The Situation’s Gravity

T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub” begins with the first-person narrator describing his daughter walking down a street in the rain, then describing a woman leaving a restaurant drunk. The narrator interrupts himself to bring up the last time there was a “large-body impact on the Earth’s surface” and describe the damage it did. He points out that our planet regularly intersects the paths of much bigger asteroids than this most recent one. His daughter has gone to the mall to have sushi with friends, and he’s about to have sex with his wife when they’re interrupted by a phone call that their daughter was in an accident. At this point the narrator introduces the titular Chicxulub, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. He interweaves passages describing its destruction with scenes of him and his wife at the hospital, where they have to wait while their daughter is in surgery, before she’s eventually pronounced dead. But when they’re called to ID the body, it’s a different girl. It turns out their daughter had lent her ID to a friend to see a movie, and it was her friend that got killed. The narrator reflects that he was spared, but that Chicxulub, the force that will “remake our fate,” has already arrived for the family of their daughter’s friend.

One of the interesting things about this story is that it has no chronic tension in the traditional sense to interact with the acute-tension event of the accident and case of mistaken identity. There’s no ongoing conflict between the narrator and his daughter that this event of her pseudo-death with push to the surface, or between the narrator and his wife, for that matter–Boyle seems to go out of his way on the latter front to assure us all is well there. What we get in place of this localized chronic tension–that is, tension between the characters–is what could be interpreted as a much larger-scale chronic tension: the planet’s chronic tension, the fact that our general existence is so tenuous. This tenuous existence works on the level of planet and individual, which is part of what makes this metaphorical thread effective. As the chronic and acute tension ideally do, the asteroid thread intersects with the hospital thread in the descriptions at the climax, when the narrator has to pull the sheet off the body:

The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. [emphasis mine]


Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe. [emphasis mine]

These descriptions of the acute event are invoking broad-scale cosmic imagery that would likely feel overblown without the setup of the ongoing asteroid thread. 

In addition to standing in for a more immediate chronic tension, or perhaps via standing in for it, the asteroid thread also carries much of the story’s emotional weight in the places where it could definitely tend toward melodrama in rendering scenes of distraught parents facing the death of a child. Only something as momentous as the destruction of an entire species could capture the emotional significance of such a loss for an individual. After the death of a child, life for the parents would cease to exist on any meaningful level. It may seem like a bit of slapstick that the momentous phone call in which they learn of it interrupts an intimate interlude, but there’s also irony here that the act that created their daughter is interrupted by a call about the potential death of that daughter.

The story’s opening is a virtuosic sentence that twists and turns, and which will also turn out to in certain respects be fairly misleading:

My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.

It will turn out it’s not his daughter at all, and the story’s point of view seems to technically be retrospective from a point after he knows his daughter wasn’t really killed–otherwise how would he know about such details as the brand of pinot noir?–so this has the potential to make the reader feel tricked. He subtly defuses this by adding shortly:

Maddy has a cell phone and theoretically she could have called us, but she didn’t—or that’s how it appears. And so she’s walking. In the rain.

But it also seems a commentary on our perception of reality and how tenuous it really is. Boyle renders images he wasn’t there to see–“the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals,”  but this image turns out to actually be crucial to the narrative, helping explain how the woman lost control of the car. In hindsight it’s actually a great description–one heavily mediated by the narrator’s particular POV and the frustrations of what he’s been through. Defamiliarization via the narrator’s voice is another tactic Boyle uses to convey the gravity of the situation (so to speak):

…she just had to see her friends and gossip and giggle and balance slick multicolored clumps of raw sh and pickled ginger on conjoined chopsticks at the mall…

Here Boyle is using defamiliarization to accentuate the narrator’s perspective, in this particular case, his incredulousness. We’ve gotten hints that his daughter was in a horrible accident, and so here he’s essentially laying out the reason that she might have died: for the sake of eating sushi at the mall. Many of us probably like sushi (though maybe not mall sushi); few of us probably think it’s worth dying for (especially mall sushi). While the passage is somewhat derisive of teenage girls, it is entirely in keeping with the perspective of a man who thinks his daughter might have died–or rather, as it will turn out, who was put through the ringer of believing his daughter was dead when she wasn’t.

 This is a very existential story, one big cosmic metaphor that literally invokes a cosmic metaphor, or something:

The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.

This is a nice objective correlative description wherein describing the literal clinical and medical technological mechanisms of life, Boyle is describing the larger biological and existential mechanics of it. He seems to be saying in part that we can only appreciate someone else’s pain if we’ve experienced it ourselves, while pointing out that it’s inevitable we eventually will. 





The Perks of Patchett, Part 2: Bel Canto

Techniques tracked:
-use of omniscience in space AND time
-borrowing from real-life events

Curtis Sittenfeld has pointed out that both Patchett’s classic Bel Canto, considered her breakthrough, and her newest novel Commonwealthstart[] with an unexpected kiss at a party”–but while in Commonwealth this kiss comes near the end of the first chapter, in Bel Canto it’s in the very first line:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

It’s as good a time as any to revisit this classic, the film adaptation of which is slated for release next year, with Julianne Moore starring as opera singer Roxane Coss (she’s only 20 years older than Roxane is in the book…).

The accompanist of Roxane Coss, “lyric soprano,” kisses her after she’s just finished singing for a private party in “the host country,” somewhere in South America. The lights go out. Everyone is gathered here for the birthday party of Mr. Hosokawa, a prominent Japanese CEO who the country’s government hopes will build a factory there, but who has in fact only come because he is an ardent fan of Roxane Coss. The country’s president was supposed to be at the party, but backed out at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera. When the lights come back on, a group of eighteen terrorists storms the room. Since many of the party’s guests are foreigners, a language barrier presents itself that will be aided by Mr. Hosokawa’s versatile translator Gen, whom he met in Greece several years prior. The terrorists demand the president, and pistol-whip the vice president, Ruben (whose house is where the party is, and who is a common man), when he tells them the president isn’t there, which undoes all of the terrorists’ plans. Sirens approach.

The police set up outside. Some hostages sleep and everyone is eventually escorted to the bathroom the next morning. Mr. Hosokawa feels guilty, since he was the reason for the party and thus the reason everyone’s there. Joachim Messner knocks on the door–their mediator from the Red Cross. Gen translates for him; he wants them to let the women go in exchange for provisions. Ruben’s governess, Esmerelda, sews up Ruben’s cut face after Messner tries and fails, then leaves. There is a selfish old priest and a compassionate young priest present. Messner returns and the generals say they will give up the women and the workers and separate them from the men; Mr. Hosokawa helps with Roxane’s increasingly ill accompanist. The young priest, Father Arguedas, opts to stay after they try to send him away. Then the women and others exit the house.

Roxane Coss is pulled from the line of exiting women, which almost causes a moment of insurrection. The accompanist, who left with the ill, returns for Roxane and insists on staying. Father Arguedas gives him last rites. Roxane has been irritated with the accompanist because he confessed his love to her on the plane ride over and has been relentless about it ever since. She looks in his pockets, figuring out he’s diabetic and out of insulin right before he dies. The generals debate shooting the corpse so it will look like they killed him, which Roxane vehemently opposes, so they don’t. The hostages admire the accompanist’s love for Roxane. Messner and a helper pick up the body and drop off sandwiches. Gen offers Roxane Mr. Hosokawa’s condolences, and she goes over to him and they talk (while Gen translates) about how he thinks this is his fault; she says it isn’t. The men are interrogated to see who’s important enough to keep. Provisions are sent for, and the more important and less important men are separated.   

After a week, things get more lax, and people do things as they need to. They figure out how young the terrorists actually are (many are teenagers) and the terrorists find out all the different places people are from. There’s conversation about a possible overthrow, but the language barrier between everyone makes it even more unlikely. The terrorists explore the house, and the Frenchman Simon Thibault causes an uproar among them when he turns on the television, which none of them has seen before (imitating Roxane, Cesar sings to his reflection in it before Simon turns it on). Two of the soldiers turn out to be girls, Beatriz and Carmen, the one who’s most attached to Roxane. Oscar Mendoza and Ruben (who’s given Roxane his wife’s clothes) talk about telling Roxane they love her. Roxane says she needs to start singing soon and Gen looks for someone who can play the piano and finally finds Tetsuya Kato, who came with him and Mr. Hosokowa, though neither had any idea he could play. All 58 people there come to hear him when he starts to play, beautifully.

Gen is kept busy translating for everyone, and translates for Kato and Roxane. Messner comes in to talk to the generals; the only requests they honor are Roxane’s, and so now she also asks for stuff for other people. Her request this time is music from her manager; Father Arguedas gets wind of this conversation, says he can get the music, and gets permission to call his friend Manuel for it (and also gets Roxane to say a few words on the line). Simon sneaks a call to his wife but only gets the answering machine. Gen wants to talk to Carmen but struggles to speak when he’s not translating for others; fortunately Messner wants to talk to her to make sure she’s okay, so Gen gets to. When Messner comes back at a time he’s not supposed to with the box of music, General Alfredo tries to turn him away in a show of authority, but Roxane starts to sing and then says she’ll never sing again there if she doesn’t get the music right then, and Alfredo goes to Benjamin, who caves. Roxane looks through the music and Kato plays some. Carmen goes to look at Gen sleeping while she’s keeping watch, and wakes him up and asks him to teach her to read in Spanish.

The box arriving is the pivotal point of everyone’s captivity, terrorist and hostage alike–Roxane’s singing makes each of their situations more bearable. Now Roxane Coss is in charge and the day is divided according to her singing routine. This is the happiest time in Mr. Hosokowa’s life. Gen gives Beatriz his watch so she can know when to watch the Maria soap opera. The Russian Victor Fyodorov tells Gen (who’s watching for Carmen) that he’d like to speak to Roxane Coss. They’re now past the second week, and, through the increasingly unprepared food sent to the house, Ruben recognizes the world outside getting bored with their situation. Gen manages to convince General Benjamin to have some of the soldiers help them cook so they can use the knives. Gen confirms he will teach Carmen Spanish.  

Father Arguedas starts saying Mass, which even the non-religious enjoy thanks to Roxane Coss’s singing. The rains end as the seasons change. Carmen suggests to Gen that Roxane is in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Gen is in love with Carmen, whom he’s been teaching in secret at night, and they finally kiss in the bathroom while Victor Fyodorov is pestering Gen to come help him talk to Roxane. Fyodorov tells her a long story about how his appreciation for art originated with a book of paintings his grandmother showed him, and claims this makes him qualified to love her; Gen is embarrassed to translate these feelings of love that he’s never expressed himself. Fyodorov says he does not expect Roxane to return his love and that she doesn’t have to do anything. Roxane tells Gen it’s better if someone loves you for who you are instead of what you can do. Cesar the boy soldier gets hard listening to Roxane sing in the mornings, not for her, but for the music.

Mr. Hosokowa sometimes plays chess with General Benjamin. Messner comes in during a game after Ishmael gets permission to play the winner (he’s only learned how to play by watching) and exchanges the usual list of demands; the terrorists’ are getting more extreme in response to their having gotten nothing so far. When Roxane asks Messner how long he thinks they’ll be there, he says a long time. Roxane asks Gen to have Carmen bring Mr. Hosokowa to her room in the night. Ruben gives Benjamin some old antibiotics for his eye infected from shingles. Father Arguedas hears confessions from Oscar Mendoza and Beatriz. Gen works out a plan with Carmen, then tells Mr. Hosokowa Roxane wants him to come to her in the night. That night when they go, they wake up Beatriz asleep on watch, but Carmen convinces her not to tell. Carmen then takes Gen outside and they make love in the grass (later Gen will wish he’d used the opportunity to escape with her).

When Roxane Coss doesn’t come down the next morning to sing, Cesar sings instead, impressively imitating her. Roxane comes down and interrupts him, and, thinking she’s angry, he flees to a tree. Carmen tries and fails to convince him to come down, and when Roxane wants to go outside to try, Benjamin decides to let everyone go outside for the first time since they’ve been in captivity. Roxane tells Cesar she’ll give him singing lessons. Some of the Germans run for exercise, and Ruben starts pulling weeds in the overgrown garden; he promises Ishmael he can come live with him when the ordeal is over.

Thanks to Carmen, Mr. Hosokowa becomes good at sneaking up to Roxane’s room. Lovemaking regularly disrupts Gen’s and Carmen’s Spanish lessons. They go outside frequently now, enjoy soccer games, exercise, and gardening. Everyone’s happier except Messner, who looks noticeably worse when he comes. He tries to tell Gen they need to convince the generals to surrender, but Gen doesn’t pick up on his urgency. They hear Cesar singing in his lessons with Roxane. Messner tells the generals that the government is going to stop letting him come soon, but they still refuse to give in. The hostages live now as if they have forgotten their lives from before, and can’t think about the future. Gen manages to forget Messner’s warning; he suggests trying to escape to Carmen but they quickly get distracted. Roxane Coss has fallen in love with Cesar’s singing on the heels of falling in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Cesar sings for his lesson in the mornings and then they all go outside. One morning Roxane screams when she sees a man she doesn’t recognize heading towards them. He shoots Cesar, and she covers his dying body with hers. Then there are many men who spread out and methodically shoot all the terrorists, clearly knowing who the hostages are. Gen looks for Carmen, but she’s already dead, having been shot right after Cesar was, with Roxane witnessing it. Mr. Hosokowa, throwing himself in front of Carmen, was killed by the same bullet.

Gen and Roxane have just gotten married in Lucca, with Simon and his wife as witnesses. Simon and Gen go to look for an open bar and discuss how Gen, who translates books now, will live in Milan with Roxane. Gen brings up that the news he’s seen about what happened to them never mentioned Beatriz or Carmen, but said there were fifty-nine men and one woman. Simon says the coverage in France was the same, but realizes that Gen and Carmen were together. Gen says Roxane’s singing is the only thing that reminds him there’s good in the world. They return to the open arms of their waiting wives. The End.

One of the most prominent features of this novel, far and away Patchett’s most popular, is her use of omniscience. She establishes in the novel’s second sentence that this omniscience has limits, seeming to acknowledge that there are some things that simply cannot be known for certain:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.

Patchett uses this omniscience to manage a large cast, giving herself the freedom to tell the reader about the general state of things as well as dive directly into any character’s head, offering what the critic James Wood in his treatise How Fiction Works has labeled “free indirect style,” where there is no mediation between the reader and the character’s thoughts. One can get an idea of how Patchett transitions from external observations to character’s thoughts (in which pronouns are altogether dispensed with) in passages like:

“This is certainly fine for me,” Roxane said. She sipped her glass of water. The sight of it made Fyodorov tremble, the water, her lips. He had to look away. What was it he wanted to say? He could write a letter instead, wouldn’t that be proper? The translator could translate. A word was a word if you spoke it or wrote it down.

The way she seamlessly roves among the thoughts of the characters seems inspired by Tolstoy, but Patchett reveals it’s not as seamless as it seems:

“The biggest achievement of this book for me, the thing that I am most proud of, is the narrative structure — that kind of third person narrative that I think of as Russian, wherein the point of view just seamlessly moves among the characters. That was the hardest part of writing the book. It was what took me so long. It’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since I started writing fiction.”

Patchett also uses omniscience in time, telling us about things that will happen in the future. Before the terrorists storm the party, we’re told:

It had been a beautiful party, though no one would remember that.

This builds tension, letting us know something significant is about to happen. In the first chapter we’re also told that:

It was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.

This is a classic example of giving away the ending increasing tension rather than mitigating it. If we know the terrorists are going to die, what’s the point of reading any further? To witness the meaningful relationships they form with their hostages and vice versa. When one reads this line initially, one assumes that the hostages would be relieved and/or happy from this prospect, but the surprise of the narrative is that by the time the deaths actually happen, it will be a tragedy, a sad (indeed horrible) ending, far from a happy one. The tension of the narrative resides in finding out how terrorists dying took on the opposite emotional import than we’d expect.

The novel was published in May of 2001; Patchett was not rendering sympathetic terrorists as a conscious response to Sept. 11, but it almost seems prescient, since one might argue that it was an American lack of understanding of Islamic extremism as a product of American hypocrisy and misdeeds that made our response to that event so inept, a cause of, rather than an impediment to, further damage. In Bel Canto, the terrorists get nearly the same amount of development as the hostages; their humanity is on full display. She makes the Generals Alfredo and Benjamin sympathetic through their injuries–missing fingers and an ongoing raging case of shingles. It’s also apparent that their motives are ultimately not to do harm but good, such as releasing the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s disappointing that the book’s success doesn’t seem to have much impacted the national consciousness at the time.  

Though it was not 9/11, Patchett was inspired by a real-life terrorist incident, the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru in 1996. It’s narratively useful to see what she took from reality and what she adjusted. The fundamentals of the real-life event we can get from the Wikipedia article about it:

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on 17 December 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, Morihisa Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday.

Notably, the detailed article mentions nothing about the relationship between the terrorists and the hostages.

We can see that Patchett took a lot of the basics–roughly the same number of terrorists, likely the same country, though she leaves it unnamed, and the originating event being a birthday party for a Japanese man. She also seems to have kept the release of the women after the first night, the four-month time frame that the standoff lasted, and the way it ended in a military raid with all the terrorists being killed while only one hostage was. (Interestingly, the president of Peru at the time, Alberto Fujimori, who oversaw the perceived-as-successful military operation freeing the hostages, was a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry who eventually fled to Japan; he also apparently had such a penchant for soap operas that meetings were not allowed to be scheduled during them.) The military raid was achieved in the book and in real life by digging a tunnel, but in real life the insurgents heard noises that made them suspect the tunnel was being dug, while in the book they seem to be taken completely by surprise. The raid took place during a game of soccer in both, though in real life this happened because the military had been spying and knew this was the optimal time the terrorists let their guard down (it was also an indoor game, not outdoor as in Patchett). In the real Peruvian crisis, women were known to be among the militants in the terrorist group, as opposed to Patchett’s account, where there were females but nobody outside the house knew about them. Patchett’s also changed who the house belongs to from a non-native (the Japanese ambassador) of the host country to one of its highest ranking politicians (the vice-president). Perhaps most prominently, she’s added a famous opera singer.

Probably on first read a lot of people forget that early line warning that the terrorists will not survive, but Patchett does occasionally remind us that there will be some survivors:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

The box contains the music that Roxane Coss will use to sing. Part of her inclusion in this narrative seems to emphasize that art can make any circumstances bearable–even enjoyable. It was also the basis for the structure, as Patchett revealed in an interview shortly before the book was published:

“I wanted somehow to get all of those elements that I love about opera into a novel. I wanted to write a book that would be like an opera in its structure, its grandeur, its musicality, its melodrama.”

As the Guardian’s review of the novel points out, the book pulls off a unique coup:

The trick is ingenious: a hijack in which the captors have nowhere to go and the hostages have no desire for release.

After the box of music, the captives start to be happier as hostages than they were in their former lives–with the possible exception of Simon, who desperately misses his wife. This exception emphasizes the other aspect that the novel dramatizes as making life bearable–love.

The two primary love stories in the narrative arise against all odds, and could only have ever happened due to the particular circumstances of the hostage situation: Mr. Hosokowa and Roxane getting together despite a language barrier, and Gen and Carmen getting together despite his being a hostage from Japan and her a terrorist from the mountains of South America. According to Wikipedia, these relationships are the “backdrop” for the rest of the story.

As Patchett’s use of omniscience-in-time indicates, time works in something of a nontraditional way in this narrative; many parts of the novel are describing periods of time rather than a specific moment in time. Thus, some of the scenes we do get, such as Father Arguedas hearing Beatriz’s confession, are not furthering a linear plot–though some scenes, such as Father Arguedas talking on the phone to his friend Manuel about the music to be sent, are furthering something more akin to a linear plot–but rather showing how the terrorists and hostages have become interchangeable, have all become people. But we do see chains of events unfolding here that primarily center on establishing objects of love, so that in the climax we feel a significant impact of loss. With Carmen’s help, Gen facilitates Mr. Hosokowa’s rendezvous with Roxane. The first night this happens, Roxane doesn’t come down to sing the next morning, prompting Cesar to sing instead; without her having met up with her lover, she might never have discovered Cesar’s singing, her second great love. That Cesar has a prodigal operatic voice might seem convenient (and some critics have remarked as much), might seem to be stretching reality, but the conception of the novel as an operatic melodrama makes this appropriate. 

The fact that Mr. Hosokowa is the only hostage who dies is narratively appropriate, since he, as was emphasized by his guilt in the early chapters, is the reason everyone was there to be taken hostage. With the reason for them being there removed, the hostages are narratively free to go. The epilogue, with Gen and Roxane marrying, is also narratively fitting, in that the two people who have both had their loves taken away from them take solace in each other. Of course, there’s also been the emphasis on how Gen is a kind of extension of Mr. Hosokowa, and Mr. Hosokowa’s own considerations of what would change if they ever got their old lives back, which is actually impossible:

He tried not to give himself over to fantasies: he would get a divorce; he would follow her from city to city, sitting in the front row of every opera house in the world. Happily, he would have done this, given up everything for her. But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.

It’s also fitting that Simon and his wife would be the wedding witnesses, as Simon’s love for his wife made him the only one who seemed to not completely enjoy their captive circumstances by the end. One suspects that even if Mr. Hosokowa knew he would ultimately die, he would have considered his period in captivity, and the intimacy with the beloved opera singer it enabled him, worth it, that he still would have gone to the party even if he knew how it would end.

The omniscience-in-time is also used for a particularly emotional effect when Gen and Carmen first sleep together, when we’re told about how Gen will remember this moment later:

First, he will imagine what he did not do:

In this version, he takes Carmen’s hand and leads her out the gate at the end of the front walkway. There are military guards on the other side of the wall but they, too, are young and asleep, and together they pass them and simply walk out into the capital city of the host country. Nobody knows to stop them. They are not famous and nobody cares. They go to an airport and find a flight back to Japan and they live there, together, happily and forever.

Gen’s tragedy is re-emphasized right before the military storm the house at the end, when Messner tries to communicate that things have gotten urgent:

“It is a standoff,” Gen said. “Maybe a permanent one. If they keep us here forever, we’ll manage.”

“Are you insane?” Messner said. “You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them.”

This very much echoes a conversation that Gen had with Carmen earlier:

“What do you mean, this is where we live now?”

Carmen sighed. “You know I can’t say. But ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?” This room was a third of the size of the china closet. Her knees touched his legs. If he took even a half step back he would be on the commode. She wished she could take his hand. Why would he want to leave her, leave this place?

“This has to end sooner or later,” he said. “These sorts of things never just go on indefinitely, somebody stops them.”

So the ending was foretold in the beginning (and foreshadowed at several points along the way), and we have a character–not just the omniscient narrator–who has more insight into this ending than the rest of the characters: the intermediary, Messner. In chapter 8, as Messner is starting to show his exhaustion, we get his internal thoughts:

More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn’t really care who won this one. But that wasn’t it exactly, because the governments always won. It was that he wouldn’t mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them. He wished they could use the tunnel the military was digging, wished they could crawl back into the air vents and down into that tunnel and go back into whatever leafy quarters they came from (emphasis added).

Here, we’ve inadvertently been told more specifically how the terrorists are all going to die in the end: the military will infiltrate the house through a tunnel that they’ve ostensibly been digging for months. The careful reader would connect this to a seemingly passing reference that we got in chapter 7:

While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this.

There’s a lot of foreboding surrounding Messner’s final extended appearance:

“It is not my intention to put my soldiers down in those caves. I would sooner see them dead and buried.”

You might see them dead, Messner thought, but you won’t have the chance to see them buried.

One might actually expect Messner to have a bit more of an internal debate about whether he should tell the group what’s going to happen, but if he had, then it might give away the ending too much. Patchett also addresses this pretty directly when she has him think:

Members of the Red Cross brought food and medicine, sometimes they would ferry papers for arbitration, but they were not moles. They did not spy. Joachim Messner would have no more told the terrorists what the military had planned than he would tell the military what was happening on the other side of the wall.

By incorporating references to the future, Patchett almost counterintuitively emphasizes the present. She’s telling us the things the characters cannot know at the time. It seems to be the characters’ lack of knowledge about their fate, and their consideration of the possibility of their imminent deaths, that allows for a heightened appreciation of the present moment. The extremity of these circumstances allows Patchett to wax more poetic than she might otherwise be able to get away with (it seems to also contribute to the mood of operatic melodrama). She is certainly a master of simile and metaphor, and so I will leave you with a mere few gems from a jewelry emporium:

He was the first to understand. He felt like he had been startled from a deep sleep, drunk from liquor and pork and Dvořák.

By now the bodyguards napped inside limousines like great, overfed dogs.

The house seemed to rise up like a boat caught inside the wide arm of a wave and flip onto its side.

They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned willfully towards sharp teeth, take me.

There were a series of loud clicks and then an artificial blue-white light spilled through the living-room window like cold milk and made everyone squint.

The Slavic language was pear brandy on his tongue.

To tell something to Carmen was to have it sewn forever into the silky folds of her brain.

He could see right inside her mouth, a damp, pink cave.


It’s Happening NOW

Everybody thinks Hitler got to power because of his armies, because they were willing to kill, and that’s partly true, because in the real world power is always built on the threat of death and dishonor. But mostly he got to power on words—on the right words at the right time.

-Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

In 2013, sci-fi author Orson Scott Card did a thought experiment so off-base it makes one wonder how he so accurately assessed Hitler:

In the essay, which was published on Card’s Civilisation Watch blog and titled “Unlikely Events”, the novelist posits a future where Obama rules as a “Hitler- or Stalin-style dictator” complete with his own “national police force” of “young out-of-work urban men”. He also suggests that Obama and his wife, Michelle, might amend the US constitution to allow presidents to remain in power forever before the next presidential election and would then “win by 98 percent every time”.

This thought experiment turns out to bear a number of similarities to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, except that Lewis fabricates an individual to fulfill the role of President Dictator. 

I first came across It Can’t Happen Here this past January, in a display of science-fiction classics outside the Special Collections department at the University of Houston library. It just so happened to be Inauguration Day, as the gigantic high-def screen on the ground floor beaming CNN would not let me forget. As soon as I read the exhibit’s blurb, I knew I had to read the book–while simultaneously being terrified to:

This 1935 novel imagines the rise of fascism in America. Boorish Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip uses a populist campaign, in which he promises to bring back prosperity, to win the 1936 election for the presidency.

Really, this novel might more aptly be called “speculative fiction,” as Margaret Atwood defines the term in her essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination: “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books,” while “science fiction” she defines as “things that could not possibly happen,” though she notes that Ursula K. Le Guin uses the term “fantasy” for things that could never happen and “science fiction” for things that could happen but haven’t yet. Definitions are relative, as facts have now also become.

So let’s see how closely Lewis has provided us a blueprint for how the next four years (or fewer?) might go–and how closely Lewis’s thought experiment mirrors Card’s. 

The novel opens in Vermont at the “Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club,” which is hosting military officials expounding on the idea that America has to arm itself to preserve peace. There seem to be only two people present resistant to the pressure of this thinly disguised militaristic political tide:

…one Doremus Jessup, editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic.”

There’s also Lorinda Pike, “the village scold, the village crank.” After the dinner, Doremus goes over to the wealthy Francis Tasbrough’s house and discusses politics with some of the prominent men in the community. The name Buzz Windrip is mentioned for the first time by Doremus:

With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

Doremus predicts (rightly, it will turn out) that:

If Bishop Prang, our Savonarola in a Cadillac 16, swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win.

But Doremus is met with resistance:

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Doremus responds with a litany of past wrongs that have happened:

Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy?. . . Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?. . .Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade—only of adults—right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!

We get some exposition about Doremus’s journalism career and his family (three kids: Philip, 32; Mary, 30; Sissy, 18), and when he goes home and and barks his shins on a lawnmower left out by his hired man, we are introduced, indirectly, to his hired man Shad Ledue, whom Doremus alternately resolves to fire and enjoys the task of attempting to civilize:

He was entirely incompetent and vicious.

Doremus reads a letter from an old professor of his at Isaiah College who says that the students have started military training and the college has ordered that anyone who criticizes it be kicked out. Later, while Doremus awaits a broadcast by Bishop Prang, we get some exposition about our worrisome presidential candidate:

He had worked his way through a Southern Baptist college, of approximately the same academic standing as a Jersey City business college, and through a Chicago law school, and settled down to practice in his native state and to enliven local politics. He was a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money. He drank Coca-Cola with the Methodists, beer with the Lutherans, California white wine with the Jewish village merchants—and, when they were safe from observation, white-mule corn whisky with all of them.

Within twenty years he was as absolute a ruler of his state as ever a sultan was of Turkey.

Notably—unlike some—this controversial candidate has a fair amount of actual political experience. He’s also only 48 years old. But in other areas, there might be closer similarities to our current President:

He was certain that some day America would have vast business dealings with the Russians and, though he detested all Slavs, he made the State University put in the first course in the Russian language that had been known in all that part of the West.

He also quadrupled his state’s militia, which protected him when he was accused of grafting tax money. A big part of his effectiveness is thought to derive from his secretary, Lee Sarason, who also probably wrote Windrip’s book on “remolding the world”: Zero Hour—Over the Top. A choice passage from this tome:

The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.

The Republican candidate doesn’t stand a chance:

All the while, Walt Trowbridge, possible Republican candidate for President, suffering from the deficiency of being honest and disinclined to promise that he could work miracles, was insisting that we live in the United States of America and not on a golden highway to Utopia.

There was nothing exhilarating in such realism…

Doremus goes on an idyllic picnic with his family but takes a portable radio with him to listen to Bishop Prang’s broadcast, during which Prang declares he and his sizable League of Forgotten Men will do everything in their power to support Windrip’s candidacy. When Doremus complains that in a couple of years everything they do will be regimented under a dictatorship, all of his family—except, notably, Julian Falck, one of Sissy’s suitors—tell him that can’t happen here.

Supported by Colonel Dewey Haik, Windrip shortly secures the Democratic nomination for President, edging out FDR. Doremus talks to Shad about how Shad plans to vote for Windrip, since he’s promising “to fix it so everybody will get four thousand bucks, immediate.” Windrip releases his 15-point platform, which includes centralizing control of finances through a Federal Central Bank; a limit on the amount of money you can earn in a year ($500k); seizing any profits generated from war; prohibiting “Negroes” from voting, public office, and jobs that require an education; giving every person $5k a year; sending all women back to their rightful job as homemakers; and turning Congress into an advisory body whose approval he does not need to do things. Windrip is supposed to be a good speaker:

…under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but [] on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

Here we might derive further likenesses to a certain someone:

He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.


Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Perhaps there’s less of a likeness in his family:

Buzz’s lady stayed back home, raising spinach and chickens and telling the neighbors that she expected to go to Washington next year, the while Windrip was informing the press that his “Frau” was so edifyingly devoted to their two small children and to Bible study that she simply could not be coaxed to come East.

Windrip intensifies his campaigning and appeals to an increasing number of groups, the poor and rich alike (the rich believing that only he can jump-start “the Business Recovery”). Doremus labels the movement as “‘revolution in terms of Rotary.’” FDR starts a new party to try to encroach on Windrip, but his appeals fall on deaf ears:

The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party, like the personal fault of Senator Trowbridge, was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whisky, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water—all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

No one campaigns harder for Windrip in Fort Beulah than Shad Ledue. Doremus manages to get a ticket to Windrip’s campaign finale at Madison Square Garden, and in New York City he first lays eyes on a particular group of soldiers:

Three weeks ago Windrip had announced that Colonel Dewey Haik had founded, just for the campaign, a nationwide league of Windrip marching-clubs, to be called the Minute Men. It was probable that they had been in formation for months, since already they had three or four hundred thousand members. Doremus was afraid the M.M.’s might become a permanent organization, more menacing than the Kuklux Klan.

He sees them attack an old man who calls out his support for FDR and then violently break up a meeting of Communists; when the police come to break it up they arrest not the Minute Men who incited the conflict, but the Communists and Jeffersonians. When Doremus does finally get to hear Windrip speak at the rally, he briefly comes under his spell:

“I’ll be hanged! Why, he’s a darn good sort when you come to meet him! And warm-hearted. He makes me feel as if I’d been having a good evening with Buck and Steve Perefixe. What if Buzz is right? What if—in spite of all the demagogic pap that, I suppose, he has got to feed out to the boobs—he’s right in claiming that it’s only he, and not Trowbridge or Roosevelt, that can break the hold of the absentee owners? And these Minute Men, his followers—oh, they were pretty nasty, what I saw out on the street, but still, most of ‘em are mighty nice, clean-cut young fellows. Seeing Buzz and then listening to what he actually says does kind of surprise you—kind of make you think!”

But as soon as he leaves he can’t remember anything Windrip actually said.

At home on election night, Doremus finds a note on his front porch:

You will get yrs Dorey sweethart unles you get rite down on yr belly and crawl in front of the MM and the League and the Chief and I

A friend

Once Windrip is elected, Doremus tries to escape into literature but soon finds this isn’t viable. Some Communists try to get him to join with them, but he resists, pondering how all the different modes of running a society have problems and even questioning the country’s Revolutionary and Civil Wars, wondering if those who have tried to interfere with the State have done more harm than good. He finds no consolation in church. He visits Lorinda Pike at the tavern she runs—they’ve long been lovers. Lorinda notices that Shad Ledue is outside spying on them. Sissy comes in and Doremus gets Shad to drive his car back while he rides back with Sissy. She calls him out for being Lorinda’s lover and tries to pep him up to fight Windrip. At home Shad also makes an insinuation about Lorinda and Doremus fires him; Shad says he was about to quit for a political secretaryship. Windrip appoints his cabinet, which consist of his cronies, including Lee Sarason as Secretary of State. Then, there’s the inauguration, which is apparently the first to take place January 20:

The followers of President Windrip trumpeted that it was significant that he should be the first president inaugurated not on March fourth, but on January twentieth according to the provision of the new Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution.

Then the inauguration:

More than a thousand reporters, photographers, and radio men covered the inauguration. Twenty-seven constituents of Senator Porkwood, of all sexes, had to sleep on the floor of the Senator’s office, and a hall-bedroom in the suburb of Bladensburg rented for thirty dollars for two nights. The presidents of Brazil, the Argentine, and Chile flew to the inauguration in a Pan-American aëroplane, and Japan sent seven hundred students on a special train from Seattle.

(We’ll take the word of this omniscient narrator that the fanfare really was this extreme.)

Windrip’s first actions in office are to declare a “real New Deal,” put his feet up in the White House, make the Minute Men an army beholden only to him and Lee Sarason, and:

…that he should have complete control of legislation and execution, and the Supreme Court be rendered incapable of blocking anything that it might amuse him to do.

When Congress, whom his party does not have a majority of, promptly rejects this bill, Windrip declares a state of martial law and has the Minute Men arrest a hundred Congressmen. (Here is the real turning point, in chapter 15, a little less than halfway through the book.)

How does the public react?

There were riots, instantly, all over Washington, all over America.

When a mob tries to free the Congressmen from their jail and the Minute Men start to abdicate under the pressure, Windrip makes a passionate plea from a window for all Minute Men to help defend him, claiming they were once poor but they will be the ones to help make the new America and be the new aristocracy (the different but parallel approach to “Make America Great Again”….) and to, if need be, “give the swine the point of your bayonet!” The M.M.’s open fire. After some Congressmen make it back from jail, they vote, and the bill dubiously passes. When Bishop Prang tries to contest Windrip’s actions, he’s arrested, while the public is told he’s in jail for his protection against a Bolshevik plot. There’s not official press censorship, yet, but people reporting things against the administration start to get arrested. Windrip tells the country that they’re fighting

…powerful and secret enemies of American principles—one rather gathered that they were a combination of Wall Street and Soviet Russia.

Windrip has pulled off a coup in the first eight days of his administration (and in the book, all in chapter 15). Doremus continues to print subtly critical things about the government, sure the hysteria can’t last:

It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus—even now.

Doremus’s friend Buck Titus lets him and Lorinda use his cabin. Windrip maintains power and four members of the Supreme Court resign and are replaced by his cronies. Windrip abolishes states and divides the country into eight provinces, claiming this will economize things but really making it easier for the Minute Men to maintain power. New military commissioner posts are created. All billboards are replaced with pro-Windrip propaganda. The Commissioner of Doremus’s county, north Vermont, is Shad Ledue, now “Captain,” despite having no legitimate military training. Minute Men enrollment increases. It’s one of the M.M.’s who is

…the first patriot to name President Windrip “the Chief,” meaning Führer, or Imperial Wizard of the K.K.K., or Il Duce, or Imperial Potentate of the Mystic Shrine, or Commodore, or University Coach, or anything else supremely noble and good-hearted.

The next Presidential mandate abolishes political parties:

There was to be only one: The American Corporate State and Patriotic Party—no! added the President, with something of his former good-humor: “there are two parties, the Corporate and those who don’t belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!”

Soon this State’s adherents becomes known as “Corpos.”

Windrip then claims to have abolished unemployment by establishing labor camps run by Minute Men where the unemployed go to carry out labor assigned by the State under prison-like conditions. There is less mutiny against this than there might be thanks to loudspeakers enabling Windrip and Sarason to tell the workers, on a nightly basis,

…that they were the honored foundation stones of a New Civilization, the advance guards of the conquest of the whole world.

Border security is increased to keep “lying Red propagandists” publishing material making the Corpo State look bad from escaping. Senator Trowbridge outsmarts the dozen M.M. guards on him and escapes to Canada, where he starts the “New Underground,” or “N.U.” Doremus goes to his college class reunion to find that some of his old professors have recently been fired. At home, he hears a story about how Secretary of Education Hector Macgoblin got drunk and tried to get a hold of a former teacher; when he learned the teacher was visiting a Jewish rabbi, he bursts into the apartment where they are and ends up shooting and killing both of them. Despite being the obvious aggressor and invading a victim’s home, Macgoblin is acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense. Doremus writes an editorial for the Informer virulently protesting the event, and after debating with his family and Lorinda whether to run it, does, after stopping to visit his son-in-law Dr. Fowler and grandson David. After its release, a mob gathers outside the office and storms in; Shad enters and stops them from hurting Doremus, but then arrests him. He’s brought before the military judge Effingham Swan, habeas corpus having been suspended in the current state of crisis. They say they have enough evidence to shoot him but will instead keep him on at the Informer writing only what their men direct him to. Then Doremus’s son-in-law Dr. Fowler bursts in, claiming that they’re kidnappers, and Swan has him taken out back and shot. Doremus’s daughter Mary and her son David move back in the house, where the atmosphere has markedly shifted to depression and fear. He drags on at the office. Lorinda tells him she’s trying to organize some country girls she knows into a resistance. His friend Karl Pascal tries to get him to join the Communists, but he resists.

The Corpos then “ended all crime in America forever” by simultaneously arresting everyone even suspected of crime. They shut down all the universities and open their own Corpo versions. As soon as Sissy announces she’s leaving her high school, which is now making her pledge allegiance to the Corpos, Julian Falck shows up from Amherst saying it’s just been shut down and wondering what he’ll do for a job; they discuss marriage and children, though Sissy no longer believes in either. Julian starts driving around the doctor that Doremus’s murdered son-in-law used to work for. Concentration camps are opened (chapter 22) to handle the overflow from prisons and to house all suspected Communists. Doremus gets word of some rebellions that the Corpos bloodily put down. People have to watch what they say all the time for fear of being sent to a camp; many journalists are arrested. Then books that are supposedly seditious (including most literature) are collected and burned. Shad and Staubmeyer, whom Doremus works for at the paper, search his house and take his books. At the actual burning Karl Pascal throws a fit at his books having been taken and is the second citizen from Fort Beulah sent off to a camp. Reporters from London claim that Americans are pleased with the new State, not taking into account that such claims originated from fear. Doremus gets nervous his time is coming after he can tell his private papers have been rifled. Buck Titus comes over and says he’s gotten word Doremus is next to be arrested and that he’ll help the family escape to Canada with his fake Canadian papers. Doremus’s family convinces him (though he secretly plans to return to fight Shad once they’re settled up there) and they set off, but when they try to take a back road across the border there they run into M.M. guards who say they have to call their battalion leader to check the papers, so they turn back.

At home again, Doremus’s son Philip the lawyer visits from Worcester; Doremus is shocked that Philip supports the Corpos and has come to try to convince him to be more compliant. When Shad visits the house to see if Doremus ever talked to Karl Pascal about Communism, Mary promises she’ll kill him and Judge Swan. Doremus’s old professor Victor Loveland is caught complaining about his new crappy job and sent to a concentration camp; another friend is sent off when he resists the government moving a bunch of poor people onto his farm. Doremus, sensing his time is near, quits the Informer and goes to Shad’s supervisor District Commissioner Reek, who agrees to keep Shad from arresting him for it if Doremus helps him with some of his private writing. Doremus gets Julian Falck to put him in contact with some Communists he might do some subversive work with, but when he meets them they think he’s too old for the laborious work of distributing pamphlets, and are further put off by his admiration for Trowbridge. A man, Mr. Dimick, who claims to be an insurance salesman starts following Doremus around and eventually reveals himself to be part of Trowbridge’s New Underground, trying to recruit Doremus. He joins a group that starts writing and distributing seditious pamphlets telling real stories of the horrors going on that he receives through different messengers. Sissy starts getting chummy with Shad to get intel, and Mary helps distribute pamphlets. Doremus and Lorinda’s love intensifies in the midst of their work until Lorinda says that their relationship might be distracting them from more important things. Sissy goes to meet with Shad despite Julian’s concerns he might rape her, trying to get Shad to tell her who he’ll arrest next so they can get that person to Canada, but he resists. Going to the bathroom she finds some keys of his but can’t figure out a way to copy them, and leaves abruptly, shaken by Shad’s advances. Her courage inspires Julian to join the M.M.’s to get what intel he can; he meets with Sissy regularly to share what he’s learned. The lies from the administration keep coming about the successes they have achieved; the armed forces increase in number, and the gaiety of the populace steadily decreases. Doremus feels their N.U. efforts are futile, but continues with them anyway. Francis Tasbrough tells Doremus there’s going to be a shakeup in Commissioner offices, with Colonel Dewey Haik becoming Secretary of War, which means Tasbrough might get promoted, and tries to get Doremus to help back him, but Doremus refuses. Someone else is arrested and sent to a camp for writing the pamphlets Lorinda and Doremus wrote, and he struggles to keep his mouth shut. Swan gets promoted and has Reek arrested. Doremus is paranoid Shad is on to their pamphlet writing so they hide their tools and invite Shad to a poker game to throw him off. At home Doremus works on a pamphlet about Swan’s crimes.

On July 4 Doremus is arrested at home and his Swan tract is discovered; the rest of his NU accomplices, including Buck Titus, have also been arrested. He’s brought to District Commissioner headquarters and thinks he’ll be saved because the DC is Tasbrough, but he’s tossed in a cell without seeing him. The next day he’s sentenced to swallow castor oil and is lashed until he’ll admit he’s a communist, but he won’t. He goes on trial before Swan and is sent to a concentration camp at Trianon for seventeen years (and given the oil and lashes again). At the camp he gets to stay in the hospital for a month and then they let him see Dr. Olmsted from Ft. Beulah, who quickly tells him his family is carrying on. He’s assigned to sweep and scrub instead of working in the woods gang and gets to talk to a few prisoners he knew from home, including Karl Pascal. His family can occasionally visit, but only closely monitored. His cousin Henry Veeder is shot for trying to escape. Then Julian Falck is brought in as a prisoner, caught for spying in the M.M.s. Doremus is beaten for not admitting to be involved in Julian’s subversive activities.

Meanwhile, Shad is angry that he hasn’t been promoted even though he’s brought in more traitors than anyone. He has a black man who used to be a professor arrested. Then he turns up in the camp as a prisoner “for having grafted on shopkeepers,” though the rumor is it’s really because he didn’t share enough of the graft with Tasbrough. Doremus tries to dissuade the other prisoners from doing anything to Shad, who’s responsible for most of them being in there, but it has no effect. Someone throws a gas-soaked wad of waste into Shad’s cell and he burns to death. Since no one will confess who did it, ten prisoners are chosen randomly and shot, including Doremus’s old professor.

At home, Mary gets sick of how cautious they have to be and leaves to join the Corpo Women’s Flying Corps, eventually flying alongside Swan’s plane and dropping grenades on it; when they miss, she dive bombs her own plane into his and kills them both. Emma and David go to live with Philip; Sissy works for Lorinda. It turns out she’s the one who turned Shad in to Tasbrough after getting him to tell her how he made his money. Right after Lorinda tells Sissy she’s going to bribe the guard Aras Dilley to help Doremus escape, they get the news that Lee Sarason has deposed Windrip and taken over the country. We get exposition about how Buzz depended on Lee more than anyone but then Lee started to pull away. The way Buzz treats the White House might be somewhat familiar:

No newspaper had dared mention it, but Buzz was both bothered by the stateliness of the White House and frightened by the number of Reds and cranks and anti-Corpos who, with the most commendable patience and ingenuity, tried to sneak into that historic mansion and murder him. Buzz merely left his wife there, for show, and, except at great receptions, never entered any part of the White House save the office annex.

Vice President Beecroft defects to Canada. Sarason and the rest of the cabinet wants to declare war on Mexico to unite the populace, but Buzz is scared what will happen if they put guns in the hands of too many. Then Sarason, Haik, and Macgoblin show up at the hotel suite where Windrip really lives and are going to kill him but then decide to let him flee to another country. Sarason agitates for war with Mexico, and a month into his presidency, he’s shot and killed by Secretary of War Haik, who has the favor of the troops. Haik is a strict orthodox Christian and makes people long for the days of Windrip. Dilley gets Doremus out of the camp and back to Lorinda and Sissy, whom he spends a few days with before shaving his beard and escaping into Canada, where he becomes friends with Trowbridge and the former VP Beecroft, but most Canadians are bored by the American plight. America trundles toward war with Mexico at the same time it’s dealing with revolts against the Corpos. Then the Chief of Staff declares Trowbridge Temporary President, and his faction battles with the Corpos for control of the country. Trowbridge sends Doremus back to America as a spy; Lorinda shows up to say goodbye before he leaves. Staying with one of Trowbridge’s agents, Doremus dreams he’s back at Trianon and that it’s declared Haik has been captured and they’re all freed and his family is waiting for him. Then he’s woken with news that Corpos are after him so he moves on:

And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.

The End.

The chronic tension here is the state of the country, while the acute tension is the election of a candidate who promises to solve all the country’s problems. Shockingly, the candidate doesn’t live up to his word. Lewis gives himself the best of both worlds by employing (so to speak) an omniscient narrator while still focusing on a main character; thus we get to see things that Doremus doesn’t, like explicit conversations between Windrip and Sarason, and the scene of Windrip’s overthrow. It seems a smart move that Lewis does not make Windrip or any of the politicians in his coterie the main character here. The explanation for why he doesn’t seems embedded in the novel’s final line. By referring to “a Doremus Jessup,” Lewis reinforces Doremus’s role as an everyman, though his role is actually more specific than that, since not every man would resist the tide of fascism—though perhaps every man might like to believe he would. 

The focus on both Windrip and Doremus provides the reader with two interrelated arcs, one national, one local. But there’s also a third arc on the local level that engages the reader—that of the villain Shad Ledue. Shad doesn’t get his $5000. None of the poor do. What they get is a chance at power, at a class switch. Shad is the first to take advantage. Every insult he’s had to endure as the lowly hired help is paid back in kind. But in the end, he doesn’t get away with it; instead, he suffers horribly as a direct result of his actions; it’s the prisoners he put into the camp who kill him there. What goes around comes around it would seem, especially when Tasbrough, who supposedly put Shad in the camp for not sharing his graft, is then himself put in jail for grafting. Then Haik gets rid of Tasbrough for “garner[ing] riches too easily and too obviously,” but then a bit later we learn:

Francis Tasbrough, very beautiful in repentance, had been let out of the Corpo prison to which he had been sent for too much grafting and was again a district commissioner, well thought of…

It seems that at the end of the day the system continues to favor those it always did.

The book spans years, but can basically be divided into three acts: before, during, and after Windrip’s presidency. The last act feels the most rushed and slipshod (Mary becomes a proficient flying Corpo awfully quickly), but this seems appropriate to what the tenor of the country might feel like at this stage. Lewis chooses an interesting ending point, one still essentially in media res, but it’s an ending that’s more hopeful than what it seemed like we were going to get when Doremus was in a concentration camp, at which point I thought things would just get increasingly worse. It seems logical that Windrip would be deposed by the same man who helped him gain power, and even more logical that the deposer would then himself be deposed. So we end with two oppositional forces fighting for control of the country, and Doremus setting off on a risky mission to help the good forces (for it’s pretty black and white who’s good and who’s evil in this narrative), endangering the freedom that he’s in a position to value much more highly than us everyday modern citizens (at this moment in time, anyway). Doremus never gives up. He publishes the editorial about Macgoblin’s crime, writes pamphlets for the underground organization, plans to return to America after his family escapes (or tries to) to Canada, and does return when he finally actually makes it to Canada. He is a textbook hero—except for the fact that he cheats on his wife. Though his facility with the ladies—or at least one lady who is not his wife—might still fall in the confines of the hero’s textbook. At any rate, in our current age, Doremus still provides a worthwhile example to follow. Don’t give up, people! This can’t last forever!

But what’s more on display in this novel than the power of the hero is the power of propaganda, as per the disconcertingly insightful epigraph from Card. Chapters 5-20 begin with excerpts from Windrip’s tome Zero Hour, which allow the reader to see his propaganda at work, as in Chapter 18’s:

In the little towns, ah, there is the abiding peace that I love, and that can never be disturbed by even the noisiest Smart Alecks from these haughty megalopolises like Washington, New York, & etc.

The power of appealing to the rural voting base seems not to have diminished in the intervening decades.

The Minute Men’s lowest rank being designated as “inspector” instead of “private” mitigates the lowliness of that position:

The M.M. ranks were: inspector, more or less corresponding to private; squad leader, or corporal; cornet, or sergeant; ensign, or lieutenant; battalion leader, a combination of captain, major, and lieutenant colonel; commander, or colonel; brigadier, or general; high marshal, or commanding general. Cynics suggested that these honorable titles derived more from the Salvation Army than the fighting forces, but be that cheap sneer justified or no, the fact remains that an M.M. helot had ever so much more pride in being called an “inspector,” an awing designation in all police circles, than in being a “private.”

Windrip is able to claim he’s eradicated all unemployment through the creation of labor camps that are more like jails than jobs, but we can see how, from his perspective, he would be able to make this claim without himself thinking it’s an outright lie. This may or may not provide some insight into how our current president can make some of the insupportable claims he has. We see this pattern play out again when he claims to have eradicated all crime by arresting anyone who bears the slimmest possibility of being a criminal. Getting rid of all crime is apparently worth the Constitutional violation.

The Minute Men is perhaps where Lewis’s vision most closely coincides with Card’s, the latter describing Obama convening a similar institution:

In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.

Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people “trying to escape” — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.

But the media will cover all the actions of the NaPo as if it were merely a full-employment program for unemployed urban youth. Or if they finally wise up (maybe after a few reporters disappear), they’ll be cowed into submission very quickly.

Lewis’s vision imagines fascism rising in America at the same time it was gaining prominence in Germany and Italy in the buildup to the Second World War. At that time, people who claimed “It can’t happen here” would have turned out to be right—for awhile at least. Four years ago, Card was apparently of the belief that it could happen here, though he attributed the advent of fascism to the wrong individual. Trump hasn’t raised a private army to protect him for grafting tax money (knock on wood), but his refusal to release his tax returns and reveal his horrendous conflicts of interest is almost as horrifying for the fact that he didn’t need an army to defend him. Not to mention that his budget proposal beefing up the public army mitigates any need for a private one…  

Now we’ll have to wait and see if two years is really America’s timetable for a despot’s policies to undo him.    


The Keen Eyes of the Outsider

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, supposedly slated for an upcoming film adaptation, provides a perspective that sheds light on the construction of race in America, as well as other problematic myths about America’s greatness, by providing us a tale of an immigrant who returns to live in her home country because she wants to, not because she’s forced to.

Part 1

Chapter 1: Ifemelu heads from Princeton to Trenton to get her hair braided for her move back to Nigeria after 13 years in America. She thinks about the end of her “lifestyle” blog about race and talks to her Senegalese hairdresser Aisha about her move back, surprising herself when she says she’s going to “see my man.” She’s just broken up with her black American boyfriend Blaine for the move, and has been thinking about her university boyfriend Obinze, whom she knows is married with a child now. While trying to avoid talking to Aisha, Ifemelu writes Obinze an email to tell him she’s moving back.

Chapter 2: We switch to Obinze’s point of view in Lagos, Nigeria, as he receives her email when he’s being driven home from work. He’s apparently done quite well for himself, but Obinze is not sure he’s happy with his life. His light-skinned wife Kosi is pleased when mistaken for being mixed race. Tonight they’re going to a party at the Chief’s, the man who helped Obinze get started in his present real-estate career; he has a vague premonition that the Chief will eventually ask for something unsettling in return for his favors, like helping with an assassination. At the party his wife and some women discuss possible British or French schools for his daughter, though Obinze would prefer a Nigerian one. He’s bored at the party and on the way home thinks about how paranoid his wife’s become that he’ll cheat on her. At home, he writes back to Ifemelu, whom he has perhaps more than fond memories of.

Part 2

Chapter 3: Back at the hairdresser, Aisha wants Ifemelu to talk to her two Igbo boyfriends to convince them to marry her, since they claim they can only marry Igbo women and Ifemelu says she knows Igbo men who have married others, but Ifemelu does not want to talk to these men. Ifemelu challenges Aisha when she uses the wrong comb. She then starts to think about her mother’s hair and how long and amazing it was until the day she was “saved” and came home and chopped it all off. She became an extreme religious nut until the day she claimed to have seen an angel who told her to switch to a less strict congregation. Ifemelu’s father lost his civil-servant job for refusing to call his new female boss “Mommy,” and the landlord comes by and demands rent. She thinks about her Aunty Uju, ten years older than her, whom she’s always had a special bond with for giving her more practical advice than her religious mother.

Chapter 4: Obinze and Ifemelu’s courtship: Obinze moves to town when she’s in high school while his mother, a professor, is on a two-year sabbatical, and he quickly becomes popular. His friends want him to go out with Ifemelu’s best friend Ginika, but at the party where they introduce them, he instead asks Ifemelu to dance. His friends had told him Ifemelu was too much trouble and argumentative, but he prefers that. They talk for a long time at the party and she asks him to kiss her. They say they love each other after a few weeks and she’s worried about how happy she is.

Chapter 5: Ginika gets ready to leave for America with her family, and Ifemelu realizes that she doesn’t fit in with Obinze and the rest of his friends, who have all been abroad; Obinze is obsessed with America. (The term “Americanah” is first introduced in this chapter–someone who has returned from America and adopted American idiosyncrasies.) His mother invites her for lunch and she starts going over there regularly; one day when the mother leaves and realizes they’ve been fooling around while she was gone, she takes Ifemelu into her room and warns her about the dangers of sex and asks her to wait, and get Obinze to agree to wait, and to tell her when they start having sex.

Chapter 6: Ifemelu is fascinated by Aunty Uju’s nice house (with a couple of servants) in Dolphin Estate; Uju has a good job that “the general” got for her; he sees her occasionally even though he’s married. Ifemelu asks to live with Aunty Uju during the school week but her father refuses. He needs money for rent still and when Ifemelu mentions this to Uju she says that she doesn’t actually have any money because she has not been receiving an actual salary at her job; the general wants to make her ask for what she needs. Ifemelu meets him when he comes over for dinner a few times. Once he promises to come over for a holiday and Uju goes to a lot of trouble for him but he cancels at the last second, and when Uju yells at her servant after Uju spills the soup she made and Ifemelu says she should be yelling at the general, Uju slaps her and the dynamic between them changes. Then Uju gets pregnant by the general and he sends her to America to have the baby, which she gives her own surname. Right after the baby’s first birthday, the general dies in a plane crash, and his relatives come to the house demanding Uju leave. She uses her American visa from the pregnancy to escape them.  

Chapter 7: Ifemelu and Obinze end up going to the same university in the same town Obinze used to live and that his mother has moved back to. The professors have to strike frequently because they’re not being paid and so Ifemelu has to go back to Lagos without Obinze and starts spending some time with another boy, causing a temporary rift between her and Obinze. Back at school they finally have sex and Ifemelu gets sick almost immediately and is worried she’s pregnant, but the tests come back negative. It turns out her appendix is inflamed and she has to have it taken out. Obinze’s mother then talks to them about safe sex.

Chapter 8: With so many university strikes Uju suggests Ifemelu come to study in America; she applies and gets in and doesn’t expect to get a visa but does. When she says goodbye to Obinze’s mother, his mother tells her that she and Obinze need to make a plan; their plan is he will join her in America as soon as he graduates.

Chapter 9: We return to the hair salon briefly, the intense heat there a segue back to the first time Ifemelu experienced an American heat wave, when she first arrived in America. Uju picks her up and she stays in her apartment in Brooklyn, babysitting Uju’s son Dike. She notices that America has subdued Uju, who complains about the three jobs she has to work and that she failed her last medical exam; she had thought things would be better by now.

Chapter 10: Exposition about Ifemelu’s “summer of waiting.” She hangs out with the neighbor Jane until Jane’s husband Marlon hits on her. She babysits Dike and teaches him long division, eats a lot of American junk food, and watches a lot of TV, until the excessive news reports of crime make her scared to go outside.

Chapter 11: Uju has a man, Bartholomew, who comes to dinner, and Ifemelu doesn’t like him and later reads some of what he’s written online about Nigerians in America, which is largely condescending. She thinks back home Uju wouldn’t have given a man like him the time of day, but when she tells Uju this Uju says they are not in Nigeria. Uju finally passes her medical exams. Ifemelu takes Dike for a day at Coney Island before she leaves for school.   

Chapter 12: Ginika welcomes Ifemelu to Philadelphia. She marvels at how Americanized Ginika has become, very different from Aunty Uju and concludes that being younger, Ginika was more able to pick up cultural cues. Ifemelu finds a room in a house with three other girls and continues to experience bafflement at certain American habits (not dressing up for or dancing at parties, not paying for someone else when you invite them out to eat).

Chapter 13: Ifemelu tries and fails to find a job using her Aunty Uju’s friend’s ID.

Chapter 14: Ifemelu starts classes and continues to experience American anomalies, like a discussion of the word “nigger” in a film class. She starts reading American novels to help her understand America. She meets a Kenyan in the film class who’s president of the African Student Association, and starts going to meetings. She still can’t find a job. Uju calls to say she’s going to move to Massachusetts with Bartholomew.  

Chapter 15: Through Ginika, Ifemelu almost gets a job babysitting but then doesn’t. With her rent overdue, she goes back to a man, a tennis coach, who had offered to pay her to help him “relax” that she recognized as extremely sketchy. She tells him she won’t have sex with him, but lets him put his hand between her legs and gives him a hand job. He pays her a hundred dollars. Filled with self-loathing, she stops going to classes and taking Obinze’s calls. Ginika finally gets ahold of her through her roommate to tell her the babysitter who almost hired her before now does want to hire her. As she drives Ifemelu to the woman Kimberly’s house, she tells Ifemelu she thinks Ifemelu is depressed.

Chapter 16: Ifemelu gets a signing bonus from Kimberly but still can’t bear to talk to Obinze because she’s afraid to tell him what happened. She deletes his emails and doesn’t read a letter he sends. Morgan, the older child she babysits, is hard on the father, Don, but listens to Ifemelu. Ifemelu insults Kimberly’s sister Laura by calling her out for talking about things in Africa she doesn’t have enough info about. Aunty Uju says Dike’s teachers in Massachusetts want to put him in special ed.

Chapter 17: Ifemelu decides to stop faking an American accent when she talks to a telemarketer who tells her she sounds American, and the same day she meets Blaine on a train. They exchange numbers, but when she calls him he never answers. When she gets to Uju’s in Massachusetts, which she was on her way to when she met Blaine, Uju unleashes a torrent of complaints about her predominantly white community there.

Chapter 18: We go back to the salon, where a rowdy woman from South Africa comes in who bad mouths Nigerians, followed by an overly inquisitive white woman. Back in the past, Ifemelu starts dating Kimberly’s cousin Curt (under somewhat coercive circumstances); Curt is a “true believer” in happiness.

Chapter 19: Ifemelu and Curt brunch frequently with Curt’s mother, who doesn’t like her. They go on a boating trip with Morgan, who was “disgusted” by the news of their relationship at first but really enjoys the trip. Curt and Ifemelu joke about marriage. He wants her to quit babysitting but she says she needs a job, and starts to look for what she might do after graduation; the prospects for non-American citizens are not great. Curt gets her an interview at a firm that will help her get a green card. Her career adviser at school tells her to lose her braids for it, and she gets her scalp burned and scabbed after having her hair professionally relaxed, but she gets the job. (We get a blog post discussing what different racial groups aspire to, wondering what the group at the top, WASPs, have to aspire to.)

Chapter 20: Ifemelu moves to Baltimore for the job and likes living there. Her hair starts falling out from the chemicals in relaxer, and her friend Wambui from the ASA convinces her to cut it off and go natural. She hates the way it looks at first but finds a web forum for natural hair online and starts to get into it. She discovers emails on Curt’s computer that he’s been exchanging with another woman, but he claims nothing happened and she forgives him. (And we get one of her blog posts about why black women love Barack Obama–because he didn’t marry a light-skinned black woman.)

Chapter 21: Ifemelu brings Curt to Aunty Uju’s, where he’s relatively well-received. Shortly afterward Uju announces she’s leaving Bartholomew and moving to a new town. (We get a blog post about how Non-American Blacks coming to America will automatically be categorized as black.)  

Chapter 22: Ifemelu runs into her high school friend Kayode at a mall, and he tells her that Obinze, whom he’s in touch with, is in England. Ifemelu emails him later that day, using her pet name for him (“Ceiling”) and apologizing for her long silence.

Part 3

Chapter 23: We switch to Obinze in London. A couple of years after his arrival there, he’s arranging to pay for a sham marriage through some Angolans. He meets the girl, Cleotilde, and they like each other. He sees the name of an old friend on the marriage registration board when he goes to an administrative office and we segue back to his time after graduation in Nigeria, when he was immediately turned down for an American visa, and his long-time plan was dashed. When his mother goes to an academic conference in London, she lists him as her research assistant and gets him a UK visa for six months.

Chapter 24: Obinze’s first job is cleaning toilets in an office. When someone leaves a coiled turd on a toilet lid he leaves without cleaning it, then that same day gets Ifemelu’s apology email. He doesn’t respond because he has nothing worth telling her. He lives with his cousin Nicholas, who tells him the first thing he needs is an NI number so he can work, then to marry an EU citizen so he can get his papers. Nicholas is married to Obinze’s mother’s former favorite student, and she is now a subservient wife raising their children to be overachievers. Obinze sometimes listens to her gossip with her friends.

Chapter 25: The first person Obinze visits in England is his secondary schoolmate Emenike, who says he’s excited to see him but then is always too busy to. Obinze calls another old schoolmate, Iloba, who introduces him to a guy named Vincent who offers Obinze an NI number for 35% of the wages Obinze makes working with it.

Chapter 26: Obinze gets a job at a detergent-packing warehouse after he quits the toilet-cleaning job. His boss takes a liking to him. He often makes deliveries with a young guy named Nigel who wants his advice on women.

Chapter 27: Once a week Obinze goes to a bookstore to read and there he meets a woman with a son who looks at him with longing but they don’t exchange contact info. He has slept with a Zibabwean who’s hinted she might help him get his papers but he thought their situation was too complicated. He’s never felt so lonely.

Chapter 28: One day the men are weird at the warehouse and Obinze thinks he’s somehow been reported but then they turn out to be celebrating his birthday–that is, Vincent’s birthday. Then Vincent calls that same day to demand more of his wages. Obinze tries to call his bluff, but then Vincent does report him and he has to leave the warehouse. Years later, he calls Nigel to offer him a job when the Chief needs a white man.

Chapter 29: The Angolans demand more money for the marriage arrangements and Obinze calls Emenike, and when they have drinks, Emenike, who is ostentatious about his success, gives him a thousand pounds instead of the loan of five hundred he asks for. Obinze goes to a dinner party at Emenike’s house and meets his older English wife Georgina and their friends and is put off by Emenike’s pretensions.

Chapter 30: Moments before Obinze marries Cleotilde to become a legal citizen, he’s arrested for his visa being expired. Nicholas and his wife visit him in holding before he’s flown back to Nigeria.

Part 4

Chapter 31: Ifemelu has broken up with Curt because she cheated on him with her neighbor, whom she was merely “curious” about having sex with, and Kurt was unwilling to forgive her. A few years later she’s at a dinner party in Manhattan and gets tipsy and starts going off about race and how no one tells the truth about it. Curt sometimes observed the racism they encountered but frequently was oblivious to it. After Curt makes a comment about one of her black magazines being “racially skewed” and she writes to her old friend about dragging him to a bookstore and showing him all the other magazines, the friend suggests she start a blog. We get a blog post about Michelle Obama’s hair.

Chapter 32: Ifemelu tries to remember who she was before Curt. Her parents come to visit; her mother wants to know if she might get married. She quits her job. (A quick blog post asking doctors if race is verifiably genetically different.)

Chapter 33: Ifemelu’s blog starts getting her paid advertisers and speaking gigs (she figures out the latter is just interested in being told what they want to hear). She invites commenters to post stories of their own experiences.

Chapter 34: Ifemelu runs into Blaine again at a blogger’s conference (he blogs about the intersection of academia and pop culture) and they start dating (he was in a relationship when they first met). He is a “man of careful disciplines” with a rigid moral compass who intermittently judges some of the things she does. She meets his best friend and tells her parents about him. We get a blog post about how in America there is racism but no racists.

Chapter 35: Ifemelu meets Blaine’s high-maintenance sister Shan, who has a memoir coming out about growing up black in a white community. Blog post on Obama as the Magic Negro.

Chapter 36: A birthday party with Blaine’s friend Marcia at which racial topics come up and Ifemelu’s blog is praised and during which Obama is announcing his candidacy. They go to a talk by his ex (who’s with a woman now) and and Ifemelu is slightly jealous. A blog post about traveling when black.

Chapter 37: Dike is six feet tall, charismatic, and has a girlfriend. Ifemelu and Blaine go to one of Shan’s pretentious “salons” at which Shan rants about race and the issues with her book’s release. A blog post about whether Obama’s black (he is).

Chapter 38: Ifemelu and Blaine have a near breakup fight when Ifemelu goes to a lunch with a professor Blaine dislikes (who’s the one who tells her to apply for the fellowship at Princeton) instead of to a protest Blaine organized, then lied to him about it. A blog post about being poor and black being worse than being poor and white.

Chapter 39: Ifemelu stays in Willow with Aunty Uju and Dike, and Dike is blamed for a hacking incident he didn’t have anything to do with and experiences racism in other ways that he laughs off. Finally, Blaine takes her back, but their relationship is changed. A blog post about white people claiming racism is complex as an excuse to not talk about it.     

Chapter 40: Ifemelu and Blaine bond over Barack Obama, who’s elected president, a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. (And she got the fellowship.) A blog post about having a white friend who “gets it” say all the things you can’t say about racism.

Chapter 41: Back at the salon, Aisha asks how she got her papers, a taboo question, but Ifemelu tells her she got her green card through her job sponsoring her. Aisha breaks down sobbing about the probability of never seeing her parents again and Ifemelu offers to go talk to the Igbo guy she’s trying to get to marry her. On her way home, Aunty Uju calls with the news that Dike just tried to kill himself by overdosing on Tylenol.

Part 5

Chapter 42: Obinze writes a long email to Ifemelu about how his mother died. She responds immediately saying she’ll call then he responds with something he worries is coming on too strong. Even though she doesn’t reply, he writes her emails about what happened to him in England. Finally she writes back and tells him what happened to Dike. Obinze is distracted as he visits potential nursery schools with his wife. He reads Ifemelu’s blog and doesn’t recognize her in it.

Part 6

Chapter 43: Ifemelu, deeply affected by Dike’s suicide attempt, puts off her departure for Nigeria, but eventually he tells her he’s fine and that she should go.

Part 7

Chapter 44: Ifemelu gets to Lagos and is somewhat overwhelmed. She stays with her old friend Ranyinudo, who’s dating a married CEO. When Ifemelu can’t breathe in the humidity, Ranyi calls her an Americanah.

Chapter 45: Ifemelu starts working for a women’s magazine run by a rich woman as a hobby and gets an apartment. She doesn’t tell Obinze she’s back yet.

Chapter 46: Ifemelu lies to her parents and her friends that she’s still with Blaine and that he’s coming over soon. Her old friends are preoccupied with weddings and marriage.

Chapter 47: The office staff at the magazine is small: a woman who always tries to get Ifemelu to go to church, a woman, Doris, who also went to college in America and thinks this makes her and Ifemelu better than the others, and Zemaye, who hates Doris.

Chapter 48: Doris gets Ifemelu to go to a gathering of people who have come back from abroad, and they all talk about what they miss from America. Ifemelu finds them obnoxious though she knows that she’s like them.

Chapter 49: Ifemelu is bored with the work the magazine is doing. Her boss turns down a more interesting profile she wants to run and she thinks about starting her own blog. She finds out her coworker is taking unlabeled medicine her doctors gave her for typhoid and wants to write about that. She has a confrontation with Doris about the content (they run profiles on boring rich people because those people paid the magazine to profile them) and quits.

Chapter 50: Dike comes to visit the day after she starts her new blog (“The Small Redemptions of Lagos”). She writes about the Nigerpolitan club that Doris took her to. Then she writes another post “about the expensive lifestyles of some young women in Lagos” and her friend Ranyi gets mad at her since it’s about her so Ifemelu takes it down. Dike leaves and Ifemelu gets mad at Ranyi for not understanding his suicide attempt.

Chapter 51: Ifemelu keeps thinking she sees Obinze everywhere so she finally calls him; they meet up immediately at a bookstore and reconnect. Then the next day they have lunch at her place and, after they kiss, she finally tells him about the tennis coach and why she cut off contact with him.

Chapter 52: Ifemelu and Obinze ostensibly start dating, going to a bunch of different places, Ifemelu enjoying Lagos, though still occasionally revealing American predilections. One day she brings up having sex, forcing the issue of his cheating. They have sex.

Chapter 53: Ifemelu and Obinze continue their affair and avoid talking about his wife; when she does come up once, Ifemelu gets upset. Obinze invites her to come on a trip to Abuja with him, but then texts her that he wants to go alone so he can think things through; she texts back “Fucking coward.” He visits but she is not appeased by his talking about his responsibilities, and he leaves.

Chapter 54: From Obinze’s POV in Abuja, wavering about whether he made the right decision to not bring Ifemelu. He haggles with a businessman who wants to buy some of his land and who complains about Igbo people compared to other Nigerian populations; Obinze eventually agrees to his price. He thinks about Ifem and how she said she wanted to raise her kids in Nigeria. He gets a call from his wife on his way home and thinks about when his daughter was born and how Kosi was disappointed it wasn’t a boy. He’s rude at a dinner with his wife and Nigel and Nigel’s girlfriend, and claims to be sick to Kosi that night to explain his mood. The next morning he tells her he loves someone else and wants a divorce, and she says he can’t just break up the family because his old girlfriend came back; he’s surprised that she already knew he was cheating. The next day they go to his friend’s daughter’s christening party, and he tells his friend he wants a divorce; the friend tells him his reason isn’t good enough.  

Chapter 55: Ifemelu finally sees the mating dance of the male peacock she can see from her window. She has constant memories of Obinze, but writing her blog posts she is at peace: “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.” She calls and catches up with Blaine and Curt. She runs into Fred, a guy she met at the Nigerpolitan club, and starts dating him, but doesn’t feel much for him. Then after seven months without seeing each other, Obinze shows up at her flat and tells her he’s left his wife, though he still wants to see his daughter as much as possible. Ifemelu seems reticent at first but when he says he’s going to keep chasing her, she invites him in. The End.

The novel’s chronic tension is pretty much Ifemelu’s entire personal history, while the acute tension is her return to Nigeria from America. What’s at stake in her return is primarily what will happen between her and Obinze, who comprises a significant element of her past, and their relationship provides the structure for the book. The question the reader is reading to find the answer to is not just what will happen to Ifemelu, but what will happen to Ifemelu and Obinze; this is why the book is not exclusively from Ifemelu’s point of view, but has several chapters from Obinze’s. But while the outcome of their relationship provides the novel’s primary dramatic focus, Ifemelu’s relationships with America and with Nigeria are also at stake. These are not separate from the Obinze thread, however; rather, these threads are one and the same. Her relationship with Obinze is symbolic of her relationship with Nigeria, her home country. Her separation from Obinze coincides with her separation from her country, and her return to Obinze coincides with her return to her country, albeit not neatly. She does not break up with him as soon as she leaves, and she does not reunite with him immediately upon her return, symbolizing the periods of adjustment she had to go through upon leaving and returning. It takes her time to assimilate to America, and, once so assimilated, it takes her time to readjust upon her return.

In terms of structure, Adichie does not start at the beginning, with Ifemelu’s childhood, but rather picks a point dictated by the acute tension—preparation for the return to Nigeria. The hair-braiding provides a nice point for this because of its racial significance (we’ll come to find out that her relationship with her hair has been a significant part of her American journey). Hair also provides the segue back into the past via the discussion of her mother’s hair. Adichie stays with Ifemelu long enough in the present before this segue that the reader has generated enough of an interest in her to care about her past. The opposing settings of the opening—uppity Princeton and ghetto Trenton—also set us up for one of the novel’s main conflicts, the opposing settings of Nigeria and America. Ifemelu has to go to Trenton because the overwhelmingly white Princeton has no places where she can get her hair braided, since such places exist only “in the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people.” Adichie’s actually providing a structural blueprint with the opening description of Princeton and how it smells segueing into descriptions of other places she’s lived:

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell.

The narrative will eventually delve much more deeply into Ifemelu’s experiences in these different American locations, though interestingly this opening does not present these locations in the order Ifemelu experiences them (which would be Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven).  

The acute tension thread stays in the hair salon through Part 4. Ifemelu undergoes a significant change in her time in the salon in that she goes from not wanting to talk to Aisha’s Igbo boyfriends at the beginning to volunteering to go seek one out after Aisha breaks down in front of her, making her realize that she’s been more privileged in her experience as an immigrant via her white boyfriend helping get her a job that got her a green card. This change is also symbolic of how much what’s happened in her past has changed her. At this point in the narrative, the descriptions of her past have caught up to the present, which means that structurally, she can now leave the hair salon. That we’ve reached a climactic point in the narrative is further underscored by her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt as soon as she leaves. This attempt comes as a surprise to both Ifemelu and the reader, since Dike’s presented as relatively well-adjusted. In retrospect, however, his laughing at the racism he endured, like the hacking incident he was nonsensically accused of, becomes much more sinister, causing the reader to question how deeply Ifemelu herself has been affected by her American experiences.

One of the other main conflicts, really the same conflict, as previously mentioned, is who is the love of Ifemelu’s life (with the question of love translating symbolically to which one she loves more, America or Nigeria):

she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine—“You are the absolute love of my life,” he’d written in her last birthday card…

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart. I want to be the fucking love of your life,” Curt said with a force that startled her.

Ifemelu’s experiences in America are significantly colored (so to speak) by these two, her primary American boyfriends; it certainly does not seem a coincidence that one is white and one black. But neither Curt nor Blaine are the love of her life; Obinze is. Which means that America is not the love of her life, but Nigeria is. This theme of people being representative of their country is underscored by Obama’s election going on during her relationship with Blaine:

On election night, before Blaine kissed her, his face wet with tears, he held her tightly as though Obama’s victory was also their personal victory.

A slightly different version of chapter 2 of the novel appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2011 as “Ceiling.” This is Obinze’s only POV chapter until we get several chapters about him in Part 3, and as such, it makes sense that its content could stand alone as a story. The real reason the novel starts with Ifemelu getting her hair braided is not just because of the racial implications, but because being at the salon provides the opportunity for her to email Obinze to tell him she’s coming back (because she’s trying to avoid talking to Aisha). Receiving this email provides the acute tension of the second chapter and the “Ceiling” story. Its time frame basically ranges from when Obinze gets her email to when he writes his own email back in response; in seeing what he’s doing between these two points, the reader gets a full picture of his current life and his desire to escape it. By focusing on Ifemelu and Obinze as two main characters in separate but connected threads in the first two chapters, the reader is immediately rooting for them to get together. That the portrait of Obinze’s life we see in chapter 2 includes a wife—a wife terrified of his cheating, no less—significantly raises the tension. Then there’s Ifemelu’s supposedly made-up reason for Aisha about why she’s returning to Nigeria, to “see my man.” It turns out this made-up reason is, in fact, true.

The first two chapters alternate Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s perspectives, and so do the last two chapters, though the last two aren’t sectioned off as a separate Part like the first two. Part I takes place in the present, and Part 2 goes into Ifemelu’s past, though notably returns to the present narrative in the salon briefly at the point in the past when Ifemelu transitions to America. Part 3 is the thread of Obinze’s past in England. Part 4 picks up Ifemelu’s past thread where it left off at the point of her breakup with Curt and takes us through her relationship with Blaine, culminating with Obama’s election, and then returns to the present with her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt. Part 5 is a single chapter going back to Obinze in the present. Part 6 is also only a single chapter picking up with Ifemelu’s present thread, still in America. Part 7 tracks her return to Nigeria. Since Obinze and Ifemelu are no longer on separate continents by the end, their points of view don’t need to be separated into different Parts.

Experiencing America through Ifemelu’s point of view, getting an immigrant’s perspective on it, is one of the novel’s strengths, and demonstrative of a strength of fiction in general. The details of Ifemelu’s observed experience as an outsider are meticulous:

Before, she would have said, “I know,” that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge…

She had thought of them as “big,” because one of the first things her friend Ginika told her was that “fat” in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like “stupid” or “bastard,” and not a mere description like “short” or “tall.”

She was agreeable, and smooth-tongued, but Ifemelu could tell that she thought her customer was a troublemaker, and there was nothing wrong with the cornrow, but this was a part of her new American self, this fervor of customer service, this shiny falseness of surfaces, and she had accepted it, embraced it. When the customer left, she might shrug out of that self and say something to Halima and to Aisha about Americans, how spoiled and childish and entitled they were, but when the next customer came, she would become, again, a faultless version of her American self.

But when Ifemelu returned with the letter, Cristina Tomas said, “I. Need. You. To. Fill. Out. A. Couple. Of. Forms. Do. You. Understand. How. To. Fill. These. Out?” and she realized that Cristina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling.

As one might deduce from Ifemelu’s relationship with Obinze standing in for Ifemelu’s relationship with Nigeria, Adichie is a writer who excels at the use of the objective correlative. In a passage from Obinze’s point of view in the penultimate chapter, he’s haggling with a Nigerian he’s trying to sell some land to:

“Okay, Edusco,” Obinze said, suddenly feeling drained. “I am not going to eat the land if I don’t sell it.”

Edusco looked startled. “You mean you agree to my price?”

“Yes,” Obinze said.

After Edusco left, Obinze called Ifemelu over and over but she did not answer.

Obinze’s suddenly agreeing to this man’s price is symbolic of his agreeing to Ifemelu’s price, which is basically to stop using his “responsibilities” as a copout to avoid their relationship.

And in the last chapter we return to the peacocks that Ifemelu and Obinze had previously been watching from her window:

One day, Ifemelu saw the male peacock dance, its feathers fanned out in a giant halo. The female stood by pecking at something on the ground and then, after a while, it walked away, indifferent to the male’s great flare of feathers. The male seemed suddenly to totter, perhaps from the weight of its feathers or from the weight of rejection.

This description of a male tottering under the weight of rejection is describing Obinze under the weight of her rejection.

If Ifemelu’s separation from Obinze early in the novel represents her separation from her home, then prostitution becomes an interesting potential metaphor for emigration, as it is Ifemelu’s literally prostituting herself with the tennis coach that actually causes her official, as opposed to just physical, separation from Obinze. Adichie likens the feeling of debasing oneself for money to that of leaving one’s homeland for supposedly better opportunities, which might end up causing more problems than it solves. Perhaps there’s also an objective correlative in the final blog post of Ifemelu’s that we see:

But now the shacks are gone. They are erased, and nothing is left, not a stray biscuit wrapper, not a bottle that once held water, nothing to suggest that they were once there.


Everything Depends on the Foundation

Issac Asimov’s Foundation series beat out Lord of the Rings for the Hugo Award’s Best All-Time Series while it was still just a trilogy. While the first three volumes were released in 1951, 1952, and 1953, respectively, Asimov began adding to the series in the 80s. While we endure the interminable wait for the HBO adaptation to start production, let’s review how it all began.

Part I—The Psychohistorians

The first book begins with an excerpt from an Encyclopedia Galactica entry on Hari Seldon, the mathematician who revolutionized the field of Psychohistory (“that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli”). The entry mentions that he died one year after the inception of the new “Foundational Era,” which came after the “Galactic Era.” His biography was written by Gaal Dornick. In Part 1 we follow Gaal’s journey to Trantor, the seat of the Imperial Government of the Galactic Empire, to come work for Hari Seldon. Gaal is followed to his hotel and then to the observation deck he goes to to see more of Trantor, where his pursuer informs him that Hari Seldon predicts disasters. Hari Seldon then appears unexpectedly in Gaal’s room and tells him that he’s calculated a high probability that Trantor will become completely destroyed within three centuries:

“As Trantor becomes more specialized, it becomes more vulnerable, less able to defend itself. Further, as it becomes more and more the administrative center of Empire, it becomes a greater prize. As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.”

Gaal is arrested the next morning and he and Hari Seldon are put on trial for treason with the claim that Seldon’s prediction is designed to be self-fulfilling, that the destruction of Trantor would not actually happen without his prediction. Seldon manages to convince the aristocrats trying him that this is not the case, and that he has nearly 100,000 people working with him on a project to alleviate not the fall of the empire, which is too far along to do anything about, but to minimize the dark period that will follow the fall from 30,000 years to 1,000 years with the creation of a comprehensive encyclopedia that preserves human knowledge. They send him and his group to the uninhabited planet Terminus at the edge of the galaxy to work on the encyclopedia. This exile turns out to have been part of Seldon’s master plan all along. A companion Foundation will also be set up on the opposite side of the Galaxy.

Part II—The Encylopedists

The Encyclopedists have now been on Terminus for fifty years and have established “Encyclopedia Foundation Number One.” Pirenne, an encyclopedist and Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and so a representative of the Emperor), is working when the mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, comes in and tells him that the governor of Anacreon has declared himself king, an action which will effectively cut Terminus off from the rest of the empire since they’ll block Terminus’s trade route to get metals, which don’t exist on Terminus. Hardin wants to establish some kind of government to fight off Anacreon, but Pirenne insists they can only focus on the encyclopedia. Hardin says Anacreon is sending a special envoy of dubious purpose in two weeks. Anacreon’s prefect, Haut Rodric, comes and announces that they think the nearby kingdom of Smyrno will attack Terminus and so they’re going to establish a military base on Terminus to protect it. He tries to get Pirenne and Hardin to agree to some kind of payment for this protection, like giving away land, and Hardin says something about getting more plutonium for their atomic power plant; from Rodric’s reaction he gauges that none of the surrounding kingdoms in the Periphery have atomic power anymore. Hardin argues with the Board of Trustees about whether the Empire sending its Chancellor will actually nullify the Anacreon threat; Hardin asserts that the mission of recording pre-existing knowledge, this lack of forward progress, is the reason the Empire is dying. One Board member reminds them that soon it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Foundation and so Hari Seldon’s Time Vault will open. The Empire’s Chancellor, Lord Dorwin, arrives on Terminus and pontificates on how well-read he is in archaeology, dismissing the need for any actual firsthand knowledge; he also calls the planets in the Periphery “barbarous” (actually “bahbawous,” since he can’t pronounce his r’s). After Lord Dorwin leaves, Anacreon sends a demand that if Terminus doesn’t give them what they want in a week, they’ll take it by force, a threat Hardin concludes they’ve sent because the Board just told them that the Empire would support Terminus against Anacreon. Hardin examines the treaty the Empire has with Anacreon and deduces that it essentially says the Empire actually has no power over Anacreon. The Board is surprised, since Dorwin promised the Empire’s support, but Hardin recorded everything Dorwin said and analyzes it to show that Dorwin actually made no concrete promises. One Board member says they need to wait for Hari Seldon’s advice on the matter when the Vault opens, and Hardin goes on another rant about Galaxy-wide stagnation and worship of the past being the reason so many planets have lost nuclear power. He points out that Hari Seldon didn’t allow any psychologists on the Foundation because he didn’t want anyone to be able to figure out the real plan. Hardin then discusses plans to overthrow the Board with Yohan Lee. He watches with the Board members as a hologram of Hari Seldon appears from the Vault and tells them the Encyclopedia was a “fraudulent project.” Seldon further expounds:

You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.

He says their plan is still for both Foundations to shorten the period of barbarism that will happen after the inevitable Fall of the Empire that’s already started, but that he can’t tell them what the actual plan is. He says that due to their being “an island of nuclear power in a growing ocean of more primitive energy” the answer to their current crisis is obvious. The Board members admit they were wrong, but Hardin thinks it’s too late because Lee’s men will already be in charge. In six months he believes Anacreon’s threat will also be nullified thanks to the obvious solution.

Part III—The Mayors

Thirty years after his “coup against the Encyclopedists,” Hardin is talking to Yohan Lee. Around the time of the coup, Terminus lost all contact with the Empire, and now communicates only with its four surrounding kingdoms—as the planets became known after the Empire lost control over them. A deputation from the City Council of four young men headed by Sef Sermak comes in and complains that the foreign policy of the last thirty years has stripped Terminus and made it defenseless by appeasing these kingdoms with bribes (including nuclear power) so they won’t attack them. They’re forming a new political party that will overthrow him unless he resigns. When Sermak says they need to attack the kingdoms before the kingdoms attack them, Hardin reminds him of how he handled the situation with Anacreon thirty years ago: he went to the other three kingdoms and told them that if Anacreon got Terminus’s secret of nuclear power then it would also be a threat against them, the kingdoms, and so the three kingdoms banded together and forced Anacreon off Terminus. His gifts to the kingdoms are ways to play them off against each other. Sermak complains that:

“Yes, but you were forced to surround these scientific gifts with the most outrageous mummery. You’ve made half religion, half balderdash out of it. You’ve erected a hierarchy of priests and complicated, meaningless ritual.”

Hardin explains that he started presenting science as a religion “because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery.” The kingdoms developed a priesthood, and it’s the priests who run the nuclear power plants. Lee brings Hardin a paper with some kind of message. After Sermak’s deputation leaves, Lee says that Hardin needs to be careful with Sermak since he’s gaining a large following. Hardin reveals that the message was that Ambassador Verisof is coming to Terminus. Verisof is a high priest on Anacreon who, after complimenting Hardin on how well turning science into a religion has worked out, tells him about the deteriorating situation there due to the young King Lepold’s uncle, the regent Wienis, who has clashed with the priests in the past, and who wants to attack the Foundation. They recently found an old battle cruiser floating in space from centuries ago in good condition and with significantly more capabilities than existing ships. When the Foundation requested it for research purposes, Wienis tried to claim this was evidence the Foundation was planning to attack them. Hardin advises Verisof to let Wienis repair the ship; he plans to let the situation ride until there’s only one possible course of action for them, as per Seldon’s Plan, though he’s worried that the internal pressure posed by Sermak and the external pressure posed by Wienis should have come to a head at the same time, but they’re a few months off.

On Anacreon, the young King Lepold has just returned from a Nyakbird hunt when his uncle Wienis comes to his chambers to tell him there will be war with the Foundation for withholding the source of their power from them. He says that Salvor Hardin is coming to Anacreon on Lepold’s birthday and remembers the last time Hardin came, with the power of the other three kingdoms behind him to kick Anacreon off Terminus. The thought of killing Hardin makes Lepold nervous because he’s afraid it might offend the Galactic Spirit (which he learned all about from Verisof), even though Wienis tells him that the religious stuff is all nonsense, nonsense that helps them rule because the populace believes the king rules by divine right; he points out that if they destroy the Foundation he’ll be eliminating everyone who doesn’t believe he rules by divine right. Lepold agrees to do what Wienis says. Lewis Bort, a member of Sermak’s new Action Party, has gone to Anacreon to spy and reports back to Sermak about how functional the religion the Foundation has created is there, so entrenched that there’s no possibility of overthrowing a king who supposedly rules by divine right. The Foundation has put science behind making the king appear divine by giving him a radioactive aura that burns people when they touch him and a throne capable of flying. None of them can understand why Hardin established “monarch worship.” They wonder how much time they have before Anacreon attacks. Someone bursts in with a paper announcing that Hardin is going to Anacreon, and Sermak says he’ll try to have Hardin impeached for treason, thinking that he’s really been working with Anacreon all along. On his way to the airport to go to Anacreon, Hardin discusses with Lee Sermak’s failed impeachment attempt and his party’s vow to take action. Hardin tells Lee to tell everyone there will be another Hari Seldon Vault appearance on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the Foundation’s founding; though he doesn’t know if it’s true, he hopes it will postpone Sermak’s attack. On his way to Anacreon he visits “eight of the larger stellar systems of the kingdom” to confer with Foundation reps there. On Anacreon’s capitol planet he meets briefly with Verisof between the latter’s running temple festivals for Lepold’s birthday. Keeping his identity secret, Hardin goes to the palace’s ballroom, but Wienis knows who he is and invites him to speak privately. Wienis suggests that Lepold might soon rule the Galaxy if the Foundation would help Anacreon demonstrate its scientific superiority, but Hardin says the Foundation can’t play favorites. Wienis announces there are armed guards outside and that the Imperial ship they helped repair (now called the flagship Wienis) has just left to attack the Foundation at that very moment. Hardin says he thought Wienis would wait until midnight, the moment of the king’s official coronation, and the time he set his counterstrike for: the priests of Anacreon will go on strike because attacking the Foundation is tantamount to sacrilege. Wienis goes out to the ballroom and watches as Lepold’s throne starts to rise (powered by a nuclear motor), but as midnight strikes, it stops and drops to the ground as all the lights go out. Someone tells Wienis that the palace is surrounded and that Verisof is outside demanding Hardin’s release and a stop to the attack on the Foundation. Hardin informs Wienis that the city has no functional power except in the temples, and when Wienis says he’ll have the army take over the temple, Hardin reminds him that he doesn’t have the working power to issue the command through the usual communication lines. Wienis says the ship is still on its way to destroy the Foundation, so the mob and loss of power make no difference. But Hardin had the ship outfitted with a “hyperwave relay.”

Theo Aparat is the priest attending the flagship Wienis, while Wienis’ son Prince Lefkin is the admiral officially in charge; Aparat can’t believe the ship is supposed to be used for something so wicked, and when midnight strikes, he sends a message to the ship’s entire crew about the sacrilege the commander plans to use the ship for, removes the blessing of the Galactic Spirit from it, and strips Lefkin of his command. Someone in a distant Temple opens an “ultrawave relay” that shuts the entire ship down. With some soldiers Aporat locates Lefkin, who tries to tell the soldiers to arrest Aporat and that the Galactic Spirit is fake, but they follow Aporat’s orders to arrest Lefkin for his blasphemy. Aporat makes Lefkin order the rest of the fleet to turn around. In Wienis’ office, then watch Lefkin announce their abdication of the mission on the televisor. Hardin explains the irony of the situation to Wienis with a fable:

“You see the analogy, I hope. In their anxiety to cement forever domination over their own people, the kings of the Four Kingdoms accepted the religion of science that made them divine; and that same religion of science was their bridle and saddle, for it placed the life blood of nuclear power in the hands of the priesthood—who took their orders from us, be it noted, and not from you. You killed the wolf, but could not get rid of the m—”

Wienis tries to order his soldiers to shoot Hardin with their atom blasters, but they won’t, so he takes a blaster himself and shoots at Hardin, who dons a forcefield that reflects the blast back to Wienis and kills him.

At the Time Vault this time, there’s a much bigger crowd. Harry Seldin appears and reveals that everything is going according to plan:

“According to our calculations, you have now reached domination of the barbarian kingdoms immediately surrounding the Foundation. Just as in the first crisis you held them off by use of the Balance of Power, so in the second, you gained mastery by use of the Spiritual Power as against the Temporal. … The Spiritual Power, while sufficient to ward off attacks of the Temporal, is not sufficient to attack in turn. Because of the invariable growth of the counteracting force known as Regionalism, or Nationalism, the Spiritual Power cannot prevail. I am telling you nothing new, I’m sure.”

He tells them they’re only at the start of their work and that a “vast tangled jungle of barbarism … extends around the entire breadth of the Galaxy.” He reminds them about the other Foundation on the other side of the Galaxy and says the problem is theirs to solve. Hardin assumes that the next time Seldon comes back he’ll be dead.

Part IV—The Traders

Limmar Ponyets receives a message on his “free-lance trade ship,” delivered by Les Gorm, that a fellow trader, Esker Gorov, has been imprisoned on Askone for interfering with local politics, a problem since Gorov is not really a trader, but a Foundation agent. After getting to Askone, Ponyets has to wait two weeks to see Askone’s Grand Master. Ponyets fails to convince him that the trader landing there was a mistake, and the Askonian ruler threatens to kill the trader; Ponyets convinces him to let him see Gorov to “Tend his Soul.” Gorov tells Ponyets, who apparently has some past beef with him, that the Grand Master wants gold, and to get it from the Foundation. Ponyets says Gorov will just try again, which Gorov confirms: “‘It’s my assignment to sell nucleics to Askone.’”

Ponyets was nodding. “This I realize. And any system that doesn’t accept nuclear gadgets can never be placed under our religious control—”

“And can therefore become a focal point for independence and hostility. Yes.”

Gorov explains they won’t accept the devices because of their form of ancestor worship, but that if he can get key people to accept the devices they might push for change of the laws. Ponyets said they shouldn’t have gotten a diplomat like Gorov to try this, but an actual trader like him, and implies that he will try to sell them his cargo. He takes a week making a transmutation machine he shows the Grand Master and his councilors, turning two iron buckles into gold and arguing that they can take the gold itself even if the ancestors haven’t blessed the machine, though one councilor, Pherl, tries to argue this means the gold is tainted. Ponyets convinces them to leave the gold buckles out on an altar to the ancestors to see if anything happens to show their disapproval. A week later, he goes to see Pherl and tries to make a deal with him to buy the transmuter, though Pherl will have to use it in secret from the population who thinks it’s evil. Pherl says he’ll pay a week after he’s had it or he’ll have Ponyets executed the next day. In the next chapter, Gorov is released, and as he and Ponyets fly away from Askone in their ships, Ponyets tells him over the “tight, distortion-bounded ether-beam” that he rigged the transmuter from a “food irradiation chamber” and that it will only work temporarily, but will last long enough to buy Pherl the next election. Gorov thinks he’s only succeeded in getting them to accept gold when what they needed was to accept the mechanism. Ponyets points out that they have Pherl’s private navy escorting them away from Askone and they’re actually going to Pherl’s estates on the outskirts, where they’re going to stock up on tin, which he’s taking from Pherl not just in exchange for the transmuter but:

For my entire cargo of nucleics.”      

Ponyets then explains that Pherl took the transmuter, a crime on Askone, with the idea that if he got caught he could claim to the Grand Master he did it out of patriotic motives to set up Ponyets. But Ponyets then recorded Pherl using the transmuter with a “microfilm-recorder,” which Pherl had no idea existed. When he showed the footage to Pherl and threatened to show it to the whole city, Pherl offered him whatever he wanted. Pherl’s also slated to be the next Grand Master, which is promising for the Foundation since he’ll probably start using the devices he bought to recoup his losses.

Part V—The Merchant Princes

Jorane Sutt thinks they’re approaching another Seldon crisis and enlists the trader Hober Mallow from Smyrno to go to the Korellian Republic to see if he can find out if they have nuclear power, since three trade ships have disappeared in the vicinity of the Republic and it seems like only someone with such power could have overtaken them. Then we see Sutt later talking to Publis Manlio, a “primate” since he holds the office of “the primacy,” about how he’s duping Mallow and considers the traders a domestic threat that, combined with facing enemies that might have nuclear power, would constitute the third Seldon crisis; Sutt says it’s Manlio’s job to deal with the problem of the traders. Then we see Mallow talking to Jaim Twer about how the Actionist party (started by Sermak) is breaking up, and Twer wants Mallow to help finish it off but Mallow says he’s leaving. Twer thinks Mallow’s being sent on a secret mission to deal with the third Seldon crisis is a trick, but then agrees to go with him.

Korrell is past the phase of Empire but its Commdor keeps a tight reign on traders and missionaries, preventing the age of the Foundation from starting there. When Mallow and his crew land, they’re kept waiting for a week, and then Mallow’s men let a Foundation missionary who’s been injured on board. As the missionary, Jord Parma, is babbling incoherently about the Galactic Spirit, Mallow’s lieutenant reports that there’s a mob of Korellians outside the ship; they want Parma and Mallow hands him over against Twer’s protests. He explains to Twer that he sensed a trap, and then gets a message of invitation from Commdor Asper that seems to confirm it was a test he succeeded in passing. Mallow tries to get the Commdor, who prides himself on being “Well-Loved,” to consider Free Trade between their nations, but the Commdor says they can’t do it on the Foundation’s terms of including “compulsory religion,” and cites the case of Askone, “‘now an integral member of the Foundation’s system.’” Mallow says his religion is money, that missionaries annoy him, and that he can make the Commdor rich. He has the Commdor fetch a girl to demonstrate a glowing cloak, and convinces him they can both be rich if he buys stuff from him, because he can sell it at a high markup. The Commdor invites Mallow and all his men to dinner that night, and we see the Commdor talking to his wife, who complains about how he doesn’t make enough money. He gives her the glowing cloak and she shuts up. Then we see a conversation between Mallow and Twer about how they’re letting Mallow into the town’s steel foundry (so he can show them a steel-manipulating device they might buy) too easily, which means they probably don’t have nuclear power there. But when they do go and he demonstrates the pipe-fusing device, he notices that the soldiers have atomic guns, and that they have uniforms with the old Galactic Empire’s emblem on them, the “Spaceship-and-Sun.” Mallow is happy that the Empire “was emerging again, out into the Periphery.” Mallow leaves Senior Lieutenant Drawt in charge of his ship the Far Star and leaves the ship in a “lifeboat.”

He goes to the house of a man named Onum Barr on the planet of Siwena to ask directions to “the center of the government”; Barr informs him that Siwena is no longer the capital of the Imperial Sector. He asks if Mallow knows anything that’s happened in the last 150 years and explains that it’s been a bad time and the provinces have become increasingly impoverished; he insults the current viceroy. Under a former viceroy, Siwena rebelled against the Empire and had its population subjected to a nuclear blast. Barr only escaped because he was too old to pose a threat, but all of his sons died except for one who joined the force of the new admiral. He points out that Mallow is wearing a “force-shield” and that he knows that a portable atomic force-shield has not been invented; he thinks Mallow might be one of the “magicians” he heard tales of long ago (these magicians are presumably Foundation men using nuclear power). Mallow asks if Siwena has nuclear power and Barr says there are generators, but that he won’t be able to get near them without getting shot, that only “tech-men” can enter power stations. When Mallow asks directions to the nearest city with a power station, Barr offers him his passport to use as ID and tells him to talk as little as possible or he’ll arouse suspicion.

Mallow then meets a tech-man he offers gifts, but the tech-man is suspicious that religion will be the string attached to them and threatens to report Mallow, who then tells him he has something the Emperor doesn’t. He tells the tech-man to shoot him, demonstrating the power of his portable shield. He gives the shield to the tech-man, who can’t believe its power source is the size of a walnut, and when the man threatens to keep the shield and shoot Mallow, Mallow says he has another shield, and a weapon designed to pierce the shield he just gave the tech-man, so the tech-man complies with his demand to let him see a generator, which the man says are built for an eternity, revealing that he doesn’t have the capability to fix any problems with it should they arise.

Some time later, Mallow is at his new house with Ankor Jael, whom he enlists to help him get a council seat, which he knows Jorane Sutt will strongly oppose. Sutt then shows up at the house, saying that the report Mallow turned in months ago about what he did in Korell was incomplete, since in the interim Mallow has opened a bunch of factories and moved into a palace, raising suspicions about where his money came from. Mallow explains he got the money from the Commdor of Korell in a legitimate trade deal; when Sutt says this wasn’t in his report, Mallow says it was not relevant to his mission of looking for the missing ships and signs of atomic power. Sutt says traders are supposed to advance religion with their trades, but Mallow says he follows the law, not custom, that the religion-spreading policy is outdated, and that no planets outside of the Periphery will let traders in because they’ve heard the stories from Askone about religious takeovers:

“If nuclear power makes them dangerous, a sincere friendship through trade will be many times better than an insecure overlordship, based on the hated supremacy of a foreign spiritual power, which, once it weakens ever so slightly, can only fall entirely and leave nothing substantial behind except an immortal fear and hate.”

Sutt tries to convince him with bribes to change his convictions about foreign policy, and when Mallow refuses, Sutt threatens to arrest him for the murder of a Foundation priest, the one he handed over to the mob on Korell. Jael speculates that Sutt knows the religious policy is no longer effective and that he’s only defending it for some self-serving purpose.

“Now any dogma, primarily based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”

Jael speculates that Sutt

“…could mobilize the various hierarchies on the subject planets against the Foundation in the name of orthodoxy…planting himself at the head of the standards of the pious [to] make war on heresy, as represented by you, for instance, and make himself king eventually.”

Mallow says he needs to get on the council to fight Sutt, but Jael is worried Sutt will ruin Mallow’s chances of doing so by spreading what Mallow did to the priest. We then see Mallow’s trial at the point when he gets to testify. He confirms that the story the prosecution told about what happened with the priest was accurate, but says it’s incomplete. He reviews the conversations he had with Sutt sending him on the Korell mission, and the one he had with Jaim Twer right afterward asking him to run for a council seat, saying he suspected ulterior motives in both—for Sutt, to get rid of him, and when Twer didn’t know what a Seldon crisis was, Mallow figured he wasn’t a trader as he claimed, but was trained in holy orders and possibly a priest, since priests learn of Seldon as a prophet instead of a psychohistorian. He figured that meant Twer was actually a spy for Sutt, so invited him along to keep an eye on him. He set up a “Visual Record receiver” to record what happened with the priest, and plays this in the courtroom. He shares his observations about the oddities of the mob coming out of nowhere and points out that the prosecution has said nothing about the person of the missionary priest, Jord Parma, and freezes a frame of the recording when ultraviolet light was flashed, revealing a tattoo on Parma’s wrist that says “KSP”—Korellian Secret Police, proving that Mallow was set up. The crowd starts cheering “Long live Mallow.” Some time later, Mallow tells Jael to have Sutt and Manlio arrested for “‘inciting the priesthood of the outer planets to take sides in the factional quarrels of the Foundation’” to get them out of the way for his election. He says he needs to simultaneously be in the office of mayor and high priest when the Seldon crisis comes because he’s the only one who knows how to handle it—by doing nothing.

We then see a scene of the Korellian Commdor talking to his wife again three years after Mallow’s visit about how she wants him to make war against the Foundation; he says there is war between them. Then there’s a quick scene of an officer on a small Foundation ship encountering a much bigger ship with the emblem of the Empire on it. We then see Mallow two years into his mayoralty, and Jael worried about “Sutt and his Religionists” and how Mallow’s policy of doing nothing after they’ve reached a stalemate with Korell is not appealing to the mob. Sutt again wants Mallow to return to the religious policy, but Mallow maintains that trade alone is strong enough for their needs. He says Korell, though currently not trading with them due to the war, has become increasingly dependent on nuclear devices and that the Commdor won’t be able to hold out once the generators stop and big industries start to fail. Sutt says they can just get new generators from the Empire, but Mallow points out those would be gigantic, while the Foundation’s had to develop tiny ones because of their lack of metal. He says the Commdor “‘won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.’” Sutt says that if Mallow made some kind of deal with the Empire to betray the Foundation then he’d be doing everything he’s doing now. Mallow has Sutt arrested for not cooperating. Jael is worried about a popular rebellion as a response, but Mallow is confident that economic control will work, because he controls all the factories, and he says that where it looks like Sutt’s religious propaganda is succeeding, he’ll make sure prosperity fails. Jael concludes that Mallow is “‘making us a land of traders and merchant princes,’” and asks what this means for the future. Mallow says it’s up to his successors to figure that problem out, as he’s figured out the current problem. An Encyclopedia Galactica entry confirms that Korell surrenders and Mallow becomes a famous Foundation figure like Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin. THE END.

The scope of the plot that Asimov has taken on is incredibly ambitious, unfolding in this book over a period that spans nearly two centuries. The structure he uses to tackle this span is essentially dividing it up into Parts that each stand alone as a potential novella. Each of the novella’s individual arcs contribute to the main arc of the Foundation’s progress. While Seldon is a character who’s referred to throughout the novel, he only appears as a living, breathing character in Part I. He gets Time Vault cameos in Parts II and III, then his likeness fades entirely. Salvor Hardin is the only main character who actually appears alive in more than one Part, getting to tackle the first Seldon Crisis in Part II and the second Seldon Crisis in Part III. After that, he, too, vanishes except in name. This structure could make the book difficult for a certain type of reader, the type who likes to get invested in character. By the time we get to Part IV, we have to attach ourselves to characters who have thenceforth not appeared at all, and acclimate ourselves to a completely new situation. Asimov demands that our interest be invested in a different type of character, that of the Foundation itself; this is the only character we can really remain invested in across the sections, but the stakes are high enough that he pulls this off. This book is about the future of the human race, and as such cannot narrow its focus to just one human.  

The “series of crises” that Seldon mentions the first time his Vault opens provides the book’s structure, specifically the episodes that each novella will explore. In Part I, we see the inception of the Foundation and its Terminus headquarters. In Part II, we see the first threat to the Foundation’s establishment from the surrounding barbarian kingdoms, which is the first crisis, resulting in the development of a longer-term strategy to deal with such threats: turning science into a religion. (By training priests how to manipulate nuclear devices but not actually explaining how they work, Hardin mirrors Seldon’s strategy of not letting any actual psychologists onto Terminus who might be able to figure out the real plan.) In Part III, there’s another threat from one of the barbarian kingdoms, the second crisis, which is handled by manipulating the science-as-religion policy established in the wake of the first crisis, proving this policy’s utility. In Part IV, the only besides Part I that doesn’t explicitly constitute a “Seldon crisis,” the science-as-religion policy is starting to deteriorate as those from Terminus try to use it to spread the Foundation’s reach farther than the four surrounding kingdoms; science is actually used as the predominant instrument of force when Ponyets uses it (in the form of the technology of the video recorder) to manipulate the Askone councilor to violate his religion. In Part V, we see the third Seldon crisis, in which the science-as-religion foreign policy is officially overthrown, and economic control instilled in its place. We sense that, with time, this policy will also eventually become ineffective (or will it?), and some future crisis will necessitate the evolution of a new type of foreign policy for the Foundation to continue to spread its influence.

By making the Foundation itself the main character, Asimov puts the reader in the position of rooting for one entity to spread its influence across this entire galaxy; it is the spread of this influence that is the strategy to stave off the dark period that will follow the Empire’s fall. That is, Asimov has put the reader in the position of supporting an expansionist foreign policy, and, as with Ender’s Game, one wonders what parallels there are here for American foreign policy; it seems to be these ongoing, mutating parallels that make this book still relevant decades later. We as Americans tend to believe that when we interfere with the workings of other nations, it’s for the sake of doing something good, as the Foundation’s ultimate mission is supposedly benevolent. But is it really? When Seldon claims that the galaxy is a “‘vast tangled jungle of barbarism,’” this attitude seems similar to that of Americans advocating for an expansionist and/or interfering foreign policy, but perhaps experience has taught some of us that this attitude derives from not understanding and appreciating cultural differences. Only reading the rest of the Foundation series will reveal if the spreading of the Foundation is as benevolent a mechanism as it’s originally supposed to be.

If dividing the plot into novellas is one structural strategy, the use of dialog is another. The vast majority of the text is in fact comprised of dialog exchanges. Asimov frequently ends a Part without fully following the arc of the action he’s set up to its logical conclusion; instead, the reader learns what happened after the end of one Part in a dialog exchange in the next Part. Asimov somehow pulls this off without the dialog feeling contrived, maybe because he so meticulously creates the setting and scene of where the next phase of the action should be, and also because it feels natural that the politicians discussing these issues would describe these things in the context of the new situation in which they find themselves. Notably, Asimov never uses straight-up exposition to explain to the reader what’s happened in the intervals of jumped time. The structure feels like a stone skipping over water, landing briefly in a new period where circumstances have entirely changed.       

This book should be required reading for any politician, as the action is primarily comprised of moments of political intrigue. Seldon manipulates the aristocrats of the original Empire into letting him set up the Foundation. Hardin overthrows the antiquated Encyclopedists, brokers peace with the surrounding kingdoms by playing them off against each other, and establishes religion as a means of control. Ponyets blackmails a foreign ruler into buying his cargo and actually a lot more than that. Sutt has plans to use religion as a means to make himself king of many planets, but is outmaneuvered by Mallow, with his acute awareness of ulterior motives. Nuclear power is the device around which all of this political maneuvering largely centers. Those who control it control everyone else.

Something that’s notable about Asimov’s approach to otherworldly sci-fi elements is that, as per his utter lack of exposition, he doesn’t explain how anything actually works, such as Hari Seldon’s Time Vault, or the ultrawave relay that shuts down the flagship Wienis, or the hyperwave beam that allows a ship to communicate with a planet, or the nuclear force-shields that work from a generator the size of a walnut. This lack of explanation is particularly fitting because it coincides with the book’s plot: those who don’t know how these things work—particularly the nuclear things—are the ones who lack power. Only Foundation members actually know how these things work, and we, the readers, are not technically Foundation members. The Foundation spreads its influence by spreading its nuclear devices, or “nucleics” (a clever play on “electronics”) but they must maintain control over other entities’ use of these devices, or they might find the devices turned against them. As readers, we are further put in the position of the characters who do not know Hari Seldon’s ultimate plan. We’re figuring it out as the characters do.

The internal and external crises that are supposed to herald a Seldon crisis mirror an ideal fictional structure for tension. The internal crisis could be a parallel for a story’s chronic tension, while the external could be a parallel for acute tension. The internal and external crises come to a head at the same time, or the external (acute) causes the internal (chronic) to come to a head, until there’s only one fitting outcome for a character.


Snow White’s Age from Page to Stage


Most of us are probably more familiar with the Disney version of the fairy tale Snow White than the original, but, perhaps due to it being their very first full-length animated adaptation, the Disney version has more in common with the Grimm’s version than a lot of other Disney movies. The main plot trajectory is essentially the same: Snow White lives with an evil stepmother whose magic mirror eventually informs her that Snow White has surpassed her in beauty, and so she orders a huntsman to kill Snow White in the woods. The huntsman instead lets Snow White go, and she finds refuge in the dwarves’ cottage, becoming their housekeeper while they go off to work in the mountains/mines. When her magic mirror informs the queen that Snow White is still alive, she visits Snow White in disguise. The original version has the queen attempt to murder her three times: first she shows up peddling bodices that she laces Snow White too tightly with, causing her to faint, but the dwarves revive her. Then she brings Snow White a poisoned comb to brush her hair with, but the dwarves again revive her. Her third attempt in the original is her only attempt in the Disney version: the poisoned apple. This time the dwarves are unable to revive her and place her in a glass coffin. In the Disney version, the dwarves catch the queen on her way out of the cottage and she is killed in a confrontation on a cliff. Then the prince comes and revives Snow White with a kiss. In the original, the queen doesn’t die until she chokes on her own rage at Snow White and the prince’s wedding.


I. Page:

Donald Barthelme’s novel version of the story first appeared, in full, in a 1967 issue of The New Yorker, an event which, in the biographical piece “Barthelme’s Triangle” that appears in the new play adaptation’s program, UH professor Robert Cremins deems “a literary Sgt. Pepper,” and which apparently led to many subscription-cancellation requests for the magazine. Barthelme’s retelling, relayed in vignettes of brief scenes, has Snow White living with a version of the dwarves: “she cohabits with the seven men in a mocksome travesty of approved behavior.” Snow White thinks that “[t]he seven of them only add up to the equivalent of about two real men.” These seven are Bill, Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem, and Dan. Instead of working in mines, these seven make their living by washing buildings and making Chinese baby food, the latter of which requires a steadfast tending of the “vats.” They let off steam in their downtime by having sex with Snow White in the shower (and only in the shower). This is the status quo when the action of the story starts with two acute-tension situations: 1) Bill, the seven’s leader, can no longer stand physical human contact, and has started to avoid their regular carnal interludes with Snow White; and 2) Snow White has effectively put an advertisement out for her desire for a prince by hanging her ebony hair out the window, an event that induces great anxiety for the seven. Their anxiety is further exacerbated by other acts on Snow White’s part that indicate her growing discontent with their status quo, like her wanting to hear words she’s never heard before or writing a long poem about “‘the self armoring itself against the gaze of The Other.’” She declares that she’s remained with the seven due to “‘a failure of the imagination.’” Other vignettes introduce us to the princely figure of Paul, “A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY,” who is proud of his princely blood but avoids his princely duties after seeing Snow White’s hair in the window by joining—or rather, trying to avoid joining—a monastery. Other vignettes involve Jane, who’s infatuated with the “loathsome” and “vile” Hogo de Bergerac. Snow White complains she is tired of being “just a horsewife” to the seven, and suffers confusion from the lackluster general response to her hair hanging from the window. The seven ask Hogo over to give them advice about Snow White’s discontent; he advises them to “bear in mind multiplicity, and forget about uniqueness”—that is, enjoy many women instead of focusing on one. The president intermittently interjects that he is worried about Snow White and the seven because “[t]hey are Americans. My Americans.” At the end of Part One, we get fifteen questions (mostly) about the narrative thus far, such as:

2. Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes (   ) No (   )

In Part Two, the seven wonder if they should be doing something else with their lives besides “tending the vats” and “washing the buildings.” They drink and argue about how to solve the problem of Snow White; efforts include trying to attract her attention with a new shower curtain. Paul comes back intermittently from the monastery, joining everyone at a Halloween party, and Jane and Hogo continue to hang out together. Individual members of the seven play out their escalating existential crises.

In Part Three, Snow White declares she’ll have nothing to do with the seven anymore. Hogo sees Snow White through her window and begins a plan to get rid of Paul and woo her. Jilted by Hogo for Snow White, Jane puts together a poisonous concoction for her nemesis, while Paul builds an underground installation designed to spy on Snow White. The seven put their leader Bill on trial for committing “vatricide”—letting the fires beneath the baby food vats go out to pursue a “personal vendetta”: Bill testifies that he threw a six-pack of Miller Highlife through the windscreen of the car of two people who once told him when he was a kid that a black horse would eat him. Hogo declares his love to Snow White, but she turns him down because he does not have royal blood. Jane gives Snow White “a vodka Gibson on the rocks,” which Snow White is suspicious of before Jane talks her into it. She’s just about to take a sip when Paul swoops in, grabs the glass, and drinks it himself. Paul drops dead, and they have a funeral for him before the seven hang Bill for his crime. The End.

Interspersed throughout the vignettes are pages with blocks of text in all caps, and the one at the very end that offers different interpretations of the narrative presents the men (aka dwarves) as “HEROES”:


While some of the vignettes are from Snow White’s point of view, it’s true that in this version of the tale the men emerge as the protagonists—they are the ones, for the most part, telling the story. Some analyses of the novel comment on its nontraditional approach to narrative structure:

Instead of any sort of clear narrative arc, Barthelme gives readers a series of events that occur in the lives of the various  characters. Often these events seem irrelevant to the narrative. Yet Barthelme counts on readers to attempt to gestalt a narrative from his (seemingly) random presentation of information.

Twin narratives of increasing existential distress emerge from the gestalt—Snow White’s, and the seven’s. The latter is caused directly by the former, so that these narratives become braided in a way that alternating points of view throughout the vignettes nicely mirrors (so to speak).

The ultimate reason providing the apparent foundation for these twin braided crises is outlined in one of the all-caps passages:


The existential crises are the characters creating obstacles since the erotic interludes have become the status quo, and thus uninteresting. There are sections interspersed of the individual man-dwarves going through their existential crises. A few sample opening lines of these vignettes are:

Henry was noting his weaknesses on a pad.

Kevin was being “understanding.”

Hubert complains that the electric wastebasket has been overheating.

“I have killed this whole bottle of Chablis wine by myself,” Dan said.

“They can treat me like a rube if they wish,” Clem said holding tightly to the two hundred bottles of Lone Star at the Alamo Chili House.

Edward was blowing his mind, under the boardwalk.

Bill, as the leader whose crisis impels the domino-effect of the other six’s crises, gets more sections, including ones where the other six discuss him. The ultimate manifestation of his crisis (and perhaps all existential crises) is the black horse he fears will devour him.

A new throughline that Barthelme injects into the original fairy-tale narrative is Americanizing it. There are the interspersed presidential commentaries that seem to reinforce American egocentrism, and simultaneously comment on how the novel itself might reinforce egocentrism by focusing on the individual. Bill’s fate would not seem to augur well for pursuing individual vendettas; it is his actions in confronting the source of his existential angst (throwing the beer at the people who told him a black horse would devour him) that lead to his trial and hanging, not because of the pursuit itself, but because that pursuit leads him to neglect his work of tending the vats for their baby-food business. His true crime is prioritizing himself over the work that supposedly serves a larger population (but that really serves capitalist interests). The absurdity of the extremity of his punishment for this crime becomes a commentary on the absurdity of letting our jobs define us.

One of the all-caps passages offers:


This could be a potential commentary on generations of writers, bigger textual and social problems requiring the advent of postmodernism. A big part of the novel’s comedic strategy is to comment directly on tropes, as when Paul muses that:

I have loftier ambitions, only I don’t know what they are, exactly. Probably I should go out and effect a liaison with some beauty who needs me, and save her, and ride away with her flung over the pommel of my palfrey, I believe I have that right.

Or when Hogo says:

“Well chaps first I’d like to say a few vile things more or less at random, not only because it is expected of me but also because I enjoy it.”

Or when Jane says:

“Were it not for the fact that I am the sleepie of Hogo de Bergerac, I would be total malice. But I am redeemed by this hopeless love, which places me along the human continuum, still.”

There is constant commentary on the characters’ defining qualities: Hogo’s vileness, Paul’s princeliness, Jane’s malice. (Jane writes threatening letters to apparently random individuals she’s picked from the phone book.) Snow White’s primary princess-like quality is her desire for a prince. In one vignette, frustrated by the lack of response to her hair, Snow White minutely appraises the quality of her naked body. After a vignette of Paul spying on her through her window as she does this, we get an all-caps passage:


This is itself a commentary on the princess trope; in conjunction with Snow White’s appraisal of her physical form, the commentary expands to encompass the effect of the trope on the princess herself, only able to see herself through others’ eyes. This is also metatextual commentary: Paul can’t see Snow White as a woman because she does not exist as a woman, but only as text on the page.

Metatextual references abound throughout the novel’s text. In the vignette where Bill thinks he’s being followed by a black car that might be a manifestation of his dreaded black horse, he tells himself to turn on the radio and:

Think about the various messages to be found there.

This could be read as applied to text itself: in one line of text there can be various messages, depending both on the interpreter and that text’s content. It can also be read as applied to this text, calling the reader’s attention to the various messages to be found in the text of Snow White (and some of those messages will be about the various messages to be found in text). Other metatextual references include the description of the song the seven sing about their father, who “was not very interesting”:

The words of the hymn notice it. It is explicitly commented upon, in the text.

When Jane is asking her mother for permission to play with Hogo and her mother resists:

“That is the way I have the situation figured out anyhow. That is my reading of it.”

When Jane argues with her mother over the ape her mother sees:

“I think you dismiss these things too easily Jane. I’m sure it means more than that. It’s unusual. It means something.” “No mother. It doesn’t mean more than that. Than I have said it means.” “I’m sure it means more than that Jane.” “No mother it does not mean more than that. Don’t go reading things into things mother. Leave things alone. It means what it means. Content yourself with that mother.” “I’m certain it means more than that.” “No mother.”

When Snow White complains:

“But the main theme that runs through my brain is that what is, is insufficient.”

These references invoke René Magritte’s 1929 painting La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)) and Michel Foucault’s 1968 essay using the painting as a basis to discuss the problems of representation.


Magritte calls our attention to the fact that an image of a pipe is not itself actually a pipe. In art we are inevitably not dealing with things directly, but with representations of those things. Though Barthelme’s novel was published a year before Foucault’s essay, both emerge from (and are representative of) the period’s artistic anxieties. Barthelme anticipates Foucault especially in a vignette where the seven are drinking and debating how to deal with the problem of Snow White (itself a metatextual reference, the problem of Snow White extending to the problem of Snow-White-as-fairy-tale trope). Edward is expounding on the qualities of the horsewife when Dan interrupts, claiming that Edward is making things too complicated with “your screen of difficulty-making pseudo-problems.” Dan points out that what they “apprehend” when they “apprehend” Snow White is the red towel she’s usually wrapped in, and that they

“…can easily dispense with the slippery and untrustworthy and expensive effluvia that is Snow White, and cleave instead to the towel.”

And he starts passing out red towels to the men. Then someone named Chang who’s never been mentioned before is suddenly present, and it seems to be he who cries out:

“I don’t want a ratty old red towel. I want the beautiful snow-white arse itself!

coralee_young_plays_snow_white_in_catastrophic_theatre_s_up(Coralee Young as Snow White. Photo by George Hixson for Houston Press)

The towel is the text—or rather, represents the text, while Snow White is—or represents—the thing itself that the text is trying to represent, but that in reality is only a barrier between the reader and the thing itself. The problem of the shortcomings of representation are further referenced in Barthelme’s use of non-words, like “baff” for “bath” and “cess” for “sex.” Snow White questions:

“Paul? Is there a Paul, or have I only projected him in the shape of my longing, boredom, ennui, and pain?”

Here she brings into clarity why this fairy tale makes perfect fodder for postmodern commentary: the idealized version of the prince is like the textual representation of the real thing—falling short of what it’s really supposed to be.

II. Stage:

A stage adaptation of so much textual commentary might seem difficult to pull off, but Barthleme himself tried, writing versions that were never performed in his lifetime. I must say that seeing the adaptation that had its world premiere this past month here in Houston, the late Bathelme’s home turf, brought the text to life that made me appreciate it more. A lot more. A seriously significant degree of more. The bulk of the lines were lifted directly from the novel, with some cut and spliced from different vignettes, and some material added by the play’s director, Greg Dean, who also played the narrator, the incorporation of which was an ingenious device without which it seems the adaptation could not have worked. Hearing Barthelme’s lines infused with the emotion of the actors helped accentuate both the characters’ existential struggles and the narrative’s hilarious absurdity. When reading the novel itself, one encounters the blocky text of the vignettes, the lines of dialog all run together like sausage links or boxcars, and the comedy of what’s being described can leach out (it’s certainly text that rewards rereading). Seeing the actors perform the lines, it seemed the material was written to be performed in the first place. (Despite the fact that Snow White as a textual construct is somewhat negated when the audience can behold her corporeal form, she still exists on the stage as a representation.) A great many of the vignettes read as blocked out scenes, composed primarily of dialog, with a sprinkling of expository stage directions in between. Many of the vignettes provide what is essentially stage directions in the dialog, such as the one where Paul stops Snow White from drinking Jane’s poisoned vodka Gibson:

“It is a good thing I have taken it away from you, Snow White. It is too exciting for you. If you had drunk it, something bad would probably have happened to your stomach. … Lucky that I sensed you about to drink it, and sensed that it was too exciting for you, on my sensing machine in my underground installation, and was able to arrive in time to wrest it from your grasp, just as it was about to touch your lips.”

When you read the text of the book, Paul’s line of dialog follows Snow White’s with no warning; the reader is surprised to learn from his suddenly speaking that he is even present in the scene. When you see it performed, you see Paul creeping up from behind Jane and Snow White, you see him grab the cup just in time, you see much of what he then describes in his dialog, adding another layer of superfluousness to the text, now in the form of spoken words. The reading experience has its own layer of humor in the suddenness of experiencing the character as present, but for me it wasn’t as funny as the layer of humor the play added by including a narrator as a character. This device of having the narrator describe the actions the characters are performing accentuates how the original text describes things in an absurd stating-the-obvious way. The narrator was separated from the audience by a see-through screen on which Barthelme’s original all-caps passages were displayed at the appropriate intervals.

That the characters in the novel describe what they’re doing in a way no one in real life ever would is all a strategy, if you believe postmodern critics, to call attention to the text. A more contemporary example of this strategy is used in the Key and Peele sketch, “School Bully,” in which a bully over-describes his reasons for bullying:

Bully: Why you reading bitch?!

Student: Because I like to read and this is a really good book.

Bully: You’re a really good bitch, bitch.

Student: Why you gotta bother me man?

Bully: Because I’m not doing really well in school. I’m reading at a 3rd grade level. I really don’t wanna get left back so when I see somebody reading for fun it makes me feel that much more stupid and then I get mad!

This sketch, the play, and the novel all highlight the falsity of their medium at the same time they invoke a deep insightful human truth (in the former why bullies bully; in the latter how fairy-tale-like expectations influence our existential dealings in our day-to-day lives). Highlighting the medium’s falsity does not negate the insight, but rather enhances it.


Another aspect the performance of the play brought to life that I hadn’t picked up on from reading the text itself, though I should have, was how frequently the language ascends to the Shakespearean, albeit punctuated with metatextual references and vulgarity (which Shakespeare was certainly not immune to, but his might be less accessible to modern audiences):

If it is still possible to heave a sigh you should heave it. If it is still possible to rip out a groan you should rip it out. If it is still possible to to smite the brow with anguished forefinger then you should let that forefinger fall. And there are expostulations and entreaties that meet the case to be found in old books, look them up. This concatenation of outward and visible signs may I say may detonate an inward invisible subjective correlative, booming in the deeps of the gut like an Alka-Seltzer to produce tranquility.

This particular production seems like it might be among the more difficult plays to memorize lines for.

This adaptation also includes musical numbers, which Barthelme himself made notes to include. The awareness of the play’s artifice is raised through the execution of the baby-food song, in which the men shout out the different flavors they produce (presented as a list in the novel’s text). Daintily flitting about with red fans, the intervals between each man’s oration of a flavor seems unnecessarily long, making one wonder what the point of this performative choice is; the point seems to be to make you question what the point is. Another interesting metatextual liberty the play takes is that the horror film the seven go to watch with Snow White is Jane sicking her ape on her mother and strangling her. The play hews quite close to its source material but for the musical numbers, changing Hogo’s age from 35 to 50, the omission of individual vignettes here and there (particularly ones regarding Paul’s monastic career), and Snow White getting the concluding monologue rather than the men. Copies of the questions that concluded the novel’s Part One were slipped under audience members’ seats so they could fill in their answers as the narrator asked them, enabling the reader to interact with and contribute their own meaning to both texts. The play just wrapped its run in Houston last night; hopefully this gem will make its way to more cities so that others can revisit Barthelme’s groundbreaking accomplishment. 

Catastrophic-Theatre-Snow-White_014313(Courtney Lomelo as Jane. Photo by Anthony Rathbun for Culture Map Houston)


Ender Wiggin, Being Human

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 classic Ender’s Game begins with a dialog between two unidentified speakers deciding to “take” someone they believe is “the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” Then we meet six-year-old Andrew Wiggin, aka Ender, in the process of having his “horrid monitor” removed. He has what is apparently an uncharacteristically spasmodic reaction to its removal. Back at school, Ender is worried he will be picked on now that he’s not protected by being watched through the monitor, and is soon proven correct when the bully Stilson and his gang come around picking on him for being a “third.” Though smaller, Ender ends up knocking Stilson to the ground, then kicking him repeatedly when he’s down to send a message to the other gang members not to mess with him again. At home, Ender is immediately picked on by his older brother Peteragain thanks to the absence of the monitor—and Peter almost kills him in a game of “astronauts and buggers” (Peter being the astronaut, Ender the bugger) but Ender is saved by the intervention of their sister Valentine.

The next morning, Colonel Graff from the International Fleet shows up on the Wiggins’ doorstep. After Ender tells Graff why he beat Stilson so harshly, Graff says that Ender is wanted for Battle School. He says it is Ender’s choice, though the parents already agreed to let him be taken to be allowed to have him in the first place, two being the legally allotted number of children. Ender agrees to go after Graff explains the disruption he’s caused to the order of his parents’ house as the third child.

The dialoguing soldiers from the beginning discuss plans to isolate Ender. On the space shuttle to the school, Graff tells the other boys that Ender is smarter than all of them. The boy behind Ender starts hitting him in the head until Ender grabs his arm and flings him out of his seat; the boy, Bernard, ends up with a broken arm. Graff affirms that the boys shouldn’t mess with Ender. Graff talks to Major Anderson (these turn out to be the dialoguing soldiers) about how they’re going to make Ender “the best military commander in history” and how Ender:

“…can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever. If he once thinks there’s an easy way out, he’s wrecked.”

Ender feels homesick and grateful to Peter for teaching him how to hide what he feels. In between classes they play computer games that are a part of their training. Ender masters them so quickly he’s able to beat much older boys at one he hadn’t actually played before. Everyone in his launch group treats Ender as an enemy for breaking Bernard’s arm on the shuttle. Bernard is a bully who often makes fun of others; Ender conquers Bernard by figuring out how to send messages to the group through their desks:


The boys learn how to maneuver in an anti-gravity battleroom and Ender quickly trains himself not to think in traditional terms of up and down. He figures out that the gun that comes with their flash suits freezes people, and practicing with it during this training session he makes friends with Alai, one of Bernard’s cronies. Ender plays a game in Free Play where he’s gotten to a level with a Giant making him choose between poisoned drinks; no matter what he chooses, he dies, until he kicks the table over and burrows into the Giant’s eye (while the Giant calls him a cheater). He finally makes it to “Fairyland.” Ender feels depressed he had to choose between his own death and murder in the game. Soon he finds a slip transferring him to the Salamander Army even though by normal standards he hasn’t been in enough training to warrant the promotion. He and Alai say a tender goodbye. Ender goes back to the Fairyland game and sees the Giant’s corpse has become part of the landscape, and he plays on a playground where nothing will hold him. He then walks through woods to a meadow where he’s attacked by wolves with the faces of the children from the playground. Eventually he figures out how to kill them and goes down a well to a cavern with a door that says “THE END OF THE WORLD.” The door leads onto a high ledge, which Ender jumps from, landing on a cloud that carries him to a castle. A rug on the ground turns into a snake that tells him death is his only escape, but the game is interrupted when Ender is paged to report to his new army.

The first person Ender talks to in his new barracks is Petra, the only girl in Salamander Army. Ender meets his new commander, Bonzo Madrid, who is pissed they have sent an inexperienced six-year-old to his army. He tells Ender that during the battles he’s not to draw his gun. Petra, who says she’s the best sharpshooter in Salamander, offers to teach Ender some things since Bonzo won’t. She also tells him that the higher-ups “never tell you any more truth than they have to.” Ender’s not allowed to participate in Bonzo’s training exercises but closely observes his formations and weak points. When Petra can’t practice with him as much as he wants, he goes back to his launch group and gets some of them to practice with him. When Bonzo says he can’t practice with launchies, Ender challenges him and says he can get Bonzo iced (kicked out) if he tries to control his free play; Bonzo is furious that he has to back down. When Ender has his first battle with Salamander Army, he obeys Bonzo’s orders not to draw his gun even though he could have easily killed one of the five remaining enemy soldiers passing through the victory gate, which would have rendered the battle a draw instead of a loss, but Bonzo refuses to change his order. Ender is at the very top of the soldier standings by fluke because he hasn’t ever been hit and and he doesn’t have any missed shots because he hasn’t taken any.

During Ender’s fourth battle, nine soldiers are about to pass through the victory gate to defeat Salamander when Ender does draw his gun and freezes five of them, making it a draw. Bonzo later tells him he’s finally traded him and then slugs him in the face for disobeying orders. Ender signs up for a “earth-gravity personal combat course” so that “no one would be able to do that to him again.”

Graff orders Major Anderson to come up with “unfair star arrangement[s]” for the battles to make them more challenging; Anderson threatens to report Graff’s orders to a higher-up, but Graff insists he’s doing what’s necessary. Ender switches to Rat Army, led by a guy named “Rose the Nose” whose only qualification to lead is that he’s Jewish (there’s a superstition that Jews make good commanders, though this is refuted by the fact that Mazer Rackham, the commander who saved the world from the last bugger invasion, was from New Zealand). Ender is put in Dink Meeker’s toon; Dink wanted him after seeing his practice sessions with the launchies. Ender teaches the toon how to attack approaching feet-first in antigravity so it’s much harder for the enemy to hit you. When Ender disobeys Rose the Nose’s orders to not practice with the launchies and then not to use his desk, Rose the Nose orders Ender to go in first, straight to the enemy’s door. He thinks Ender will get shot right away but Ender attacks fast and is able to freeze several soldiers before he’s frozen himself, and maintains his rank as first in the standings. He drops in the standings after actually fighting in the next few battles, but then works his way back to the top legitimately. He talks to Dink about why Dink’s turned down promotions, and Dink explains:

These other armies, they aren’t the enemy. It’s the teachers, they’re the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing. We kill ourselves, go crazy trying to beat each other, and all the time the old bastards are watching us, studying us, discovering our weak points, deciding whether we’re good enough or not. Well, good enough for what?

Dink also talks about his family from home, which nobody ever does, and Ender opens up about Valentine. Dink also believes the prospect of the bugger war is entirely fake:

“…There is no war, and they’re just screwing around with us.”

“But why?”

“Because as long as people are afraid of the buggers, the I.F. can stay in power, and as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony. But keep watching the vids, Ender. People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there’ll be a civil war to end all wars. That’s the menace, Ender, not the buggers. And in that war, when it comes, you and I won’t be friends. Because you’re American, just like our dear teachers. And I am not.”

Ender believes the buggers are real and that their threat could not have been faked, since “lies could not last long in America,” but a seed of doubt is planted that helps make him wise. Other commanders start ordering their soldiers not to practice with Ender, but his core group of original launchies remains loyal, despite external pressures. A group of older boys attacks his group in a nasty unofficial battle, but Ender wins. When he sees that the boys who were hospitalized are officially reported to have been hurt accidentally, he realizes the teachers have no intention of intervening.

Ender goes back to his Free Play mind game and kills the snake that he met last time in the castle room. Then he looks in a mirror and sees Peter’s face with a bloody snake tail hanging from his mouth. Ender shatters the mirror with the dead snake and then thousands of tiny snakes start pouring from the hole and kill him.

The commanders sanction Ender’s practices officially and send older boys to participate, so no one bothers him. But Ender is bothered by the most recent development in the mind game:

This game knows too much about me. This game tells filthy lies. I am not Peter. I don’t have murder in my heart.

And then a worse fear, that he was a killer, only better at it than Peter ever was; that it was this very trait that pleased the teachers. It’s killers they need for the bugger wars. It’s people who can grind the enemy’s face into the dust and spatter their blood all over space.

Graff and Anderson debate how the game could have gotten Peter’s image.

We then switch to Valentine’s perspective back home, where she’s been observing Ender’s birthdays even though he never answers her letters. They have since moved from the city to the country in North Carolina, which Valentine thinks they’ve done for Peter so the influence of nature will soften him, but she knows he’s been skinning and torturing squirrels. He does well in school and doesn’t bully people anymore, but Valentine knows it’s a fraud. One day Peter tells her that he’s decided not to kill her, but that she’ll help him. He tells her he’s figured out how to track troop movements in Russia and can tell they’re getting ready for war—the war after the bugger war. She understands that he’s “detected [] a fundamental shift in the world order.” He points out that they’re not like other children, but smarter than most adults, and that

“…there are times when the world is in flux and the right voice in the right place can move the world.”

He wants her to convince their father to sign them onto the nets on his account so they can start participating in certain forums and eventually make a name for themselves with their ideas. He makes himself vulnerable by saying all the things he did to her and Ender were out of his need for control:

“…It’s what I’m most afraid of. That I really am a monster. I don’t want to be a killer but I just can’t help it.”

Though she’s aware he’s manipulating her, he convinces her. She takes on the more incendiary war-mongering persona called Demosthenes, while he adopts the more rational persona known as Locke. Eventually they do get noticed and are picked up to write official columns.

A year in at Battle School, Ender is a toon leader in Phoenix Army under Petra’s command, and his evening practices are highly popular, but he finds that he’s extremely unhappy. He can’t find a way to get out of the room in the castle at the End of the World. Colonel Graff goes to Valentine at her school and asks her to help with Ender, though he can’t articulate clearly what the problem is. She explains that Ender was always worried he was like Peter, a killer, but that he’s really not. She agrees, with some resistance, to write him a letter, telling him he’s not like Peter. When Ender reads it he understands that Graff is responsible for manipulating her and hates that he has no control over his own life.

Ender then goes to the fantasy mind game and instead of killing the snake, kisses it. The snake turns into Valentine, and when he looks in the mirror he no longer sees Peter, but him and Valentine, and the mirror falls away to a staircase surrounded by cheering multitudes, and he cries from happiness to have escaped the room, not noticing that all the people have Peter’s face.

Ender is put in command of the new Dragon Army, which is filled with the weakest soldiers and untrained launchies. During his first training session, Ender singles out a small launchie named Bean whom he recognizes has potential; he soon realizes his attentions will isolate Bean in the same way he was and wonders why he feels the need to do that. He realizes that Graff isolated him from the very beginning to make him a better soldier.

The higher-ups say Ender is no longer allowed to have his practices, and he’s cut off from Alai. Graff comes up with a new intense battle schedule. Ender takes the nontraditional approach of training his toons to be able to do things on their own initiative. He’s excited when they’re sent into battle earlier than usual. They win easily, then are sent into battle every day, which is unheard of, and win all of them, earning Ender admiration and hatred. He starts watching videos of the bugger invasion battles to learn more, and makes an observation:

They never did anything surprising, anything that seemed to show either brilliance or stupidity in a subordinate officer. Discipline was apparently very tight.

He also notices that there’s little footage of the battle with Mazer Rackham, and thinks it’s censored. Graff summons him (Ender notices he’s markedly fatter than when he first met him four years ago) and asks if his soldiers have reached their limits and why he’s watching the bugger videos. Then Graff tells him he’s battling Bonzo’s Salamander Army in ten minutes; they gave Bonzo a head start. It’s the first time anyone is doing two battles in one day, but Ender anticipates their strategy and comes up with his own, freezing some of his own soldiers to use as shields. He is aware that this defeat will turn Bonzo’s hatred murderous. He hopes the teachers will keep him safe since he doesn’t have time for more defense classes.

Ender summons Bean (and we switch into Bean’s point of view at this point) to confide his frustration that the teachers have no apparent regard for the rules of the game, and reminds him that it’s not about the game, but about training for the bugger wars. He worries about losing and Bean is glad to see he’s human. He assigns Bean to lead a special task force to anticipate new problems.

We then see a General come to visit Colonel Graff; someone filed a report and they know some of the kids, led by Bonzo, are planning to beat Ender up. Command is worried about the potential threat to their potential savior, and angry that Graff doesn’t have anyone on hand to break up disturbances. Graff is insistent that Ender can’t believe that anyone is going to save him, ever:

“…Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities.”

Bean practices using a deadline to change positions in midair in antigravity. Petra warns Ender that some boys want to kill him, and Dink warns him to never be alone, but after the battle the next day Ender ends up napping during lunch and then showering when nobody’s there. Bonzo shows up with six other boys. Ender manages to talk Bonzo into fighting him alone, turns on the water to make himself slick so Bonzo can’t grab him, then hits him and keeps beating him after he’s down to send a message to everyone else (a la Stilson). That night, he cries about how badly he hurt Bonzo. 

Next, Ender is given a battle against two armies at once. They use a formation for the first time to send their soldiers through the victory gate immediately instead of waiting until they’ve killed off all of the enemy first, as is usually standard. Ender is so angry at how the higher-ups keep changing the rules that he says there will be no more practice and for him no more games. Graff then comes in with papers transferring Ender to Command School, which he wasn’t supposed to have enough experience for for several more years. Graff is going with him. They have to stop on Earth first to switch to a ship that can land at the new school.

We get a discussion between two officials in which we learn that Bonzo died from his injuries—as did Stilson. Though they note:

“Ender Wiggin isn’t a killer. He just wins—thoroughly. If anybody’s going to be scared, let it be the buggers.”

They wonder if Graff might eventually be put in jail for Bonzo’s death. We then get a conversation between different officials about how the identities of Locke and Demosthenes are Ender’s siblings.

We switch to Valentine’s point of view; Peter gets mad at her for being invited to an important conference before he is, and their contacts have enabled them to piece together the preparations for an upcoming earthbound war. Then Graff picks Valentine up from school one day, mentions that he knows who Demosthenes is, and takes her to see Ender, who for the past two months has been saying he refuses to go on with his studies. She goes out on a lake with Ender on a raft he’s built and, after he expresses his concern that he won’t be able to beat the buggers because he doesn’t understand them the way he understands people, she talks him into saving humanity:

“…If you try and lose then it isn’t your fault. But if you don’t try and we lose, then it’s all your fault. You killed us all.”

“I’m a killer no matter what.”

He gets ready to leave with Graff, who it turns out had another reason for keeping him on Earth so long:

“We train our commanders the way we do because that’s what it takes—they have to think in certain ways, they can’t be distracted by a lot of things, so we isolate them. You. Keep you separate. And it works. But it’s so easy, when you never meet people, when you never know the Earth itself, when you live with metal walls keeping out the cold of space, it’s easy to forget why Earth is worth saving. Why the world of people might be worth the price you pay.”

He knows Ender might hate him for bringing Valentine to him to manipulate him, but he wanted to remind him of their connection and how there were billions of other human connections on Earth that needed saving.

During the three-month voyage to I.F. Command Headquarters on Eros, Ender gets Graff to tell him everything he knows about the buggers, which is more physical than psychological. Perhaps most importantly:

“Their communication, however they do it, is instantaneous.”

Then humans were able to build an Instantaneous Communicator of their own, called an ansible. It might be notable for world-building craft that you don’t have to explain how things actually work:

“once we knew what could be done, we did it. … I can’t explain philotic physics to you. Half of it nobody understands anyway. What matters is we built the ansible.”

Now ships can talk to each other even when they’re all the way on the other side of the galaxy. Graff tells him that the buggers aren’t attacking them, but the other way around—the humans are staging the Third Invasion. They sent some ships toward the bugger world seventy years ago, and they should be reaching the buggers in about five years. They need the battle commander who knows what to do with the ships when they get there. Ender doesn’t believe he’ll be ready in five years but Graff says he has to do his best. Ender is aware that even now Graff is manipulating him:

I’ll become exactly the tool you want me to be, said Ender silently, but at least I won’t be fooled into it. I’ll do it because I choose to, not because you tricked me, you sly bastard.

Graff tells him he believes the buggers must communicate directly mind-to-mind. When Ender asks why they have to kill the buggers, Graff reminds him that the buggers invaded first. Ender protests that maybe the buggers didn’t know they were intelligent life, but Graff says they can never be sure, so:

“If one of us has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end.”

On Eros, Graff talks to Admiral Chamrajnagar:

“…He’s such a very little boy.”

“There’s greatness in him. A magnitude of spirit.”

“A killer instinct, too, I hope.”


The Admiral says they’ve devoted one of their five starship simulators to Ender. Ender finds Eros’s general design uncomfortable. It’s a rock with tunnels in which over 10,000 people live. He’s isolated from other students, but he finds the simulator “the most perfect videogame he had ever played.” The games get increasingly complex. Over the course of a year he masters commanding a fleet. Battle School comes in handy:

He would routinely reorient the simulator every few minutes, rotating it so that he didn’t get trapped into an up-down orientation, constantly reviewing his position from the enemy point of view. It was exhilarating at last to have such control over the battle, to be able to see every point of it.

(One might note a metaphor for writing itself here, the importance of seeing from different perspectives, as well as the writer’s God-like authorial omniscience.) When Ender notes that the game has stopped getting harder, Graff disappears and an old man shows up locked in Ender’s room with him. After Ender lets down his guard and the old man attacks him, he reveals himself to be Mazer Rackham, the commander who succeeded in destroying the buggers last time. They sent him out in a starship at “relativistic speed” then had him come back, so that over 50 years only 18 years passed for him and he could survive to teach the next commander how to defeat the buggers. They finally watch the video of how he did defeat them—he dove his ship into the heart of their formation, there was a single explosion, and then he wound his way out among the other bugger ships without them firing on him because they were dead. Mazer explains his theory:

“The buggers are bugs. They’re like ants and bees. A queen, the workers. That was maybe a hundred million years ago, but that’s how they started, that kind of pattern. … So when they evolved this ability to think together, wouldn’t they still keep the queen? Wouldn’t the queen still be the center of the group? Why would that ever change?”

“So it’s the queen who controls the whole group.”

Mazer reveals Eros is a former bugger hive. The buggers don’t consider themselves sentient beings; when they die it’s like the destruction of inanimate objects:

“Murder’s no big deal to them. Only queen-killing, really, is murder, because only queen-killing closes off a genetic path.”

“So they didn’t know what they were doing.”

When they killed the humans, Ender means. The queen doesn’t even have to be present to control her buggers in battle. The only advantage the humans have is the “Dr. Device,” which is much more powerful than a nuclear weapon:

“The Little Doctor could never be used on a planet. ….”

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know, not well enough to build one. At the focal point of two beams, it sets up a field in which molecules can’t hold together anymore. Electrons can’t be shared. How much physics do you know, at that level?”

“Dr.” for M.D.: Molecular Detachment device. It’s Ender’s job to get in a position to choose a target for it. He gets a new simulator with a headset that connects him to squadron leaders—all the best students from Battle School that he trusted. As they use the simulator, he learns their particular strengths so he can deploy them more quickly; the intelligence of their individual groups gives them an advantage over the buggers’ hive-mind. Then Mazer starts to control the enemy’s movements in “a simulation of a real invasion.” They practice intense battles for ten hours a day. Ender has nightmares about buggers vivisecting him and his memories.

As the battles intensify, his team starts making more mistakes, including a disaster with Petra, whom he concludes he’s pushed too hard. Ender himself collapses and is put to bed for three days. When he returns he continues to fight well. Then one day a lot of people are in the room to watch his battle, and Graff says this is his final examination in Command School. Ender considers what will happen if he wins—years more of grueling training. He might prefer to fail and go home—but then that might mean no actual home to return to because the buggers will destroy everything. When the game starts, Ender discovers he is outnumbered a thousand to one. Bean says:

“Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”

And Ender, remembering the day they fought two armies at once, thinks that if they’re going to cheat like this, he can cheat too. He gets his ships in formation and leads them through enemy ships until they drop their Dr. Devices on the enemy’s planet. The planet explodes and as it expands outward destroys all the bugger ships. Ender thinks the people in the room should be angry, but instead they’re crying and celebrating. Mazer finally enlightens him:

“Ender, you never played me. You never played a game since I became your enemy.”

Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.

Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer then grew serious and said, “Ender, for the past few months you have been the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies, they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They’ll never attack us again. You did it. You.”

Ender struggles with the implications of what he’s done:

“I killed them all, didn’t I?” Ender asked.

“All who?” asked Graff. “The buggers? That was the idea.”

Mazer leaned in close. “That’s what the war was for.”

“All their queens. So I killed all their children, all of everything.”

They decided that when they attacked us. It wasn’t your fault. It’s what had to happen.”

Ender grabbed Mazer’s uniform and hung onto it, pulling him down so they were face to face. “I didn’t want to kill them all. I didn’t want to kill anybody! I’m not a killer! You didn’t want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!” He was crying. He was out of control.

“Of course we tricked you into it. That’s the whole point,” said Graff. “It had to be a trick or you couldn’t have done it. It’s the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough.”

“And it had to be a child, Ender,” said Mazer. “You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.”

In the meantime, violence has erupted on Earth now that the bugger war is over:

“They’re going to start a war. Americans claiming the Warsaw Pact is about to attack, and the Russians are saying the same thing about the Hegemon. The bugger war isn’t twenty-four hours dead and the world down there is back to fighting again, as bad as ever. And all of them are worried about you. All of them want you. …”

Ender has nightmares and sleeps through “the five days of the League War.” His friends finally visit him and tell him there’s been a truce and that “[t]hey finally agreed to accept the Locke Proposal.”

In the last chapter we see Anderson and Graff at the Greensboro lake, discussing Graff’s acquittal. Locke has agitated for Ender to stay on Eros, but Graff hints this was at Demosthenes’ urging and that Locke really did want Ender to come to Earth so he could control and use him to gain power. Graff is the new Minister of Colonization for the bugger worlds.

Ender watches Graff’s trial and sees it as an indictment of himself (videos of Bonzo’s and Stilson’s deaths are part of the evidence). Valentine visits him on Eros and tells him she’s going to the first colony. He says he wants to go home and she says she’s ensured he’s never going back; if he did he would be under Peter’s control, since Peter’s now in a position of influence on the Hegemon’s Council. The Locke Proposal was the moment he consolidated Demosthenes’ and Locke’s different spheres of influence to forestall war, and he actually saved millions of lives (ironic, since he was supposed to be the killer, and that Ender, the non-killer, ended up killing all the buggers…). If Ender had come back, Peter would have been able to use Ender’s influence—he’s an extremely popular celebrity since they released videos of the bugger battles—to take over completely. Ender doesn’t want to live in the homes of what he killed, but Earth is Peter’s and this is Ender’s chance to get away. Valentine mentions he might think she’s trying to control him:

“Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you. …”

She says the plan is he’ll be governor and that Graff and Mazer are going, too. He agrees, but not for her sake:

“I’m going because I know the buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.”

Years pass; Peter is Hegemon of Earth and more colonists come to Ender’s World. Valentine is writing history volumes documenting the bugger wars. Scouting for a new colony location with an eleven-year-old named Abra, Ender recognizes the land as that from the computer mind game at Battle School with the corpse of the giant he killed. He finds the tower and, unafraid of death, pulls the mirror from the wall that snakes would always come out from behind and kill him. What does he find there?

The pupa of a queen bugger, already fertilized by the larval males, ready, out of her own body, to hatch a hundred thousand buggers, including a few queens and males.

He’s able to access the hive-queen’s memories and see the final bugger battle from her perspective, how horrible it must have been. She wants him to take her somewhere she can hatch her offspring, but Ender thinks if he does that the humans will only kill them again. He has a suggestion:

“If you could make them feel as you can make me feel, then perhaps they could forgive you.”

Only me, he realized. They found me through the ansible, followed it and dwelt in my mind. In the agony of my tortured dreams they came to know me, even as I spent my days destroying them; they found my fear of them, and found also that I had no knowledge I was killing them. In the few weeks they had, they built this place for me, and the Giant’s corpse and the playground and the ledge at the End of the World, so I would find this place by the evidence of my eyes. I am the only one they know, and so they can only talk to me, and through me. We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe, until we met you, but never did we dream that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other’s dreams. How were we to know? We could live with you in peace. Believe us, believe us, believe us.

Ender agrees:

“I’ll carry you,” said Ender, “I’ll go from world to world until I find a time and a place where you can come awake in safety. And I’ll tell your story to my people, so that perhaps in time they can forgive you, too. The way that you’ve forgiven me.”

He writes the bugger’s story from the hive-queen’s perspective that he titles “Speaker for the Dead.” All human cultures adopt a Speaker for the Dead figure. Humans on Earth read the book but don’t know Ender wrote it. Peter, 77 to Valentine’s and Ender’s 25 and 23, figures out it’s by Ender and wants Ender to speak for him, so tells him all his stories, and Ender adds his volume to the other he wrote, calling it “The Hive Queen and the Hegemon.” He and Valentine travel to different worlds, she recording history, he speaking for the dead—while also looking for a proper place for the hive-queen’s cocoon. The End.

Card is the only sci-fi writer to have won both the Nebula and the Hugo award two years in a row, which he did for Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead (the latter of which was actually conceived first). Part of what makes the narrative in Ender’s Game more powerful than a standard pulpy sci-fi action-adventure tale is Ender’s character development. There’s not just the classic external conflict of a good party (humans) versus an evil party (the buggers). Ender has an internal conflict that transcends the one standard for protagonists in such situations, which would simply be: will he be capable of playing his part in resolving said external conflict? Ender’s conflict is not that he wants to resolve the external conflict and worries about his ability to do so; rather, Ender actually doesn’t want to resolve the external conflict, because he doesn’t want to be a killer like his brother Peter. This internal conflict brings him into direct conflict with the external conflict as he’s groomed to kill the buggers. These conflicts are a version of acute (external) and chronic (internal) tension. That Ender is actually conflicted about his absolute victory, that it is not his own end goal as the protagonist but one forced upon him, complicates the traditional imperial-dominance Manifest-Destiny American narrative of good v. evil. The book does not end when Ender defeats the buggers; this is the penultimate chapter, not the ultimate. The ultimate has to resolve his internal conflict, has to resolve that he’s been made into a killer when he did not want to be. Therefore, he has to atone for having killed. He does so by taking the bugger cocoon and attempting to plant it somewhere where the race that he killed off can regenerate itself. The buggers died because of him, and they come back to life (potentially) because of him.

Card is adept at using patterns that escalate the rising action: Ender being able to beat older boys at a game he’s never played before when he first gets to Battle School; Ender angry at the higher-ups for changing the rules and making him fight two armies leading him to change the rules and go for the victory gate first; Ender believing that his supposed final exam is yet another changing of the rules in having him absurdly outnumbered leading him to change the rules and use the Dr. Device on the home planet. There’s also the pattern of parties Ender kills without meaning to, or even initially realizing that he has killed them: Stilson, his ticket to Battle School; Bonzo, his ticket to Command School; and the buggers, his ticket to ultimate victory in the external conflict. In the first two instances with Stilson and Bonzo, Ender wants to send a message to make sure the boys and their potential accomplices don’t bother him again. That is, he wants to ensure that he’s not only winning this battle, but every battle afterward, by ensuring there are no more battles. When he kills them he ends up ensuring there are no battles in a more permanent way than he intended. This is the pattern that’s escalated and recapitulated in the climactic bugger battle—Ender doesn’t mean to kill them because he thinks it’s just a simulation, but he ensures a presumably permanent victory by killing off the entire species.

Ender’s training offers an inherently ideal pattern of rising action. Every time Ender masters a level, he’s advanced to a more difficult one. This pattern repeats in Ender’s battles at Battle School (he’s advanced to an army before he should be, then advanced to command an army before he should be, then he’s given a battle every day, then two in one day, then against two armies at once), and then again at Command School when he masters the advancing levels of leading a fleet. Things become increasingly intense for Ender in his training, just as things should become increasingly intense for any protagonist in a satisfying narrative.

The lie that Ender is fighting Mazer in the simulations where he’s really fighting the buggers further underscores the question: Who is really the enemy? This question becomes essential to Ender’s conflict early on when Dink tells him the teachers are really the enemy, not the buggers. As the teachers change the rules in order to challenge Ender so that he can defeat the real enemy, he starts to perceive them as the enemy instead, which threatens the progress of his training. That the teachers’ methods might seriously backfire is part of the narrative’s tension. (It also reflects their larger conundrum: that empathy makes you a more effective killer by being able to understand and therefore anticipate your enemies, but that such a level of empathy would also render you incapable of killing at all.) The question is raised whether the teachers are really preparing Ender to fight the buggers or if they have some sort of ulterior motive. When it turns out they are really training him to fight the buggers, tension then rises from a new question: Are the buggers really the enemy? The answer turns out to be no; they were not planning on attacking again and didn’t comprehend that they were destroying life when they killed humans. It turns out that humans are the more monstrous creatures here.

According to the late great David Foster Wallace, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” While science fiction as a genre may at first glance appear not as suited to this about-ness as literary fiction, it’s actually frequently in a better position to make such commentary, as Ender’s Game proves. Representations of aliens provide a lot of potential for commentary on humans via compare-and-contrast. Here, humans turn out to be more monstrous than the buggers. The buggers turn out to not be under their own individual autonomous control, but under the control of their queen. The book raises the question of how different that bugger configuration is from humans through Ender’s increasing desolation that his life in training is not under his own control. When Valentine is convincing Ender to become governor of the new colony she points out directly the lack of control humans have over their lives. Further likenesses between the humans and buggers are drawn when Ender accesses the buggers’ thoughts at the end, and they reveal that they came to understand that Ender didn’t know he was killing them in the battles, just like the buggers didn’t understand they were killing humans:

We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again.

It’s ironic that it’s humans’ need to control their own lives that drives the military to attack the buggers with Ender in the first place—they can’t control or determine whether the buggers will attack again, but they try to exert control over the situation by attacking the buggers first. This would seem to be apt commentary on foreign diplomacy—that we’re causing more harm than preventing when we attack other countries because we believe they have the potential to, at some point, attack us. This narrative might seem to argue that sending a preemptive message to an enemy to make sure they never attack again is misguided and presumptuous; Ender destroyed the buggers without even knowing he was doing it, and the higher-ups who knew that’s what he was doing didn’t know that the buggers had no intention of inflicting harm again. There seems to be a theme here that aggressors never know the full story of the situation their unleashing their aggressions in, therefore, such aggression should potentially be reigned in. As one commentator puts it, “both Speaker and Ender’s Game are allegories of peace, not war.” And yet, Card himself is actually a neoconservative who believes in interventionist foreign policy. In a 2014 essay, Card declares:

If a new Republican President starts throwing our weight around, trying to create the opposite of Obama’s insanely weak foreign policy, he will find that it doesn’t work. / Speaking loudly while armed with a noodle is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s formula: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt’s was the policy of a great nation. Neither party today knows what “greatness” even means.

Perhaps this explains why a certain recent political slogan was so effective…

Aside from foreign policy lessons, the book also offers a study in how to adapt a longer work from a short one. Ender’s Game started as a story that first appeared in the August 1977 issue of Analog. The novella, or “novelette” to use Card’s term, came in around 15,000 words. In his commentary on the book’s 20th anniversary edition, Card avows that the way to adapt shorter material is not to just add more stuff on after the story ends. You also have to expand the material that happened before the beginning. The story version starts with Ender already three years into Battle School, about to enter a battle as commander for the first time. The novel goes back to how and why he was recruited in the first place. Card also discusses the film adaptation and problems with Hollywood–specifically that they need a romantic plot attached to their main storyline. They wanted Ender to be at least sixteen in the film version, but to Card it was critical that he be no older than twelve: Ender’s youth is an integral element of the plot.

On a separate problem, how to cinematically represent a book that takes place so much in a character’s head, Card says it was not until he incorporated material from his book Ender’s Shadow, which is told from Bean’s perspective, that he was able to put together a screenplay he thought worked. In the 20th anniversary recording of the audiobook, Card was excited that the film adaptation was finally moving forward. But he was still eight years from the film’s actual release, under a director different than the one named in ’05, so it seems fair to say that even more untold drama occurred between then and ’13. Non-adaptation-related-drama includes protestors boycotting the film due some of Card’s homophobic comments. If there’s another lesson we can learn from Ender’s Game, it’s that you don’t have to be a good person to write a good book. And so its commentary on human foibles attains yet another level…


Saunders in the Bardo

America … had never really been a gay nation. Rather it had been heavily and noisily jocular, with a substratum of worry and insecurity, in the image of its patron saint, Lincoln of the rollicking stories and the tragic heart.

-Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

George Saunders has been publishing fiction for decades now, but Lincoln in the Bardo, released Valentine’s Day this year, is his first novel. As an avid fan of his, my expectations were perhaps unfairly high. Not to worry—Saunders has exceeded them. Something that might indicate the unusual format of this book is the format of the reading Saunders gave for his appearance at Houston’s Inprint Reading Series last month: he had five readers from the Alley Theater company join him in his reading onstage.

The novel is told through individual characters’ distinct voices—the majority of them ghosts—with a cast that swells into the hundreds (I’m pretty sure the number 600 was quoted at the reading, which was shocking; has tallied a more likely but still impressive 166). In a kind of inversion of the typical play format, the names of each speaker are presented after their lines. The chapters with these speakers are intermittently alternated with snippets collaged from historical texts—some real, some not—describing specific events relevant to the plot, and allowing non-ghost speakers some room to narrate.

All the action takes place the first night Abe Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie is spending in a cemetery after dying of typhoid fever. Saunders recounted that he was inspired by the book on a trip to DC decades ago when someone pointed out the cemetery where Willie was buried and told him that Lincoln had come to visit the body and even taken it out of its tomb. He says he was struck by an image: Lincoln, as immortalized in DC’s Lincoln Memorial, holding his dead son across his lap in the manner of Mary holding Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture the Pietà. But the prospect of tackling such historical material was too daunting, and while the idea periodically recurred, he didn’t make the attempt until a couple of years ago.

The other major influence on this plot is Saunders’ Buddhism. He described the Bardo as a place where your most common thought patterns in life were amplified a hundredfold, which he finds deeply chilling.

The novel has two primary speakers or narrators, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. (The attributions after each speaker do not capitalize their names, but names are capitalized when other characters refer to them in text.) Vollman, with interjections along the way from Bevins, opens the novel with the story of how he died at forty-six years old. Having been married to a young girl whom he could tell did not want him, Vollman did not force her to consummate the marriage, and due to this kindness she eventually grew fond enough of him that she became willing to consummate of her own accord. He dies the day they’re slated to do the deed when a wooden beam falls from his office ceiling and strikes him in the head. In the Bardo, He refers to his coffin as a “sick-box” and the cemetery as a “hospital-yard.” Before the end of the first chapter he’s observed a new arrival, a young boy.

The next couple of chapters are historical snippets describing a party the Lincolns hosted at the White House during the Civil War. A chapter of snippets following these describes Lincoln’s son Willie being sick upstairs during the party, followed by a chapter of snippets describing the moon that night (with conflicting accounts). Still more snippet chapters describe the procession to the cemetery and Willie’s tomb.

We finally return to the ghosts for an account of how Bevins died—having a “predilection” for liking men, he slit his wrists after his lover Gilbert told him he wanted to “live correctly.” He realizes that he actually does not want to die as he’s bleeding out, which will lead to his characteristic (that is, character-defining) trait in the Bardo:

Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chill autumn—

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Sir. Friend.

hans vollman


Am I—am I doing it again?

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Not only does he frequently spew lists of life-affirming images, but now that Bevins has entered this realm with a heightened appreciation for life’s pleasures, this, in the Bardo, manifests in a particular physicality:

“Bevins” had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive

Little bit scary

In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands

Slashes on every one of the wrists.

willie lincoln

Through Willie’s observation, we also learn how Vollman’s circumstances of entry into the Bardo manifest physically:

The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off

It bounced as he

Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s

Quite naked indeed

Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty—

willie lincoln

Vollman and Bevins are joined in greeting Willie the newcomer by the Reverend Everly Thomas. They want to know if Willie has “An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?” But Willie says he needs to wait for his parents to collect him, alarming Bevins and Vollman, there apparently being something especially dangerous for children who linger in this particular realm. By way of explanation, they show Willie his corpse, then take him to “the Traynor girl,” who is trapped in the iron fence at the boundary of the cemetery, manifesting at that moment as a furnace; she speaks to him bitterly of having left life too soon. Vollman and Bevins have just about convinced Willie that he needs to leave when Willie’s living father shows up, President Abraham Lincoln. Here it is indicated that some of our narrators might at times be unreliable:

He was softly sobbing.

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He was not sobbing. My friend remembers incorrectly. He was winded. He did not sob.

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He was softly sobbing, his sadness aggravated by his mounting frustration at being lost.

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Saunders is skilled at showing and telling in tandem as needed:

The Reverend suggested we yield the path.

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The Reverend having strong feelings about the impropriety of allowing oneself to be passed through.

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Lincoln goes to his son’s sick-box and opens it.

We break for a historical-snippets chapter about Willie’s death, its immediate aftermath, and Lincoln’s fondness for Willie. Then one about how great and smart Willie was, then Lincoln keeping vigil with the body.

Back at the cemetery, Lincoln takes the body out of the “sick-box” and cradles and speaks to it. This draws a crowd of ghostly cemetery inhabitants. Willie the ghost enters his corpse, and partially Lincoln himself, which allows him access to his father’s thoughts: Lincoln wonders whether it’s wrong to be doing this, but he believes it’s done him good (an objective correlative for his upcoming considerations about the ongoing Civil War). We then get an entry from a watchman’s logbook about how Lincoln showed up alone and asked to be let in (this seems made up, the voice betraying itself as Saundersian). The ghost community is galvanized and shocked by Lincoln’s affectionately tactile display. They press upon Willie:

What did we want? We wanted the lad to see us, I think. We wanted his blessing. We wanted to know what this apparently charmed being thought of our particular reasons for remaining.

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Truth be told, there was not one among the many here—not even the strongest—who did not entertain some lingering doubt about the wisdom of his or her choice.

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They form a line to talk to Willie, and in this way we hear some of their stories. Jane Ellis, who hated her husband but loved her daughters (whose forms perpetually hover around her now, and also sometimes, “On other days, everyone she met manifested as a giant mustache with legs.”); Mrs. Abigail Blass, who kept interrupting Jane Ellis, and who’s obsessed with tallying her “meager possessions”; Lieutenant Cecil Stone, a rapist who fought in the Civil War and refers to black people as “SHARDS”; Eddie and Betsy Baron, impoverished drunks who curse like sailors. The procession is interrupted by an onslaught of angels—which different characters perceive as different forms, depending on their defining desires—trying to persuade them to let go of what they’re clinging to and move on to the next realm. Mrs. Abigail Blass gives in and succumbs to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” at which point the angels redouble their efforts. The main trio tally the departed and are surprised to find Willie still among them. They try to convince him he should go, but his father has promised him he’s coming back. Mrs. Delaney passes through, continually calling for Mr. Delaney. A stone tendril emerges from the roof of the tomb where Willie is sitting and starts to seal him in. This happened to Miss Traynor and the trio are ashamed they did nothing more to help her.

The Three Bachelors appear in a fanfare of raining hats, and announce that they’ve just seen the boy’s father—Lincoln is still here. Against the reverend’s wishes, Vollman and Bevins go to find him, meeting other ghosts along the way, some of whom have been there so long they no longer look or sound coherent. They stumble on the grave of a freshly arrived Civil War captain who believes he’ll free himself by telling the truth about having cheated on his wife—and he succeeds.

They finally find Lincoln sitting in the grass and decide to do something the reverend wouldn’t approve of—enter Lincoln’s body. They access Lincoln’s thoughts as he remembers buying Willie the suit he was buried in. As Lincoln ponders the cruelty of death, something occurs to Bevins and Vollman. We jump back to historical snippets, detailing the known casualties from the Civil War that became public at the same time Willie died. In the cemetery, Lincoln questions the course he’s taken with the war, having experienced the massive amount of pain from just a single death. He tries to comfort himself by thinking Willie must be in a better place. Hearing that he hopes Willie is “in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being,” Vollman and Bevins contrive to get Lincoln back to Willie’s tomb so that Willie might enter him, hear his wish, and be convinced to leave. They experiment with persuading Lincoln to go back by means of thinking hard about it themselves, debating whether they really have the power to do this and whether it really was exercised in a previous case (convincing a pair of fighting lovers who were visiting to have passionate intercourse). Their job is made easier when they realize Lincoln still has the lock to the tomb in his pocket, which he eventually does realize and heads back. Vollman and Bevins have inadvertently accessed each other’s thoughts along the way, giving each a newfound appreciation for the other. They’re surprised to learn that Lincoln is president. End Part One.

In Part Two, we get a historical snippet questioning if Lincoln can govern in this grave hour with his grief, one about his leaving the White House that night, and then a chapter about his wife’s extreme reaction to Willie’s death. Meanwhile, in Willie’s tomb, the reverend has been left to fend off Willie’s encroaching stone tendrils alone. Two couples who have orgies, the Crutchers and the Reedys, come to watch “the decline.” When the reverend tries to use them as an example to Willie as to why he should leave, Willie points out that the reverend is there, prompting the reverend to share his story with the reader, if not Willie.

The reverend maintains he’s not like the others because he knows he is not “sick.” Knowing he was dead, he succumbed to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, and ended up in a place with two other men where they were called before a judge (whom he understands to be an emissary of Christ) and their hearts were weighed. The first man is judged to have lived well and enters a glorious tent with a feast. The second man is judged to have not lived well and in his tent people are being horrifically eaten. When it’s the reverend’s turn and he is, to his shock, judged not worthy, he flees, and winds up in the cemetery. He still doesn’t understand why he was damned.

Vollman and Bevins come back declaring they’ve brought Lincoln, and the reverend sees his face. We then get historical snippets describing Lincoln’s complex face (ugly, handsome, indicative of emotional depth). Once Lincoln is inside looking in Willie’s coffin again, they get Willie down from the roof. Again, a crowd gathers, this time shouting a cacophony of confessions. These include a pair of men who excessively compliment each other, then a crowd of black people who have followed the Barons over the fence arrive, demanding to have their say. This includes Elson Farwell, who served his white family loyally but was then left to die on a trail, forgotten because of the distraction of a 4th of July fireworks display, and now wishes extreme vengeance upon them. Thomas Havens interjects that he was able to enjoy some free moments but realizes those moments made the rest of his bondage more bitter. Then there’s Litzie Wright, no longer able to speak, which Mrs. Francis Hodge explains is due to “what was done to her,” which “was done to her many times, by many.” Lieutenant Stone and some other whites drive the black group back to the fence.

Willie is about to enter his father when the night watchman appears, and then stone tendrils from the wall start grabbing Willie again. While Bevins, younger and stronger, fights the tendrils, Vollman enters Lincoln, who is in low spirits, thinking himself a failure. We get a series of historical snippets describing Lincoln as weak and criticizing what he’s put the country through. Lincoln considers that nothing worth doing goes uncriticized, then remembers something painful, and we get historical snippets about the irresponsibility of the parents being at fault for Willie’s illness, and then some snippets about the cruelty of a party going on while he was dying. Lincoln tries to mentally get his son to rise from his coffin. Vollman implores him to stay as Lincoln concludes that staying is not helpful, and he leaves before Bevins and the reverend can get Willie free. Vollman tries to get the reverend to join him in entering Lincoln to convince him to stay, though the reverend is reticent of controlling others since that couple they made make love got married and eventually the man ended up poisoning his wife. But for Willie’s sake, he agrees. After he enters Lincoln, the rest of the crowd follows suit. And then:

It occurred to us now (as Manders, lantern held high, preceded the President into a grove of trees) that we might harness that mass power, to serve our purpose.

hans vollman

The effort of working together for a common purpose—exhorting Lincoln to stop and go back—enables them to put aside their selfish focus on their own problems, which then enables access to memories of happy times that they had heretofore forgotten.

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.

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One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.

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(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)

the reverend everly thomas

But this had cost us, we now saw.

We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.

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But now, through this serendipitous mass co-habitation—

the reverend everly thomas

We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness.

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All the distinctive physical traits they bear as a product of their burdens—Vollman’s “tremendous member,” Bevins’ “fleshly bouquet” of sensory organs, the reverends’ perpetually terrified expression—suddenly vanish. But they have not succeeded in their mission to stop Lincoln. They enlist the Bachelors to enlist help. People begin leaving Lincoln’s body. Vollman and Bevins rush back to Willie as the reverend still fails to understand why he was damned. Back in the tomb Willie is cocooned in concrete, which starts to emanate voices:

Former people, somehow shrunken and injected into the very fabric of that structure. Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.

the reverend everly thomas

Who were they? Who had they been? How had they come to be so “compelled”?

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We won’t discuss that, said the woman’s voice. Will not discuss that.

Mistakes were made, said the bass voice.

hans vollman

(Nice Nixon sendup.)

They confess egregious sins in the guise of advice on what not to do (these characters distinguished by their own stories and traits, like the “bass lisper”). When asked if they are in Hell, they say not the worst one. The reverend figures these are who he’ll be joining and still struggles to accept God’s judgment. The hell figures agree to inter Willie on the roof, and the reverend, offering to carry Willie up, instead flees with him. The hell figures swarm in a matter-inhabiting horde and easily overtake him. They create a stone cocoon around him and Willie both, and the reverend, after shouting about that “dreadful diamond palace,” succumbs to the matterlightblooming phenomenon. Bevins and Vollman claw Willie out and, passing him back and forth, manage to get him to the chapel, but they are not protected from the demons there as anticipated. Then they realize that Lincoln is there in the chapel. We get a watchman’s log entry confirming his presence there. Then Willie enters him. Lincoln is remembering the first moment Willie’s illness presented itself. Then there are historical snippets about the ravages of the fever and how difficult it was for the sensitive Lincoln to bear. Vollman orders Willie to come out at once (a one-paragraph chapter). Then there are historical snippets about the embalming process and Willie’s being embalmed (Lincoln walking in on it at one point). Willie is clearly shocked, processing something (a one-line chapter (LXXXIX): “The boy sat stock-still, eyes very wide indeed.”) Then there are historical snippets about the burial. The last of these is Lincoln declaring to someone “Willie is dead.” In the chapel, Willie declares to everyone that they aren’t sick—they’re dead. He tries to convince everyone that they should leave. His form starts to flicker into different forms that he once was and then never was (as sometimes happens to those about to succumb), and then he is gone. Lincoln, seemingly freed from some burden, inadvertently passes through Bevins and Vollman on his way out; he is thinking about how the the only way to stop suffering is more suffering, and resolves a quick end to the war even if it’s at a heightened cost of blood. A group of black people are outside the chapel and Thomas Havens enters Lincoln, and triggered by Lincoln’s sadness, focuses on his own sadness, sharing it with Lincoln so that he might better understand it.

Upon hearing the news that they’re dead, Litzie Wright, who’s gotten her voice back, and Mrs. Francis Hodge, succumb. The watchman reports Lincoln leaving the cemetery. There’s a mass exodus from the chapel, with many succumbing. The Barons argue and succumb. As Bevins is about to succumb, he recalls that the morning he slashed his wrists he saw Gilbert in a bakery with another man (a slap in the face after Gilbert left claiming to want to “live correctly”). Bevins then reminds Vollman that his wife came to visit and thanked him for his kindness, which meant she was unsullied when she found her new husband. Before Vollman and Bevins succumb together, they visit the Traynor girl in the iron fence. Vollman enters the train she’s manifesting as and, per her request, blows it up by succumbing to the matterlightblooming phenomenon inside it. Then Bevins, after enjoying some final sensory imagery outside, succumbs, witnessed by the Reedys and Crutchers and interrupting their orgy. Those who resisted succumbing are grateful they still have more time and hope for the possibility of love. The watchman, who has a son Willie’s age, ponders the mortal bind of love and loss we’re in. Thomas Havens continues to ride forward with Lincoln, determined to stay in him. The End.    

Saunders mentioned that he thought the greatest sin was to not see oneself clearly, and in the Bardo it’s impossible not to. He admitted to copying the distinctive character-defining traits—a necessity when juggling such a large cast—from Tolstoy. These traits manifest something fundamental about the characters’ essences, providing a sort of key to them that enables us to understand their perspective. In the interview after the reading, which was of the section where Bevins and Vollman first enter Lincoln, UH Creative Writing Program director Alex Parsons pointed out that the image of a ghost entering a body and accessing that person’s thoughts was very much like what a writer did in the course of writing.

The tension in the narrative derives from the threat to Willie should he linger in this realm, though it’s never made explicitly clear why this realm is so threatening to children. We see the threatening outcome in the Traynor girl, and it provides our three main characters, Vollman, Bevins, and the reverend, with a desire that propels the story forward with a question: Will they succeed in convincing Willie to leave this realm before he’s apparently stuck here forever? It’s Abraham Lincoln’s appearance that complicates things and gives us our first rise in the action. His promise that he’s coming back incites Willie to stay. His hope that Willie is in some better place, accessed by Bevins and Vollman, provides the foundation for their plan that then propels the action in the rest of the novel thereafter; their goal then becomes to get Willie to enter Lincoln so he can hear this hope and be convinced to move on. But when they finally do get him to enter Lincoln, it backfires when it leads Willie to realize instead that he’s dead, and in turn apprise everyone else of this fact.

There’s also an undercurrent of chronic tension for all of the ghost characters in this realm, who are here for a reason—refusing to believe they’re dead, they cling to the stubborn belief that they can still change the outcome of something. Hearing that they’re dead from Willie, which comes through Lincoln himself, is enough to finally convince, among others, our three main characters, who have apparently been clinging among the longest, to let go. The acute tension of Willie’s appearance and all that leads to—the irrefutable revelation that they’re dead—resolves the chronic tension of their senselessly clinging to their past lives.

Saunders, who so astutely analyzed Donald Barthelme’s use of patterns in rising action, executes a pattern of his own here: Lincoln enters Willie’s tomb and opens his coffin twice in this one night, both times inciting a ghost crowd intent on justifying themselves by spilling their own stories. The first time, an external obstacle intervenes in the appearance of the tempting angels. Then Lincoln is located, and they convince him to come back to the tomb. The crowd this time enters Lincoln’s body, a significant plot point when the common mission enables them to overcome their selfishness and be liberated from their dominant Bardo manifestations. It seems they’ve failed to stop Lincoln, but after we get the exciting interlude with the hell figures, we learn that they actually succeeded in getting Lincoln to stay. Finally, the goal of their plan is realized, the main characters do succeed in their mission, but not with the expected outcome. Instead of just Willie being convinced to go, almost everyone else is convinced to go as well. Not only will Willie leave the Bardo this night—all of them will.

That Saunders doesn’t alternate the snippets and cemetery scenes in an exact pattern makes the sequence feel more climactic at the end when it does start alternating every other chapter, which provides a marked shift in pacing from slower to faster. There’s also the moment the snippets literally interact with the cemetery, providing a narratively cathartic convergence of threads:

Father said it, he said. Said I am dead. Why would he say that, if it weren’t true? I just now heard him say it. I heard him, that is, remembering having said it.

But we didn’t hear Lincoln say it in a cemetery section. We heard it in an historical-snippet section, the one immediately preceding this, so there would be no mistake. These two different worlds—as represented by the cemetery and historical-snippet sections—are interconnected, as are the world of the living and the dead, as we see by the end when Lincoln gains his spiritual breakthrough in the wake of Willie’s departure from the Bardo. This itself is symbolic of how Willie’s death spurred Lincoln’s resolve in his course with the Civil War.

Aside from casting a fresh look at distant but relevant history, Saunders knows how memories work, and is adept at summoning the collages of images that constitute them (which would be a good prompt for a writing lesson, to get to know a character through the collaged images of their memories):

Suddenly, I remembered: the showing up at church, the sending of flowers, the baking of cakes to be brought over by Teddie, the arm around the shoulder, the donning of black, the waiting at the hospital for hours.

roger bevins iii

Leverworth giving Burmeister a kind word at the lowest moment of the bank scandal; Furbach drawing out his purse to donate generously to Dr. Pearl, for there had been a fire in the West District.

hans vollman

The handholding group of us wading into the surf to search for poor drowned Chauncey; the sound of coins falling into the canvas bag crudely labeled Our Poor; a group of us on our knees weeding the churchyard at dusk; the clanking of the huge green soup pot as my deacon and I lugged it out to those wretched women of the evening in the Sheep’s Grove.

the reverend everly thomas

The happy mob of us children gathered about a tremendous vat of boiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us, as if we were kittens.

roger bevins iii

My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!

hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?

the reverend everly thomas

Perhaps it might be a stretch that these ghosts, who as people presumably knew what death looked like and what the implications of a cemetery were, think that they are “merely sick, with some previously unknown malady,” instead of understanding that they are dead, but perhaps this is a metaphor for our general awareness (or lack thereof) of our present condition: alive.


A Call To Action

Unlike Lady Gaga, whose “statements” with the opening of her Super Bowl halftime performance here in Houston this past weekend were predictably bland, the writer Steve Almond has gotten political. In 2006, he resigned his position as a creative writing instructor at Boston College when they named then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice their commencement speaker, a bit of activism that got him the opportunity to go toe-to-toe, or rather head-to-head, with Fox News’ Sean Hannity–an experience that in subsequent years led Almond to reflect on liberal attitudes. Rereading the title story of his third collection, God Bless America (2011), in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, one can find a sinister historical precedent for our present moment as Almond explores what it means to act in different contexts.

“God Bless America” begins with Billy Clamm accidentally going into a class on acting when he’s looking for a class on tax preparation. He’s so enthralled by the teacher and his emphasis on “connectedness” that he quits his job and hurls himself into acting (to the apparent chagrin of his father, whom he still lives with). He takes a job as a guide for Sammy Duck Land and Sea Tours, believing he is cutting his acting chops as he enthusiastically leads tours to historical American sites, fantasizing about his American-Dream-style upward rise while hoping to get a role in its climactic reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. His gun-toting boss Augustino doesn’t seem likely to let this happen anytime soon, but when the arrest of one of the other guides disrupts the reenactment, Billy believes his big break has arrived and takes the initiative to play the British lackey who collects the tea after it’s flung into the harbor. He’s so in character he doesn’t notice the police have arrived in force until they start shooting at him and he sees one of his fellow guides, Esquivel, get shot. He believes it must all be a misunderstanding, but when the nervous inflammation of his face reminds him of a comment of his mother’s, he’s inspired to take action, steering the boat away from the commotion. Admiring the color of the sunset that his mother would have liked, he’s inspired with the idea for a new stage name: William Aubergine. Shortly thereafter, he discovers that the boxes he gathered, labeled TEA, are actually full of cocaine. Whereas Billy Clamm would return to resolve the misunderstanding, William Aubergine will take advantage of the dramatic moment. And so he sails off into the sunset to start a new life, marveling at the nature of American opportunity and imagining how it would take a good actor to pull off the sincerity of the moment.     

The chronic tension is Billy’s wanting something more out of his aimless life (manifesting in the contrast between his cheerful dead mother and abrasive living father). The acute tension is his discovering acting, which will lead to his discovering the cocaine (i.e., opportunity).

One might read Billy Clamm as representative of the average American–perhaps the liberal flipside to “Joe Plumber,” to dust off some 00s electorhetoric. Even the opening line presents us with a potential political idea: a division of classes, one based on preparing taxes (notably, by exploiting legal loopholes), one on acting. Billy aspires to the former but finds his place in the latter. He believes he is a good actor, but the reader can tell he’s not as good as he thinks he is when he interprets his teacher’s comment that “perhaps you should let your creative engine cool a bit” as acknowledgment of Billy’s professional calling.

Billy’s naivete is on display throughout the story; that he believes the shootout during the Tea Party reenactment is the product of some misunderstanding is reflective of the naivete of the general American populace, believing that organizations like corporations have their best interests at heart, or that they’re not consciously ripping you off when they overcharge you or double bill you–it’s just a misunderstanding.  

“Nothing to worry about,” he assured his audience. / But just then Billy realized that there was indeed something to worry about…”

Notably, at this point, the thing Billy is worried about is not his coworker’s arrest, but that the arrest will affect the upcoming performance. He quickly realizes that there’s an opportunity that he believes could be his big break–and in fact will turn out to be, though not in the way he anticipated.

Almond describes how the Tea Party reenactment works:

It was quite ingenious how they staged the performance, especially considering that they used a different boat every day and none of the crew seemed to speak English. The Duckies were hustled on board and Horatio Higgenbottom, intrepid revolutionary agitator, appeared on deck in a long buttoned coat and breeches, and delivered a stirring soliloquy, then flung a wooden box labeled TEA overboard, following which the Duckies joined in until dozens of boxes bobbed in the water and cheers issued forth and the boat spluttered off into international waters, where, if they so chose, guests could gamble by a variety of means while a “British lackey,” usually the ill-tempered Jacomo, sallied forth in a motorboat to fetch the tea.

Billy’s, the reader’s, and any tourist’s perception of what’s happening is later revealed to be only a surface understanding; the term “performance” here has a double meaning. There’s another entirely separate enterprise going on here that, on first read, we don’t realize–this is a drug smuggling routine. The dumping of the tea is literally the dumping of drugs into the water, then picked up by another boat and taken out to international waters. This might be representative of how the surfaces we interact with and/or witness around us, our interactions with corporations, etc., might seem innocuous, but really have some more sinister profit-mongering scheme as an ulterior motive for the whole setup.

Whenever Billy asked about securing a role, Augustino shook his head and put a finger to his lips and and peeled Billy’s pay from a roll of twenties as fat as an onion.  

Billy believes good acting is what will earn him a role in the climactic Boston Tea Party reenactment, when really this has nothing to do with it; rather, roles are determined based on who’s in on the drug ring. Of course, as readers we don’t discover this until Billy does, though Almond provides several clues, the first being Augustino’s suspicious response to Billy when he shows up to apply for the job, and the fact that he has a gun. The next being Billy’s payment from a fat wad of cash.

Billy’s pursuit of his acting dream leads him into the path of the drug ring–where the real American Dream is. The arc of the story seems to imply that getting ahead in America is not so much a product of hard work as it is of dumb blind luck–that, and a willingness to disregard the possible negative fallout of your opportunity on others. While Billy’s dumb blind luck is an inadvertent product of his hard work in his willingness to pursue acting–he wouldn’t have been in the position to intercept the cocaine if he hadn’t been willing to take the tour guide job–he doesn’t give a second thought to the coworkers he’s left behind for the cops. Of course, all of this can be easily rationalized away:

This was America and this was how things went sometimes in America, how the entire enterprise had gotten itself started and grown and prospered.

By connecting the Boston Tea Party to a cocaine ring, Almond is subtly drawing a connection between a couple of critical events in our nation’s history, while also calling our understanding of history into question. The Tea Party was a rebellious act that brought the colonies closer to revolution. The cocaine epidemic led to the massively counterproductive War on Drugs. We know who brought the tea over, but what about the cocaine? It’s still debated what role the government has played in its distribution.

By the end of the story, the verb “act,” initially connoting participation in dramaturgy, has started to take on shades of other meanings of the word. A great deal of meaning is packed into the line:

No, he was considering the new direction his life had taken since he’d decided to act.

By this point Billy has not only acted in terms of performing, he has acted in terms of taking action, by driving the motorboat with the tea boxes away from the fracas with the cops:

He could feel the red stain aflame on his cheek, and with it, the voice of his mother suddenly returned to him. “That’s just your way of telling the world you’re alive.” She had said this to soothe him, of course. But the words now seemed to have a different intention altogether. They were her way of recognizing the depth of his passion–a call to arms, or at least to action. Billy watched his hand, in something like amazement, as it grabbed the steering wheel and angled the boat away from the shore. Then his foot slammed the gas pedal.

One interesting thing about this passage is how removed, or disconnected, from his own actions Billy seems to be. It also equates while simultaneously drawing a distinction between a call to arms and a call to action. Most significantly, Billy’s acting here is no longer in the sense of performance.

But the overtones of disconnection are important. The concept of connectedness has been present since the beginning of the story, but with some (intentional) inconsistency. At first, the acting teacher uses it in the sense of being connected to your life, but thereafter seems to use it in the context of being connected to your process. By the end, it would seem that being connected to one might preclude, rather than foster, connection to the other. Billy is so connected to his process when he’s finding the character of the British lackey that he’s utterly disconnected from reality: “…he was busy brandishing his musket.” This moment, approaching the conflation of arms and action, might indicate taking up arms as a problematic call to action.

By design, Billy’s happy ending likely leaves the reader uncomfortable, bringing us into contact with the unseemly underbelly of the American Dream. There’s certainly irony in the story’s final moment of him imagining himself acting out the moment he’s currently living–another indication of potential disconnection. Now, more than ever, people are looking for a way to take action, and we will find out how much this action creates the potential for change. Billy Clamm would have gone back to resolve the nonexistent misunderstanding, and might well have been arrested as part of the drug ring for his trouble; William Aubergine serves himself first and leaves everything else behind. These are the poles bookending the spectrum of our options as Americans, to serve others and get screwed, or to screw others? So what will be your way of telling the world you’re alive?


The Lessons of Hypocrites


Techniques tracked:
-opposites attract
-rising action

Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” begins with Julian getting ready to take his mother to her “reducing class at the Y.” He lives with her after graduating from college, unable to support himself as yet, and so he takes her to her class since she doesn’t want to ride on the newly integrated buses alone. His mother talks incessantly about knowing who she is and the good stock they’ve come from, the new hat she’s bought and her belief in segregation. Julian can’t stand her uppity ways, though he secretly longs for the old mansion the family lost when he was little. When they get on the bus his mother remarks to everyone that she “see[s] we have the bus to ourselves.” Then a black man (or a “Negro,” in the parlance of a college-educated liberal of the time such as Julian) gets on who Julian sits next to in order to upset his mother, though he ends up embarrassing himself when he asks the man for a light without actually having anything to light. Then a black woman and her young son get on who are dressed more flashily than the black man who has gotten off. In fact, the woman is wearing the same hat as Julian’s mother. He thinks this will teach her a lesson; instead she finds the boy cute, and when they all get off the bus at the same stop, she tries to give the boy a penny. When the black woman slaps her pocketbook away, Julian’s mother winds up sitting on the sidewalk. Julian tries to explain why this should teach her a lesson, but she keeps saying nonsensically that she wants to go home, and he realizes something’s wrong with her–likely a stroke. Severely rattled, his manner toward her shifts entirely before he runs for help.

The beauty in the ugliness of this story is that it takes a character that is traditionally reviled–that of the old Southern lady unwilling to part with her racist ways–and exposes the liberal attitude that judges her stance as problematic to be equally problematic itself. What Julian says and what he does–his actions and his alleged principles–are completely at odds. This overt opposition manifests early on in the story when Julian finds his mother’s hat “hideous” but, in order to get her out the door, says that she should have bought it; later, taking her arm in a “vicious grip,” he insists he likes it to keep her from returning home to take it off.

What he says and thinks about himself are also complete opposites:

“Some day I’ll start making money,” Julian said gloomily – he knew he never would – “and you can have one of those jokes whenever you take the fit.”

What he says and what he does are further shown to be in conflict in his attitude toward the old mansion: 

He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing.

His discrimination becomes overt in the line: 

He had tried to strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types, with ones that looked like professors or ministers or lawyers.

He judges based on appearances. He says his mother needs to learn that times have changed, but every socially progressive action he takes is not for the sake of principle, but for the sake of pissing off his mother.

The implicit likeness between Julian and his mother is further highlighted in Julian’s “withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time” from which “he could see her with absolute clarity” and then what he sees so clearly about his mother is that she “lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world outside of which he had never seen her set foot.” The likeness between these two walled-off perspectives of the world is akin to the likeness between the black woman’s and his mother’s hats–they are, in fact, identical. The son is as small-minded as the mother, just in the opposite way.

While the bus as a symbol is emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s also a good setting in which to raise tension–a tight space into which strangers and acquaintances alike are forced into proximity. The action (which is to say, tension) arises from 1) integration manifesting itself in increasingly direct ways and 2) Julian’s growing desire to teach his mother a lesson.

The specter of integration is referenced in the very first paragraph; it is the reason the entire story exists, both thematically and narratively. If Julian wasn’t accompanying his mother because she wasn’t scared to ride the bus alone, the rest of the story could not take place. This is the acute tension’s initiating action.

Then, the mother presents her views on black people now:

“They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”

But as the title clues us in, everything that rises… The title is in fact a version of a plot summary, outlining where the rising action surrounding integration will go.

Once they’re on the bus, Julian’s mother calls attention to the fact that no black people are on it: the action rises slightly. Then a black man does get on it: the action rises further, as Julian uses the black man to try to teach his mother a lesson. Then the second more garishly dressed black person gets on, again inciting Julian’s hope for teaching his mother a lesson. Then they all get off at the same stop, symbolizing their innate equality. The convergence of the risen occurs when the black woman slaps Julian’s mother’s pocketbook away. Contact = literal convergence.

The action rising from the lessons Julian wants to teach his mother is intertwined with the integration-based action. The first lesson Julian wants to teach his mother comes from his sitting by the black man that gets on the bus; this backfires when he embarrasses himself over the matches. Then he fantasizes about different ways he could teach her a lesson–letting her ride home alone from the Y (“There was no reason for her to think she could always depend on him.”), marrying a Negro woman, getting a Negro doctor for her when she’s sick. Then he thinks she’ll learn a lesson from the black woman wearing the same hat as her, but his mother merely treats the woman condescendingly. Finally, when the black woman yells at her, Julian verbalizes to her the lesson she should have learned, this time undermined by the most extreme version of his mother’s refusal to accept reality, her stroke. The real lesson to be learned, which the events of the acute tension are pushing Julian toward, is the opposite of the lesson he wants to teach his mother–not that she won’t always be able to depend on him, but that he won’t always be able to depend on her.

The use of repetition initially manifests in Julian’s mother’s interminable use of clichéd phrases. We see her tell Julian “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and then repeat this to a woman on the bus. She repeats “‘I at least won’t meet myself coming and going.’” Her litanies are well known to him, so oft repeated that he “knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way.” Her clinging to the trite and meaningless in clichés is reflective of her larger inability to let go of the old social institutions, which is in large part what Julian can’t stand about her.

O’Connor uses repetition to different but equal effect with the description of the hat:

A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out.

That O’Connor uses the verbatim description when the hat reappears on the black woman’s head is her way of cluing the reader into the fact that it’s the same hat before Julian himself recognizes it–implicitly showing us that he’s a little slow on the uptake–i.e., behind the times in a manner not dissimilar from his mother.

O’Connor has already clued us in to where this is all going.