“To America” — James Weldon Johnson

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“Short History of the Americas” — Tom Clark

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“I Hear America Singing” — Walt Whitman

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“On Journeys Through the States” — Walt Whitman

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Trapper’s Wedding — Walt Whitman

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,
the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking,
they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets
hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his luxuriant
beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks
descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d to her feet.

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 10.

Pastoralia — George Saunders

I read Pastoralia, George Saunders’s 2000 collection of stories very quickly, consuming one or two of the book’s six stories a night, usually wedged between other readings. There was a flavor of respite to these readings, a sense of ease or relaxation or—dare I say it—simple pleasure. Frankly, I’m suspicious of any book that I’m able to read very quickly; perhaps I’m prejudiced against any book that doesn’t pose (or impose) its own learning curve on the reader.

I’m perhaps off to a very bad start in this review, veering on the appearance of condescension (when, to be clear, I think that Pastoralia is sharp and wise and wicked and well-written and very, very funny)—but I feel like I have to get this out of the way up front: George Saunders’s prose, plots, and dialogue all reminded me very much of the prose, plots, and dialogue of David Foster Wallace.

A bit of objective data: DFW and Saunders are/were of a similar age (born in ’62 and ’58, respectively) and Infinite Jest and Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline were published the same year (’96). But, because of the simple mechanical truth that I read Wallace much, much earlier than Saunders, I find his influence unduly there. No doubt that when I detect Wallacian curves and contours and rhythms in Saunders—the coupling of officialese with imaginary slang, the depiction of a postmodern America which is slightly (but only slightly) not our own, the analyses of power and fear and duty—when I find these points of comparison, what I am really finding is the shared influences of Wallace and Saunders (no doubt postmodernists like Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, et al). In short, if I find a suspicious ease or comfort in Saunders, it’s because Wallace already taught me to read him. But like I said before, this is not a great start. I should just review the book.

Short review: the six tales in Pastoralia are hilarious, tender, and depressingly predictive of the decade that came after their composition (not to mention the strange dark horizon ahead of us). The long opener “Pastoralia” features a hapless man who works long hours apart from his wife and children in a failing history park. His job is to simulate a caveman, but his partner, an older woman with a troubled son, makes the job difficult to perform with any level of, uh, historical accuracy. When employees must be downsized, one of the managers tries to convince the narrator to rat out his partner’s shortcomings. “Pastoralia”  is a study in how corporate power uses dehumanizing tactics to exploit workers. The communications the narrator receives from a nebulous plurality of managers are both hilarious and horrific, each one a contortion of logic that serves to strip the rights (and self-worth) of the workers. The story, depressingly, is more relevant than ever. (Readers familiar with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline will recognize “Pastoralia” as a revision of sorts to that earlier collection’s title story).

The next tale, “Winky,” moves along the same lines, exploring the clash between the Darwinian drives of self-protection and self-satisfaction set against the needs of others. In this story, the protagonist attends a self-help seminar (the scene is something so contemporaneous with Wallace that I’s tempted to write “straight out of DFW”), where the psychobabble and rationalizing of the speaker persuades him to ditch his weird, needy sister. Like the complex and funny managerial rhetoric we find in “Pastoralia,” the motivational lingo lulls and persuades not just the protagonist, but also the reader, into the easy trap of contemporary consumerism that centers the self as the ultimate telos of existence.

“Sea Oak” is the possible high point in the collection. It depicts an ersatz family living in a housing project that at one point we might have described as “on the margins of America” — only in Saunder’s vision (a vision increasingly realized) such housing projects are the reality for the majority of Americans. The middle class is not the norm. The (male) narrator strips to help bring money into the crappy apartment he shares with his aunt and two cousins and their two kids. A sample—

Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I’d move everybody up to Canada. It’s nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner.

The hyperbolic vision of a Canada that cares for all of its citizens stands in sharp relief to the predatory Darwinism of the Sea Oak projects. As the story unfolds, Saunders uses his characters to examine just what exactly economic struggle in American is for—what does the American Dream mean when subsistence living alone is so difficult?

“The End of FIRPO in the World” is perfection, a sad, funny, rambling stream of consciousness that plumbs the mind of an alienated boy who imagines his future glories and the revenge that he will have for all the slights done him. “FIRPO,” sitauted in the middle of collection, moves the book from the familial and corporate to the individual, as the last few tales (“The Barber’s Unhappiness” and “The Falls”) inhabit the strange sad consciousness of ordinary, awful people. These are beautiful portraits, ones that explore the gravity of failure and the small glowing sparks of redemption that might be available to us.

If, as I remarked earlier, there’s a comfort in Saunders’s prose, it’s the strange uncomfortable comfort that there’s a perceptive and wise intelligence out there that can apprehend and satirize the sheer horrific injustice that pervades the modern condition. Pastoralia is great, and I picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline right after finishing it, so there’s an endorsement. Recommended.

“I Write Stories About a Submerged Population” — Raymond Carver on Fiction, Class, and Political Writing

Raymond Carver talks about the political scope (or lack thereof) in his writing in a 1987 interview

A writer ought to speak about things that are important to him. As you know, I’ve taught in universities, in fact for some fifteen years. I had time there for other work, and I never wrote a single story about university life because it’s an experience that left no mark on my emotional life. I tend to go back to the time and the people I knew well when I was younger and who made a very strong impression on me . . . Some of my recent stories deal with executives. (For example, that one in The New Yorker, “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” where the people discuss things the characters in my earlier stories would never discuss). He’s a businessman, and so on. But most of the people in my stories are poor and bewildered, that’s true. The economy, that’s important . . . I don’t feel I’m a political writer and yet I’ve been attacked by right-wing critics in the U.S.A. who blame me for not painting a more smiling picture of America, for not being optimistic enough, for writing stories about the people who don’t succeed. But these lives are as valid as those of the go-getters. Yes, I take unemployment, money problems, and marital problems as givens in life. People worry about their rent, their children, their home life. That’s basic. That’s how 80-90 percent, or God knows how many people live. I write stories about a submerged population, people who don’t always have someone to speak for them. I’m sort of a witness, and, besides, that’s the life I myself lived for a long time. I don’t see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives. I’m a writer.

“Americans Are in a Way Crazy” — David Foster Wallace

Chapter 19 David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (or, §19, if you prefer the book’s conceit) begins with this paragraph—

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area.’

‘What do we do to stop the decline?’

I plan to write more about this later — Tea Party, Real America, all that slang — but I’m tapped out right now. Back to school, syllabi to stick in the toaster oven, too much red tonight, all that jazz.

A Respite from Cynicism

I am a cynic and skeptic of the worst kind, the type of person who claims to be a realist but who secretly knows that he is a hopeless pessimist. And yet I cannot help but feel more than a little relieved and lightened, very much in spite of myself, at our country’s overwhelming endorsement of a new ideology, one that I believe is different and separate from the politics that survived on the perpetuation of the myth of a “culture war.” I’m talking about Barrack Obama, President Elect, if I haven’t been clear enough.

I’m not naive enough to believe that Obama isn’t a politician, fallible like all before him, and I’m not giddy or silly enough to think of him as a Jesusian savior of America. When the conservative movement mocked Obama’s followers for seemingly seeing in the man a messiah figure, what they didn’t understand was the radical break that Obama represented. It is not so much Obama the man that we longed for, but the idea of Obama–the idea of someone radically different from everything that had come before. And in electing Obama–and the idea of Obama–we immediately achieved something, as Americans, that is wholly independent of anything Obama will do over the next four years as President. We showed the world that our democracy works and that we as a people are not the ignorant xenophobic fundamentalists that the Bush administration worked so hard to paint us as.

I’ve been thinking these past few days about Michelle Obama’s infamous comment during the campaign that she felt proud to be an American for the first time in her adult life. The comment was fodder for right wingers, of course, and at the time it seemed like a bit of a blunder even to some Obama supporters. But now I see it in a new way. My adult life has essentially taken place in this decade, the Bush decade, the 9/11 decade (I turned 21 in the year 2000). While I’ve had moments of pride in individual Americans, it’s been hard to see the (regressive) movement of our country in any positive light. I remember being a child, being taught and believing that this was a special country, a different country, a country that people wanted to come to because it was special and different. In my adult life in this decade, I’ve watched our ideological stock plummet around the globe. I’ve found myself, while traveling abroad, having to explain–with quite a bit of difficulty–that we’re not all ignorant fundamentalists in America. That thinking critically was actually once considered patriotic. That America was really a much better place than its elected leadership exemplified. The policies of the Bush administration–and the nation’s acquiescent and apathetic response to them–slowly drained my energy and hardened my pessimism in politics and people into a thick, cynical shell. I am amazed at how quickly the November 4th, 2008 election shattered this shell.

I know that Obama will make mistakes, that he will have to engage in the same kind of political gamesmanship that every other president has had to in order to push their agenda. But again, to paraphrase Obama himself, this isn’t about him–this is about us, the U.S., and our declared mandate for political and cultural change in this country. So while I will keep my skeptical reservations and pessimism about politics and the two-party system that we let dominate this country, I can’t help but feel a restoration of pride and a sense of possibility for this country.

Great American Heroes

Biggie Smalls is basically a metaphor for America. This painting is by Kehinde Wiley. We love it.

Great American Heroes

Okay well so, we’re more or less “off” this week, because we love America sooooooooo much that we’re going on vacation. Still, because we are totally American, which is to say totally industrious, and because “the U.S. is the greatest, best country god has ever given man on the face of the Earth,” we’ll be leaving you with a series of fantastic images of great American heroes over the next week, starting with this stunning portrait of Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, by talented painter Adam Brooks. Great stuff.

We the People

We love America–who doesn’t? We also love the Preamble to the Constitution. Those three magic words “We the people” created a whole new country (there was also a violent revolution involved). O! the transformative power of words! How glorious that the very act of saying “we” creates a “we” (sure, at the time, the “we” really meant white landowning males, but still, let’s glory in the democratic magic folks). In appreciation of the best country in the world (yes, we’re being earnest dear reader), we present a few classic clips for your viewing pleasure.

No doubt you’ve already gloried in the glory of glorious Dennis Madalone’s glorious tune “America, We Stand as One,” but you can always glory out again.

After that, learn some history kids. Did you know that the Founding Fathers could sing? Better than Rent!

Finally, this is where Biblioklept learned the true meaning of Independence Day, and what it really means to be “Living in America”–