Versions of Reality
So hitting the ground on four wheels and composing a book of narrative nonfiction is one way to try to get a handle on America in writing. Another way is to write opinion pieces, and I’ve done my fair share of that. But polemic, and journalism generally, is caught up in the perpetually onrushing present moment and, almost by definition, fails to account for the longer and wider context. And these days, the enormous mass of commentary and “commenting” in social media and elsewhere online has become the textual analogue of the astonishing rumored fact that the majority of all pictures taken since the invention of photography have now been taken with iPhones. There’s simply too much writing being done, and no letup from it all. If someone out there would maybe just pull the plug on the Internet, the world would quickly become a very different place, and maybe a better one.
Connected to this is that the American national media complex has spawned not only the ideological polarization that is widely noted and decried but, even more damaging, a pervasive confusion between virtual reality and real reality. Thus can Donald Trump, celebrity “reality show” host turned presidential candidate, tell Time magazine, all too accurately, “It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.” Too much of our interaction with each other is virtual, via the media (the word itself implies virtual interaction), and fame is a function of media, and media are vehicles for (virtual) avatars of reality. In addition to which, American media institutions are commercial entities, driven by commercial motives. And if, thus, the media are corrupted and/or part of the problem, then chasing fame – perhaps even seeking an audience at all – can be considered wrong and corrupt, and perhaps not only commercially and morally corrupt but intellectually corrupt. At an analogously urgent moment for his country, Albert Camus turned silence into a literary and political gesture, by refusing to “grandstand for the sake of an audience” and announcing: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.”
On the other hand I am a writer, what I do is write, and when I write I want people, as many as possible, to read what I write. And to that end the media, and especially the Internet, can be a great boon. On September 14, 2001, the startup company BookSurge (since bought by Amazon and rebranded as CreateSpace) approached me to help them prove the potential of print-on-demand technology by editing a book-length collection of writings on the World Trade Center attacks, written in the moment and its immediate aftermath, to be in print by the end of September. The result was a book that could not have come into existence – that as a document would have been both meaningless and unachievable – at any other moment before or since. My de facto co-editor on that book was Jay Rosen, then chair of the Department of Journalism at New York University. Rosen gathered contributions by NYU students and faculty, contributed several personal pieces of his own, and wrote in his introduction:
I know that for myself as author, the Internet has never seemed more miraculously human than in the two weeks following the attacks. Being connected is such a mysterious good, I don’t think we understand a tenth of it. All I know is that I had more people with me than ever before, and every New Yorker felt something similar. No, civic solidarity doesn’t follow from pushing Send. But when people actually feel it, they send it with ease now. Counter-terrorism begins there.
Another way to try to get one’s head around America is to write fiction. Hence all those Great American Novels, from (say) Moby-Dick to The Naked and the Dead to The Corrections. Great American Novels have to be big and ambitious, because America is big and ambitious. But why write fiction at all? I suppose there could be many reasons. I’ve never written fiction, except in one college class. Maybe I lack the aptitude, or maybe I’ve just never felt the need. I enjoy reading fiction, and I appreciate and admire people who write it well. But what does it mean, anyway, to claim that there is a need for stories that, factually at least, are not true?
A partial answer is that much fiction is samizdat, or at least allegory. Camus’s novel The Plague comes readily to mind as an example. When I was first made to read it, by Mr. Fuller in high school English class, it went completely over my head. Now, I get it. Possessing an adult understanding of when and in what circumstances Camus wrote The Plague, and why he wrote it as allegorical fiction, feels to me like having found another piece of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle. I’ve long nurtured an inkling that all the clues to the great mystery are available to me, in the writings and other expressions of the human cultures that have overlapped, accumulated, and combined to bring us to our present pass. All that’s required is to glean and assemble the clues, as in a whodunit, or the pieces as in a puzzle.
For example, I recently read Dictator, the erudite British popular novelist Robert Harris’s imagined account of the life of the Roman statesman Cicero, as recounted by his slave Tiro. As the title indicates, Dictator (the third book in a trilogy) is set just as the shit is hitting the political fan and the Roman Republic is morphing into the Empire. I’m willing to take Harris’s word for it that ancient Rome might have been more or less as he portrays it, because his confident storytelling creates plausible verisimilitude, and because Harris is evidently one of those well-bred Englishmen who are made to learn Roman history and Latin in their boarding schools. But, like a lot of historical fiction, Dictator is also about the present day. How else are we meant to read passages like this one:
However, there is always this to be said for politics: it is never static. If the good times do not last, neither do the bad. Like Nature, it follows a perpetual cycle of growth and decay, and no statesman, however cunning, is immune to this process. If Clodius had not been so arrogant, reckless and ambitious, he never would have achieved the heights he did. But being all those things, and subject to the laws of politics, he was bound to overreach and topple eventually.
Or this one:
And so we drifted towards calamity. At times, Cicero was shrewd enough to see it. “Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens’ militia, possibly hope to run an empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its framers? Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?”
And then at other times he would dismiss such apocalyptic talk as excessively gloomy and argue that the republic had endured all manner of disasters in the past – invasions, revolutions, civil wars – and had always somehow survived them: why should this time be any different?
But it was.
What allows me to believe that there are clues or puzzle pieces out there to be found, and to read writers like Robert Harris with enjoyment and profit, is the liberal education that my parents made sure my brother and I received growing up, in the heart of the American heartland, during the waning decades of the American middle-class ascendency. Edwidge Danticat has described herself as “an accident of literacy.” Hers might be a relatively extreme or vivid case, but in truth we’re all accidents of literacy. And, as Nien Cheng memorably observed in her memoir Life and Death in Shanghai, “The veneer of civilization is thin.” Both of my parents are arguably well educated, but largely because they grew up in the right place, America, at the right time, the booming aftermath of the Second World War. And, this being America, because they were white. Such fortunate circumstances are not to be taken for granted. My mother’s parents were solidly middle class, though not thanks to much real literacy or culture in their families, but because my grandfather was proficient at crafting and peddling one of the core commodities of postwar America: advertising. My Grandmother Casey, though wise and highly moral – not to say moralistic – was a farmer’s daughter from East Texas who did graduate from high school, but whom I never knew to read anything more intellectually challenging than the Reader’s Digest or a very occasional Louis L’Amour novel. I got lucky.
So we – “we” being any of us who, like me, possess the resources of curiosity, initiative, and literacy needed to make the effort – do have both the equipment and the raw materials at hand to try to make sense of today’s America, and we should make use of them. We don’t face the constraints on what we might read, write, and publish that, say, Nadine Gordimer (whom I’ve been reading lately in search of clues) faced in apartheid-era South Africa. (And look what she accomplished, even with those constraints!) Our problem is finding anyone who will listen or, even if they would listen, who can hear us amid the din. What we face today is censorship by sensory overload and perpetual distraction.
A current writer I admire for mindfully enlisting a range of genres to catch readers’ attention is James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler writes effectively in three registers: his “Clusterfuck Nation” blog published every Monday on www.kunstler.com, where he allows himself to be blunt, often to the point of acerbity and even profanity; his well-researched nonfiction books on what he sees as the environmental overreach and self-indulgence of the American suburban project, where he adopts a more measured tone; and his series of speculative World Made By Hand novels. All writing is an exercise in defining terms, and Kunstler uses his blog to lay out the national and global scenario as he sees it from week to week, to redefine more accurately the terms by which we conduct what passes for public conversation. For example, on March 21, 2016 he wrote:
Many thoughtful and patriotic citizens entering the Kubler-Ross free-fire zone of desperate bargaining with reality are at work attempting to chart an orderly course around the Godzilla-like figure of Trump looming outside the desecrated once-shining city of American democracy. I doubt there is such an orderly way through this political bad weather. When storms hit, things break up. …
People decline and die and are replaced by new people, and political economies wither and morph into sets of new activities and relations.
The forces of history want to take us to this new disposition of things, and just about everything on the American scene these days is a manifestation of resistance to that journey. The destination is a much re-scaled and down-scaled edition of daily life in a de-globalized economy, with far fewer luxuries and a greater demand for earnestness, purposeful work, generosity-of-spirit, and plain dealing.
Kunstler’s novels, set in a town in upstate New York a few decades from now, after the collapse of industrial civilization, are thought experiments, addressing the same question that the title of this essay poses. They’re also surprisingly, and bracingly, optimistic. Just as Rome declined and fell, but not all the way all at once, and just as the Moghul court still kinda existed and sorta exerted power across the Indian subcontinent even as the British Empire inexorably supplanted it over the century and a half following the death of Aurangzeb, so in Kunstler’s fictional World Made By Hand there still exists a United States of America, but it controls only a rump of territory around the Great Lakes, and the President lives in a new White House that’s being built, by hand, out of wood from the forests of northern Michigan, on the shore of Lake Huron. And to learn even this much information about the world outside their town, a pair of adventurous young characters have to stow away on boats doing trade along the Erie Canal, a lot like how Huck and Jim rode a raft down the Mississippi, or like how Boone Caudill in The Big Sky left his ma behind in Kentucky and headed west on his horse to become a mountain man. Or, come to think of it, like how I left the small-town Upper Midwest and went off to Port-au-Prince, Bangkok, and Lahore.
Kunstler’s series of four novels set in what he considers a likely near future are optimistic because they’re about American human beings making do and living life as best they can, in circumstances that they have no choice but to accept with grace, amid the ruins of prior illusions, rediscovering and using the personal, social, and environmental resources available to them. Like William Faulkner, Kunstler declines to accept the end of man.
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.