Books postsTuesday December 08, 2009
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
Herman Roth Gets Mugged
Yesterday's reference to Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes ever; it’s on pages 125-26 of the memoir. Philip, dutiful son, is having a late-night talk with his friend Joanna, originally from Poland, about his 86-year-old father, whose body is beginning to break down:
“Did I ever tell you what happened when he was mugged a couple of years ago? He could have got himself killed.”
“No. Tell me.”
“A black kid about fourteen approached him with a gun on a side street leading to their little temple. It was the middle of the afternoon. My father had been at the temple office helping them with mailing or something and he was coming home. The black kids prey on the elderly Jews in his neighborhood even in broad daylight. They bicycle in from Newark, he tells me, take their money, laugh, and go home.
"‘Get in the bushes,’ he tells my father. ‘I’m not getting in any bushes,’ my father says. ‘You can have whatever you want, and you don’t need that piece to get it. You can put that piece away.’ The kid lowers the gun and my father gives him his wallet. ‘Take all the money,’ my father says, ‘ but if the wallet’s of no value to you, I wouldn’t mind it back.’ The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street. ‘How much did you get?’ And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. ‘Twenty-three dollars,’ the kid says. ‘Good,’ my father tells him—‘now don’t go out and spend it on crap.’”
The Right-Wing Pisses on You—Literally
I now “get” that Pup’s greatness was a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take risks. It’s the timorous souls—like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill, why are you trying to kill us?”
—Christopher Buckley, “Losing Mum and Pup,” pg. 122
I’m a similar timorous soul, a worst-case scenario man, and so I inevitably feel some admiration for men who are tougher and braver, who venture out in worst-case scenarios rather than imagining them, as I do, during best-case situations.
Not sure where one crosses the line from “adventurer” into “asshole” but William F. Buckley seems to cross it. He constantly plows his boat into docks; he risks lives—including his only son’s—to venture forth in storms; he steals lobsters from the traps of fishermen (but leaves behind bottles of Johnnie Walker as payment); he switches channels and movies and party locations without consultation. Consultation? What’s that? Hell, in his later days he often opened the front door of his car while it was moving to pee. Sometimes he did this in traffic. Onto other cars.
It would be easy to see this as a metaphor for the right-wing in this country but it’s probably a better metaphor for our ruling classes—regardless of political persuasion. Buckley, it turns out, was friends with not just Henry Kissinger but George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. One almost gets the feeling that the whole thing is a game to them and we’re the pieces. A less chilling comparison is to professional sports. Yankees and Red Sox fans may hate each other but it doesn’t mean David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have to. They’re just two men playing the same game. They have more in common with each other than with the fans in the stands.
In the end no metaphors are truly needed to fathom the conservative mind. Merely go to the footnote on pg 117:
The book [on Goldwater] ends with an anecdote in which I, age twelve at the time, figure. Pup had gotten the details a bit wrong, and I had e-mailed him from Zermatt the correct version. He declined it, saying “I like my version better.” I thought to say, “Pup, it’s not a question of liking your version better, but of using the accurate version,” but then thought, Never mind.
That’s part of the reason why we’re in this mess. They always liked their version better.
As for C. Buckley’s book? It’s breezy and funny—although the humor is occasionally too rim-shot. The book jacket compares Buckley’s effort to Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” but that book was devastating while this one is...kinda fun. Meanwhile, the best book I’ve read in the genre, if you want to call it a genre—“the death of loved ones by famous authors”—is Philip Roth’s “Patrimony,” in which the sickness and eventual death of his father is grounded and specific, and no messy detail is ignored. Put it this way: Christopher may have put up with his father’s shit but Philip cleaned up his father’s.
So we begin with piss and end with shit. The way of the world.
Alec, Charlie & Me
I know the difficulty of the Proust Questionnaire, having done my own now, and I think I appreciate good answers more. In the latest, I like the ying-yang of Alec Baldwin's "traits you most deplore in yourself/others" (Insecurity/Overconfidence), but he completely won me over with this one:
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Now why didn't I think of that? Rats.
My “Star Trek” Novel: Fuck-Ups of the Federation
The small, stoic face of Admiral Brush filled the viewscreen in the Captain's ready room. It was an unremarkable face except for its tendency never to crack a smile (it was once said of him that even Benzites had better senses of humor). Now his face looked more impenetrable than normal. Captain Harrison matched it with a deep frown of his own; the vein in the middle of his forehead began to bulge slightly with the effort.
“Admiral, we both known that Admiral Spock is on Romulus attempting to bridge the diplomatic gap between the Vulcans and Romulans. The message must have come from him.”
The Captain leaned back in his chair as if to distance himself from this judgment. “How do you figure?”
“Numbers and letters scattered across a universe,” the Admiral replied blandly. “Anything is possible.”
“It's too great a coincidence. A Romulan scout ship destroyed. A dying Romulan's last words about the Borg.” Captain Harrison ticked his reasons off on his fingertips. “The upheavals we are sensing from Romulan space. Now this. An old-fashioned Earth S.O.S. that contains the Starfleet service number of an Admiral we both know is on Romulus. It's too...”
“Yes! It is too coincidental. That's why it can't be a coincidence!”
“Captain. Calm your famous temper. This isn't Ligon II, after all.”
“I know this isn't Ligon II, damnit!” The Captain slammed his fist down on his desk. “We're talking about the destruction of a species! We're talking about the possible destruction of our own species unless we act now!”
“We are acting now,” Admiral Brush contended. “We are sending all available starships into that sector to monitor the situation. From there they will make a sound judgment based on the available facts.”
Captain Harrison tugged his tunic down. “Good.”
“But we still want you out of there and mapping Halkan space.”
“But shouldn't we be here? To inform the others of the situation?”
Admiral Brush nodded calmly. “We have all that information. They have been informed.”
Captain Harrison shook his head. “I don't--”
“Get your ship out of that sector, Captain! This is a direct order! It is no place for a bunch of...” His mouth curled in disgust, and with a dismissive wave ended the transmission.
Captain Harrison slumped into his desk chair in deep thought. After Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers entered his ready room, he relayed the conversation to them.
“What do you think it might be?” he asked his Number One in low tones. “Some kind of conspiracy?”
“Like what happened on Stardate 41775.5?” Mr. B wondered aloud. “The quill parasites?”
“An alien takeover of Starfleet? Is it possible? Despite the precautions that have been taken?”
“What about a Borg takeover?” Mr. B suggested. “The Admiral's actions would seem to favor the Borg more than anything.”
The Captain nodded his head in thought. “It would explain his stoic demeanor. How he's had it in for me from Day One.”
The conversation between the two was interrupted by a Klingon war cry.
“Glaajin heads!” Ensign Rodgers shouted. “Don't you know? Don't you get it? The Admiral doesn't want us investigating because The Brock is the dung-heap of the Federation! It is where they send their least trustworthy...” He shook his head in frustration. “Think about it! Captain, right before this assignment you had that run-in with Admiral Yamamoto. Commander, you've had a long history of...not seizing command. Me and my drunken battle with Commander Riker. Simon Tarses hiding his Romulan history. A Vulcan more interested in cool than logic. That idiotic Ridlian and his insufferable giggle. An aristocratic doctor who can never concentrate on what matters. Our entire crew is made up of the rejects of other crews! That's why we were sent here! That's why we're on the Brock! Because no one wants us. We don't fit in.”
“The starship of misfit toys,” Mr. B mused.
“The assumption is we'll bungle this. The assumption is we'll add more fuel to the fire. They realize this is such a delicate matter they want seasoned hands in charge.”
“Like Captain Picard,” Captain Harrison said, his eyes vacant.
“Like Captain Picard. He's had experience. He's been with the Borg before. They don't want us near this place. Because they don't' trust us. To them we're the fuck-ups of the Federation.”
Captain Harrison stared off vacantly for several seconds. His insides felt like a star collapsing in on itself. The man who he imagined himself to be was not the man others saw him as; he was used to this, but the disparity between the two visions overwhelmed him now. It all made sense. How come he hadn't realized it before? He was not a rising Starfleet Captain in the mold of a James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. His position wasn't even as highly-esteemed as that of most Commanders or Lieutenants on other vessels. He had been shunted off. He had been forced onto a dirtier path. He would probably never rise above his current position because those in authority, those who controlled the strings of command, had never liked him, never had faith in him. For one horrific moment he saw himself as they saw him, as a skinny nobody from Nowhere, Arizona, and he shuddered inwardly.
Then with a galactic force of will he threw off these assumptions and reassumed the stance of who he knew himself to be. In the long run, their opinions didn't matter. In the long run all that mattered was what he did. He forced himself to look up at his First Officer.
“Mr. B,” he began calmly.
Just then the Brock was rocked by a blast that threw the Captain backwards out of his chair, and tumbled Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers over the desk. The Captain executed a Vulcan barrel-roll and was on his feet and out onto the bridge in a matter of seconds, followed by the cursing Ensign Rodgers and the confused First Officer, holding onto his overly-large head. The whoops of the red-alert siren resounded around the bridge.
“Status!” the Captain shouted as he took the command chair from Lt. Mann.
“Attack from a Borg scout ship,” Lt. Mann stated. “It decloaked at forty-five degrees portside and then cloaked again. Shields are up and at 72 percent capacity.”
“Tachyon emissions!” the Captain shouted.
“Spraying tachyon emissions,” Lt. Mann stated.
The ship was attacked again.
“Fire phasers at the origin of those blasts!” the Captain shouted.
The phasers fired harmlessly into space.
“Captain,” Lt. Mann warned. “Those shots came from the middle of a heavy concentration of tachyon emissions.”
“The emissions seem to be doing...nothing. They are not...indicating where the cloaked vessel might be.”
“The Borg have adapted,” Mr. B suggested as the Brock was rocked again. “They have figured out a way to hide themselves even from tachyon emissions.”
“Photon torpedoes at point of origin,” Captain Harrison shouted. “Now!”
“Firing,” Lt. Mann stated.
“Nothing,” Ensign Ciam said as he stared into the main viewscreen. A small giggle escaped his throat.
“Shields at fifty-one percent capacity,” Lt. Mann warned.
Another blast; the crewmembers rocked in their seats.
“Forty-two percent,” Lt. Mann stated.
“We can't just sit here,” Ensign Ciam said.
“Ensign,” the Captain commanded. “On my mark, spin the Brock around in a course similar to a gyroscope or a wobbling top. Lieutenant,” the Captain leaned back towards Lt. Mann. “On the same mark shoot all phasers in a spray array. Let's see if we can't nick something.”
“A desperate maneuver, Captain,” Ensign Siler mentioned.
“Desperation is sometimes the mother of invention,” the Captain replied.
The ship was rocked again. “Thirty-eight percent,” Lt. Mann stated.
“The motherfucker of invention,” Ensign Rodgers concurred.
“Ready?” the Captain asked. He brought his arm down. “Engage!”
Ten seconds into the plan a small explosion in space occurred to the aft side of the Brock.
“Focus all photon torpedoes onto those coordinates, Lieutenant!” the Captain shouted. “Fire! Now!”
A large explosion lit up the viewscreen and a cheer was beginning to erupt from the relieved crewmembers of the Brock when three Borg, impassively fierce and heavily armed, materialized at strategic points around the bridge. Lt. Mann kicked the legs out from one and punched it square in the face as it was falling forward. Ensign Rodgers jumped on the back of another and tore out its eyepiece and disconnected its wiring, shouting all the while. The third Borg fired at the Captain; Harrison leapt from his chair just as it was incinerated, seemed to cover the distance to the Borg in nanoseconds, and his punch was so quick and stealthy that it was only observable after the fact: the Captain in a Zaldan qir-lan stance and the Borg's head rolling around on the floor near the turbo-lift. Blood was splattered against the far wall. Seconds later the Borg's headless body collapsed to the ground, leaking.
“Jesus,” Mr. B stated. “Remind me not to be around you when you're mad.”
“Is everyone all right?” the Captain asked.
Lt. Mann shook his hand; his knuckles were scuffed and bleeding. “Never better.”
Rodgers kicked at the disconnected Borg at his feet. ”Baktag!“
The Captain himself kicked at the remains of his incinerated chair and sat in the one reserved for the Betazoid. ”Status?“
”Shields at thirty-four percent,“ Lt. Mann said.
”Minor damage to the forward hulls and Deck 12,“ Will Abelsaan said.
”And,“ Ensign Siler mentioned, ”during the course of the battle we seem to have drifted into the Neutral Zone.“
”Really?“ the Captain said, unconcerned.
”A clear violation of the Treaty of Algeron,“ Mr. B mentioned.
”Just what you'd expect from a bunch of screw-ups like us,“ the Captain said, and glanced over at Ensign Rodgers, who smiled and shook his head. The Captain looked at his communications officer. ”Lieutenant. Any word from any other federation starship?“
”Nothing, sir. The Enterprise is still a day away.“
The Captain scratched the slight scruff on his pointy chin.
”What do you recommend, Captain?“ Ensign Siler asked. ”Returning to Federation space?“
The Captain stood up and sighed. ”I'd like to. But unfortunately we can't. Our navigation system has been knocked out. We've lost impulse power. We're just drifting. So much space junk.“
”That's not--“ Ensign Siler began.
”Radio that message to Starfleet,“ Captain Harrison told Lt. Langley. ”In the meantime,“ he said, staring at the viewscreen, ”let's see what's going on out here."