Culture and Tragedy

Sometimes, writing about popular culture feels frivolous, as it did this weekend. I heard the news about the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others over a late brunch with a friend. This being Washington, our waitress turned out to know a number of Giffords' DC-based staffers. The whole bar went quite, and we watched the subtitles on CNN.

But I woke up on Sunday morning and thought of Don DeLillo's Libra. It's not that I think the novel's narrative of CIA manipulation applies to Jared Lee Loughner. But I did find this passage emotionally true and resonant in this dark, confusing moment:
After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.  
Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century....Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language....This is the Joycean Book of America, remember—the novel in which nothing is left out.
I don't think we'll ever truly understand what happened in Arizona. We'll come up with explanations that satisfy enough of our heartbreak and curiosity and fear and settle on them. And sometimes, literature will express better than politics that grief, and anger, and confusion.

Cryptonomicon Book Club, Part IV: Off the Map

Same rules apply: below the jump, there will be spoilers up to, but not beyond, the section entitled "Conspiracy." For next week, let's read up to the section called "Golgotha."  Previous installments in this discussion appear herehere, and here. And away we go...

I've said before that this is a novel about evolution. I think more precisely it's about two moments: one where the world becomes a much smaller place to a few people, an accidental Elect, privileged and cursed by the experiences of war; and the second when technological developments have made the world even smaller to a group of nerds and visionaries, and are about to shrink it for everyone else. There's something of the age of exploration to all of these developments, enhanced, I think, by the convergence of people and events in the Phillipines, off in the blue latitudes. Even in an easily circumnavigable world, Randy still feels the shiver of strangeness that comes from distance:
Asian news always has this edge of the fantastic to it, but it's all dead serious, no nods or winks anywhere. Now he's watching a story about a nervous system disease that people in New Guinea come down with as a consequence of eating other people's brains. Just your basic cannibal story. No wonder so many Americans come here on business and never really go home again—it's like stepping into the pages of Classics Comics.
One of the things I enjoyed about this section of the book is how Stephenson maps out the different kinds of explorers, and the hierarchies between them. To start in the present, or at least closer-to-present day, Randy, the boundary-pushing software engineer, finds himself entranced by Amy Shaftoe, who isn't even necessarily excited by the things she does that make  Randy find her exciting:
Some time ago, Randy gave up pretending that he was not completely fascinated with Amy Shaftoe. This is not exactly the same thing as being in love with her, but it has quite a few things in common with that. He always had a weird, sick fascination with women who smoked and drank a lot. Amy does neither, but her complete disregard of modern skin-cancer precautions puts her in the same category: people too busy leading their lives to worry about extending their life expectancy. In any case, he has a desperate craving to know what Amy's dream is. For a while he thought it was treasure-hunting in the South China Sea. This she definitely enjoys, but he is not sure if it gives her satisfaction entire.
Aurora Taal is an explorer in reverse, someone who "has lived in Boston, Washington, and London, and seen it all, and come back to live in Manila anyway," is globalized enough not to find the first world a priori compelling, who knows that living in the Wild East is no barrier to outshining places and people who think of themselves as civilized. Prag is the same way, though he'd returned home changed by contact with people like Randy and Avi: "The virus of irony is as widespread in California as herpes, and once you're infected with it, it lives in your brain forever. A man like Prag can come home, throw away his Nikes, and pray to Mecca five times a day, but he can never eradicate it from his system."

In the age in which Randy lives, there are a lot more people who are capable of exploration and attainment, in many more categories. "Divers have mastered a large body of occult knowledge," he reflects at one point. "That explains their general resemblance to hackers, albeit physically fit hackers." The accomplishments of their forebears have made more of the world known, and given more people the skills to make the world knowable. Not that stumbling onto the unknown is any less exciting or compelling in this blazing modern age, as Randy learns from Doug when they discover a sunken German treasure submarine:
'Why do you say it's a good time to smoke?' 'To fix it in your memory. To mark it.' Doug tears his gaze from the horizon and looks at Randy searchingly, almost beseeching him to understand. 'This is one of the most important moments in your life. Nothing will ever be the same. We might get rich. We might get killed. We might just have an adventure or learn something. But we have been changed. We are standing close to the Heraclitean fire, feeling its heat on our faces.' He produces a flaring safety match from his cupped palms like a magician, and holds it up before Randy's eyes, and Randy puffs the cigar alive, staring into the flame.
Lawrence and Bobby's era has its own taxonomy of explorers. There are people who are simply convinced of their own exceptionalism, like Mrs. McTeague, who is certain that her children "grew from the brightest and most beautiful children ever born into the finest adults who walk the earth except for the King of England, The General, and Lord Mountbatten." There are people like Bobby Shaftoe, who have been elevated by experience. At home, Bobby might have simply been a quite outstanding specimen of American manhood, but bouncing across the world, into circumstances unprecedented before the world started tearing itself apart, Shaftoe became extraordinary by thriving, by getting addicted to morphine, by surviving the lizards, by loving Glory, by accepting that the world as he knows it includes men like Lawrence Waterhouse and Enoch Root. There are people like Douglas McArthur, who understand themselves to be, and make it clear to others around them, that they are an updated model of a certain kind of historical figure, engineered for this particular upheaval:
The major continues. 'See, we've gone over the watershed line of this war. We won Midway. We won North Africa. Stalingrad. The Battle of the Atlantic. Everything changes when you go over the watershed line. The rivers all flow a different direction. It's as if the force of gravity itself has changed and is now working in our favor. We've adjusted to that. Marshall and Churchill and all those others are still stuck in an obsolete mentality. They are defenders. But The General is not a defender. As a matter of fact, just between you and me, The General is lousy on defense, as he demonstrated in the Philippines. The General is a conqueror.
And then there are men like Lawrence Waterhouse, who exist outside the frameworks that men like Bobby Shaftoe (and probably Douglas McArthur) use to divide up and render comprehensible the world. Lawrence Waterhouse is the shape of things to come, a member of a fraternity of men whose minds work in an exceedingly particular way that the rest of us will reroute ourselves to at least partially understand, but that is, at the time, "a clearance that is rarer, harder to come by, and more mysterious than Ultra Mega." Seeing the world that way, daring to look beyond the horizon, to sail off the understood map, is alienating even for men like Lawrence who see its rightness:
The last time he was in California, before Pearl Harbor, he was no different from all of those guys on the pier—just a little smarter, with a knack for numbers and music. But now he understands the war in a way that they never will. He is still wearing the same uniform, but only as a disguise. He believes now that the war, as those guys understand it, is every bit as fictional as the war movies being turned out across town in Hollywood.
And it's a mark of Bobby Shaftoe's extraordinariness that even though he fits neatly into the categories that explained the whole world to him before the war began, that he can see that there's something beyond what he knew to be the end of the universe, even if unlike Lawrence, he can't quite see the details:
The Second World War has led him into all sorts of uncouth behavior, and there don't seem to be any grandpas lurking in the trenches with doubled belts; no consequences at all for the wicked, in fact. Maybe that will change in a couple of years, if the Germans and the Nips lose the war. But that reckoning will be so great and terrible that Shaftoe's glance at Bischoff's letter will probably go unnoticed.
So what's the reckoning that's coming? Beyond the atom bomb and the reestablishment of the world's geographical boundaries and balance of power, what is the fruit that Randy and Amy are reaping from the resowing of the world's orchards with different crops?

Facing the Void

I know I don't write about sports very often here, though I appreciate that my other home base at The Atlantic includes sports under the general rubric of culture. But are any of you as depressed as I am by the prospect of a football lockout in 2011? Thinking about it, I realized that 1995 was the first time I lived in an area with established professional sports teams (somehow, the Hartford Whalers didn't register on my very young self during our years in Connecticut), and the first year I began to care about a group of teams. That year had a shortened baseball season, but the strike was the year past, and didn't wipe out a whole season, and the ongoing NHL lockout didn't really register. I've never been a major pro basketball fan, so I wasn't super-affected by the 1998-1999 lockout. So this will be the first time I really feel the disruption of a season gone awry, a part of my year will go missing. I feel like the playoffs are going to feel especially precious this season.

The One Who Finds the Fourth

Now that my books are organized by genre, I'm alighting on books I haven't read in years, and on New Year's Day, I re-read Ellen Raskin's young adult mystery The Westing Game.

Raskin was a multiple-threat artist. Her 1966 picture book Nothing Ever Happens On My Block is incredibly visually witty, stylistically much more minimalist than Peter Spier's lush, colorful illustrations of small-town American life, but with the same ability to pack tons of humor into detail. She's fascinated by word games and illusions, something that shows in her first, and weaker, YA novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).

But The Westing Game is that rare YA novel that, like Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War, could easily serve as a comic adult novel. It's got a sophisticated conceit: a new apartment building is filled with renters chosen by a mysterious industrialist to participate in the game that constitutes his will. The character sketches are short, and deft, and surprisingly dark. Raskin gives a pretty girl an extreme dark side and rejects the idea that she should be happy with marriage, and turns her shin-kicking financial whiz of a younger sister into a heroine. She isn't afraid to dissect characters, but the novel emphasizes growth. Everyone ends the book a better person, whether they've mastered English or are running a chain of restaurants.

A lot of the characters have fairly conventional problems: social-climbing ambitions, strained finances, stunted social lives, the effects of a lingering legacy of racism. But the mystery they're confronted with lets them address, and work on, those issues in surprising and un-cliche ways. Maybe it's worse to have a hackneyed mystery scenario than to resolve family and professional dramas in expected ways. But The Westing Game still feels fresh more than a decade after I first read it, and 32 years after it was written.

Pop Goes Celebrity

Of course Kim Kardashian has a single coming out, and of course Kanye is in the video. I think it's fascinating that music has become totally unmoored from skill, or artistic sensibility, it's a part of the celebrity production process. Producers and songwriters and editors and the people who do your hair and help you pick your dress before you hit the red carpet are essentially performing the same function. Releasing a single is the same thing as showing up for an event, or posing in Maxim, or whatever. I don't know if that's because popular music is so simplistic and formulaic that you can engineer anyone into achieving the basics and going through the motions, or because it's much harder to fake acting skill, or because a single is obtainable, it's three minutes. I just think it's fascinating that people are shameless enough not to care if they sound good or not, or to consider faking it an essential part of the process of being a celebrity.

Gone Too Young

In 2007, 4,703 children between the ages of 1 and 4 and 6,147 children aged 5 to 14 died in America. I feel like that's actually less than I would have expected, but it's still an almost unfathomable toll in terms of grief. And I think it's unsurprising that even within the oft-filmed subsection of affluent white women who lose their children (God forbid we venture into the realm of families in poverty who lose children), it's hard to figure out how to make a movie about that kind of agony. We've got two movies in the genre following quickly on each other, the first featuring Natalie Portman as a mistress-turned-wife who loses her own baby with her new husband and struggles to find her way as a mother with her stepson:

And already in theaters, we've got Rabbit Hole:

I think it's fascinating that these movies both have bad-mother aspects to them. Lisa Kudrow blames Natalie Portman's character for the death of Portman's own child, saying she's proved she's "not safe" around children. The comment seems mostly like moral commentary on the fact that Portman's daughter was the result of her marriage to a man who left his wife for her. And while Kidman's grief is of course legitimate in Rabbit Hole, obviously Aaron Eckhart's character thinks there an extent to which she's a bad wife for not recovering more quickly. The world is a much less cruel place than it used to be, especially for those of us who live middle-class lives or better in highly industrialized first-world countries. Maybe we need to source the randomness of a universe that sometimes kills our children to something.

A Public Service Announcement to Readers

The Cape is a ginormous mess. Watch it this weekend if you love Summer Glau, but be forewarned.