Reading America

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

My plan to “read America” this year has gone off the rails. I knew it would.

The original idea was to delve into several big American themes, among them flight, democracy, presidents, slavery, war, money, race, and literary criticism.

Here is what I said, rather grandly, to myself when I came up with the plan. I was in my home on the edge of a forest in Germany, which had been my perch for 11 years:

. . . [I]n 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment.”  He thought the phrase applied especially to the 1960s. But history never stands still, and neither does our identity.

What happened to my plan? I lost my focus. Instead of reading topically-focused books on the themes I had in mind, heavy on interdisciplinary stuff, I got sucked right in to sprawling, romantic series of American novels–great cycles of stories that tell us what it was like to be alive here at certain times.

I suppose the bug bit me a few years ago when I read Shelbey Foote’s novelistic rendition of the American Civil War, a massive, 2,700-page trilogy that Foote says was inspired by Proust. Foote felt the same devotion to mood, memory, and minute coloration of detail as the Searcher for Lost Time, and it shows.

I also took inspiration from Gore Vidal’s sly, subversive seven-book series of historical novels commonly known as the American Chronicles. It provides what Gore calls a “useful” history of our country, by which he meant a history deflated of myths. The apex of the series, Lincoln, is undoubtedly Vidal at his best. He depicts our greatest president as a human being who need not be made into a god to earn our love and respect.

Who knows–my attraction to long, literary meditations on American life possibly goes back to my fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilders’s Little House series, which I read in the fifth grade.

A paradox: a novelist can only tell large, universal truths if she reflects intimately on what she knows best–the minutiae of a highly particular, individual life. I got this much  from Günter Grass, a German, and Orhan Pamuk, a Turk. They both worried that their masterpieces would flop in English translation because their stories were too parochial, too local to be understood by foreign Anglophiles.

Not so, though. When their big books came out in English, both authors did very well, and this was because they gave English speakers deeply appealing stories whose meanings were heightened, not obscured by their particularity. Grass showed what it was like to be from a Polish-German family before and after World War Two. Very conflicted, and absurdly tragic. Pamuk meditated on how today’s Turks still suffer from the cultural loss that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The breakneck social engineering of Attatürk left them wondering who they are to this day.

American writers, I tend to think, come by a universalizing attitude comparatively easily. Since they hail from a big, consequential country, they assume that their stories automatically have broad appeal. Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk had to sweat over this aspiration; American writers seem to be born with it.

And so it should come as no surprise that Americans have more than our fair share of sweeping national novels that tell our stories on large canvases, with great depth of feeling and insight. When we do things, we do them big. So if you can have sweeping national novels, why not have whole series of them–stories that go on, book after book, rendering America in ever-deeper nuance, ever-finer portraiture? It was the bounty of such series that drew me in and wrecked my plan of interdisciplinary reading. (So far. There’s always next year.)

I started my journey with Willa Cather‘s prairie trilogy, made up of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. They tell deeply personal stories about conservative but adventurous Europeans who come to a wide-open new land and watch their progeny leave off old ways and turn into entirely new kinds of people. So, the stories are bittersweet tales of immigration and alienation–what it is like to love your children as they effortlessly leave you behind to dream new dreams you can’t even understand.

But the stories are also about personal grit, determination and success, solidly “American” themes. Each novel depicts a woman who authors her own life in a way only made possible by the westward push of American frontier life. If you could make it on the 19th-century high plains, you didn’t need a man to tell you you had arrived. Two of Cather’s heroines do precisely this, raising themselves up to master both the forces of nature and the stifling social constraints of a rural patriarchy. Cather’s third heroine, the eponymous subject of My Antonia, fails to master her surroundings in any obvious way but achieves a stoic embrace of frontier life that is lyrically beautiful and affirming of the human experience.

It was the grandeur and natural innocence of Cather’s Upper Midwest settings that led me to read Sinclair Lewis. Although Lewis is not credited with an American series as such, his cycle of Midwestern morality tales–Babbit, Mainstreet, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith overlap just enough in themes and character types to think of them as a single, broad critique of the rising American middle class.

I blogged a few months ago on the enduring relevance of Lewis’s critique. His target was the unthinking ease with which WASPs presumed to dominate America’s Leitkultur between 1890 and 1930. If you want an idea of what the reactionary right wants today when it says it wants to make America great again, you can find it in Lewis’s novels. Read them, and you can see the clock turned back to the very time when America’s can-do, small-time money makers elevated their crass, mediocre ideals of conformity and commercialism to a normative idea of what it means to be a good American.

If Cather’s and Lewis’s novels take in a great sweep of Americana, John Dos Passos‘s USA trilogy captures a more punctuated, crucial juncture in our history. Its three novels–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–freeze-frame the societal changes that drew us into World War One and then sustained an economic boom that would set the stage for the defining events of the twentieth century–the Great Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War.

Dos Passos’s leading characters are hustlers trying to make it on a brand new economic playing field– movie actors, airplane designers, public relations specialists–wholly novel professions suddenly made possible by the war’s disruptive changes in attitudes and technology. The trilogy’s overarching story, which the characters swirl in and out of, is a morality tale about what happens when a nation on the go starts believing its own propaganda.

The disquieting message of the USA trilogy is one for which Dos Passos gets too little credit. Democracies being led to war, he indicates, must work themselves up into a nationalist lather, which is fed by widespread, self-flattering lies. Understandable enough: you can’t charge the trenches for ho-hum reasons, even if they are honest ones. To anticipate a U.S. statesman of the Cold War era, the motive reasons for war must be made “clearer than truth.” Dos Passos would have liked that.

After war ends and peace returns, though, the material beneficiaries of the big lies want to keep the profits of the hullabaloo going. (Have you checked out the price of a state-of-the-art fighter- bomber recently? You should.) And so they entrench and normalize the pro-war falsehoods. The chronic fear of “national security threats” have become part and parcel of the nation’s life. We denigrate Iran and North Korea for their trumped-up war rites and the flagrant lies they tell themselves, but we are only about a half a step behind them. Our ad men are better.

Americans’ interlocking beliefs that we are great because we are good and good because we are great are largely a product of wartime propaganda, a one-off, special circumstance that Dos Passos documents in the USA trilogy. The consequences of that special circumstance, though, have, since World War One, come to feel normal to us. The next time you are occupying a $100 seat in a sports stadium, and at the behest of a billionaire corporate sponsor, you set down your nachos to applaud the military veterans in your midst, know that you are obediently playing your part in this cheap and cynical theater.

(A mini-digression: If there is a one-word sentence to describe the purpose of my blog, it is to persuade even one other person that you are born to better things than to play your part in cheap and cynical bits of theater.)

After Dos Passos I jumped ahead in time to John Updike‘s Rabbit series, which spans the 1950s to 1990s. It includes Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest. I had long wanted to read Updike because he authored the gaudily implausible idea that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” He came up with this quip after the Vietnam war, by the way. Anyone capable of such a one-sided view of our society must have a massive, and interesting, blindspot.

As Martin Amis, one of my favorite novelists, observed, Updike seems unable to write poorly. Good thing. For some 1,500 pages, the Rabbit series pays serious literary attention to what must be one of the most unappealing character types in our history, the complacent narcissist. (Echoes of Sinclair Lewis here.)

The long “parade of days” that Harry Angstrom’s Rabbit character unfurls certainly draws the reader in, or at least did me. There is something so blandly awful about Rabbit’s persona that one simply must witness the next wreck in his life-long melodrama of decline.

Put as briefly as possible, Rabbit sallies forth from one half-baked endeavor to another–he half-asses everything and everyone: wife, career, child, mistress–while cultivating the expectation that he deserves to be made happy by the aggregate mess. When Rabbit dies, his wife forgives him for, in effect, having raised assholishness to an existential art. During their life together, Rabbit habitually referred to her as a mut and fantasized repeatedly about bashing in her head with a decorative piece of glass.

Don’t get me wrong. Rabbit figures a few things out about his American life along the way. Having accidentally become rich, and later having been brought to the edge of ruin by a complex web of bad luck, bad parenting and stupid choices:

Rabbit realized the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll’s [his once-profitable Toyota dealership] could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God himself.

There is, despite the objectionable character of Rabbit himself, one good reason to go ahead and read Updike. Rabbit puts on full display a highly useful concept: the partially examined life. Today, with our iPhones, our robocalls, our TV addictions, and our distance-learning degrees, the partially examined life is probably as much as we will be able to muster. The fully examined life is beyond us now. Read Rabbit and behold the bonds of mediocrity you accept when you breath in the sweet intoxicants of consumerism and pop culture. You’ll still be haunted by the vague longing for a life less tawdry, as Rabbit is, but you’ll have no idea how to summon it.

Philip Roth‘s American trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain–builds up a towering counterpoint to Updike’s Rabbit. With wrath and eloquence, Roth defies the dying of the American light, insisting that the examined life is still possible even in a land given up to the shabbiest of values and the most venal of principles.

philip_roth
Philip Roth  [Image: pulitzer.org]
“The meaning of life is that it ends,” Roth wrote (paraphrasing Kierkegaard). Try escaping that riddle, no matter where you live or what you call your nationality. If you do not have the sense to fear the life-wasting power of your iPhone today, you will come to loath it on your deathbed. Count on it. America cannot insulate you from mortality, try as it might. Roth’s American series examines the lives of three men who believe their country should abet them in their combative quest for meaning rather than abandoning them to money fever and cheap thrills.

The second large theme running through the trilogy is the opacity of an individual human life. In each book, the assiduous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is commissioned, in one way or another, to write a biography of the story’s hero. In each case, Zuckerman’s first impression fails him. Then his second one does, and his third. Each novel turns on the idea that humans, as the planet’s only self-creators–with strong motives for deception, deflection, braggadocio, and countless other corruptions of the truth–are impossible to know.

And in each novel, Roth gives America a special role to play as the stage on which the individual’s autopoeisic myths have the widest range to play. The Human Stain is about a light-skinned African American who, shortly after high school, begins passing himself off as white and Jewish, utterly alienating his loving mother and the rest of his family. (This is Willa Cather again. Our children leave us to dream new, unrecognizable dreams. We love them anyway.)

Late in life, the professor of The Human Stain loses his job as a college professor after he lets fly a flippant remark that is understood as a (white-on-black) act of racism. He can’t even begin to deal. The American life he created is based in a network of beliefs, myths, attitudes, delusions so complex they can never be untangled and reassembled into a moral defense of his innocent remark.

Roth opens American Pastoral, the first book in the series, with the Kierkegaardian idea that each person has an inner and outer self. Simple enough–you dig and grope through the outer, and you can get to know the inner. Roth takes this archaeology of the human to be the novelist’s main task.

By the end of The Human Stain, though, Roth has dropped Kierkegaard’s overly simplified formulation. Human selves consist in unknowabilty all the way down; and in America, “all the way down” can be a very long way. You may think you are breaking through the outer self to the inner, but in truth you are merely apprehending the next inner layer:

There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.

My next encounter will be with James Farrell’s O’Neil-O’Flaherty novels, a five-part series about growing up in turn-of-the-century Chicago. It will be about unknowlability all the way down. I know that ahead of time. But that’s okay.

The gift of American literature, like the gift of any literature, is that its gaze into the individual life turns up a thousand little things worth discovering and one big thing worth acknowledging. We all learn this thing from Macbeth in the eighth grade or so–that life is a poor player, that it lights fools the way to dusty death, and so forth–but great novels illuminate this truth in new ways and bring it to life in ways that remind us of our own selves. This kind of self-discovery is still rejuvenating, although here in America it is endangered by a general war on thought. Read our great novels while you can. Our children will dream new dreams that may make them unrecognizable.

 

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Hello to All This

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Life is a funny thing. Even the most self-aware among us don’t understand it as it unfolds. We grope forward guided by instinct, guess and habit; the resulting action only makes sense when it is all but over. Purpose and order are things we see–or construct–in hindsight.

Luckily, though, we need not wait for the deathbed to make sense of absolutely everything about us. We can sometimes achieve insight into certain chapters of our lives as they conclude.

Recently, I closed one such chapter. Call it the European chapter. It lasted 19 years, not including a four-year hitch in the Air Force spent in Europe as well, from 1991 to 1994. At the time, that phase felt like a destination in and of itself, a coming-of-age set to U2’s Achtung Baby that might have led to any other kind of experience, set anywhere else on the globe. But in fact, it was a prelude to the main plot-line of my life. It led back to Europe after a short break for school, and yielded up what turned out to be my life’s defining chapter. It was an era again set to music by U2, this time All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its signature song Beautiful Day.

For the time I lived in Europe, I was happy. No surprise. It was there that I made a career, fell in love, got married and started a family. For most of us large, thinking mammals, those are the goals we live for, and so I know, more or less, what the source of my happiness was–the well-being that comes from doing satisfying work in the company of the people one loves best.

But still, even the main human patterns don’t make an individual life completely predictable. Some of the things that formed me in Europe came as surprises. Exhibit A: Four of the best years of my life, which I will always recall with intense and pleasurable nostalgia, I lived in a noisy, slightly run-down, provincial capital city in what used to be Yugoslavia. On the surface, this setting would hardly be any American’s idea of bliss.

My neighborhood looked ike this:

kapistec

You might not think much of it, but to me it was a paradise. I courted my wife there, went to family dinners on the weekend, ran errands, and, a little later, watched my kids play, usually in a playground right behind the buildings you see here. The place overflowed with kids, all of them running and shouting. Grannies would stuff bites of bananas into their mouths as the kids would swoop toward them and then carom off to re-join the happy chaos.

To get back and forth to work, I bought a brand new Russian jeep for 6,000€, paid cash. It performed like a 15 year-old car right off the lot, but it did the job, albeit with shimmies and rattles. I had a theory that no single part of that jeep cost more than a dollar to manufacture.

It looked like this:

Lada Niva

There were too many other enchanting things about my neighborhood in Skopje to recount them all. The richness of my memories will always consist in the I family started there and how my life began to take shape in its streets, churches, cafes, and, of course, the small apartment where we lived.

Well, you might say, these things will happen anywhere. Human appetites being what they are, my bourgeois pleasures might have sprung from any ground on the planet whatsoever. Mid-town Skopje just happened to be where I was during my years of rising sap and professional hustle; there’s no need to get moony over the place’s noisy playgrounds and  downscale apartment blocks.

I suppose that’s all true; I would have looked back with gauzy fondness on whichever place my adulthood finally began to form up in. But my rootedness to Skopje (and, as it turns out, to all of Europe) was more than just an aesthetic response to accidental conditions. Something more formative was happening to me. Without knowing it, I was receiving an economic and sentimental education in the sustaining pleasures of Europe’s public goods. The thing I came to love about Europe was how easy it was for any person of limited means to lead a gratifying life there, abundant with simple pleasures. Europe is, at least today, a continent made for people.

What I began to discover in Macedonia–and continued to do in Germany–was that public life in Europe is ingeniously geared toward dignifying the proletariat. While American tourists can easily get the idea that living in Europe takes loads of money (a 25€ check for an espresso on St. Mark’s Square in Venice will do that to you), I discovered that quite the opposite is true. It is common to be able to lead a pleasant, secure  life well within one’s means in a European city even at the lower range of the middle incomes. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why this is the case, but two factors suggested themselves during my 19 years there.

The first is how generously furnished public spaces are in Europe. While of course there are roads and highways, the main thing one notices as one moves around any European city is how navigable and accessible everything is to the carless. The abundance of sidewalks, walkable streets, public transportation, parks, playgrounds, shopping districts, and extensive foot- and bike paths that actually go somewhere is astonishing. Well, it’s astonishing if you’re American, and you’re used to having to drive even a quarter mile just to get across a street that is unnavigable by foot- or bike traffic.

One of my deepest satisfactions in Skopje sprang from the ease with which I could walk everywhere. My weekends with my wife routinely consisted in paying bills, doing the shopping, running other errands, exercising the kids, enjoying the sights, or going to my in-laws, all on foot. And Skopje is an interesting test case for such mobility precisely because of the, ahem, “modesty” of its infrastructure. Macedonia is not a rich country, and many of its roads, sidewalks and playgrounds are broken or poorly maintained. But they work. They prove the hypothesis that basic infrastructure need not be lavish to improve the quality of life; it just needs to be there and to function with a modicum of safety.

I expressly used the word “generous” to describe Europe’s pedestrian infrastructure. I could have justly called it “plentiful,” but that would have missed an important point. Roads and paths are built with the people’s tax money, and the people must in some sense agree on this expenditure. An experience I had over and over in Germany revealed to me just how generous the taxpayers are in funding the paths that support carless travel.

Frequently, as I was jogging along a hardpack trail through one of the numerous forests that abut or thread through German cities, I would come right up to a rail line or highway, and instead of the trail diverting to nowhere or just stopping, I would encounter an underpass that let me keep going, like this one:

ICE Durchgang
(Image: bahnbilder.de)

 

Or, I would zip over the top of an Autobahn on a footbridge, like this one:

Fußweg
(Image: pfanniblog.blogspot.com)

These things obviously cost money. A rail line with trains going 300 km per hour cannot pass over just any old underpass in an anonymous German forest. Statics must be drawn up, stresses calculated, and the underpass built just so. Ditto for the bridges. A huge pile of money goes into the provision of these things that are so common throughout Europe that they nearly escape notice.

Who benefits from this largess? Well, on any given day when I was jogging through, it was typically me, some other schmoe biking to work (I guess–there were often briefcases bungie-corded to their carrying racks), and a young mother or two with strollers. That’s it. Traffic picked up on weekends, of course, as families and elders came out for long strolls, but even then, if you would stop to do some math on a cocktail napkin, you would–or at least should–be astonished at how much tax money was being spent per capita to keep the Volk ambling pleasantly along through the forest.

Before I leave this theme, I should also stress something that I only hinted at a moment ago–that car-free infrastructure in Europe actually goes places. That’s the whole point of it. It’s the reason for building all those under- and overpasses, as it also is for countless well-protected crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals. In America, a walker might set out on their subdivision’s fitness trail for recreation, but God help them if they hope to use it to go to the store or post office or the next town over. In Germany, I need not even look at a map to know that I could have walked on protected foot trails all the way from my home to the seat of the national government, 550 km away. (Fun fact: You can actually look up the best walking routes for this trip without breaking Google Maps.)

Confession is good for the soul. And after 19 years of walking, biking and running places in Europe, with my wife, with my kids, by myself, sometimes to get somewhere, sometimes to go nowhere at all, I find I have something to confess: I feel I have right to go safely carless in public, and I feel this right with as much conviction as Americans tend to reserve for gun ownership and freedom of expression. I see no reason whatsoever why a state that calls itself modern cannot provide for its citzenry to walk from here to fucking there without risking their lives or attracting unwelcome attention as potential vagrants.

The answer to this conundrum leads to my second comment on proletarian pleasures in Europe. Why is it so hard to go without a car in America? Because doing so would risk giving up our primary identity as consumers, something that large companies spend lots of money to keep in place. Americans’ habits, reflexes and desires–indeed our very lives–are engineered by corporations who want and need us to believe that the highest expression of freedom is the power to buy and consume whatever we want, in whatever quantity.

Getting and keeping us in our cars (ingeniously pitched as another great American expression of freedom) is a sure way to do this. As long as we are somewhere in our cars, driving from the bank where we got the car loan, to the job where we work to pay it back, to the mall where we train our kids to join in the same rat race by addicting them to brands, corporate America is happy. We are enriching the industries that make the world go round (at the same time they are ruining it–a post for another day).

Jogging through the forest or strolling down the promenade, however, doesn’t make anyone any money, or at least not enough to matter, and that is something that the tycoons will not abide. You will not be allowed to get off the treadmill of consumption. Any hours spent being a thoughtful, or creative, or merely idling human being rather than Homo economicus constitute a mortal sin in our plutocracy. (Remember George W. Bush’s plea in 2001 to keep the 9/11 attacks in mind while going out and doing your duty as a consumer? It does not get any more barefaced than that.)

So the second thing about life in Europe that I only slowly came to appreciate but which now stands out in dramatic relief is the extent to which its thought leaders put the brakes on all-out consumerism. I do not pretend that the place is a utopia of Buddhist self-denial. Nor do I contest the legitimate role of commerce in enabling the welfare state. Money is what makes economic security possible. There will be money.

But what is typical in Europe is to say, “Just enough.” We’ll have money and commerce and trade, but we need not have ever more of everything. While the growth imperative governs the choices of boards of directors all across Europe, it is not, as a general rule, transplanted into the lives of workers as an ethic of ever-greater consumption. Society has not been given over by lobbyists and advertisers to the tawdry, all-out avarice that is so easily awoken in the breasts of the working poor.

This is actually a huge deal. It means that a proletarian can live a life that is not defined by ruinous envy and insatiable hunger. You can walk down the street with just 10€ in your pocket and feel comfortable in your own skin. You probably don’t even know it, but somewhere, someone is keeping watch and passing laws to prevent corporations from invading your most private self and debasing your humanity.

consumerism
(Image: intellectualtakeout.org)

As I say goodbye to all that, what awaits me? To what am I saying hello?

Well, I am no curmudgeon, still less Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, bent on exposing the hypocrisies of society. I get a long. I put on a brave face. I teach the kids that the world can be a decent, welcoming place.

And, I am sure I will find things my family actually loves here. We will get into our cars and drive to experience some genuine new pleasures. But I will be honest: to invite that transformation feels like the willful deformation of habits eminently worth having. Europe taught me, with great specificity, that the best things in life are free. Saying hello again to America, where corporations constantly do their damnedest to deny workers the possibility of a life of simple, abundant pleasures, feels like it puts that dream at risk.

Goodbye My Love

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I said goodbye to an old lover today. She’s three and a half billion years old, give or take. Which is, I suppose, why the wife doesn’t mind.

She used to be a volcano. You can tell by her shape. She is a hill, and she looks like all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stylized drawings of hills, especially the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo had his big adventure.

Melibokus
Melibokus from the southwest (Image: Mapio)

She is the hill where I run, once a week when the weather is good, once a month when it is not. I’ve climbed the equivalent of five Everests on her.

Her name is improbable. In fact, if you know any Latin, it is impossible. Melibokus. No name for a lady ends in –us. But there it is. The Germans took to calling her Mälchen, which also fails to do her justice. It’s frusty somehow.

What binds me to her? The usual for old lovers–it’s physical. I come to call and she is there. She has vineyard hips that shine gold in the autumn sunlight. Above she is all old-growth deciduous, dark emerald. Two castles guard her treasures, flags still flying. Her leaves glow lime green in the springtime against the black mud trails and the dun mulch of a hundred winters. There are lava rocks lying around from when she spewed them out, way back when.

There is, in reality, nothing spectacular about Melibokus. She looks like a dozen other hills around her, but slightly taller. She is topped by two big, ugly communications towers and a small, windowless building fenced off with barbed wire. Its stenciled building number looks American GI and so inspires rumors of a secret listening station.

Like I said, I run on Melibokus. I have probably logged 500 kilometers on her since I’ve lived here. I feel the free feelings she offers, and I think about whatever comes up. Usually it’s something I have read and how it applies to my life. It’s a very selfish time.

Looking back, after so many years of being together, I can grasp what was magical between us. I spent hours and hours toiling my way to her top, having what psychologists blithely call a “peak experience.” What was it all about? Why was the simple, sweaty act of running up a mid-sized hill in the middle of Germany so absorbing? It was this: As I was running, Melibokus was all the while playing an exceedingly good trick on me. For 10 years she made me feel I was not aging at all, when in fact when I stopped recently to look around, I could see I had aged at exactly the rate everyone else was. Still, I had those 10 years. If you can find someone who works that kind of magic on you, hold on to it while it lasts.

She was, like I said, always channeling people for me–Hume, Kant, Russell, occasionally even Heidegger and Kierkegaard. For old time’s sake, I should write down the last person she summoned. It was Martin Amis, the English novelist. For anyone of my generation and of my general mold, Amis is tops. He wrote about the insanity of wanting money, the everyday horrors of religious fanaticism, and the unpleasant habits of dictators. (He is still writing, but I think even he would say his best days are behind him.)

Anyway, the last time I turned toward the top of Melibokus and let my mind wander, what came to me was Amis’s remark in an interview that the most rewarding part of his life, despite his immense literary success, had been his “bourgeois” pleasures. This was his snooty way of saying “wife and kids.”

Well, I thought, as I chugged along, that is really something. A guy becomes a modern-day Thackeray, is flown on lear jets to world capitals to talk about books, and he says the best part of the whole thing was his family.

I feel like Amis’s observation expressed a truth that has saved me a lot of trouble. Something like 99.9 percent of humans aren’t set up to become artists, or geniuses of any kind. Amis actually made all the sacrifices necessary to become a genius, which mostly consisted in neglecting his family to tend some inner flame, and then on the other side of all those sacrifices he says family was the best part anyway. It’s striking.

I imagined how my life would have gone had I tried too hard to be an artist–still might go if I got some harebrained idea–rather than getting a job and having a family. Thanks to what Amis said to me in 2018, I felt like a guy who had made all the right choices since 2002, when I met my wife, or possibly since 1999, when I stopped trying to be a genius. It was a huge relief, knowing I hadn’t run other people’s dreams into the ground just so I could go on a vision quest or something stupid like that. Amis was right: family life was much better than any other ideal I might have pursued.

Maybe those communications towers pulled in Amis’s thoughts for me, and all the other people’s thoughts. Bless them, if they did.

I am all done with you now, Melibokus. We had our last tryst this morning. My job made me move, so I won’t see you anymore. I won’t get up at 03:30 on a June morning and start up through your forests as the early summer dawn breaks so I can be done before it gets really hot.

I’m not sure what I will do with my Sunday mornings now, but you will go on as you always have. I will think of you and the nice trick you played on me. You will take other lovers, which is comforting in a way. You will continue to exist, long after quiet returns and there are no more creeping things that creep upon the earth.

Goodbye, my love. I will forget you, slowly I hope, but I will write you as often as I can.

Running Zermatt

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Well, I did it. On my fifth try, I finally made it to the starting line–and the finish line–of the Zermatt Ultramarathon. Here’s photographic proof:

HD Finish Line Closeup

The ultra is easily one of the most spectacular courses in the world, starting in the alpine village of Sankt Niklaus (1,116m), paralleling the glacier-fed Vispa River southward through Zermatt village, and then chugging straight up to Europe’s highest rail station, at Gornergrat. Gornergrat is a kind of moonscape at 3,089m above sea level, staring directly across the Vispa valley at the north face of the Matterhorn. You feel pretty tiny up there.

If you’re a runner and you’ve ever seen that view, you immediately think: bucket list; this is something I have to do before I die. And so it was for me. Eventually.

A friend put the Zermatt bug in my ear about about 10 years ago. He was fresh back from finishing it and probably noticed from my treadmill work that I also had a thing for hill running. At the time, though, my knees were bad, and running Zermatt was only an abstract wish. My “runs” mostly consisted of isolated 10k hobbles between bouts of runner’s knee that could last weeks at a time.

Over the next few years, though, my knees improved, and the idea started to take hold that I just might make it to Zermatt. The first time I tried to go, in 2013, my training program took me till sometime in May, when my knees blew out. Zermatt happens in early July. So it goes.

Well, Zermatt is a long game, I told myself, and that is what I would play. I regrouped and made a training plan for the next year. Again, the knees blew out, although this time they lasted till June. Progress.

A friend of mine recently gave me the perfect phrases for what Zermatt would become for me over the years. It was my “Murphy,” a special place I really wanted to reach but which was fenced off by chronically bad luck. All of my efforts to get there were (again his phrase) “needlessly fraught.”

In 2015 I had to write Zermatt off entirely. My back, which had bothered me for years, needed a disc replacement. So I got one, on the week of the race, as it turned out. I was flat on my back in the hospital when the starting gun fired.

I only got back to running in January of the next year. It was a slow trudge back to fitness, and I just didn’t have the stength to train for Zermatt in time. (I tried a challenging race later in the season, which had its own Murphy-like qualities–another story, which I have alread set down.)

2017 looked like my year. Both kness were great, and by April I was turning in strong training runs on big hills. I felt confident in my endurance, and so I started to do some strength- and speed work. One Tuesday in late April I fiinished a 10k speed/hill workout on the treadmill feeling pretty good but with just a little mystery tightness near the top of my quad. Two days later I couldn’t run at all, and a week later an MRI solved the mystery of the tightness. It was a torn muscle, and I was out for the next six months.

By this time in my Zermatt “career,” I felt like a Zen master who spends hundreds of hours making an intricate sand sculpture and then teaches himself detachment by sweeping it all away. Except I never quite finished the sculpture; it just kept getting swept away right before it was done.

I already had money down on my family’s reservations in Zermatt that year, and so we went anyway, for a mountain getaway. We watched the runners and felt the excitement of the event, which is a big production. It takes more than a thousand volunteers to pull the Zermatt Marathon off. The main point of the trip seemed to be teaching my kids that it was okay to have long-term goals even if they kept eluding you.

This year I made a concession to caution and told myself, no speedwork. If I made it through the early spring of my training plan without injuries, I promised I would just keep plodding and not get greedy about my finishing time.

It worked, for the most part. Murphy certainly did his best to scotch this year, and he kept me guessing right up till the end, but luck and caution won out, just barely.

Mirroring my year in 2017, I was feeling strong right through late April. Then a strain (or tear?) in my right calf had to be nursed. I didn’t run for a whole month, which was galling. May is beautiful in Germany; plus it is just the time you really want to be feeling your game if you are going to show up for Zermatt. Instead, I was waiting and just holding on. The calf strain could have easily cost me the race (again), but luckily I was able to keep up some cross-training throughout May. The the spin bike, the stairmaster and elliptical trainer became my special friends. It wasn’t fun, but it kept me in the game.

From my town, I can see the big hill where I do my long training runs. It looms dark emerald on the horizon. I spent the whole month of May wondering if I was going to get back on it, which meant, in effect, wondering if I was going to make it to Zermatt. You can ride like the devil, but you can’t get there on the spin bike. Miles must be trod, on God’s green earth.

Tentatively, I did get back to that hill. I put in 20k the last day of May. I did some rough math in my head as I was finishing that run and figured I needed to step up each long session by 8k a week if I was going to peak on schedule, two weeks before Zermatt.

This I did, turning in successively longer runs and finally a decent 44k run on the 24th of June with lots of climb. But Murphy wasn’t done with me yet. Less than halfway through the run, I felt a tightness and then a distinct pain in my left calf, same place the right one had bothered me before. Godammit-motherfucking-sonofabitch, I thought placidly as I decided to keep going. Am I really sweeping away this sand painting again?

One of the cardinal rules of running is never continue if you feel more pain than the usual discomfomfort of exertion. You’re going to do more harm than good. The calf pain made me mad, though, and I decided to break the rule. If I didn’t finish the run, my Zermatt dream was going to be over one way or another. Quitting at 16k would have left me without a sufficient peak training run, and grinding the damn calf injury into a torn muscle was going to end my whole season. Seeing no real choice, and feeling spiteful at the frailty of my own body, I decided to go with option two.

Foolish? Oh, my, yes. But this is probably the right place to point out that 2018 was going to be my last shot at Zermatt ever. The Army, after employing me for 18 years in Europe, was sending me home to the States. The orders were already written, 20 copies of them printed out and sitting in a stack on my desk. Sure, we’d come back to visit Europe and drink coffee, but I knew I would never lace up my shoes for a serious mountain run this side of the Atlantic again. I tried not to get emotional about it, but it really was a do-or-die scenario.

Somehow, pushing my lame calf on the long run didn’t result in catastrophe. The day after, it was stiff and sore but not completely done in, as I thought it might be. I took heart, telling myself I would ice it, rest it and just go back to cross training for the last two weeks, which were supposed to be easier anyway.

This I did, and after a few days I could ride the spin bike without pain and walk without a limp. I dared not run; all i could do was hope the calf was healing as I was idling away my peak fitness.

But with 10 days to go, Murphy re-made his acquaintance. I guess I should have been expecting him. I drank a recovery shake after a two-hour session on the spin bike, and then I had some pizza at home with the kids. This combination produced a violent misadventure in my stomach that laid me out in incapacitating pain. I kept telling myself that whatever bad things are happening in the stomach have to cycle through in four or five hours, but this proved not to be the case. At hour seven I asked Bibi to take me to the clinic for a possible alien-removal procedure.

Apparently the decision to go to the clinic cured me. I felt better as soon as I got there. The doc gave me the once over, ruled out the worst, and sent me on my way with the usual advice about taking it easy. Sure, I thought, I would just take it easy.

If you are still reading, you are showing me more patience than I deserve as I bring this story to the Zermatt starting line, where you already know it is going to end anyway. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say at the end of all his speeches, thank you for your attention.

But there’s more. Recovered from the world’s worst upset stomach, I ventured forth exactly one week before the race to put in a cool 7k tuneup run through the local woods. The purpose of this run, if you are peaking for an ultramarathon, is just to hear your engine purr. You’re supposed to come off it without a sweat, full of steady confidence. I had to stop my run at 4k. My left calf was still hurting. A week to go, and I couldn’t eke out one tenth of the race distance, on a flat course.

There it was. It was not necessarily the end of my race, but it was the big, fat question mark that would hover over the starting line. And so, when I took my place in Sankt Niklaus on race day, I had no idea how things would turn out. Would my calf start hurting ridiculously early and make me drop out before the race really began? Probably. Maybe. I didn’t know.

Would my fitness have declined too much from sitting out the last 10 days of training? From substituting too much gym time for real trail running? Again, I didn’t know.

Kierkegaard said we live life forward, and we only understand it in retrospect. This is a radical insight. It means we don’t fully understand anything as we are doing it. We just give it our best shot, not knowing if we are sufficiently prepared or if we are even in the right place, aimed in the right direction. Something may come along and erase your sand painting in an instant. Or you might finish it and have it turn out beautiful. It seems impossible to live in the space in between those possibilities, but that’s where we must live. That’s where I was when the starting gun went off.

What Can Happen Here

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This will be short, I promise.

In 1998 the University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty predicted the rise of the current nationalist-populist mob in America. He wrote about it succinctly in his book Achieving Our Country.

This is what he wrote:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

The first point I would like to make about about this passage is not an obvious one. It has to do with Rorty’s use of the word jocular, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but actually is. Whenever Trump or his trolls are caught calling for violence against the press or using racist or sexist stereotypes, their go-to defense is, “just kidding.” This is a clever move. It deflects guilt for what looks like bigotry and puts it on the offended party for being overly sensitive or “politically correct.” And it stakes out a broad scope for bringing back insults and retribution out against people who look or think differently than I do and are getting uppity.

Humor, even if disingenuous, is a powerful thing to have on your side. The mob knows this, or at least senses it, and advances its points accordingly–with funny memes. Nothing brings down a logical argument like a good derisive laugh.

Rorty
Richard Rorty

The second thing is that, even though Rorty was startlingly accurate his description of  the way nationalist-populism has arisen, he was wrong about the way nationalist-populists would use political power. They have not fomented a revolution, at least for now. Rather they are simply using all the ordinary political mechanisms that empowered formerly alienated minorites from the 1960s onward.

Much of what we gained in terms of civil rights, broadly construed, can be reversed simply by rolling back the same processes that led to them in the first place. Trump’s opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court justice is a clear indicator of this. I am not saying we’re headed for a reversal of, say the 13th Amendment, or that it will be easy to impose a robustly reactionary agenda on the state. But I am say that all the necessary tools are there, even without a revolution. Maybe dictatorship can’t happen here, but too much of the reactionary sadism that goes with it can.

Only Connect. But Also Create.

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I am all the time lecturing my kids. Like all fathers, I use my lectures to advance two themes:

  1. What makes the world go ’round, and
  2. How to be.

No wonder men feel like kings in their own homes. We might be louts and jackasses, but within our walls, we have carte blanche to speak, as Saul Bellow put it, the “highest human phrases.” It’s a wonder we ever go anywhere, out where we are just peasants.

My kids have absolutely all the stuff they want or need, which makes it hard for me to get my two main points across. Here are my two main points:

There are only two powers in the world worth having:

  1. The power to create things from your own mind, and
  2. The power to connect to other people.

Like all my ideas, I stole both of these. I don’t really recognize my own ideas until I see them written down in other people’s books. This probably comes from reading the Bible as a child, but I digress.

The first point I stole from Socrates, Milan Kundera, Walt Whitman, Slavoj Zizek and Kurt Vonnegut. Weird combination, I know. But they all say more or less the same thing: humans are happiest and most fulfilled when they are creating. To paraphrase Vonnegut, you are better off and more dignified as a human being if you are creating something even as humble as a crappy poem or simple electrical circuit than if you are grabbing stuff. Look how hard creative geniuses work. They don’t do it for the money. The mathematician Kurt Gödel only weighed 88 pounds when he died. He was on the verge of finishing the Incompleteness Theorem and he forgot to eat.

The second point I stole from Wittold Gombrowicz, Orhan Pamuk, James Baldwin and E.M. Forster. If Forster were alive today, he would be called a prissy little lefty fag, at least by some. I call him my moral muse and hero. He epigraphed his short novel Howard’s End with the (now) famous phrase, “Only connect,” and that’s pretty much him in a nutshell. He thought the strong should not bully the weak and everyone should spend more time thinking about the moral consequences of their actions. We only have 70-odd years of life, and Forster thought it would be a dreadful waste to spend that time not connecting to others who are in the same bind. We’re all on the clock. Better to face it together than alone.

e-m-forster
E.M. Forster: Only connect

Gombrowicz, Pamuk and Baldwin are a little more abstruse on this point, but they all champion it in some way. No man is an island, they say, so you might as well figure out how to love or at least value the people who help make you who you are. For Baldwin, this even meant finding a way to love your tormentors. They too “helped” make you who you are. Baldwin would also be called a fag by some today, but I digress. He is a moral giant, and it’s a good thing he’s dead because we don’t deserve him anymore.

Why am I jotting these thoughts down? Because I just read an outline of Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have Or To Be, and I realized that I had stolen my whole moral scheme–points one and two–from him. So it goes.

Believe it or not, tycoons and politicians will actually try to convince you that having more stuff is the key to being happy. Go to Walmart, they say. Find an attractive piece of crap offered at a rockbottom price thanks to offshoring, slave labor and other production efficiencies. You’ll feel better.

Bellow, Socrates, Kundera, Whitman, Zizek, Vonnegut, Gombrowicz, Pamuk, Baldwin, Forster and Fromm all say, in very pretty ways, fuck that. You are much, much better than that. You are not meant to consume. You are meant to create and connect.

At least that’s what I’m all the time telling my kids.

 

Review of “End Zone” by Don Delillo

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I am leary of book reviews that give an author credit for what he leaves unsaid. This stunt is usually performed by undergraduates who haven’t read the book. I used to get a depressing number of papers that tried it.

It is also a recipe for attributing any message whatsoever to any writer whatsoever. Thus, we could imagine the “howling silence” at the center of Mein Kampf pointing to loneliness as the real cause of nazism. This way lies madness, or just plain inanity.

But, even with the “Thin Ice” sign so prominently on display, I skate forth. The best thing about Don Delillo’s 1972 novel End Zone is, I contend, what it leaves unsaid. And, as always, what Delillo does say is wise and masterful. I believe he is Americas’s Thomas Mann, and that his magnum opus, Underworld, is a contender for the Great American Novel. To have a novelist of Delillo’s caliber alive and still producing while I live and breathe fills me with awe. He interprets our American world with all the hard grandeur of Herodotus interpreting the ancient Greek world.

On its surface, End Zone tells the story of 21-year old Gary Harkness, a talented but abstracted college running back who cannot quite commit to football even though it is his guiding passion. He wins a series of scholarships to one notable college after another only to squander them by missing practice and indulging a growing curiosity about nuclear war. When the action opens at Logos College in West Texas, Gary has recovered from his latest failure at the University of Miami and is back in shape, preparing for the football season to open. He is also auditing courses in Aspects of Modern War and the History of Air Power. Bad omens for his successful return to football.

End Zone

As an allegory, End Zone draws clear parallels between football and warfare, especially its nuclear variety. Gary is inexplicably drawn to books about nuclear holocaust; the subject’s arcana, like the “elegant gibberish” of sports talk, holds him spellbound. He reflects:

I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill ratio, spasm war. Pleasure in these words. They were extremely effective, I thought, whispering shyly of cycles of destruction so great that the language of past world wars became laughable, the wars themselves somewhat naive.

The power of public discourse to dominate the private mind is one of Delillo’s enduring themes. His novels are full of characters who adopt the phrases of the media, the military, the government in what should be their personal modes of speech. When we encounter the helter-skelter of real life, Delillo insinutes, it is not really as raw and unknowable as it all seems. The helter-skelter is already processed and categorized by the ready-made terms provided by large institutions. In one scene in End Zone, a teammate rushes into a room to announce that the college president’s plane has crashed. Another teammate takes the event in as headline news and responds, “Let me get it straight. Critical list. Overshot the runway. Light plane.” The news anchorman’s standard terminology encroaches on the individual’s experience of life.

As we come to know Gary through flashbacks and internal monologue, we learn that his childhood and adolescence were dominated by his deeply conventional father, who also spoke in terms that had been validated for him by institutions. For years there was a sign posted on Gary’s door neatly summerizing his father’s  philosophy of life: “Suck in that gut and go harder.” There was also a poster of the Detroit Lions, never a championship team but one that took its losses and kept bulling ahead. The Lions always had a chance of making it if they just kept trying. That was the way to go.

Gary’s father’s philosophy works, more or less. By the time Gary is playing college ball, he believes that his sport refers to something higher and more vital than itself. Gary can tick off its transcendental elements by heart: “(1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.” We go through life learning lists that people in authority impress upon us. (I do this to my kids all the time.) The more lists we learn, the better our chances to succeed.

In a delicious passage, Gary’s father writes him a letter at college with instructions on how to fly home for Thanksgiving. Part of it goes,

The airline employee will write on your ticket and stamp some things on it purely for airline use and then he’ll give you back the ticket and tell you the gate number to go to. Go at once to that gate. If you fool around and start exploring the airport or wandering off somewhere like you always do, you’re going to miss your plane. So head for the gate right off the bat and avoid headaches later on. If you have trouble finding the gate, ask someone in authority. That usually means uniformed personnel.

Any reader who has ever read (or written) a military operations order will immediately “get” this letter. It is an attempt to reduce the randomness of everyday life–mundane and harmless as it is–to predictable risk factors.

The message at the center of End Zone is that all of the systems that have risen to the top of our repertoire for coping with life are throroughly masculine. In the pivotal chapter, Gary’s team loses badly to a rival. Up till the climactic game, Logos had been executing almost perfectly, outthinking and outperforming all their opponents. They had a perfect record. The lists they had earned marked them for success.

When they lose the big game,  it is because they collapse under the brute force of aggression. It is a clear case of Dionysus beating the shit out of Apollo. The other team mauls Logos (and we now know why Delillo chose that name for Gary’s team). All the high sentiments about football being teamwork and preparation for the future just go out the window. Football is really about beating the other guy to death. Violence wins the day.

This article of faith, in the ultimate efficacy of violence, is one that boys learn early in life and, according to Delillo, probably never let go of. It becomes the center of what Delillo calls a kind of “theology.” The world we accept as given, an objective thing that can be no other way than the way it is, is actually a made-up one. What passes for plain old life as we know it is really a masculine contest for physical supremacy. The universal masculine resort to violence is why we face the prospect of nuclear war:

There’s a kind of theology at work [in thinking about nuclear war]. The bombs are a kind of god. As his power grows, our fear naturally increases. I get as apprehensive as anyone else, maybe more so. We have too many bombs. They have too many bombs. There’s a kind of theology of fear that comes out of this. We begin to capitulate to the overwhelming presence. It’s so powerful. It dwarfs us so much. We say let the god have his way. He’s so much more powerful than we are. Let it happen, whatever he ordains. It used to be that the gods punished men by using the forces of nature against them or by arousing them to take up their weapons and destroy each other. Now god is the force of nature itself, the fusion of tritium and deuterium. Now he’s the weapon. So maybe this time we went too far in creating a being of omnipotent power. All this hardware. Fantastic stockpiles of hardware. The big danger is that we’ll surrender to the sense of inevitability and start flinging mud all over the planet.

This passage is, of course, horrific in what it describes, but the real horror of End Zone came to me as I read the scene below of a kind of Walpurgisnacht. It is the offseason, and Gary’s team has gone fallow. Bored, they have a party. It is marked by spontaneous acts of mischief in which missiles are launched. The bonhomie that ensues becomes chaotic even as it follows certain rough rules of engagement. Here is the action as it climaxes:

The throwing of the beer cans started half an hour after the party began. It went from there to fights to mass vomiting, to singing and comradeship. A defensive end named Larry Nix kept punching a door until he busted through. A few people fell asleep in their chairs or on the floor. There was a pissing contest with about twenty entries trying not for distance but for altitude–a broom held by two men being the crossbar as it were, the broom raised in stages as contestants dropped out and others progressed. It was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent. The floor of the lounge was covered with beer, urine and ketchup, and we kept slipping and falling and then getting up and getting casually knocked down again by somebody passing by. Clothes were torn, and there was blood to be seen on a few grinning faces. There were tag-team wrestling matches, push-up contests, mock bullfights, and other events harder to classify. A bunch of men jumped repeatedly in the air with their hands at their sides. Seven people in a circle spitting at each other’s shoes. Lloyd Philpot Jr. ate nine hamburgers in twenty-five minutes. Link Brownlee chugged a bottle of ketchup. Jim Deering and his brother Chuck traded punches to the midsection, apparently reviving a boyhood tradition. It was a horrible night. They took off Billy Mast’s clothes and threw him out the front door. Somebody pushed Gus de Rochambeau and he skidded past me over the beer and piss and put his hand through a window. I took out my handkerchief and bandaged him. Then, we sang one of the school songs, . . . .

Such are the consolations and diversions of the warrior. What does the soldier seek when not at war? More war.  No matter which way men turn in life, they try to hit out. They might be playing ball, studying, or just flying home for the holidays, but no matter what problem they are trying to solve, they hold the use of force in ultimate reserve.

As a general principle, the novel asks us to use our imaginations. This demand is what makes End Zone an important book, I believe. If the world as we know it is fashioned and controlled by men, what would it look like if the shoe were on the other foot? In other words, what would we have instead of nuclear war and piss/vomit parties if women were running the show? It may be that evolutionary theory makes this an idle question. The physical nature of the struggle for life may very well determine that men will always dominate all our institutions.

But it is the better part of optimism to imagine things differently. The message that Delillo leaves unspoken in End Zone is that the contest of life might still pass into a new phase in which our institutions respond to new evolutionary pressures imposed by reason rather than the struggle for physical supremacy. We may have reached a level where we can see that the “objective” features of reality are really made up by men who spend their whole lives keying up to kill one another. For me, this implied message of End Zone is the most powerful part of the book.

[As usual, I wrote my review without reading others first. You might also enjoy others’ reviews of End Zone here or here.]