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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

political novels

Since I am writing a novel that uses, among other things, politics, I’ve been thinking about the use of politics in fiction. There are critics who think that political fiction is fiction with a politician in it, just as a wedding cake is a cake topped with little bride and groom figurines. But that’s a narrow view of politics and even wedding cakes. In fact, it is a typically D.C., top down view of politics. A broader view would take in, say, Bellows, or Updike’s Rabbit novels. 

There is a wonderful instance of the perils of politics for the novelist in Rabbit Redux, Updike’s reckoning with the sixties. Or, rather, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s reckoning with the sixties. It is interesting to me that the overtly political things in that novel – for instance, Rabbit’s argument with his wife Janice’s lover about Vietnam – are oddly clunky, while the social stuff, the medium in which politics lives, is done in a thousand-fold scatter of brilliant nuances. Here is Harry in typical pro-war mode about Vietnam, arguing with his wife’s lover, Stavros:

“We’d turn it into another Japan if they’d let us. That’s all we want to do, make a happy rich country full of highways and gas stations. Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Union if they’d just stop throwing bombs. We’re begging them to rig up some election, any elections, and they’d rather throw bombs. What more can we do? We’re trying to give ourselves away, really, that’s all our foreign policy is, is trying to give ourselves away to make little yellow people happy, and guys like you sit around in restaurants moaning, ‘Jesus, we’re rotten.’ 
“I thought it was us and not them throwing the bombs.”
“We stopped, we stopped like all you liberals were marching for and what did it get us?” He leans forward to pronounce the answer clearly. “Not shit.”

Eventually, Stavros pronounces his opinion that Harry is “a good hearted imperialist racist.” Stavros, mind you, is a small town, middle aged car dealer. Updike needs a foil for Harry, and Stavros, such as he is, is it. 

In this novel, at least – Stavros reappears in the next Rabbit novel - there is a certain fraudulence about Stavros, a pretence on Updike's part that one makes one feel, beyond the fiction itself, the upsurge of a preemptive need that goes beyond the rules of novel's game. This is not something we feel about his other characters. 

Updike is always technically aware of what he is doing. So it is a fair question to ask if the clunkiness of the overt political parts is intentional. In Self-Consciousness, Updike writes about his own obsession with Vietnam, which, we can see, is echoed in Harry's speeches. The war and the protests against the war made him feel excluded from the club of writers, the majority of whom took an anti-Vietnam war tilt. On Updike’s own account, he would go to parties and dominate discussions with defenses of the war. It wasn’t that he planned to dominate the discussion, or knew he was doing it – he simply couldn’t shut up, and he couldn’t sense, while he was speaking, time going by or attention being strained. I’ve known that feeling myself. His wife would point this out to him. Philip Roth once pointed this out to him. But Updike kept doing it. 

Updike felt that there was a connection between defending the war and his very language – or rather, the way he spoke. The way he stuttered. The helplessness of knowing he was right and not being able to convince people he was right, not even his wife, reproduced the more intimate feeling of not being able to speak because speech itself is the obstacle. To lie there in the dark coffin, one’s tongue paralyzed, is the writer’s nightmare, maybe the nightmare out of which a certain kind of writer emerges. And we all know that out of this dilemma of being right, of being obviously right, and being surrounded by people who are obviously wrong, and who preen themselves on their erroneous opinions, there arises a familiar pattern: first the feeling of righteousness is coupled with the feeling of impotence, then the feeling that one is being held back, unfairly, generates an image of those enemies all around whose fault it is that one is being unfairly held back, then a politics that is fueled by denunciation of those who are unfairly holding one back becomes wholly shaped by denunciation until denunciation is self-justifying – all of which leads to talk radio politics. Rabbit’s speech about Vietnam, the defensiveness of it, the use of caricatures of the kind of speech he feels is being attributed to him by opponents unknown, those ghost quotes that clog his speech, the talk of the enemy, the snobbishness of the enemy, it eerily echoes the kind of talk radio style that appeared, fifteen years latter. Updike catches a genuine something in the air. The genealogy of this style would take us through Rabbit, through Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh, through the thrombosis of that rotten egg laid by the new left, Identity politics, all the way up to the default political blogger style of perpetual mutually armed destruction, nuclear exchanges every day. 

There is a way of talking about fiction that assumes that fiction is just about getting a reflection, that it does not intervene on reality, that it exists in an oddly self-erased space. Myself, I like to think of a comment of Proust’s to the effect that Balzac’s nobility, unreal when he created it, was realized after Balzac died – the sum total of his Human Comedy was to create the template upon which the Second Empire’s nobility modeled itself. Style, in other words, has an effect on history. This is why you have to break the mirror writing fiction, shift the joys of mimesis, realize that description is an act. And a particularly prideful act, too – boosting your world upon the world. Updike is famous for rendering and noticing the stuff that surrounds us. He likes to get things right, he likes to know about the light, about the way eyes shift in a face, about the way a man leans on a bar to drink a beer and how the beer comes out of the can and how blunt fingers can peel off the label while the man struggles with the usual territorial barriers to saying something intimate, about what the obsolescence of a technology does to an industry that makes that technology and the people who work in that industry who make the technology – in the case of Rabbit Redux, the technology is printing, and the obsolescence is in the use of the eye to make printing adjustments, something Harry does expertly, as he once played baseball. And something we know Harry won’t be able to do for much longer. Rather, Harry is going to have to move into the talentless economy of service, of auto sales, to switch positions with Stavros. Harry’s resistance to this makes him conservative, although his actual political position is a product of the culture of the New Deal, the hegemony of the Democratic economy of the fifties and sixties; his real conservatism, though he doesn’t exactly know it, has been bypassed by all sides, including the conservative side. There’s a quiet moment in the novel when Harry is talking with his father-in-law. The guy owns a car lot. He sells cars for a living. And Harry thinks: “How timid, really, people who live by people must be. Earl Angstrom was right about that at least: better make your deals with things.”

Don’t trade the alienation you do know for the one you don’t know. Well, it is already too late in 1969. Harry’s fierce, instinctive loyalty is to Earl’s America, but that country is slipping out from under him. That country was entering the phase of making its deals with deals, making the art of the deal the national pastime and obsession. The politics of making deals with things isn’t just conservative; it is the recipe for downward mobility. 

Updike’s problems as a novelist with what to do about politics are interesting because he is torn between the most common solution – the author inserts his own politics in the fiction, devises a hero to represent his opinion, and devises villains to represent the opposite – and the more indirect solutions that respond to, well, the history of the novel as a vehicle for intelligence since James. I’ve reviewed enough of the first solution, and generally dread reading it. I usually share the usually lefty opinions of the author, but I usually do not share the idea that a novel is a clumsy megaphone through which to trumpet irredeemably crude opinions, attaching them to laughably virtuous heroes and heroines.. The most dreadful of this kind of novel usually goes back in time on a life guard’s mission to save this or that character from history, showering the chosen object with a bunch of contemporary biases and feelings: ah, the feminist heroine of the Revolutionary war! The gay black scientist working in New Orleans, circa 1865! In order to give their characters potentia – the ability to act – these novels inevitably operate in a reactionary way, by distorting the real system of exploitation. You can’t have lefty politics, history, and a Hollywood happy end without producing utter pap. To distort the past the writer and his or her audience is a product of in order to produce a satisfying fantasy about the present is the worst kind of bourgeois mystification, since it presents a history ultimately without conflict. We are products of conflict, which marks our every gesture. One of the pre-socratics – Democritus? – claimed that fire was the primal element out of which all things came. I don’t recall whether he named the mysterious stylistic principle differentiating one thing from the other; I do know that the political novelist operates on the same unifying principle,  seeing all gestures eventually swept up in struggle, which marks the most intimate as well as the most public spheres. Contentment, that is, escape from struggle, or play, accepting the terms of struggle but not its seriousness,  mark the limits of the political novel’s utopian aspiration
How to get there, though…


Friday, April 22, 2016

give me corks or give me death

M F K Fisher was a great observer of the rituals that gather around meals. Here she is about drinking wine in France, which she first encountered in 1929: “Drawing the cork is a great ceremony--waiters cluster around the wine-master, and the man who has ordered it listens anxiously to see if the pop sounds right. Then the cork is waved under his nose, and he sniffs it loudly. Finally the wine is poured, still in the cradle, into his glass, and he sips it slowly and with the most amazing noises. The waiters and the wine-master watch his face to see if he likes it, and finally go away.”
This is funny and ethnographically accurate, for its time.
The funny part, of course, for Americans, is the fuss. At the time, and even now, the middle class American norm is to separate food and drink – which is good or bad, and served in large or small quantities – from how it is delivered. Yet oddly, no people on earth have ever devoted more ingenuity to packaging and photographing food. Incredibly threatening blown up pictures of, say, hamburgers are a standard part of the American visual ecology. I’ve never heard anybody remark on how gross this is, but I assume that my feeling, when confronted with a picture of a sloppy taco that is ten times the size of an actual taco – which is that anorexia is not such a bad option after all – is not uncommon. Americans are bombarded with films of meat frying, of fruit being crunched at orchestral sound levels, and of fizzy drinks being poured, deluge like, over ice cubes like small icebergs, and we shrug it off. But when it comes to the activity of the meal, manners and customs are as rigidly separated from the substances the meal aims at as cookbooks are from etiquette books.
In spite of this, eating is not, I’d contend, a rational, calory maximizing consumer activity that has accidentally spawned a few ignorable spinoff behaviors. To my mind, taste and the pleasures of taste are inseparable from context. By which I mean, corks count.
The cork, as we all know, is being replaced, little by little, by the plastic bottle cap, suitably geeked. And wine geeks are all about this, since, chemically, they assure us that these caps can allow us to assert more control over oxydation and all the chemical processes that go on when the juice from a cask is syphoned into a bottle. I’m confident that this may be true.
I don’t care, though. I like it that a dry cork alerts me, immediately, that the wine is probably suckworthy. But I like even more that the cork, the normal, healthy cork, has to be taken out of the bottle before I can get into it. That friendly cork, that bit of a tree grown, as I vaguely imagine, in Portugal, accompanies the whole wine imbibation. The plastic top does not. The plastic cap is not about trees in the hot Meditteranean sun, but about a factory in East Baton Rouge converting petroleum to the polyurethral products that are inexorably junking up our world.
Taste. Taste is association. This just isn’t some Proust effect. The meals you eat and the people you eat them with wrap themselves around the meals you will eat.
But what can I say? The world goes downhill on all fronts, and I need a sign to hang around my neck so I can parade around 3rd street in Santa Monica, warning of doom.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the case against Clinton for beginners

I, too, find the Clinton supporters puzzling.

They are very, hyper-conscious of the incidents in the campaign, and yet surprisingly blank about what they want from Clinton as president. For instance, what kind of foreign policy do Clinton supporters want? Clinton’s experience – which is often touted as, simply, experience – is best exemplified here, as far as I can tell. As a senator from 2000 to 2008, I don’t see a lot of leadership on the issues of that dirty time. She seems to have been a standard Daschle democrat, and Daschle was one of the most feckless dem politicians ever to grace the national stage. Her stamp, however, seems very strong on the foreign policy of the Obama administration in its first three years. I think she is very proud of what she did. She’s proud of the overthrow of Qaddafi, she’s proud of the weapon sales to the Gulf states, and she’s proud of trying to push Obama to do a Libya like intervention in Syria – as she pointed out in the last debate. She is, in short, on the hawk wing of the D party, with an ideology that is pretty much like Joe Lieberman’s. She even defended the coup in Honduras, which is pretty amazing.
On domestic policy, she’s more to the left. For instance, it was pretty great that she made a deal out of the lack of questions about abortion. And yet, the Clintonian line on abortion – that it should be legal and “rare” – has been a disaster for abortion rights. If you really think it is the gov’s business to make it rare, it is hard to argue against the slew of laws that force women to view films, or get “therapeutic” advice, etc., before they get abortions. Jessica Valenti made this point in 2014.
As for health care, raising social security benefits, and government action to reduce wealth and income inequality – I haven’t any firm sense that she, on her own, has any ideas here. Rather, she seems to be pushed into ideas – for instance, she seemed to be pushed into opposing the TPP, even though she lobbied for it as a sec state, and she seems to be pushed into opposing fracking, though she, again, facilitated fracking around the world when she was sec state. She opposes Keystone, now, although she has close campaign associates, like Jeffrey Berman, who lobbied for it. To an extent, that she is pushable is a good thing – politicians, in a democracy, should be the pawns of an aroused populace. But her actions as sec state, and as a Clinton foundation something – what does or did she do for them? – and as a speaker, seem to indicate that she can be pretty easily pushed the other way.
The argument of Clinton’s supporters is that this is irrelevant. But I’m not sure why we are editing her experience while at the same time arguing that she is the most experienced candidate, and that this is a big plus over haplesss Sanders.
So, the bottom line is: what is in it for me? If I’m a member of a black household where the unemployment rate is still in the depression era digits and the median household wealth is five times less than a white household’s – is there going to be any change? If I’m a woman with two small kids and I’m not breaking glass ceilings but working as a cashier and uber driver, is there going to be a push for national child care? Is there going to be a strong push to overturn abortion restrictions popping up all over the place? Is the pledge to rid the water supplies of all american cities of lead in the next five years going to go down memory hole?
The argument against Sanders is that, though I’d benefit from what he advocates, he can’t pass what he advocates. But the argument against Clinton is surely that she seems not to advocate anything but stasis, baby steps in the style of the Clinton presidency in the 90s. That, to me, is a promise to waste the next four years,, or cede them to the ever more radical right.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

letters to a young plumber

In one of the famous “Letters to a Young Poet “, which Rilke wrote when he was merely 28, he gives this advice:
“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity…”
I don’t think any poet has ever been so finely, so spiritually, so absolutely one-upped. After Rilke was finished with the job, the poor young poet probably went back to the family haberdashery business and tossed out the ditties.

Now, I wouldn’t dream of putting myself on the same stage with Rilke, but, recently, I was in a similar situation. A young plumber, who knew my reputation with a pair of pliers and couple of cross cleats, sent me the specs for an S trap that he’d recently installed and asked me if I thought his teflon taping technique was any good. He admitted, like the young poet, that he had asked many others, one of whom (a beerish chap who happened to be his boss), had asked him if he was fucking around on the job again. Ah, the vulgarity to which the delicate soul of the dedicated plumber is subject. I, of course, followed Rilke’s lead. Has the proper conduction of detritus and the hydrodynamics of faucet flow,  I asked him, sunk into your dreams, your hopes, and your sex life? In the quietest hour of your quietest night, I asked, have you ever pondered an existence in which, by some tyrant’s order, you were forbidden to use a strap wrench? Would you feel like one of Beckett’s tramps, that you couldn’t go on, or do you think you’d just jerryrig a substitute with an indutrial pair of sheers and the elastic strap wripped from an old pair of BVDs? If the latter, I am afrain I can’t help you: crassness has crept over your soul like aspergillus fumigatus over a damp carpet. If, however, you affirm, with every turn of your locking jaw wrench that I will, I must, I just haveta plumb – then, and only then, my son, have you found the pivot of your service in the construction, maintenance, and sanitation industries! In confirmation of which, I urge you to buy a six pack of Blue Ribbon and drain it on Saturday morning, before breakfast, whilst chanting dithyrambs to the ancient Greek Muse of Plumbing, Drainophene, as is done by all the true plumbers I’ve ever met.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Hell is easy: a blanket will do it
Under which, on hot nights infinite
Lay down a body like mine
And cover the feet closely, against its lifetime habit

– and that is all, my dear. An intolerable discomfort
Dilated to the size of the universe.  So yes
A God that is the master of tortures is conceivable
A God in our own image, habit’s double agent

Who knows that bones crush, that skin is nothing
Against flame, ice, steel, the sharp edge.
But a God beyond our temptations is
A God we can’t imagine.

Only, we can abstract an inch
Beyond the grind and crush of those winged and walking generations –
Something skinless, needless, blessed.
But what would this God be up to?

What’s in it for him
With no root in any image or song?
This is truly a God for atheists.
Surely our sacrifices have not all been in vain?

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to be President of the US for dummies

The qualification kerfluffle between Sanders and Clinton is ripe with meritocratic comedy. Nothing is more important in a guild-oriented plutocracy like the US than "qualification". It is the testing mania raised to a mythological level. Making the presidency something like a brain surgeon's position (or a taxi cab drivers) where there is a vague licencing credential is, I think, expressive of a whole dimension of what is wrong with American politics. In fact, I think I am much more qualified than both of the candidates, since I've seen fire and I've seen rain, I've been poor and now I'm a bourgeois, and I've read several books - including, How to be President of the USA for Dummies - so there is that. Qualification is an especially juicy subject for academics and writers, since holding on to this last privilege is, in the age of ferocious humanities downsizing, about all we have left. But fuck that. Nobody asks if Mark Zuckerberg is qualified to do squat about education - they just give him the school district of Newark like a big christmas gift. Is Bill Gates qualified to do anything except lecture on monopoly and how to exploit it? Nah. But there he is, the man who influences policy countrywide cause of his billions. Like a particularly bad dissertation written by a student the department wants to get rid of, the presidency is awarded not on the basis of qualification, but on the basis of the fatigue of the voters, who want to get the thing over with.
Qualification is a doddle.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

prisoners of the campaign

The problem with political campaigns in a democracy is very similar to the problems faced by the Red Faction Army (the group of urban guerrilas that the press labeled the Baader-Meinhof gang). The RFA began attacking industrialists and policemen because they believed Germany was still a proto-Nazi state and they wanted to bring about a revolution. Put off to one side the lunacy of the tactic – this, at least, is what they believed and how they acted. But – as was inevitable – certain of their comrades were captured and imprisoned. A true Red Faction Army would shrug and recruit more. But instead, the RFA turned from militating for Revolution to directing all their efforts to freeing their comrades. Freeing their comrades meant nothing to anybody but the RFA. In the moment they turned to that activity, letting, as it were, the feudal value of group loyalty trump revolutionary activism, they were lost not only as revolutionaries but as anything but another pathological criminal gang.
Brecht’s Three penny opera gets the criminal mindset down – these people are the bulwark of the capitalist system, its truest believers.
Similarly, campaigns start out ostensibly not just to elect person X, but to institute those changes in the lives of the electors that X believes are warrented.
Yet, very soon after the campaign starts, candidates start bickering about the campaign itself, the campaign their opponent is running. This is understandable, but it is also tactically advantageous to the candidate who most wants to stick with the status quo.
This is why, I think, Clinton’s supporters in the press seem much more obsessed with Bernie Bros than with, say, the lead in the water of Flint Michigan. Clinton herself made a very good speech about Flint, and in a debate pledged to get the lead out of water and paint within five years if she was elected. An excellent pledge, and one she should hammer on. But instead of that hammering, Clinton’s followers are still doing the rounds on Bernie Bros, even after polls have shown that in Sanders’s strongest demographic, the 18 – 35 set, women outnumber men by a considerable number. That is according to the latest poll on these things by USA today: “Millennial women now back Sanders by a jaw-dropping 61%-30% while the divide among Millennial men is much closer, 48%-44%.
In any case, while there are surely thousands of Sanders’ supporters who are all about sexism, Sanders isn’t. And there are millions of Sanders’ supporters who are not about sexism – in fact, these supporters view Sanders the way Gloria Steinem once described him (when he was running for the Senate): as an honorary woman. Trust Steinem to put a sentiment  cringeworthily.

Still, who cares? What matters, obviously, is what Sanders and Clinton propose to do for the vast majority of men and women in the US and – given the onerous presence of the US around the world – in the middle east, South America, Asia, etc. What’s in it for the teacher in my son Adam’s class, or the woman who is on her feet eight hours a day as the cashier at the local Vons? Cause really, that is all I care about. I don’t care about freeing prisoners of the campaign. I care about inverting the structures of oppression and bondage that crush our imagination and emotional capicity every day of our lives in this moment.