A Brief History of Seven Killings is the first Marlon James novel I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It features multiple points of view as it wends its way through the attempt to kill Bob Marley (because he was thought to favor the socialist-leaning PNP in the upcoming election) in 1976 and then revisits the story of the subsequent rise of Jamaican drug lords in the crack days of New York in the 1980s.
- In the “Acknowledgements” section James identifies both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover as models for what he essentially thought was a huge mess of “anecdotes” and other “source materials.” I haven’t read Duras, but the multiple viewpoints of As I Lay Dying (as well as the invocation of different dialects) felt like the perfect starting point for ABHOSK.
- The viewpoint that seems closest to James is Nina Burgess, a Jamaican women who works her way to the States in as honest a fashion as she can. She has multiple names throughout the novel as she assumes identities, and she gets to finish the novel by getting a call from someone who I think is her mom (although I’m not sure of that by any means).
- She’s closest, I’m guessing, because she works multiple jobs after becoming the lover of a white American mechanical engineer who worked in Jamaica for a company mining bauxite. She ends up as a nurse, and I’m guessing that James is honoring that work in a fashion.
- She also has a tremendously complicated relationship with her home country, one which at the end has her being chastised by a young Jamaican woman sitting with her husband (who is in a coma after a gang war), imbibing the food and culture of Jamaica in a restaurant close to her home in Queens, throwing up that food after hearing of Josey Wales’s horrible death, ending with that mysterious phone call.
- I’m guessing James feels similarly.
- The folks who run Jamaica politically are rarely seen – instead, James presents the viewpoint of those who run sections of the various ghettos. One man, Papa-Lo, gets killed as he tries to bring peace; another man, Josie Wales, gets killed after his attempts to bring order fall apart when he murders everyone in a crack house. Both, I think, had gotten tired of the constant ways that their efforts failed.
- There is a lot more to talk about here, of course – a couple of white folks show up, a couple of characters are gay, the weirdness of Lester Bangs and all those Rolling Stone writers also appears as they become entranced by reggae and then find out that the scene that produces it is a brutal one.
- And the Singer (Marley, in the only way he’s referenced in the novel), gets lionized and idealized in a way that, as the Rolling Stone writer says as he’s being “corrected” about the story he’s publishing in The New Yorker, makes me “think even more highly of the fucker.”
- As we piece together our sense of American identity through the vast, often nearly indecipherable melange of immigrant voices – and their reasons for coming here – novels like this one will help us better understand the promise and perils of moving to the United States and trying to make connections here.
- Although the dialect may be off-putting, this was an amazing read, one that I am guessing will live in my mind for a while.
I started to subscribe to Benedict Evan’s newsletter a couple of months ago, and it never fails to identify an interesting article or two. The most recent issue highlighted this article from Bloomsburg Business News, and reading it prompted two quick thoughts:
- The Chinese are so concerned about global warming and the damage it’s doing that they are taking some pretty drastic steps, including banning all fossil fuel-powered cars by what looks like 2040 (they haven’t said exactly when yet).
BYD Electric Vehicle at a car show in China
- While the American tech market is driven by big personalities and the alpha male culture that we seem to believe drives business success, this company – BYD – dwarfs the production of other electronic vehicle producers.
- They have done this by concentrating less on the whims of a charismatic owner (*cough*, some guy whose first name rhymes with “belon” and whose last name is most often associated with deer, *cough*) and more on what needs to be done.
- They have also made huge government investments in these countries. I’m not going to pretend to understand the way that investment works in a mixed economy like China, but after the uproar about “bailing out” American car companies and I can’t imagine that Americans will suddenly think that having governments invest in private companies is a good idea.
- Doing R and D through universities is something else, but even that is a tough sell for a lot of folks…
Maybe we will figure it out anyway?
This review of former Rust Belt cities (from the US and Europe) is way too long to do a thorough post on, so I’ll offer some thoughts below.
- The premise is that Rust Belt cities are far from doomed – instead, according to the authors, they are the next source of innovation and are a burgeoning market in and of themselves.
- They look at cities like Akron and Dresden, and highlight leadership, universities, big companies that are trying to remain innovative, and government initiatives as the reasons for these changes.
- Their optimism is tempered a bit by some of the challenges they see – more smart technology (and some emotional intelligence) is still needed for leadership, more focus on developing products rather than experiences or systems, more support for universities. They identify these problems, and thankfully don’t rename them opportunities.
- The authors have done a lot of traveling and have talked to a lot of the people who are driving innovation, and they use mostly these interviews (with a few well-chosen stats) to make their argument. That approach makes sense, and helps me appreciate Piketty’s intensively thorough approach even more. As a reviewer on goodreads commented that this book is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that methodology leaves a lot out…
- I’m troubled by the fact that there seems to be little focus on the folks left behind. Again, this argument fits neatly into the narrative that claims that smart technology will save us all, and the fact that robotics seems to mean that the work left for humans (yay capitalism!) will be either gathering all the money at the top or doing the dirtiest, meanest jobs that require some human decision-making (i.e., strawberry-picking), since building a machine to do that work would be more expensive than paying people minimum-wage and not offering them benefits doesn’t seem to occur to the authors.
- This part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 argument always seems the shakiest to me – it feels like such a dystopian, cyberpunk future, with elements of The Circle thrown in for good measure. The alternative seems so utopian as to be ridiculous…
- Despite my pessimism, though, I sincerely hope their vision of the future comes true.
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.
Us, directed by Jordan Peele, has already generated a ton of theory-mongering, which makes sense since Peele’s last film (Get Out) generated a bunch of its own. Those theories show a willingness to engage with the film’s content as well as simply enjoy a good scare, and they’re backed by the box office revenue the film generated in its first weekend – $70 million, according to Variety. My thoughts on the film are below the trailer:
- The idea of an entire underworld of doppelgangers evokes what I think is one of the ultimate fears of most of us living in a corporatist world – the ease with which we can be replaced.
- Few of the scenes in this film are made scary by effects. There are no greyed out screens or stop-motion photography (unless it’s done as an homage, of which more later). The fact that the film relies on its story to carry the fear is pretty cool.
- I lost track of the number of films that Peele references, but some of the clearest are the slasher movies, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street. Building on the filmic codes established in early films often saves director’s work, but this film doesn’t use the expectations generated by those common references as shortcuts – instead, it interrogates them.
- As an example, the killers in Us use scissors as their weapons of choice. The choice of killing implement in horror is iconic – it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for nothing, after all, and Freddie Kreuger’s knife hands still make me shudder.
- Peele though I think is using the scissors not just as icons – they carry weight, both narratively and visually. The gold color, the variety of purposes, the idea of matching pieces of metal joined by a bolt, implying duality and connection – that’s more than the average horror weapon.
- Using the idiocy of the Hands Across America is a beautiful metaphor for ridiculous corporate gestures made by an economic system that is about to run head over heels into extreme income inequality.
- The arguments about race are far more muted in this – My guess is that class is his focus. Still, it’s not a surprise that the black family surprises, and that mom has them immediately head to Mexico, a la Sarah Conner. And of course the assumption that this doppelganger phenomenon is not happening in Mexico is probably true – Mexico has its own problems, but this tethering-to-our-shadow is uniquely American.
For a class I’m teaching I re-read Fight Club (for probably the fourth time), and since I have yet to blog about it now seemed like the perfect time. Thoughts…
- The components of masculinity that Pahlaniuk identifies are fascinating. He is of course satirizing the New Age Men’s movement, but the ways that he pulls this off show a construction of masculine identity that contorts the usual binaries…
- For instance, lots of this novel focuses on the unnamed narrator trying to understand his own feelings in a world in which he thinks he’s being asked to have them. The attending support groups, finding jobs that are seemingly intentionally emasculating (mostly because of where he fits on the corporate food chain), and even the selling of human fat-based designer soaps all make us think that this narrator is raging against what many in the old-school masculine camp would call the feminization of the US (which, by the way, is not a thing). That raging leads to his own destruction, though, and not in a poetic Richard Wright-sort of way.
- Having set up that binary, Pahlaniuk beautifully yanks the rug out from under oppressed white men everywhere by having them (us) pummel each other in dirty basements and think that that’s a good thing, rather than the product of intense insomnia brought on at least partially by an inability to reconcile oneself to the shit that one must do to earn a living.
- Which, lest we forget, is in our narrator’s case to be the point person on deciding on just how many people have to die for a manufacturer to admit a mistake in a production process…
- Another binary that he gleefully pulls apart is the observation/action conundrum. Masculinity equals action, right? In FC, however, observation and action blend and morph together, as shit happens:
- the steroids that Big Bob used when he lifted (active) have now caused him to be dying of cancer (the ultimate in passivity);
- Tyler’s job as a projectionist (passive) becomes active when he inserts scenes from porn films in the kid movies he shows;
- and many more…
- Of course, this novel is also saturated in identity, but when we start to believe our own bullshit the train runs off its rails, as Project Mayhem becomes a thing that even Tyler (or the unnamed narrator) can’t control.
- The supposed masculine love of being able to thrive in chaos results in the entire support group coming to rescue our narrator from himself as buildings collapse around them.
Joel Kotkin argues in The Next Hundred Million that the United States adding another hundred million people by 2050, but unlike many he thinks that our country can handle the population increase. Thoughts below:
- Kotkin believes wholeheartedly I guess that we will absorb this next round of immigration by being relentlessly centrist. He critiques the extremes on both sides, and sees a smartly-regulated suburbia as our future.
- He also sees this future as being based in the United States because he sees us as being resource-rich and essentially optimistic. I hope that his optimism survived the rabid squirrels that mark Trump.
- Kotkin is an economist by trade, and he relentlessly pours through demographic data to come up with his conclusions. He seems to be uncertain as to why people could come to other conclusions…
- He’s sort of Panglossian, but I admire that – it’s way easier to blow up the world metaphorically, I think, then to propose solutions.
- The problem is that the solutions are a bit shallow – they are deeply grounded in solutions that he sees as human-centered, but there’s not much there yet in terms of actual policy proposals that are located in local government. He does advocate for local control, so maybe that’s why.
- He’s so immersed in data that his argument seems to lack emotional intelligence. That may not be fair – in person he might be remarkably emotionally intelligent – but this look at the future is devoid of much in the ways of story-telling. If he had added story-telling then the book would have doubled in size, but that might have been worth it.
- In particular his story examples feel cherry-picked a bit. He often uses one author or figure to represent a very wide range of thought, and the person he peaks is ridiculously extreme. For instance, to criticize environmentalism he quotes Paul Watson, who is definitely not a scientist.
- Thus the book often takes on a scolding tone. I guess if he thinks we’re going to make it we need to be scolded a bit…
- In a weird twist I’m reading Piketty right now as well, and I don’t think that he and Kotkin disagree on the symptoms. The only time that Kotkin gets negative is when he talks about increasing inequality. I’m not sure that he’s anti-tax, so he might even favor Piketty’s solutions as well. I guess I’m not sure that Piketty shares Kotkin’s optimism, but that might not mean much…