Sunday, 30 October 2011
My Country Was of Thee: Sweet Land of Twittery
Talk about Absurdistan: Gary Shteyngart, ”Super Sad True Love Story” (Granta, 2010) is a dystopian novel about America in the immediate future. What a disconcerting book to read during the recent desperate Congressional Debt Debate. The yuan was now our currency. Top Chinese diplomats range the land, laying down the economic laws. Venezuelan naval ships are patrolling the Potomac. (Our National Guard has invaded them, a natural follow up to the Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya tri-defecta.) Home from that fight, tired troops punish the homeless poor minorities. who have invaded Central Park.
Our anti-hero, Lenny Abramov, a 39 year old Russian Jew immigrant from St. Petersburg, runs a Lifetime Extension scam for a Jewish social society. They communicate with each other over the latest Ipod called an Äppäräti that gives them instant Credit and Fuckability scores on themselves and their friends. Abramov’s Diary is the heart of the novel, interacting with his 24 year old Korean lover, Eunice Park, who twitters endlessly with her sister, mother, and college girlfriend over the complexity of adjusting to their disintegrating society. They have an esoteric twittering vocabulary with shortcuts like JBF (just butt fucking, i.e., just fooling around).
Their sex life is mainly oral. (Lenny is too old and fat to be attractive in traditional sex roles.) Life for Lenny is complicated by his boss Joshie (Joshua is too stiff a moniker for these wild men) stealing his Eunice. The eschatological scenario is plausible. The “greatest nation” is falling apart. But I doubt if it will ever be this much fun. It was my first novel written in Twitter. It generally made “social media” sound like kindergarten babble. I wanted sounder counsel on the dystopian collapse of America.
Reminded how much we as a nation had learned over the centuries from DeToqueville’s visiting muse, I was recently enchanted by another visitor’s essay, “Next Frontier for Restless Americans” in the International Herald Tribune (August 12,2011) by one Anand Giridharadas, an Indian pursuing a doctorate at Harvard. Like Fareed Zacharia, another Mumbai immigrant who preceded Anand at Harvard, and is now an editor-at-large at Time magazine as well as a regular on CNN (Global Public Square, Sundays, 0930, EST) these Harvard imports talk common sense re our current dilemmas.
“The American jobs that vanished don’t appear to be returning.
The stock market is plunging. Seemingly everyone, from the guy at the corner bar to the U.S Treasury, is in debt. The country’s credit rating just got knocked. Smart people on television are speaking of a looming ‘lost decade’.” He points out that throughout history millions of people in less prosperous societies come to a similar conclusion: They sail away. (Like they just have, from India. Their inference is disarming: “So could America, that great nation of immigrants, become in harder times a nation of emigrants? Could the metropolises of China one day have Americatowns.”
“Imagine a bustling one in the heart of Beijing. Local Chinese stream past, scratching their heads at those Americans who come just for the money, never learning China’s language or customs, living in their own little world. The signs are all spelled out in Roman letters—even for local outfits like Zhogguo Jianshe Yinhang (China Construction Bank) and Hong Gao Liang (Red Sorghum, a fast food joint.)” The Americans have strange manners: They never share food, and they finish everything on their plates. They always ask locals how many children they have. (The answer is almost always “one”!)
They mostly succeed, with energy, skills, and family networks: ”They run burgers-and-fries joints, English-language academies, fitness centers and even an intercity transport service known as the Americatown bus.” Quoting Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns”:. . .what humans have done for centuries when life becomes untenable—what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism,what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better called to them.” They left! A tough assignment for American brainwashed in that whistling in the dark mentality called Exceptionalism! But an option always open to the brave and clear-headed!
Inevitably, I reminisce about my “one year” scheme to study the Bauhaus as a philosophy for the disadvantaged during 1999, when Weimar was the Cultural Capital of Europe. Ultimately, even as a trained Americanist, the access to European Exceptional Wonders proved irresistible. In the back of my mind I decided I didn’t want a retirement full of violence and disintegration. Dismayed by the temporary flourishing of a rising American middle class (!938-1980) savaged by Ronald Reagan’s empty headed rhetoric for making America safe for billionaires by offshoring production, I noticed how German industrialists defended strong unions and ensured that the lower classes would be educated to be successfully industrious in mass production jobs. Exceptionalist talk is cheap, but the Germans learned from the savage interlude of Nazism.
When I contrast the solid thinking of our new Indian immigrants, it makes the fake anguish of “Super Sad True Love Story” a twittering joke. I spend my dying days learning what Europe and other unexceptional cultures have discovered about the industrial 101 condition. It was sad to sell my Louis Kahn house in Greenbelt Knoll. But with that cash we bought the third floor flat in a 1784 villa at Seifengasse 10. Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1, where every August 28, they still celebrate his birthday. Walt Whitman claimed Goethe’s “Truth and Poetry” turned him on to his vocation. When’s the last time you celebrated Walt’s birthday, May 31, 1819!