What are we to make of Tommy Orange’s There There, with its story of a Powwow interrupted by violence? Why is that the event where the book’s interlinked narratives connect? Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as is his character Dene Oxendene, a young documentary filmmaker collecting stories from Native people in his hometown. Dene is thus a version of Orange himself, allowing the novelist to comment metafictionally about the politics of representing one’s community, particularly when one is a member of an oppressed people. Can the one allow the many to speak? Can the many speak through the one?
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Discovery of the AMC series Lodge 49 sends me back to Thomas Pynchon’s slim but not slight second novel The Crying of Lot 49, a book I read many years ago as an undergrad. This time around I’m delighted to be re-acquainted not just with the book’s heroine Oedipa Mass, but also with her shrink Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist running an experiment in a community hospital in the book’s version of 1960s Southern California, “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (17). Hilarius calls the experiment the bridge, or “die Brücke,” as in “The bridge inward” (17). At the back of the book, my twenty-year-old self had written a set of clues to the book’s decipherment, composed as if they were a type of verse: four lines, four simple statements: “lot 49 equals tristero. / tristero equals the disinherited. / oedipa awaits the crying of the disinherited. / auctioning off america … who will win?” The morning after receiving a phone call from Hilarius begging her to participate in his experiment, Oedipa experiences an altered state of consciousness, an “odd, religious instant.” Looking down a slope over a vast sprawl of houses, Oedipa discerns a pattern of sorts. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle,” Pynchon writes, “sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. […]. there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). […]. As if, on some other frequency…words were being spoken” (24-25). I begin to wonder: is what follows an acid trip? Did Oedipa unwittingly take one of the pills Hilarius had given to her?
I re-read a friend’s novel, preparing to discuss it again with students. It’s weird and wonderful, terrifying and funny, the fictional consensus realities of Norman Rockwell paintings and Nancy Drew novels turned askew. The small town after which the book is named operates as a microcosm, patriarchy ensnaring the novel’s female protagonist, interrupting her attempts to see beyond her surroundings. Mansplaining townsfolk infantilize her, stripping her of self-confidence to the point where she doubts her own existence. All of this occurs in a limbo-like bizarro-world, some liminal Nowheresville halfway between Twin Peaks and Bikini Bottom. The book is a dystopian fabulation in some sense, its grammar taken from capitalist realism; but it leavens this weight with its slapstick and the joy it takes in language as a site of play — its reminder, in all of these ways, that Utopia is right there for the taking. Despite our society’s sometimes horrifying resemblance to the world of the novel, the book’s delight in the craft of writing shows that it needn’t be that way. The book ventriloquizes and caricatures ruling rhetorics. Institutions are made to speak: landlords wax eloquent about landlordism, mothers extol the virtues of shopping. All of these rhetorics in their recitation are shown to be evasions and denials, self-propagating fictions, avoidances of past and ongoing abuse. Against these rhetorics, the book celebrates and revels in the imaginative flights and associative leaps of its protagonist, whose mind races, a part of it still attentive, still wanting to know, still curious and free despite circumstance.
A bird sings to me, other birds and I chuckling in reply. This bird is a dear friend. I admire him for his zest and energy, his cheer, his radical tenderness, his sense of humor, his positive energy, his knowledge born — well, you get the picture. This friend inspires me. Perhaps I can dedicate myself to the craft of fiction. Sarah waves the crackers toward me: “More?” “I would keep eating them,” I answer, pulled in several directions at once. I must build a problem and then use the act of writing to solve it, as if I were opening a box filled with Easter candy.
I perform a mind game wherein I imagine a psychoanalytic interpretation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel not just seen through the eyes of its half-Native American narrator, Chief Bromden, but somehow also set in the character’s head, his paranoid delusions causing him to hallucinate — by which I mean “literalize,” or “externalize” — the internal struggle between his Superego and his Id as a struggle between the characters of Big Nurse and Randle Patrick McMurphy. Then again, instead of psychoanalysis, we could sub in Marxism as our master discourse and read the novel as a Cold War allegory and/or a satire of the postwar order. Like all good political allegories, the work can be read on several levels or scales of being: the personal, the spiritual, the national-historical, and the world-historical all somehow homologous. The Nurse’s effort to cast aspersions on McMurphy’s motives resembles the progressivist critique of industrial robber-baron capitalism, just as the incident in the shower room represents the Zoot Suit Riots. If interpretation of this sort places me in the camp of the novel’s wheelchair-bound WWI veteran Colonel Matterson, so be it.
The “Murugan” character in Huxley’s Island is far more a dramatis persona (literally, a “mask for drama”) than the student interlocutors who engage with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Murugan is willful and petty, his every statement an outburst of bitterness and longing. But it would be wrong to read him as an imp borne of Freud’s unconscious. The would-be tyrant — whose wish is to dominate and rule — appears in Huxley’s narration as an identity captured or possessed, rather, by Ego. Or as Huxley says: “an all too familiar kind of psychological ugliness” (Island, p. 48). “A spirit of delinquency” against the Good, or against collective well-being, waging war against traditional wisdom. In the particulars of Murugan’s case, this means hoping to “modernize” Pala through international sale of oil. Modernization means cities, mass media, confiscation and expenditure of social wealth by the false Son, or by all who would imagine themselves above the Given State. Why is this personality structure present as an irritant within Huxley’s vision? Let speak that which profiteth not, a spilling forth, a babbling brook, buzz, chatter, flight, passage, awareness settling experimentally into a great listening to surroundings or environment, other beings. Wim Hof is another of these false Sons. He interpolates and interpellates through application of a method to breathing, converting those who use his method into “alchemists” of their own chemistry. Part of me fears what he might signify. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps — like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Perhaps this danger lurks in all attempts to modify consciousness.
To soundtrack my second time through Huxley’s Island, I hit play on World Cup’s new CD-R of “adventure” music, Marsala.
Electronic tones keyed to other eras evoke imaginary videogame daydreams, images paired with sounds. In her first session treating Island‘s protagonist Will Faraday with a form of hypno-therapy, the book’s female lead Susila MacPhail offers him (and us, as we read along) a portrait of “perfect reconciliation”: a veritable church in the wild. “There were daisies in the grass and dandelions, and across the water towered up the huge church, challenging the wildness of those soft April clouds with its austere geometry. Challenging the wildness, and at the same time complementing it, coming to terms with it in perfect reconciliation” (33). The vision continues by imagining “White swans moving across a mirror of jade and jet — a breathing mirror that heaved and trembled, so that their silvery images were forever breaking and coming together again, disintegrating and being made whole” (33). What are we reading at this point? Through the reading experience, it is as if we become spellbound, consciousness led by words to a point of deep satisfaction. “Effortlessly floating,” the book repeats, “Effortlessly floating.” It feels as if one is both here and there, alive and yet already dead, following an echo down a hallway. A masterful bit of indirect suggestion, this chapter! It even announces itself as such by chapter’s end. All pain, all suffering is remade into “A miserable little thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing. There can’t be any doubt as to who’s going to win” (36). And for me, it works: the words become the experience, the image becomes the thing. I imagine all of human history as a kind of “bad trip” caused by the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the famous creation myth — but with the reminder inserted into the trip that it is just a trip and that already, outside the trip’s false appearances, outside of the prison-dimension we call time, we are here and now awake and forgiven.
Let us presume an underlying unity of purpose guiding seasons and souls. At the same time, let us declare that any discourse that validates itself by claiming on its behalf its actuality, or allies itself exclusively with the natural, is a cop out. Admitting into a fiction the paradox of its reality is like designing into a mask a clue to its wearer’s essence. And yet, when we pause our telling, it’s there again, this “nature.” Even when apprehended as soundscape alone, this universal commons, this host-body upon which we feed, is of a secret order greater than that of any made by craft or techne. Slip off, then, slip free of, one’s headphones. One need only pronounce into this wet evening air the words, “In the story, it is written.” So begins the tale of the tale that tells itself into being. The Tale of the Algorithmic Universe.
Operators were warned early in the game that their minds would one day melt under the pressure of neoliberal operant conditioning dispersed across the gameworld through takeover of the phenomenon known as work. Foreknowledge of a danger lacks consequence, however, when one is powerless to change one’s course. Several well-received monographs have already been written on the subject. Yet here we are—integrated into the narrative despite ourselves. An enterprising young cartoon skateboarder rolls up and says, “Feel free to customize the pipes on your virtual persona!” Practicing a few simple laws, our overseers have grabbed and conquered. “Just like that,” says the skater, fingers snapping. His friends arrive and line up beside a food truck. “Welcome to Biscuit Town,” mutters one of them. We roll our eyes and look grimly upon the scene ahead. To a rhythmic interplay of xylophones, triangles, and cowbells, they tie us up, they weigh us down. Their employer, from another hemisphere, gives a command like so. Push/pull. A scuffle. “Nobody move,” shouts a man in a mask, “it’s a stick up.” And like that, they rob us blind.