This is not the dystopia we were promised. We are not learning to love Big Brother, who lives, if he lives at all, on a cluster of server farms, cooled by environmentally friendly technologies. Nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into a hazy acquiescence to pervasive social hierarchies…
….Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).
In other words, we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s
The Iron Heel
It cannot be said that the Everhard Manuscript is an important historical document. To the historian it bristles with errors—not errors of fact, but errors of interpretation. Looking back across the seven centuries that have lapsed since Avis Everhard completed her manuscript, events, and the bearings of events, that were confused and veiled to her, are clear to us. She lacked perspective. She was too close to the events she writes about. Nay, she was merged in the events she has described.
Nevertheless, as a personal document, the Everhard Manuscript is of inestimable value. But here again enter error of perspective, and vitiation due to the bias of love. Yet we smile, indeed, and forgive Avis Everhard for the heroic lines upon which she modelled her husband. We know to-day that he was not so colossal, and that he loomed among the events of his times less largely than the Manuscript would lead us to believe.
We know that Ernest Everhard was an exceptionally strong man, but not so exceptional as his wife thought him to be. He was, after all, but one of a large number of heroes who, throughout the world, devoted their lives to the Revolution; though it must be conceded that he did unusual work, especially in his elaboration and interpretation of working-class philosophy. “Proletarian science” and “proletarian philosophy” were his phrases for it, and therein he shows the provincialism of his mind—a defect, however, that was due to the times and that none in that day could escape.
But to return to the Manuscript. Especially valuable is it in communicating to us the FEEL of those terrible times. Nowhere do we find more vividly portrayed the psychology of the persons that lived in that turbulent period embraced between the years 1912 and 1932—their mistakes and ignorance, their doubts and fears and misapprehensions, their ethical delusions, their violent passions, their inconceivable sordidness and selfishness. These are the things that are so hard for us of this enlightened age to understand. History tells us that these things were, and biology and psychology tell us why they were; but history and biology and psychology do not make these things alive. We accept them as facts, but we are left without sympathetic comprehension of them.
This sympathy comes to us, however, as we peruse the Everhard Manuscript. We enter into the minds of the actors in that long-ago world-drama, and for the time being their mental processes are our mental processes. Not alone do we understand Avis Everhard’s love for her hero-husband, but we feel, as he felt, in those first days, the vague and terrible loom of the Oligarchy. The Iron Heel (well named) we feel descending upon and crushing mankind.
And in passing we note that that historic phrase, the Iron Heel, originated in Ernest Everhard’s mind. This, we may say, is the one moot question that this new-found document clears up. Previous to this, the earliest-known use of the phrase occurred in the pamphlet, “Ye Slaves,” written by George Milford and published in December, 1912. This George Milford was an obscure agitator about whom nothing is known, save the one additional bit of information gained from the Manuscript, which mentions that he was shot in the Chicago Commune. Evidently he had heard Ernest Everhard make use of the phrase in some public speech, most probably when he was running for Congress in the fall of 1912. From the Manuscript we learn that Everhard used the phrase at a private dinner in the spring of 1912. This is, without discussion, the earliest-known occasion on which the Oligarchy was so designated.
The rise of the Oligarchy will always remain a cause of secret wonder to the historian and the philosopher. Other great historical events have their place in social evolution. They were inevitable. Their coming could have been predicted with the same certitude that astronomers to-day predict the outcome of the movements of stars. Without these other great historical events, social evolution could not have proceeded. Primitive communism, chattel slavery, serf slavery, and wage slavery were necessary stepping-stones in the evolution of society. But it were ridiculous to assert that the Iron Heel was a necessary stepping-stone. Rather, to-day, is it adjudged a step aside, or a step backward, to the social tyrannies that made the early world a hell, but that were as necessary as the Iron Heel was unnecessary.
Black as Feudalism was, yet the coming of it was inevitable. What else than Feudalism could have followed upon the breakdown of that great centralized governmental machine known as the Roman Empire? Not so, however, with the Iron Heel. In the orderly procedure of social evolution there was no place for it. It was not necessary, and it was not inevitable. It must always remain the great curiosity of history—a whim, a fantasy, an apparition, a thing unexpected and undreamed; and it should serve as a warning to those rash political theorists of to-day who speak with certitude of social processes.
Capitalism was adjudged by the sociologists of the time to be the culmination of bourgeois rule, the ripened fruit of the bourgeois revolution. And we of to-day can but applaud that judgment. Following upon Capitalism, it was held, even by such intellectual and antagonistic giants as Herbert Spencer, that Socialism would come. Out of the decay of self-seeking capitalism, it was held, would arise that flower of the ages, the Brotherhood of Man. Instead of which, appalling alike to us who look back and to those that lived at the time, capitalism, rotten-ripe, sent forth that monstrous offshoot, the Oligarchy.
Too late did the socialist movement of the early twentieth century divine the coming of the Oligarchy. Even as it was divined, the Oligarchy was there—a fact established in blood, a stupendous and awful reality. Nor even then, as the Everhard Manuscript well shows, was any permanence attributed to the Iron Heel. Its overthrow was a matter of a few short years, was the judgment of the revolutionists. It is true, they realized that the Peasant Revolt was unplanned, and that the First Revolt was premature; but they little realized that the Second Revolt, planned and mature, was doomed to equal futility and more terrible punishment.
It is apparent that Avis Everhard completed the Manuscript during the last days of preparation for the Second Revolt; hence the fact that there is no mention of the disastrous outcome of the Second Revolt. It is quite clear that she intended the Manuscript for immediate publication, as soon as the Iron Heel was overthrown, so that her husband, so recently dead, should receive full credit for all that he had ventured and accomplished. Then came the frightful crushing of the Second Revolt, and it is probable that in the moment of danger, ere she fled or was captured by the Mercenaries, she hid the Manuscript in the hollow oak at Wake Robin Lodge.
Of Avis Everhard there is no further record. Undoubtedly she was executed by the Mercenaries; and, as is well known, no record of such executions was kept by the Iron Heel. But little did she realize, even then, as she hid the Manuscript and prepared to flee, how terrible had been the breakdown of the Second Revolt. Little did she realize that the tortuous and distorted evolution of the next three centuries would compel a Third Revolt and a Fourth Revolt, and many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. And little did she dream that for seven long centuries the tribute of her love to Ernest Everhard would repose undisturbed in the heart of the ancient oak of Wake Robin Lodge.
November 27, 419 B.O.M.
Did you see Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list? I saw it this morning, and on the whole it ain’t half bad, despite including way too many novels from the past 10 years. Lists are stupid and maybe we already live in a dystopia, but our dystopia could be way way worse and lists are stupid fun…so—my stupid thoughts on this stupid fun list. (They organized it chronologically, by the bye)—-
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726: Good starting place, although I’m sure you could reach farther back if you wanted—Revelations, Blake, Milton, etc.
The Last Man, Mary Shelley, 1826: Never read it. The listmakers seem to have skipped Voltaire’s Candide (1759).
Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872: Hey, did you know that Erewhon is actually Nowhere backwards? Ooooh…far out. I really don’t remember it but I read it in school. I’m sure I would’ve thrown it on the list.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895: Great track. Some of the best required reading ever.
“The Machine Stops,” E.M. Forster, 1909: Never read it/never heard of it.
We, Yvegny Zamyatin, 1924: The list reminded me I need to reread this one—I read it twice—in my teens and in my twenties. Good stuff. (Also reminds me that I would’ve added something by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list—like his collection Memories of the Future).
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932: This is the guy. I mean, I think Huxley got it right here, y’know? Not that a dystopian novel needs to predict, but…anyway. I actually had a student come by during office hours just to visit, and she asked for a novel recommendation, and I gave her BNW after she told me 1984 was the last great book she’d read. If I recall correctly, the Vulture list only has one duplicate author (Margaret Atwood), but I’d also add Huxley’s often-overlooked novel Ape and Essence.
It Can’t Happen Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 1935: I think this is one of those ones where I know the basic plot, themes, etc., but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.
Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin, 1937: An entry that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, the sort of thing that shows the value in stupid silly fun lists. I’ll search it out.
1984, George Orwell, 1949: I guess this one is the big dawg, but I never want to reread it (unlike Huxley’s stuff). Maybe I’m missing the humor in it. Maybe the most important novel of the 20th century, whatever that means. Continue reading “Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list”
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.
Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake, plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).
In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.
Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.
Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.
This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:
I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.
The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.
Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).
The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.
You can mean thousands.
Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:
It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.
The Book of Job.
Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.
Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.
The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.
“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.
After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.
Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.
Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why.
Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.
In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.
Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.
Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”
“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:
“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”
“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”
The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.
“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.
“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.
“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”
Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.
“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.
“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”
“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.
“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”
The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”
Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”
But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”
I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.
The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.
I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill, again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.
The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly done his research, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.
Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.
If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.
The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.
When an advance copy of Matt Bell’s new novella-in-stories Cataclysm Baby showed up in the mail a few months ago, I was immediately intrigued. Post-apocalyptic fiction is right up my proverbial alley, and the book’s conceit—Bell’s site describes the book as “twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting stories, all narrated by fathers, each revealing some different family, some new end of the world”—seemed refreshingly different than the “family issues” novels that publishers tend to send my way. I was not a jot disappointed in Cataclysm Baby either; in my review I write:
Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Matt was kind enough to talk to me over an exchange of emails. In the margins of our exchanges—those little quips that aren’t part of the interview proper—I found Matt to be a very nice, generous fellow. I enjoyed talking with him.
Matt teaches writing at the University of Michigan; he also works for Dzanc Books, where he runs the literary magazine The Collagist.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby is a highly structured work that follows a clear pattern. Where did Cataclysm Baby begin? At what point did you start using the alphabet as an organizing principle for apocalypse family fiction?
Matt Bell: The writing of Cataclysm Baby began with its first story, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” although I didn’t have that title for it then: I was just starting off to write a standalone short about this father, who was describing the birth of his son in what turned out to be fairly grim circumstances, and I didn’t know anything more than that—as is often the case with me, I was probably more interested in the voice than in the content or the character, at least at the very beginning. At some point in that draft, I wrote an early version of these lines: “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequence failure.” It was that suggestion of the baby name book that offered up that narrative’s title, and then alphabetizing as an organizing principle for more stories. Before that, I hadn’t intended to write a series, or this novella that they became, but the book’s structure was held in those lines, and that structure ended up driving a lot of the rest of the book’s drafting, by giving a shape for the other narratives to attach to.
Biblioklept: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” contains a horrifying image—the baby is born with a “furred esophagus,” and the dad must pull a hairball from the baby’s mouth. The following stories build on this horror: mutant offspring, forced-breeding, still birth, monster birth . . . You say that your initial concern was more with voice than content or character—but did you have any of these images in mind at the outset?
MB: It’s always a little hard to remember exactly—I wrote the first drafts of Cataclysm Baby in mid-2009—but I think that I would probably say that I didn’t have the imagery of the “furred esophagus” and that hair-choked baby before I started, but I might have had some of the others before starting their sections. Some of the sections were suggested by the names I chose, which in certain cases came first: Including the name “Cain” in the title of the third story, for instance, suggested at least a fratricide, if not exactly what that killing might entail.
For the most part, I’m typically not much of a planner, at the plot or situation level: I don’t have particularly good ideas, and so if I start there, I tend to end up with stories that are all surface, or that at least capture only the most surface stuff of me. By starting at the level of the sentence or the sound or the image—and then by staying at that level as long as I can—I feel more likely to dredge a little deeper, to discover something a little stronger. It’s in subsequent drafts that I do a lot of the plot and character shaping, and even some of the conceptual thinking. I need a certain critical mass of workable language before I can do too much story-work with it.
Bibliokept: Your language—tone, syntax, diction, etc.—inheres across the collection and works to unify the themes and images in Cataclysm Baby. Still, there’s a sense of disconnection of time and place between these stories, as if each one is its own discrete apocalypse or dystopia, even as they blend together.
In a sense, you seem to be playing obliquely with the tropes of end-of-the-world fiction, but resisting the heavy exposition and tendency for world-building we see in so much sci-fi. I suppose I’m pointing toward what I see as restraint in CB, but might have actually been editing on your part—how much of CB came from pruning and paring down?
MB: Generally I’d say that it’s my process to overwrite and then to cut back to the best version of any given story. That said, Cataclysm Baby was never a dramatically longer book, either as a whole or in its individual pieces. For me, many of these stories often operate more like fairy tales or biblical stories than contemporary sci-fi, and so have to do their world-building in different ways. I often write in fragments, and try to create useful spaces in the white spaces between—some regions of ambiguity or juxtaposition—and I think that when that’s working well those regions can end up standing in for what might otherwise require a lot of connective tissue and explanatory exposition.
Biblioklept: Why are end of the world stories are so compelling?
MB: The apocalyptic goes deep in us: Every civilization has its origin story, and also its story of how it’ll all end. Less of us might believe in more supernatural apocalypses now than in the past, but we’ve replaced those fears with secular ones, made all the more frightening for being manmade—global warming and constant war and economic inequality are the results of choices we’ve made, not the supernatural nature of the universe. We’re also within the first few generations that grew up during the environmental movement, taught to see the earth as something that needed to be saved by human action, from human action. All that adds to the gravity of certain kinds of apocalyptic stories: Our ending is now an act of agency instead of prophecy, and for me that changes everything.
Biblioklept: In what ways?
MB: What I mean is that if the end of the world is completely out of our control—if it’s the second coming or an unstoppable asteroid headed for earth —then we don’t bear any responsibility for it happening, and probably be can’t be tasked with stopping it. But if it’s a side effect of the way we live or the way we exploit the earth’s resources or of the way we treat each other, then I think we can be held responsible, both for what has already happened and our failures to make things better. The problem is that most of don’t actually have the chance to make a direct impact, or at least we don’t get to feel like we’re making one very often. It’s hard to make the links between our individual lives and our communal fates, in the biggest ways. But that doesn’t free us from the anxiety or the fear: If anything it probably makes it worse, because someone is making the decisions that might cost us everything, but it’s hard to pin down who it is, or to hold them accountable for their actions.
To bring it back toward Cataclysm Baby: The fathers in the book are rarely if ever responsible for the situations they and their families are in, and they aren’t generally given opportunities to improve things in a large-scale way. All they can do is focus on themselves and their families—which is, of course, what most of us do too, no matter how badly things are going outside our doors. This tension between what we know is wrong (climate change and oppression and war and every other kind of global problem) and what we are best suited for (caring for ourselves and the people closest to us) is problematic, and the solutions to that closing that gap aren’t particularly obvious, or at least they’re not obvious to me.
Biblioklept: I think that Cataclysm Baby has a positive ending—not necessarily a happy ending—but a positive one, or at least one that points to a future and generative capability. I’m curious if you tried out other ways to close the collection than those last few lines of “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.”
MB: I’m so glad you read the ending that way: It’s definitely not a happy ending—and couldn’t be, after what’s come before—but I’d like to think that it at least leaves open the possibility of hope. That seems like such a slim solace, but it’s something, and sometimes enough.
As for whether there were other ways to end the novella: As I said above, I’m not generally a planner, and I ideally like to reach the final pages of a book or story in a burst, writing headlong, possessed by a sort of measured recklessness, in hopes that by moving as strongly as possible from sentence to sentence in a controlled sprint I might arrive at the end surprised and invigorated by what I find there, rather than overthinking or over-determining it. The final sentence of Cataclysm Baby was almost certainly tweaked through the rewriting process, but I arrived at its basic shape for the first time in much the same way I imagine a reader might, coming out of that run of repetitions and endings into something else, some possible future. I was glad that it contained that hope you felt, glad to know that was the way I instinctively responded when I reached the last page.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby bears two epigraphs; one from the King James bible, and one from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The content of both quotations resonates with your work, as does the style.
McCarthy has said that “books are made out of books.” What writers or books were especially important or influential when you were composing Cataclysm Baby?
MB: I love that McCarthy quote, and couldn’t agree more: I think that for me a lot of my formative experiences didn’t happen in “real life,” but inside of books, in that space between what’s printed on the page and what happens in the reader. So the books I’ve read are at least as important an influence as the things I’ve done.
The Bible is obviously an influence on the voice of the book, but it also owes a debt to texts like Beowulf or the Greek myths—there’s a purposeful attempt here to use a more archaic-seeming way of speaking to talk about these futures. Fairy tales are an important part of how I structure stories and character development, and I think that way of thinking was a huge help when working with all of these compressed narratives. And of course there are all the end-of-the-world tales I read when I was a kid or a teenager or more recently: I grew up almost exclusively on science fiction and fantasy and horror, and so much of that still filters into the work. It’s some of that stuff from when I was younger that sticks with me the most, the different world-ending plots of Swan Song and The Stand and Robots and Empire and so on. And then there’s stuff I read later, like Beckett’s Endgame, like Shirley Jackson and McCarthy and Brian Evenson. But of course all of this is over-simplifying, or choosing only the most direct or obvious choices, the ones I couldn’t deny anyway: As I said above, I’ve lived a rather large part of my life inside the books I love, and so it’s no surprise that part of my books would end up being set in some combined world, some landscape they’ve all been mashed into inside me.
Bibliokept: You work as both an editor and a writing teacher. How do those jobs overlap or contrast or influence your own fiction writing?
MB: By the time I finished grad school I was doing most of these things in some form: I was teaching writing there too, and I’d started The Collagist and was just about to join Dzanc full-time. I truly love my teaching and my editing, and am very grateful to have them both as part of my daily work. I think that more than anything they’ve allowed me to see all of these pursuits as part of a bigger literary life, and that this life was the real goal I wanted to realize. I’m very lucky to get to spend my days as a writer and as a reader and teacher and editor and reviewer and whatever else, and I think that all of these different activities add up to one satisfying whole. If there ever came a time when I couldn’t write—where I lost my nerve or my drive to create—I’d like to think that these other activities might sustain me through that loss.
Biblioklept: What about just plain old writer’s block? I seem to be suffering from it these days. Any suggestions you offer your students?
MB: First, my sympathies: I know how frustrating that sensation can feel. Personally, I think I rarely have true writer’s block, the kind where I don’t write. Instead I have days where I write only badly, and sometimes miserably so —and sometimes those days stretch into weeks. When I’m working on a project, there’s almost always something to do, so if I can’t go forward I just move backward in the story and try to revise my way into forward motion again. If I’m between projects, I try to start something new every day until one catches. Immediately after finishing Cataclysm Baby I must have written the beginnings of a dozen terrible short stories, not letting myself abandon one before my writing time was over for the day. So maybe I spent a month writing three or four hours a day on work I wasn’t going to continue with—but at least I was writing. That’s the only way I know to get past writer’s block that isn’t dumb luck.
Biblioklept: Obviously Cataclysm Baby is just out, but do you have any other books or writing projects on the horizon?
MB: I do, thankfully: I’ve been working almost exclusively on a novel for the past three years, and am in the very final phases of that book. I can’t say much more about it yet, but hopefully soon. Once that’s finished, who knows? I’m looking forward to getting back to that place of surprise and uncertainty, after a couple years of knowing what to work on every day.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MB: Not from a store, I don’t think. Mostly, I probably have some borrowed books I never gave back, and after some number of years those have become something like a theft. When I was 21 or so, I believed someone lent me a copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, which absolutely blew me away, and was hugely influential on me as a writer. I had no idea who Lipsyte was, and at the time there weren’t any other books of his to read. I was sure my friend Irene had borrowed me the book, but she said she hadn’t, and later I tried to return it to a few other friends, but they wouldn’t claim it either. So maybe I did buy it, but I don’t remember doing so, and every time I see it on the shelf I wonder who it really belongs to. Assuming it does belong to some friend of mine, I owe them far more than the cover price: I wouldn’t be the same writer without having found Lipsyte then, or even the same person.
1. If I had anything resembling a decent thesis about Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, I’d try to write a proper review; but I don’t have anything approaching a thesis about it, so I’ll just riff a bit.
2. Re: item 1: there are just too many “big ideas” to hash out without a second reading. The book tackles social and cultural evolution, taking a hard aim at what the boomers hath wrought: it attacks the concepts of the free market, free love, and even free will.
3. The themes of The Elementary Particles: sex and death.
4. Les Particules élémentaires is the original French title. The book was sold with the title Atomised in its British publication. The Elementary Particles is the “American” title; it’s fine, I suppose, but Atomised strikes me as more fitting. Both titles allude to the book’s plot, which involves molecular biology as well as the “metaphysical mutations” that happen over human history. But the American title seems too positive—it connotes imagery of building blocks, of growth, of possibility. Atomised conjures disintegration, which is more in tune with the novel’s tone.
5. Frank Wynne translates.
6. Is it silly to say that I find the novel very French? I think this is a silly comment, one that says more about me than the book.
7. Still, I find the book very French.
8. The Elementary Particles isn’t a “novelly novel.” Don’t read this book if you are interested in plot arc, character development, or emotional uplift. Catharsis? Validation of the existential human drama? Not gonna happen here.
9. This isn’t a book for everyone. This is probably not a book for most people, in fact.
10. I loved it though. It was funny and mean and shocking. Bristly, brisk, engaging. Most of all, I was fascinated by Houellebecq’s intelligence.
11. It is possible that many readers will be annoyed or aggravated at Houellebecq’s artless ventriloquizing of his characters, who often deliver long, occasionally polemical, speeches on any number of subjects, including the Huxleys (Aldous and his brother Julian), problems with the French education system, the merits and tragedies of anonymous sex, the emotional cost of a culture mediated by advertising and consumerist desire, the terrors of post-boomer moral fallout (ritualized slayings and the like) . . .
12. Things that The Elementary Particles reminds me of:
The Marquis de Sade
Flat narrative voice-overs in films both foreign and domestic
Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts
The late twentieth century
13. What do the two half-brothers of The Elementary Particles crave? Motherly love.
14. Sensationalism that repels more than it titillates in The Elementary Particles: group sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, ritualistic Satanic murder.
15. A weak shot at plot summary: Michel and Bruno are half-brothers. Their mother, a selfish hippie (there can be no other kind in Houellebecq’s world), abandons them to be raised by different family members. Bruno, more or less forgotten by his father, is brutalized in boarding school. Michel, raised by his paternal grandmother, becomes emotionally isolated and withdrawn. He grows up to become a brilliant molecular biologist whose work on DNA mapping leads to a new type of cow (later he does something that changes the course of humanity forever, but hey, no spoilers). Michel cannot make human connection and finds no interest in sex. Bruno, in contrast, spends his life in arrested development, lusting after young girls like a sex-crazed maniac (which he kinda sorta technically is, I suppose). Both men reconnect with each other, connect with meaningful women, and some other stuff happens too.
16. Look, the plot isn’t really that important in The Elementary Particles. It’s an idea novel. A novel of ideas. [Shudders].
17. A lot of people hated this book; that is, they hated the ideas in this book and the presentation of those ideas.
18. Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:
The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book’s right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel’s high profile. As a piece of writing, ”The Elementary Particles” feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read.
19. I generally disagree with Kakutani, who is often disingenuous or lazy as a critic. I think that she completely misreads the novel.
20. I find it reassuring that Houellebecq offends Kakutani.
21. Kakutani loved Gary Shteyngart’s awful dystopian sex and death and aging novel Super Sad True Love Story; I super hated it! While reading Houellebecq’s novel, I occasionally thought about Shteyngart’s book, which I think seems not just watery and weak next to The Elementary Particles, but cowardly.
22. Is The Elementary Particles sci-fi? Maybe. Sort of. Not really.
23. Is it dystopian? I think that it posits the globalized, post-boomer world as a dystopia, as a place obsessed with aging and image, as a world of enslaved people who falsely extol their own freedom. But it works its way toward a positive vision of life.
24. Is it utopian then? No, not really. I mean, this positive vision of life doesn’t include human beings.
25. The ending of the book is a philosophical dodge, the kind of misanthropy that too easily dismisses the entirety of history, philosophy, religion, and even basic biological impulses.
26. Maybe the ending is ironic. So much of the book is blackly bleakly ironic, that, hey, yeah, it’s possible the ending is ironic.
27. I’m not really sure, of course.
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.
Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels synthesizes dystopian themes with magical realism to tell the story of an unnamed city, in an unnamed time, afflicted by plagues of birds and bands of Gypsies. The novel is marvelous, surreal and very strange, disorienting in its tones and unnerving in its subjects; it’s at once a confounding allegory of torture, suppression, and rebellion, and at the same time a study in intrafamily relationships.
There are two families at the heart of The Avian Gospels. The aristocratic Giggs are led by the Judge, a ruthless patriarch who is both inheritor and perpetrator of endless war. Judge Giggs controls the city through fear, torture, and his fascist personal guard, the RedBlacks. While Judge Giggs seems to hold illimitable power in the city, it isn’t enough to retain the love or even respect of his family. His wife veers into a manic depressive breakdown, brought on in large part by the death of her elder son, who was killed during the last (foolish) war. His second son, Mike, is a loutish ne’er-do-well, a bully who fails to win his father’s approval. The Judge’s daughter Katherine is the apple of his eye, but as she matures in her adolescence, she begins to perceive the violent disconnect between her privileged life and the suppression and poverty forced on the city’s Gypsy population.
The other family (perhaps more of a duo, really) comprises Zvominir, an immigrant claiming to hail from Sweden, and his son Morgan, a petulant teen of an age with Katherine. Routinely beaten bloody by Mike Giggs and his RedBlack goons, Morgan develops a visceral hatred of the Judge’s regime, one that leads the lad to repeatedly (and rashly) lash out against the violent injustice he perceives around him. Zvominir and Morgan live in sad, motherless squalor, separated not only from the suburban greenzoned upper-class, but also from the Gypsies; Zvominir, who leads most of his life genuflecting to or cowering from power, will not even allow his son the joy of partaking in the Gypsies vibrant customs (like rowdy ska music and barbecues).
Most of all, Zvominir tries to contain his son’s bizarre power, a power that he shares with the boy: they can telepathically control the birds. This gift becomes both blessing and curse as the city is overrun by flocks of birds that block out the sun and make roads unnavigable. Zvominir, always kowtowing to power, agrees to employ his gift to “sweep” the city (particularly the area where the rich folks live) of the bird hordes; Morgan agrees to help, but only under the condition that he be allowed to show off his talent in the public square, where eager crowds (of Gypsies and suburbanites alike) gather to marvel at the spectacle of his “birdshows.” In time, Morgan begins writing dissent into his performances:
Birdshows were generally narrative, and featured a bird-made Morgan being chased through the streets by a soldier who was torn to bits by swans, though the swans were made of pigeons, and the soldier of flesh-colored plovers, his uniform of cardinals and crows. Swans would also be pursued through ghetto canyons by flying tigers made of orioles. These were his intentions for the birdshows, at any rate, but Zvominir would censor when the images betrayed but a hint of dangerous content, obscuring Morgan’s work with birdclouds, or worse, laughing babies made of birds. The audience found these touches psychedelic, and weren’t pacified so much as confused, so their passion turned to mumbles. The elder’s power over birds was superior, and Morgan couldn’t stop his father from suppressing the transgressive. It infuriated him.
Zvominir isn’t the only authority figure prone to parental censorship; as the poor old man tries to keep his son safe by “suppressing the transgressive,” the Judge in turn does all in his power to keep his precious daughter Katherine blind and ignorant to the violence and inequality that has purchased her material comfort. However, Katherine meets and becomes fascinated by Morgan, just as the young man’s rebellious attitude comes to find definition and ideology thanks to the Gypsy rebel Jane. Jane harnesses Morgan’s raw anger, turning him into the figurehead of a Gypsy resistance against the Judge’s terrible regime. She literally ushers him into the Gypsy underworld, a surreal setting of nightplants and black markets and ecstatic ska music and donkeys, sprawling in a labyrinthine network of caves and caverns and tunnels under the unnamed city. From this subterranean site, Jane becomes mastermind of a terrorist plot to overthrow the fascist Judge:
They—we—were helpless, and we knew it. She would do to us what Hungary had done, but with stealth; this terror stuff is easy, she mused. Who needs armies? She was poor, and lived in sewers, so nothing could be taken but her life, while we had homes, jobs, children, hopes, dreams and possessions we adored, which all gave meaning to our lives. There was no end to that of which she could deprive us. Our privilege made us vulnerable.
Now seems as reasonable a time as any to remark upon the narrator of The Avian Gospels, as its pronouns color much of the passage I just cited. A first-person plural “we” tells the story, a “we” whose contours and guts alike become more evident as the book unfolds. Much of the joy (and bewilderment and occasional frustration) I felt reading The Avian Gospels came from puzzling out just who this “we” is. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that, like the collective first plural person who narrates, say, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator is part and parcel of the story—is the story, perhaps—and that Novy’s dystopian vision is realized not just in the book’s content, but also in the telling of that content. Calling the narrator unreliable is beside the point; the narrator is the ideology itself that Novy critiques. Rebel Jane provides a very real ideological anesthesia to the narrator’s methods, the Judge’s power, and Morgan’s artistic ambitions:
. . . Jane felt suspicious of beauty, which trafficked in desire, not in justice, and left you lonelier and sadder. It made you feel worse in the guise of feeling better, and left you hungry for more beauty. Further. It enfeebled you politically, by pointing at some hypothetical catharsis, a transcendence that could not be achieved, for who could really say they had communed with a non-religious paradise of aesthetics? The beauty effect: a crescendo of nothing. Beauty distracted from things that were important—the rights of disadvantaged people—in the name of something it claimed was more important, and which didn’t actually exist. It was a cognitive conspiracy, a con that disempowered.
If Jane seems a bit shrewish—and what zealot isn’t?—it’s worth pointing out that her ideas might be the novel’s thesis, a thesis ironically couched in the very beauty that Jane would make us wary of. She’s the cold conscience in a book filled with passions. And she’s a terrorist.
While The Avian Gospels surpasses any allegorical schema we might try to impose upon it, it’s still very much a response to America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist. Novy’s Judge is a figure of malevolence glossed in benevolence. If he’s a sicko who takes dull delight in torturing Gypsies in his Boom Boom Room, he’s also a family man with problems that most of us can relate to. He’s an authoritarian who maintains order in a fractured society through violence and suppression—but he delivers what the suburban greenzoners want from a leader. So what if security comes at the expense of justice, and on the backs of a displaced population to boot?
The Gypsies, refugees from countless wars afflicting the world of The Avian Gospels, aren’t the only displaced persons in the narrative. Novy displaces the readers as well. The Avian Gospels erupts with uncanny moments where the material of our recognizable world overlaps with the crumbled reality of the narrative. Social structures, attitudes, cultural norms and ideals—these remain, more or less. But how to puzzle out a world where China, Bolivia, Angloa, and Oklahoma are among the nations that surround the unnamed city? Or where technology has regressed to the point that the automobile is a thing of the past? (Guns remain). And, uh, the birds, of course.
Novy’s dystopian novel skews more fantasy (or, more properly, magical realism) than sci-fi, but it’s the novel’s strange, shifting tones that most likely will paradoxically estrange and engage most readers. There’s a violent zaniness to The Avian Gospels, but the zaniness is never tinted with even a hint of whimsy. The first-person plural “we” that narrates the text juxtaposes dense, poetic images against the teenspeak of the street. At times, the narrator staggers into a mordant lament, only to retreat into cruel, blackly ironic prose. The effect is disorienting and compelling. Novy’s writing moves rhythmically with a complex energy that I’m faltering to describe. You should probably just read the book.
I’ve neglected thus far to comment on the actual physical books that comprise The Avian Gospels. They are beautiful, compact, oxblood volumes with gilded edges and bookmarks, reminiscent of Gideon bibles, I suppose, but more lovely. They’re also very small, the sort of thing that fits easily into a pocket or a purse. I love books like that.
The Avian Gospels deserves a place on the shelf (or in the pocket) of any fan of cult or dystopian novels. It’s a story about cyclical violence, power and powerlessness, and political and cultural repression. It’s also a story about family and parent-child relationships and what it means to love another person in the face of radical danger, a novel that foregrounds the very real stakes of rebellion, both Oedipal and political. It’s a strange book, one that offers little comfort to its readers and certainly proffers no simple answers. Deeply moving and highly original, I strongly recommend this book.
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.
A few years ago, I wrote about cult novels, and, in trying to define them, I suggested that “a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults.” Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve is a cult novel about a cult, or at least heavily features a cult. Like many cult novels, there’s an apocalyptic scope to Steve, one in this particular case (or subject, if you will), that extends from the personal to the universal.
I’ll let Lipsyte’s compressed acerbic prose spell out the book’s central conflict—
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren’t any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
The problem of death, or the problem of how to live a meaningful life against the specter of death, is of course an ancient conceit, and Lipsyte makes it the core of his book, upon which he hangs an often shaggy picaresque plot. The Subject Steve is post-modernist caustic satire in the good old vein of Candide; put another way, it’s just one damn thing happening after the next.
So, what are some of those things that happen? Steve (not his real name) is condemned to die of a disease with no name; he tries to make contact with his estranged wife and not-quite-a-genius daughter; he blows his life savings on hookers and blow; he heads upstate to a cult’s compound in the hopes of finding a cure to his unnamed (unnameable) disease; he suffers the cult’s sadistic practices; he escapes the cult’s sadistic practices; he reunites with his wife and daughter; he abandons his wife and daughter; he reunites with a new version of the cult somewhere in the Nevada desert; he becomes enslaved by the cult in the Nevada desert; he escapes the cult; &c. And he reflects on his life (and his death) repeatedly. I’ll let Steve reflect on his life at length, if for no other reason than to share more of Lipsyte’s marvelous prose—
And I was still dying, wasn’t I? Who would note? What had I ever noted? I’d taken my pleasures, of course, I’d eaten the foods of the world, drunk my wine, put this or that forbidden particulate in my nose until the room lit up like a festival town and all my friends, but just my friends, were seers. I’d seen the great cities, the great lakes, the oceans and the so-called seas, slept in soft beds and awakened to fresh juice and fluffy towels and terrific water pressure. I’d fucked in moonlight, sped through desolate interstate kingdoms of high broken beauty, met wise men, wise women, even a wise movie star. I’d lain on lawns that, cut, bore the scent of rare spice. I’d ridden dune buggies, foreign rails. I’d tasted forty-five kinds of coffee, not counting decaf.
I love this passage. In almost any other book I can think of, the final detail about coffee would puncture the passage’s inflation, serve as a comic anti-climax. In Lipsyte’s phrasing it’s both tragic and triumphant.
I don’t mean to gloss over the plot of The Subject Steve, but the book’s narrative, its sense of time, is so radically compressed (again, I think of the compression of Candide) that reading it is more like experiencing a rapid series of scenarios. I’m particularly fond of books like this, that seem to ramble and erupt in strange and unexpected moments. I think of Ellison’s Invisible Man or Woolf’s Orlando, but there’s also something of Aldous Huxley in Steve, that apocalyptic-comic axis, the satire of despair. The book is one of those pre-9/11 novels (forgive the phrase) that seems utterly prescient. Take the following observation for example—
Someday sectors of this city would make the most astonishing ruins. No pyramid or sacrificial ziggurat would compare to these insurance towers, convention domes. Unnerved, of course, or stoned enough, you always could see it, tomorrow’s ruins today, carcasses of steel teetered in a halt of death, half globes of granite buried like worlds under shards of street. Sometimes I pictured myself a futuristic sifter, some odd being bred for sexlessness, helmed in pulsing Lucite, stooping to examine an elevator panel, a perfectly preserved boutonniere.
The language here anticipates the Dead America that Lipsyte explores in his latest novel, The Ask, and reinforces a general argument I’d like to make, which is that Lipsyte is at heart a writer of dystopian fictions, fictions so contemporary that their dystopian nature becomes effaced.
These dystopian tropes coalesce in the frantic, hyperbolic ending of Steve, where our subject becomes the object of a bizarre cult’s ritual sadistic practices, all available via the panopticon of the internet. Lipsyte’s vision is of a post-human existence, a radical otherness of degradation through technological alienation. At this late moment in the book, the satire is so black that even Lipsyte’s tightest, pithiest sentences fail to elicit a laugh or a smile — indeed, I am almost certain that they are not intended to do so. Instead we are immersed in the apocalyptic horror of dehumanization (the book here reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, of all things, both in its desert location and in its gradual movement from sardonic humor to vivid terror).
Like any cult novel, or destined cult novel, The Subject Steve is Not For Everyone. Those looking for plot development and tidy endings will not find them here, and, if the tone of this review has not already made it clear, the book is extremely dark. But it’s also very, very funny, and there are few stylists working today who can match Lipsyte’s mastery of the sentence. Highly recommended.
The Subject Steve is now available in trade paperback from Picador.
At a certain point, I was inclined to write a thoughtful review of Gary Shteyngart’s much-lauded, truly awful novel Super Sad True Love Story, the kind of review that might try to weigh Shteyngart’s choked May-December romance against its dystopian background. That was a few chapters in, a point at which I’d gotten past the realization that Shteyngart was going to do nothing new with the dystopian genre I so love, yet still early enough for me to think that he might have something to say about American culture and politics in the early 21st century. There’s nothing there, though — Super Sad True Love Story subscribes to the normal dystopian program of synthesizing 1984 and Brave New World through a contemporary lens, yet what we’re left with is Shteyngart’s observation that people might not like to read as much as they used to.
Obligatory plot summary: it’s America a few decades down the line–not enough to account for the change that Shteyngart proposes–an America under Bipartisan rule, a country without an elected President, at war with Venezuela, heavily indebted to China, and essentially ruled by a corporatocracy. People no longer read, they only scan data from their ever-present “äppäräti,” screen media devices they are addicted to through which they shamelessly broadcast every last piece of personal data. Sound familiar? Sure. (Those damn kids with their Facebooks!)
Shteyngart’s hero is Lenny Abramov, son of immigrant Russian Jews. Lenny works for Post-Human Services, a company that aims to extend human life indefinitely– as long as you’re very, very rich. This is Lenny’s obsession. For some reason, never fully explained (although painfully and boringly explored) Lenny wants to live forever. I suppose Shteyngart is trying to parody America’s obsession with youthfulness, only the parody is not funny and never insightful. Lenny meets a Korean-American girl named Eunice Park while spending some Bohemian time in Italy. Eunice is twenty years his junior, yet Lenny falls madly for her right away, for no good reason, at least not for any reason that we, the readers, are given to understand. It’s real old-white-boy-meets-young-Asian-girl-territory, which Shteyngart seems to understand yet seems too embarrassed (rightfully) to properly remark upon.
The backdrop of this romance is an American dystopia that Shteyngart wishes was as affecting as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Hey, you know what? Watch Children of Men again instead of reading Shteyngart’s super boring book. And I think I won’t waste anymore time detailing Shteyngart’s super boring plot, a plot that seems to have no idea where its going, yet is, at all turns, overwhelmingly self-satisfied (and derivative). Shteyngart wants to write an end-of-America epic, yet nothing he says is worth re-remarking upon — yes, it seems like people are increasingly facile; yes, young people seem increasingly willing to forsake traditional ideas of privacy; yes, we owe the Chinese government some money. Sam Lipsyte does it all way better in The Ask, a book that doesn’t have to borrow its plot from every dystopian that came before it.
That Shteyngart has written a poor dystopian novel offends me at a literary-type level, but I’m also offended by his myopic regionalism, which, as I just mentioned, he tries to pass off as Americanism. For Shteyngart, New York City is America, and the (relatively) newly immigrated populations he places in his fictionalized NYC are far-more American than anyone else, particularly the dumb-ass-hick-redneck-Southerners he throws into the city as transplanted bad guys. Shteyngart’s Southern grotesques are mere props, barely thought out stereotypes that offend me as both a reader and a Southerner — and yet, they are just as facile as his leads.
Speaking of offensive and facile, there’s a moment at the end of the book when a critic takes the time to reflect on the publication of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s emails (not called “emails,” but Jesus Christ I’m not going to waste more time explaining the book’s silly recoding of contemporary culture) — it’s surreal in its tackiness, an overt act of literary criticism upon the rest of the book, one which attempts to focus a specific viewpoint upon the narrative proper. Like the rest of the book it fails miserably, and yet is indicative of Shteyngart’s needy, whiny program.
But why end negatively? There are plenty of great dystopian novels out there — Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, almost anything by William Burroughs, Disch’s Camp Concentration, Aldous Huxley’s sorely under-read Ape and Essence, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which understands that it’s always the end of the world, more or less all of Philip K. Dick, Riddley Walker, Cloud Atlas, shit, even Roberto Bolaño. Just don’t waste your time with Shteyngart’s super sorry book.
You may have noticed (and probably don’t care) that today is October 10, 2010, 0r 10/10/10 (or 10.10.10, or 10-10-10, or whatever iteration you prefer). But some people like lists. So, with very little thought put into the process, here are three literary lists to celebrate 10 Oct. 10–
Ten Ridiculous Character Names
1. Stephen Dedalus (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, James Joyce. Even Stephen ponders how ridiculous and overdetermined his name is)
2. Major Major Major Major (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
3. Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Sure, he’s a hobbit, but “Bilbo Baggins” is still pretty much off the silly scale)
4. Brackett Omensetter (Omensetter’s Luck, William Gass)
5. Horselover Fat (VALIS, Philip K. Dick)
6. Milkman Dead (Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison)
7. Humbert Humbert (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)
8. Lionel Essrog (Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem)
9. Tie: Wang-Dang Lang/Peter Abbott/Candy Mandible/Judith Prietht/Biff Diggerance (David Foster Wallace suffers from Pynchon-fever in his début novel, Broom of the System)
10. Tie: Benny Profane/Oedipa Maas/Tyrone Slothrop/Zoyd Wheeler/Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke et al. — (Various novels by Thomas Pynchon. Yes, Pynchon should probably get his own list)
Ten Excellent Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic Novels That Aren’t Brave New World or 1984
1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
2. Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch
3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
4. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood
5. The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax
6. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
7. VALIS, Philip K. Dick
8. Ronin, Frank Miller
9. Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley
10. The Road and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Ten Movies Better Than or Equal to the Books On Which They Were Based
1. The Godfather
2. The Shining
3. The Thin Red Line
4. Children of Men
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
7. No Country for Old Men
8. The Grapes of Wrath
9. There Will Be Blood
In the future Dash Shaw proposes in his graphic novel BodyWorld, the Second Civil War and rapid industrial growth have left most of America a concrete sprawl by 2060. An exception is Boney Borough, a (literal) green zone somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard. This small secluded town is a new Eden in an otherwise gray world. Enter Professor Paulie Panther, a fuck-up par excellence. He goes to Boney Borough as part of a freelance mission to find out about a new, strange plant he’s found there via the internet. Professor Panther, you see, is a botanist and poet, a would-be scientist who finds out about the psychopharmacological properties of plants by smoking them up in big fat joints (when he’s not too busy trying to commit suicide or stumbling around on one or more of the various drugs to which he’s addicted). Professor Panther is the perfect acerbic foil to the homogeneous folk of Boney Borough. He gets hot for teacher Jem Jewel, turns-on Peach Pearl, the small town girl who wants to go to the big city, and pisses off and confuses her dumb jock boyfriend Billy-Bob Borg. The alliterative names (along with Shaw’s sharp, cartoonish style) recall–and subvert–the classic all-Americanism of Archie comics. Professor Panther soon discovers that the mystery plant, when smoked, grants the user strange telepathic abilities–namely, users sense the “body-mind” of the bodies of others around them.
The plant’s telepathic effects allow Shaw to explore what happens within a literalized I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-you-seeing-me (seeing-y0u-seeing-me . . .) structure. His bright Pop Art goes Cubist in psychedelic trip scenes, superimposing images to show a surreal conflation of not just the melding of two people’s pasts and presents, but those people’s perceptions of past and present. Very heady stuff–but seeing Shaw’s work is superior to my description, of course. Observe, as Panther sees Pearl seeing Panther seeing Pearl idealizing their attempt at romance:
BodyWorld is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic visions, guided in no small part by Professor Panther’s hilarious outsider perspective, but also tempered by Shaw’s larger project, a sci-fi satire of American exurbanist insularity. We wrote earlier this month about science fiction’s tendency to work within the dichotomy of wastelands and green zones, and Shaw’s work is no exception. His marvelous trick is to keep us within the green zone of Boney Borough the whole time and to make us identify with a waster, Panther. The greatest irony is that in this futurist vision, the zombies are the ones in the green zone.
Not everyone’s a conformist though. There are exceptions, of course, especially in the seedy Outer Rim where Panther takes up transient residence. We meet a psychotic latter-day Johnny Appleseed who certainly shares Panther’s weirdo proclivities. The episode is a marvelous spoof on the corny “origin stories” standard in Golden and Silver Age comics, with Shaw’s treatment more loving than mocking. To tell more about this weirdo might spoil the climax of Shaw’s graphic novel, and we don’t want to do that, of course, because you’re going to want to read it, aren’t you? Suffice to say that it’s part and parcel of Shaw’s program, a sweet and sour subversion of the 1950s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Shaw owes some debt to the neat precision, spacing, and rhythm of Chris Ware, as well as the haunting inks and sharp wit of Charles Burns but it would be a mistake to see this young talent as anything but original. Still, while we’re making comparisons: Richard Kelly could make a messy, sprawling treasure of a film out of BodyWorld.
You can read all of BodyWorld now at Shaw’s website, or you can do what I did and read Pantheon’s new graphic novel version (Pantheon, you will remember, brought us the David Mazzucchelli’s outstanding graphic novel Asterios Polyp). Either way, you should read it. Highly recommended.
I finished Martin Bax’s surreal dystopian romance The Hospital Ship last night and then finished the audiobook version of Margaret Atwood’s hyperreal dystopian anti-romance The Year of the Flood today. Both books take their cues from that first apocalypse story, the story of Noah and his ark, and continue that tradition imagining a version of the end of the world. Despite their mythical-biblical origins, such books tend to get ghettoized into a certain genre of science fiction — let’s call it apocalypse fiction — despite the artistic power or literary merit of the author’s prose itself. Apocalypse books like Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence diverge in style, tone, and execution. It’s their subject that compels us, each vision a proposition, a promise of some kind of future, a future after the future. Many of these apocalypse books remain prescient today. However, others feel dated simply because so much of what the author wrote twenty or fifty or more years ago more or less came true. For instance, is the homogenized, greenzoned aristocracy of Brave New World who lavish in the trivial culture of the feelies and centrifugal bumblepuppy all that different from contemporary exurbanites who basically live in walled-off compounds, little homogenized townships that strive to exist outside of civic reality and history? Robert Siegel’s recent report for NPR on the The Villages, an eerie Florida compound for senior citizens, illustrates how willing people are to buy into a company-owned, company-governed greenzone. The Villages even has its own whimsical fake “history,” complete with markers and plaques. It’s like The Prisoner or something. But enough about real life. We have apocalypse lit to tell us about the present.
The heroes of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood are not, for the most part, from the corporate-controlled compounds that keep the rest of the world at bay. There’s Toby, the orphan who grows up tough yet learns the healing arts. There’s Ren, a young girl trying to find her identity wherever she can. There’s their would-be spiritual guide, Adam One, and his lieutenant/rival Zeb. They are outsiders, members of an eco-cult called The Gardeners who worship saints like Rachel Carson, Ernest Shackleton, and Sojourner Truth. Flood is the sprawling companion to Atwood’s 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, which I enjoyed very much. Both take place in a world where the “Waterless Flood,” a SARS/mega-flu type virus brought about via genetic tinkering, has turned most people into zombie-goo. I could go and on about the world Atwood shapes here, one full of genetic modification, eco-terrorism, religious fervor, and radical disparity, but other folks have already done it. So, in the grand tradition of internet laziness, I point you to excellent reviews here and here, which do a better job explicating the plot than I’m willing to do now (and it was an audiobook, remember, so I don’t exactly have it in front of me. Mea culpa). Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception. Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes. Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed. The audiobook rendition of The Year of the Flood is very good, employing three actors to play the three principal roles, Ren, Toby, and Adam One. There are also terribly cheesy full-band versions of the hippy-dippy songs the Gardeners like to sing on certain Saint Days that are witty as parody but ultimately distracting. Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case). Recommended.
The doctors, specialists, sailors, and patients of the titular vessel in Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship are afloat in their own greenzone of sorts, a moving compound that seeks to treat the troubled world. What’s the trouble with the world? No one’s sure, exactly–there’s permanent all-out-war, of course, famine perhaps, insanity for sure. There’s also a bizarre army of bureaucrats going from continent to continent crucifying men and raping women for no clear reason. The ship’s psychiatrists diagnose it “The Crucifixion Disease.” Euan, Bax’s erstwhile lead, tries to figure out how to love and how to heal in the middle of hate and extinction. Aided by the eccentric, Falstaffian Dr. Maximov Flint, Euan conducts an experimental therapy between a Moi prostitute named V and a suicidal Wall Street broker named W. He also finds a lover and partner in an American girl named Sheila. About half of The Hospital Ship comprises citations from a variety of non-fiction texts, including medical textbooks, psychiatric studies, sociology texts, travelogues, war diaries, and more. The technique is bizarre and jarring, and Bax often imitates the style of such texts, most of which linger on sex or death. There’s also an obsession with the Vietnam War, which makes sense as the book was published in 1976. There’s a lovey-hippie type vibe to the hospital ship’s personnel, and like Atwood with her Gardeners, Bax is satirical and loving to his heroes at the same time. He mocks some of the silly idealism of the movement even as he finds solace in their vision of love and healing in an apocalyptic world. Bax’s book is wholly weird, disconnected, lurching and farcical, a madcap dystopian Love Boat on peyote. I spotted it at my favorite used bookstore, intrigued first by the (now retro-)futurist font, then the name, echoing Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, another book about a hospital-as-ark. If the black-and-white collage cover art didn’t seal the deal, then the blurb from J.G. Ballard comparing Bax favorably to William Burroughs did. Burroughs is an appropriate reference point, with the sexual alienation and the medical flavor and the cut-up technique and all, but Bax’s writing is utterly Ballardian (he even directly cites Ballard among other authors–like, you know APA style in-text citations). The Hospital Ship is a cult novel which might not have a big enough cult. It definitely belongs in print again; until then, pick up a copy if you can find one.
A few weeks ago, I saw (and loved) Children of Men, and it reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, Ape and Essence by Alduous Huxley.
If you’ve only read one book by Huxley, chances are it was Brave New World, an incredibly prescient novel that really “got it right” so to speak–especially when compared to George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future, 1984. In 1984, Orwell assumes that a totalitarian regime will hide and distort information from a suppressed public, that a Big Brother will watch our every move. Huxley’s BNW posits a future where the public could care less about information at all, a public that willingly cedes an antiquated ideal of “privacy.” In 1984, books are banned; in BNW no one wants to read (and who would want to read when a trip to the feelies provides a total synesthetic experience?)
But where was I…
So. Yes. Hmmm. Ape and Essence. This is a fantastic book, thoroughly entertaining–blackly sardonic, acidic and biting, yet funny and moving, full of pathos and dread and the possibility of loss, extinction, the end of beauty. I have forced this book on just about everyone I know, to the point that it is now Duck-taped together. Ape and Essence is a frame tale of sorts: it begins (significantly, on the day of Gandhi’s assassination) with two Hollywood types discovering the screenplay for an unmade movie called Ape and Essence. Intrigued by the strange story, the two head out to the desert to meet the writer, only to find that he’s recently died. The surreal and imagistic screenplay is then presented uncut as the remainder of the book. Ape and Essence presents an illiterate, post-apocalyptic world where grave-robbing is the primary profession. The hero of the story is one Dr. Poole, a scientist from New Zealand (New Zealand was isolated enough to resist nuclear holocaust) who arrives with a team of scientists to the West Coast of America. Poole is quickly separated from the other scientists and forced into slave labor, excavating graves. He finds a world where people worship the satanic god Belial, who they believe, in his anger, is responsible for the high numbers of genetically deformed children. These children are ritualistically slaughtered in purification rites that frame the social discourse of this New America. Additionally, procreation is proscribed to a two week ritual-orgy; other than this fortnight of lust and blood, sex and love are completely forbidden. The rest of the book details Poole’s infatuation with a woman named Loola, and their plan to escape to a rumored colony of “hots,” outsiders who don’t accept Belial and orgies and book burning and so on.
Like Children of Men, Ape and Essence presents infanticide as the ultimate negation of progress. In both stories, people are both root and agent of their own destruction. But playing against this self-destructive death drive is the drive for life, for beauty, for sex. Neither story is willing–or able, perhaps–to make a definitive statement on which drive will prevail. Both stories resist “happy endings,” or can only be said to have “happy” endings in the simplest of senses. Ultimately, the endings are inconclusive, unsure, tentative at best. Will the human race die out? Are simple gestures of human fellowship, of poetry, of love, are these enough to conquer the infinite infanticide recapitulated within the narrative framework? We leave the theater feeling some hope, we close the book praying (to who?) that the characters will make it to a (never) Promised Land, but somewhere in the margins of our consciousness lurks the possibility of extinction–the predicate of loss that drives any story worth telling.