The hypno-therapeutic invocation at the start of the new Netflix series Babylon Berlin works as would a spell cast to ensure suspension of disbelief. It sinks the show’s audience immediately into a weirdly liminal, malleable state. The camera mimics, externalizes, makes public a property of mind, the power of the negative. Amid a non-place housing an infinity of potential signs, the mind invents for itself improvised picture-events. Mirror images evolve together like the reflecting surfaces of a kaleidoscope. Culture unfolds this way, too. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, workshopped in Wallace Stegner’s creative writing seminars at Stanford, prompted Stegner’s angry rebuttal, All the Little Live Things. The Kesey novel imagines escape from the Combine (AKA the White Christian Settler-Colonialist Superstate) through cross-racial alliance between figures representing Native Americans and working-class whites. Kesey stages this alliance by rewriting and altering the outcome of the moment of cultural encounter, with character types and lines of dialogue borrowed from Hollywood Westerns. Kesey himself attempted in the years that followed to live out and embody this imaginary resolution with his cohorts, The Merry Pranksters. Stegner, having been there at the birth, so to speak, of this logic informing Kesey’s self-fashioning, acknowledges as much by linking Jim Peck, the Kesey character in All the Little Live Things, with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The one who forges this equation is none other than the Stegner novel’s narrator-protagonist Joe Allston. Where Kesey staffs the Combine with Nurse Ratched, Stegner places on the throne of All the Little Live Things’s California Eden a hot-tempered patriarch, a stern father intent on nipping hippiedom in the bud. Stegner’s novel, remember, comes out in 1967, the same year as the Summer of Love, the same year California vowed to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” by electing Ronald Reagan as its governor — the story of Oedipus thus given a new ending, with the attempted patricide quelled and the rivalry prolonged into the future.
I coach myself to smuggle more dreamtime into daytime along my daily walk. As I do so, a squirrel falls from a tree branch a good 15 feet onto the street below several yards ahead of me, only to then run off unfazed into the shade of a parked car. Sarah and I marvel at the strangeness of a dream of hers from the night before involving a student who, despite her protests, insisted upon blowing a dog whistle during class. The conversation turns toward a German TV series she’s been watching recently, Babylon Berlin. I reflect upon the left critique of bourgeois decadence and the Nazi attack on “degenerate art,” both conjured by their association with the show’s use of “Babylon” in its title. Both formations, I tell myself, emerged as critiques of liberalism. A large dog, however, stirred by my approach, awakens me from these thoughts with its bark and its yelp, a dark blur spied between the panels of a neighbor’s fence. Afterwards I find a copy of All the Little Live Things, a 1967 novel by Wallace Stegner featuring “Jim Peck,” a character modeled after Stegner’s former student at Stanford, Ken Kesey. The book’s first-person narrator, a retiree named Joe Allston, spends the bulk of the novel venting about the Peck character once the latter, described on the book jacket as “a bearded young cultist,” moves in next door, builds a treehouse on Allston’s property, and proceeds to start “a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex.” That’s when it hits me. Wild Wild Country, All the Little Live Things, Babylon Berlin: they all explore the same basic narrative, the culture war imagined in miniature, with variable sympathies and variable scales and stakes.