbers, inset bookmarks. Visually, it recalls a Gideon bible, I guess, only not, I don’t know, chintzy. Where did the design idea come from?
Adam Novy: My editor at Hobart, Aaron Burch, had the idea of making the book look like a Bible. He’s an excellent designer and does a wonderful job with Hobart. Some boheemith press in New York City should really snap him up.
Biblioklept: How did the idea for The Avian Gospels come about? When did you start drafting the book? How long did it take to write?
AN: After 9/11, there was a moment where I felt like all Americans were on the same team. Now I wonder if we’ll ever feel that way again. Pardon me for living in the moment, but this country is just so completely fucked. This sensation of being American swiftly curdled into panic, but by then, the coordinates of my work had all been changed. I wanted to find a voice with room for both the historical and the intimate, which led me to a kind of first-person plural officialese. It ended up creating this echo-chamber effect where the personal and political identities of each character were different, and nobody could quite be who they were supposed to be, or wanted to be.
It took months of screwing around to figure this out, and most of it, of course, was accidental. The Lord of the Rings was on TV a lot at the time, and sometimes I thought I wanted to sound like Gandalf if Gandalf was full of shit and, like, a genocider who felt sorry for himself, but still was Gandalf, all mystical and officious, bossing everyone around. I understood the characters right away, except for Jane, who was always hard to deal with. She gets in arguments a lot and she’s usually right. I think I have hard time writing characters who are right. I myself am never right, so I had trouble relating to her. Of course, now she’s my second-favorite character in the book, after Mike.
I started the book in spring of 2002 and finished it in fall of 2005. In 2006, I found an agent and Hobart took the book in 2008. I went through five apartments, three different cities, three computers, one personal trainer and three therapists in that time. And nine adjunct faculty positions.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting that you mention the LOTR movies as a kind of ambient influence, because they were pretty ubiquitous in the last decade—and there’s so much of the last decade’s zeitgeist in your book: torture, despotism, political and cultural repression, the plight of a refugee class, the idea of “green zones,” etc. You foreground these themes by crafting Gospels as a kind of dystopian novel with elements of magical realism, but it’s also very much a novel about family, and even a love story. (By sheer coincidence I watched the restored edit of Metropolis in the same time frame that I was reading Gospels, and saw so many echoes there). How conscious were you of genre conventions? I’m curious because your book sometimes blends genre tropes, sometimes blurs them, and sometimes straight-up explodes them . . .
AN: The book is quite deliberately a mash-up. I think it’s normal in conversation to try out different ways of seeing things—a fussy way of saying this might be “experiment with different hermeneutics.” For example, one might reference the NBA, The Wire, Shakespeare and Dazed and Confused in a discussion about Obama. I wanted the book to enact this kind of embeddedness, this flailing for a context that makes sense, and I wanted the narrator to sound as though its vernacular was ornate and obsolete, like it trafficked in a pleasure that justified itself as satisfaction while remaining an inadequate moral lens. That’s why I write violence like I do: I want it to be horrifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, violence is cool. I’m not immune—I always watch Kill Bill and Scarface when they’re on cable. It’s disturbing. Everyone knows that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method, but our country did it anyway because it simply couldn’t stop. It was a kind of jacking off, the only kind that certain political parties seem to approve of.
Whenever we write about power, we should always defend the powerless, even if they’re just as bad as those in power. I think I saw that in Cioran, and did you know Cioran was a Nazi sympathizer? I just read that Gertrude Stein was, too. I don’t know what kind of paradigm can reckon with this world.
Biblioklept: I had no idea about Stein or Cioran’s Nazi sympathies, but I guess many artists and writers and intellectuals were attracted to the power of fascism, particularly in the modernists’ day (I suppose Ezra Pound and GB Shaw stand out as easy examples, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party). Although in our own age, I suppose we also see intellectuals and writers support terrible causes—I think of Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive support of the Iraq War and Bush administration’s policies, for, example.
I don’t want to drop spoilers, but your novel traces an arc that shows how those who are powerless might, given power, recapitulate the aggressive violence that they themselves were once subjected to. In turn, you also reveal how characters who seemed to occupy a clear power position (I’m thinking of Mike here, specifically) are perhaps doomed as well to a life without agency. I found my sympathies shift dramatically throughout the novel. How important are sympathetic characters?
AN: Every writer, including me, wants the reader to cathect to their book with their whole heart. I want my readers to utterly and helplessly engrossed. But sympathy is a means to an end and not the end itself. Technically speaking, it’s just not that hard to accomplish. It’s a skill, like dribbling in basketball is a skill, but it’s not the whole game.
In The Avian Gospels, the character named Mike Giggs is seen in only one scenario—exerting power in the manner of his father—for the first two hundred pages, so he comes off like a jerk until he encounters someone who actually loves him: Chico the band leader. Suddenly, Mike discovers a love of life, a sensitivity and a feeling of camaraderie for his fellows. Not only is he is capable of compassion, he is governed by it. This leaves him ruined in certain ways, but allows him to discover who he can be, and makes him (hopefully) sympathetic.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the book, the character named Zvominir, who was whimperingly sweet for longer than Mike was mean, is meaner than Mike. Novels are fantasies of powerlessness and power—among the zillion other things they are—and I feel like we should at least be conscious of what’s happening to our minds as we are reading. How we deal with power is a serious moral question; counting how many times that we go awwww is not. We have cats on the internet for that. Still, Chad Harbach was probably right when he said that the books that get the best reception are simply “affable.” In desperate times, a nation of New York critic types are turning to . . . Mitt Romney? Or like, Cheever without the psychosexual guilt?
I don’t mean to single out Chad Harbach, whose work I haven’t read, except for his piece on Grantland about the Brewers, which I liked. But what he said is accurate. These days, people seem to feel that art should be uplifting, like art owes it to them, in a customer-service type-way. Have you been to Kinko’s, or excuse me, FedEx Office, lately? It is not a happy place. Novels used to to give the reader the truth in ways no other social narratives would. I’m pretty sure I’m not just being sentimental. There used to be a social lie which said the world was making progress and ascending, but this reversed like fifteen years ago and now we all feel doomed. We need books to tell us how we got here, not to lie about how meaningful our journeys are or however we say it these days. Of course our lives are meaningful, but such a narrow focus on making folks feel better is superficial and disempowering. Our emptiness and dread are trying to tell us something.
Biblioklept: I think you point toward a distinction between art and entertainment here. We want entertainment to comfort us, to ease our worries. In contrast, art challenges us with what we don’t want to see, or can’t see, or can’t see that we can’t see. And yeah, there’s a kind of “literature of comfort” out there, books that simply reconfirm the tropes and tricks and forms of “literary fiction” — so that, even if the protagonists suffer, that suffering is is part and parcel of some greater telos – and not just in terms of the plot, but also in the structure of the novel itself. (Lee Siegel called this camp “Nice Writing” a decade ago, pointing to its “violent affability,” its “deadly sweetness”).
At the risk of asking one of those questions an interviewer is never supposed to ask (but, hey, I really want to know the answer and I think our readers would too), what books move you as a reader?
AN: I think I’m moved by pretty standard stuff. The Portrait of a Lady. Charlotte’s Web. To My Twenties, by Kenneth Koch. On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, by Keats. Places to Look For Your Mind, by Lorrie Moore. Testimony of Pilot and Return to Return by Barry Hannah. Antony and Cleopatra. Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which is the best new book I’ve read in 2011. Chopin in Winter by Stuart Dybek. The last paragraph of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The scene in American Tabloid where Ward steals the pension fund books. The Widow Aphrodissia by Marguerite Yourcenar. There must be fifty different scenes in Buffy that make me cry, and five in Battlestar Galactica. Certain scenes in Lost. This is such a conventional list, I feel like I need to start a fight. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SUCKS AND YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF SAPS. I should also say I’m moved by spectacles of massive human folly. The image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb and waving his hat in Dr. Strangelove and the scene where Kramer and his intern throw the ball of oil out the window are somehow very moving to me.
Biblioklept: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement—The Avian Gospels taps into and explores this idea of civil unrest, of disenfranchised voices, of a paramilitary state coping with a populist uprising. You’ve indicated that your novel is in some ways a response to 9/11, but it also seems predictive of the fallout we’re seeing a decade after the fact.
AN: A massive, indescribable injustice was inflicted on our world by the likes of Goldman Sachs and we seem to have no recourse. Law enforcement could not possibly care less, and seeing how they cleared Zucotti Park, they seem jealous of the impunity of Wall Street. In his review of Ron Suskind’s book, Ezra Klein suggests that Washington just did not have the will to pass a stimulus that was big enough. Slavoj Žižek is right when he says this moment is a challenge to our imagination. I think that what happened at Penn State may be a better lens for the recession than Occupy Wall Street. A massive patriarchal network mobilized their resources to preserve an ongoing atrocity. No one will admit that they were wrong, especially the figurehead, Joe Paterno. The community just does not seem to give a shit. They keep telling out-of-towners we don’t get it and rioted in self-pity. I guess this is just how power acts.
Biblioklept: What’s next? What are you working on now?
AN: I’m writing a novel about the life and times of Medusa. It’s called The Gore and the Splatter.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
AN: I think the only book I ever stole was an anthology of world literature, which had a really coherent definition of French symbolist poetry. I can’t find this book now, so someone probably stole it from me. Serves me right.
Newt Gingrich, a sour, puffy-faced man who somehow retains a platform for his regressive ideas, ruffled a few metaphorical feathers this weekend when he proposed that failing schools (populated mostly by poor children) should fire their janitorial staffs and replace them with child labor. In Newt’s bizarre Dickensian vision, giving these poor children an opportunity to scrub toilets and mop floors (overseen, of course by one non-unionized “master janitor” ) will offer them, I don’t know, bootstraps by which they might pull themselves up. Notice too that his idea also works to eradicate the notion of a free and equitable public education system in this country. And while plenty of folks have called out the sheer regressivism inherent in Newt’s comments, there are far too many people in this country who think it’s not just a solid idea, but a viable plan.
Gingrich’s comments came the same weekend we witnessed police at UC Davis casually dispersing pepper spray into the faces of unarmed, peaceful students. Who were sitting down. Sitting down. The nonchalance that characterizes this particular violence against the students is particularly egregious, but it’s simply part and parcel of a greater wave of police actions targeting dissent in this country. The police themselves are not the ultimate culprit though—they are merely a tool of a corporatacracy that intends to enforce the status quo — namely, the continuing class disparity in this country that will disenfranchise the young in particular. The attitude that allows Gingrich to casually suggest reintroducing normalized child labor is the same attitude that allows one human being to casually spray poison into the face of another human being. Dehumanization underwrites all master-slave relationships.
Dehumanization in political rhetoric is nothing new. Still, I was particularly shocked while watching the Republican Presidential Candidate debate in Las Vegas last month. What shocked me was not necessarily the sentiments (or lack thereof) of most of the candidates (I’m too cynical for that), but the nakedness of their rhetoric. They made absolutely no attempt to rhetorically gloss over their dehumanizing ideas; instead, to the cheers of an audience, they trotted out one dystopian idea after another. (Read the transcript)
Herman Cain hemmed and hawed over whether or not he would build an electrified fence between the United States and Mexico. Perry insisted he would use unmanned predator drones (like the ones we are field testing in Pakistan) to, uh, “patrol” the border. Bachmann bragged about the pledge she’d signed to “build a double-walled fence with an area of security neutrality in between.”
What would a double-walled fence look like? (Especially an electrified one monitored by predator drones?).
What would that area of “security neutrality” look like?
It might resemble the refugee camp in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian film that engages the fascist future head on.
It’s easy to suggest that this is a hyperbolic vision of amplified grime and violence, an extrapolation of what happens when “security neutrality” becomes the normative space. But consider Ciudad Juárez, the violent Mexican twin city of El Paso, Texas. According to some sources, there have been over 1,500 murders in the first ten months of 2011 alone. Simply put, dystopian spaces similar to the ones we see in Children of Men already exist along the nebulous edges of our country.
Dystopian fiction isn’t solely predictive; rather, its job is to comment on contemporary society. Consider Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. There’s a robot in the movie, sure. But at its core, this is a film about a divided world, a world where an underclass is deeply alienated from the product of their labor. Metropolis depicts a world split into two distinct classes: workers who live underground and managers who live in luxurious skyscrapers.
The manager class in Metropolis (is it too much for me to call them “the 1%”?) exploit the underclass from the comfort and safety of their greenzone. The “greenzone” is an essential component of any good dystopian fiction: this is the place not only of safety, but also of leisure, and hence, the refinement of culture that that leisure can help produce. Again, Children of Men is visually instructive here, in a scene (set to King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”) that moves from the gritty streets of London (this is the middle class!) up to the gates that protect the aristocracy (notice that there’s a double-wall there folks)—
The great lie that our own “leaders” like to sell us is that we will all share in the greenzone, that we—the prosperous, culturally-normative “middle class”—will all be kept safe from the dirty, dark other that would otherwise seek to overtake our precious space. This is one way that leaders monopolize popular sentiment and consolidate power. We’ve seen this power-grab evince for years now in nebulous unending wars on abstract nouns like “drugs” and “terror,” and it will only continue.
Neil Postman is probably right—our contemporary society is more Brave New World than 1984. Again, the concept of the greenzone is instructive here. Simply put, greenzoning is far more prevalent in BNW than it is in 1984 (along with rigid and hierarchical class distinctions — “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse”). And it is not so much the greenzone but the idea of getting to share the greenzone that we will latch on to, distracted as we cede hard fought freedoms. We will convince ourselves that a double-fence (electrified and monitored by predator drones) will protect our freedom to be comfortable, even as other walls are built to keep us—and our children—out.
Earlier, I referred to Gingrich and his “plan” to reintroduce 18th century child labor practices as “regressive.” The core regressivism in Gingrich’s ideas (as well as the mentality that allows peaceful dissenters to be shot in the face with pepper spray by those who are supposedly sworn to protect them) is based on the teleological assumption that history is progressing toward some ultimate great grand good. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek (and others), we need to cognitively remap our psyches here in the great free Western World. We need to return to real history, and lose the teleological illusion of infinite progress.
This is why dystopian fiction is invaluable: with one hand, dystopian fiction offers us the technological progression that we have come to identify with the imaginative space of “science fiction”; with the other hand, dystopian fiction shows us that technological progression is never a good in and of itself. The human position—which is to say humanity itself—is always under threat, and not from technology, but from other humans. How far removed is Newty’s plan for child labor from indentured servitude for debtors? At what point does a “security neutral” zone echo a concentration camp?
I’ll end by contrasting two dystopian visions. One I loathe and one I love.
The one I love is Adam Novy’s 2010 novel The Avian Gospels, a take on power and torture and greenzoning and undergrounding and dehumanizing and rehumanizing. (And birds. Great big flocks of birds). Novy’s novel features children at work, or at least kids of an age Newtykins would have swabbing the proverbial deck, teenagers from both the privileged greenzone and the awful underworld. The Avian Gospels explores the deep humanity of all people and the possibility inherent in all children (don’t worry, it’s never shlocky or sentimental, and deserves a better description than that last treacly sentence). At the same time, Novy’s novel shows the dramatic stakes at heart in the kind of world that dehumanizes children. You probably haven’t read Novy’s novel but you should. I highly recommend it.
You probably have seen (or at least are aware of) the dystopian vision I hate, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. I’ll concede upfront that the film seems to endorse some level of cooperation between citizens and “noncitizens” in its silly “prisoner dilemma” scene. This scene is the closest the film approaches to representing moral civic behavior, but ultimately it’s more or less another manipulative faux-moral tactic employed to manipulate the film’s audience (the first manipulation being, of course, that they are seeing a “superhero” film, and not a dystopian horrorshow). In truth, the scene invites the audience to identify with the film’s villain, the Joker, or with the fake protagonist, the fascist vigilante Batman (who is, of course, the deluded “alter-ego” of 1%er Bruce Wayne). There’s no moral dilemma; the people are not real people. The Dark Knight is a dark dystopian endorsement of fascism, one that tacitly asks people to kowtow to violent authority even as it pretends to present its “hero” as an outsider. Nolan’s Batman is an extension of Bush’s Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay (just as Obama’s Guantanamo Bay extends GB’s GB). Nolan’s Batman is an extension of the Bush admin’s legacy of surveillance on private citizens. Most of all, Nolan’s Batman is an endorsement of the fake war on terror. The entire movie is predicated upon the idea that justice is relative and can be corrupted (or, in the film’s terms, normalized) by concrete events. The film’s greatest trick is its depiction of the Joker as a terrorist, as an inhuman monster who cannot be understood, who exists outside of the psychological plain of humanity.
Once a human isn’t a human it’s easy to endorse or elect or prescribe or suggest (or ignore) a fascist program for that inhuman human. Like making that inhuman human shut up because you don’t like that inhuman human’s ideas. Or spraying poison into that inhuman human’s face. Or locking up that inhuman human in a zone of vague laws. Or torturing that inhuman human. Or indenturing that inhuman human. Or denying that inhuman human an equitable education. Rhetoric like Gingrich’s is just rhetoric until it worms its way into brains and souls, supplanting human decency, at which point it becomes its own dystopian nightmare.
Definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which was published 100 years ago—
WALL STREET, n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke. That Wall Street is a den of thieves is a belief that serves every unsuccessful thief in place of a hope in Heaven.
DEBT, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
ARREST, v.t. Formally to detain one accused of unusualness.
‘God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.’ The Unauthorized Version
DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.
CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
DICTATOR, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.
FREEDOM, n. Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint’s infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly. Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
NOISE, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.
LAND, n. A part of the earth’s surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.
INCOME, n. The natural and rational gauge and measure of respectability, the commonly accepted standards being artificial, arbitrary and fallacious; for, as “Sir Sycophas Chrysolater” in the play has justly remarked, “the true use and function of property (in whatsoever it consisteth— coins, or land, or houses, or merchant- stuff, or anything which may be named as holden of right to one’s own subservience) as also of honors, titles, preferments and place, and all favor and acquaintance of persons of quality or ableness, are but to get money. Hence it followeth that all things are truly to be rated as of worth in measure of their serviceableness to that end; and their possessors should take rank in agreement thereto, neither the lord of an unproducing manor, howsoever broad and ancient, nor he who bears an unremunerate dignity, nor yet the pauper favorite of a king, being esteemed of level excellency with him whose riches are of daily accretion; and hardly should they whose wealth is barren claim and rightly take more honor than the poor and unworthy.
MACE, n. A staff of office signifying authority. Its form, that of a heavy club, indicates its original purpose and use in dissuading from dissent.
POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
LAZINESS, n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low degree.
JESTER, n. An officer formerly attached to a king’s household, whose business it was to amuse the court by ludicrous actions and utterances, the absurdity being attested by his motley costume. The king himself being attired with dignity, it took the world some centuries to discover that his own conduct and decrees were sufficiently ridiculous for the amusement not only of his court but of all mankind. The jester was commonly called a fool, but the poets and romancers have ever delighted to represent him as a singularly wise and witty person. In the circus of to-day the melancholy ghost of the court fool effects the dejection of humbler audiences with the same jests wherewith in life he gloomed the marble hall, panged the patrician sense of humor and tapped the tank of royal tears.
PLUNDER, v. To take the property of another without observing the decent and customary reticences of theft. To effect a change of ownership with the candid concomitance of a brass band. To wrest the wealth of A from B and leave C lamenting a vanishing opportunity.
TAKE, v.t. To acquire, frequently by force but preferably by stealth.
RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable— omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, “soaring swine.”)
RIOT, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.
“A Strange Kind of Slavery” — David Foster Wallace on Individuality, Corporatism, and Civic Responsibility
A few years ago on this blog, I re-evaluated some of Frank Miller’s work, set against his fervent, blind support of the Bush wars. Today, I read a vitriolic rant by Miller, posted at his blog, where he offers the following clumsy thesis—
The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.
Miller offers no evidence about how or why the OWS protesters will “harm America,” nor does he support his claim that the protests are “anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment.” Honestly, I can’t even tell if Miller is being sarcastic when he writes “blessed” to describe the First Amendment, which clearly states that the citizens of this country have a right to assemble. Most Americans support the OWS movement, or at least the spirit of the movement, even if they do not agree with all of the tactics or, um, fashion sense and personal hygiene habits of the group. But Miller, furious reactionary that he is, does not bother once to consider a single idea put forth by OWS. He cannot see past the personal attire and fashion sense of some of the protesters, writing that the movement is nothing “more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.” Those kids with their iPhones!
In a baffling move of obscure non-logic, Miller then connects OWS to his “enemies,” those nefarious (if nebulous) forces “al-Qaeda and Islamicism.” The piece ends with this disingenuous call to action—
In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft. Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.
Miller of course never served in any branch of the armed forces. He also has never heard of/chooses to ignore clear evidence that veterans are part of this movement, including Scott Olsen, who was badly injured by police in Oakland.
Since Frank is so frank, let’s all be frank: Frank Miller is a tedious, ill-informed, rage-choked hack who hasn’t produced a great work in over two decades.
Even worse, he’s a fascist.
Miller’s early work in the 1980s repeatedly pointed toward the essential conflict of individual versus society; his heroes and anti-heroes constantly found themselves squaring off against corrupt totalitarian systems that sought to silence dissent and curtail civil liberties. As Miller’s career fumbled along, he increasingly endorsed the underlying fascistic elements present in his vigilante heroes, a fascism wed to an image of the hero as a man whose uncompromising ideals—and uncomplicated misunderstandings of a complex world—inevitably lead to brutal violence. See, for example, Miller’s most recent effort, Holy Terror, an extremely poorly received piece of anti-Muslim propaganda, which was poorly received by comic book audiences not entirely because of its content, but also because of its poor execution. (For a detailed and insightful take-down of Miller’s pulp trash, read Spencer Ackerman’s review in Wired).
Miller is a reactionary crank, a regressive thinker who is terrorized by the idea that the America “he knows” is no longer the homogeneous ideal that it once was. Of course, America was never an idealized homogeneous space, but that doesn’t matter. That’s what fantasy is for. And Miller is a professional fantasist. His derangement evinces not just in his reactionary vitriol toward the OWS protesters, but also in his apparent fear of the technology that these “iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats” use to disseminate their message.
Take note that never once in his screed does Miller attempt to paraphrase, analyze, refute, address, or otherwise actually engage that message. Presumably he can’t; he can’t hear it. Like one of the flat characters in his comics, perhaps Miller’s own interior monologue edges out all other voices, reinforcing his own paranoid delusions that “others” are lurking in the shadows, ready to take away the precious freedoms and ideals that only he can understand and value.
One is tempted to point out that Ezra Pound, G.B. Shaw, and Virginia Woolf, among other modernists, supported fascism, that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party, and yet these artists and thinkers maintain a canonical place to this day in their respective fields. Will history be so kind to Miller? This is an earnest question. Certainly The Dark Knight Returns is a singular work in the superhero comics genre. But works like Holy Terror will do little to preserve the reputation of the man behind the Robocop sequels and The Spirit movie. Great art will survive the straining force of history, but I do not think that Miller is a great artist. He’s just a loud, angry cartoonist with ugly, unfounded, illogical opinions—and I think that that is what history will show.
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
King Lear, 4.6
Lemony Snickett (aka Daniel Handler, aka one of the dudes in Magnetic Fields) offers “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance.” (See also: Occupy Writers). A taste, but read the whole thing—
1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.
. . .
5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.
. . .
7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.
. . .
11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.