Modern Ruins, Malls, and Their Explorers

Hawthorne Plaza Mall

Some stories, sites, photographs, and articles on modern ruination:

  • Matt Stopera, “Completely Surreal Photos Of America’s Abandoned Malls”. Buzzfeed. April 2, 2014.
  • Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish. (David Uberti, “The Death of the American Mall”. The Guardian. June 19, 2014.)
  • DEADMALLS.COM.
  • Jim Waterson, “19 Haunting Pictures Of The Abandoned 1984 Winter Olympics Venues”. BuzzFeed. February 19, 2014.
  • Vitaly Chevchenko, “The Urban Explorers of the Ex-USSR”. BBC News. February 11, 2014.
  • “Tall Storeys: Lucinda Grange’s Daredevil Photography”. The Guardian. February 18, 2014.
  • The truth is that we’ve probably got rather too many ruins in the world already, and certainly more than we can preserve as we would like to. Left exposed to the elements, ruins just get more and more ruined. That’s the iron law of ruins. And it takes superhuman effort (and vast resources) to halt that natural process. Why add to our problems by excavating more of them? (Mary Beard, “A Point of View: Is the Archaeological Dig a Thing of the Past?”. BBC News Magazine. May 2, 2014.)
  • The pleasure the human mind takes in ruins is not easy to explain. It has something to do with time. In JMW Turner’s sketches of decayed abbeys that come like Soane’s broodings from the Romantic age, the artist lingers over the details of each crumbly, broken stone. Looking at his studies you get a powerful sense of the time he spent on them and the escape from daily care this involved. A ruin, in other words, is a time machine that releases the mind to wander in nooks and crannies of lost ages – and ages to come. That is why John Constable finds the ruins of Hadleigh Castle so grimly consoling in his painting of this medieval heap quietly decaying, the wars and oppressions it once embodied long forgotten. (Jonathan Jones, “Ruin Lust at Tate Britain Review: ‘A Brilliant but Bonkers Exhibition'”. The Guardian March 3, 2014.)
  • Nikki Hatchett, “Ruin Lust: Our Obsession with Decay: In Pictures”. The Guardian. March 3, 2014.
  • The lure of ruins is complex. Ruins inspire the imagination, incite pleasantly melancholy thoughts, and humanise a landscape. Only in the wildest places can we walk without coming across some kind of ruin – some human trace of enigmatic predecessors on the remote pathways. Even in the highest mountains in Snowdonia, you constantly come across quarry workings, abandoned huts and tumbledown walls. The marks of human industry are everywhere. Modern ruins are the strangest of all. (Jonathan Jones, “The Ruin-Hunters who Drove a Car down Mexico’s Forgotten Railways”. The Guardian. June 11, 2014.)
  • La enorme ruina, a pesar de su abandono y antigüedad, resistió sin problemas el terremoto de 1985, pero aún con estas favorables referencias, no se hizo nada por retomar su construcción. Como suele suceder, motivos de índole político, de planificación social y las eternas mezquindades económicas en la precaria redistribución de los dineros fiscales complotaron en contra del proyecto. Al contrario, el lugar originalmente destinado para salvar y cuidar la vida, se transformó rápidamente en sinónimo de muerte, destrucción y abandono. Numerosos delitos, robos, violaciones y asesinatos, se arraigaron por muchos años tras sus muros derruidos, con lo que ya a fines de los años 80, el edificio era un vergonzoso foco de delincuencia e inseguridad; un “elefante blanco” que día y noche ensombrecía al vecindario y entristecía el paisaje. (Sebastián Aguilar O., “Reportaje: El olvido del Hospital Ochagavía, nuestro elefante blanco”. Neurona Musical. February 11, 2014. Publicado originalmente en Revista Evavisión Cultura 7, Septiembre 2013.)
  • Gastón Gordillo, “The Politics of Ruins: What’s Hidden Under Rubble?”. Conversation with Léopold Lambert. Archipelago. May 20, 2014.
  • “brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia”

    William Burroughs

    The Wednesday quotation, part XX: Gary Indiana’s fantastic take on the relevance of William Burroughs, and the irrelevance of most contemporary US fiction, in the London Review of Books:

    The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or “antinomian morality,” in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

    [. . .]

    Yet it’s a fact that Burroughs, one of the very few American novelists of the last fifty years who actually mattes, has had a negligible influence on “mainstream” American literature, while his effect on popular culture has been incalculable. It may be comforting to some arbiters of aesthetic fashion to write Burroughs off as a perennial enthusiasms of “the young,” but they might consider that several generations of these young have since occupied key positions in film, TV, the recording business and advertising, to cite only four sectors of the consciousness industry that seem far more familiar with our internal wiring than the current literary world, which becomes ever more parochial and conservative as its importance in the culture shrinks.

    (“Predatory Sex Aliens” London Review of Books 36.9 [8 May 2014]: 26)

    Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

    Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

    Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

    Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

    I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

    Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

    The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

    Detroit in Ruins (Again)

    Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

    The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

    Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

    Detroit ballroom

    posthegemony

    The University of Minnesota Press asked me to write a brief entry that would be a sort of “introduction to Posthegemony” and that would ideally touch on current events. This should soon appear on the Press’s blog, too.

    How do we explain the success of the “Tea Party” movement within the US Republican party?

    Its supporters claim that it is very simple: the American people, they argue, are fed up with unwanted government intrusion in their lives and the slide to socialism (or something like it) under the presidency of Barack Obama. The “Tea Party Patriots”, for instance, address the “Citizens of our Nation” who “were disgusted that your government ignored your will so egregiously.”

    Or in the words of of the founder of “Regular Folks United: The Bully Pulpit for Regular Folks” (whose contributors include the now iconic “Joe the Plumber”), he started the website

    after many years of feeling like real people were getting lost in the shuffle of political battles. Republican talking points. Democrat talking points. What about Regular Folk talking points? I was tired of elitists (yes, they are on both sides of the aisle) pretending they were doing things to help “regular folks” while they were really, most often, trampling on regular folks’ freedoms and taking their money for some bloated inefficient government program.

    In short, we see an almost classic case of populist insurgency: ordinary people rising up against the distortions and manipulations of “politics as usual.”

    But there is nothing particularly simple about even classical populism. And as liberals are surely by now tired of pointing out, there is no shortage of distortion or manipulation on the part of the Tea Partiers: it is almost bewildering to realize, for example, how many still believe that Obama is a Moslem born outside of the United States. When there is such disagreement over the basic premises of the discussion, there seems little opportunity to have the kinds of debate usually associated with political discourse.

    More significantly, many of those who are funding the movement are far from ordinary in any sense of the term. Jane Mayer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long piece about the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers who have piled millions into the cause. With friends like these, it is no wonder that the “regular folks” of the Tea Party find themselves campaigning to continue the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy (those who earn above $250,000 a year). In other words, we also have a classic case of people fighting fervently for their own exploitation as though it were their liberation.

    The theory of hegemony is designed to untangle such complications. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who first elaborated the notion that capitalism’s survival relies on the fact that people willingly give their consent to political movements that work against their best interests. Social domination depends, he argued, upon consent as much, if not more, than upon brute force or coercion.

    In the mid to late 1970s, Gramsci was rediscovered and hegemony theory was further refined by the Argentine Ernesto Laclau before it was taken up with great enthusiasm by British Cultural Studies. Soon “hegemony” became cultural studies’ core concept. It is not surprising, moreover, that the concept came into vogue during another moment at which populism seemed to rule the day: with Peronism in Argentina, and then Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and the USA.

    Laclau’s motivation was to distinguish between a progressive populism of the left from a populism of the right. For surely the left could not give up on the self-declared “ordinary” people that were the focus of cultural studies’ own iconoclastic anti-elitism. (Recall that for Raymond Williams, the founding principle of the discipline is that “culture is ordinary.”) And yet ultimately hegemony theory fails in this task: most recently, with On Populist Reason, Laclau simply abandons the project by identifying populism with politics as a whole.

    My argument in Posthegemony is that hegemony theory mirrors populism and is therefore unable fully to understand (let alone oppose) it. In parallel, I also show that civil society discourse has a similar relationship to the neoliberalism that it claims to critique. We therefore need some other way to think about politics, if these two foremost instances of progressive social theory are incapable of grasping the two major political movements of the past thirty years.

    I call this new way to think about politics “posthegemony.”

    Posthegemony turns from the Gramscian dichotomy between coercion and consent, to look instead at the subterranean influences of affect, habit, and the multitude that underlie all so-called hegemonic projects.

    It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of “hearts and minds.” And it should be equally clear that the notion of a “people” (of “regular folks” or the “Citizens of the Nation”) is a construction that enables interested parties (the Kochs or others) to appropriate the power of a multitude that would otherwise threaten them as much as it unsettles any representative of constituted power.

    Posthegemony, then, is a novel form of political analysis (which draws on the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Negri, as well as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben). But it also perhaps points towards a new political project, whose aim would be to liberate the multitude from its own subjection to the popular.

    Zeitoun

    America can be a maddening and frustrating place. Indeed, what is best about America–its boundless optimism and energy, its refusal to listen to naysayers–is also precisely what is so maddening. Moreover, this is as true (perhaps more so) of those who are not-quite Americans, who are in the process of becoming American. After all, nobody believes more in the American Dream than those who have yet to face up to the American Reality.

    But the point of the American Dream is also that it is so often unfazed by its encounter with reality. Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun is a tale of one immigrant’s experience in America: a man who sees the very worst of that country, but who (we are told by the author recounting the story) still stubbornly continues to believe. Indeed, is this not why Eggers, a writer otherwise notable for his sense of nuance and irony, not least about the fashionable overuse of the term “irony,” has chosen Abdulrahman Zeitoun as the subject of his latest book?

    The concluding words of Zeitoun, which are the last part of the “Author’s Thanks,” are dedicated to Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, who by this point we know have been through an appalling experience in New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina and (more horrifying still) the security services’ ferocious over-reaction in the aftermath of the hurricane. Eggers rightly praises the couple’s courage, which “knows no bounds,” but then concludes by upholding “their faith in family and country [that] renews the faith of us all” (337).

    Yet this is a story that, by rights, should destroy any faith in country, even as it does very much remind us of the virtues of family–in this case what is very much a translnational and transcultural family whose shared passion is more the water that divide (and link) different countries, rather than any one homeland in particular.

    The Zeitouns are Syrians who, we are told, repeatedly try to turn their backs on the sea, but to no avail. Abdulrahman’s father, Mahmoud, was born on Arward, “the only island off Syria” where “most boys grew up to be shipbuilders or fishermen” (23). Mahmoud himself worked on cargo boats criss-crossing the Eastern Mediterranean until one day he fell off a schooner’s main mast and found himself at sea for two days, clinging to a barrel, until he washed up ashore again in northern Syria. From that day he moved to the mainland, searching for a house as far inland as possible, and pronounced an edict that none of his children would go to sea. But in the end he settled on a home not fifty feet from the shore, and his sons were soon following his wake in their fascination for the water.

    An older son, Mohammed, became a long-distance swimmer. Another, Ahmad, became a sea captain until he settled down in Malaga, Spain. Other Zeitouns found their way to Saudi Arabia. Abdulrahman himself spent ten years serving on multinational crews from Greece to Japan, Lagos to London, until eventually finding himself in the USA where he settled on dry land, met and married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and had three children. In New Orleans, he became a successful businessman as owner of a company of painting contractors and manager of a collection of rental properties. But his attempt, too, to turn his back on the sea failed when Katrina swept through, broke the flimsy levees, and let the waters flood in.

    As Kathy and the kids, along with most of the city’s population, seek safety and shelter elsewhere, Zeitoun stays. With the stubborn optimism of a hard-working immigrant, and as someone with no great fear of the elements, he felt he could do better weathering the storm and looking after his property. In the eerie silence that followed the hurricane, he paddled through the flooded streets in an old canoe, giving help where he could to its stranded inhabitants. He rescues people from their houses and feeds abandoned dogs, all the time bemused and angered by the failures of the police and other authorities who speed around in fast and noisy fan-powered boats. In his canoe, slowly and quietly navigating the waterlogged streets, Zeitoun is more attuned to the faint sounds of trapped home-owners and pets. But even when he does pass information on to the police, they seemed peculiarly uninterested in humanitarian rescue. Born out of paranoid fears of a city out of control, the official mandate, it seems, is security.

    Here Zeitoun is caught up in a decidedly un-natural tragedy. Along with a couple of other fellow-survivors, he is forcibly apprehended by a posse of armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a secure facility that has been swiftly constructed in the downtown bus terminal. Known as “Camp Greyhound”, with its open, wire-fenced cells, its prisoners’ orange jumpsuits, and its guards’ callous insensitivity, the place bears more than a passing resemblance to other sites of extraordinary force and discipline such as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

    Indeed, Zeitoun soon finds himself an exemplary subject of the current US state of exception. His detention, at the hands of a Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been folded into the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, abrogates all the conventional safeguards of a liberal judicial system. Zeitoun is not registered, not read his rights, not given access to a lawyer or a telephone. For all the world–and for his wife who has taken refuge in Arizona as much as for his brothers and sisters in Syria or Spain–he has simply disappeared. He has become a non-person. This is Kathy’s worst fear: as the Moslem wife of an American born in the Middle East, “she had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules” (252).

    Zeitoun spends almost a month incommunicado but unarraigned, uncharged, in Camp Greyhound and then the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. His companions, less lucky still (and with less property as security to secure bail when they are eventually charged), spend up to eight months incarcerated. When he finally managed to reunite with his family and return to the devastated city, at least the worst he has to face is mere incompetence: FEMA give them a trailer to live in, but no keys to access it. But there is never any attempt to compensate him for his experience. A lawsuit seems pointless: “Zeitoun’s ordeal was caused [. . .] by systemic ignorance and malfunction. [. . .] This wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten” (307).

    With the suspension of all the usual guarantees, with the conversion of the state into a rogue force unconstrained by liberal niceties, “anything could happen. Anything had happened” (314). Or as Zeitoun reflects during his imprisonment, “there was something broken in the country, this was certain” (262).

    Eggers tells us that Zeitoun’s conclusion is that “New Orleans, his home, needs no speeches, no squabbling, and no politics. It needs new flooring, new roofing, and new roofing, new windows and doors and stairs” (323). Perhaps we can take this two ways. If politics is simply equated with speeches and squabbling, then fair enough; and yet that means that New Orleans (and the USA as a whole) needs as much as anything a new politics. A new political constitution has to be built, even if it is never finished, just as a city is never ultimately completed but always in a process of (re)constitution.

    Eggers, however, reads this anti-politics as an affirmation of “the faith of us all” in America. For Eggers, the system merely requires supplementing with charity–and the book’s profits are to go to a mixture of good causes under the umbrella of a “Zeitoun Foundation.” We need to go back to work, he suggests, with our faith in America renewed, ultimately unquestioned. And he uses this tale of a Syrian American immigrant and his family, a people of waters and the trade routes that are global rather than national, to articulate his decidedly conservative patriotism. Moreover, it is a patriotism that the story of Zeitoun–and that of so many others who have been caught up in a state of exception that itself knows no borders–should by rights decisively negate.

    unforgivable

    canin_america_cover

    Ethan Canin’s America America is, as its title suggests it sets out to be, a Great American Novel. It ambitiously portrays a vital part of the core of US society over several generations… indeed, to trace the process by which what was once vital becomes sclerotic and corrupt, and what was once core becomes marginal. Moreover, it shows us the dark underside of even the most refined elements of North American civilization–to demonstrate how it was always in some sense corrupt, and how violence underpins (both undermines and enables) the best of intentions. And yet Canin’s aim is not so much to denounce as to explain, to portray the inevitable ambivalences that undo and sustain American liberalism. Finally, the novel is also, simply, great: it’s a quite marvellous achievement, beautifully written, with an extraordinarily measured and thoughtful tone.

    The story begins in 2006, with a funeral in small-town upstate New York. Senator Henry Bonwiller, a beacon of New England progressive politics, has died at the age of 89. An impressive crowd turns up to pay their respects, as the establishment mourns the loss of one of its own but also (as with any figure who has made their share of enemies as well as friends) to ensure that he is at last safely dead and buried. Among the crowd is Corey Sifter, middle-aged editor of the local paper, the Speaker-Sentinel, but here now for personal rather than professional reasons. Sifter’s life has, we discover, long been bound up with that of the deceased senator. So although the newspaperman initially presents himself as something of an outsider to the social elite gathered by the graveside, it soon emerges that he, least of all, is hardly untainted by the slight whiff of scandal that still surrounds the Bonwiller name.

    The novel then shifts to the early 1970s when Corey, as the sixteen-year-old son of a local plumber, is called in to help fix a broken sewer on the estate of a prominent landowner, Liam Metarey. Metarey is taken by the young boy’s industriousness and desire to please, and so gradually hires him to do more and more jobs around the estate. Soon young Corey is also invited into the house itself, and not always to work. Gradually he becomes the older man’s protegé, enjoying a remarkably intimate relationship with the entire Metarey family, though always with the recognition that a vast gulf of class difference divides him from them. Frequently, this combination of intimacy and distance, with all the awkwardness that attends it, plays out in Corey’s relations with Metarey’s young daughters, Christian and Clara. Clara, particularly, likes to tease the young interloper, both to remind him of his subordinate status but also to indicate her interest in whatever he’s up to.

    But Corey isn’t really up to anything particularly nefarious. He is portrayed (though we should remember that this is all from his own perspective) as a hard worker who merely likes to be liked by these people who have had so much power and influence in his community. Indeed, Sifter presents himself as rather naive, and the point of narrating his story in extended flashback is so that the middle-aged man can judge the youth he once was, not so much for his drive and ambition but more for not asking enough questions about the circles he finds himself frequenting. Everything comes to a head as Metarey decides to back a rising political star for what will turn out to be a campaign for the presidency. And so we turn to Senator Bonwiller again.

    Bonwiller, it turns out, is something of a Ted Kennedy figure: well-meaning, perhaps, and voice for the unions and the working class, but tragically flawed. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, Bonwiller’s political hopes are derailed and, more to the point for the novel’s purposes, Corey finds himself involved in the attempt to cover up the scandal. Again, it is not that the young man is calculating in his actions; more that his unwittingness is what makes him useful, and what allows him to be used. Fundamentally, the novel is telling us that neither ignorance (on Corey’s part) not good intentions (in different ways, on the parts of both Bonwiller and Metarey) are sufficient alibis. Corey finds himself at the dark heart of a political morass that brings tangible human suffering. The fact that he only realizes this later (and perhaps never fully realizes it at all) is no proof of his innocence.

    It’s perhaps inevitable that a Great American Novel should be a tragedy that involves the loss of innocence, the failure of high-minded aspirations, and the slip of social masks. Here, the tragedy is threefold: it is Bonwiller’s, it is Metarey’s, and it is Corey Sifter’s. In the end, however, the Bonwiller story is mere pretext or catalyst. The real interest lies in the relation between Metarey and Sifter, as the servant comes to stand in for the patriarch’s missing son. For almost despite himself, Sifter comes to be an inheritor, both literally and figuratively. Metarey pays the the young man’s education, for instance; and ultimately (a fact that isn’t revealed until we are a long way into the narrative), Sifter also marries into the family. Sifter “makes it,” and if he never achieves quite the same position as Metarey had, this is merely because that position can no longer be filled or is no longer relevant: the big estate is sold off, and developed for suburban housing and fancy apartments. As Corey’s father says on surveying the scene, “That’s the way progress is. It’s always half criminal” (375). But of course, as Corey himself replies, it alway was half criminal: “that’s a hell of a lot of land for one family” (376). Any inheritance is mixed: it’s right that there should no longer be local oligarchs such as Liam Metarey; but the fact that they have disappeared doesn’t mean that the mark they’ve made in the American way of life is gone. It’s merely buried, a trauma lying in wait to be rediscovered by succeeding generations.

    Ultimately, this is a book that’s more about history than about politics in the strict sense of the word. Or rather, it is about politics as affect, as the bid to either harness or forget deep-rooted feeling, “a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reasoned” (394), and about history as it is constituted by affects and habits that are never fully available to consciousness. By this, Canin is referring both to the fickleness of the potential campaign donors who have to be wooed by lavish parties and also to the engrained habits and affections of ordinary people. Sifter spends the entire course of this tale trying to understand such processes of loyalty and betrayal: ultimately he himself is both the most loyal and the most traitorous of all. He feels, it’s suggested, that it’s only with a certain distance that he can sift (as his name suggests he should) through his legacy–America’s legacy–to piece together the clues of the scandal of violence at its heart. But in distancing himself from his own roots, he also loses sight of the “ingenuity of the American working class man” (436). There is here no Copernican position from which any final judgement can be made, except for the realization that we are all guilty whether we know it or not.

    Sifter recognizes that in the end there is no redemption for him. And not because he has been himself bad, but because he’d “been involved in something–not that [he] did something, but that [he] was involved in something–something unforgivably wrong” (332). The only hope is for a subsequent generation: both his own daughters and a young woman reporter with who he has a rather similar relationship of mentor and protegée that he once enjoyed with the thoughtful and generous Mr Metarey. And yet it is was precisely because of such thoughtfulness and generosity that Sifter had become embroiled in the unspeakable evil at the core of the narrative. And it was precisely in order to make amends, to leave a good legacy, that Metarey had embroiled him in it. In lieu of redemption, then, even for subsequent generations, we are left merely with a few reflections, deliberately limited, homely, and simple:

    that love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation’s salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us. That we never learn the truth. (455)

    This is truly a brilliant novel, not least in the restraint that leads it only to these quiet conclusions, a restatement of “the old verities” that we will necessarily have to forget before we can re-learn them. It is, moreover, in the best sense a deeply humanistic novel: about the making and unmaking of humanity itself.

    Calatrava

    The Saturday photo, part XI: The Milwaukee art museum at dusk.


    The last rays of the wintry sun hit the museum’s folding roof, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

    I was in Milwaukee thanks to an invitation to speak at nearby Madison. I took the opportunity to look up old haunts (I did my MA at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and stay with old friends.

    In a brief tour of the city, piecing together my memories of fifteen years ago, realizing how much I had half-forgotten, and looking at what had changed, I found myself downtown and headed towards the museum.

    I suddenly realized that I’d got there just in time to see the roof close. It was majestic, especially in the low sun surrounded by snow and looking over the lake. And it was also quite magical.

    monstruous

    No Country for Old Men coverCormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is driven by the taut language of the thriller, which stops to provide details only when it comes to machines and armaments:

    The dead man was lying against a rock with a nickel-plated government .45 automatic lying cocked in the grass between his legs. He’d been sitting up and had slid over sideways. His eyes were open. He looked like he was studying something small in the grass. There was blood on the ground and blood on the rock behind him. (17)

    This laconic style suits the landscape in which it is set: the deserts, highways, and motels of Texas bordering on Mexico. It seems to be a wide-open land of big skies and long distances. In fact, this very openness means that there are few places a man can hide.

    The novel’s plot is suitably skeletal. A drug deal has gone wrong, and a Vietnam vet by the name of Llewellyn Moss, out hunting antelope, comes across the wreckage: bodies, abandoned cars, packages of heroin, and a briefcase packed with several million dollars in used hundred-dollar bills. Moss takes off with the cash, and soon enough just about everyone is after him: Mexican drug gangs, a fearsome contract killer, and the local police. The ensuing chase criss-crosses these dusty badlands, and takes Moss over the border to Mexico, where he gains brief respite in the local hospital having thrown the cash-laden case over the side of the border bridge. But from the start Moss seems to be aware that all his efforts will be in vain. This is not a story with a happy ending.

    Interspersed through the narrative are the melancholic and world-weary commentaries of the sheriff who’s always one or two steps behind the bloody action. Ed Tom Bell is also a military veteran, but of the Second World War not Vietnam. Close to retirement, Bell laments the changes that he has seen over his years of service, and laments his inability to prevent the trail of destruction that is snaking through his territory. Indeed, the novel’s opening vignette sees a captured criminal strangle one of Bell’s deputies with his own handcuffs and then calmly walk away. Perhaps then it’s for the best that there is no climactic confrontation between the forces of law and order and the killers that they are ostensibly out to stop. As Bell notes,

    I think for me the worst of it is knowing that probably the only reason I’m even still alive is that they have no respect for me. And that’s very painful. Very painful. It has done got way beyond anything you might have thought about even a few years ago. (217)

    But the sheriff’s irrelevance is such that even his semi-philosophical musings are, in the end, far off the mark. He complains about the young with their “green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language [their grandparents] couldnt even understand” (295), but these grouches about youth fashion hardly touch on the real evil that McCarthy has let loose at the center of his novel.

    Indeed, ultimately we learn very little about the contract killer, Anton Chigurh, who is the book’s true anti-hero. As Bell notes, “the reason nobody knows what he looks like is that they dont none of them live long enough to tell it” (192). At one point, as Chigurh finishes off his final (and apparently superfluous) assassination, McCarthy appears to suggest that this human killing machine simply obeys a higher order of principle and morality, more in tune with the way of the world and the brutal dictates of fate: “I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps” (259).

    But in this landscape in which only the powerless speak, indeed in which speaking is an indication of impotence, this brief attempt to ventriloquize power is unconvincing. For McCarthy, power is violence and violence is, quite literally, unspeakable. He has conjured up a monster, or rather a personification of his view of nature as monstruous, about which he finally has nothing to say. He merely points: Look, while you can, through this novel, at an image that in life would leave you for dead.