Thursday, June 9, 2011

American Writers and American (Sur)Reality : A Premature Ejaculation for the Fourth of July

"..the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?" -- Philip Roth, "Writing American Fiction," (1960), collected in Reading Myself and Others

These are Philip Roth's most famous nonfictional words, a classic statement of the American novelist's eternal complaint: how can I write about a reality that constantly outruns my imagination? The best answer to this is a short, Beckettian one: Imagine more. Fail better. This was the path taken by Roth's more experimental contemporaries (Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme) and eventually by Roth himself in Portnoy and after. But even fifty years later Roth's complaint remains quotable, continues to resonate, and even finds unexpected confirmation in Roth's own later Nixon satire, Our Gang, the imaginary outrages of which were quickly overrun by the surreal reality of Watergate, the Plumbers, and the "cocksucker!"-sputtering Nixon of the tapes. While Roth's list of cultural and political figures is hopelessly dated (Adams and Goldfine have dropped completely off the radar; Cohn and Schine exist only as minor cloven-hoofed creatures in the demonology of the American Left; Charlie 'Quiz Show' Van Doren has been reduced to a name on dust jacket blurbs; and everybody today seems to like Ike [except Guatemalans]), the thrust of his argument still cuts to the American bone. Indeed, Roth's words are--as the cliche goes--even more relevant today. Just look at the tame, conventional fictions that are being touted as 'great American novels' (I mean you, Jonathan Franzen) while the central characters of truly great novels strut and preen and perpwalk across our TV screens every evening at 6:30: Bernard Madoff, Donald 'the chump' Trump, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ensign, Anthony 'the aptly-named' Weiner, the unnamed soldier who is killing or dying in Afghanistan even as I type this...the list is pretty much endless. What American novelist living or dead could have imagined the life of Barack Obama? Not Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, probably not Toni Morrison, not James Baldwin, maybe Ralph Ellison. Who among our novelists could have imagined that a morbidly obese, radio-ranting drug addict would become arguably the most important person in the Republican Party? David Foster Wallace surely could have, ditto Thomas Pynchon, but who else? The life of Hillary Rodham Clinton would have taxed the imagination of Edith Wharton and been denounced as a feminist fairy tale had Joyce Carol Oates written it. If Pynchon had written a novel in which America is illegitimately ruled for eight years by two guys named Dick and Bush, his readers would've chuckled and thought, "Where does he get this stuff?!" More seriously, has any American novel of the past twenty years surpassed in political perception and tragic knowledge Naomi Klein's two-volume nonfiction anatomy of corporatism, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine? Given that corporatism (or globalisation, or global corporate capitalism, or late capitalism, or whatever you want to name the poison) is the hegemonic ideology of our time, any novelist interested in politics should be on this topic like a Blakean fly on Joycean shit. Where are the fictional explorations of the profound psychological impact of corporate thinking on the way we live today? There should be as many novels about corporatism today as there were about capitalism and communism during the Cold War. Who will be corporatism's John Le Carre? Who will be its Pasternak, who its Nabokov, who its Orwell, who its Sartre? What writer will rise to our dreary day and make herself the equal of the current crazy mess? As our political discourse has become increasingly insane over the last three years--a good starting point for the downward slide is the day in 2008 when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, apparently choosing her name at random from a Juneau phonebook--I have had one recurring, pseudo-Wordsworthian thought: Nathanael West, thou should'st be living at this hour: / America hath need of thee... If you listen very carefully in the stillness of three o'clock in the morning (where all the clocks stop in the dark night of the American soul) you can hear a faint whining sound that after a while resolves into the threnody of America's few remaining readers literally calling out for a book that gives our current political landscape the kind of satirical skewering Nathanael West gave the crazies of his day in A Cool Million, still the greatest of all American political satires. Of course, the West-ern treatment is made considerably more difficult today by the fact that our contemporary political culture not only beggars the imagination but also secretes its own satire. A character as ridiculous as George W. Bush makes an American Swift or Voltaire redundant; everything Dubya says is satire by virtue of the fact that it issues from his face. The same is true of Cheney, but transposed to a darker key. Our coronary cyborg of an ex-Vice President is a headbirth of Joseph Heller at his deadliest. And what of Sarah Palin, the egregious failed governor of Alaska who still basks in the cultic devotion of her millions of foolish followers and luxuriates in the mindless attention of the very 'lamestream media' she thinks she despises? Palin, the puritanical conservative in stripper boots who dog-whistles apocalyptic rhetoric between shopping sprees, the Christian moralist whose electoral appeal boils down to a Morse Code-winked "vote for me because you want to fuck me," seems to have escaped from an unwritten late chapter of Gravity's Rainbow. And how about those psychologically damaged Bobbsey Twins of right-wing demagoguery, the sad fatboy Limbaugh and the delusionally paranoid Beck? Not really self-satirists, these two little boys are case studies in abnormal psychology, more pathetic than comic. Rush Limbaugh will always be the fat kid who wants to be cool and uses his verbal facility to impress the jocks with his outrageous comments. Listen to Big Rush and you can almost hear the 1960s high school football players saying, "That Limbaugh kid, man, he'll say anything. Silly little fucker." Of the paranoid stylings of Glenn Beck more than enough has already been said; it is sufficient to point out that this man sincerely believes that the 1930s kitsch decorative art at Rockefeller Center (of all places!) is part of a Communist plot of imagistic indoctrination. (It worked like a charm, an apotropaic one; Rockefeller Center is the Vatican of corporate capitalism.) Beck's silly hobbyhorses, though, are but so many special cases of the grand delusion affecting too much of the American right: the idea that self-styled 'conservatives' (who at their intellectual best/worst are not conservative at all, but rather constitute a kind of right-anarchist vanguard envisioning a taxless, governmentless corporate utopia) are a powerless, embattled minority fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds. This is obviously risible: a minority they certainly are (witness the returns from the last five presidential elections: Clinton, Clinton, Gore, barely Bush, Obama), but the anti-democratic force of corporate cash skews the odds ever so slightly in their favor. Nor can they be called 'embattled,' since no one really fights them. The centrists who dominate the Democratic Party bend themselves into knots appeasing the right, and the 'American left' is much more a right-wing fantasy than a viable political force. A political discourse free of ideological hallucinations would be a refreshing change, but I don't see the sun of that day rising any time soon. The best image for our current impasse may be Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann's affectless, trancelike stare: a zombie leading the blind. Yes, the goofballs of the right are their own best satirists; they are the unintentional Voltaires of themselves. If they had no real power, they would be as perfectly ridiculous as the hopelessly obscure, utterly powerless hardliners of the American left. But because the rightists do have power, because they are financed and supported by corporations and individuals with theoretically bottomless pockets, they should alarm and energize anyone who cares about freedom. On this upcoming fourth of July, let's rededicate ourselves to saving what's best about America from the so-called 'conservatives' (cue the sound of Burke spinning in his grave) who would destroy it.

No comments: