Lucy and Todd

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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.)

Muscle — Alan Trotter

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 14, 2019 at 6:27 am

‘… He said that they were lucky if he didn’t take their little city from them and grind it under his heel. He said that a man who couldn’t at any moment point to a dozen necks he’d like snapped was a man without imagination who didn’t deserve to be in charge of a poem, let alone a city.’

It would be a clever reviewer who could discuss Muscle in the way that it should be discussed without spoiling it. What looks initially like an ultra-modern pastiche of the entire hard-boiled world, meaning every pulp novel ever written, good movies and bad, even whole ‘noir’ towns and people, turns out to be anything but that.

The plot, which is enormously dangerous to talk about, concerns some pretty lousy citizens and the depredations they practise on one another. There are two types on a train who might be Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, if they were hit-men. In between little assassinations, they discuss their calling with detached erudition:

‘Our own self-interest is not threatened,’ says Charles, ‘so the impulse that demands that society disapprove of our action doesn’t lash at us. If we punish ourselves, then we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than that to which society holds itself.’

‘And why,’ says Hector, ‘would it be reasonable to expect us to do that?’

The dialogue and the prose in Muscle flit effortlessly around the whole range of its sources and influences. Its prose is sullen, muzzy, droop-lidded. Some of it reads like a David Mamet play; there are undercurrents of Damon Runyon. There are utterances recognizable as pure Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Muscle’s inner logic, though highly poetic, is far superior to the junk in which it finds its origins.

There’s an unexpected side to this book, an element of pure, luridly coloured pulp fantasy, which Alan Trotter brilliantly locates as co-existing in the same time period with the elements of the crime fictions he’s playing with. What does a barely-educated thug do when he is tired of drinking, cards, and women – what does a thug read?

Which brings us to our sympathetic narrator, named Box. He is pure muscle, and assists a very hotheaded middle-level operator, represented in the text with the non-name ‘____’. Box and ____ are given periodic assignments applying pressure, or ‘easing the flow of regret’ as they like to put it. In a card game, Box meets Holcomb, a writer for pulp magazines, and one day while on stakeout, bored out of his mind, he reads one of Holcomb’s sci-fi stories.

At first he’s baffled by it, but then it comes to make sense to him, even to haunt him. There is something really unsettling yet amusing about a big bruiser like this, a truly dangerous guy, stumbling upon what may well be the only printed matter in this horrid town, or at least in this crumby neighbourhood, and finding it enlightening, even transformative: the only food for thought he will ever encounter.

Holcomb’s stories are about centuries, aeons, of intolerable waiting (which Box and ____ know something about) and finding a key to the nature of time. But not for a reason that is good. The stories are not sane, and it’s terrible to watch Box being drawn into their stupid way of thinking. At this point it’s like Jim Thompson has met HP Lovecraft, and they’re planning on getting married.

Things don’t turn out well for Box. He’s frustrated in love, and the business of beating people into various forms of pulp isn’t going too well. He begins to think that he can build a device like one in the stories, so that he can atone, sort out his existence. And it’s not a good idea, this horrible device that he wears on his head ‘like a nest made from refuse’. His own solipsistic version of some very dire events is loudly contradicted by Swagger, a detective, who thankfully for us retains some grip on reality, even as Muscle veers into other worlds, taking Box with it:

‘Swagger has grown so big there is no space in the room to stand, I’m pressed up against the wall. His tooth swings open like a door and I go inside the hot cavern of his mouth and his voice surrounds me.’

This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel. It’s as if everything bad about the 1940s and 50s is still circling the earth, another planet. You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom. How often do you get that chance?



(This review appeared in the Herald on Feb. 10, 2019)