So true this fallacy. From “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer
So true this fallacy. From “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer
As far as requests go, Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights makes a reasonable one.
Today I learned that Cosmic Communist Construction is a thing, or, at the very least, the very excellent title of a Taschen coffee table book.
Below is one of the hundreds of sculptural images found in the book, which features mostly Soviet government construction—as well as the occasional sanatorium.
Such galactic crush can in part be explained by the US/Soviet space race of the late 50s and 60s, which eventually culminated in the moon landing and, of course, The Jetsons. A world crushed by two world wars was eager to move forward, way forward, be it via the progress professed by Capitalism or the egalitarianism feigned by Communism.
Since Communism only works via Dictatorship, its construction is more aggressive, more repetitive, more dramatic. Local, mundane space is transformed into outer space by a power eager to present itself as an ideal worth building, by any means necessary.
In Russian, USSR translates to CCCP, an acronym put to good service by the author of this book. Had Cosmic Communism been the literal name of the regime perhaps it would have had a better hand at constructing real earth.
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.
I realize the picture above is bad. It was taken on a flight at the exact moment the pilot warned of turbulence from Hurricane Harvey, passengers and plane already shaking. The storm about to hit Texas at a place called Corpus Christi, which is the name of a real town in the physical world.
So I kept the bad picture I took of the good poem I was reading to show you. The words legible, no matter the storm.
The poem is by Tim Seibles and is called “Delores Epps.” It was presented by the skinniest member of my MFA program at Florida International University during our first class.
I remembered it on the plane after watching “Girls” and made my row get up so I could grab it from the overhead compartment where it lay, unread, neighbored by other people’s back packed belongings. I found a forgotten banana in my carry on, which I ate while I read my poem, wanting to feel the sorrow of being young and not knowing anything but also knowing the exact same amount I still don’t know now. But, it is better not to know at fifteen, better not to know at twenty three, better not to know at thirty three, than now at thirty six. The not knowing of each year always circling, gasping to lift off, but making landfall in a watery mess somewhere by a place the map calls Corpus Christi.
About a week ago I visited the Georgia O'Keefe retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum: Living Modern. The exhibit not only centered around her well-known paintings and photographs, but also around her self-made clothing, and how her choice in dress was part and parcel to her conscious artistic identity. Her clothes were black and white, androgynous and practical, refined and subtle. Céline-like.
Parallel to that, I've traversed the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in South Williamsburg several times in the past month. You know the neighborhood's invisible borders are breached once everyone is suddenly dressed the same. There is a single group identity immediately transmitted by a communal way of dress. In this neighborhood, there is no risk of a Stranger in Our Midst; here, there are Strangers Dressed in Jeans.
Then, at dinner with a friend, a mutual acquaintance came up who'd become a serious body builder. My friend showed me images of a transformed person, whose life revolved around and was surrounded by heavy weight lifting. The dress, colors, angles of our acquaintance's identity had been wholly transformed; too me, he was unrecognizable.
While it may be said that all neighborhoods in all corners of the globe have a particular coda, New York is a city where way of dress almost determines what area a person will seek to inhabit: Upper East Side, North Williamsburg, SoHo, etc. Here, as is the case with Georgia, the body builder, Orthodox Jews, there is an intentionally visible commitment to dressing in a way that reflects who you are.
I feel no such commitment. I like a dress that makes me feel like myself as much as a dress that makes me feel unlike myself. Stuff is exciting when it is new. That is all.
Does this mean I am identity-free? Does identity exist without any conscious external markers? I fear it cannot.
The uniform, be it imposed or adopted, is eerie because there remains a knowing that beneath the cloaks or the wife beaters, lie the several selves. The comfort of the uniform denotes a sacrifice, a negotiation: buy to belong.
But, those who dare commit to the Self dress it forth as a demonstration of will.