dear parents constantly yelling at your kids, honestly how do you do it? it is a serious commitment to control every waking moment of another human being’s life. see, a lot of times i let my son do things the way he wants to not because i have any kind of parenting philosophy but because i am tired or busy or just generally minding my own business. yes that is him over there eating rice with his hands. he should probably use a fork but i don’t know, he looks content. you on the other hand manage to yell at your kids for things like walking the wrong way. you can parent however you want, it just seems like a lot of work.
here’s the hard thing about being a gung-ho clinton supporter age ~35-45, and i really do think this is true, although i don’t think i’m the first one to say it, so apologies to the original originator of this take: supporting hillary is not Cool, and this makes them frustrated and angry.
think about it, they probably became politically active during the florida recount and the bush presidency, which all democrats agree was a time Satan roamed the earth. maybe they were for hillary in 2008, but regardless they got to throw in with obama, and this made them Cool. no question. Where Were You During The Inauguration Of Our First Black President, etc. no shade here, this was a legitimately good time to be excited about democratic politics.
but at some point, these people got safe careers and got married and moved to a place with Good Schools and bought a Home and settled into Adult Life, and while they thought they were keeping up with progressive politics by watching MSNBC, boy were they not.
and then the 2016 primary rolled around and they linked arms with team hillary to sing “we shall over come” and break the glass ceiling and hop back on the Cool Train with a redux of 2008/2012 and suddenly, unbelievably, there are all these goddamn kids and assholes on the internet mocking them and promising to vote for a socialist.
they fought back viciously, smearing the bernie bros/ladies, etc., calling them dreamers and naifs, like dad about to lose a 1-on-1 match with his kid for the first time, panting and juking and throwing up wild jump shots, desperately grasping at cultural relevance, mom arguing that of course the school clothes she is buying you are Cool, honey, because look how practical they are.
this is why, even after bernie has lost and endorsed hillary and lol the primary is over dude, they still attack the left. deep in their mushy red hearts, they know an incrementalist dynastic millionaire zionist hawk who has been paid millions by dictators and banks to do she won’t say what is not, and can never be, Cool. they hate this, they hate that we know this, and they hate that all the power and money in the world can never change it.
a friend of mine had some checks stolen when his car was broken into. the police caught the suspect trying to cash one of the checks. he’d made it out to himself.
i’m just going to say that i think we need a new social program for people who are really bad at crime. like, the police take them aside and say “look, you are very, very bad at this. here are some brochures, the private sector has many opportunities for people who are bad at things, have you considered a career in real estate or human resources?”
it’s ok, i’m not saying we send them to work on an oil rig or driving an airplane. but people who are bad at crime deserve the same chance that the rest of us have to be bad at a regular job.
a story is a human thing that by definition has a beginning, middle, end. it is a thing that happens during a life. the life existed before the story and continues to exist once the story ends. “i found five dollars.” there’s your life before the five dollars and your life after the five dollars, but the interesting part of your life that you want to tell someone is that you found five dollars. that’s the story. “check it out, here is something that happened to me…”
soap operas, tho, are a different thing: they never end. they keep trickling on and on. there is no clear line for where the story started and where it ends because life IS the story, all of it, like the way toddlers tell stories, and then, and then, and then. some people like this kind of narrative. but it can be frustrating for the people hoping for a story.
this imho has been the major pitfall of the last ~20yrs of prestige drama television, starting with The Sopranos. The fucking things never fucking end. about four seasons in you say to yourself “i hope they know where they are going with this.” sometimes (Breaking Bad) the writers are able to salvage it and wrap it up and put a bird on it and you can look back and say “that was a good story.” other times (Lost, Battlestar Galactica) they fuck us straight in the eyeholes.
so i’ve been avoiding starting new prestige dramas that sweet-talk thru a really good first two seasons then abuse your time and corrupt your judgment for literally years.
until, that is, Stranger Things. Stranger Things is different.
“season 1” of Stranger Things (which is a “season” in the same sense that Lemonade is an “album” and the thing in my pocket is a “telephone”) is a story. beginning, middle, end. the end. you can watch it, walk away, tell your friends. civilization as we know it could end tomorrow and we will never once say to each other “it is too bad we will never learn what happens in season 2 of Stranger Things.” this is a gift. the Duffer Brothers (if that is indeed their/its real name) have given us the gift of prestige television story telling without the soap opera emotional abuse.
of course you could do a sequel to Stranger Things and call it “season 2” but regardless of its goodness or badness, we will always have that first, complete, beautiful, thrilling, completely excellent story, with all its mysteries solved, all misunderstandings explained, the monster defeated, the enemies destroyed, the friends reunited, everyone changed. that’s a beautiful story and it didn’t even take ~60hrs of my life, only like eight.
The Brothers Duffer are obvs not the first to do this. The Wire is a clear early example, True Detectives a good more recent one. but the whole prestige tv genre has felt lost and wandering since the end of Mad Men and wind-down of Game of Thrones.
so i’m calling it. Stranger Things is the way forward. let’s go.
If there’s one thing we are taught in the United States about literature it’s that above all, it should be politically inert. Our literary figures are irrelevant to politics, and we believe this is correct. Imagine a novelist running for president, or a poet for a Senate seat, or a newspaper columnist for anything. “Hillary Clinton wins coveted endorsement from Cormac McCarthy.” Laughable. There is a division of labor. American literary figures are supposed to sit in coffee shops or at home or in their offices at middle-tier, mid-Atlantic liberal arts colleges and twiddle their words together and leave the governing to the lawyers and the MBAs, you know, people who do real things. Along with that, literature in the US should never be explicitly political, or when it is, the politics should have the kind of status quo obviousness of a Jonathan Franzen novel, you know, the kind that allows us to nod on past to the real meat of American letters: Character, Place, Relationships, Aesthetics, Narrative Arc, Prose, Adulterous Relationships Between Consenting Upper-Middle Class Professional White People.
I brought this American approach to literature with me into class during my Master’s program in Latin American literature in Santiago, Chile. It did not work. It did not work because in Latin America, politics and literature are more or less inextricable. You maybe could argue that Latin America goes too far in this direction in some cases, and at some aesthetic cost, and I maybe would agree with you, but increasingly I have preferred to raise the question from the opposite direction: Why doesn’t American literature have any interest in politics? And does this elision also have some cost? Fredric Jameson sort of addresses the former question in an essay that caused a decent amount of outrage, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-National Capitalism” (PDF). Toward the end, after reviewing “Hegel’s old analysis of the Master-Slave relationship,” he muses that
… we Americans, we masters of the world, are in something of that very same position. The view from the top is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities, to the poverty of the individual experience of isolated monads, to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping the social totality. This placeless individuality, this structural idealism which affords us the luxury of the Sartrean blink, offers a welcome escape from the “nightmare of history,” but at the same time it condemns our culture to psychologism and the “projections” of private subjectivity.
In other words: Lots of pretty and irrelevant novels about the ennui of academic life, or the trials and rewards of living in a family, or the minute emotional details of a minor historical event. For Jameson, this is the consequential result of a power structure: We in the United States are the masters of a multinational capitalist world, an arrangement that results in an “epistemologically crippling” perspective. American literature resists “grasping the social totality” – or, to stretch a little, engaging in politics – for overbearing systemic reasons.
But what if that’s not true? What if American literature has been deliberately flattened to serve an explicitly political goal? That is, (Marxist alert!) what if the absence of political or social content in American literature is itself highly political?
Which brings me to “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” an amazing essay just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You should read the whole thing. I just want to highlight two points it makes very well. One is historical. Following WWII, the Iowa Writers Workshop – hugely influential in the development of mid-to-late 20th century literary trends in the United States – received a significant amount of support from Cold Warrior institutions: funding from the CIA, the State Department, a number of foundations, and a variety of big businesses, as well as significant publicity support from the likes of Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. The explicit project was to provide an alternative to the cultural production of Communist sympathizers. In part, this meant bringing in writers from around the world who were sympathetic to the American project in order to encourage those sympathies. (This includes one of the Chilean writers we read during my Master’s program, Alberto Fuguet, who went on to write a Chilean version of Catcher in the Rye and champion globalization wherever he can).
The second point is how this project affected American literature. The author, Eric Bennett, expresses very well something I feel instinctively every time I read the kind of “workshopped” books that Iowa and its peer programs have produced:
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1998 and 2000, I had the option of writing fiction in one of four ways.
First, I could carve, polish, compress, and simplify; banish myself from my writing as T.S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro. …
Second, and also much approved, I could work in a warmer vein—the genuinely and winningly loquacious. Ethan Canin (my favorite teacher) set the example here, writing charismatically chatty prose that, like the man himself, exhibited the gross health of the fortunate and tenderhearted. Your influences, if you tended this way, were F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, or anybody else whose sentences unwind with glowing ease. Cheever loomed as an undisputed great. …
Third, you could write what’s often called “magical realism.” Joy Williams (alumna, teacher) and Stuart Dybek (alumnus, teacher) helped to shape a strain of fable-making passed down to my classmates from Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Calvino or their Latin American heirs. …
These first three categories were the acceptable ones. But Category 4 involved writing things that in the eyes of the workshop appeared weird and unsuccessful—that fell outside the community of norms, that tried too hard. The prevailing term for ambitious pieces that didn’t fit was “postmodernism.” The term was a kind of smackdown. Submitting a “postmodern” story was like belching in class.
But what is a postmodern story? In those years, Robinson was already in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, as were Jayne Anne Phillips (alumna) and Bobbie Ann Mason, model citizens of the M.F.A. nation. Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek were certainly not Victorians nor modernists nor best sellers. What was it that you weren’t supposed to do?
At the time I considered Freud and Rabelais my favorite novelists. Later I understood that I was being annoying. But I thought then, and still think now, that the three-headed Iowa canon frustrated as much as satisfied a hunger for literature that got you thinking. Iowa fiction, published and unpublished, got you feeling—it got you seeing and tasting and touching and smelling and hearing. It was like going to an arboretum with a child. You want exactly that from life, and also more.
… I was 23. I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters, and also heart—a novel comprising everything, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt (but that, too). …
This aversion to novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition—the unspoken proscription against attempting to write them—was the narrowness I sensed and hated. The question I wanted to answer, as I faced down my dissertation, was whether this aversion was an accidental feature of Iowa during my time, or if it reflected something more.
Bennett’s conclusion is that it does reflect something more. He goes on to trace the roots of this “flattening” of literature – this elimination of ideas, intellectual fiber, and (I would say) social content – to post-WWII currents: “… the prewar left merged with the prewar right. Both circles thought that the way to avoid the likes of Nazism or Stalinism in the United States was to venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible.”
The result is literature that avoids politics specifically, and in general, troubles no one. With some wonderful exceptions, contemporary American literature is smooth, flawlessly engineered, reliable, professional, and performance-oriented, like a Toyota Camry, or an iPad, or maybe a suppository. You hardly have to think about it. It is not socially challenging, not controversial, not really remarkable in any way outside the little circles where people talk about it as a hobby or as part of their job. It won’t get you fired if you read it, and it will never come up during a confirmation hearing. Contemporary American literature is a ghettoized and irrelevant aesthetic pursuit, like collecting stain glass or cataloging small-batch vinegar. If this is the case incidentally, as Jameson suggests, it would be curious. That it may be the case by design is alarming.
What is The Graduate but a celebration of the first truly self-aware generation? “I’m just a little worried about my future,” says Ben. Moody fish tanks and parsley and sage. We don’t want your system, Dad. Mom. We are lost in our ennui, bobbing in a pool of post-bourgeois existential angst. We have stuff, but we don’t want it. We are thinkers, or rather feelers, lovers who will break out of your cycles of domestic enslavement, your separate bedrooms and your forced marriages, and we will break out and shut you in with your religious icons, then catch a municipal bus and laugh, then become grave. No one understands us, but we are many, and we will make something new.
It’s been many decades since 1967. Benjamin Braddock would now be in his 60s. So how did it go? Let’s say The Graduate was a national allegory for a new generation, a portrait of a moment in history when everything seemed new and swollen like ripe fruit ready to be picked and shared among the young. What happens after the bus fades out at the end of the last shot is that Ben and Elaine ride for a while, maybe even a long while, years let’s say. But eventually they get off and Ben shakes himself off and he calls up his dad’s old friend and says, “OK. Plastics. I’m in.”
And he and Elaine get married, and they buy bigger houses than their parents ever had, and they buy bigger cars than their parents ever had, and they buy bigger lawnmowers and bigger boats and bigger pools and bigger televisions than their parents ever had. And in the 1980s, they vote for Reagan, because if there’s one thing that’s too big, it’s the government. And they cut their own taxes and put that on the national credit card, and they buy an unbelievable number of new bombs and tanks and put those on the national credit card, while they cheer roll-backs of onerous government regulation. And all of it clears the way for when little Ben, Jr. gets out of college in the early 90s, and has his own graduate pool party with all the turtle-necked friends of his parents, and that’s when his dad’s friend pulls him aside and says, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Finance.”
And meanwhile, Ben Sr. and Elaine vote for more globalization because it gets them even more stuff for even less money. In the 2000s, they put two more wars on the national credit card, even as they watch the cost of higher education double, triple, quadruple. They watch the US military take the place of the welfare state, watch as people die because they can’t afford basic healthcare, and they cook out on the kind of 50,000 BTU gas grills that their parents could have never imagined. Maybe sometimes, late at night, in bed in their 1,000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, reading the New York Times or the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker or watching TEDTalks or reading the latest book by Thomas Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell on their iPads or Nooks or Kindles they look at each other and say, did we go wrong? Maybe we weren’t the solution but just a gigantic, new, selfish, arrogant, weeping sore of a fucking problem? But don’t worry because a new box set of Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits just came out and it’s $19.95 and remember the time when we were awesome?
If The Graduate can be read as a kind of national allegory of American generations that has been impregnated with new layers of meaning by decades of history and the subsequent life of Mr. Benjamin Braddock, we gain a new respect for Mrs. Robinson. She sought out Ben, not because she wanted to corrupt him, but because she knew he was always corrupt. She has seen the future. She has seen that this generation is capable of all manner of moral negotiations and compromises and shifting of blame and burden and pain onto future generations. “I can’t do this,” he says.
Oh yes you fucking can.
I had this plan that I was going to watch all three Transformers movies this week and write something hilarious about how Michael Bay is a bleeding propagandist who markets a particular vision of unbridled and global American military power to children on behalf of his clients in the Pentagon.
It was going to go something like this:
“We hunt for what remains of our Decepticon foes, hiding in different countries throughout the globe,” booms Optimus Prime’s stentorian voiceover intro to Rise of the Fallen, providing context to a montage of what in different places and at different points in history have been called death squads, though we in America prefer the euphemism “Special Forces,” because we are special. Anything goes because we are at war. The US military can and should be able to drop into any country in the world with our cool-ass machine guns to waste the bad guys, like it did in Pakistan, like it should have done in Benghazi, cartoon-like. The justness of our cause trumps diplomacy, borders and the rule of law.
I wrote 2,000 words and scrapped it, then rewrote it, then scrapped it again, then crushed it into a snappy op-ed, then blew it back open into a stem-winding, baroque and profane screed. Then I scrapped it. After a week of this, my gusto flagged.
It wasn’t wrong. But it just wasn’t working. How come? Why not? Michael Bay, propaganda for the military industrial complex, three 2.5-hour advertisements for failed and over-budget weapons systems like the F-22 and Osprey, movie dialogue that groans under the weight of so much preposterous bullshit – “Hold the airstrike! We’re rescuing civilians!” – a cartoonish vision of American military force that is globally omniscient and omnipresent. This is easy stuff to skewer.
Was it too easy? Was it too obvious? Was it too much? The way too much sugar gives you wine that is too sharp and straight-forward and mean?
I took a break. I wandered over to the local multiplex where Ironman 3 was playing and bought a ticket, wandered in and pondered and ate popcorn and pondered until something odd happened. Spoiler/epiphany alert: The scary Oriental bad guy turns out to be a false boogey man, a beer-drinking empty robe, an actor playing a role designed to frighten people into spending money on military contracts.
That is, Ironman 3 turns all the comic book movies and goofy pro-military action flicks and stupidly reductive TV shows about terrorists in our backyards, all the Bay-esk flag-waving bullshit from the last 12 years, and turns it upside down and shakes it and laughs and points to it and says, “This? This is over. This stuff about violent, unreasoning religious zealots with long beards and scary foreign-looking logos and organized insurgencies, douchebag “Iron Patriots” painting themselves with the American flag and storming into the wrong part of Pakistan like dumbasses, this bullshit where we stay scared and our leaders get to look strong and competent while they amass power and money and keep the contracts rolling. It’s not even that it’s wrong: It’s passé. It’s fucking laughable.”
Something clicked as I walked out through the mall, looking at clothing store marketing images of skinny jeans and big curly hipster beards in Santiago, Chile, thinking about how you don’t have to live in Portland to think Portlandia is funny because urban cool has been turned into a commodity and zipped around the world in a lingua franca of yoga studios and fixie bikes and yarn bombing, and I realized that something has ended. An era has been exhausted. Apple OS textures look tired and boring, all website stock photos look the same, Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a globalized brand, blogs have become news websites, cable news doesn’t even believe its own bullshit, and comic book movies – those ever-reliable vehicles for messaging about the evilness of the Other and the necessity of extra-judicial force – have finally, finally grown bored with a plot arc that began on September 11, 2001.
Compare it to 1999, or thereabouts, when grunge was petering out into Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20, when America came Online, when Hollywood, grasping for a post-Cold-War boogeyman and coming up empty, settled for The System (The Matrix), the Russians (007), and the Very Intelligent Sharks (The Deep Blue). We didn’t know it then, but we were on the cusp of a crazy downhill tear toward always-connected hand held computers, Forever and Everywhere War, the worst financial crisis in 80 years, and the collapse of traditional print media.
I can’t rip Michael Bay with the rhetorical technology of the past. Keith Olbermann is unemployed because it doesn’t work anymore, because it doesn’t matter, and because we’re on the cusp – probably beyond the cusp – of something else, some other logic of mass psychosis or fashion or technology that has yet to take full form. Blogging about the War on Terror is like shooting at shadows. Somewhere out there, in some office building or board room, some politicians or executives are figuring out a new bad guy for the American public. Or there’s a club somewhere unexpected, or a magazine, or something I don’t even know what, that will change the sound and look of our pop culture world for the next 15 years. It’s probably already happening, or has happened already. Our president said this War on Terror is going to end, which means something else is about to start. CO2 levels are at their highest point in human history. I read the other day that Google just bought a quantum computer that can solve extremely complex problems 33,000 times faster than a conventional computer. Where are we going? I feel old. I feel like the future is opening up right in front of me, and it’s going to be a fast, long, hard drop.
For my introduction to this translation project, click here. All comments and criticism welcome!
My timidity held me back, and instead of bursting into the room I rapped on the door with my knuckles. I heard a quick noise from the other side, as if someone moved a chair or stood up from one quickly. I waited a few moments, and when there was no answer I knocked again.
This time, heavy, hesitant steps came towards the door and stopped there; I heard the sound of nervous, maybe asthmatic, breathing. Several minutes passed without the unidentified individual giving any sign of doing anything but stand there, breathing noisily.
I decided my politeness had been excessive. I opened the door a few centimeters and peered into the room. An electric bulb, bare and weak, hanging from a cord from the center of the ceiling, illuminated an area that seemed to have the same dimensions as the darker rooms, but it had a number of other features. In my narrow field of vision, there was a small kitchen table with two or three plates and other utensils against the wall across from me. I saw that there was food on the plates, and my mouth began to water again.
This room was warmer thanks to an old kerosene stove that I saw next, alongside a rocking chair that sat in the middle of the room, right under the electric bulb. Some shelves sat against the wall on the kitchen table, with a greenish curtain concealing their contents.
I pushed the door a little further open. The person who had been standing there the whole time was forced to take a few steps back when the door tapped against the toes of his shoes. He turned out to be a strange individual: he was very fat, and appreciably shorter than normal. He wore big, round eye glasses, and the detail that most caught my attention was his clothing, which was quite large and disproportionate to his body, giving him a clownish look. The ridiculousness was accentuated by the attitude of this little man, who, evidently frightened and very surprised by my presence, stared at me and tried to be serious and dignified.
He had to make an effort not to retreat when I took a step forward. The muscles in his face tensed, he blinked, but he stood firm where he was. I smiled, trying to seem friendly, and mouthed a greeting that had no effect on him.
I worked up the courage to take another step, and now that I was fully inside the room, I took a look around. The first thing I saw was what I assumed to be the man’s wife, a woman who seemed to be his age, maybe about 40 years old. She was knitting, sitting in a chair to my left, next to a screen that concealed the corner formed by the wall on my left and the “entryway” wall.
The woman was concentrating on her work, with her head down, and did not seem to be paying attention to what was happening. I discovered, however, that from time to time she would lift her eyes to sneak a glance at me, and that she was also afraid.
Behind the women and against the left wall, there was a bed, not quite full size, although bigger than a single. Between the bed and the kitchen table, against the wall with the “exit” door, there was a little cook stove. I do not recall noticing any other decorations or furniture. My gaze finally lit on the plates of food. There was meat, cut into small pieces, and bread and cheese; there were also a number of not very attractive looking apples.
I began to talk quickly, to explain my situation. After a few moments, the little man’s muscles seemed to relax a little, and the woman was looking at me openly now. I continued to talk for a few moments, somewhat enthusiastic at the progress I had made, and I concluded with an exhortation to be invited to eat.
The man was silent for a couple of minutes, then cleared his throat and opened his mouth. Then he closed it. He cleared his throat again and finally said something that I did not understand.
I gave him a questioning look. The man repeated what he had said, and I realized he was speaking in a language I did not recognize. I asked if he understood anything I had said; the man answered by shrugging his shoulders and showing his empty hands.
Despite this attempt at dialog, the couple’s fear persisted, now disguised as indifference or decorum. They waited expectantly, and neither moved. It was clear that they only wished me out of there as soon as possible. I seemed to be in the position of someone lost in a hotel who enters the wrong room by mistake: Clearly I should apologize and withdraw, but for me things were not that simple.
I wondered if this actually was a hotel; that would explain a lot. But unfortunately, I thought, not everything: How had I gotten there, why could I only go in one direction, and only by barging through the rooms instead of taking a hallway? But this was no time to ruminate. I tried other languages: English, French, I used the three words I know of German and the two of Russian. The little man responded by shaking his head no. Then he voiced a sentence longer than the previous one.
Carefully, because I worried their fear could cause them to react with violence, I moved toward the table. When I reached it, I looked at the little man and pointed to the plate of meat, then pointed to my stomach. He shrugged his shoulders. I looked at the woman, who gave no sign of dissent and just kept sitting there with her timorous look. Then I took a piece of the cooked meat in my hand and brought it to my mouth. I took another, which I accompanied with a piece of bread, and I ended up eating half the meat and a good portion of the cheese and bread.
I then found myself not knowing what to do. I felt like lying down in the bed to rest; but the couple did not budge. Each remained in place, showing no signs of hospitality; they even seemed a bit upset. I thought that if I had used their fear of me to my advantage from the start, I might have been able to get into a better position. But I had not done that, and now we stood eye to eye. He had not resolved to throw me out, yet it was too late for an invitation to stay.
It took me a second to solve the problem of which door to use. If I went out through the one by which I came in, I would be getting nowhere; it would mean a return to darkness and cold. Yet it did have an advantage: the next time I was hungry I could come back here, something that would be impossible if I used the “exit” door and the man decided to close it. But I quickly decided it made no sense to go back to the same places. Feeding myself was not my main problem. My problem was getting out of this place, where I had already spent too much time.
I went up to the exit door and opened it carefully; light came from the other side of that door too. I stuck my head through the half-opened door and looked into the room; it was not empty. Rather, it was equipped in roughly the same way as this one, only it was unoccupied. I also noted that there were plates of food on the table.
This encouraged me to take a few more steps into the room. The door immediately slammed hard behind me. The little man had decided to take swift action; it was now impossible to go back.
Despite everything, I tried the handle, pushing and pulling; as I expected, it didn’t budge. I beat on the door with my fists and shouted a series of insults at the man in ridiculous clothes and his wife. I got no response.
I glanced about the room. It seemed like it I should take advantage of the light to do a careful inspection of it, but I felt weak. Almost involuntarily, I found myself taking off some of my clothes and getting into the bed, which, as in the previous room, was located against the left wall. For a brief instant I wondered whether I should turn off the light or not; I had not seen a switch, but I could loosen the bulb. I also thought about the danger of leaving the kerosene stove lit. I solved these problems by turning to the wall and falling almost immediately asleep.
Open a bottle of wine and pour it, set up a WordPress installation on its own virtual server, group six rounds fired from a .38 Special revolver at 20 yards on a chest-sized target, graph data in Excel, flip an egg without a spatula, raise and train a puppy, dice a carrot, change the oil on a car, change the sparkplugs on a car, change a flat on a car, change a flat on a bike, ride through heavy city traffic on a bike, read a 400-page novel in Spanish, start over from nothing in New York City, pick out fresh fish at an open-air market, light a cigarette with a match in a windstorm, remove a treble hook from a live small-mouth bass, read a balance sheet, mop a floor, change a diaper in an airplane lavatory, swim across a small lake without drowning, start over from nothing in San José, Costa Rica, carve the figure of a small bird out of butternut, drive in snow, clean a squid, give an injection of anti-nausea medication in the top quarter of a right buttock, hit a dozen clay pigeons in a row with a pump-action 20-guage shotgun, hang drywall, make a brown-rice risotto, drive an end-loader, translate a 5000-word Spanish document into English in one day, persuade a toddler that what I want him to do is what he himself wants to do, pick out a mattress, start over from nothing in Santiago, Chile, edit HTML tags, do a proper pushup, write a 12-page academic paper in Spanish, get top marks on a 12-page academic paper in Spanish, stay happy with the same woman for eight years, cook a steak better than 75% of restaurants, tell an amusing anecdote in Spanish to four native speakers in a noisy bar without interrupting the flow of conversation, build a cheeseburger that is better than in 90% of restaurants, tell from a dog’s body language if it is happy or scared or angry or sick, ignore Thomas Freidman, write a lede, write a blog post, write 100 blog posts, write 2,000 tweets, start over from nothing in Washington, D.C.
I am no comic book historian, but I am willing to go out on a limb and propose that the possibilities for superhero mythology were exhausted by the bottom of the third page of Superman, Issue 1, Volume 1 (1938), and that the subsequent 70-odd years of furious homoerotic/hetero-normative masturbatory artwork, extreme vigilante violence, and juvenile scenery-chewing dialogue have done little but orbit around and elaborate on that one brilliant moment of insight into 20th century post-industrial human frailty. In case you’ve already auctioned off your copy of that issue, allow me to narrate the action. Superman is in a hurry, doin’ good, but a nervous butler doesn’t trust his motives. The butler pulls a revolver (the best butlers are strapped, apparently). “Reach for the ceiling, quick!” But Superman is stalwart. “Put that toy away!” The butler insists: “I warn you! Take another step and I shoot!” Superman steps; the butler shoots.
Obviously you and I know what happens next, but since this wordless last panel appears at the bottom of page 3, one could presume that the anxious pre-teen 1938 eyes watching Superman leap into action for the first time ever will experience a moment of uncertainty before glancing to the top of page 4: Is Superman dead? Because the butler shot him right in the chest! Surely no one could survive such a wound. And yet! Hark! “The bullet ricochet’s off Superman’s tough skin!” Amazing!
This was amazing because by 1938, it was clear in the public imagination what a bullet could do to the human body. Aside from the recent horrors of World War I and the looming horrors of a rearmed Germany, newspapers had been full of Roaring 20s violence, Prohibition-era conflicts between cops and robbers armed with drum-magazined Thompson sub machine guns that could cut a man in half with slugs the size of cherry stones.
In the space of a generation, guns had gone from bulky, slow, unreliable, and inaccurate contraptions used mostly by experienced professionals, to small mass-produced lethal machines, loaded and discharged in minutes, that an amateur could use to kill a person (or a lot of persons) from across a room by pressing a button. There was no way to stop a bullet. You could deflect a knife, survive a punch, duck a lead pipe; but bullets were invisible, moved faster than sound and crushed right through walls, metal, clothing, skin, muscle, bone, brain. A bullet was as close to death-by-magic that you could possibly get in a secular world, an invincible and irrefutable form of individual-on-individual violence whose result could not be reversed on appeal. At the very least, a bullet had the god-like power to change your life, instantly, through inflicting permanent injury. You would have to be an exceptional individual to survive a shooting unscathed, a super-human. Or if you like, a superman.
That imagined moment in 1938 when Superman bared his chest to a butler with a revolver and the bullet bounced off like a paper pellet did not represent the beginning of superpowers. It represented an imagined end to the ultimate superpower, the power to kill someone instantly from a distance by pointing and squeezing a piece of widely available consumer technology. (It’s no wonder Superman’s archenemy is an inventor.) Superhero lore ever since has done its best to tip-toe around this initial and final insight into what “super” really means. There is some tacit acknowledgement. Captain America needs his bullet-proof (OK, everything-proof) shield. Later iterations of Batman give him bullet-proof armor. Ironman has his alloys. Probably Spider-man’s fans excuse him by mumbling something about spidy-sense.
Mostly, though, conceptions of comic book vigilantes and bad guys fail to acknowledge the essential truth, addressed in Superman #1, that bullets are the ultimate superpower. Doctor Octopus is quite brilliant and has fancy super-strong metal appendages, but he also has a meat-sack of a body that a .38 Special could put down in a pink haze. Take your pick of the X-Men – Jean Gray, Cyclops, Rogue, Iceman, Beast. They’re all flesh and blood. Maybe they could stop or dodge a few bullets, but not a hail of 9mm moving at 1,300 feet per second. Daredevil moves pretty quickly, but so do clay pigeons, and people shoot those all the time, for fun. In fact, it’s ironic that superheroes so often take on names of animals – panthers, rhinos, lions, eagles, wolves – brought to the brink of extinction precisely because humans are so effective at killing things with guns.
Maybe the greatest fantasy of comic book mythology isn’t the creation of superheroes, but the conception of armed civilians as harmless – that is, the imagination of a world where bullets don’t kill. The irony is that in real life, 70 years after Superman #1, a warm gun is still the greatest superpower. And in real life, you can buy those superpowers at Wal-Mart. Millions do, imagining they will be heroes.