In which Netty takes a gander around the grassy knoll, but is none the wiser about the whole JFK thing …

December 6, 2014

Of course one of America’s best writers was eventually going to tackle America’s most famous, most notorious, most far-reaching moment of the 20th century. Of course he was.

cover-libraDon DeLillo’s 10th novel Libra, published in 1988, is a hybrid factual/fictionalised reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1963 death of then US President John F. Kennedy. It concentrates on the back stories of the main participants, most notably the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo has said he spent three years writing and researching the novel, extensively drawing on the official, government-sanctioned Warren Commission Report (which he  described as “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination, and also the Joycean novel”).

Everyone knows the basic story: that JFK was fatally shot while travelling in a motorcade down the streets of Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The gunman, Oswald, was captured later that day, but was himself shot and killed two days later – before he could go to trial – by local nightclub owner, and Kennedy fan, Jack Ruby.

There are three threads to DeLillo’s novel that are gradually, skilfully woven into its cohesive whole. The first traces the life and times of Oswald, a loner, misfit and outsider from the get-go; a classmate considers him “a misplaced martyr (who would) let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn’t”. He grew up under a stifling existence with his single mother, who shifted her son from his native New Orleans to Dallas to New York City and back again.

In 1956, aged 17, Oswald joined the Marine Corps, which took him to Japan; a fervent interest in communism led to an attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959. There, he married and fathered a child before returning to the States in 1961, bouncing between Louisiana and Texas before settling on the latter. Early in 1963 Oswald made a failed assassination attempt on Edwin Walker, a retired Major General and noted anti-communist, which did not come to light until after his JFK arrest. An attempt to get to Cuba via Mexico, as a precursor to returning to the Soviet Union, also fell by the wayside; he returned to Dallas in October, in time for the birth of his second daughter, and took up a job at the Texas School Book Depository – from where, on the sixth floor, he would fire off the three shots that would end Kennedy’s life.

The second thread, which is spliced into the retelling of Oswald’s life, starts in April 1963 and involves an array of characters – some real, some not; some involved with the FBI, the CIA, the military forces; some anti-Kennedy, some pro-Fidel Castro – who hatch an elaborate plan to make an attempt on the life of President Kennedy that will, initially, deliberately fail. The plan is set against the backdrop of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a growing disillusionment with, and suspicions about, Kennedy’s presidency and the true nature of his relationship with the Cuban president. Somewhere along the line it’s decided the impact will be bigger if the miss becomes a hit.

This motley bunch needs a patsy, and Oswald – known to some of them through chance and geography – is it; a puppet on a string who thinks he is in charge of his own destiny, until he realises, too late, that he is just a pawn in a much bigger game. The novel’s title comes from Oswald’s astrological sign, Libra, which is represented by a set of scales; indeed, one character describes Oswald as “a man who harbours contradictions … this boy sitting on the scales, ready to be tilted either way”. Later, in the days preceding the assassination, as the same character is putting the finishing touches on the project, he tells Oswald: “There’s no such thing as coincidence … it happens because you make it happen”.

This theme continues as Jack Ruby’s tragi-comic story – which offers plenty of opportunity for DeLillo to exercise his dry, sly wit – unfolds. It’s one of the highlights in a book chockers with them.

The third thread – the novel’s smallest, but perhaps most pertinent – is set some time in the future and involves a (fictional) retired CIA analyst, Nicholas Branch, who has spent 15 years of his life compiling material for a secret history of the JFK assassination that only will ever be seen by Agency eyes. It is a thankless job and seemingly without end; Branch concludes – even as the documents continue to flood in – that “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term mainly due to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like”.

In a 1988 New York Times interview, DeLillo told fellow writer Anne Tyler: “The novel, working within history, is also outside it, correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms … I don’t know any more than you do what happened in Dealey Plaza that day … Will we ever know the truth? I don’t know.”

I admit I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of the Kennedy assassination, and next to none of Oswald, Ruby, et al. I saw the Oliver Stone’s celluloid conspiracy theory JFK when it came out, but remember very little about it. I probably know more about the Kennedys themselves, the myth of Camelot, the latter generations – a lot of which comes about by osmosis, living in celebrity-obsessed times.

So while Libra certainly does not make me want to run out and devour the Warren Report, it sheds welcome light on the cast of characters surrounding this momentous historical event that, although partly fictionalised, is nonetheless thoroughly, meticulously researched – even while openly wearing its CIA conspiracy theories on its sleeve.

If the Kennedy assassination had never occurred, it could well be a plot in a DeLillo novel regardless. And you should read Libra, whether or not you are interested in the events it portrays. Because, at the end of the day, it’s one cracking helluva good read. That it’s based on actual events is the icing on the very delicious cake.


The Sea, The Sea – Andy feels he’s entitled to an opinion, at least…

December 1, 2014

In the ANRC inaugural year, Netty and I, at my suggestion, read Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. In hindsight the only reason I suggested it, rather than her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea, must have been that The Black Prince was (marginally) shorter. And again, in hindsight, this might have been a stupid idea. I suspect Netty and I both would have appreciated this one quite a bit more. They are similar, in a lot of ways, but I think Murdoch had perhaps refined some of the ideas she was trying to explore by the time she got to The Sea, The Sea.

One of those ideas, I think, was what is today known as “male entitlement”. This way of understanding sexism and misogyny has probably been around for decades but I’ve only really become aware of it in the past few years. Germaine Greer explains misogyny by saying that every man hates every woman; Naomi Woolf explains misogyny as a function of capitalism. The idea that men simply believe women have particular roles to play in their lives, and that they are entitled, as men, to have those women play those roles, is something that in itself requires an explanation. But as a starting point, it makes more sense than hatred and capitalism.

And as a portrait of male entitlement. I doubt you’ll find anything more eyeboggling than The Sea, The Sea.

theseatheseaFor great swaths of the novel, perhaps its vast majority, its narrator, Charles Arrowby, is delusional. Delusional might be polite. Stark raving bonkers might be more accurate. Much of this delusion has its foundation in his sense of entitlement – mostly towards one particular woman, although his entitlement is not restricted to that one woman. It extends, pretty much, to every woman he’s ever known. But, for the purposes of this blog, one woman in particular: his first (and according to him, his only) love, who, as the novel opens, he hasn’t seen for close to fifty years.

Arrowby is a retired actor/playwright/director; most of his professional life has been spent in the last role. He thinks of himself as famous, and while he is certainly well known he is probably not nearly as big a name as he thinks he is. In retirement, in the mid- to late seventies (the novel was published in 1978) Arrowby buys a dilapidated home on an isolated patch of English coast, expecting to write … something, undisturbed by the past. The past, obviously, has other ideas, and he is disturbed on a number of occasions by former theatrical acquaintances – and ultimately by the reappearance of that first, long-lost love.

Initially I was going to pepper this blog with spoilers, but perhaps I’ll try to avoid them. Suffice to say that Arrowby’s attitude towards Hartley – or Mary Fitch, as she’s known when he finds her again, both of them nosediving towards old age – betrays a breathtaking level of both entitlement and delusion. There was one point, mid-novel, during which he (spoilerish) holds Hartley against her will for a few days, where I had to put the book aside fairly regularly. This is the point at which his lunacy is at its height. His inability to understand how ridiculous his actions are, and the pain he is causing not just Hartley but others, is kind of scary.

There are other elements to the novel, obviously, and as I predicted in my previous post about Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good, “the sea” plays an important role, although I strongly suspect that, like most of her novels, rereading more closely would reveal further depths. For now, though: very early on Charles sees a sea monster rise from the waves as he relaxes on the coastal rocks that surround his home; this sighting distresses him deeply, and makes him wonder if he’s having an LSD flashback. The sea monster reminded me of the UFO the twins see in The Nice and the Good, but in this case I suspect it’s an indicator of Charles’s mental instability (it probably has a deeper philosophical significance, but this was beyond me on one reading). The sea plays another, perhaps darker role, although it’s related – the water is dangerous, and unpredictable, and sometimes lethal. I guess “the sea” as a symbol of the depths of Charles’s delusion is pretty much on the money.

Buddhism is once again referenced here, although I think those who (and they exist) believe this novel is Murdoch giving Buddhism the nod are as wrong as those who read The Bell and think she’s there giving Christianity the nod. She’s not, in either case. She is using different religious beliefs as a way to explore philosophical ideas. There is a character in The Sea, The Sea, Charles’s cousin James, who is very similar to Uncle Theo is The Nice and the Good – both are or have been Buddhist, to one extent other. (Curiously I don’t remember there being anything remotely “Buddhist” about The Black Prince, which Murdoch wrote in between). What I think Murdoch takes from Buddhism is the idea that the pursuit of perfection is pointless. Buddhism takes that further: pursuit of perfection, or indeed any sort of satisfaction, in this life is pointless, and once we have grasped that we reach Nirvana – the perfection of oblivion. I don’t think Murdoch is terribly interested in the spiritual side of these musings.

Hartley – Mary Fitch – is married. Apparently the marriage is unhappy, although given our delusionally unreliable narrator exactly how unhappy is hard to guess. But even taking Charles into account, it doesn’t seem to be the best of worlds. And yet: Hartley, Mary, is inclined to believe that the not-best she has is preferable to the fantasies of Charles’ (and her) adolescence. Charles is convinced perfection is achievable; Hartley knows better.

The novel closes with Charles, rather less mad than for most of what’s come before, striving towards some sort of self-awareness. But he is probably the least successful of all Murdoch’s protagonists in getting to that point, and this is probably her greatest achievement: 500 plus pages of male delusion, and entitlement, almost completely convincing, that, at its end, is still not really resolved.


In which Netty discovers that detective fiction is a genre worth solving after all …

November 9, 2014

I’ve never been a big fan of crime fiction, for no particular reason other than I guess I just prefer other genres. And what I have read has, interestingly (or maybe not), mostly been Antipodean – Peter Corris (Cliff Hardy), Shane Maloney (Murray Whelan), Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher), Peter Temple (Jack Irish). Nothing wrong with that list!

harvest-coverDashiell Hammett – an early-to-mid 20th-century American writer of whom I had only fleetingly heard – was Andy’s choice, and one with which I was happy to go along. And I’m glad that I did – Hammett’s debut novel Red Harvest is imminently readable, well-plotted and paced, well-characterised and well-written, and I really did quite enjoy it. Even though I possibly won’t read another Hammett book – and there’s not that many of them (only five published between 1929 and 1934 – starting with Red Harvest, and most notably including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man – but numerous short stories that span four decades) – I have no qualms about having read this one.

If this all sounds like a big “but”, it is – hence my need to qualify it. I daresay at the end of year when I do my “best-of” list, Red Harvest will be bringing up the rear for no other reason than I will have better liked other books I read. And that’s obviously not the fault of this novel, more just down to my personal preferences. If you are yet to read my blogging partner Andy’s take on Red Harvest, I advise you do so (right here) – ultimately I feel it will offer a more inclusive take.

Hammett’s life itself is interesting enough to warrant a book – in fact, it has, a couple, and a movie or two to boot as well. He worked as a detective prior to enlisting in the army and serving in World Wars I and II, working in advertising, then becoming a writer, and a political activist – which lead to a brief period of incarceration in the early 1950s, when American paranoia was at its peak. Tuberculosis contracted during WWI plagued him for most of his adult life, but lung cancer claimed his life in 1961, when he was 66.

Wikipedia tells me Hammett’s unnamed narrator, referred to only as the Continental Op and a recurring character throughout his fiction, is based on the author’s own experiences as an operative in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Butte, Montana, in the mid-1910s to early 1920s; the same source says the labour dispute depicted in Red Harvest is based on a miners’ strike there in 1920. So Hammett knows his stuff, but most evocative for me was his portrayal of 1920s small-town America, post-war but pre-Depression. I have always been a sucker for such settings, and that probably will be what stays with me long after the plot is banished to the back of the memory banks.

The plot. Righto, then. The Continental Op , who works for a detective agency in San Francisco, is summoned to the city of Personville (presumably in the American Midwest and nicknamed “Poisonville” by its residents) by Donald Willsson, the publisher of its local newspaper the Herald. Donald is also the son of city overlord Elihu, who owns said newspaper, runs Personville Mining Corporation and the First National Bank, and has his fingers in every other pie in town and possibly the state. But a miners’ strike some years previously was broken by Elihu’s hired thugs who subsequently overtook the city, existing uneasily in rival gangs.

After Donald’s murder (this is not a spoiler – it happens on page four!), the Continental Op ends up in the wily old Elihu’s employ, with the dual task of solving his son’s homicide and cleaning up the town in the process – no mean task with its cast of crooked characters, all of whom have a beef with one another and are not immune to subterfuge and backstabbing, sometimes literally!

It’s a thankless task, even with Elihu’s $10,000 cheque behind it, as the death count continues to mount, leaving very few still standing in the final pages. As a weary Op notes late in the novel, “It’s this damn town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me”, while lamenting that his boss back in San Francisco will “boil me in oil if he ever finds out what I’ve been doing”.

Now to the quibbles, again qualified as they may be. Perhaps it is due to my lack of familiarisation with this genre, but in Hammett’s depiction of a corrupt town basically at war with itself, with a large roll-call of characters, I found I too easily lost track of which minor character was doing what, and to whom; who was his friend, who was his foe – so intricate and multi-stranded is the fabric of this novel (which, I hasten to add, is but a mere 215 pages in my edition).

Perhaps it was the fact I read the book over the course of two (rather busy) weeks, when I should have – and easily could have – read it in one or two sittings. I shamefacedly admit I was about a quarter of the way through when I realised one character – who is referred to by both his name and nickname – was in fact not two separate people. D’oh!

But again, as I have said from the onset, these are my shortcomings and should not be read as a detraction. So by all means, read Red Harvest, especially if you are a fan of crime fiction, but even if you aren’t. When Andy and I caught up to chat about it, I opined that perhaps I spent so much time immersed in “difficult” books, I was left unnecessarily bewildered by their more straightforward counterparts.

Mea culpa. Perhaps.


Red Harvest – Andy doesn’t mind getting a bit hard-boiled

November 4, 2014

Genre fiction can be a problem for a long-term lover of reading. As a kid I loved genre – scifi mostly, but also The Hardy Boys and those Adventure things Willard (not Vincent) Price wrote. And the first “adult” novel I remember reading (and thinking, “This is an adult novel”), was The Day of the Jackal. But then you hit your late teens and early twenties and you think you’re too smart for genre anything, and you stop watching Doctor Who, which is actually pretty easy because it’s not on the telly anymore and anyway it was awful after Peter Davison left, you give all your Agatha Christie novels to the op shop…

As an adult, of course, if you keep reading, you realise that genre fiction is still awesome, when it’s well done, anyway – and in fact you wonder, sometimes, if “genre” is the basis of all literature, and all storytelling, ever.

These are some of the things that occurred to me as I was reading and after I’d finished Red Harvest.

hammettHaving done a modicum of research about Dashiell Hammett since finishing Red Harvest I realise there is even more about this writer to enamour me – his left-wing activism, his relationship with Lillian Hellman, what they went through during the McCarthy obscenities,, his service during the first and second world wars, her alleged dishonesty, according to some, about pretty much everything – Hammett and Hellman and their relationship and the epoch they inhabited – this deserves excavating. Who’s got a shovel?

Red Harvest was published in 1929 and predates the Depression by months. I wonder whether it deserves to be analysed properly next to The Great Gatsby (it probably has, and I just don’t know about it). In Gatsby Fitzgerald, without actually knowing it, obviously, predicted the Depression, but a few years earlier. Hammett doesn’t predict the Depression. He just presents a microcosm of corrupt, capitalist, small-town America (read: America) and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

Red Harvest is a cynical, witty book. It’s also, as you’d expect from a work of genre fiction, utterly involving. Sure, it’s not convincing at every turn but it’s convincing enough – and there is one point, about two-thirds through I think, that turns the whole story on its head in a way that tells me Hammett, hard-boiled spinner of genre nonsense, knew exactly what he was doing. Fitzgerald gave his unreliable narrator a name. Hammett didn’t, but he’s almost as unreliable – withholding information from the reader on a number of occasions, allowing the reader to think that maybe he’s a murderer himself. There plenty of clever sleight-of-hand storytelling on show here.

Character might not be Hammett’s strong suit – there are a bare handful of very well-drawn and developed characters here, and quite a few who are mostly cardboard cutouts. This didn’t bother me too much – it is genre fiction, after all – but Netty might have more to say about that.

Fitzgerald and Hammett don’t have much in common, except writing around the same time. Fitzgerald is the better writer, but Hammett has been mostly, and unfairly, ignored because he was a genre writer, and perhaps because he was a commie. Earlier this year, after reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, I immediately ordered (and have since read) her other two collections of short stories. I’ve already downloaded (for 99 cents) a collection of Hammett’s short stories. Enjoyed Red Harvest? Just a bit.


In which Netty peers over the Wall into Stasiland …

October 25, 2014
The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

“The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose … (but) the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next.”

So writes Australian Anna Funder in the opening chapter of her 2002 non-fiction work Stasiland. It is an account of life in East Germany, behind the infamous Berlin Wall, in the latter half of the 20th century – after the end of World War II in 1945 and before the Wall was brought down in 1989, the Communist regime was uprooted, and Western democracy ushered in.

Having learned German – to the bemusement of her family – as a schoolgirl, Funder lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, in her early 20s. She first visited East Germany in 1987, and again in 1994 – five years after the fall of the Wall. She returned two years later, got a job in the television industry and started to collect the stories that would eventually make up Stasiland – the personal accounts of East Germans who stood up to regime, and/or were wrongfully imprisoned.

Funder examines both sides of life in East Germany under Communism and the Stasi, its notorious Ministry for State Security – from the viewpoints of its citizens and those who worked for the Stasi both officially and unofficially, whom she enlists from placing personal advertisements. And the latter was many – the country was teeming with Stasi agents and their informers. Funder is scathing in her assessment: “These obedient grey men doing it with their underpaid informers … seem at once more stupid and more sinister. Betrayal clearly has its own reward … and this regime used it as fuel.”

The book’s seeds were sown from the story of Miriam Weber, which Funder had first heard on her 1994 visit, and whose biography bookends Stasiland. In 1968, aged just 16, Miriam became an “enemy of the state” after she and a girlfriend distributed leaflets protesting against the police reaction to the Leipzig demonstrations, triggered by the demolition of a church and the next generation questioning its parents’ blind adherence to Communism. After being detained and interrogated, Miriam attempted, on New Year’s Eve of that year, to go over the Wall – and almost made it. Her failure resulted in further detainment, torture and eventual imprisonment.

After her release, Miriam was courted by sports teacher Charlie Weber, whom she eventually married. But Charlie, too, invoked the ire of the Stasi, was put under surveillance and eventually arrested and placed in a remand cell, where he ostensibly committed suicide and his funeral took place under the organisation’s foreboding shadow. Two decades later and Miriam was still trying to piece together the real story of what happened to her husband, of whom – if anyone – lay in his coffin. It is truly heartbreaking, but Miriam’s resilience shines like a beacon despite the obvious psychological damage she has endured.

Sadly but unsurprisingly there are stories like this everywhere in the old German Democratic Republic, some sitting right under Funder’s nose – such as her landlady Julia, whose slightly eccentric tics belie a history of petty injustices incurred by the state. A straight-A, multi-lingual student whose innocent relationship with an Italian man piqued the interest of the Stasi, she was consequently and repeatedly denied the opportunity to work in a country where officially there was no unemployment, and was continually under surveillance, effectively an exile in her own homeland, where she refused to join the informer ranks and was accordingly punished for doing so.

The Stasi was chillingly effective in severe psychological debasement and also a dab hand in the physical department. There is the unbelievably appalling case of Sigrid Paul and her son Torsten, whose breech birth was badly handled and whose ill health eventually forced doctors to spirit him across the border, where he remained in hospital for the next five years, basically brought up by nurses, whilst his parents were sequestered behind the Wall. Sigrid and her husband’s desperate plan to defect, with the help of a network of students who provided a safe passage across the border, was repeatedly thwarted. And Sigrid eventually made the heartrending decision not to betray the students at the expense of seeing her son, but was still imprisoned and shockingly, persistently tortured. You will find it almost impossible to believe that one human being can do such things to another – especially in the name of the state.

Like her countrywoman Helen Garner, Funder excels in this type of first-person reportage, removed only a few degrees from the “gonzo” style of journalism pioneered by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk. She emits a remarkable degree of humanity and empathy in the retelling of these tales, many of them so horrific and inhumane, nightmare Orwellian tales that are tragically all too true.

Remarkably, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s – barely a decade after the destruction of the Wall – Funder finds there is a certain amount of nostalgia amongst some East Berliners for the Stasi era. As several note, life under capitalism has more than its share of challenges – amongst them housing, food, social security, health. Time might not heal all wounds, but it does taint memories, and can skew a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

Stasiland is an important, must-read book, for no other reason than it is vital that we keep these atrocious stories alive in the hope that we, mankind, never repeats them. Although I fear that in a world that descends further into chaos with every passing day, this might prove a moot point. But I hope not – and the survival of hope is the overarching message behind Stasiland. We ignore it at our own peril.


Stasiland – Andy’s Berlin obsession detains him once again

October 21, 2014

When it comes to cities I’ve not visited that I want to visit New York trumps Berlin, but only just. In fact I have visited Berlin, once, sort of – I was on some dodgy semi-independent bus toury thing of Europe, Eurobus I think it was called, in the mid-nineties – independent in that you could choose where you wanted to stay and how long, semi-independent in that you could only go to the cities on the bus route. Berlin was towards the end of that route and I was uncertain about how much money I had left (this predates being able to check your bank balance from your sonic, sorry smartphone), and I assumed Berlin would be pricey, so having spent quite a few days in dirt-cheap Prague and Budapest I decided to give presumably outrageously expensive Berlin a miss. The bus drove through Berlin, , I looked out the window, we went on to Hamburg and I found an ATM that could give me a bank balance. My UK tax return had come through, and there was five thousand bucks in my account, and I could have spent days in Berlin, after all.

Oh well.

At that stage my fascination with Berlin was fuelled by my knowledge of the Weimar Republic and my reading of Christopher Isherwood. Pretty much everything I have learned about Berlin since has stoked my desire to visit that city. Anna Funder’s Stasiland stoked quite a bit more.

stasilandNetty wanted to read this. I wasn’t keen. I’m not sure why, although I guess maybe as an old if marginally reformed leftie I was expecting “everything about everything that the commies tried to do in the twentieth century was totally awful”. I wasn’t expecting nuance, slightly jaded sympathy for the aims of the communism, a preparedness to hear the voices of those who were determined to (mostly delusionally) defend the police state they helped maintain. But surprisingly Funder supplied pretty much all of those things.

Funder – who visited Germany, as recorded here anyway, just months before me – gets the profound decency of what communism was trying to achieve. She also gets the horror of the lengths communists were prepared to go to get there. The laughable adherence of the men (and they are all men, I think) who worked for the Stasi to the principles they were trained to uphold cannot stand the horror of what was inflicted on those (in Funder’s account, mostly women) who were found by the state to be in breach of its ideals.

There is commentary from Funder, of course, but it is measured and balanced. Mostly she is happy to simply allow those she interviewed to tell their stories. While it’s often grim reading there is plenty of (mostly dark) humour, especially in some of the system built-in idiocies.

East Germany did not kill people in the way Stalin’s Russia, or even Lenin’s Russia, did. But it killed people, and some of those stories are told here. It also blighted people’s lives, in unbelievable ways. And all in pursuit of a vision of society that was never going to be fulfilled. What’s particularly fascinating about Funder’s book is that it tells a story of a very specific society, constructed it seems almost overnight, that differed vastly from what it replaced – and which disappeared after less than half a century. Some of the people Funder interviewed may well be dead by now.

They’re horrified when people say it, but fundamentalists of all stripes – Muslim. Christian, Jew Nazi Fascist Commie Khmer Rough – have the same thing in common: the perfection of the human being. In godspeak perfection is unachievable, because “mankind” is stained forever by sin, but we’re expected to strive towards those unattainable ideals that god set us and (in its more extreme versions) kill those who transgress them: in the political fundamentalisms the belief is that perfection is actually achievable, here and now. East Germany was one of so many tragic failed experiments on that road.


In which Netty goes into the past to see the future – and why you need to read Don DeLillo’s Mao II right now

October 2, 2014

cover-maoiiWow. Just … wow.

Sometimes I wonder, as I make my way through Don DeLillo’s back catalogue, if the man isn’t half-clairvoyant. His 10th novel Mao II, published in 1992, is so eerily prescient of what is making headlines today – some 22 years later – that reading it feels almost like a warning sign (cue Talking Heads’ David Byrne, all the way back in 1978, singing: “Hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s not very nice”.)

So, Don, about the numbers for this week’s lotto draw …

But seriously, this is the book they should shoot into space, so that long after we are gone, many, many light years later, some alien life form will stumble upon it and go, “Aha. We get it. That’s why they’re not around any more.”

Mao II – named after American pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous mass-produced silkscreen print of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which appears and recurs as a motif throughout the novel – is also a literature teacher’s wet dream. It’s a compact guide to the modern global world, chock-full of contemporary themes and mores, name-checking the major events of the late 20th century, from mass Moonie weddings to the Hillsborough football tragedy to the death and funeral of Iran leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. The book’s prologue ends with the sentence, “The future belongs to crowds”, and it is its overarching theme – from the safety and sanctity of the crowd, to its potential for mayhem and absolute disaster.

The main character is a man who wants nothing whatsoever to do with crowds – and to that end has become a virtual recluse. Bill Gray is a sixtysomething novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon mode – many years ago he wrote a couple of books that became touchstones for a generation, and the fact that he has disappeared off the radar, not releasing any new material since, just makes him more of a magnet for the people he most wishes to eschew.

Scott, the personal assistant who has lived with Bill for eight years, is one such tenacious fan who seeks out his literary hero and manages to secure a position in Bill’s life and home in upstate New York. He lives there with his girlfriend Karen, who, in the book’s prologue, is one of the 13,000 brides being married at Yankee Stadium under the banner of the Unification Church. After being captured and deprogrammed by her family, she escapes and is later found by Scott wandering the streets of a small town in Kansas. While Scott oversees Bill’s archives, deals with his fan mail and proofreads his new work, Karen keeps house and surreptitiously sleeps with Bill – which, bizarrely, seems to receive Scott’s tacit approval.

In anticipation of the release of a new novel, Bill agrees to be photographed by New York snapper Brita Nilsson, who has devoted her life’s work to taking pictures of famous and important writers. It will be the first new photos of Bill published in three decades. Afterwards, Bill goes to New York City to meet with his long-time publisher Charlie Everson, who, in addition to pressing Bill about his new work, tells him about a Swiss UN worker and poet who is being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Beirut. Charlie, who also chairs a “high-minded committee on free expression”, has concocted a plan where Bill will appear at a press conference in London and read from the poet’s work before he is released. “Your group gets press, their new group gets press, the young man is sprung from his basement room, the journalists get a story,” Bill deadpans.

Without informing Scott, Bill jets off to London for the press conference, but bomb threats – and then an explosion on a London street – delay the event. Charlie and Bill meet with George Haddad, a representative of the Beirut group who later tracks down Bill and talks him into going to Athens, then Beirut, to negotiate the poet’s release without his publisher’s knowledge or intervention. Bill opines that novelists and terrorists are playing “a zero-sum game”. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” he says. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

Bill continues: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” When George chips in that terrorists are “the only possible heroes for our time”, Bill vehemently disagrees: “It’s pure myth, the terrorist as solitary outlaw. These groups are backed by repressive governments … they carry the old wild-eyed vision, total destruction and total order.”

Later, the photographer Brita, working as a freelancer, accepts an assignment in war-torn Beirut to take pictures of the organisation’s leader Abu Rashid, who says to her: “I will tell you why we put Westerners in locked rooms. So we don’t have to look at them. They remind us of the way we tried to mimic the West … which you now see exploded all around you.” And this: “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world … terror makes the new world possible.”

Read those words, written in 1992, and tell me you don’t have the chill of recognition. These scenarios, these words, could have been ripped out of yesterday’s newspapers. And, as has been said before, many times throughout the years, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

You need to read this book. Right now. It won’t always be a pleasant experience, and you won’t always enjoy it, but you will come away with the feeling that you can make just a little more sense of this convoluted, fucked-up, loony-toons crazy world we have created and continue to hone.

Wow. Just … wow.


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