Sunday, June 11, 2006

Systems, Children, Knowledge, and Novels

(Or, the Continuing Education of You the Reader.)

I was in a discussion with someone who knocked the ULA's hectic public debate with George Plimpton's Paris Review in 2001. The person mocked PR as being irrelevant, saying they had a readership of seven!

Yes, but what seven? Plimpton didn't derive his power within American literature from number of copies of his lit-journal sold. If the seven readers were on the masthead and included the editors of large circulation mags like GQ and Esquire, and influential editors and publishers like Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin, then the influence of the modest lit-journal was multiplied ten thousand-fold. Its "seven" readers themselves controlled a readership in the millions. This was why Plimpton was a well-honored figure in lit circles; how he discovered and created well-hyped star after star-- opening the door to a million dollars worth of publicity for authors like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Susan Minot, and others.

The person I contended with in the discussion had no understanding of the concept of leverage. Like so many writers today, he has no comprehension of how the world works. American civilization is a gigantic machine. Leverage is a connection between several of its parts.

Leverage is a tiny holding company with a modest suite of offices in an unremarkable building in Delaware or New York. The tiny company is owned by an "old money" family which made its fortune a century ago or more and now maintains a low profile. The holding company itself owns a controlling interest in one of the major money center banks in New York; maybe in more than one of them. These banks in turn hold the debt of, and in effect own, several multinational corporations (or more than several); vast extents of farmland and rain forests from Iowa to Brazil; even a large chunk of the Federal Reserve banking system, a private entity which owns our currency and charges us interest for its use. Tremendous leverage-- all stemming from the modest offices of the tiny company at whose yearly board meeting elderly family members nibble peanuts while adjusting the volume on their hearing aids.

In the new issue of n+1 is a staggerly childish proposal put forth by co-editor Mark Greif. He proposes a 100% tax on yearly incomes over $100,000. A laudable idea-- the kind of simplistic solution to America's problems which might be forwarded by a ten-year old.

The only real problem with Greif's idea is that it shows zero knowledge of how our economy works. Several among a score of criticisms of his notion:
-it'd be politically impossible;
-capital markets, lubricating oil within the machine, would stop their flow and the economy would grind to a halt;
-tax dodges would proliferate and the rich would quickly find a way around the tax, as they've always done;
-you'd need a totalitarian police state to enforce it.

Worst of all, Greif's proposal fails on its own terms. He puts it forward as a way to redistribute wealth (confusing income with wealth) when it would do nothing of the sort. It would, in fact, stratify our caste society more than it is now. The classes would be rigidly set in stone. The very wealthy don't need income. They're already rich. Their wealth increases from simple appreciation of assets-- the increase in value of their land, houses, art, antiques, furs, yachts, stables of horses, wine and comic book collections, classic cars, and so on and so on.

Shelves of books have been written about tax dodges and how the rich intentionally lose money to decrease their income. The point is that here we have a literary person writing about a subject of which he has no knowledge. None. Which doesn't matter in today's literary world. Good intentions are enough. Young Johnny has an idea! On the surface, a brilliant one. Pat him on the head and give him a lollipop.

In today's lit world, nonsense is spoken daily with utter seriousness, with the facade of knowledge, and no one says a word.

As I explained many times in New Philistine, I'm from a non-standard writing background, having bounced around a lot of my life. My first writing "job" was editing a local union newsletter. A couple years after that I found myself, bizarrely enough, writing an investment newsletter for a free-booting commodity trader. The late 80's was the heyday of independently produced investment newsletters. Many of the best of them-- my models-- appeared in a now-defunct newspaper based in Kansas called Consensus. The most noteworthy thing about the lone-wolf wannabe-entrepreneur newsletter editors was what good writers they were. Their opinions sparked with wit and sarcasm, bold insights and striking knowledge. To this day I can't read standard "literary" fare-- the lethargic mumblings of Jonathan Franzen; the condescending goofball gobbledygook adolescent arrogance of David Foster Wallace (his recent book of essays is awful) without becoming depressed at the contrast between society's lauded writers-- frauds for the most part-- and the clarity, verve, and real intelligence of a tiny subculture which for all I know is gone.

Our era's most famous novelists, like John Updike, speak wisdom neither to Presidents or the populace. No sensible person would take their advice on anything. An Updike is more a curiosity you'd put in a corner, in his rocker, cover with a blanket, and allow the large-headed icon to babble away to his heart's content with rounded harmonious sentences of words which make no sense.

Literature today is a babbling ignored ignorant old man rocking away in a far corner of the room.

Forget the lists of "best" novels which regularly appear in mainstream publications, or on the syllabus lists of academics. The best American novel of the second half of the 20th century-- in fact, not myth-- is virtually unknown: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. This is an objective statement. Cozzens was a conservative author I have no ulterior reason to applaud. By "best" novel I mean best written and best constructed; that which conveys the most knowledge of our American civilization, about how it operates and the people who run it, with unflinching truthfulness.

In its massiveness, it's not an easy read. It's not a book for children. I struggled with it for years. When I finished it I found it satisfying and enlightening. Cozzens is the novelist who best understood the American system-- the "Machine"-- the nascent American Empire whose actions and consequences we live with every moment.

Set on an air force base in World War II, the novel shows with scope and depth the workings of the gears of the Machine, with attendant bureaucracy, politics, racism, loyalty, egotism, glaring incompetence combined with amoral brilliance which is the story of American success. The story of America is the story of systems. We're the masters of systems. Our wars were won not by military genius but by the mass application of organization and logistics.

One can't understand America or any part of it, including its culture, without understanding its systems.

Guard of Honor is the most relevant novel I've read for understanding America NOW. Its youthfully swaggering flawed General Beal and his senior advisor-- a judge in civilian life who solves for his boss problem after problem; who covers up base fuck-up after fuck-up-- is reflected today in President Bush and his Vice President. Through learning the workings of the base one understands the workings of the minds of the two men. Rare is a novel which is as relevant sixty years after it was written as when it came out. In soberly depicting the personalities and attitudes, strengths and weaknesses of those who created American Empire, in revealing how the machine operates, it'll remain relevant for decades or centuries to come. Next to it, all the well-hyped novels by Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, Oates and company were written by children. On Guard's final pages, with all problems temporarily resolved, monster airplane representing American technological strength vanishing into the sunset as General Beal and his artful handler watch, the reader sees suddenly that the novel's own construction, perfect in its wholeness of form, is a work of art; intelligent without being intellectual; plain, solid, masterful, stoic: quintessentially American.

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