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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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On the road back to Philly. Terrible storms. Stopped now at an I-95 rest area, water everywhere, mud across the full breadth of the road. In the distance the clouds trail east with the wind, dragging behind them their long blue threads of rain.
Summer on the Seaboard. Humidity as high as the temperature and always a shower in the afternoon. Heat in the morning, heat at dusk—heat that breaks for only a few hours each day, just before dawn.
Last night, after listening to President Obama’s Convention speech, I was immediately struck by a paralyzing and overwhelming sense of futility. It’s stayed with me, amplified now by the weather.
“12 years ago tonight…” President Obama said.
“I was so young that first time in Boston.”
“A lot has happened over the years.”
“We’re not done perfecting our Union.”
“And I’ll tell you, what’s picked me back up every single time: it’s been you. The American people.”
“You’ve vindicated that hope these past eight years.”
“America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us.”
I feel unaccountably devastated. The emotion had a touch of bewilderment to it, something that reminds me of a quote by Hunter S. Thompson—about the moment when he visited the Senate cafeteria for the very first time: “I listened, glancing up now and then toward the food-bar, half-expecting to see somebody like Robert Kennedy pushing his tray through the line… until suddenly I remembered that Robert Kennedy was dead.”
He’s been dead for almost half-a-century, Bobby Kennedy, if you can believe it. And now here I am, at this rest stop with its great drifts of mud, paralyzed by sadness, a density like water on my chest.
All my life I’ve been waiting for a president like Barack Obama. And then he arrived: a constitutional expert and who spent his career championing the disadvantaged, who understood that all systems, including democratic ones, inherently favor the powerful—and that the only way to change this fact is constant participation.
Growing up as a beneficiary of a liberal West Coast Catholic/Jesuit education, I always believed in this narrative—the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice—and I hoped to someday see it realized…
And now his term is finished… or at least it feels that way today; suddenly we’re one step closer to the very thing his presidency suggested the upperhand against: those forces that will do anything to destroy our pluralism. And in Obama’s place I can’t help but see a new view of the future—the one that’s coming for all of us, a very modern sort of trauma:
The trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning.
–Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”
Sontag! The fuck are you doing here? This gloom is your fault. I also blame the Jesuits: my social-justice education has made me a misanthrope. And now I’m manic with despair, fighting waves of apprehension and uselessness as I drive toward yet another historic night, one of many in this strange and overbearing era: summer, 2016.
* * * *
And then it happened: my heart welled in me […] and I had no handkerchief, and ten years were to pass before a certain night in 1922, at a public lecture in Berlin, when my father shielded the lecturer (his old friend Milyukov) from the bullets of two Russian Fascists and, while vigorously knocking down one of the assassins, was fatally shot by the other. But no shadow was cast by that future event upon the bright stairs of our St. Petersburg house; the large, cool hand resting on my head did not quaver, and several lines of play in a difficult chess composition were not blended yet on the board.
–Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
‘Why is the sky blue?’—a fair question, and one I have learned the answer to several times. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.
–Maggie Nelson, Bluets
* * * *
That’s better. Sitting now in the bar of the Logan Hotel. Headquarters for the Clinton campaign. Lobbyists and Democratic apparatchiks and party fundraisers are everywhere.
Next to me, two men in their late-fifties are slapping each other on the back—a scene I saw countless times in Cleveland.
One of them is telling a joke. I don’t catch the first part. But suddenly he’s shouting: “And a pregnancy test in a dirty barroom right next to the jukebox HAHAHAHA!”
Now they’re both holding stirring sticks—special DNC ones with donkey figurines at the top—and they’re pretending to make these small plastic donkeys fight one another in a manner that comes dangerously close to spilling my drink.
Now they’re comparing the separate conversations each has had in the last few days with VP nominee Tim Kaine. “Timmy!” They’re saying. “Timmmy Kaine!”
And now they’re doing a FaceTime conversation with someone—shouting into a phone at a mutual friend who, unfortunately, wasn’t able to join them here at the bar tonight.
On the CNN crawl: BREAKING NEWS: EXCERPTS RELEASED FROM CLINTON SPEECH: “NONE OF US CAN DO IT ALONE!”
The last night of the Convention is finally beginning. The early slate is filled with generals, veterans, and the families of fallen soldiers.
Me, to a friend sitting alongside: “We’ve been at war for like two decades. Jesus.”
Friend: “Since 9/11 bro. That’s kind of an obtuse comment. Military Industrial Complex and all.”
Me: “Fucking Eisenhower warned us—and no one listened!”
We’re watching the TV behind the bar. The crawl at the bottom of the screen reads: TONIGHT: KATY PERRY, SINGER
Which reminds me of a correction I’ve been meaning to make. Last week, at an Uber/Facebook lobbyist party in Cleveland—one at which I witnessed many Republican congressman dancing and singing along to Kanye West-antagonist Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”—I assumed that the musicians up on stage were part of a cover band featuring a Rick Perry-impersonator.
It was actually Rick Perry himself, I’ve just learned. His songs that night included those by T-Swift and Katy Perry and, if I remember correctly, Justin Bieber. He was wearing a “THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT” shirt. Of course it wasn’t.
On CNN: a commentator named Jeffrey Lord (identified as “Trump Supporter”) tells us: “Everyone here says they’re against building a wall, but if you look outside, there’s fencing everywhere, it’s a big wall!”
Friend: “Well. That’s specious.”
Me: “Some people say the world is made of tiny pebbles you can’t actually touch unless you reach out with both hands, and I’m here to tell you, THOSE PEOPLE ARE WRONG!”
Friend: “Yes, Denevi: a straw-man argument. What I meant by ‘specious.’”
Hillary Clinton will be speaking soon. Which means it’s time to take copious notes. At the very least.
* * * *
The same night I dream the Kennedys invite me to a party. All the Kennedys who are dead are dead. Caroline is there and she speaks very nicely to me—is very gracious. Though one can go three days without water and survive, I have a few glasses of Perrier with lemon, mill around, and have a fine time. When I am ready to leave, the waiter, a camel at his side, comes forward with the bill. I take out ten dollars, but all those glasses of water add up to ten thousand dollars. Pardon me, I say to the waiter. I am, obviously, caught unprepared both financially and emotionally.
–Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
* * * *
From my notes:
WHEN WILL THE BILL COME DUE?!?
Also: KILL THE BODY AND THE HEAD WILL DIE (HST)
But these statements no longer seem as relevant as they should.
I’ve been sitting here for hours at the Urban Farmer bar/restaurant at The Logan, and only two tables down from me, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom are holding court, radiant in the way you might imagine—and surrounded by terribly good-looking people who keep laughing much louder than the rest of us usually do.
Nearby, a “Congratulations Hillary” party is in full swing, hosted by the delegations from Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri. The fact that these states are non-contiguous doesn’t seem as amusing to everyone else as it does to me, unfortunately.
In the previous three hours, I’ve found myself engaged in energetic discussions about policy, sexism, and Russian espionage tactics. All of which has gone a surprisingly long way to dispelling the sadness I’ve felt at Obama’s departure (and the eventual global-warming apocalypse I’d very much like to stop thinking about…)
I just spoke for a long time with a Democratic operative from Boston. She was in her early-sixties was wearing a giant HILLARY broach, but at one point in our conversation she leaned toward me and said, “Would you like to see the pin I was wearing at the Convention tonight?” She proceeded to pull out what looked like a shattered piece of glass, its edges gilded. “I never thought I’d see the ceiling break like I did tonight,” she said to me. She explained that the arena was completely packed—people sitting in the concourse, on the steps, others afraid to head toward the bathrooms for fear of losing their places. Because the Democrats have so many more delegates than the Republicans, the seating situation is more complicated. Also: everyone wanted a ticket to tonight’s speech, while in Cleveland it seemed as if it was only me and Nixon’s ghost who had any real desire to glimpse Donald Trump in his new habitat.
I’ve been meaning to write about the competence of Hillary’s speech—how she laid out the contrast the American people are facing this November and whether rationality itself is still a currency we value, in politics at least—but the Katy Perry table is singing Happy Birthday and people are jumping around and taking pictures.
And now the bar speakers are blasting Kanye West’s “Famous,” which has caused me to jump around and sing along. My voice is modulated. Thankfully no one notices. But it’s the exact sort of scene you could never imagine the New York delegation in Cleveland tolerating, much less participating in.
“I loved you better than your own kin did / from the very start / I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free / I just wanted you to know…”
And suddenly people with sparklers are making their way to the Perry/Bloom table, followed by an enormous cake… It seems as if this concert-and-Oscars Convention is winding down in the only way it possibly can.
Which means… what exactly? I think I have a point I’d like to make here about distraction, and celebrity, and modern America, but we’ll get to that in a moment…
Now they’re playing Chance the Rapper! “You don’t want no problem / want no problem with me,” the speakers blare. In the long line for the bar no one seems to notice. But I’m not made of stone! I’m smiling enormously. However you define our current society—or the future, for that matter—it’s at least possible, in a setting like this, to convince yourself of its continued existence. And of a Hillary Clinton victory in November, for that matter.
The polls the last few days have not looked good. The pressure tonight was extraordinary—something everyone was talking about here at The Logan. And then Hillary took the stage to Katy Perry’s exuberant crooning and laid it out.
THEME OF SPEECH = HARDER BETTER FASTER STRONGER, I’ve also written in my notes, but that’s too glib.
“Love Trumps hate,” she said.
“Don’t believe anyone who says ‘I alone can fix it.’”
“America will never be a nation where one person has all the power.”
“I sweat the details.”
“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
“Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”
“Enough with the bigotry and bombast! Donald Trump’s not offering real change. He’s offering empty promise.”
“The choice is clear.”
So it is. And on that note, I think it’s time to stop worrying about the next Donald Trump. Or Richard Nixon’s ghost, for that matter. Hillary Clinton will run against an opponent who only yesterday called on what’s left of the KGB’s security apparatus to commit cyber-espionage against an American senator/First Lady/Secretary of State. At least Richard Nixon had monsters like Tex Colson do his dirty work secretly. Trump summons Vladimir Putin for help and afterward pretends like it was all just a joke, as in: Come on, Media, you know if I really wanted to steal the election I’d at least have the wherewithal do so quietly… right?
The next three months are going to be like the late-series plot twists in a minor Showtime drama. Trump will rise to such extremes we’ll all be in danger of forgetting the terribly offensive things he’s already said and done.
Which means that we’re going to find out, very soon, what sort of country we’ve become.
Remember, the race will remain closer than many of us think for much longer than we’d like. And there’s still a decent chance we’re all just a nation of 320 million reality-show contestants hoping to attract enough Twitter followers to make sure our outlandish behavior doesn’t go unnoticed.
Which brings us back to Katy Perry. And her delightful if slight-of-stature friend Orlando Bloom. It’s not as if the Democrats have entirely rejected Trump’s attempt to cast himself as the very best crazy-like-a-fox candidate in the history of American politics/CBS’s Survivor; they’ve simply offered their own candidate.
“It is impossible to think of [him] without seeing the apparently bottomless gulf between what we officially admire and secretly desire, between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love.”
–Joan Didion, on Howard Hughes
I hope Joan Didion’s wrong! About Howard Hughes and Donald Trump. And while there’s so much more I wanted to say here—on the Baby Boomers, privilege, anonymity, and astonishment—it’s 3:42 AM, and I refuse to leave without deleting all the over-the-top apocalyptic quotes I’d lined up for the end of this essay; instead, allow me to replace them with a moderate (if unapologetically Italian) reflection on these past two bewildering weeks.
What can I say; hearing Chance the Rapper in a room filled with the people who appear to have at least some sort of control over the fate of the Republic has made me, in a word, optimistic.
* * * *
The day was approaching when Il Duce’s portraits, which had multiplied on Italian walls, would be removed from their static position as symbols of the established order and brought out into the open air, into the streets and piazzas, in a tumultuous saraband. This happened on July 24th, 1943 (or, to be more precise, a day or two later), when the crowds, which could no longer be kept at bay, invaded the Casa del Fascio and flung the effigies of the overthrown dictator out the windows. Everywhere, his paternal image was mocked and spat upon; there were pyres with his military portrait on top of them, plaster and bronze busts were dragged along the pavement, and his huge head became, overnight, a relic from another era and an object of fun.
–Italo Calvino, “Il Duce’s Portraits”
The darkness came back. By now we were sure that everything that could possibly happen had happened, and ‘yes this is the end,’ Grandmother said, ‘mind what us old folks say…’ Instead the Earth had merely made one of its turns. It was night. Everything was just beginning.