Why Do America’s Most Vile Companies Associate Themselves With Tolkien?

J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.

A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.

In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.

Nerds name their businesses after it.

The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”

But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)

In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.

Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.

Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:

“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”

Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.

Stunning Nature Writing by Edgar Allen Poe

I’ve never bee a huge fan of “man vs. nature” tales. Sure, I love The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s really existentialism at work, along the vein of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t delved into the James Fenimore Cooper or the Jack London. But I’ve add an odd little book by Edgar Allen Poe on my shelf since 2008 and finally opened it — the shuffle of the library being packed in one location and unpacked in another unearths all sorts of little surprises.

The Journal of Julius Rodman is five chapters of a fictionalized memoir of an expedition up the Rockies that Poe wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as a serial. It’s an incomplete novel as Poe was fired from the magazine and dropped the project. There are no supernatural or macabre elements, but the romanticism is in high gear.

Amazon.com: The Journal of Julius Rodman (Pushkin Collection)  (9781901285956): Poe, Edgar Allan, David, Michael: Books
published by Pushkin Press, 2008

Upriver, Rodman and his companions find dead buffalo washing up on the banks. Soon, they discover the source — a herd of the beasts attempting to cross the river at the wrong point, reaching steep embankments where they cannot climb out, criss-crossing the deep, flowing waters and exhausting themselves against the current. The band of explorers can only watch as:

“They now struggled fearfully to scramble up the bank, and one or two of them had nearly succeeded , when, to our great distress (for we could not witness their noble efforts without commiseration) the whole mass of loose earth above caved in, and buried several of them in its fall, without leaving the cliff in better condition for ascent. Upon this, the rest of the herd commenced a lamentable kind of lowing or moaning — a sound containing more of a dismal sorrow and despair than anything which is possible to imagine — I shall never get it out of my head.”

Just stunning writing there, had to share.

Then… This Happened

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Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

Red Shirts is Free From Tor

Through March 21st, you can download John Scalzi’s Red Shirts from Tor, for free. It’s a great deal because, in my opinion, this 2013 science fiction comedy about those poor starship crew members who always die on away missions is worth actual money.

This book is very free through March 21st

It’s a great way to kill some quarantine hours. Enjoy!

Plague Time Reading

Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing lists of movies to watch and shows to binge while under self-imposed (or, outside the U.S., government-imposed) quarantine. But this is really the best time for reading.

Haaretz has put together a list of novels for the novel corona virus, including Jose Saramago’s eerie Blindness, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Plague (natch) by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera (also natch) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

photo by Conor Rabbett

Personally, I’d spin a quarantine reading list in another direction entirely. I would avoid books about pandemics and seek out comedies, farces and fantasies. My current booklist includes:

Until the End of Time by physicist Brian Greene

White by Brett Easton Ellis

Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhtefi

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski by Noah van Skiver (ships next Tuesday)

Readers Are the Resistance

Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.

Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.

Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.

Power to the readers.

Read Fleishman — It’s as Good as They Say

It’s a little weird to push a debut novel that’s already won rave reviews, comparisons to Phillip Roth, a nomination for the National Book Award and was subject of a 10 producer bidding war for limited series rights (won last fall by FX).

But I absolutely loved this novel.

Fleishman is in Trouble is mostly about the divorce of Toby and Rachel Fleishman, he a hepotologist and she a high powered talent agent who helped turn an off Broadway one woman show into the Fleishmaniverse’s Hamilton. They have two children, an awkward and introverted son and a daughter on the verge of adolescence. It’s a book about privilege and rich people problems, yes, but there’s so much more going on.

The story is told, The Great Gatsby style by Libby, a former writer for a men’s magazine who reconnects with Toby and then with Rachel, during a crack-up August as the two finalize their divorce. Like Nick Carroway, she’s an interested observer, though not objective. Unlike Nick, she has her own issues to work out that parallel and add to the story. Since Taffy Brodesser-Akner is also a magazine writer, readers will assume Libby is a stand-in for the author, but all of these characters are so fully imagined that I would not make that leap.

The cover design is so cool, I suspect Chip Kidd.

It’s amazing how every character gets their due in this book, with the notable exception of Miriam, who just can’t seem to be fleshed out towards redemption because she’s so… well, you’ll see. She’s really ugh.

It’s poignant, it’s funny, it’s a little sexy and if you have time to pick up and read a copy before the mini-series comes out, it’s more than worth the trouble.

Marquez, Kafka and Original Sin

In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”

I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.

Image result for Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”

There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.

The HR-ification of Daily Life

As a former magazine employee (though really after what’s now remembered as a last “golden age”), I might find it too heartbreaking to read the Dan Peres memoir about Condé Nast. But as it was published, I’d finished reading This Could Hurt, a workplace novel by Jillian Medoff where the heroes all work in the HR department of a market research firm that’s been upended and hobbled by the Financial Crisis.

It’s a solid office-based book and I’m a big believer in fiction that portrays the working life. Very often, to set an interesting plot in motion, an author will rely on some deus ex machina to reduce or eliminate the pecuniary needs of the protagonists. One way to do this is to just make the main characters wealthy enough that they only have to work by choice, if at all. Or maybe there’s an inheritance, or a benefactor with other motives… it is nice to get our characters out of the office and into a small town in Thailand, when we can. But most readers have to go to work and they deserve our attention, too.

Among the reactions I’ve seen to the Peres memoir are people who are shocked or surprised that people might take drugs and then go to work, or that they might drink alcohol at lunch.

Medoff’s novel, published in 2018 and set in the early part of that decade, gets a lot of its plot from people stretching and breaking the HR rules as they develop overly personal relationships with one another, in and out of the office. I dare say that though the novel is written by a high-level HR pro, that much of the behavior in her book would not be tolerated in a real workplace, were it unearthed by the wrong people.

Now, in the old days, especially in media, drinking was tolerated in the workplace — well, not for everybody, because nothing was ever for everybody. The guy who indulged in the 3 martini lunch wasn’t a lush with a problem who is messing up the health insurance premiums for everybody, he was a guy with an expense account and enough clout and influence that he could be tipsy or lazy in the afternoon. So if you wrote a workplace novel back then and had a character tip back strong cocktails in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, the reader would immediately get that they’re reading about a man of influence.

My guess is when presented with that same character in 2020, most readers would see a man with poor judgment and impulse control and a potential villain. Maybe a modern Falstaff would be the best possible outcome.

When I used to work at Forbes there were tales of a long-abolished office drink cart. We 20 somethings wondered, “why don’t they bring that back?” But we knew why and knew it wasn’t coming back. Now people don’t even think it would be a fun idea to bring the drink carts back. They see it as evidence of our collective past dysfunctions.

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