The Nation‘s Jon Baskin offers a perceptive review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest whopper, Purity, which I’m still in the process of reading (it’s a bit of a slog). I’m very happy, given all the praise that Freedom received, that (in passing), he just calls what it is: a “very bad novel.” Purity, as far as I can tell so far, is (as a novel), also very bad…
Is there such a thing yet as “Occupy fiction”—fiction which reacts creatively to the sadly-doomed protests which, for a brief moment in 2011, seemed to be able to rally people in the quest for a new conception of collective action? There’s Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which features a homeless and quasi-Occupy camp in New York’s Central Park, whose violent clearing is one of the crucial moments in the plot, but Shteyngart’s novel keeps its distance to these protests. There’s also Edan Lepucki’s California, which essentially picks up the issues spotlighted by the Occupy protests and extrapolates them into a somewhat-far future in which climate change and an increasing split between rich and poor have divided America into heavily-gated communities and people living desperately off the land.
And there’s Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes, which shares much with Shteyngart’s novel and much with Lepucki’s, and yet is almost completely different. Greenfeld’s novel imagines a future United States (how far in the future, nobody knows) in which the ideologies of neoliberal capitalism have prevailed in almost all respects: there are no more unions and no more free schools, no health care except for those who can pay, no more good middle-class or indeed lower class jobs. Its closest parallel to Shteyngart’s novel is its insistence on the importance of credit rating, which becomes a caste marker that condemns people beyond a certain rating to a steady spiral downwards to a new status: subprimes, those whom no money is lent, who have no income beyond day work, no future in a world in which money alone determines success. It’s closest parallel to Lepucki is its extrapolation of the dangers of climate change.
The novel follows a slightly—but not entirely—disparate set of characters. There are the Bailey and Jeb and their kids, subprimes who have packed all their possessions into their car and have joined the exodus from no-longer-rich California east, into Nevada and points beyond, out of the “Ryanvilles,” shanty-towns echoing the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Barred from entry into Nevada through usual means by their low credit score, they enter illegally on backroads to settle in an abandoned housing development, Valence, which, slowly but surely, they turn into a community. And on the other side, there are those who have so far been better off: Gemma Mack, the wife of Arthur, a finance trickster whose pyramid scheme has landed him, first, in court, and second, on the show of TV evangelist Pastor Roger, whose gospel of capitalism keeps millions in thrall. Gemma, her kids in tow, moves back to California, and there meets Richie Schwab, a journalist-and-dead-beat-dad who cannot cope with the increasing and stifling control over personal behavior exhibited especially by his son’s school. Finally, there’s Sargam, the mysterious, motorcycle-riding loner whose leadership of the Valence community renders her into a community hero even before the final climatic confrontation in which the novel’s threads all come together at Valence and are, as best as possible, resolved.
Greenfeld’s book is funny at times, and too close to home to be funny at others: but it’s not an undiluted success. This is most evident in awkward joint the novel offers between its economic and political satire—the novel offers a cultural critique of sorts of the power and choices of coverage of the media, as when Gemma and her kids find a stranded whale that they would like to see saved, and instead see turned into a spectacle—and its parallel critique of something else; and that “something” must remain awkward here, because it’s not quite clear what it is. Richie Schwab’s travails with his son revolve around something like political correctness gone mad, perhaps, or a satirically heightened sense of the pervasive fear of child abuse: his son is stamped as a sexual predator for touching a girl’s behind in school—“a surreptitious fondling of the buttocks” (52), as the school’s principal informs Richie—and he is stamped one for a rough session of touch football with a couple of neighborhood boys. If there’s room to wonder about the soft-padding of children’s lives in contemporary society, especially in American schools, the subplot sits awkwardly against the deeply existential problems of a developing economic caste system.
As the subprimes depart California, heading east in overloaded cars and vans, Greenfeld’s novel reenacts Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, if in reverse, an exodus from the Californian dust bowl and lack of perspectives east, where at least some fruit picking may still be had. Greenfeld’s update of Steinbeck lacks Steinbeck’s power, however, and indeed it also lacks the power of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In Shteyngart’s novel, finance is the dominating issue, determining in the last instance all that happened: its further gimmickry all boils down to the control which international finance capital exerted on the lives of people, an impersonal system which does not require individual agency for its perpetuation, only individual apathy. In The Subprimes, while monetary interests are always present, they are personalized monetary interests: the shady financiers behind Pastor Roger, for example, or indeed Pastor Roger himself. The problem with this approach is, of course, that it lends itself to the wrong conclusions: if only it weren’t for people like Pastor Roger!
This complaint—that the novel overly personalizes, individualizes, and indeed lionizes, individual action, must be made especially with regard to its conclusion. Not only is it Richie’s son’s individual, somewhat mad action that collapses the assault which is being undertaken on the community installed at Valence: in its aftermath, Greenfeld introduces an awkward theological-fantastical note that seems deeply unhelpful when Sargam, the community leader, apparently raises Richie’s son from death. This fantastic moment—which is really only fantastic, and not outright fantasy, because the novel doesn’t own what seems fairly clearly to be a supernatural act—weakens Greenfeld’s book. It weakens it because the real achievements of the squatters, their construction of a functioning community from the wreckage of an all-too-familiar future, is suddenly infused with problematic notion that it takes a Messiah, but not the kind of messianic figure which Jim Casy embodies. Where Casy’s status as a messianic figure (besides the somewhat blunt JC initials) stems from his sacrifices (and remain perfectly mundane), Sargam’s supernatural messianism is problematic for what it seems to suggest. No ordinary organizing will suffice—but why not? In taking away sacrifice and loss, and vaguely placing its hope in the arrival of a savior (whose every action before must now necessarily be read differently, too: was she successful in organizing the community because she is endowed with supernatural powers?), the novel willfully counteracts its own narrative of self-empowerment, self-organization, and the power of the mass of disenfranchised people in the face of the deep systemic challenges its characters face.
So what’s the take-away? Fredric Jameson has recently written that
Capitalism began with enclosure and with the occupation of the Aztec and Inca empires; and it is ending with foreclosure and dispossession, with homelessness on the individual as well as the collective level, and with the unemployment dictated by austerity and outsourcing, the abandonment of factories and rustbelts.
(New Left Review 92, 130).
The Subprimes sketches this moment, but in calling back to Grapes of Wrath, it also implicitly condemns us to the realization that capitalism really may not be ending, as Jameson has it: just as it didn’t end in the 1930s. No matter the devastation to the individual lives which contemporary capitalism produces, The Subprimes implicitly reminds us that what awaited us at the end of the Great Depression was a global war, and all the novel offers us with regard to avoiding this fate is the hope for a supernatural savior. Let’s not hold our breath.
 But here’s another observation: what Greenfeld’s, Lepucki’s, and to an extent Shteyngart’s novels also share is a somewhat limited perspective on the issues they discuss: their geographical restriction leaves doubts about the state of the world at large. Shteyngart’s protagonist eventually moves to Italy, where, apparently, things are at least less dire; but what the status of the rest of the world is in Greenfeld and Lepucki remains open.
The New Republic‘s online version has just published a chat between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on the topic of fantasy fiction. Because I’m in the process of publishing a book on the contemporary novel’s uses of genre, I was quite intrigued. Some good points made here by both, especially on the relationship between publishers’ decisions and author’s positions on the question of what “genre” means.
I just finished reading Alexandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars, which, yes, I bought because it has zombie wars in the title. I suspect that I’m not alone in this, and that I’m also not alone in being a bit disappointment at a singular lack of zombies throughout the narrative. Lest it be thought that it’s this that clouds my somewhat negative impression of Hemon’s book, however, let me quickly disclaim that: I was hoping, but not expecting, more zombies; and, having been duly disappointed in my hopes, though not my expectations, I got into the book on its own terms.
And those terms are a bit, shall we say, disjointed. Between nods to Hemon’s biography (Serbian characters reflecting upon the devastation wrought on them by the Jugoslavian civil war, a writer protagonist a bit younger than Hemon now, but less younger in the story’s 2003 setting), the slightly improbable story touches base with a variety of subjects: Jewish family life, disappointed writers’ ambitions, the business of film-making, or at least, the business of transferring screenplay ideas into screenplay pitch into film (which the novel never manages to get done). These plot elements do, of course, intersect, even intersect organically: the protagonist, aspiring screen-writer and English-as-a-Second Language teacher Joshua Levin falls in love with one of his adult students, the Bosnian refugee Ana, whose war-damaged husband finds this, shall we say, obnoxious; needs to fend of the (inconsequential) attentions of his family, which seems so dimly stereotypical that it’s either a joke or just really, really bad; faces the problems which come along with having as landlord a Gulf War-1991 veteran with serious issues about private boundaries and a Samurai sword; needs to come to terms with the doomed relationship he has with a slightly-bland successful New York professional whose cat gets murdered by Ana’s husband; all the while writing a script called Zombie Wars, which (in 2003) must certainly seem like a big and new and interesting idea.
Yes, it’s 2003! It’s not exactly clear why it’s 2003, because it’s not like Hemon adds anything in particular to the greater political situation on the eve of and then during the Iraq War. To be sure, everything in this novel is falling apart: Joshua’s relationship, Ana’s marriage, Joshua’s sister’s marriage, his father’s health, and of course the poor cat’s health. Also his landlord’s at-best liminal sanity, and, in what is a clever meta-move, perhaps, Hemon’s novel. Having alternated between the novel’s plot of Joshua’s deflating, and for all that not very interesting, life, and his short vignettes of Zombie War’s growing screen-play, at the very end, in a move that seems like it would have been discouraged in the work shop for its blatant obviousness, the two narratives exchange forms: Zombie Wars ends as a third-person narrative, not a screenplay, in which the film’s protagonists recognize the futility of their quest for safety in a zombie-infested world; and the real-life narrative of Joshua’s life ends in a screenplay scene on Seder in the Levin family (plus by-now best friend insane-landlord Stagger) which is almost aggressively empty.
Now, it’s not difficult to suggest the things the novel is trying to talk about, maybe: the consequences of war (the past Jugoslavian civil war, the ongoing war in Iraq, and the fictional zombie war); issues of personal identity (Joshua’s Jewishness, inescapable, set against his job, also inescapable, and his dreams, unfulfillable); questions of love, relationships, and connection. It’s well-written in the kind of lyrical realism that predominates a certain kind of contemporary realist writing; it’s even funny at times, and certainly absurd, even grotesque. But, and this is the problem, it’s no more than that. Its repetitive screenplay-idea jokes, all of which end on a bad pun, suggest the central annoyance with the novel: Joshua’s screenplay ideas are all idea and no execution, all concept and no content; Hemon’s novel is all content and very little concept. The connections between the zombie wars of Joshua’s screenplay and the reality he lives are suggestive, but unexplored; the finale, which sees Joshua in the company of a family we have seen too little of for us to care about their relationships, is too clever by far, and too meaningless, too.
Of course, we (being literary critics and scholars) can make those connections that the novel doesn’t, and call it cleverly done on Hemon’s part to not spell them out—and really, I do not mean to say that Hemon should have spelled his points out. As the Washington Post notes, “some of [the plot] may strike you as unlikely, possibly as unlikely as mutilated bodies lumbering around in search of human flesh”—and means this, it seems, as a compliment, suggesting the weirdness which real life brings to the fore at every turn. The effect in Hemon’s novel, however, is not that: it’s all a bad screenplay, a zany romp through silliness, whose points (war is bad and leaves people wounded; relationships need—what? honesty?) are superficial. Did we need this novel? No. You’re better off reading books with more actual zombies inside.
I’ve been writing on this book for a while now for my second book project, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by it—which is why this post. I know this was once supposed to be a theory blog (and I’ll say something on Slajov Žižek’s three latest books, all 2014, sometime soonish), and this is more like a review again. But bear with me, two or three people who actually read this.
Let’s give you a brief recap and few data points, the data points first: Equilateral is a very economical 207 pages short and four main characters. It is set in 1894-5 in Egypt, where, under the supervision of astronomer Sanford Thayer, the so-called Mars Concession is excavating a humungous equilateral triangle. Thayer believes (as do many of his colleagues) that there is a civilization on Mars, as proven by the excavation of the so-called “canals,” which resists the planets growing desertification and, given their landscaping prowess, must be old and powerful. Thayer wants to gain their moral and technological insight to prevent Earth following in Mars’s footsteps; the Concession wants Mars’s technology and markets. Assisting Thayer are Miss Keaton, his assistant and the manager of the project; Ballard, the chief engineer; and the Egyptian servant girl Bint (not actually her name, as we learn later).
Kalfus’s novel is inspired by the controversy over Martian civilization following Giovanni Schiaparelli’s real-life “discovery” of canals, which led to a veritable Mars-craze in the late 19th century until it was discovered to be something of a collective hallucination: an initial failure of optics compounded by the willingness to see what was not there. But the novel is more than a mere creative retelling of this craze: it is a meditation on the imagination, on the possibility of utopia, on the failure and success of transnational communications, on imperialism and power, on seeing and believing, on hope and loss. This is what’s the most astounding achievement to me: the sheer economy with which Kalfus manages to cram so much into so little space and such sparse but eloquent language—and with nary any action at all. It would be unfair to say that nothing really happens in the novel (there’s a Mahdi raid on the construction site, and of course the excavation itself), but what’s important is not so much what happens, as what is being thought. Thayer sees Mars as the possible source for all kinds of utopian possibilities, most of which remain mere gestures, but about which to think forces him to reappraise his entire world-view: if initially he holds with the Spencerian conception of social evolution, by the end of the novel, the possibility that Mars has taken a different track: a track that, quite possibly, includes some form of socialist polity.
There’s a variety of fascinating vignettes that say much about the human condition in few words: there’s the scene where Thayer elaborates expansively on the metaphysical and historical qualities of the equilateral triangle, only for Ballard to tell him that it’s “bloody difficult to dig, though”; there’s this scene:
“Merrikh,” he says, indicating the planet [Mars] again, and then he points to the ground. “Earth.”
She says, “Masr.” Masr is the Arabic word for Egypt. She pronounces it with a Bedouin drawl.
He corrects her gently. “Earth.”
“Uurth, Masr. Masr, Urrth.” She smiles again, believing that she’s learned another word of English.
Perhaps if Thayer knew the Arabic name of our planet he would set her right. But he doesn’t know it and the thought occurs to him that a separate word for Earth, analogous to other planetary names, presumes an awareness that Earth, Mars, and Saturn are analogous entities, similar spheres similarly hurtling through the same celestial environment, an airless, matterless medium know as “space.” It also presumes an awareness that other political and national entities have been established on Earth, apart from Egypt. (57)
Which says much few words: about nations as constructs that may be impossible to translate even here on Earth (not to mention to Martians), about the difficulties of communications between well-meaning people.
It’s an almost perfect book down to its ending, which refuses (I think) to decide on its central question: whether or not the Martians really exist. We’re left with an ambivalent image that could be either Martians arriving or Bint giving birth, and the possibility that anything that Thayer hopes for for contact with Mars will come true (a true betterment of the human condition); or that it will not, and that everything that the 20th century has to offer, from World Wars to Cold Wars, will come to pass. Yet whatever will come to pass: Equilateral sets forth a sense of hope that there’s nothing inevitable about these events, and that by extension, we should question our own inevitable events, our own necessary futures.
Post45, the online publication of the eponymous research group on post-World War II fiction, has just published my short essay on Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet in their Contemporaries section.
I’m rather excited. Thanks to Ian Afflerbach for his valuable commentary on the piece, and to the editors and Post45 for their work on it!
With a couple hours to spare on train journeys and elsewhere, I breezed through this series. Military sci-fi, I think you call it: it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. Considering that it’s basically like an action movie in book form, it’s really quite good.
I’ll give the plot only the briefest of nods here: two factions of humanity are at war, the apparently democratic Alliance and the corporatist Syndics; the Alliance are aiming a strike at the Syndics home planets to end what’s already a 100-year-war, and on their way they find John Geary in stasis in an escape pod. Geary is their greatest hero, presumed dead since he singlehandedly defeated the first Syndic attack 100 years in the past; now, as the Alliance fleet suffers defeat through treachery, he must take it back home, fighting against Syndics, internal fleet politics, and the decline of professional competency that has set in since he was lost.
It’s a little like Battlestar Galactica and it’s a little like David Weber’s increasingly turgid Honor Harrington series; but especially when compared to the latter, Campbell’s series shines. For a good long while, Weber’s plot revolved around the war between a star kingdom of impeccable morals, and a society which was essentially a weird quasi-socialist dystopia ruled over—in the wake of a revolution, no less—by a guy named Robert Stanton (?) Pierre…or Rob S. Pierre, for short. Yes, that’s the kind of cleverness you’re in for in Weber. Weber’s characters are cardboard cut outs (as E.M. Forster would say) at best; so any comparison which makes the point, as I do here, that Campbell’s series is better at that ought to take that into account. But really, he is better. His characters aren’t exactly rounded, but at least they have odd hang ups and worries; and while, yes, John “Black Jack” Geary wins (almost) every battle and makes (almost) no mistakes, at least Campbell gives that a plausible reason: the Alliance fleet has gotten used to head-on attacks, to voting on courses of action, and to promoting based on politics, not ability. Geary is old-school, by comparison: he knows tactics, knows that commanders decide, and so on. So I suppose I can buy that.
And here’s the turn to literary analysis: two things stand out to my mind in Campbell’s book. One is the enemy side, the Syndics. A society apparently based on the laws of capitalist competition in all things, the Syndics are a corporate society in which the quest for profit rules everything. It’s not investigated in any detail, but it’s a very interesting choice of opposition. The second thing is the character of John Geary, and his backstory. Essentially, he is a historical figure that intrudes into the contemporary (always understanding these times to be in the far, far future), opening up the hope for a better future through the knowledges of the past. What is interesting is that in this regard he functions very much like characters in a number of other recent novels (Upton Sinclair in Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, the nuclear physicists of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and William Howard Taft in Jason Heller’s Taft 2012–or, to go to the more classical references, Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle or Edward Bellamy’s Julian West (from Looking Backward)). I’m not sure what (if anything) this move signifies in what’s essentially pulp fiction; but it’s an interesting thing to see, at least to me.