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Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
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The American Imperium: Death's Other Kingdom

by Michael Whealen

Books Discussed:
  • The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks (NY: HarperCollins, 1991; Toronto: Vintage, 1997)

  • Due Preparations for the Plague, Janette Turner Hospital (NY: Norton, 2003)

  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
- T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men" (1925)
This is the angel of history, whose face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of him. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, to make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future (to which his back is turned), while the pile of debris before him towers skyward.
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Tr. By M. Whealen (1961)

Much to their credit, as far as I'm concerned, New Yorkers can be a cynical lot. If there's anyone left in the world that doesn't know (and celebrate) this, a quick scroll through the great little Website <www.overheardinnewyork.com> will quickly confirm this fact. Bookmark it as a favorite for those days when you're feeling complacent. And, if idealism is indeed the alternative to cynicism well, reflecting on the history of the last half-century or so then, please, buy me a ticket to New York! But make sure it's a return ticket to civil life north of the border.

However, that said, I was a little puzzled about the impression I was left with after reflecting on this trio of thematically-related novels, all released in New York by three Gotham publishers in big, first-print hardcover runs to almost universal critical acclaim. Each is beautifully written by an established American (or hyphenated American) author. Each explores with great sensitivity, depth and poignancy the social, political and cultural ramifications—mostly painful—of catastrophes experienced (primarily) by Americans at the hands of fate and/or design. These are apocalyptic commentaries on our times: precisely what one has learned to expect from the New York intelligentsia for more than a century. Each made the NY Times bestseller list.

As a postsecondary teacher in the arts faculty of a Canadian university, I love reading and teaching well-written contemporary political novels that engage the zeitgeist, with what's going on now, and these are, according to critical consensus, sterling qualifiers for inclusion in such a curriculum. Yet, disconcertingly, each novel ends, rather abruptly and discontinuously, like a fairy tale or a popular Hollywood romantic comedy, with order restored and business more or less as usual going on. They are tragedies that end as farce. I was puzzled, and intrigued by this disconnect, which seems so incommensurate with all the rest of what these authors otherwise say so eloquently.

The three novels that I want to talk about here are works of fiction that each, in their own peculiar, idiosyncratic ways, explore how individuals, societies and communities cope, adapt and learn after they have been visited with—or brought to fruition?—a single, huge, catastrophic event that tries them sorely, and transforms their lives utterly. Meditations on culpability are understandably a major aspect of each of these novels: At times (as in Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, and Foers' Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the victims are represented as innocent, and largely blameless. At still other times, the survivors almost seem to be victims of "blowback;" and their victimization—as horrible as it is—strikes one as being a kind of karmic payback for their complicity in a larger and toxic cultural and historical context (Hospital's Due Preparations). Let's look at what they say, and then at how they end. I then want to explore some of the possible reasons for the disjunction between the two in the three novels.

The Sweet Hereafter

Banks' novel explores the process that a small, closely-knit community goes through when its quotidian routine is interrupted by a massively catastrophic event, the sudden loss of its children, who are its future. The community is the fictional upstate New York town of Sam Dent, a fragile and economically marginal village hugging the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in upstate New York. The events occur over a period of about a year, just after the end of the Reagan era. Most of the residents can trace their ancestry back through several generations of New Englanders; these are good, solid Eastern folks, with surnames like Walker, Driscoll, Burnell, Ansel.

The novel opens with Delores Driscoll recalling the events of a snowy morning in late January, 1990. Delores drives a school bus for the town, a job she has been doing responsibly and capably for several decades. I was going to say that she is the novel's protagonist, since her narratives frame the novel, and because she is the only one who truly knows what happened on that morning (en route to the public school during a snowstorm, she thinks she sees something on the road ahead of her, swerves to avoid it, loses control of the vehicle, and crashes into a water-filled sandpit, killing most of the town's young children). But on reflection, I think it is the peculiar genius of this novel that Banks has managed to make ghosts, the dead children, the real protagonists: It is almost as if a director brought the chorus to the front of the stage in a classical Greek tragedy. It is the dead children who propel the town through the familiar archaic dynamic of shock, grief, mourning, blame and reconciliation. Indeed, there is an eerie episode where one of the parents (he has lost his only children—twins—in the accident) visits the wrecked bus late at night and hears the children in it. It is only the wind, of course . . . .

The bodies are literally not even in the ground before the negligence lawyers descend on the town to point fingers and cut deals with the grieving parents, promising lucrative rewards from "the deep pockets of the state" for those who are willing to sue. This pits neighbor against neighbor. Some of the townsfolk just want to get on with their lives, and balk at the thought of profiting from the death of children. But a significant number of others—those struggling with the kind of micro-pathologies that are characteristic of so many ostensibly respectable North American communities today (poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, infidelity, incest, violence, greed)—smell opportunity, and what they believe will be fast, fast and lucrative relief from their afflictions.

Central to this sorry mess is one of Banks' most interesting characters, a seasoned New York City litigator by the name of Mitchell Stephens. Brilliant, cynical, arrogant, logical and thus highly successful (in his professional life; his personal life is an unqualified catastrophe), he is a sterling example of the most dangerous kind of opportunist for two reasons: He is an exquisitely acute judge of human character, who has learned that it is far more important to attend to a person's gestures, tone and comportment, than to what they are saying. And, like Freud, he believes (and tells one of his prospective clients) that "there's no such thing as an accident," a most hubristic and obtuse epistemological observation, if you think about it. His star witness is Nichole Burnell, an immensely popular cheerleader in the eighth grade whose future is shattered when she emerges from the accident as a paraplegic, confined for life to a wheelchair. This young woman, a victim of incest, matures very quickly after the crash, and she has the sensitivity to intuit that a successful judgment for the plaintiffs (her father is one of them) will pretty much be the final nail in the coffin for the struggling little community of Sam Dent. Nichole is faced with a terrible dilemma. As Stephens ironically coaches her to do, she can tell the truth on the witness stand (which is that Delores Driscoll was not speeding when she lost control of the school bus). In which case, it is more than likely that the court will rule against the defendants (the state, the town, the township), and substantial settlements will accrue to Mr. Stephens' angry clients. Or, she can perjure herself, and say that Delores was speeding. Since Delores is not a defendant, this latter course of action would mean the end of the litigious acrimony that has divided the town since the accident, and folks can then get on with their lives. Much to her credit, she perjures herself, and the community survives.

What can we learn about catastrophes from Banks' novel? First, that their etiology is often absolutely incomprehensible. Like the asteroid Chicxulub that crashed down into what is now the Gulf of Mexico many millennia ago and created the global equivalent of a post-nuclear winter, wiping out the dinosaurs, they can come out of nowhere and, for no reason, transform things utterly and instantaneously. Second, that most human beings will go to extraordinary lengths to assign blame (causality) to individuals—even if doing so may mean the needless destruction of lives and even entire communities. Third, that it is possible to recover and move on from them. And fourth, that—just like the catastrophic events themselves—the mitigation of their effects can often arise from the most unexpected places, and transpire in the most surprising ways, as it does in this novel, with a smash-up derby at the county fair. Life goes on.

This is surely a curious venue for exculpation and atonement. But perhaps God is smiling on his Chosen People. And as we know from the oft-reported appearances of images of Jesus and Mary on items as varied as Big Mac Buns, burnt toast and potato chips (all of which have been offered for sale on eBay recently for thousands of dollars), He works in mysterious ways. Again, the end resolution struck me as forced and perfunctory.

Due Preparations for the Plague

In his 1772 account A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe wrote, "I have often asked myself what I mean by preparations for the plague, and I think that preparations for the plague are preparations for death." How, exactly, does one prepare for contingency, for death? Defoe does not say. But there is a certain grace in his observation, in the sense that one can face death in shrieking, histrionic panic, as many Europeans did in the seventeenth century. Or, knowing that the inevitable is immanent, one can, somehow, prepare. The question is, how? Australian-American author Turner Hospital's very highbrow political thriller would appear to be ineluctably framed with apocalyptic despair, beginning as it does with Defoe's remark, and concluding, after reconciliation, with the warning "How do we ready ourselves for what might happen tomorrow? What possible preparations can be made?" And the phrase "due preparations" recurs like a threnodic lament throughout the novel: "People get ready." The critics have been quick to notice this. They have been less willing to acknowledge that there is another ending, which closes with the evildoers exposed, and order restored. . . .

The novel moves back and forth between the hijacking by Islamic extremists (with Saudi ties) of an Air France jet bound for New York in 1987, and ends in the summer of 2003. Hospital's chief protagonists are two young Americans who have survived the hijacking, Samantha Raleigh, (19) and Jacob Levenstein (24). They, like Banks' characters, are traumatized, damaged survivors. Both Sam and Jacob have lost parents—never mind that they are the kind of parents who regularly disappear on month-long "vacations" to places like the Pavilion, an upscale psychiatric facility in Virginia—in the hijacking and worse, like the other children (who the "terrorists" let go), they have watched in horror as the plane they were on is blown up on live TV, the US and several other North Atlantic nations having flatly refused to release imprisoned militants in exchange for the adult passengers. But it gets worse. Without giving away Hospital's riveting plot, before detonating the jet and killing some 400 passengers, the terrorists have carefully preselected ten adult passengers who are spared only to die slow, agonizing deaths if their reiterated demands are not met. All of them do so die (Sam and Jacob's parents among them), and their death agonies are videotaped. The tapes fall into the hands of an American intelligence officer who, we learn, orchestrated the whole thing in an abortive attempt to take out a cell of "extremists" in the interests of US "national security." After US operatives assassinate the agent, his son inherits copies and, eventually, they end up in Samantha's hands.

If all of this sounds wildly improbable, it bears remembering that Due Preparations was written well before 9/11. Hospital articulates what many of us already suspect, but are often unwilling to entertain seriously as more than the ranting of nutbars, to wit that if the actual 9/11 assaults on Fortress America hadn't happened exactly when, where and how they did, a similar scenario would have been manufactured to ensure the safety of the oil supply from the Gulf States, and the re-election of Bush as a "war president" and fiscal conservative. Presciently, even bin Laden puts in an appearance. Samantha, a student in US politics and government at Georgetown University, correctly suspects that there has been a cover-up, and she is doing her master's thesis on what actually happened to Air France Flight #64. As part of her research, she occasionally does a stand-up routine between strip acts in a seedy sex club in Washington that is frequented by some of the most powerful figures inside the Beltway. On one night, she jokes with the patrons:

"Did you hear the one about the former head of the CIA who made a deal with bin Laden? 'Look,' he says to bin Laden, it's the year 2000, and we know you've got a millennial itch. You need global publicity and global sympathy. We need to nail your ass. Neither of us can make a move, because we know everything you plan to do before you do it, and you know every countermove we plan to take. We're both stalemated. So here's a proposal. How about we bankroll a movie, Getting Osama, with a look-alike actor? In the movie, your cave stronghold is infiltrated by Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Your guys catch them. Our guys survive barbaric Islamic persuasion. They get their hands cut off, then their ears. They don't talk. They escape and blow your compound and the entire Taliban army to smithereens. In the movie, only your little son survives the blast, and Harrison Ford gives him his pack of baseball cards and takes him back to California. When your son asks Tommy [sic] Sosa for his autograph, there's not a dry eye in the house. Your little boy becomes an icon like Elian Gonzalez. Think of the public relations coup. As far as global opinion is concerned, depending on political allegiance, of course, you die a tragic hero or you got what was coming to you. Either way, the violence ends, the famine ends, the suffering ends, and the whole world loves your little son.'
"'What's the catch?' bin Laden wants to know.
"'The catch is, we film on location in Afghanistan.'"

Dark humor, indeed. But, retrospectively, it does not strike one as implausible. This is not about justice; it is about damage control, and the manufacture of consent. We all know who created, who empowered, bin Laden to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War. It is a matter of record that the US government supplied the sarin and perhaps mustard gas, as well, that Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in northern Iraq. How did the Americans know that Hussein had biochemical WMDs? Well, hello, they supplied him with them. The survivors of the crash, who communicate with each other by means of a website maintained by Sam and Jacob, begin to die in suspicious ways as Samantha continues in her quest—a quest that increasingly implicates the highest levels of the US government in the incident.

This is what we learn: Hospital has done a splendid job of delineating the logic of the potential complicity of the US government in sacrificing its own citizens in the interests of "national security," this latter probably having never been anything more since the end of World War II than a euphemism for protecting the interests of the propertied class. Those in power will "pay any price" and "bear any burden" to protect the security of their masters' wealth. Yet, this novel, too, ends with reconciliation.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The protagonist of this novel, Oskar Schell, is an intensely likeable, intelligent and sensitive nine-year old boy who lost his dad in the attack on the World Trade Center. He's the sort of New York kid who writes thoughtful personal letters to people like Stephen Hawking and David Suzuki, and actually gets personal answers to them. Refreshingly free of cant about "evil terrorists," "fanatics," "freedom haters" and the like, the book can at one level, be read as a kind of anodyne for apocalyptic times. Oskar does not dwell on who is to blame for his father's death: as he reflects at one point, "I don't believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated." Rather, he is looking for explanations, for patterns in the complexity that might make some sense ("grace," as the late writer Carol Shields called it in her novel of the same name) out of the near shattering of his little world. High on a shelf in his father's bedroom, he discovers a decorative urn with a small envelope inside it. There is a single key in the envelope and "Black" is written on the envelope. Reasonably, Oskar surmises that this is a surname, so he begins a quest in which he resolves to visit every individual with the surname Black listed in the NYC phone book. There are hundreds, but one can see how such a project, howsoever unlikely in outcome, might be far more constructive and palliative than the adult proclivity of finding people to blame for one's misfortunes. . .

In terms of genre, this novel is difficult to type. One thinks bildungsroman; the traditional coming-of-age work that traces the hero(in)e's journey from child to adult. Like the traditional bildungsroman, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is preoccupied with experimentation. Only here, the protagonist remains a precocious, prepubescent nine-year-old, and the experimentation is manifest in how Foer transgresses the conventions of both the traditional bildungsroman and the contemporary novel.

Yet, it, too, ends happily, if indeed one can call it happy, with Jonathan's mother assuring him of her love, with the added edgy promise that she will not ship him off to a psychiatric ward.

Conclusion

I have, obviously, a serious bone to pick with all three of these novels. Marxian literary and cultural critics like Raymond Williams, Marshall Berman, and Terry Eagleton have rightfully drawn our attention to the recurrently didactic class function of the novel as an historical artifact in the European tradition. It is, in other words, no mere accident that the popular appearance of the novel coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie, and that tragedies like these, ending as all three of them do with a promise of redemption or reconciliation ("life goes on") after the most horrific suffering, are perfect ideological vehicles for the maintenance of the status quo. They reproduce the lesson that while things may be unjust, nigh intolerable (and therefore in need of amelioration), if everyone just works hard, plays by the rules, and stays in their places, things will get better, and will turn out well in the end.

Indeed, these curious endings, to situate them in their cultural context, almost suggest that the regnant style of American "high cultural" cynicism today may be a form of blind hubris—as if the authors of these novels could not resist succumbing to the idea that, the cynic, after the catastrophes of "The American Century," has emerged therefrom as the person (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) who now knows both the price of everything, (the seven-trillion dollar US national debt?) and the value of everything (whatever can be bought on credit). That is of course, not cynicism, it is infantile smugness. And it makes these three novels, as well-written and gripping as they are, real blockbuster reading for summer at the "cottage" in the Hamptons. Or Muskoka. That is, if you're rich enough to have a cottage in those playgrounds of the rich and (in)famous. Perhaps as many as three-fifths of the world's current population of 6.5 billion people would see such a happy ending itself as a fairy tale.

Consider a story with a very different kind of ending—one that is consistent with the author's storyline. In his short story "An Ex-Mas Feast," (The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2005), the Nigerian author Uwem Akpan introduces us to a season in the everyday life of a family that, were it not for writers like him, would not likely get much media exposure in our digital, networked world of blockbuster novels and films. They live in a "modular home" (made up of wooden crates and cardboard appliance boxes) in the vast slums of Nairobi. Since they are Roman Catholics, and, I guess, because sex is par excellence the leisure activity of the poor, it is a large family. The father is illiterate and unemployed, the mother is constantly pregnant or nursing, and the several children subsist by begging, scavenging in the local dump, petty thievery and by selling their bodies. Much of the narrative revolves around the efforts of twelve-year-old Maisha to introduce her sister Naema, aged eleven, to street prostitution, so there will be money for a family holiday meal. At one point in the story Naema scores big, and considers herself successful (and a dutiful daughter) when she earns the equivalent of about $2.00US from a white man who pays to watch his pet monkey have sex with her in his Mercedes.

And this is how it ends: there is no grace, no upward mobility, and no prospect of amelioration. Plainly, for this family, as for millions of folks in the world today, the apocalypse has already happened, and it is the ongoing reality of their everyday life. There is no hope, and no redemption. This, notwithstanding the fact that some culturally hubristic Christians and Muslims projectively situate the apocalypse as a bigger, singular event that has yet to occur, when a righteous God will reward them with a paradisiacal eternal life, and damn their enemies. I don't think so. A post-apocalyptic survivor myself, I'm not not exactly anticipating the Last Days anytime soon. The apocalypse is, after all, only a metaphor. Yet as a metaphor, it is also a story based, like all our stories are, on historical experience. One or more of the four horsemen has probably already visited us all and—if we survive—the odds are likely that we will hear the thundering of their hooves several times more before we die. As Bertrand Russell wrote of Earth in his old age, our planet was the insane asylum of the universe. Maybe he was right.


Michael Whealen teaches in the Centre for Academic Writing at York University in Toronto. He can be reached at mwhealen@yorku.ca

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