Thomas Pynchon beats J.G. Ballard to win the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

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Thomas Pynchon beat out J.G. Ballard, earning 61% of 337 votes of my totally-scientific and not-at-all arbitrary twitter poll to become the Champion of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Mr. Pynchon’s trophy is at Biblioklept World Headquarters here in Florida. After this whole quarantine business is over I’m sure he’ll arrange to pick it up.

My gut feeling is that the people who follow me on twitter are skewed toward Pynchon more than Ballard. Either of the pair could have taken the prize and I’d have been happy.

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J.G. Ballard described the late twentieth century as good as anyone, and anticipated almost every aspect of our zeitgeist. The dude not only understood the intersection of commerce and politics and sex and art, but he could convey it in wild (and wildly-entertaining, forgive the cliche) stories and novels of the blackest and bleakest humor. There are any number of great starting places for Ballard, but if you haven’t read him yet, I’d recommend High-Rise or Concrete Island before jumping into the more challenging Crash. Then: The Atrocity Exhibition, the earlier novels (1962’s The Drowned World is particularly prescient) and the early stories of Vermilion Sands. Actually, if you can get a hold of The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, go for it. (I riffed on reading all the stories back in 2014.) I don’t recommend starting with the later novels—Ballard’s descriptions are so prescient that there’s this weird drop off in quality when reality catches up to him. In the meantime, why not read “The Secret Autobiography of  J G B”? (It was composed in 1981 but published in 2009; it took autofiction a few decades to catch up with the Notorious JGB.) Ballard is great.

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are famously byzantine, shaggy, esoteric, and paranoid. He captures both the zaniness and the menace of our zeitgeist. His protagonists are often straight figures who go crooked, insiders pushed to the outside through maladventure and adventure alike. Pynchon places a premium on the underdog who resists the Them—the technocracy, the war machine, the military-industrial-entertainment complex. His most famous (and probably best) novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an indictment of war and capitalism; although it’s set in WW2, it also addresses itself, ultimately, to that war’s hangover and the Nixonian evil contemporary with its publication. Pynchon’s loose California trilogy—The Crying of Lot 49Vineland, and Inherent Vice—document, describe, and deconstruct the myth of the American cultural revolution of the 1960s. Pynchon’s “historical novels,” Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are probably my favorites. Both analyze American history as a series of strange mistakes, big blunders, and minor foibles. His longest (and strangely, most accessible) novel Against the Day is also his clearest attack on the nebulous Them who oppose freedom, progress, and, ultimately, love. The humor and intelligence of Pynchon’s writing often softens the core anger of his work, an anger directed at the invisible forces that cry out, to steal from the Dead Kennedys, “Give me convenience or give me death!” He is a national treasure and I hope he lives forever—which he will, through his works.

Finally: I hope that everyone who participated in this thing had (at least the tiniest of sliver of) fun. I don’t think pitting writers against each other has anything to do with literature. I missed college basketball in March, so this is what I did. It also helped me drift off into other places for a while. Ballard is gone but I would love to read his quarantine novel. And I’ll read anything else we get from Pynchon.

Peace to all.

 

 

Thoughts on George Saunders’ new short story “Love Letter,” a thought experiment in dystopian ethics

George Saunders has a new short story called “Love Letter” in this week’s New Yorker. The story takes the form of a letter composed on “February 22, 202_” by an unnamed grandfather (“GPa”) to his grandson Robbie. After a salutation, the letter begins:

Got your e-mail, kid. Sorry for handwriting in reply. Not sure e-mailing is the best move, considering the topic, but, of course (you being nearly six foot now, your mother says?), that’s up to you, dear, although, you know: strange times.

The rest of the letter, mostly through hints and intimations, gives us a sketch of those “strange times”: namely, a future of our now in which Trump, after having won a second election, is succeeded by “the son” in a “total sham election.” These “strange times” are saturated in paranoia and marked by arrests for dissension, as well as the detainment of persons for reasons not always clearly stated.

Indeed, Robbie’s email to his grandfather was in request of help for his friend “J.,” who has been detained. The following paragraph shows Saunders’ method and gives an adequate overview of the story’s tone:

Where is J. now? Do you know? State facility or fed? That may matter. I expect “they” (loyalists) would (with the power of the courts now behind them) say that although J. is a citizen, she forfeited certain rights and privileges by declining to offer the requested info on G. & M. You may recall R. & K., friends of ours, who gave you, for your fifth (sixth?) birthday, that bronze Lincoln bank? They are loyalists, still in touch, and that is the sort of logic they follow. A guy over in Bremerton befriended a guy at the gym and they would go on runs together and so forth, and the first guy, after declining to comment on what he knew of his friend’s voting past, suddenly found he could no longer register his work vehicle (he was a florist, so this proved problematic). R. & K.’s take on this: a person is “no patriot” if he refuses to answer a “simple question” from his “own homeland government.”

There’s a lot here: the codified language (“‘they,'” “loyalists,” “certain rights and privileges,” “‘no patriot,'” etc.), the use of anonymizing initials in lieu of names, and plenty of imagistic details to flesh out the epistle (“Love Letter” is full of little details like “that bronze Lincoln bank,” a bid toward realism I suspect).

The grandfather’s use of initials is, of course, to help protect them if the letter were to fall into the hands of any “loyalists” who might cause further problems for J. and the other persons mentioned. He also insists that Robbie destroy the letter after reading it. (I find it interesting and somewhat inexplicable that he names Robbie.)

As I noted above, the impetus for the grandfather’s reply is his grandson’s request for help for J. “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment in dystopian ethics, with the central questions of What to do? and How to do it? reverberating throughout. Through the accretion of details, the reader comes to realize that the grandfather was likely born sometime during the 1950s, is comfortably middle class, subscribes to left-leaning politics, and likely lives in California. We also come to find out that during the period when the “loyalists” ascended—our near now—the grandfather, preoccupied with his own life (work, hobbies, his “dental issues”), did next-to-nothing to protect democracy:

Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now.

He protests to his grandson that he tried things like calling and writing his senator, and donated money to “certain people running for office,” but these actions weren’t actiony enough. He also shares this bit of protest:

I beg you not to underestimate the power/danger of this moment. Perhaps I haven’t told you this yet: in the early days, I wrote two letters to the editor of the local rag, one overwrought, the other comic. Neither had any effect. Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.

In a typically-postmodern move, Saunders’ hero is a writer (of letters).

In some ways, it’s hard for me not to read too much into the details of the “two letters to…the local rag, one overwrought, the other comic.” Saunders’ last story for The New Yorker (“the local rag”?) was “Elliott Spencer,” a stylistically-bold tale about poor people who are reprogrammed and then deployed as paid political protesters. (Saunders admitted that the story was in part inspired by two men he saw arguing at a Trump rally in Phoenix.)

The year before that, The New Yorker published “Little St. Don.”

I thought “Little St. Don” was terrible.

In my evaluation of that story, I wrote,

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckster’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

I was taken then by the grandfather’s admission that his “comic” letter to “the local rag” had no effect: “Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.”

A moment later in “Love Letter” strikes me as another correction to the glib posturing of “Little St. Don”:

Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives.

It’s that “wry, satirical smugness” that stuck out to me, a smugness that’s part and parcel of the sense that “some adult or adults would arrive…to set things right.” Saunders is not only describing an attitude shared by millions of Americans, but also describing the implicit tone of his story “Little St. Don.”

Both “Elliott Spencer,” with its rhetorical innovations, and “Love Letter” serve as noticeable improvements on “Little St. Don” (if not correctives). “Love Letter” also feels like something new from Saunders—the dystopia is more subdued, less zany. Scarier. And as I write this, I realize it’s because the dystopia “Love Letter” evokes seems far too close to our own reality.

I claimed in my essay on “Little St. Don” that the story’s biggest failure was that

Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

“Love Letter,” as the name clearly states, radiates with love—confused love, troubled love, love that wavers in concrete action but never in its abstracted purity. We feel both the grandfather’s love for his grandson as well as Saunders’ love for his reader. We also feel a deep, melancholy love for democracy, or at least the postwar democracy of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Saunders’ narrator is never critical of that twentieth-century democracy, let alone the predatory capitalism it eventually engendered. This is, after all, a letter to a grandson, not a polemic. Saunders, as he often does in so many of his stories, collapses the absurdity of the contemporary world into the personal problems of some hapless patriarch or other. The narrator’s compassion and love come through in “Love Letter,” but so does the narrator’s radical ambivalence to real action.

It might be possible to read the story as a critique of the narrator’s inaction, but any such reading would have to ultimately dismiss the sympathy and love with which Saunders’ crafts this grandfather. In short, it’s difficult to read “Love Letter” as a satire, the genre with which Saunders has been most closely identified.  Instead, “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment with no real conclusion, no solid answer. Or, rather, the solution is there in the title: love. But is that enough?

Final Round: The 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

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What’s there to say?

We’ve hit the final round of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers.

Top-seeded Aldous Huxley fell to number five seed J.G. Ballad in a match that was never close for a second.

The stranger and more divisive match, at least for my metaphorical money, was between Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

Pynchon’s comic zaniness beat out McCarthy’s wryer apocalypticism (or maybe just more people on Twitter dig Pynchon).

I hope everyone had dumb stupid distracting fun with all of this.

 

The Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse) match-ups and Round Four results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

The Elite Armageddon Eight of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers is all wrapped up, and we now have our Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse).

Let’s go bracket by bracket:

Margaret Atwood kept it close with Aldous Huxley, but lost in the end. I was rooting for her. I’m a huge fan of Huxley’s under-read apocalyptic pre-postmodernist Ape and Essence, but I have to admit I was rooting for Atwood.

I was torn between Ballard and LeGuin in the second bracket—both authors described and diagnosed our zeitgeist. Ballard prevailed.

Ballard will square off against Huxley in the Dead British Writers bracket of the Final Four.

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Pynchon and DeLillo both had tough roads to the Final Four. Pynchon beat out Anna Kavan and David Foster Wallace to get to the Elite Eight; DeLillo bested Pat Frank and Philip K. Dick. All of these writers are great, and, more importantly to our rubric, seemed to presciently capture the current dystopia the 20th century was brewing. (Okay, Frank isn’t great, but.)

Pynchon beat DeLillo easily though.

Like Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy pretty much thumped everyone he was matched against, including low seed José Saramago in the Elite Eight. While I’m sure a ton of folks will cite The Road as his zeitgeistiest novel, I’d argue it’s Blood Meridian (or even No Country for Old Men).

Pynchon will contend with McCarthy in the White American Authors in Their Eighties bracket of the Final Four. I’m not sure how to vote. In some ways, this is like, the final bracket for me.

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The Armageddon Eight (Round Four match-ups and Round Three results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

The results of the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers are in.

Round Three had some really tight match-ups. Dark horse José Saramago, whom I seeded 59 of the initial 64 writers, was neck-and-neck with recent Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, but surged near the end of the poll to win.

Ursula K. LeGuin also ran a tight race against Kurt Vonnegut before edging him out:

Philip K. Dick was competitive against Don DeLillo, but never got out ahead. My gut feeling is that PKD might’ve advanced if he’d ended up against someone else, but I guess the same is true of most of these brackets.

After initially trailing for a few hours in the poll, Aldous Huxley surged past Angela Carter, who never caught up again.

Yvegny Zamyatin kept it close with Margaret Atwood, but never took the lead on her.

Three of the match-ups were decisive victories. J.G. Ballard beat William Gibson by a healthy margin, Tommy Pynchon bested DFW, and Cormac McCarthy came out strong over George Orwell.

Here are the results of the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen, as well as the match-ups for Round Four, the Elite Armageddon Eight:

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For me, the most interesting match-up is going to be Pyncon vs. DeLillo.

As always, this is only meant to be dumb distracting fun.

Full twitter poll results:

Continue reading “The Armageddon Eight (Round Four match-ups and Round Three results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)”

The Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen (Round Three match-ups and Round Two results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

Hey! Today in Distracting Dumb Ephemeral Fun, we hit the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Round Two saw some fascinating match-ups between thirty-two writers. Perhaps the most interesting was the Cormac McCarthy-William Gaddis showdown:

This bracket garnered more votes than any match-up to date in the tournament, and split more than a few folks (including me—I’ll declare how I voted after this whole thing shakes out).

Other matches were also very close: Ray Bradbury—William Gibson, and William S. Burroughs—Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro is perhaps a bit of a dark horse at this point, as is José Saramago, whom I seeded at 59 of 64. Saramago handily beat out the under-read Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to face off with Ishiguro in the Terrible Awful Sweet Sixteen of Apocalyptica.

I find all of the match-ups interesting at this point, but David Foster Wallace vs. Thomas Pynchon has a wonderfully oedipal vibe.

And again, this is all just meant to be stupid distracting fun.

Brackets below, followed by tweet results:

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Tweet polls:

Continue reading “The Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen (Round Three match-ups and Round Two results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)”

Round Two match-ups and Round One results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

On Sunday, I came up with a list of 64 writers that have written novels or stories that either anticipate, reflect, or otherwise describe our zeitgeist. The first dozen or so seeds (as well as the bottom dozen or so) came rather intuitively to me, but the writers in the middle were seeded somewhat randomly. I used Twitter’s poll feature to determine the winners of Round One. In most of my polls, I included a third option, where voters could choose just to see the poll results instead of actually voting; I won’t be doing that going forward, because the data looks, if not exactly skewed, well, just a little off-putting, as in Round 1, Bracket 8 below:

My intuition is that Disch (Camp Concentration) and Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz) were either too obscure for many folks, or at least not writers very many people are passionate about.

Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here) tied with China Miéville (Marxism, steampunk, Perdido Street Station, bold baldness) and went to a tie (I managed to misspell China Miéville’s name in both tweets)—

I was also surprised by top-ten seed Octavia Butler (KindredParable of the Sower) losing to José Saramago (Blindness). I suppose I seeded Saramago too low.

Here are the results of Round One and the match-ups for Round Two:

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Bracket 46 is particularly painful for me!

Poll results by tweet:

Continue reading “Round Two match-ups and Round One results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers”

The 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

Maybe you’re bored, maybe you’re stuck inside, missing NCAA March Madness, watching the world’s madness through a screen. Maybe this will be a diversion. (I’m hoping it’s a diversion for me.)

I came up with a list of 64 writers that have written novels or stories that either anticipate, reflect, or otherwise describe our zeitgeist. (I realize now that I’ve forgotten a bunch, but, hey.) After a certain point, there wasn’t much thought put into seeding the tournament.

I’ll be doing running polls on Twitter for the next few days, starting today, with brackets 1-4 launching today.

Here are the brackets for Round 1:

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Uncertainty of the real | Blog about the first third of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice

The first three words of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice are “I was lost,” a simple declaration that seems to serve as a mission statement for the next 60 odd pages. I read these 60 odd pages (63, to be precise, in my Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of the novel) today, often feeling lost, and glad of it. I like it when I don’t really know what a book is doing, and Ice is such a book.

Ice is told in first-person by an as-yet-unnamed narrator who strikes me as more than a little unreliable. “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” he tells us early in the first chapter, admitting that, “At times this could be disturbing.”

Kavan crafts a disturbing, dreamlike tone from the novel’s opening pages, a sinister menace that intensified over the five chapters that I read today. The novel’s settings are detailed but also indistinct, not tethered to any specific time or place, yet nevertheless vaguely familiar. Ice starts in a place like England, and our narrator soon travels to what seems like a Scandinavian country—more on that in a minute—and it’s unclear when exactly the story is taking place: the past? The future? A twisted version of now?

What is clear is that Ice is set in a world that has fallen or is falling into ruin. The word ruins repeats throughout the book; there’s a sense of a post-war world that never recovered—crumbling walls, abandoned buildings, and a reliance on ancient fortresses as symbols of civilization. It’s simultaneously real and unreal, uncanny, disquieting. “The situation was alarming, the atmosphere tense, the emergency imminent,” our narrator tells us, pointing to the vague horror that writhes under the novel’s surface.

Our unnamed narrator repeatedly underscores Ice’s central unreality, an unreality that it is possible he, as the narrator, actually is creating through his witnessing and telling:

I was aware of an uncertainty of the real, in my surroundings and in myself. What I saw had no solidity, it was all made of mist and nylon, with nothing behind.”

Our narrator, who claims to have been at times a soldier and at times an explorer, admits that his medication might contribute to his sense of unreality, to his getting lost. Reading Ice is to get lost from paragraph to paragraph, which I mean in the most complimentary sense. I often had to backtrack, especially in the early chapters, to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed a sentence or stray line of connective tissue that might explain why we had suddenly ended up in, say, a Boschian-nightmare battle, or in the inside of a mesmerist’s chamber in a high tower.

The first swerve into unreality (if it is indeed unreality) happens in the opening paragraphs. Our narrator is lost, driving icy hills, looking for the home of a woman (“the girl”) he claims is his former betrothed, now married to another. It’s not quite clear why he needs to see her, but he’s looking for her, and he’s lost. (I have just describe the plot of the first several chapters.) Here is how we first meet the girl:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was.

Kavan’s narrator never fully explains that what he might have just communicated to the readers was an hallucination or other species of unreality. He concedes that his medication (for “trauma” inflicted by the girl’s desertion of him) leads him to have nightmares and visions, always of the girl becoming a “victim” of some kind (the word victim repeats throughout Ice).

He finally arrives at the house of the girl and her husband. Kavan layers this visit with his memories (or fantasies?) of at least one other visit to their home. Kavan condenses these scenes with surreal fabulsim. Our narrator, like Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim, seems unstuck in time, yet also seems unable, or unwilling, to provide his audience any guideposts. We get lost together.

Our narrator can also see sights that seem impossible to a first-person perspective—he seems able to see the girl in rooms we understand to be closed, in spaces we understand to be private, from distances we understand to be impossible. In one such instance, he even seems to peer through the girl’s own consciousness:

Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.

This apocalyptic vision is a foretaste of images to come later in the novel, although Kavan (or her narrator, I should write) is more interested, for now anyway, in the dream-like psychological apocalypse of the girl over the ecological apocalypse vaguely hinted at in initial chapters (“a steep rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device,” “substantial climatic change,” impending secret wars).

The girl moves closer to the “arctic prison” of her vision after running away from home and husband (or is she kidnapped?)—and our narrator follows her, trusting his intuition, which somehow gets him on a ship headed to a Scandinavianish country in a town that pulses with mythical dread. Here, the girl seems to be imprisoned by a man called only “the warden” in a fortress called the High House. Our narrator, as before, is able to access this private space, which he describes for us in horrific, archetypal terms:

She was in bed, not asleep, waiting. A faint pinkish glow came from a lamp beside her. The wide bed stood on a platform, bed and platform alike covered in sheepskin, facing a great mirror nearly as long as the wall. Alone here, where nobody could hear her, where nobody was meant to hear, she was cut off from all contact, totally vulnerable, at the mercy of the man who came in without knocking, without a word, his cold, very bright blue eyes pouncing on hers in the glass. She crouched motionless, staring silently into the mirror, as if mesmerized. The hypnotic power of his eyes could destroy her will, already weakened by the mother who for years had persistently crushed it into submission. Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will, which was able to take complete possession of her. I saw it happen

“I saw it happen”: How?

Our narrator poses as a researcher of ruins in the town; the warden allows it (or at least seems to allow it) in the hopes that the narrator will convince his countrymen to help the warden’s country with the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile, the girl seems subject to multiple instances of becoming a victim, sacrificial and otherwise. (There are cliffs, there are dragons, there are battles, there are phosphorescent skeletons). How real these instances are is impossible to say. They are real enough to the narrator in any case, even if he seems able to walk away from them after a paragraph or two. “I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously,” he tells us, adding that “the overlapping of these planes was confusing.”

Confusing is one word, although Kafkaesque would do as well. I have tried to avoid using the word Kafkaesque to describe literature of late—it’s overused, and a bit of a crutch. Ice is reminiscent of The Castle, sure, but that’s not why I use the term here. Kavan’s writing achieves what Kafka’s writing achieves: It evokes the image and psychology of apocalypse while at the same time negating, displacing, suspending, delaying, or otherwise withholding the revelation that apocalypse promises. It is apocalypse without explanation, without understanding, without wisdom. It is being lost.

Kavan’s novel’s fable-like quality also calls to mind Angela Carter’s stories and novels, and the psychological dynamics recall J.G. Ballard (whose blurb appears on my copy). There are other notes of course—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time—but Ice strikes me as its own flavor and idiom of strange, a flavor and idiom I am digging very much right now. More thoughts to come.

A review of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower

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Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar 

Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures  a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.

When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community,  He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.

After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.

Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.

The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.

Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.

Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.

Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.

The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.

And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,

Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.

Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:

He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”

“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”

Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”

Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.

Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.

The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”

“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.

 

A review of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s prescient dystopian novel We

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Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.

We is narrated by D-503. D-503 is an engineer building a spacecraft, the Integral, which will expand the domain of OneState. Although OneState has conquered earth (after the apocalyptic Two Hundred Years War), they seek to expand their empire of conformity to the stars, perhaps replicating their giant city-state on planets yet unknown. In its physical form, OneState is a glass panopticon surrounded by a great Glass Wall that keeps the wild natural world out. In its ideological form, OneState mandates uniformity, mechanization, and mathematical precision. The denizens of OneState conform to this ideology at all times. They wear uniforms — “yunies” — that bear the numbers that serve as their names. Indeed, they are “Numbers,” not people. The Numbers wake and sleep at the exact same hour. They march in unison and live and work in glass buildings. They “vote” to elect the same Benefactor each year, who runs unchallenged. They eat foods made from petroleum and produce children in a machine-like process that follows a system of “Maternal and Paternal Norms.” Numbers that don’t meet these Norms are forbidden from reproducing, but any Number can register for intercourse with another Number on Sex Day. A secret police force, the Bureau of Guardians, monitors the population, but it’s ultimately groupthink that keeps the Numbers in line.

One-State’s groupthink ideology is neatly summed up in propaganda that D-503 shares late in the novel:

Here’s the headline that glowed from page one of the State Gazette:

REJOICE!

For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.

IN WHAT WAY?

Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason? The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect? The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. …But think of this: The mechanism has no imagination.

Imagination is the ultimate enemy of the machine, and the Benefactor and his Guardians have a plan to finally root it out and exterminate it.

Throughout much of We, D-503 is very much attuned to this ideology. D-503 thinks of OneState as “our glass paradise.” What we see as dystopia he sees as utopia, he initially constructs We as a testament to OneState’s glory that he will include as part of the cargo of the Integral. However, as the narrative unfolds, D-503 unravels. His sense of self divides as signs of mental illness emerge–first dreams, then an imagination, and then—gasp!—a soul.

D-503’s internal conflict stems from discovering his own innate irrationality—namely, a soul which cannot be measured in numbers or weighed in physical facts. This internal conflict drives much of the narrative of We. Zamyatin delivers this conflict in D-503’s first-person consciousness, a consciousnesses that contracts and expands, a consciousness that would love to elide its own first-person interiority completely and subsume itself wholly to a third-person we—but he can’t. Consider the following passage;

I lie in the bed thinking … and a logical chain, extraordinarily odd, starts unwinding itself.

For every equation, every formula in the superficial world, there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulas, for my √—1, we know of no corresponding solids, we’ve never seen them…. But that’s just the whole horror—that these solids, invisible, exist. They absolutely inescapably must exist. Because in mathematics their eccentric prickly shadows, the irrational formulas, parade in front of our eyes as if they were on a screen. And mathematics and death never make a mistake. And if we don’t see these solids in our surface world, there is for them, there inevitably must be, a whole immense world there, beneath the surface.

I jumped up without waiting for the bell and began to run around my room. My mathematics, up to now the only lasting and immovable island in my entire dislocated life, had also broken loose and floated whirling off. So does this mean that that stupid “soul” is just as real as my yuny, as my boots, even though I can’t see them now (they’re behind the mirror of the wardrobe door)? And if the boots are not a disease, why is the “soul” a disease?

What initiates D-503’s anti-quest for a soul? It is a woman of course. I-330 interrupts D-503’s routine life, puncturing his logic with irrational passions, taking him on transgressive trips to the Old House—and eventually, leading him to the greatest transgression of all. You see, there’s an underground movement, a secret resistance force—one that not uncoincidentally needs access to the Integral—and this resistance plans to…but I shouldn’t spoil more.

Or really, could I even spoil the plot of We? So many novels and films have borrowed heavily from (or at least echoed) its premise that you already know what it’s about. The major examples are easy—Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1955), etc. Then there are all their followers—the cheap sci-fi paperbacks of the sixties and seventies, their corresponding films—Logan’s RunSoylent Green–and so on and so on, well into our Now (Running ManTotal RecallThe Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. forever).

You get the point: We is a generative text. And after reading We, I couldn’t immediately think of a clear generative text that generated it. From what materials did Zamyatin craft his tale?  The closest predecessor I could initially think of was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), or maybe bits of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), neither of which feel as thoroughly modern as We does. However, cursory research (uh, skimming Wikipedia) turned up Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 short story, “The New Utopia,” which does feature some of the tropes we find in We. Set in city of the future, “The New Utopia” features uniformed, nameless, numbered people whose government attempts to destroy the human imagination. Here, the “Destiny of Humanity” has become an egalitarian nightmare.

While it’s likely that “The New Utopia” furnished Zamyatin some of the tropes he needed to construct We, Jerome’s story simply doesn’t have the same epic themes of underground resistance to technological bureaucracy that have became the stock of so much 20th and 21st-century science fiction. (I rewatched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) while reading We, and the parallels are remarkable—but the same can be said for any number of sci-fi films of the last sixty or so years).

More significantly, Jerome’s “The New Utopia” is beholden to a rhetorical scheme that makes it feel closer to an essay than a finished work of art. The story is essentially a one-sided dialogue—a man falls asleep, wakes up a few thousand years later, and gets the skinny on the utopian nightmare city he’s awoken in from an enthusiastic Future Person. Reading “The New Utopia” reminded me of reading London’s The Iron Heel, which essentially works in the same way—London’s plot often feels like an excuse to stitch together Marxist readings into monologues posing as dialogues.

Zamyatin’s book, in contrast, is Something New. We is a work of Modernism, not just a collection of new tropes, but a new configuration of those tropes. Zamyatin’s D-503 is a consciousness in crisis, a self that simultaneously dissovles and resolves into something new—a creature with a soul. Consider D-503’s recollection of a nightmare:

It’s night. Green, orange, blue; a red “royal” instrument; a yellow-orange dress. Then, a bronze Buddha; suddenly it raised its bronze eyelids and juice started to flow, juice out of the Buddha. Then out of the yellow dress, too: juice. Juices ran all over the mirror, and the bed began to ooze juice, and then it came from the children’s little beds, and now from me, too—some kind of fatally sweet horror….

The prose here showcases Zamyatin’s vivid style. We, crammed with colors, often evokes Expressionist and Futurist paintings. We get here a painterly depiction of D-503’s abjection, his sense of a self leaking out in “some kind of fatally sweet horror” — his boundaries overflowing. The dream-synthesis here is at once joyful, terrifying, and utterly bewildering to our poor hero. It is also poetic in his rendering. D-503 laments early in his narrative that he is not a poet so that he cannot properly celebrate OneState in writing for his readers. But later, his friend R-13—a poet himself—tells him that he has “no business being a mathematician. You’re a poet…a poet!”

R-13 is correct: D-503 is a poet, a poet who cannot abide all the metaphysics gumming up his mathematical mind. This poetry is rendered wonderfully in the English translation I read by Clarence Brown (1993), and is showcased in the very “titles” of each chapter (or “Record,” in the book’s terms). Each “Record” begins with phrases culled from the chapter. Here are a few at random:

An Author’s Duty

Swollen Ice

The Most Difficult Love

 

Through Glass

I Died

Hallways

 

Fog

Familiar “You”

An Absolutely Inane Occurrence

 

Letter

Membrane

Hairy Me

These are the titles of four random chapters, but I suppose we could string together the whole series and arrive at a Dadaist poem, one that might also serve as an oblique summary of We.

And yet for all its surrealist tinges and techno-dystopian themes, the poem that We most reminded me of was, quite unexpectedly, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Whitman’s poem sought a new language and a new form to tell the story of a new land, a new people. He wanted to be everyone and no one at the same time, himself a kosmos, form and void, an I, a you, a we. Whitman addressed his poem to both the you of his readership, an immortal future readership beyond him (“Listener up there!”) as well as himself, famously declaring: “I loaf and invite my soul.”

D-503 presents almost as an anti-Whitman. He directly addresses his “unknown readers” in nearly every chapter, and with a Whitmanesque turn, like this one: “You, my unknown readers, you will be told everything (right now you are just as dear, as close, and as unapproachable…).” His ebullience and optimism are ironic of course—they are honest performances that crack under the increasing reality of his emerging soul. Unlike Walt Whitman, D-503 cannot loaf and invite his soul. He can’t sustain the negative capabilities Whitman’s poem engenders. His we cannot reconcile with an I, even as it seeks a mediating you in its dear readers.

And yet for all its bitter ironies and for all its hero’s often feckless struggle, We is a comedy. The book is a cartoon-poem-satire, its comedy sustained in the careening voice of D-503. It’s somewhat well known that George Orwell used We as a template for 1984 (he began that novel less than a year after penning a review of a French translation of We). Orwell’s novel though falls into the same essaying that we see in The Iron Heel and “The New Utopia.” It’s also awfully dour. In contrast, We shuttles along with zany elan, inviting us to laugh at modern absurdity. Indeed, Zamyatin posits laughter as resistance to tyranny, myopia, and brutish closed-mindedness. Late in the novel, D-503 arrives at the following epiphany:

And that was when I learned from my own experience that a laugh can be a terrifying weapon. With a laugh you can kill even murder itself.

I could end by cataloging the various parallels that might be drawn between We and our own dystopian age, but I think that they are too obvious, and, as I’ve noted, have been repeated (with degrees of difference) throughout the body of dystopian narratives that We has helped generate. What the book does though—or I should say, what it did for me—is offer the strange comfort. A century after Zamyatin diagnosed the emergence of another modern world, the human position remains essentially unchanged, and in times of despair we can remember to laugh—and imagine to imagine. Very highly recommended.

O, mighty, divinely delimited wisdom of walls, boundaries! | From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We

Now I’d reached the second of them, the curving road that runs along the base of the Green Wall. From out of the boundless green ocean beyond the Wall a savage wave of roots, flowers, branches, leaves rushed at me, rose up on its hindquarters, would have swamped me, would have turned me, a man, that most delicate and precise of mechanisms, into …

But fortunately, between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall. O, mighty, divinely delimited wisdom of walls, boundaries! It is perhaps the most magnificent of all inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built that first wall. Man ceased to be a wild man only when we built the Green Wall, only when, by means of that Wall, we isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and animals….

Through the glass, dim and foggy, the blunt muzzle of some beast looked at me, its yellow eyes insistently repeating one and the same thought, incomprehensible to me. We looked each other in the eye for a long time—through those shafts connecting the surface world to that other beneath the surface. And then a little thought wormed its way into my head: “And what if yellow-eyes, in his stupid, dirty pile of leaves, in his uncalculated life, is happier than us?”

I waved my hand, the yellow eyes blinked, backed off, vanished in the foliage. Pathetic creature! How ridiculous—him happier than us! Happier than me—that could be, all right. But then I’m simply an exception, I’m sick.

 

From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We. English translation by Clarence Brown.

The Running Man (Summer Film Log)

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Is The Running Man a good film?

I have no idea, but I’ve watched it at least a dozen times in the past 20 years, and I’ll watch it again. The 1987 film is certainly not the singular artistic vision of a supremely gifted auteur; it is not well-acted; the set design is imitative at best and terribly cheesy at worst; the costumes are silly; the music sucks. But The Running Man is zany fun, not least of all because its clumsy satire of a society clamoring to be entertained at any cost is as relevant as ever.  Ironically though, The Running Man’s satire inevitably reproduces the exact thing it aims to critique: a loud, violent, silly distracting entertainment.

The Running Man foreground’s its plot in a (now retro-)futuristic font scroll at the film’s outset:

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Those “high-tech gladiators” (dressed in ridiculous outfits and bearing ridiculous names like “Subzero” and “Captain Freedom”) stalk “contestants on a TV show called The Running Man. The show is hosted by Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson (who you may know from reruns of Family Feud). Dawson fits into the film better than any other player—indeed his loose, improvisational, menacing charm is part and parcel of an entertainment empire built on attractive deception. He’s the consummate Master of Ceremonies, presiding over every aspect of his media empire. Dawson’s nemesis is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Ben Richards, a former cop framed for a massacre. There’s a lot of fake news in Running Man, including an extended sequence of digital editing where faces are mapped onto body doubles. Schwarzenegger winds up on The Running Man, kills a bunch of stalkers, clears his name, and becomes a figurehead of the resistance.

Director Paul Michael Glasser (who played Starsky on Starsky and Hutch and later directed the Shaq-vehicle Kazaam) brings a workman-like approach to the film. His shots are often clumsy, and moments that should telegraph horror often come off as funny or just silly, as early in the film when a prisoner’s head explodes when he tries to escape a labor camp. Glasser makes no attempt to rein in Schwarzenegger’s ham. We get scenes where Schwarzenegger tries to imbue his character with a small measure of realism or pathos, and yet his mugging one-liners undercut any character building. He’s a cartoon of a cartoon, which is as it should be.

Schwarzenegger’s campy performance is balanced by María Conchita Alonso, who invests her foil Amber with a soul that belies the cheesy lines she’s forced to deliver.  Alonso has the closest thing to a character arc in The Running Man, and arguably, she anchors the film—she’s a stand-in for the film’s viewer, a normal person who gets swept up into adventure. Yaphet Kotto also stars in The Running Man, but he’s woefully underused, perhaps because his acting is simply too good; his naturalism doesn’t mesh in the film’s campy tone. Other bit players work wonderfully though. Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa try to play it cool as resistance fighters, but the effect on screen is endearingly goofy. Mick Fleetwood would have been about 40 when the film came out, but he looks like he’s about 70…which is how old he is now. (There is a fan theory about this, of course). Dweezil wears a goddamn beret. The stalkers include professional wrestlers Professor Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, professional wrestler and opera singer Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, and NFL great Jim Brown. Ventura apparently could not be restrained from eating the scenery around him. He twitches and snarls, and delivers his lines as if he were speaking to Mean Gene Okerlund. It seems if director Glasser simply let his actors play versions of themselves. This is reality TV, after all.

The real success of Glasser’s direction is, ironically, the limitations of his aesthetic vision. The film looks like a TV show, and indeed, the strongest shots approximate TV shows and their live audiences. The Running Man is at its best when blending its satire of cheap Hollywood elements into the film proper, as in the ludicrous reality TV clips interspersed throughout (like Climbing for Dollars), or in the repeated montages set to cheesy wailing keytar jams, featuring a troupe of sassy flash dancers, the camera ogling their buns of steel. Ironically too, the fight scenes between the stalkers and Schwarzenegger’s team are actually the dullest element of the film—they look like bad TV (which is basically what they are). The Running Man wants to satirize the way cheap entertainments distract a populace and cheapen human worth, but it uses the same tools as the cheap entertainments it wants to skewer.

The Running Man is about spectacle culture, and is hence larded with shots of crowds reacting to what they see on screens. The film’s viewer can see the silly crowds cheering the stalkers or booing Schwarzenegger or enjoying Dawson’s charms, but the viewer is also a spectator himself. In the words of Dawson’s Killian, the film strives to “give the people what they want” — which here means an uplifting ending—Viva La Resistance!—a zany horrific comedy that simultaneously critiques and condones our worst impulses And yet the resistance uses the same tools to defeat the oppressive entertainment empire—video editing designed for mass consumption by a spectacle society. It’s Pop Art without the “Art.”

The Running Man is slightly stupid, which is a great part of its enduring charm. Its greatest stupidity is in its attempts to be clever—but again, there’s the charm of it. It’s a film about Bad TV that actually looks and feels like Bad TV. The film is like the less-talented but affable little cousin of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, which came out the same year. Both films satirize an emerging media-driven dystopian culture, but Robocop is actually a good film. The Running Man winks a bit too much (in contrast to, say, 1989’s Road House, probably the best film I can think of that plays its satire so straight that it potentially confounds its viewers).

And yet for all its silly weaknesses and bad hyperbole, The Running Man’s prognosis of American culture is painfully accurate. Fake news, bad actors, a TV president, lives thoroughly mediated by media, degradation of the human condition as entertainment—the Omnipresent Screen as the Ultimate Authority. The Running Man‘s 1987 vision of the future seems more accurate than the future posited in the film I watched yesterday, 1984And yet 1984 captures an emotional truth that The Running Man sets out to crush or gloss over or convert into something artificial, the idea or representation of a feeling, but not the feeling itself. That’s what entertainment does.

How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with semi-full attention.

We live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s

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“Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans” is a compelling essay by Henry Farrell published today in The Boston Review. From the essay:

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

Now seems as good a time as any to read Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel

by

Jack London

 


 

Foreword

 

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.

ANTHONY MEREDITH

Ardis,

November 27, 419 B.O.M.


 

Read or download the rest of Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel at Project Gutenberg (and consider donating to their worthy cause while you’re there!).

Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list

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”

On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas 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).

Capture

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.

Capture

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.