Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coetzee, Vonnegut, Hitchens

Three dudes with last name monikers.

Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 2007

A Man Without a Country
by Kurt Vonnegut
Random House, 2005

Arguably: Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
Signal/M&S, 2011

"Declinism is making headway," Thomas J. Courchene writes in his revealing 2011 essay, Rekindling the American Dream: A Northern Perspective. In decline, of course, is the United States of America ("America's status as the sole global superpower seems contestable"), and the momentum of the concept is footnoted thus:

Among the many studies and articles that raise concern about the future of America are Friedman (2008), Zakaria (2008), Steingart (2008), Bremmer (2010), Fry (2010), Stiglitz (2010) and Rachman (2011). For a more sanguine view, see Fallows (2010).

W.H. Auden famously termed the 1930s "a low dishonest decade." What are we to call the aughts?

The three books under review here could easily be added to Courchene's bibliography, though Hitchens is "arguably" both sides of that question. (Incidentally, the opening sentence of Courchene's essay is, "American exceptionalism seemed unassailable as the world welcomed the third millennium." Courchene's "northern perspective," i.e., Canadian point of view, is that keeping America at the top of the heap is in our best interest. So this isn't an anti-American crowd we're talking about here; it's a group of essayists trying to figure out WTF has gone down.)

9/11, of course. Globalism, of course. The rise of the Chinese, of course.

And a bunch of decisions to deregulate the banking sector and go to war, and war, and war ... and now what?

Deciphering Vonnegut's title is simple enough: America has disappeared itself. One might suggest that this is the natural conclusion of Vonnegut's oeuvre. But let's not oversimplify.

One notable piece in Vonnegut's book is titled, "Here is a lesson in creative writing":

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis].

You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted.

Vonnegut presents a number of prospective storylines and graphs (Courchene take note), and, yes, people do love some more than others. The American Dream is one people like: hard work and solid individualism leads to material success. Cue the strings!

Somehow, however, the 21st century has turned out to more of a downward curve. The Kafka storyline: We woke up and discovered we'd all been turned into bugs. I mean, we were broke.

Or we woke up to discover that America practiced torture. Wither the shining city upon a hill?

Coetzee's novel takes the form of essays on contemporary global topics (torture among them), supplemented with two parallel narratives about the narrator of the essays, his pretty typist and her boyfriend.

Thus there are fictional levels of "deniability" that the opinions expressed belong to the author himself, but I'm not going to discuss the mirrors within mirrors implications. In the space I plan to devote to these three books, I merely want to point out a common element. Struggle against absolutism; the conundrum of America in the 21st century; torture; the meaning of life.

Hitchens actually quotes from the Vonnegut book: "Commenting on Socrates' famous dictum about the worthlessness of the unexamined life, the late Kurt Vonnegut once inquired: 'What if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?'"

This question sums up the queries raised by Coetzee's novel as well. But it must be said that it is the contemporary context of all three of these titles that inflates the currency of the question. When the day-to-day vernacular includes "declinism" perhaps it is better to leave the stone of life's complexity unturned? All the better to amuse ourselves to death with our digital toys and swelling string orchestrated stories.

N'est pas?

No. Of course, not. Let's take a look at that torture question. Actually, let's take a look at Hitchens being tortured.

Hitchens can be both earnest and funny, and though the shock of seeing Hitchens waterboarded may strike some as humourous, it is not. (One is not boarded, he writes; one is watered. Also, he defies anyone to call this "simulated drowning;" one is, he writes, being drowned.)

Ever the dialectician, Hitchens provides both pro- and anti-waterboarding advocates their say, which returns me to Coetzee. The pro-side, Hitchens outlines, base their support of waterboarding on practical concerns. America is at risk, and we need to know information to defend ourselves. Coetzee, ever cautious of the manner governments claim the right and need for new abuses of power, includes in Diary of a Bad Year a note on Machiavelli:

Necessity ... is Machiavelli's guiding principle. The old, pre-Machiavellian position was that the moral law was supreme. If it so happened that the moral law was sometimes broken, that was unfortunate, but rulers were merely human, after all. The new, Machiavellian position is that infringing the moral law is justified when it is necessary.

And so here we find ourselves in the 21st century with low prospects of a way out.

Vonnegut is dead, and Hitchens is dying. I have not always enjoyed reading them. I have at times quarreled with them (with the them that is in my reader's head). I could not understand, for example, how Hitchens could be such an advocate of war in Iraq when the rhetoric (to say nothing of the decisions and actions) of the Bush administration was so inflated as to be fantastical. (Hitchens' essay on the journalism of Karl Marx in Arguably responded to my confusion in part. Marx (!) wrote vociferously in support of the Union during the American Civil War; he supported British Imperial intervention in India; he supported, in short, the modernization of the world, taking long-terms views over short-term consequences.)

Hitchens has been widely praised for his prose, and all I want to add here is that his essays can make me laugh out loud, and I wish more writers would sharpen their pens (or their iPads) and do the same.

I love Vonnegut's story schemes and graphs. I love this, too: "I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex."

Coetzee should only be taken in small doses. I believe he has a sense of humour, but it is dry as toast (actually, Diary of a Bad Year, at times, is hilariously self-deprecating) and only revealed on close reading.

To America, I say, good luck. We need you to bounce back. Send us your wearied, your wanderers, your writers. Harness your brilliant idealism ...

And calm the fuck down.

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