Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Twenty-Seventh-City

The city of St. Louis, during a bizarre autumn sometime in the waning years of the 1980’s, selects S. Jammu, a Los Angles born Indian -- formally the Police commissioner of Bombay, Indian -- to succeed the city’s former police chief. The development, needless to say, is unexpected. Jammu hasn’t lived in the United States in over a decade, and that she is a woman doesn’t help matters. Unsurprisingly, the political and business community are skeptical -- the county’s benevolent advisory board, Municipal Growth, especially. And then things begin to change.

Where Jammu was once perceived as an inexperienced and inappropriate choice, she becomes a fount of civic adulations and a symbol for the New St. Louis. Members of Municipal Growth conveniently start revising their opinions of Jammu as, inexplicitly, incidences of bombings and terror related attacks are directed at either them or citizens of the city. It would only seem plausible to draw the necessary connections between Jammu’s arrival on the scene and the oddity of St. Louis being targeted by terrorists, or Indians (that is: Native Americans; an erstwhile, non-extant tribe that miraculously reassembles to terrorize the city and county of St. Louis for past pre-colonial grievances.)

No one but General Norris, a member of Municipal Growth and an unreconstructed character, smells a conspiracy afoot, implausible as this may seem. But this is with good reason: Jammu has managed to extort and blackmail nearly every prominent business and civic leader in St. Louis, amassing the necessary political and logistical power to execute her plan -- to create a real-estate appreciation in downtown St. Louis, an area, not too uncoincidentally, her mother has just recently invested considerable capital in. Nevertheless, Jammu has one final obstacle in Martin Probst, a respected contractor, a paragon of morality, and chairman of Municipal Growth.

And so begins The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s ambitious if somewhat circuitous first novel. The plot is dense, populated by a litany of characters with oscillating motives. Of the narratives, and there are many, Martin Probst’s is of primary import. Probst is best know for being the man who built the Arch, so naturally the mantel of probity rests on him while Jammu attempts, indefatigably, to break him, thus assuring her plan’s success. The campaign she wages would surely be without scruples if undertaken by any ordinary person; it is therefore that much worse that the police chief of St. Louis is behind it.

Yet Jammu isn’t your ordinary person -- or pol or public official, for that matter. She is a hardened politically militant socialist of Trotskyite bent. She is also a protégé of Indira Gandhi, a person to whom she owes much for her professional advancement in Bombay. Though, there is a strain of aimless malice in Jammu which strikes me as vapid. It is amazing how Franzen is able to masterly construct this gargantuan plot yet also skimp on his characters’ consciousness. This is particularly the case with Jammu, who is rarely, if only partially, psychologized to the extent of illumination. Insofar as she maintains a shadowy mystic to the characters in Franzen’s novel, she remains almost entirely ineffable to the reader.

Martin Probst, similarly, is fleshed out rather feebly. We understand that moral rectitude is his métier and “accomplishing things” drives him, but beyond that his rigidity and opacity become stifling—his asceticism literally frustrates the reader. Even when General Norris approaches Probst with the voluminous evidence of The Conspiracy and Jammu’s unsavory involvement in it, Martin chides the General for his outlandishness. What Franzen, in my opinion, seems to be saying of conspiracy theories -- possibly his novelistic conceit -- is that they are for ‘weaker minds.’ He says this while having elaborated on a baroque novel of conspiracy. Is this not frustrating? Was this his intention? What begins to happen to Probst, while tragic, could be construed as cathartic -- for the reader, me specifically. Martin reminds me too much of Alfred Lambert from The Corrections, a character he anticipates.

But Franzen is adept when he’s waxing political.There are overtones of Cold War critique and, as the thought strikes me now, nearly everyone is afflicted with the symptoms of a cold. This was a peculiar meme that I had first attributed to merely banal symbolism; but on further analysis it seems clear that Jammu, a committed marxist qua terrorist, represents an ideological infection, and her efforts at fomenting real-estate speculation are directed towards undermining (indulge me) the arbitrary logic of capitalism -- even if it’s only in St. Louis.

However, my understanding of this is still very shallow since, it seems, Franzen is all over the place. If it is anything, The Twenty-Seventh City is an astute commentary on the local and the political. That a small group of political and financially influential citizens can steer the course of a city, thus determining its fate, is not a new argument. Franzen, instead, offers something polemical:

Threatened with the prospect of thinking and deciding, the body politic had surrendered. It embarrassed the commentators -- but only because they failed to place the election within the larger context. Their shame was a measure of their obsolescence. They did not understand that America was outgrowing the age of action. (503)

Here, Franzen is speaking of the media trying to understand lower voter turn out in a St. Louis referendum -- this is in 1988. Franzen is anticipating the mainstream media’s ‘obsolescence’. Voter apathy was nascent but growing after Nixon and more prominent during the Carter administration. The obsolescence of the media was just around the corner. And now the electorate is mature in its apathy.

In the end, The Twenty-Seventh City is a feat, considering that Franzen was only 28 when the novel was published. A strong novel that is beguiling at turns and cast in the mold of epic grander than reality, it augured great things for Franzen. (As evidenced in The Corrections and Strong Motion (soon to be read)) Unfortunately, for me at least, it was also bloated; so heavy was its narrative enterprise that it began to sag at its edges, nearly making its conclusion indecipherable and, retrospectively, its beginnings fugitive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

His head is flat.

In one paragraph a New York Review of Books essay offers a stinging rebuttal to the Panglossian polemics on globalization's behalf. Once again, Thomas Friedman -- with a mustache that assures him eternal allegiance with snake-oil salesman everywhere -- turns out looking silly. John Gray opines thusly:

Globalization has no inherent tendency to promote the free market or liberal democracy. Neither does it augur an end to nationalism or great-power rivalries. Describing a long conversation with the CEO of a small Indian game company in Bangalore, Friedman recounts the entrepreneur concluding: "India is going to be a superpower and we are going to rule." Friedman replies: "Rule whom?" Friedman's response suggests that the present phase of globalization is tending to make imbalances of power between states irrelevant. In fact what it is doing is creating new great powers, and this is one of the reasons it has been embraced in China and India.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A Man Walks Into a Room

Nicole Krauss’s first novel A Man Walks Into a Room is a beautiful, poetic, lilt that is at once endearing and intellectual. Samson Greene is found wandering the Nevada desert, unknowing and unknown to authorities. Initially, law enforcement officers are doubtful if the identification that bears Samson’s name is, in fact, actually his; but it is soon confirmed that the Samson Greene aimlessly walking the Nevada desert is Samson Greene -- resident of New York, professor of English at Columbia.

To the surprise of a neurosurgeon and, later, his wife, Anna, it turns out that a tumor the size of a cherry has wiped out Samson’s entire memory – well not exactly. Samson will remember nothing of the past twenty-four years of his life once the tumor is removed; not his job, not his friends, and not, more tragically, Anna.

Recalling only the first twelve years of his life, Samson enters his new reality with timidity and awe. The geopolitical tête - à – tête that was the Cold War is over; an older and more intoxicated Billy Joel appears puzzling to him; modern technology like the computer, to say nothing of the internet, is altogether incomprehensible; and when he finds out that his mother has already passed away, five years prior, the pain is too much to bear. And in the interim, while he recovers, reconnecting with his friends and colleagues proves awkward and stifling, further exacerbating the swell of alienation and loneliness he’s already undergoing.

So what of Anna? In these exchanges Krauss deploys the language of restrained expectance. Anna is torn – wanting to, on the one hand, sooth and finesse, slowly, the lost memories to the surface, or, alternatively, shake, cajole and pull from Samson the experiences they shared together, experiences that are as much a part of his identity as hers. But Samson’s condition is irrevocable; and, inevitably, Anna and Samson drift apart. There is a culpability Samson feels, and as Anna begins to lose hope, he too loses rasion-d’etre, wandering into an ineffable anomie.

The novel follows Samson back to Nevada as he embarks on an experimental project that is touted to advance science and society, and then next to the center of his material mind where he is confronted with tough questions. Why this? What now? The journey is gut-wrenching and at times almost meaningless, but in the end it is cathartic.

I found Krauss’s prose fluid, and though initially the structure, even the narrative, seemed illegible, the second half of the novel was paced well, with the requisite amount of suspense. There were a star-lode of ideas that, in and of themselves, could buttress an entirely different novel. Ideas like the authenticity of memory, the psychology of the individual in relation to habits and memory, the cognitive structure of personalities as regards memory. (I may be repeating myself with the last clause, but oh well.)

I highly recommend the book. During the past month I’ve also read Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, which I’ll attempt to a mini-review of, and on the recommendation of my mother I’ve also read Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

US environs

Ambitions are low. I’ve been derelict from duty for the past two weeks for two very good reasons: a) Visiting family in Connecticut, and b) catching up with friends in Toronto. To say the very least, the time away was constructive -- and calming. The day I arrived in Hartford was the day of the London Bombings and, naturally, security was tight. My sister recalls hearing F-14 fighter jets flying over-head as she came to pick me up from the train station; and surrounding the station were numerous members of the US law enforcement apparatus, bomb-sniffing dogs, first responders, and, possibly, characters in radiological suits. (Though, this may have just been a peculiarly dressed individual.)

Somehow the overall mood seemed to be tepid, as though absolutely no threat existed, even though the transit systems are likely the most porous and vulnerable when it comes to point of weakness -- but nevertheless.

Connecticut is a breath-taking vision of pastoral with its Classical, Colonial and Victorian architecture, expansive and florid green-spaces, and historical landmarks. I had the opportunity to pass by Mark Twain’s Manor. And interestingly enough, I passed through the Berkshires, a prominent local in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a novel that I’m currently reading.

There were, of course, no shortage of American flags; and the national pastime, contrary to popular falsehoods, is not baseball but shopping. I truly believe that ‘Hearts and Minds’ could easily be won over if detractors of all things Americana were sent through the extravagance of a shopping mall. Shopping is good -- but good for a reason. I now understand why Americans are the most productive people in the world -- their stores, it seems, never close. Consumption is a socializing and collectivizing force, first, and a patriotic refrain, second. The sales tax kicks in only after a certain amount, making many of my purchases incredibly economical.

But then there is the inequality. Almost as stark as it is in Washington, Connecticut could move quickly from uber-affluence to desolate squalor. It’s only a two minute drive from the Governor’s Mansion to crack-houses and car-jackings. This is the Two Americas that John Edwards so breathlessly and eloquently speaks of.

And yet, what struck me as constituting the underlying ethos of America was its entrepreneurial verve. Literally everyone is trying to make a dollar -- trying to attain that upward mobility so embodied in the American dream. The pitiful thing that stuck with me is how unquestionably popular Bush is when it comes to the economic argument. The 'Ownership Society' rhetoric has been appealing to the middle class, pinched on both sides by the vast entitlement tax-encroachment and the tax-avoiding, tax-sheltering, tax-haven plutocrats. But Bush’s 'Ownership Society' rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. The substance, pace R. Salam, has been a thin greul.

Unless they’ve already been obsolesced, the Democrats need to speak bread and butter to the electorate -- pocket-book issues resonate. Though, this is far easier to say since, as Kulturkampf persist, the Republicans have been successful at framing the debate around values—a debate they’ve soundly thrashed the Democrats in. On balance, my time in Connecticut was good.

Toronto was altogether another story. The city is always beautiful, always vibrant. The nightlife is extraordinary, there is too much to do, too many places to go. Celebrities and athletes mix with quasi-celebrities and quasi-athletes in clubs that putatively have guest lists but admit commoners. The city pulses at two-thirty-am when the bars and clubs let out, enveloping its denizens as they wander the formidable maze of heated concrete and elevated steel at altitudes close to Olympian. There is a depth and context to one’s surrounding, as if this is the three-dimensional and anything else you’ve otherwise encountered is ersatz. It is a city, in a continent, in an era whose history is being debated, written, shaped. For a moment, one is on history's stage, involved in a series of events with no particular coherence to their agents (us). Are we history's objects, simply being acted upon, or are we the subjects pushing the narrative? What will they say of our generation, of our culture?

My friends are always my friends and the city is always hot.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Wisdom of Crowds

Let’s wade into l’affaire Homolka and her on-going attempts to prohibit media outlets from publishing her whereabouts. A Quebec Superior Court Justice rejected this plea last week. Too bad for Karla. She’s in a “State of Terror” contend her lawyers, and with no shortage of hate-mail and death threats Ms. Homolka is understandably fearful for her personal safety upon release. (Which, incidentally, is today by sundown.)

Offhandedly, Homolka’s lawyers caution that rather than the major media outlets being the culprit, internet bloggers zealously publishing Ms. Homolka’s whereabouts will create the real threat to her safety. It’s not hard to imagine some unreconstructed vigilante -- a sociopath at the very least -- taking it upon himself to met out society’s just deserts. This isn’t even to speak of the disparate common citizens, struck with a peculiar morbidity, field-tripping it to Québec for the day -- Ms. Homolka’s place of residence their primary draw; and why not Old Quebec for that matter?

There is that side of me that says “This citizen has served her time, let her be.” This is my far too charitable side. And then the sensible side of me says, “Well, actually… It was later proved that Homolka’s involvement in the rape and murder of three women -- one of them her sister -- was far more integral, her mens rea not diminished by her earlier and more dubious testimony. So really, she hasn’t served nearly enough time in prison; and who am I to stop a concerned citizen from airing his/her misgivings.” (I’m not condoning vigilantism.)

Of course I’m not suggesting that the streets of Montreal run with the blood of a triple-murderer. Not at all. Though, the thought that the media, concerned citizens, reckless bloggers, and the denizens of Montreal have to somehow respect Ms. Homolka’s privacy is painfully laughable. And the last time we respected Ms. Homolka’s privacy? (Ok, this is vile demagoguery and silly rhetoric. My bad.) All I have to offer Ms. Homolka is a trite aphorism: If you sow the wind you reap a storm. And did she ever sow the wind.