cartoon physics, curious chemical cartel

Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK pp. 282-402

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This post ended up two times bigger than planned in terms of coverage — the text’s leisurely pace turned into a sprint towards a set piece with an angry town hall meeting. It begins with another epistolary chunk involving Chomsky in the flesh, and ends with a wash of multiple voices from a probably-doomed town. 85% thru the novel and new themes about environmental degradation are launched, while the notions of corporatism, collectivity, and patterns/individuals develop further.

image found here
image found here

SUMMARY

Aunt Robin is back! She has written a lengthy letter, and there have been some upheavals in her life. Working with Chomsky on linguistics has been an enjoyable and rewarding experience. To her, Chomsky is a model of intelligent humility:

— That day, we were talking about Nancy Dorian’s new book Language Death, and I remember, at one point, Chomsky’s low, cultured, melodious voice offered the words We must recognize that our comprehension of nontrivial phenomena is extremely limited — yes, that was what I heard — and then he went on to say We understand only fragments of reality, and we can be sure that every interesting and significant theory is only partially true —

the lecture notes go on to talk about “counterevidence,” which scholars in all disciplines encounter: the examples that dont at all suit the theory you are trying to promote. What most scientists do when they encounter counterevidence is just ignore it and proceed, and to Chomsky this actually makes sense, bc if we got caught up on the niggling counter examples, we actually wouldnt get anything done.

But then “the Chomp” punches out another one of his super well-reasoned arguments for righteousness on the Iran-Contra affair. It appears in a progressive newspaper, but then NC is invited by CBS to make an appearance on Face the Nation. Robin cant believe it, and is wild with excitement. Chomsky, too radical even in his tempered way for the tube or mainstream radio or any of the “channels that matter” in this country, is at last going to get a platform. Chomsky travels to Manhattan to make the show in person, and Robin comes along. They take separate rooms in the hotel, go to an “OK” Italian restaurant and retire early since the limo is coming at 8 next day. They go to the CBS building, and wait for a long time, the Chomp reading a newspaper and Robin helping herself to one of the muffins on offer and looking at the TV set. Airtime comes dangerously close, and at the last minute Chomsky is told that his slot has been cancelled — another, almost assuredly noncontroversial personality is invited on instead. Chomsky handles it gracefully, but after he leaves for the Men’s room Robin finds him in the corner of a hallway behind some empty boxes. Robin is outraged:

— we actually thought that we had been given an opportunity — a smidgen of a chance — but the structure, as always, is self-correcting — it has protected itself with layers of subsidiary defenses — anks of backup SDI’s — noisegates against the dreaded biodiversity — some bigwig powerlunch producer cooks up an entire three-day prime time TV mini-series just so he can care up the right bone marrow for his son, who’s been stricken with aplastic anemia — I heard the story the other day — and Chomsky can’t even… — I mean, never once, not a word — not a fucking fricative — fucking media — fucking communications —

After these events she finds herself exhausted by Chomsky; she cant stack up to his innate goodness and intellect. She decides to leave MIT and takes a filing job at an art-supplies company in a cozy white suburb. And she has a new project, researching Piaget, a student of Jung. Unfortunately there’s hardly any material around — she works up the nerve to visit the local mall. There are two bookstores at each end of this expansive shopping center, and a muzak cover of the Beatles is on the speakers. Robin observes many stores, including an electronics emporium called Unit 731 (wtf is with that reference?). She doesnt find any promising books at her first store, and on the way to the next one she collides hard into a stranger. Apologizing profusely, she picks up the guy’s walkman which got knocked off, and puts it to her ears to test it, and to her horror finds that it is the same muzak that is playing in the mall, synchronized perfectly.

As Robin starts winding her letter down, her voice blends into that of a creepy guy on the other end of a phone line, and then we are in a car ride. The narrator is driving a hitchhiker called Archie, whom they met at a fairground. Recently Archie’s pet gerbil Erwin died, leaving him despondent. He’s taken days out of work, and couldn’t let go of Erwin’s memory, but

I mean, it’s a gerbil, it’s only a fucking gerbil […] he wasn’t so drastically different from any other gerbil, so what’s the big deal?

[…] I wasn’t really hurting for him … but for me, because I’m feeling self-important

And then Archie reflects to the narrator about Einstein’s Special Relativity: how there are no absolute centers, so no point “can really be said to determine any others.” But if there is no center, it’s the same as saying everywhere is a center.

And this is why Archie was at the fair. He wanted to put this theory to the test by going on the Spinning Tilt, where you stand at the edge of a fast centrifuge, and “like little Antoine Doinel” (pictured above) he’s pressed against the edge. He wants to see if in fact it is the world that’s spinning around him, and he isn’t convinced. Archie hitchhikes because driving makes him nervous.

Then the narrator explains to Archie that they’ve  been driving for two days to reach Virginia Beach. Their mother died recently, and in her possession was a certain scrapbook which belonged to her father, their grandfather. They liquidated all her possessions some time ago but the scrapbook was unaccounted for; there is no other family, and they’re heading out to try and track it down.

The scene dissolves to another dialog in a car, between a college professor and a junior who’s into cinema. This student gives a reading of the Roadrunner/Coyote Looney Tunes. They seem to be about Wile E.’s “Sisyphean” failures, of trying to catch his prey with elaborate contraptions and only killing himself, but how he appears in the next gag, none the wiser. But the fact that this cartoon world resets every time makes it , for the student, not a story of failure but one of resurrection. Wile E. Coyote = Christ-like parable.

The student’s in trouble bc he still hasn’t settled on a major, but went to a screening of THE HARDER THEY COME, which had english subtitles for those who cant comprehend the Jamaican accents, despite them being in English. This has inspired him to a vocation: translating English into English. But the convo is interrupted when they see something winding down the road. It might be the setting of our next block, which is a big parade.

Our new narrator observes a great deal of things at the parade: a marching band bass drummer who rests on his back on his instrument from exhaustion, but cant get himself back up, making him helpless like an upside down turtle. There are many more details, but the strangest one is a young boy walking against the parade, crying loudly. He’s holding his belly, and he looks like he’s in serious pain.

Now the next half of this reading section defies summary, because these 60 pages are consumed by small clips of speech. These voices belong to the township of Isaura, sustained by a giant company called Ozark (or “Mother Ozark”) which makes a lot of products including photographic film base using all sorts of chemicals. Many of these clips are content and even praising of their life in this corporate town; the company treats the workers decently, they subsidize the school, develop the land for parks. But then there is a pipe leak nearby the elementary school. Many folx slavishly defend the company, but the knowledge that possibly many hundreds of thousands of gallons of methyl chloride have contaminated the ground water causes some worry.

The gossip spreads and grows: folx get rashes, pets lose their fur, a hot shower makes fumes, the corporation keeps shifting their story. A woman named Mona starts digging on her own, which male voices regard with crude misogyny. Many of these sound bytes are no more than a single line. One that stands out is an athropology student talking about their research grant to conduct some oral history with the Indigenous nearby. (Other outliers include a dixie-land band called the Ozark Nonet Minus One, narrated by the trombonist, still local to Isaura; and a brief return to that steamy foreplay scene.)

The final sequence, which ends the second section of the novel, is a town hall meeting. An Ozark representative named George Fobel, with a State Health Department official, and some other company stooges, promise a 100 million-dollar plan to overhaul their entire chemical containment system, and that the findings show that there is nothing wrong with the town’s water supply. (They also whine about corporate victimhood of the town’s suspicions with talk of “chemical McCarthyism.”) When the floor is opened to questions things get a little out of hand. What’s interesting about this bit is that we experience it entirely as hearsay — multiple narrators reporting what they heard and saw at this meeting. It ends with Fobel angrily insisting that this dissent cannot stand when the corporate town needs to hold together in this economic downturn, and that the people are responding to fear and not facts.

VOCAB

Bumptious, self-assertive or proud to an irritating degree.

Carrel, a small cubicle with a desk for the use of a reader or student in a library.

Nijinski, Russian-born balletdancer of almost legendary fame, celebrated for his spectacular leaps and sensitive interpretations.

COMMENTS

While this novel has an abundance of stuff — technical language, a wide breadth of knowledge, and numerous odd tales — there is a minimal approach to its presentation, especially compared with other “Great” experimental novels. i finished Jane Smiley’s THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL on the side, and in it she identifies 12 “discourses” in any given novel (travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary/letter, confession, polemic, essay, epic, romance). While there is a lot of academia-produced knowledge, the text isn’t very essayistic; while Professor Green calls it the “most formidable” political novel of the 90s, it doesn’t come off as polemic either, at least for any sustained amount of time. Epic applies, since the book is a weird, vibrant, and interesting depiction of US life at the turn of neoliberalism. Joke and letter are relevant too, but the two i would emphasize most are confession and gossip.

As nutty as the novel’s composition is, the delivery of its material thru anecdotes and personal monologues makes things more casual, more transparent, more intimate (despite not sticking with anyone for long or even knowing the names or pronouns of the speakers), and most of all, quite fun. And this latter sequence of the chorus of townsfolk, the novel’s gossip, despite its overwhelming fragmentation and scramble, is a really intriguing way to tell a story of blossoming suspicion and corporate BS, foregrounding the balance between public and private.

im struck by how much i relied on “And then And then And then” in my summaries. Perhaps i wouldn’t have as much in a novel with a pre-postmodern attitude towards chronology, bc we could take for granted that the events are unfolding in a neutral linear sequence, even if the events themselves are “out of order.” In our everyday lives time is an infinite line that history just fills in with a causal logic, and us historians are expected to describe and organize these individualized items in a way that will make sense. “Time” is just a neutral template in which things unfold. So in a work of narrative fiction people often make the distinction between the Plot and the Story, because although the events dont have to be presented to us “in order,” there is still an overarching timeline that can anchor readers and give them a sense of mastery. And stories that treat time in the conventional sense conveniently have deadlines and countdowns, ticking bombs and all that, to ramp up the suspense.

LS‘s narration shirks off chronological concerns, being a pomo novel and all, and while i have no sure grip on when any of these bits of narration take place in relation to one another, they cohere into its own  accelerating”tempo” of sorts.

“Chemicals are a part of living in an industrial society,” Ozark’s apologists say. Despite of or because of the liberal humanism it promotes, modernity has given license to an all-out assault on the environment, on women, on natives, and all marginals. Wikipedia reports that Methyl Chloride has been discontinued as a refrigerant due to toxicity. This reminds me not only of the Big Tobacco lawyer’s similar propaganda techniques, but also the banning of CFCs, on which chemical giants brutally dragged their feet, but after the ban some reps played it off like it was their initiative all along. Of course caring for the environment is part and parcel of corporate messaging these days when they are all still bloody cartels.

The Mona character is blamed by some of the witnesses for sparking off the chaos of the meeting, when her question was not at all that antagonistic, and her presence immediately provokes men in audience to start yelling, jeering, and telling her to shut up, although these actions arent seen as the instigators. (Don’t you just love good ol’ conservative values of personal responsibility?)

The soundscape of voices sustains contradictions about conformity and individualism on the part of both the townsfolk and the corporate antagonist. Denizens silence and ridicule people who remain concerned about the water quality after Ozark gives out its assurances, but others talk back out of turn at the company reps. George Fobel gives out mealy-mouthed appeals to “community” and “we’re all in this together” (so toe the line and keep your mouths shut). But a health director does an individualist shift, going on about how cardiovascular disease is a greater risk than carcinogens and

it directly correlates with diet —

— So think about that, I heard him say: And keep thinking about that the next time you reach for your potato chips

The conceit of piecing this fiasco together with the recollections of witnesses is interesting in light of the long paragraph earlier narrated by a student about to embark on an oral history project, on which Indigenous peoples we don’t know, but they live in the Ozark-Ouachita highlands:

you don’t want to Heisenberg your subjects into weirdness; and yet it’s true, it’s inevitable: the very presence of the tape recorder will throw the subjects off; it will unalterably prevent them from acting or talking as they do when the tape recorder isn’t there; despite continued work on the problem, it’s something that no ethnologist or anthropologist has been able to get around: unavoidably, you change what you’re trying to study; the second you arrive, what you really want to capture is gone; 

And yet while they talk about the irony shortly later of how high-tech tape recorders are, and this inverse relation of “technological arrogance” to “epistemological humility,” their own humility is kinda wanting. The “subject” is never named, their only concern in the passage is for their use of whatever material they’ll get, and only they know what they’re going to do with it This too-familiar power-trip of nonfictional writers is a bigger indication of the power imbalance in oral history work.

The recollections of the town-hall meeting overlap in ways that show the inconsistencies of what people remember was said by George Fobel and the rest. People recall the same lines differently. And this is a testament to the authenticity of the moment; perfect consistency would imply that the narrators were rehearsed. Because of these dynamics, and the way we jump around the space of the meeting (the school auditorium) with each and every witness, i get the sense of a landscape via memory — a spatial model in the linear experience of text.

While i started off these comments about all the ways i see THE LOST SCRAPBOOK as an accessible book of sorts, or at least more so than the encyclopedic novels of the 60s and 70s, i want to talk more about its avant-garde aspects, but i feel like i should wait until next week when this novel will be finished.

Next: a dead cat, a lawsuit with an arboreal plaintiff, and an ending…

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