Lucy and Todd

Trapped Family Fingers

In usa on November 28, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Are Americans the victims of some awful experiment? You almost expect the gigantic bald pate of a mad scientist to appear over the horizon one day, checking on his helpless specimens, each stuck in a hamster wheel of indefatigable optimism.

Chased by Fox News, flummoxed by fake facts and the phoniest guy we could find for president, we derive superficial comfort from Disney, opioids and pizza, Vietnam bombing-raid reenactments, five hundred billion YouTube gaming videos, and self-congratulatory movies about Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the more prominent heroes of the Underground Railway, while awaiting our possible execution at church, or the mall, or the parking lot. Or at home.

When exactly did America give up on love of life? When we tire of killing each other, we slaughter some Kurds or Afghan peasants. No wonder extra-terrestrials won’t visit us anymore. Sad!

The latest idea for preventing school shootings is to train dogs to confront the shooter. The dog, unarmed and unprotected, is expected to make his or her way right up to a homicidal maniac mid-rampage, and wrestle him to the ground. They are kamikaze K-9s, doomed from the start to be shot along with everybody else.

Or here’s a good move: arm teachers. As a result, children are now exposed to guns, gun threats and gun accidents at school. For extra protection (at least for the upper torso, and if shot from the rear), children can wear bulletproof backpacks: “Three times the fun: book bag, lunch pail and life-preserver, all in one!” Parents dutifully join campaigns for “gun sense,” while their kids attend school shooter drills to learn how to have nightmares and panic attacks, and run faster than a speeding bullet.

Never in all this is the possibility of simply banning all firearms mooted. Forget gun control, gun reform, gun sense. How about NO GUNS? There is no unassailable right to own an AR-15. Most of the population really wouldn’t miss guns a bit.

Luckily, Rube Goldberg’s on the case. Republican senator (A), on way to receive large cash donation (B) from NRA (C), slips on wife’s alligator handbag (D) out of which flies cockatoo (E). Bird spies blueberry muffin (F) amongst other detritus on senator’s desk (G) and settles in for big breakfast. While scrabbling for crumbs, cockatoo upsets bottle of Kahlúa (H), steps in resultant puddle (I) and accidentally produces sloppy but legally-binding “X” on important document banning guns (J), that by chance required only one more signature. Before senator (A) even awakes from concussion, total ban on private ownership of guns in America has been instituted, and all guns (K) (along with KKK, for good measure) have been thrown into either Pacific (L) or Atlantic (M). Random child (N) is now able to attend elementary school (O) in safety and learn alphabet (PQRSTUVWXYZ).

Freud said America was a big mistake, presumably because it was a place where the id was allowed to run rampant, from Columbus’s outrages on through all the white man’s land-grabbing, massacres, slavery, greed and insensibility. “Hide your wives and daughters, hide your groceries too, ” sings Randy Newman. “Great nations of Europe coming through.” In the mid-1800s, Fanny Trollope was appalled by Americans, finding them not only cheerless, misogynistic, and inhospitable, but so vulgar. She couldn’t believe how much they spat.

Some spit, others are spat out. With the built-in inevitability of bullfights, the go-getters go get, the rest get got. Carlos Fuentes identified the anguish beneath all this American enterprise, the anguish of “doing, getting things done, making it.” Failure, pretty much guaranteed, goes unloved; it’s not part of the story. But the fear of it drives people back into their uptight bubbles of ME. From the safety of solipsism, they participate in the collective daily orgasm of consumerism: this is the only US in the U.S. Buying stuff is equated with citizenship.

Even the niceness of many Americans is now suspect, because you never know if it’s politeness born of terror, the kindness of calamity: Stockholm syndrome, multiplied in three hundred and thirty million captives. You have to be generally pleasant, to avoid being shot in the head. What if all those chocolate chip cookies we offer around all the time emanate purely from fear, not caloric bonhomie? “When terror descends,” as Edward Albee put it.

We have swapped our hard-won democratic rights for gossip, Super Pacs, lobbyists, peer pressure, bullying, the antique insanity of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and all the modern chicanery of the electronic ballot box. But there’s an up side! This powerlessness leaves more time for the ME stuff. Because, you know, there’s like all this pop music to approve or reject, and so many foreign slave-labor jeans and trainers to purchase, beggars to belittle, billionaires to envy, TV miniseries to watch and theories about the purifying effects of green tea to develop and propound. So much purifying and putrefying going on! It’s really very absorbing. Never mind what the police are doing just down the street to black men who don’t mow their lawns in the right direction.

For some, charity work has transmogrified into the moral duty to go to the gym. If only these people, so enamored of exercise, would use their muscles for the greater good! Instead of exerting themselves to feel superior to the sedentary all day, they really could help out a bit more. Plant trees, lug food to the poor, scrape plastic debris out of rivers every day, fortify cities against flood. Forfeit their cars and run (if run they must) to work. March too, on Washington, until Superman’s nemesis is gone. So much time and money are devoted to the self, there’s none left for sorting out society.

Meanwhile, the ICE man cometh. Guantanamo wasn’t enough, the Republicans want more torture zones, and immigrants incarcerated for life. At the sight of the weeping children we cry out “This is not America, this is not who we are!” – but it so clearly is who we now are. Or what we became, while drinking the requisite amount of sody-pop and gazing catatonically at our smart phones.

Nothing really matters beyond the self and family anymore. What, is that so selfish? “Actually, that’s the definition of selfish” (Jerry Seinfeld). But, At the beck and call of low-paid jobs, social media and advertising, with the instincts of a cornered animal, people have no time to think beyond the bounds and bonds of family.

Americans are trapped in trapped families. And the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire.

The American family is vulnerable, since it’s at the mercy of commerce, with Family Paks of aspirin and burger buns, Family Size gallons of milk and beer and OJ, family cars big enough to shove trucks off the road, family pets, family movies, family vacations, family men, family trees, family fun, family matters, family favorites, family hunting trips, family secrets, family vendettas, and family murder-suicides.

You’d think that mothers might be awarded high status in such a family-oriented society, but women in America have no status at all. That became obvious during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Kavanaugh good for America. Women not heard in America. Women not safe in America. Women just slaves in America. “Free to wait tables and shine shoes,” as they could have sung in West Side Story.

Where is the compassion, the sense of community? The latter word is awkwardly close in sound to communism, which triggers even more terror. The new nickname for protestors against climate change, you know, those compassionate people hoping to preserve a future for life on earth, is “watermelons”: meaning that they are green on the outside and red inside. “Nah, we don’t want life on earth. Leave us alone.”

So it’s no accident we chose the least safe pair of hands (be they small or bigly). Just as Brexit is the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred, America has embarked on its own ruinous act of self-immolation. The nation mulled things over, blinked its eyes, Stan Laurel style, scratched its head, and decided to go for more corporate criminality, more exploitation, more terror, more indifference, more conformism, more conservatism, more inequity, more bread, more circus…and astonishing levels of sadness. The mad scientist seems to have instructed everybody to play dumb and await vivisection. We obediently munch our apocalypse stew – dumbo gumbo – and every house blazes with a sinister blue light. The light of unreason.

What riches there once were, what beauties! Raindrops on roses and crop tops on cuties. Now it’s just tear gas and water hoses, and immigrant children tied up with strings. These are a few of our favorite things. Climb every mountain, ford every stream? “Sure thing, ma’am, long as it’s worth frackin’.”

But wait, here’s Rube! Idiotic evil “nasty” president (A) gets kicked in the ass (B) by old GI boot (C) and, changing his tune on the old banjo (D), makes reparations to Native Americans (E), African Americans (F), women (G), alligators (H) and oil-caked sea otters (I), reinstates Constitution (J) (reads it too!), establishes universal healthcare (K), distributes basic living wage (L) to every citizen (M), bans guns (N), saves whales (O), opens all borders (P), dismantles nuclear plants (Q), discards nuclear weapons (R), pensions off military (S), revokes tax cuts for rich (T), and erases student debt (U). In his excitement he extracts ostentatious gold money clip (V) and catapults it into education (W), so Americans won’t fall (X) into drainage canal (Y) of vapidity (Z) ever again.

Wow, what a relief. I thought we were all goners.


© Lucy Ellmann


(A version of this essay appeared in the Globe & Mail, Toronto, on October 12th, 2019.)




Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?


(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)