The Universal Teat

If you have not read “Grapes of Wrath” and for some reason plan on doing so, stop reading this. If, on the other hand, you would like to be spared the load but are curious about its classical buzz, read on.

“Grapes of Wrath” is like a fat Oreo: delicious chocolate crunch on each end, white sappy soap mush in the middle. The last paragraph of the book, after four hundred pages of soapy sap, may be the best thing that’s happened to me in book form. In it, Rose of Sharon, once prodigal daughter, later pregnant abandoned wife, nurses a half-starved man. She has milk to give because hours before she gives birth to a stillborn during a devastating flood.

I would say that the image of this wrecked woman, who was probably hot, bringing a doomed man back from the brink of death by the power of her breasts is why the book endures the test of time. Also why they made a movie about it right away.

In all seriousness, I am glad I read it. The first hundred pages are breathtaking. The last fifty are sweepingly cinematic. The ending over-the-top — as was my joy at realizing I’d finally put it to bed.

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The Handmaid, and the Hurricane’s, Tale

I didn’t pack a book for our flight out of Hurricane Irma’s grasp. What was the point? It wasn’t until the next day, before boarding a flight further away from the storm, that I ventured into a bookstore. There it was: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’d first heard about it via late night TV, one of the actresses from its Hulu version on display. Something about it must be current, I thought, and I needed that — a book to explain the world.

We left Miami on the only flight we could find three days before the storm hit. Sitting on the tarmac, waiting for the extended line of planes to flee, I listened to the row behind discuss lack of insurance. Before, at the airport bar, conversation dropped when images of Irma took the screens. I belonged to a group of people on the run, to an exodus.

I cannot decipher events when they are immediate. It is later, through reading and writing and mulling in the shower, that I comprehend. I knew I wasn’t dealing well with Irma, but it wasn’t until I finished reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” just 36 hours after purchasing it, that I understood why.

What Irma represented for me was not so much fear, destruction, loss, homelessness, but lack of control, lack of choice and authority over the small actions that become a routine. Until further notice, and not by will, my routine was taken.

Meanwhile, Atwood’s book is also about the taking of a way of life. Told by one of many “handmaids,” sex slaves forced to fornicate with powerful men in order to produce offspring, the novel presents an over-the-top, near future in which an infertile society abides by literal observance of the Old Testament.

Somehow, “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to sustain the delicate momentum of a storm. When devastation hits, it will no doubt be heart braking.  The desire to witness this devastation drives the work forward with the speed of a mystery novel. Despite its scant dialogue, let alone action, I was skipping pages in search of where the book would lead me.

Then, its open ending takes you nowhere.  The book resists the reader’s, and the narrator’s, compulsion to know: there is no resolution, no single truth. Not even the brutal state agency, “The Eye,” can see all that goes on.  Such lack of certainty generated a deep void in my gut, the same kind I felt each time Irma’s track was updated.

But, “The Handmaid’s Tale” represents a more manageable loss of control, a void in book form. And when things are packaged into book form they can be read, understood, addressed. The Eye of the book became the eye of the storm, revealing our weakness to control, to own, to construct, to landscape, to adorn. Of course, control is an illusion. New trees break.

Buy water; be prepared.

 

 

 

 

 

The Atom World

There is a street in LA that has everything, at least, everything that my world needs. Juice, coffee, books, yoga, independent shopping, wine, cheese, parking. On this street, each of these are each well done, particularly the book store, where on the cashier’s counter I encountered Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.”

I was on the market for short stories, I realized, particularly those of the semi-science fiction variety offered by Bradbury. His “Life on Mars” is often in my top ten modular list of all-time favorite books.

So far “The Illustrated Man” has kept the Bradbury promise: render human defects alien, gruesome by kicking them out of context. The childhood aggression, racism, panic, violence in his eerily futuristic tales are incongruous in their cruelty. No one would could ever possible do that, could they?  This can never possibly happen, can it? Or, has it, is it already happening?

The excerpt above is from a story titled “The Highway.” What drew me in was the use of the word “atom” vs. “atomic” in describing a war that could end the world. In many ways a war that could end the world is an atom war, a war of the minuscule, a war started by a few pissy men. Case in point: the past two world wars.

Who knows if the decision to use “atom” vs. “atomic” is due to language evolution or intention. It does not matter. The effect is there. It is harder to get around the meaning of the word in its noun form. An “atom” is the limit of a thing, just as a human is the limit of what can be called a “world.” An atom war that will end the world. A petty war that will end my perception.

Thus, the character in Bradbury’s story, who lives by a road in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun with folk escaping the “end of the world,” can only ask his donkey:

“What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

 

Suburbanization in Reverse

Last week’s Economist cover featured the death of the internal combustion engine via the electric car. The magazine contemplates a bright future where the air is clean, oil grabs become irrelevant, and people nap during their private commutes. Then, reverse suburbanisation as cities contract, converting now useless parking into homes, parks, offices. Efficient destinations everywhere.

The magazine does not mention the inventors of this great future, but that is whom the article left me thinking about: the few individuals who propelled electric cars forward. These incredible beings basically prevented planetary devastation by ending human dependence on dirty fuel.

Sadly, on the other side of the equation, you have the Zumas, Trumps, and Maduros of the world. Individuals who set entire nations back one year each time they open their traps. See the excerpt from the article below on Jacob Zuma’s reelection, which immediately followed the article on electric cars.

Thus, the equation keeps equal. Or as Fitzgerald might say, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”