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The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

June 20, 2016

As soon as I read the ad from Harper Collins about Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Mandibles, I knew I wanted to read it because it’s a satire. I got to read an advance copy and I’m telling you, the book is on sale tomorrow; if you like satire at all, you must read it.

I wondered if the American-born but longtime-London-dwelling Shriver might have gotten the idea from reading about the UK’s pending decision about staying with or leaving the EU, with all the economic repercussions that would entail. I have no idea, though; perhaps the book is merely the result of her inventiveness.

The story itself is quite inventive, full of little imaginative touches like the “flex” which “had replaced the smart watch, smartspeX, smart phone, tablet, laptop, and desktop at a stroke….the diaphanous material would assume a screen size anywhere from a two-inch square to a fifteen-by-twenty rectangle, and you could fold a lower section onto a surface to become a keyboard.” In another off-hand remark, a character says “Thank God that, ever since the Shaving Cream Bomber, you can’t check luggage anymore.” Because the people of this future are supporting so many elderly baby boomers, one of their expletives is “boomerpoop.”

The fictional U.S. of the novel has already experienced a “Stone Age, as-in-bombed-back-into” when hackers took down the internet and put an end to online commerce. For the Mandibles—a wealthy, once-divorced grandfather, his sister Enola, his son Carter and daughter-in-law Jayne and their three children, Jarred, Florence, and Avery, who have children of their own, Willing, Bing, Goog, and Savannah—the end of the world as they know it comes when the American president and Congress pass an emergency bill declaring that American citizens cannot hold European currency and cannot trade abroad. Americans are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the country, and all gold is forfeit to the government, including wedding rings. As a last step, the U.S. declares all Treasury bills, notes, and bonds null and void. At first the family, like the rest of America, doesn’t see it as the end of the world, except for Willing, the youngest, who has already learned not to take much for granted.

In a conversation with his mother, early in the novel, Willing says “the president borrowed money from people and now won’t pay it back. That doesn’t seem careless. That seems kind of boomerpoop.” His mother responds:
“First off, this president borrowed hardly anything. He inherited the debt from other presidents, who couldn’t stop rescuing jerkwater countries that only ended up hating us for our helping hand. Also, most of that money is from the Chinese, who are big cheats, and the real boomerpoops, since they almost certainly knocked out our whole country’s internet five years ago.”

The satire is aimed squarely at people in my economic class. I love this particular description of Lowell, Avery’s husband, who is an academic (an Economics professor, for extra irony):
“Now, Lowell hadn’t always been well off. In graduate school at MIT, he’d lived on a meager stipend abetted with stints as a TA. Before his first proper academic appointment at Amherst, he’d done some down-and-dirty adjunct teaching—including at the odd community college—a wallowing in the trenches that had helped further to convince him that he knew what it was like at the bottom. But he had never been at the bottom. He’d been at the bottom of the top.
Accordingly, Lowell had never received a bill that he couldn’t pay. He had long unthinkingly relegated folks who kept no cushion in their accounts, who spent merely because there was cash in their pockets, who reached out for payday loans to cover their electric bills, who were chronically in arrears and lived in fear of knocks on the door, to a remote category of the hopeless, the irresponsible, the feckless. As for debt, an economic wheels-greaser that ideologically he was quite big on, Lowell promoted getting into hock as a splendid idea for companies and whole countries, but paid off his Visa bills in full. His avoidance of credit was emotional. He didn’t like the sensation of being beholden, of being in someone else’s pocket.
Which made him a sucker for the sad-ass Protestant values that most of the country had gleefully abandoned. The international economy had punished the frugal and rewarded the profligate for most of his professional life. It was an odd lesson for a man in his position to have failed to learn.”

When Lowell and Avery, now unemployed and being evicted, have to move in with Florence, Avery discovers that “the only intelligent option was to accept their purchaser’s derisory offer for ‘contents,’ since their realtor advised that they could instead be charged for removal of effects. Emotionally, too, it was easier to leave everything than to cling to one side table and let its siblings go.” However, she can’t just leave, in a grand dramatic gesture. She spends her last days in their house “tossing partially used cleaning products. Choosing the five best pairs of socks from a drawer of thirty. Remembering that despite the historic upheaval, they were required to keep financial records for tax purposes going back seven years. Canceling the utilities. Finally getting through to the Salvation Army, only to learn that charities were swamped with donations of household goods, and their kitchen implements, gardening tools, linens, Christmas decorations, and most of their wardrobes were destined for the dump.”

There’s a scene in Willing and Florence’s neighborhood grocery store, when Lowell, unwilling to believe what they tell him about food shortages, goes with them:
“He was accustomed to expansive American emporiums packed floor to ceiling with enticements, where the main challenges were to keep from overstocking because you forgot there were already six cans of tomatoes back home, to avoid chips and chocolates that would thicken your waistline, and to resist falling into a paralytic stupor while choosing between forty-five flavors of soup. But here, whole chunks of the displays were missing, the shelves bare. Remembering Willing’s remark that cheese ‘keeps too well,’ he picked up a pattern: dried pulses, grains, frozen foods, and canned goods—particularly cans with meat, like chili, Vienna sausage—were the sections consistently ravaged. For those products that were available—canned grapefruit ($19.99) did not seem much in demand—reprinting the shelving’s price tabs must have become too much trouble, and many of the labels had been scratched out and scrawled with ballpoint corrections half a dozen times.”

After a gap of a few years, during which the Mandibles lost the house Florence had owned outright and walked hundreds of miles to her brother Jarred’s farm, where they all pitched in to be able to eat, the novel rejoins the youngest family member, Willing, and we see the effects of the dystopian society that has sprung up in place of the old American economy.

Rather than use money, people now wear chips in their heads. When Willing gets one, he finds that “it registered direct deposits of his salary. It deducted the costs of any products he chose to buy. It debited his utility bills.” Most of all, “it subtracted local, state, and federal taxes, which totaled 77 percent of his pay. It communicated his every purchase to the agency known until 2039 as the Internal Revenue Service—what the item cost, when and where he bought it, and the product’s exact description.”

There is a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, and it is to keep Americans out: “the U.S. population was contracting for the first time in its history. The remaining public felt trapped, stranded, left behind. These were often the same people who had vituperated about foreigners piling across their borders. Now that outsiders didn’t risk their lives to reach American anymore, the native-born felt abandoned.”

Shriver really lays it on thick (in what I think of as her customary tone-deaf way, after Big Brother) in her description of social issues in the new America:
“Across the nation, Americans’ mental and physical health had vastly improved. Hardly anyone was fat. Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say he was depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life-and-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders, or confined spaces, or leaving the house. In the thirties, the wholesale bankruptcies of looted pharmacies, as well as a broad inability to cadge the readies for street drugs, had sent addicts into a countrywide cold turkey. Gyms shut, and personal trainers went the way of the incandescent light bulb. But repairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save on fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit. Sex-reassignment surgery roundly unaffordable, diagnoses of gender dysphoria were pointless. If a woman leaned toward the masculine, she adopted lunging, angular movements and crossed her ankle on her knee; everyone got the message, and the gesturing was more elegant.”
Really, Shriver? God forbid a modern trans man isn’t elegant enough for you. And phobias really are all about whether a person has the “energy” to feel them.

Still, the dystopia in this novel is inventive and has a point, as Willing and his cousins—and then the rest of the remaining Mandibles—move to the free state of Nevada, where a group of Americans are starting over. They have learned that “anyone in a position of authority telling you something unpalatable is ‘temporary’ is a red flag.” As a final punch line of the satire, Willing’s cousin Goog applies and is hired as “the sole enforcement officer for the USN Revenue Service. His primary remit was to send out effusive yearly thank-you notes to taxpayers considerate enough to file, and generous enough to share the proceeds of their industry with their neighbors.”

I enjoyed reading The Mandibles, and it made me chew over (ahem) a lot of ideas about economics with which academics like me don’t often concern themselves. It’s a good satire, in that it encourages its readers to sit up and pay attention.

The Sparrow

June 15, 2016

IMG_3845Recently Eleanor read The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, for the first time. It’s an experience of a book, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Notice, however, that we thought Eleanor, at 22, was finally old enough to read this book.

Mary Doria Russell lives in a suburb of Cleveland, so I wasn’t all that surprised to get a message from my public library last week, telling me that she was going to be signing books in our downtown bookstore and then giving a talk at the library. She talked about all her books, and they each seem to explore “the problem of evil” in some way. Her own favorite is Doc, and she got me interested in reading Dreamers of the Day.

IMG_3844Here is a photo of Mary, sitting in one of the armchairs at the downtown bookstore with her little dog, talking about her books with a group of about a dozen people, before she signed everyone’s books.


Desultory Reading

June 13, 2016

On my way to Walker Percy Weekend, I re-read The Second Coming, which is a kind of sequel to The Last Gentleman. It’s always good to remind myself why I love something before getting together with other people to talk about how much we love it.

At home, before going to sleep, I’ve read the books about the Cassons that come after Saffy’s Angel—Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, and Caddy Ever After. They’re nice enough children’s books, and I would have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger, especially the part about how the childrens’ mother doesn’t pay much attention to them.

I started reading Cinder, the first one in Marissa Meyer’s series she calls The Lunar Chronicles, and liked it well enough to go on to Scarlet, and then Cress and Winter. The way she uses the fairy tales is interesting, but it inevitably contributes to the way the books can’t get away from the romantic plot. No matter how interesting we might find the robots Cinder works on, the flying vehicle Scarlet pilots, the version of the world wide web (in this case, the world and moon) that Cress navigates, or the planet of mind-controllers Winter belongs to, their stories ultimately boil down to the man they fall in love with, and how they rescue him to live happily ever after, a kind of feminist love story.

Maybe in the next few weeks I’ll do some more ambitious reading and find some books that compel me to talk about them with an unseen and often unheard-from audience. Right now, though, it’s like I’m on intake-only mode.

The New Jim Crow

June 9, 2016

My friend Joy told me that The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, was a good book, so it had been on my list for a while, but it took the impetus of actually forming a book group and setting a date to discuss it to get me to finish reading it.

I used to read The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Washington Post and then The Columbus Dispatch when they were delivered to my house in the mornings. I never watch TV news and I rarely turn on the radio when I’m in the car. So now that there are fewer and smaller and less-often-delivered newspapers, I don’t always follow all the current stories in the news.

It’s easier that way, you know. It insulates me from so much unpleasantness, except for when I have people on my Facebook feed indulging themselves in anger about how some white kid is not getting the full punishment he deserves for whatever heinous crime he committed. Sometimes I get this in real life—a friend sitting beside me, her face contorted with righteous indignation and eyes narrowed in rage, shouting that a young white boy who raped an unconscious girl should be punished more than the sentence he received, however unfair it is in comparison to the much harsher sentences handed down to black rapists. Why do we demand such harshness?

The New Jim Crow is about the harshness of mandatory drug sentencing laws, and how they almost exclusively target young black men, who then have a felony conviction and can never find good jobs or vote again. It’s about how we’ve passed laws to make us feel “safe” and how cruel the effects of those laws have turned out to be.

The book club members talked about what we could do. We could vote to legalize marijuana. We can try to expose our children to people who don’t live lives of privilege, which doesn’t often happen by itself even with the children in rural public schools, since they take special honors courses and go on to expensive private colleges. One thing we didn’t talk about but I subsequently discovered, is that I can contribute to the local organization that supplies books to prisoners every time I go to the grocery store.

Alexander’s book has been criticized for not giving enough historical background or quoting other black civil rights leaders, but as she says in her preface, she writes for “people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” The book is a wake-up call for people like me—and people my age, because it is during my lifetime that all black people were finally able to vote (1965), only for many of them to be then kept from it by the 1994 mandatory drug laws which included, in addition to the loss of the vote, the imposition of “a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana.”

The main problem Alexander points out is that “thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences—sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers.”

And it’s not just the harsh sentences for “criminals.” Alexander’s book also points out that the militarization of the police and the employment of an increasing segment of the population by for-profit prisons results in even more harshness and cynicism, as more of us get used to the brutality that we believe is justified when dealing with the poor and desperate. “Ultimately,” Alexander says, “these stop-and-frisk operations amount to much more than humiliating, demeaning rituals for young men of color, who must raise their arms and spread their legs, always careful not to make a sudden move or gesture that could provide an excuse for brutal—even lethal—force.”

Even after a sentence is served, “many people are thrown back in prison simply because they have been unable—with no place to live, and no decent job—to pay back thousands of dollars of prison-related fees, fines, and child support.”

“The genius of the current caste system,” Alexander argues, “and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes….Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses.”

What is it about the present day that makes otherwise-nice people froth at the mouth about the need for harsh punishments, even for a mother who might have let go of her child’s hand for a second before he fell in a gorilla enclosure? Why do so many of us believe that ever-more-extreme penalties will keep us safe? I wish I knew more people who see a need for mercy.

Maybe then we could stand to see our children fail and learn how to start over. Offering rehabilitation to prisoners is not so different from offering mercy to ourselves, revealing to others the ways we don’t measure up rather than hiding it most of the time. Many of the Americans I know claim to be “colorblind,” and “yet we rationalize the systematic discrimination and exclusion and turn a blind eye to the suffering” of “hundreds of thousands of people of color” each year.

The first step, then, for someone like me, is simply to stop insulating myself. The next step for any of us might be to find out how your neighbors are treated if the car breaks down at night. Then to object when your children’s school searches their lockers on the basis of a rumor. Maybe you could talk to someone who volunteers in a prison, or find out how to donate books to a prisoner near you.

What other acts of kindness might help more of us think less about justice and more about mercy?

Walker Percy Weekend Fanwear

June 1, 2016

We’re headed to St. Francisville, LA for the third annual Walker Percy Weekend, and we have our newest Walker Percy quotation t-shirts ready.

IMG_3822The first year, I made us t-shirts that reminded me of the pencils Lewis Lawson used to give out at University of Maryland, College Park at the end of his seminar on Walker Percy; they said “I’m a Percy Person.”

The second year, I made Ron a t-shirt and me a bag with a longer quotation, one that I think is partly about how much fun it is to hang out with other people who want to talk about a writer whose work you love in a gorgeous place that’s easy to fall in love with (and there’s a crawfish boil every year). One of the organizers of the second annual Walker Percy weekend, Rod Dreher, liked it that we made our own fanwear and took a photograph of me with my bag for his blog.IMG_3824

This year, we decided that our quotations don’t have to be the same, although we both picked one from The Moviegoer, the novel that used to be my least favorite but which I’ve liked better since rereading it last year. I have this on my t-shirt.IMG_3820

And Ron has this one on his t-shirt, which is fun because St. Francisville, LA is in Feliciana Parish and because there’s a great front porch at the St. Francisville Inn, where we’re staying again this year, for sitting in the dark and talking about ideas from books beloved to everyone present.IMG_3821

Update: I see that there’s an official quotation t-shirt for this year, pictured here, on Rod Dreher’s blog.

Mojo and the Pickle Jar

May 30, 2016

When I was at ICFA (International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts) in March, I picked up some great little pulp paperbacks, one of them barely older than my daughter (1991) with a lurid cover and weird title: Mojo and the Pickle Jar, by Douglas Bell (here is the cover art).

Because it’s a small paperback, I read it in little bits and pieces while waiting for things, and finished it while at a car repair place, getting my mother’s car checked out before Walker comes home to drive it in a couple of weeks. It’s a story rooted in the Southwest, and so I understood it better after taking a road trip with Eleanor to Tucson, Arizona last August.

During our road trip, we stopped to see Acoma Pueblo/Sky City, outside of Albuquerque, NM, and that’s the first place I heard the story of the pueblo revolts that forms the kernel of the plot of Mojo and the Pickle Jar. Historically, the harsh Spanish overlords sentenced the captured Indian rebels to years of slavery and to have one foot cut off. In the novel, as the sentence was being carried out a santo of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Madonna arrived as a present from the King of Spain, and one of the condemned Indians wrapped his arms around her and cried to her to save him. After five days of this, the Indian died and the Madonna was seen to have teardrops and a heart of gold, in addition to now having the face of an Acoma Indian. A fictional Spanish governor ordered the santo to be taken to establish a new mission “high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where there had never been a mission before” to get her out of the way. This background to the action of the novel is given halfway through, as if to orient the reader, who begins the story as ignorant and impetuous as young Mojo himself, racing off in a stolen Cadillac with a girl he doesn’t know.

As Mojo gets to know Juanita, he also learns more about what she initially believes is a “demon in a jar” that she is carrying around. They meet an old woman who tells them it is actually a sacred heart:
“Wait a second.” Mojo couldn’t let this pass. “If this thing is a saint’s heart, why would it help people like Juanita and me? I mean, we weren’t exactly on a mission from God when those guys in the Suburban were chasing us. Why would it help us?”
“It helped you because you were thwarting the will of Satan. That’s obvious,” Grandmother told him.
“It is?”
“Of course. Satan is the evil force behind drugs and drug dealers. You thwarted his will when you took the cocaine. It was his henchmen who pursued you. That’s why the heart protected you.”

Before the end of the adventure, Mojo is pursued by a terrible demon who initially tempted him into following by assuming Juanita’s shape, and then he actually walks into hell and plays cards with a demon to try to get back out. When they finally succeed in returning the heart in the jar to where it belongs, there is an epic battle between good and evil, with a “thirty-foot hunchbacked demon with bulging frog eyes who was leaning over the church” and a Madonna who “spread her arms and rose towards the demon in a revolving halo of light.”

The good end happily and the bad unhappily…more or less. And that is what pulp fiction means.


Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas

May 23, 2016

Because I’d read that it’s a satire, I picked up Christian Kracht’s Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas. At first it wasn’t that interesting but just weird enough to keep me reading, so it got relegated to my bedside table. For a couple of weeks, I would read until something really grossed me out, and then I’d put the book down and proceed to having extremely weird dreams.

The fiction is based on the life of a nudist from Nuremberg named August Engelhardt who died in German New Guinea in 1919 from malnutrition, having been unsuccessful at establishing a colony where people would subsist on sun and coconuts. It sounds like a wacky but kind of nice dream.

In the hands of Christian Kracht the details of the story become extremely unpleasant; his aim, the book flap explains, is to “craft a fable about the allure of extremism and its fundamental foolishness.” The foolishness comes across, but I didn’t see much allure.

From the very first page, August Engelhardt is an unpleasant character, the kind of ascetic who sneers at anyone enjoying anything or having fun. On a cruise ship, he sees his fellow passengers on the deck after breakfast as
“the buttons of their trousers, open at the fly, dangled loosely; sauce stains from saffron-yellow curries coated their vests. It was altogether insufferable. Sallow, bristly, vulgar Germans, resembling aardvarks, were lying there and waking slowly from their digestive naps: Germans at the global zenith of their influence.”

After this introduction, the narrator tells us that August’s story will serve as
“a stand-in, the tale of but a single German will now be told, of a romantic who was, as are so many of this species, a thwarted artist; and if at times, in the course of things, parallels arise with a later German romantic and vegetarian who perhaps ought to have remained at his easel, then this is entirely intentional.”
Since the reader has quickly grown to despise August, this seems like it will be an easy task. But August is trying to read a book when one of the German planters, Otto, comes up to him and starts telling him that the deck chairs are called “Bombay fornicators” and that he sells feathers from dead birds of paradise, feathers that must have blood at the tip to prove they were plucked from a live animal, rather than fallen out naturally. There’s a big to-do over Otto inviting August to lunch and August refusing the meat dishes, and the reader is left unsure which character to despise most.

We go on following August, however, and when it seems he has lost all his books, we might be inclined to be sympathetic. Except that on the next page we find out they weren’t lost at all, but were immediately produced by the stevedores on his ship when he finally remembers to tip them. Later, when he is robbed by a traveling companion, August realizes that “he had revealed everything to a complete stranger, to a passing acquaintance, in the belief that frugivorism created an invisible bond of solidarity between men.” He trusts no one and is inevitably conned by those he wouldn’t have imagined capable of it, like the woman, Queen Emma, who sells him a plantation. Every exchange he participates in with another human being has something grotesque or unpleasant about it, like the small talk Queen Emma feels obliged to make about the fruit bats: “during high heat…the animals urinated over their own wings, and the evaporative cold produced by flapping then provided the desired cooling effect.”

His first landing on the island where he intends to establish a coconut plantation is described in a grand and sarcastic manner:
“He leapt from canoe into water, waded the last few yards to the shore, and fell to hi knees in the sand, so overcome was he; and for the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity (one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip, as though he were parodying himself and his race), it looked as if a pious man of God were praying there before them; it might remind us civilized peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortes on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua, perhaps painted by turns—if this were even possible—by El Greco and Gauguin, each of whom, with an expressive, jagged stroke of the brush, once more conferred upon the kneeling conquerer Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ.
Thus, the seizure of the island Kabakon by our friend looked quite different depending on the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.”

The natives help August build a hut and give him food and clothing, and the narrator “cannot avoid saying that the inhabitants of Kabakon knew nothing whatsoever of the fact that the little island on which they had lived for as long as anyone could remember suddenly no longer belonged to them.” August is so incompetent, however, that they do not consider him a threat, but volunteer to help him. A young native boy, Makeli, shows him where he can go and he teaches him to read German. Presently, a vegetarian named Halsey comes along and makes friendly overtures to August by asking him for his opinion about names for his vegetable paste. August responds by inviting him to live naked with him on his island and “try subsisting exclusively on coconuts for three months.” Halsey tells August that he is, “like all romantics, merely an egoist of a Schopenhauerian persuasion” and leaves, taking with him his recipe for vegemite.

In Part Two, things go from bad to worse. August gets a disciple, Heinrich Aueckens, from Heligoland, but he does not turn out to be a true believer, ogling August and finally raping Makeli, after which we are told “whether Engelhardt beat the anti-Semite over the head with a coconut himself, or whether Aueckens, wandering in that same grove of palms where he had violated young Makeli, was accidentally struck dead by a falling fruit, or whether the native boy’s hand raised a stone in self-defense—this tends to vanish in the fog of narrative uncertainty.”

August visits a neighboring island where a “light-eater and practitioner of prana” is supposed to be subsisting on light alone, but finds him a cheater and, in fact, the same traveling companion who had robbed him on the occasion of their first acquaintance.

Finally another disciple arrives with a piano, a vegetarian German named Max Lutzow. He meets August, who has been described at length as “just then finally cutting his toenails after many months of their sun-induced growth…they had grown out several inches from his feet such that he had tripped several times on exposed tree roots and larger conches.”

It seems that August
“felt a great and profound respect for artists and their abilities; the fact that he had never been able to muster up either the talent or the discipline to create something like real art provoked a feeling that almost bordered on envy. While squinting his eyes at the horizon, he pondered whether his stay on Kabakon might not indeed be regarded as a work of art. Suddenly the thought occurred to him that possibly he himself was his own artistic artifact and that perhaps the paintings and sculptures exhibited in museums or the performances of famous operas constituted a completely outmoded conception of art—indeed, that only through his, Engelhardt’s, existence was the divide between art and life bridged. He smiled again, dispatching this delectable, solipsistic fancy into a secret and remote corner of his edifice of ideas, sat up, and opened a coconut while inspecting the wounds on his legs, which, oozing, had grown ever larger in recent weeks.”

Lutzow’s letters home, with “descriptions of having established a naked Communist utopia under palm trees” inspire more German pilgrims to set sale for the south seas, but instead of welcoming them, August lets them languish and die of malaria, camped in the meadows and on the beach in Rabaul, where the big ships dock. When Lutzow persuades August to go and talk to the governor about the would-be disciples, he can’t even stand inside the man’s porch without us having to hear about how “his garb was suddenly stained yellow by a load of earwax that had dissolved into a flow.” After the governor makes August agree to borrow against the plantation’s future “profits” to pay to send the Germans back to their own country, August and Max sail home to Kabakon, but things are not the same.

August finally drives Max off the island. His leaving is described by the narrator as such: “Lutzow acted most fairly toward his friend, and so his morning exodus from Kabakon, though it doesn’t quite seem like it to him, is in fact a respectable course of action and not some slithering away.”

After Max has left, August succeeds in alienating everyone who was ever prepared to tolerate him, even the natives. We’re told that he has contracted leprosy and then, because that’s not horrible enough on its own, that “the ostensible epicenter of infection lay somewhere within the perfect fifth formed by the C and G keys on Lutzow’s piano, where a scab loosened from the Tolai chief’s leprous finger remained, which Engelhardt a short time later took for his own and, as a matter of routine and reflect, stuck in his mouth without bearing in mind or imagining that there were several bleeding spots in his oral cavity and on the gums, so-called canker sores.”

We’re left with a final image of August and Makeli eating their own fingers and thumbs and then August, alone, “an attraction for voyagers in the South Seas who visit him as one might a wild animal in the zoo.” There’s a fantasy epilogue in which August is discovered living in a cave and the action of the novel starts all over again, people devouring their own fingernails at his story and a scene of passengers falling asleep after a big ship’s breakfast evoking disgust in the witnesses.

Imperium is one of the most unpleasant books I have ever read, the kind of satire nobody likes and I think nobody benefits from, since it suggests no alternatives for human behavior but shows us mired in a continuing morass of meat, malice and meanness.


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