Flat by design

February 10th, 2014 by pjk

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.

 

Hello, darkness

June 7th, 2013 by pjk

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.

graduate

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.

The future will not be blogged

May 29th, 2013 by pjk

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.

Douche.

Douche.

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.

The Place, Part I, Chapter 3

May 8th, 2013 by pjk

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.

Things I know how to do

May 3rd, 2013 by pjk

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.

Shoot your superheroes

April 30th, 2013 by pjk

superman-butlerI 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.

Ex-expatriate

April 7th, 2013 by pjk

Expatriates bitch. It’s like, you know how other adults go to parties and play charades or watch videos of huge men in tight pants and helmets rhythmically running into each other head first? Well, we expatriates bitch. We drink and bitch. We bitch about the local food, about the local women/men, about the local bureaucracy, about the local roads, about the local bugs. It doesn’t change much over time or space. The Sun Also Rises is the best book ever written about expatriate bitching, and it takes place in 1920s Paris. If you can bitch about that place, that time, you can bitch about anything, anywhere. The bitching always starts with, “You know what happened to me at the store?” or “Can anyone recommend a good dentist?” and suddenly we’re all chiming in about why the fuck don’t the lines move, about how dentists here drill extra holes in your teeth just to charge you for more fillings.

I should say I don’t know if all expats do this everywhere, because if there’s one thing you learn from living abroad in another language, it’s that your conclusions about everything are almost always wrong, and their subsequent drafts and revisions are wrong as well, on and on, in layer after layer of a huge, malodorous onion of mistaken opinions. So probably not all expatriates bitch constantly, but that’s maybe because they’ve been at it for so long and had enough experience with the malodorous onion that they’ve switched from bitching to something they think is more refined, like cultural analysis, anthropological investigation. Yes, you say, crossing your legs, leaning back, sipping. The dentists cheat us. But why? Then comes the unpacking of the history, colonialism, the nature of Latin language peoples versus Germanic language peoples, the effects of climate, legal systems, dictatorship, class, globalization, politics, Catholicism.

It is bitching, but with rules – sport, rather than bar-room face-punching. It’s an inevitable transition, because as you settle into expattery over the course of years, bitching becomes exhausting, and out of a certain degree of necessity (“WHY THE FU… ah forget it.”), your righteous annoyance channels into this new hobby of pseudo-intellectual inquiry. You know you would probably turn out to be wrong about all of it, if any of your dingbat theories about driving habits or salt usage were falsifiable, but you need some way to explain the things around you that, however long you have been abroad, remain foreign.

And now, after eight years, I’ve gone home, or anyway, back to the US. There was no reverse culture shock, because you don’t get to plead any kind of culture shock for making a lateral move between European cultures. Culture shock is when you move to a Japanese fishing village from Dallas, Texas, or vice-versa. I’m not shocked, at all. My problem is my brain won’t go off bitching mode, or rather, I can’t turn off the rarified amateur anthropologist voice in my head. Everything in Alexandria, Virginia, needs to be taken in and turned over and examined for legitimacy, or just meaning. The street signs, the family dynamics, the accents, the food product marketing, the way people wait in line, the way they smile or don’t when they look at you.

I always felt that living abroad made time slow down for this very reason: When everything is a little strange, you notice everything, and when you notice everything, there’s no such thing as routine, and when you don’t have a routine, the months feel elongated. But I spent long enough around the unfamiliar that it became a state of mind. Now I realize that something fundamentally changed, like I’m the ant who had a nice bildungsroman and figured out it was an ant, and I’m back with the news, but none of the other ants care, because why should they? And it’s going to be really, really hard to go back to being just an ant. Or who knows, maybe it won’t be. I’ve been wrong before.

The Place, Part I, Chapter 2

April 5th, 2013 by pjk

For my introduction to this translation project, click here. All comments and criticism welcome!

I soon found that as far as I could tell, the room was an exact copy of the last one. The same darkness, the same cold, the same size; the same bareness and silence.

And when I found another door right across from the one by which I had entered, opening into a third dark room, confusion and fear overwhelmed me.

I collapsed right there, in front of this new open door, slumping to the ground as the whirlwind in my mind swirled out of control. I lay there for I don’t know how long, huddled, sobbing, my whole body shivering.

I was no longer trying to understand or remember; all I wanted now was a refuge, a comfortable and comforting place where I could be, wrapped in blankets, abandoned to sleep or insanity. But the physical conditions in that room truly were cruel. My mind refused to the very last to give in to the breakdown, and as nervous exhaustion finally gave way to calm, or rather numbness, I decided to keep moving. I had no choice. If I did have a choice, I would have gone for the other option, whatever it was, but urged onward by my bodily needs, all I could do was sit up, dust off my clothes, and mutter a few words of encouragement and hope to myself. As I did so, I tried to contain the questions that kept pushing their way to the surface, telling myself that in good time I would find answers to all of them.

I began examining this new room with the same thoroughness as the previous ones. I paused to urinate on the wall, in a corner, and the aggressive relief of this need made me feel better.

I had somehow lost the unlit cigarette I had been holding between my lips; I drew out another one and placed it in the corner of my mouth. My hand searched my pockets again mechanically for the lighter, to no avail. That was when I noticed my watch was missing, though my wallet was still in the inside pocket of my blazer, with my documents and – so it seemed – all my money.

I moved more easily now, and was able to surmise that the room was square, or almost square, and a little more than three meters on each side. I did not find any windows in this room either, nor light switches, nor furniture; only the door by which I had entered, and another, across from it, through which I must exit.

So I entered a fourth room, and a fifth, and a sixth, and kept going until I lost count. Fortunately, the numbing calm that descended on me after the collapse persisted; I continued to act methodically, as if I were performing job that had nothing to do with me. A stream of different emotions paraded by, which I would examine one by one and then let slip away without my mind getting caught up in any significant way. I weakened when the image of Ana appeared before me; at that point it did become harder to stay in control; but somehow, I knew I was doing the only thing possible, and that any weakness could in fact make me lose Ana for good. I fixed things so that her image would remain with me, but without weighing me down with anxiety. I was aware that this balance could be upset at any moment; the place seemed to go on endlessly, and hunger and the desire to smoke still clawed at me; I also knew that if I came to one last door, and it was locked, it would be the end of my sanity.

I have no idea how many dark rooms there were, nor how long it took me to pass through them all; I have the impression that there were no fewer than 10, and no more than 20, and that several hours passed, at least three or four; but I can’t be more precise, and perhaps I’m altogether mistaken.

I moved more confidently now, although I still feared running into something; this combination affected my movements, made them controlled and flexible, like those of a dancer. The physical activity warmed me, eliminating one of this place’s discomforts. The cigarette in my lips would become damp, and every so often I had to throw it away and replace it with another; hunger was flooding my mouth with saliva.

In one of the rooms I made a disheartening discovery. After I walked through the door, reflexively or maybe because I was distracted, I closed it behind me. I had the immediate and intimate conviction that I had made a mistake, and I tried to open it. I could not.

When I left that room, I did the same thing again, this time on purpose; I was not able to open that door either. I reached the obvious conclusion that there was a mechanism that allowed one to advance only in the direction in which I was going; and although I didn’t have the least interest in going back, it terrified me, this idea that I couldn’t go back should I need to. From that point on, I was very careful not to close any doors; still, there were those two that I had closed, and I felt like I had lost something valuable.

The numbness gave way to something different; although my physical movements perhaps did not change, I was overwhelmed by a weariness tinged with sadness, maybe melancholy, and drowsiness pressed in upon me like I had been anesthetized. The numbness had felt better. I didn’t like this new feeling, and I figured that soon I would be feeling very bad indeed, and that it would start to affect my actions.

Fortunately, there was a new wrinkle in my situation: On entering a room, I immediately noticed that from under the door across from me (which I had begun to call the “exit” while I was in the room and the “entrance” after I had gone through it into the next) shone a thin, weak ray of light.

The Place, Part I, Chapter 1

March 20th, 2013 by pjk

For my introduction to this translation project, click here. All comments and criticism welcome!

In the total darkness, my eyes looked for something familiar and then closed again, failing to find the horizontal, parallel lines of light often cast by street lamps or the sun shining from behind the blades of my blinds. I couldn’t wake up; and although I don’t recall a specific image or dream, I think of myself at the time as having been a creature wandering aimlessly, arms hanging limp, buried beneath some dense and dark substance, no anxiety, no identity, no thought.

Much later, the order to awake; and the creature began to stir with a feeling of uneasiness, as if seeking an exit it could not find or remember.

The order came again, more emphatic, and with it the feeling of an imperative need to get out. And then I found the way, upward, up through the substance toward the blessed surface. The substance had multiple layers that became less dense as I rose, and the speed of my ascent increased as I went. I angled myself toward the surface, and finally, like a swimmer bursting out of the water to breathe a desperate gasp of air, I awoke with a deep sigh.

It was then that my eyes opened and, disoriented, closed once again. My sleep became lighter until I awoke again, this time more lucid.

I noticed a number of things: That it was cold, that this place was not my bedroom, that I was stretched out on a wooden floor without a mattress or blanket, in total darkness; and that I was fully dressed.

The struggle against the urge to go back to sleep was necessarily shorter than normal; the uncomfortable bare floor didn’t allow it. I regained consciousness, my sullen grumbling accompanied by the creak of my flexing joints. I rubbed my arms and legs and coughed. My bronchioles whistled from breathing the damp air, and my throat hurt.

While I felt around for something familiar, I asked myself the usual questions: Where was I, how had I gotten there? In reality it took me a little longer to ask that second question. I still had not accepted the fact of finding myself in an unexpected place, and I was combing my memory, picking through the last few images of my waking moments, sure that soon everything would be sorted out with a simple explanation: drunk at a party, the storm that broke while I was at some other house far away, some unusual adventure that had meant sleeping away from home. Though not often, I sometimes would wake up without realizing where I was; but at those times, it was always enough to recognize the headboard of my bed or the color of a curtain to get a sense of the place and to bring the last memory rushing back. Yet in this case, there was nothing to serve as a trigger, and the lack of things itself did not mean anything to me either.

My memory was stubbornly stuck on a trivial incident and refused to go any further: A sunny autumn afternoon, and I was crossing the street toward a bus stop. I had bought cigarettes at a kiosk and taken a few drags off the last one from a pack that I had just crushed into a ball and thrown into the street. I reached the corner and leaned against a gray wall. There were two or three other people there, waiting for the bus. I was thinking that Ana and I were going to the movies that night. And that’s where the memories stopped.

My hands found a wall, and keeping against it I began to shuffle slowly around the room, looking for a window or a light switch. It was a rough wall, maybe whitewashed.

I got to a corner without finding anything. I continued my search along the new wall, and after a certain distance my fingers found a door frame, then the door itself, and finally the handle.

I didn’t try to open it right away. It calmed me to know that there was an exit, yet I worried whether it would be appropriate for me to use it; I imagined people on the other side sleeping, or doing something that my presence could disturb; I also wondered if, for some reason, maybe I shouldn’t be seen at all: I searched my memory again, but there was not the slightest trace of where I was, nor why. I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. I tried to control myself. Maybe I could have paused there for a little while longer, giving me time to keep searching my memory; but I had urgent physical needs: hunger, cold, I had to urinate, and my bones needed to rest on something soft. I also wanted to smoke, and the pack, presumably the same one I bought at the kiosk, was intact in my coat pocket; I opened it and took out a cigarette that I brought to my lips, but I couldn’t find the lighter. I grabbed the door handle and turned; first I pushed the door inward, then pulled it toward me, but neither way worked.

I put my eye to the keyhole, but couldn’t see anything. An intense fear crept over me. I tried the handle again, I shook the door. I beat on it with my fists and kicked it; nothing.

I heard an involuntary little cry escape from my throat. With my fists and jaw clenched, trembling all over, I continued my journey around the room, hugging the wall, dragging my feet, arms out.

I found another corner, and the new wall felt just as bare to my fingers as the rest of the room.

My memory kept working, and new details emerged from this latest search: the face of the man at the kiosk, his drooping mustache, the gaze of his watery blue eyes; a tree near the corner, with shimmers of gold on its dry leaves, and a leaf that fell, just shed from its branch, while I crossed the street; the exact number of people waiting for the bus at the stop: there were three, two women (one with a maroon coat, the other wearing a read blazer, both with their backs turned) and a short man, leaning against a tree, one foot on the ground and the other against the tree.

I reached another corner of the room, and very close to it, I found a new door – seemingly across the room from the other one. My hands shook as I turned the knob: I pushed the door inward, and this time it opened.

I found myself newly in darkness.

Translating Mario Levrero

March 20th, 2013 by pjk

levrero It’s amazing to me that Mario Levrero has never been translated into English, although I can think of a few reasons why. While he wrote and published during the so-called “boom” in Latin American literature (70s and 80s, along with García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Fuentes, etc.), this eccentric, generous, and modest Uruguayan writer doesn’t really fit. Unlike his peers in the region, Levrero (1940 – 2004) is not particularly motivated by politics. He tends to look inward, placing characters into odd, unlikely situations to see how they react and adapt. Rather than dipping into Latin American history and social struggle for his inspiration, Levrero prefers science fiction, detective novels, John Carter and Philip Marlowe over Sandino and La Malinche. Which is to say, he’s not interested in writing a “national novel” to end up on Uruguayan middle school or university reading lists. His curiosity stretches in a different, maybe more experimental, direction.

The classics of the Levrero bibliography include the so-called “accidental trilogy,” three novels that he wrote over the course of a decade in the 60s and 70s that he later decided form a nice trilogy. I will be publishing my translation of one of those novels – El lugar, The Place – here. A slim little volume of about 200 pages that would probably today be categorized as “speculative fiction,” it has a velocity and mystery about it that place it among the very best novels of its kind, a puzzle with endless solutions and sudden flashes of violence that I find deeply unsettling. I won’t say anything more about it, just that the final few chapters are some of the most intense reading I’ve ever experienced.

I’m publishing these chapters as I finish translating them – in serial, if you will. I plan to put out one a week, so check back often. When I finish, I will compile the full translation into a single HTML file that can be easily dumped to an e-reader or tablet. I like Readability for things like this, but I hear Instapaper is nice too.

Finally, I guess I should say something about copyright. I have no idea who holds the rights to translations of Levrero’s work. (Maybe Random House? Yikes.) I’ll just say that I’m not profiting from this at all, and anyway, digital versions of El lugar litter the Internet. I’m pretty sure Levrero would love this, with his early-adopter devotion to his desktop computer and the World Wide Web, but that’s generally not good enough for lawyers. Anyway, let’s see if anything bad happens. Read on!