Of Course Aliens Were Keeping Us Safe From Mutually Assured Destruction.

In a recent CNN report, 7 US Air Force personnel came forward and claimed to have seen UFOs hovering over nuclear missile sites, and in some cases shut down some of the systems in the missiles.  Read this amazing absurdity here.  Basically, this reveals what I knew all along: that the US and USSR could never have actually destroyed each other, b/c our benevolent alien overlords would have prevented it.  No way the Cold War and the threat of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), and the various political and historical realities prevented this nuclear conflagration; it was the aliens!

Pittsburgh and Nuclear Disarmament

This weekend Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh’s local nuclear disarmament organization Remembering Hiroshima 2010, along w/ other events, are showing 3 films for an Atomic Weekend just down the street from me at the Melwood Screening Room. I’m gonna try to attend a few of the events, but def. Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, a film I’ve been meaning to see for awhile.  I had no idea this organization existed in the burgh, and I am very happy to see that it does and that it appears to be quite busy and active w/in the community. Please show your support.  (And of course they’re also showing Dr. Strangelove.)

Might As Well Join the Fray/Celebration: A (Personal) Note on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

As I am sure is the case w/ many people right now, I picked up Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom (2010) simply b/c I felt like I should.  W/ all the attention he and it were garnering, both positive and negative,[1] and the ole “I study Am. Lit.” thing, it was all but inevitable that I should pick up the novel and, at the very least, let it sit on my overstuffed bookshelves until I got around to it when I had more time, perhaps weeks, months, or years from now.  So I was fairly surprised when I found myself this last Saturday, having shucked off more important work for little to no good reason, 200 pp. into Freedom, and that’s w/o having gotten up to do anything more than use the bathroom.  I was even more surprised that when last night, coming home from a particularly excellent third class of the semester,[2] I decided to reward myself w/ continuing to read Freedom, even though I’d just received the new book of essays on DFW in the mail: something I’ve been eagerly awaiting and something far more pressing on my list of things to read for a multitude of reasons.  Imagine my further surprise, then, for a novel I simply picked up b/c of fairly inordinate hype, when the only thing capable of making me close Freedom’s covers this morning at 0600 was the simple fact that my eyes wouldn’t stay open.  I proceeded to dream in Franzen-land until I awoke this morning and promptly finished off the rest.

I relate my experience of reading Freedom—knowing full well that it isn’t the most interesting thing in the world (and a bit self-aggrandizing) to hear about someone’s manic reading—simply b/c I literally could not put the book down, and finished its over 550 pp. in more-or-less two sittings.[3] (And it now actually occurs to me I did the same thing w/ The Corrections [2001], though years after it was released.)  And this is b/c Freedom is really that phenomenally, brilliantly, a whole-bunch-more-adjectives-ly, good.  I’m absolutely at a loss to say, as some have, that it is the “novel of the century,” or even really deserving of all (though clearly some) of the hype.  But holy moly.  Franzen has truly achieved one of those rare moments of near-perfect marriages b/t form, content, style, history, politics, economics, aesthetics, etc. etc.  It feels important, the way important literature always feels important (regardless whether he’s a white male or not, Jodi Picoult), but it is also eminently, almost saccharinely and disturbingly, readable.  When DFW talks about a generation of writers emerging who are almost too sincere in his essay “E Unibus Plurum,”[4] he is talking about the appearance/emergence of a novel like Freedom, a novel that, w/ very little irony, seriously and uncompromisingly takes on fiction as a necessary task, a task of the utmost importance, a task which is also ultimately a gift.  It never shirks its duty to not only display a world chock full of horror at every conceivable level, but also to be a respite, a balm, a solution,[5] if even for a couple of days, to those horrors.  I know this may sound hyperbolic, but Franzen’s compassion and convictions about the world are heartbreakingly evident on every page.  Rather than focusing on what he is taking from us: our hard-earned dollar, the mantle of literary super-star from someone (more deserving), and rather than projecting upon him all our own fears, anxieties, jealousies, envies, and pettiness (and thereby reifying him), perhaps we should be simply thanking him for a really well-considered gift, the kind you don’t really expect from a less-well-known acquaintance, but nonetheless feel immense gratitude for, and never for a moment consider how the giving of the gift might also be self-serving b/c of its (almost disturbing) authenticity and genuineness.  In short, I feel he is a writer we should be proud to have representing American Fiction (and by proxy, Americans) in these oh-so-untimely of times.

But the real thing I’m so impressed by in Freedom, is its ability to capture the, for lack of a better word, “essence” of the last decade.  Many writers and others have come admirably close to really getting at the heart of the complexity of the 2000s, but as someone who was entering college on the very edge of the decade, and as someone who is now teaching young adults in college that weren’t even pre-adolescents at its beginning (at its end), I have to honestly admit I’ve been less-than-enthused w/ contemporary literature’s ability to harness the particularly confusing historical moment in the same way I’ve been far-less-than-enthused about that historical moment.  I don’t need to name any names, or really even bemoan anything like the oft-invoked “death of fiction” here, if for no other reason that the 2000s, by all accounts, was a particularly devastating, confusing, complex, maddening decade.  Fiction, nor much else for that matter, simply couldn’t keep up w/ the absurdity of the real world; and it would be ludicrous to expect it to.  I suppose that’s always the case, but as the first decade of my own (of course) confusing adult life is coming to an end, I felt particularly slighted.  There was no great Cause, no great Debacle, no great hip-postmodern-80s-ennui, and no salad-Lewinski-days, as my forebears and the writers who wrote about them had.  The 2000s were simply one tragically, devastating disappointment after another.[6] Disappointment at the world I was living in, that I’d been given, that it looked like only a act of God could change in any way.  Franzen puts it very well near the end of the novel: “because Jessica and her friends really are somewhat different form Patty and her generation—the world looks scarier to them, the road to adulthood harder and less obviously rewarding.”[7] There are many such insights about what I guess I have to call “my” generation throughout Freedom, and I am very thankful for all of them.

Freedom is encyclopedic (nay, archival) in detailing just what was so hard about the decade we just lived through, and how ultimately things are pretty damn bleak going into the future.  Every page overflows w/ the stupidity that has been collectively exercised, the selfishness, shortsightedness, downright cruelty, and, to be blunt, evil we are all to blame for.  No one in the novel, w/ perhaps the exception of tragic Lalitha, is exempt from the blame for the monumental disaster we’ve all been living through, and wrecking upon the world and those around us.  And though it’s slightly redemptive at the end, slightly hopeful, it isn’t really.  Not in any sort of feel-good way.  Not in any easy, manufactured, normative way, but (perhaps) simply w/ the knowledge that life can continue despite all that is so utterly, unfixably wrong w/ the world.

And so whether Freedom (and Franzen) can stand the test of (literary/canonical) time, whether it is “the novel of the century,” or whatever, seems far less important to me than simply how necessary, how timely it is, now, today.  I admittedly don’t remember much at all of The Corrections, and, being the usual fate of books I read so/too quickly, I may not remember much of Freedom even a month, let alone a year from now.  But today, now, this afternoon, and hopefully for the next few days, I do feel a bit more free, and free w/o hip, postmodern, ironic scare-quotes.

[1] For example, Michiko Kakutani’s characteristic little jabs at what is more-or-less a fairly glowing review, and Jodi Picoult’s rage over his white-maleness and twitter freakouts (her most recent tweet as of this writing asked who Franzen had to sleep w/ at the NY Times to get such a good review. . . seriously, this isn’t helping us take her any more seriously, as if the frequency of her novels being adapted into Lifetime movies weren’t already doing the job just fine [that is, of not taking her seriously], thank you).  This is not even to mention the (actually pretty crazy when you think about it) cover story in a recent issue of Time, which drew my attention one evening at the convenience store.  For my part, I was perhaps simply surprised that among the celebrity gossip rags there was something that could provoke a spontaneous purchase on my part, usually being immune to such things.  In other words, the rarity of a living writer appearing on the cover of time—only five authors have ever appeared on the cover of Time before, and they are all, w/o question, important—put me spontaneously in the same category as someone who buys a pack of gum in the checkout line, someone who doesn’t even particularly like gum.

[2] The text for the day was Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real (New York: Verso, 2002).  I was really impressed by the willingness of my students to engage w/ some of his more provocative ideas (i.e. we somehow desired 9/11), and simply the overall good intellectual energy of the classroom was astounding for this early in the semester.  Perhaps, however, this is also a by-product of having 35 students at once (more than I’m used to), and apparently the large majority of whom are interested in being there and participating in the conversation.

[3] Like so much good (airport reading) SF can make me do.  I also imagine this will be my experience of William Gibson’s new novel in the near future.

[4] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1997), 21-82.  It is also of note that Franzen includes a key moments at an early Bright Eyes concert.  If anything, even it is merely a performance, Mr. Oberst is clearly a member of the New Sincerity.

[5] W/o ironic scare-quotes.

[6] And even w/ Obama, who I think ultimately got elected b/c of this, and couldn’t help being yet another entry into the index of petty, or in this case, really not-so-petty, tragedies.

[7] Freedom, 533.

Can the Hyperarchive Make Our Choices for Us?

Well, according to chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, we at least want it to.  Read  William Gibson’s interesting op-ed piece on Schmidt’s statement and some of its implications here. Most of what he is talking about is old hat to most, but I esp. like the fact that he more-or-less says that google is a super-organism, and an Artificial Intelligence, even if it in no way resembles what we imagined AI to be.  Furthermore, it means the archive is alive!  It’s alive!  Are we all royally screwed? or is the hyperarchive just going to have a really hard time choosing where it itself is going to eat dinner.  Let’s hope so (so many choices. . .).