Everybody’s Orwell

My favorite bit of writing by George Orwell is not 1984, which always struck me as dry, though appropriately horrifying. If I had to pick just one Orwell for the rest of my life it would be Down and Out in Paris and London, which was the Kitchen Confidential of its time (a lot didn’t change over the course of a century, either). But, 1984 is the book everybody talks about and everybody claims vindicates everything they believe.

Twitter banned somebody you like? Orwellian. Got a speeding ticket from a traffic camera? Orwellian. Google Home knows you like pizza? Orwellian. Whether it’s the government or a credit card company, we’re quick to toss around references to the totalitarian surveillance state that Winston endures as an involuntary citizen of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia.

“I wrote this for you!”

I guess it’s helpful to remember that Orwell had a specific agenda. He was very liberal. He’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders today. He’s operating in the socialist tradition of George Bernard Shaw.

He was also a ruthless thinker, as hard on his fellows on the left as he was his opponents on the right. He was very worried about lefties in the west being duped by Stalin and tricked into accepting fascism in place of socialism. Thart’s what 1984 is about. If you told Orwell that your iPhone was Orwellian he’d laugh in your face and tell you to stop using the damned thing, then. The oppression of Oceania was not something you could turn off and toss in the bin.

I imagine he’d be similarly incredulous if you complained to him that Twitter wouldn’t let you plan a demonstration against the government. He might wonder why you’d think a multibillion company would take your side over the government that supports its coffers. Go out and print some flyers, he’d say. Get creative.

Mostly I think Orwell would find us pretty coddled and already duped.

Gatsby in the Public Domain

I tend to go back to The Great Gatsby every few years and it does always bring me something different. This time, I approached it with the news that the novel has entered the public domain, so I might do whatever I’d like with the text. My firsty impulse is to write a play from Daisy’s point of view.

But when? There’s a scene to be written, that would take place within the continuity of the novel, that takes place after the first meeting of Daisy, Tom, Nick and Jordan. Does Tom realize what an ass he’s made of himself? Could he? Daisy does. She calls him “hulking,” (and not for the first time and Tom hates it.)

Is Nick so innocent? He’s judgmental and by the end of the book, he’s proudly judgmental, remarking snidely that Tom can be rid of his midwestern priggishness. There’s an indictment of the libertine East. Nick is judgmental and sure of his own honesty (at least at the start of the summer). When he meets Jordan he can’t place what it is he remembers about her, but then it’s revealed that she’d cheated during a golf tournament.

Nick’s writing a book, or at least a journal. Is Nick’s book every published? Would Daisy have read it? Is Daisy, lumped in with Tom as careless and irresponsible, fairly treated? She fell in love with Gatsby who was, at the time, in no position to marry her. He was penniless, we learn. When Gatsby meets Wolfsheim and embarks on his success through the criminal underworld, he is so malnourished that he eats “$4 worth of food in half an hour.” He could not have cared for Daisy and, we’re told, he was dishonest with her about that. She had no idea why Gatsby dissapeared on her, when they met and fell in love five years before the book begins.

So, Daisy’s crime is that she married another eligible suitor? Well, her other crime is hitting Tom’s lover Myrtle with her car, though there’s no indication she did it on purpose. Myrtle leapt in front of the car, thinking it was Tom’s, after all. Had Nick been driving, he also might have hit her.

But Nick never seems to think that Daisy should be held responsible for the accident. He only grows angry with her when she doesn’t turn up for Gatsby’s funeral. Nick holds Tom and Daisy responsible for Gatsby’s death. Tom is responsible. Myrtle’s husband Wilsonmurders Gatsby after Tom tells him that Gatsby owns the car that killed his wide and is the man who had made Myrtle his mistress. But is Daisy responsible for that? Did she even have a choice.

So I wonder, after this rereading, if Daisy ever read Nick’s book, what she thought about it, learned from it, or didn’t.

Logical Loops With Georges Perec

In delightful translation by David Bellos (he uses the word circumperambulate a lot), The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise by French experimental author Georges Perec is best read aloud. It’s a theatrical piece with dazzling, recursive language that evokes laughter and pity at “your” plight as you tackle the practical and emotional burden of asking for a much needed (if not deserved) pay increase while in the employ of. one of France’s largest companies.

Avec Perec!

The entirety of the books 80 pages are one sentence, without punctuation, capitalization or spatial breaks. Reading the text aloud pulls you right through and makes you wonder how much we need the adornments of commas, periods or paragraph breaks. Perec wrote this short book, which also factors into the full-length novel, Life: A User’s Manual as one of its later chapters, specifically to resemble a computer algorithm. Algorithms have become a larger part of our lives since Perec wrote this in the 1970s, so it’s partially a survival guide to live in the 2020s.

The piece would make a fine one man show and also reminds me very much of Mac Wellman‘s Terminal Hip which, if you have forty minutes, you can watch:

Terminal Hip was one of the last live shows we saw in New York City, pre-COVID, at the legendary Dixon Place. We learned that Panda are bears and NOT raccoons, in a revival produced by Jeffrey M. Jones, curator of the Little Theatre series.

I digress, but thats part of the fun of Perec’s short book. Digressions and regressions are progress. Give it a read and you’ll see.

Trump as Pa Ubu

I know, I know, I said less politics. But, today’s the day that Joe Biden’s election as president has been certified by Congress and Donald Trump told his most fervent supporters to gather in Washington, D.C. to protest. Some breached the capitol, I saw reports of one person having been shot, Senators were evacuated and Trump… fled to the White House and seemingly went into hiding?

It’s amazing cowardice. Nobody is chasing Trump. Nobody is looking to arrest or harm him. What is he hiding from? It all reminds me of some of my favorite surrealist plays, the Ubu Trilogy by Alfred Jarry.

He even looks like Trump!

Pa Ubu, the main character, is the undeserved King of Poland. He’s a parody of Macbeth and Jarry’s math teacher. He has nothing but appetite for food and comfort. He murders only when he has ther advantage. He flees from any other foe. In the second play of the trilogy, he and his family decide that the work of ruling is too hard and that the prisoners, who never have to go outside and are fed daily, have it easy. So they storm the prison, kick out the inmates, and barricade themselves inside.

It leaps from the puppet stage of 1896 and right onto CNN, if you ask me.

The Indulgence of a Zinnfidel

The purpose of this blog is deliberately not political. I could write an 800 word column about current affairs every day and publish it here. Many mistakes would be made, no doubt, but it could be done. Instead, I’ve stuck more to musings about literature and to a lesser extent television, film and art. I haven’t even touched on music. When I get political, it’s largely about free speech and cultural issues surrounding the notion in an age where censorship is seen as something only a government can indulge in.

At the start of the year I plucked A People’s History of American Empire from my shelf. It’s a graphic novel adaptation of historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and it was refreshing in its skepticism, honesty and reminders of long forgotten attrocities committed by the U.S. that are all really tied to an ongoing notion of Manifest Destiny.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, two whistleblowers who revealed vast wrongdoing by the U.S. government, starting with Chelsea Manning’s leak about U.S. war crimes in 2010 and followed by Edward Snowden’s revelation of a massive and illegal government surveillance and data collection observation. Assange is in jail in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition to the U.S., where he would be charged under the espionage act. Snowden lives in exile in Russia and would face Espionage Act charges were he to ever return home.

It’s a common American refrain that the accused should be willing, if not eager, to face trial, if they believe they acted rightly. But the Espionage Act would prevent either from using the substance of their information leaks as a defense for their actions. A jury would not be able to fully consider the argument that they broke government secrecy laws only to expose larger and more eggregious crimes by the government. When you’re charged under the Espionage Act, your defense is immediately hobbled. Chelsea Manning went to jail. Refusing to participate in an unfair trial seems reasonable though such a refusal is, also, a crime. The accused, in these circumstances, are practically left with the choice of accepting punishment they don’t deserve or continuing to commit crimes to avoid unfair persecution.

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

Let’s let all that rest. The reason I’m bringing it up now is that Zinn is friends with Daniel Ellsberg and in his book he recounts Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the complete history of the U.S. and Vietnam, including how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was staged by the U.S. as a justification for war. Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971 and the paper resisted government orders and injunctions not to publish them. It was a principled choice that might not fly today, in a world where digital advertising agencies and social media platforms now dictate news content with an eye only towards their own bottom lines and friendly government relations.

Another interesting point is that Ellsberg was indicted and put on trial but that the charges were ultimately dismissed because President Richard Nixon had ordered his cronies to break into Ellsberg’s property, seeking information to discredit him. Imagine that — a judge finding the actions of the executive branch so inappropriate, illegal and alarming, that a prosecution was halted. We seem farther from that kind of thinking today.

At this point, I’d like to see Assange and Snowden pardoned. Both, for all they may be criticized for, revealed information that self-governing citizens have a right to know. We have a lot of work to do to get there, though, and I think it’s going to require a turn back towards older forms of radical thinking where we collectively defend what’s right, rather than what’s written into the law.

Antigone forever!

About Talking To Journalists

Journalists do like sources who talk plainly, truthfully and on the record. That’s doubtless. A trustworthy and talkative source not only makes the job easier, but more enjoyable. Journalists like to interview people as much as they like to write, after all. When I think back on my jouralism, I have fond memories of my favorite sources.

That said, this, from the always excellent Eschaton blog, is not quite how things work:

“People long said about Woodward that if you talk to him, he makes you look good, if you don’t, he makes you look bad. True of all these things, to some extent.”

Journalists don’t punish people for not talking and we don’t purposefully favor the sources that do. It’s more that sources who talk have more opportunity to get their stories out and they can fill in blanks and explain nuance. Sources who don’t talk but who are factually part of the story anyway, don’t avail themselves of that.

Which isn’t to say that if you’re approached by a reporter you should always talk. In my on-staff journalism days, a colleague and I used to joke that we should form a PR agency where we only advised people not to comment or cooperate with any story. There are a lot of ways that cooperating can go wrong, especially if you don’t have a great story to tell.

But the implication here — that Woodward punished people who didn’t help him and lionized thosed that did is, I think, wrong. If the talkers came off better, it was because they told the story, not because Woodward rewarded or punished.

Slouchers: The 90s Movie Parody Novel We Need at the End of 2020

I was still in high school in New Mexico at the time, but we all know that Seattle in the early 1990s was the most magical, exciting place to be. This is the ethos of Slouchers, the new film-inspired comedy novel from Mike Sacks, who oreviously delighted with Stinker Lets Loose!, a send-up of 70s road movies, and Passable in Pink, his homage to John Hughes. Slouchers takes on films like Singles, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, Reality Bites and the early Kevin Smith films. It’s all about people in their early 20s (and also late 20s and also Kurt Loder) pitting grunge authenti city against yuppie Boomerisms in a short-lived, pre-internet era.

The latest from Mike Sacks

Willow is our hero. She’s moved to Seattle from “back east” and is making a documentary about her generation, embodied by the “Lost Boys,” a group of slackers and stoners. The crew includes: Toodie, her sometime boyfriend who is going to be the next Nirvana; Skip, her boss at a record store who brandishes weapons at people who buy commercial rock albums; Vicky, her best friend who is just kind of average looking but a slut, Wake and Bake (two guys, no explanation needed) and a host of others, including the requisite recently out gay characters whose parents are still coming to terms with what they should have realized anyway. Also, there’s “Mr. Straight,” who is a business man from out of town who is into “commerce” and would as clearly be played by Ben Stiller as Winona Ryder would be Willow. His purchase of the failing record store incites the plot.

Willow, by the way, has been in Seattle all of two weeks, but it was before the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, so her roots burrow deep. Her documentary’s goal are comically amporphous:

“But her documentary isn’t about her sex life. Who would be interested in that anyway? It’s really more about her friends and how they are changing the universe.”

Meanwhile her foil, Mr. Straight, is no better grounded. When asked to explain his line of work he answers: “Business,” says Mr. Straight. “Finance. Commerce.”

Everyone is earnest and right on ths surface. It sets up a showdown between grunge authenticity and corporate capitalism, all set to be exploited by MTV. We’re reminded with a laugh and poke in the ribs that any nostalgia we have from that era is nostalgia for something that was created and mass marketed by the same multinational conglomerates we worry about today.

But, don’t worry, there’s no semornizing, except for comic effective and there are multiple laughs per page. Another triumph for Mike Sacks. By the way, I think I read that Sacks didn’t love the 90s grunge era films or the aesthetic, and yet he’s built a following for his novel movie parodies in a totally 90s, DIY, indie way. That’s not the technical definition of irony that I learned studying theatre history back in those days, but it’s close enough for the Hollywood take.

Late to “The Memory Police”

I didn’t hear mention of the Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 novel The Memory Police until 2016, when people referenced it with regards to how fascist governments change people’s reality by slowly altering the parameters of normal life until only the reality of the oppressor remained. At the time, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’d already read It Can’t Happen Here and then Night of Camp David, not to mention that Michael Wolff book and so I didn’t pursue this.

What a mistake!

The Memory Police is actually tonic for the purely political novel. As with Franz Kafka, its political dimensions only serve to accent the greater absurdities of human existence and mortality.

This dreamlike book tells the story of life on an island governed by a group called “The Memory Police,” who seemingly at random remove items from people’s lives. The losses have varying significance. Sometimes it’s calendars or music boxes, other times roses or books and ultimately body parts. When an item is removed, the people forget it ever existed. A few, however, remember. The Memory Police hunts down those who can remember, to enforce a strict elimination of objects or ideas deemed irrelevant.

The premise. naturally evokes the kind of gaslighting practiced by totalitarian governments around the world and throughout history. But I think there’s much more to it, especially when the people start to lose memory of their bodies.

One thing I considered, perhaps more horrifying and merciless even than a dictatorship would be a diseases or conditions that rob people’s cognition. Or diseases like diabetes or certain cancers that cost people body parts. Ultimately, The Memory Police seems to be about mortality, the little things that life takes from us along the way and our struggles to preserve what’s precious.

Certainly, it’s a fascinating book and something far bigger than a political commentary (though, it’s that, too.)

Why The Undoing’s Ending Didn’t Resonate (or maybe it did?)

Fascinating essay from author Jane Dykema in Electric Literature today about how Grace’s dissasociated behaviors throughout the murder mystery/court drama made her a murder suspect in the eyes of viewers who have internalized dangerous tropes about “unstable” women. There’s a lot to consider here.

A good portion of HBO’s The Undoing was a murder mystery. A young and exoticized mother has an affair with her son’s oncologist and she turns up dead. The oncologist, who had lost his position at the hospital over the affair and lied to his family about it, then flees the city, only to turn up later to enlist his wife’s help in his criminal defense. The series at that point changes from murder mystery to court room drama and actually seems a bit like its last episodes could have been condensed and slotted into any run of Law and Order.

From what I can tell, folks did not seem universalkly impressed with the series finale, where we learn that, yes, the oncologist is guilty. Dykema’s critique, that Grace (the oncologist’s wife, played by Nicole Kidman) should never have been consideredd much of a suspect by viewers is compelling. She never seemed a murderer, though that might have been an interesting angle.

Another critique I’ve seen is that the victim, Elena, is a seductive latina outsider to the upper west side community that dominates the show’s focus. While you can see the writers trying to turn the series into a critiue of upper crust morality, they wind up turning the crime victim into an after thought and the whole thing becomes Grace’s story. Can Grace, a successful Manhattan therapist also born into fantastic wealth accept that her husband Jonathan is a sociopath and a killer? The practical struggle here is that if she does not, if she decides to persist in the illusion of a perfect marriage to a wonderful man who has devoted his life to curing pediatric cancer patients, that he will get away with the crime. But the justic narrative winds up secondary to her personal journey and we’re really presented with “can Grace find peace with all of this?” This seems a minor issue given that another character has been bludgeoned to death with her sculptor’s hammer.

While I agree with both of these takes, my problem with how the show played out is more fundamental — it seemed like Jonathan was the murderer from episode one. Almost none of the twists and turns thrown in to direct suspicion at any other character can overcome the obvious narrative that Jonathan, after developing a close relationship with the mother of one of his patients, had an affair with Elena. The affair cost him a prestigious and irreplaceable job, so he decided to end it and try to reclaim his old life. Elena, of course, would refuse to be casually discarded and insinuate herself further into his life and at a moment of maximum tension, he kills her.

Seven episodes to get to “he did it,” seemed excessive in retrospect. I craved something more interesting like Grace’s father hated Jonathan and framed him for the crime. But maybe that’s the test of the series — how much do we crave an ending that absolves the otherwise successful white man? Maybe the ending worked out better than I’d thought.

Galapagos vs. Seveneves

Somehow I got sidetracked and despite really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos, it somehow took me more than a month to finish the book. It’s a delight, even read in bits and smatters. Along the way, I was reminded of 2015’s Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

What the two books have in common is that they both deal with the evolution of the human race after a species-ending event. In the case of Galapagos, it’s a financial crisis, followed by a war, followed by a sterilizing virus. The only survivors are some passengers who take a cruise to the islands that Darwin made famous. There, isolated from the rest of the world, and the virus, they mutate over a million years into what reminds me of a walrus — intelligent, ocean dwelling fishers with flippers instead of arms. In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon rains meteorites onto Earth, setting the atmosphere ablaze and killing everybody but the few who escape to space on an ark and some who flee into the oceans in nuclear submarines. Over millions of years these survivors evolve according to their circumstances, guided by natural selection.

In Stephenson’s world, humanity changes but retains its sentience. Vonnegut tells a different tale — humanity saves itself by losing its sentience. The big brains bestowed upon us by evolution turn out to be a hindrance and were the cause of the catastrophes that befell the species. You don’t need a reflexive self conscious to hunt for fish and so we lose it. Vonnegut’s narrator is the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, who refuses to cross into the afterlife and lingers on Earth to watch humanity evolve.

Stephenson’s message is that life will find a way. Vonnegut’s is that life will find a way back. All of humanity is reduced to a small population of semi-intelligent walruses living on or around the Galapagos Islands. Without big brains and opposable thumbs, they’re free from common human mischief. They do not even, Vonnegut tells us, know that they will inevitably die, and are spared the greatest anxiety brought to us by our sentience.

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