Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
After reading the new oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, by Thompson’s friend and patron, Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner, and former R.S. writer Corey Seymour, I have come to believe that Thompson deserves his iconic status in the history of American letters. Many will disagree, wondering how in the world a drug addicted, alcoholic man-child with a regrettably low output of truly important work can be so celebrated. It is true that when compared to that of some of his well known contemporaries – Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, for example – Thompson’s oeuvre appears paltry. The drugs took their toll, and at some point Thompson just could not recapture his original form.Gonzo gives us a compound view of Hunter Thompson through the words of most, if not all, of those who were closest to him. This mosaic approach, not limited to the distillations of a single mind, is informative, of course, but the book is also surprisingly well conceived and assembled. It is as easy to enjoy as vanilla ice cream. What struck me most was how often different people echoed common impressions of Thompson, from his legendary tolerance for drugs and booze, his obsession with guns, the exhausting torment of acting as Hunter’s “handler” when he was out on the road, to the thoughtfulness with which he approached a conversation, as prepared to be educated as he was to educate. More biographies should be constructed this way.Thompson earned his iconic status by capturing the essence of a singularly ticklish chapter in American history. The sixties and seventies were War and Peace to the post-WWII era’s Hop on Pop, which is to say, history became denser, a lot more difficult to parse out and interpret, a lot more contradictory and complex, as America passed through a crucible of change. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Kennedy, Nixon. Sex, drugs, rock and roll; Peace, love, and violence. Youth movements. Thompson’s brash style and often illicit subject matter will always resonate with young people. But more important than the surface bombast is the fact that because of the commentary of writers like Hunter Thompson, people of my generation have a sense that something about that time period was a little off, a vague notion that promises went unfulfilled. What is more difficult to recognize is the profound way that that era shaped the America that we were born into. The wave may have broken and rolled back, but not before fundamentally reshaping the landscape. America is still scratching its head over the 60s, still trying to figure out what the hell happened, like a drunk waking up in a strange hotel room wearing someone else’s clothes, wondering how he got there.Hunter Thompson put a voice to that era. Gonzo journalism is more than a catchy turn of phrase: it is an approach that Thompson pretty much invented, purists be damned. That approach matched perfectly to those tempestuous times as observed through raging, bloodshot eyes. When Thompson let loose on the political and cultural Scene, the result was truth in seething absurdity. Wenner’s role in helping to legitimize this risky style of reporting cannot be overstated. Rolling Stone was the purveyor of Thompson’s most significant work. Without Jann Wenner, there would be no Hunter Thompson. Then again, can we imagine a Rolling Stone without Thompson’s seminal contributions?For better or for worse, Hunter S. Thompson is an American literary icon. Anti-establishment impresario, counter-cultural crank, Thompson not only chronicled but actually helped to author the zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thompson did not simply write about the times in which he lived, he lived them, and in moments of clarity he was able to fashion true wisdom out of what he saw:San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil … Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Raoul Duke, Rolling Stone no. 95, Nov. 11 1971, pp. 44-46)The man was a walking (lurching) symbol of how all that activism, all those good vibrations, yielded to atavistic hedonism and paranoia. His writings for Rolling Stone were madcap dispatches from the front line of a cultural battleground in which America, its customs, institutions, and leaders, stood poised to fall prey to the fear of fear itself. He better than any other writer was able to evoke such turbulence.Like Fitzgerald, Thompson outlived his time, through a miracle of corporeal endurance. His decision to shoot himself on February 20, 2005, constituted the final rebellious act of an old soldier who was loathe to fade away. No one who knew him could claim to be surprised that he went out with a bang.
Do you perform yoga in parks? Do you carry an NPR Fresh Air tote bag? If you don’t mind getting made fun of, Mike Sacks’s Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason is for you.
Sacks’s introduction, “ATTENTION READERS: This is a Warning!” informs us that the vast majority of the following humor pieces have no particular narrative line, no connecting theme or characterization or running plot. They have “absolutely nothing to do with each other.” If we try to make sense of what’s there, Mike tells us, we will be disappointed.
Unlike some of his contemporary humorists (David Sedaris, for example, blurbed the book and wrote, “Mike Sacks is not just a sensational comic writer, but a sensational writer—period”), Mike refrains from comedic memoir. In his essays, previously published in The New Yorker, McSweeny’s, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and “any number of other publications, including a few which no longer exist,” Mike focuses on absurd, fictional characters doing heightened versions of every day human behaviors. (The “Ikea Instructions” cartoon that results in a gun to the head springs to mind.) Twenty-five of the fifty-four essays are collaborations between Mike and the Pleasure Syndicate, a comedy-writing group consisting of Todd Levin (Tonight Show), Scott Jacobson (Daily Show), Bob Powers, Jason Roeder (The Onion), Scott Rothman, Will Tracy, Ted Travelstead (Esquire), and Teddy Wayne. Mike takes a moment in the intro to thank these men for being his cronies, helping to make him the writer he is today, and to (hopefully) resolve his workshop edits.
So what can you expect from a book about “reasonably wild” dreams? Some very brief but memorable Shouts & Murmurs-esque humor, a sprinkling of Kama Sutra poses. Ah yes, a bit of “everyday life.” Despite the fact that half of the characters in these pieces are irrational schmucks who do things like write rejection letters to Anne Frank (“We’re focusing on authors with broad multimedia platforms. While you were up in the attic, did you have strong Wi-Fi access?”), or who put together a list of warnings regarding their brothers’ upcoming bachelor party (“The electrolyte boost will usually make Tom see tracers, which is always good for a giggle, until it becomes horrifying.”), or who send fan mail to Salman Rushdie (“I have yet to stumble upon a really solid gimmick, such as the fatwa you were lucky enough to be associated with for more than two decades!“), when you get past the “fictional fantasies,” the people in these essays remind me much of myself. I do carry a Poets & Writers bag, after all.
In “Geoff Sarkin is Using Twitter,” Geoff is getting married and decides to Tweet the entire experience—he’s in the midst of typing when he looks up and realizes it’s time to kiss the bride, which he does, and returns to update his followers with, “Oh, yes, the kiss! LOL. Still LOLing. Helen not laughing, maybe she will in a sec—No, still not laughing. Kiss is wonderful. Better than expected!”
“Funny Letters from Summer Camp and Their Not-So-Funny Responses” shows Todd writing his “Mummy and Daddy” to tell them that camp is fun, he’s eating a lot of candy, and a frog crawled into his shirt. Todd’s dad writes back to say, “Mummy and I are getting a divorce. Will give you specifics when you come home. Tell Kevin’s frog we say hi!”
And my favorites are the lists:
“The Worst Places to Die”:
Roughly six minutes after mumbling, “What the worst that can happen?” and stopping to pick up that drifter with the “colorful past.”
“When Making Love to Me: What Every Woman Needs to Know”:
#6. If I begin to laugh uncontrollably, it isn’t you. Chances are extremely good that I’m just imagining what my best friend Kurt’s reaction will be when I tell him about all this.
“Icebreakers to Avoid”:
The Muppets are bullshit, and let me tell you why.
In “Krazy Kris!” a desperately depressed man hires a clown to cheer himself up and the clown, in turn, becomes glum:
Krazy Kris: I think my troubles first started in college. Women could never relate to me as anything more than a friend. Always the funny guy, you know?
Me: God, you’re a bore. What’s the matter with you lately?
Krazy Kris: I guess even clowns have their months off, right? So sue me. Life ain’t all about the gags. Pass my reading glasses.
Just a few hours before reading the essay “Dear Mr. Thomas Pynchon,” in which a new writer attempts to convince the famous author to blurb his upcoming book, I sat in a sushi bar conversing with one of my non-writing (near non-reading) friends, who said, “I refuse to read a book unless I’ve been told it’s good.” The hopeful writer in Sacks’s essay writes to Pynchon, “In today’s literary climate, it is essential that a new writer obtain a blurb so that Joe Q. Dumbbell thinks a book is worthy enough of purchase or library checkout.”
Yes, I thought to myself, my post-military, weightlifting pal would probably never read anything I wrote unless someone (Mike Sacks, perhaps) told him it was worthwhile. That said—Mike, I blurb your book, you blurb mine? It’s a 500-pager written in one long, French sentence about my affinity for sheep. You seem open-minded. I’ll put it in the mail tomorrow.
I became a vegetarian when I was 14 years old for a variety of reasons, not all of them necessarily admirable or based on ethics. I was concerned for animal welfare but vegetarianism was also an easier way of hiding my brief and painful eating disorder from my parents and friends, a way to assert my 14-year-old self into a particular brand of neo-hippie fashion, and a way to manufacture an identity at a time when I wanted to stand out and be heard. Also, somewhere deep down inside me, beneath the ornament and artifice, I truly felt that eating animals was wrong.
I returned to meat when I was in college, partially because vegetarianism had suddenly gone out of fashion, replaced with higher protein diets that emphasized the importance of meat, and partially as a means of overcoming my obsession with monitoring and controlling the amount of food I ate. I am more important than a chicken or a cow, I told myself and slowly but surely weaned myself back to enjoying the pleasure of food I had once forsaken. Relearning to eat meat, for me, was an exercise in self empowerment- not self empowerment the way that many books and TV shows in America advertise or market it as a product, but empowerment in the truest sense. This was about survival. If Darwin was right and only the fittest are meant to survive on this planet, then I was going to be the fittest. I relished the feeling of eating meat, of enjoying my place in the food chain (high up there). It was a good decision. I grew healthier and stronger, and I vowed to never look back. On Yom Kippur, whem my entire family was fasting, I refused. I didn’t want to fixate and focus on my eating, even in the name of God or self reflection. In my mind, this kind of reflection, of consideration for my body’s wants and needs, was sentimental and weak, a reflection of a struggle between and among myself, my belief system and the world at large, and I had emerged the victor.
In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us to do just this kind of reflection. Many reviews of Eating Animals focus on the more practical concerns and issues that Foer raises about factory farming-how our farm animals are overcrowded, over medicated and sick and the implications of this for us, the people eating the animals. For Foer, these issues are important in that they reinforce the urgency with which we must recognize the horrors of factory farming, while showing us that there is nothing natural about the process of eating meat today at all.
While Foer’s patient and inventive way of chronicling the way eating factory-farmed meat impacts us is educational, there is nothing necessarily new about this knowledge that you couldn’t find in any number of mainstream books and magazines advocating a vegetarian lifestyle. It is also not his main argument. To Foer, our ideal method for reevaluating the way we view the food we eat is through the lens of compassion. At the start of his book, Foer insists that “A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing but that is not what I have written here.” and he is right. Eating Animals is, in many ways, a book about reflection and that means asking questions, rather than always providing answers.
The question that ultimately propels this book is whether or not in today’s world, eating meat is necessary and natural, and why we, as powerful and compassionate creatures, aware of suffering, continue to allow it. Foer acknowledges that there are many potential answers to this question, not all of which include vegetarianism. He admires the few (too few in fact) family farms, that still exist in the US, and leaves himself open to the possibility that a more humane manner of raising meat is possible. For someone who presents such a thorough and devastating account of the worst of human food production, Foer is an optimist. He believes that individual choices matter and that we have the power to make these choices daily. The decision to eat or not eat factory farmed meat (which is 99% of the meat available in supermarkets in the US today) is a moral one. He says, “It might sound naïve to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.”
It is precisely these kind of sentiments that make Eating Animals polarizing, and, in some ways controversial. The world is full of too many problems, some readers and critics say, and animals are not important enough to be first on the agenda for moral thought and reflection. But Foer is not asserting that we should abandon all other causes in the interest of adopting a lifestyle which includes humane treatment for animals, merely that we extend that kind of thought to them.
It is a reasonable argument, and it’s a wonder that many take personal offense to the suggestion that the way we are eating is wrong. In contrast to theorists like Peter Singer, who make the accusatory arguement that the way we treat animals is a form of “speciesism,” Foer provides, for readers who choose to contemplate these issues, a remarkably gentle assault of information. He agrees that the food we eat, including meat, is more than just sustenance, a concept he explores by explaining the way his Grandmother, a woman who survived Nazi Europe, obsesses about food. “Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love.”
Eating Animals is a sensitive and brave book and as such will always be met by certain criticisms reserved for things which are sensitive and brave. People will argue that the text is interesting, but naive and idealistic, which is true I think, only if you believe that most people are not sensitive and brave. Foer, however, is optimistic, urging the importance of stories themselves, but also, and more importantly, the retelling of stories, the tremendous power and privilege of being human, of reflecting on the past and being willing to change and make ourselves better people in the future.
Not everyone will share this type of introspection. Many of us haven’t spent periods of our life thinking about the food we eat, where it comes from and why we eat it and for those people, the effectiveness on this text will hinge on how effectively Foer is able to demonstrate the importance of thinking about the meat industry at all. For me, Eating Animals was an opportunity to re investigate two of my earliest convictions – the decision to stop eating meat and the decision to start again. Whatever I decide to do next will be entirely the same, and also an entirely different story.
It was not long after the death of the Yasser Arafat that I received an email purporting to be from a cousin of his, soliciting my assistance in spiriting away several hundred thousand dollars held in a secret account somewhere. I had a Hotmail account at the time: its spam filters were not as effective as Gmail’s, so a lot of this kind of stuff got through. Filters have come a long way since then — and so, in turn, has spam itself. A colorful assortment of international tradespeople, drug-pushers, swindlers, and fraudsters, spammers have become a familiar feature of our digital landscape. Finn Brunton’s investigation of the question of spam, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet — the problems of defining it, understanding it, and tackling it — takes us to the front of an ongoing and highly sophisticated technological war, a keenly contested territorial struggle for control of the information superhighway.
The precursor to the modern Internet was the U.S. government-sponsored Usenet network. It was the product of a marriage of convenience between two very different groupings: the “Iron Triangle” of the US Department of Defense, the U.S. Congress, and the defense industry on the one hand, and an Ivory Tower of pioneering computer geeks and academics on the other. Merging the hierarchical and technocratic secretive culture of the military with the libertarian, communitarian ethic of an emergent hacker ethos, the Internet’s complex and contradictory cultural formation contained the seeds of an identity crisis that would be brought into sharp focus by the advent of spam in the 1990s.
“Spam,” in the Usenet era, denoted the practice of posting excessively voluminous or repetitious missives across various newsgroups. The word’s contemporary association with commercial self-promotion can be traced back to 1988, when a scammer called Rob Noha posted a message in multiple newsgroups, in waves across several days — subject line: “Poor College Student needs Your Help!!:-(” — asking readers to contribute a dollar each to “Jay-Jay’s College Fund.” The message provoked an outcry from network users, enraged that the system was being so flagrantly abused. Reluctant to resort to oppressive policing measures to combat the new scourge, the system administrators were happy to hand the matter over to mob justice:
We have received a number of inquiries about JJ…If you view these questions as the burning issues of our time, you might wish to call JJ yourself. You can reach him at: Rob Noha (aka JJ) 402/488-2586.
And they did, in droves. In time, the administrator’s withering sarcasm would prove to have been misplaced: when large-scale commercial spam began in earnest in the 1990s, this scourge did indeed become one of the “burning issues of our time,” because it highlighted critical ambiguities about the nature of the Internet. What was it for? Who owned it? Who, if anyone, had the moral, ethical, or legal right to police it?
Six years later, the issue was brought into the limelight once again, courtesy of two immigration lawyers from Arizona, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who circulated a 34-line email to users of 6,000 active newsgroups, soliciting clients with the offer of assistance in filling in applications for a Green Card Lottery run by the U.S. government. Applicants needed only to send their details on a postcard to be eligible, but Canter and Siegel posed as necessary middlemen who could help with the paperwork of registration, for a fee.
The online community was predictably enraged, but powerless; in the absence of any structural system of redress, suggestions for remedial solutions were limited to the usual collective vigilantism. (“Let’s bomb ’em with huge, useless GIF files, each of us sending them several, so as to overwhelm their mailbox and hopefully get these assholes’ account cancelled by their sesames.”) Canter and Siegel later published a bestselling book, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, which expounded an essentially Lockean argument whereby the Internet geeks who populated the network from its earliest days were characterized as backward “natives,” while the authors were cast in the role of Wild West “pioneers.” The “land,” they argued, should belong to those, like Canter and Siegel, who would work it profitably. The “natives,” stuck in a primitive social system — a volunteerist, commons-based economy — had no meaningful rights to it. Canter and Siegel spawned a wave of imitators, a veritable cottage industry of how-to guides, including Davis Hawke’s The Spambook, Jason Heckel’s instruction manuals, “How to Profit from the Internet,” and Rodona Garst’s Premier Services, “exemplary gray-area spammers,” who were (according to their brochure) “opening the doors to cyber space and smoothing the transition into these infinite markets.”
Several important developments had fundamentally altered the online landscape by the mid-1990s: the foundation of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), alongside the emergence of the Marc Andreessen-led Mosaic web browser, meant the networked computer was about to become far easier to use for many more people, bringing into the online world “a vast influx entirely free of pre-existing intellectual commitments to the ethos of computational resource sharing, research, non-commercial use, and radically free speech.” On New Year’s Day in 1995, the ban on commercial activity on the NSFNET (the successor to Usenet) was rescinded; the Internet ceased to be the property of the U.S. government.
By 2000, the infamous “419 message” — named after the section of the Nigerian penal code pertaining to online fraud — had established itself in the popular consciousness as the quintessential spam email. As Brunton explains, the 419 scam was merely an updated version of the “Spanish prisoner” confidence trick of years gone by: a beautiful, aristocratic woman, incarcerated by the King of Spain for oblique political reasons, needs your help to escaping; in return she will give you some part of her fortune. The plot requires money for bribing guards, hiring guides, and purchasing supplies for the trek through the mountains. Things don’t work out as planned; more money is needed for more bribes, the prisoner falls ill and needs money for a doctor, and on and on. Brunton takes us back a whole century, to a New York Times account of one such syndicate operating in the U.S. in 1898 via Havana: the “prisoner,” in this instance, is a certain Captain D. Santiago de Ochoa, imprisoned in Cuba with a trunk full of French banknotes buried in New Jersey. A variation on the theme would appear in Martin Amis’s London Fields, in which the temptress Nicola Six persuades her lovestruck admirer to part with a large amount of cash to help smuggle a couple of non-existent Thai children to safety. In its modern, digital version, the scam was being carried out on an industrial scale:
What makes 419 so remarkable is that all of this business, this international criminal activity and transfer of wealth and the creation of a small population of specialized, almost craftsman-like spammers, is the constantly metamorphosing story of the Spanish Prisoner — possibly, quantitatively, the most told and retold story of the twenty-first century so far.
Some people lost more than others. In 2000, a businessman named James Adler unsuccessfully sued the government of Nigeria and the country’s central bank, after having paid $5.6 million over several years to participate in transferring stolen funds out of the country, with the promise of a 40 percent cut. A Czech retireee, Jiri Pasovsky, murdered a Nigerian secretary at the country’s Prague embassy in 2003 after being told that the consulate could not help him recover losses amounting to around $600,000. The phenomenon was gloatingly satirized by Nigerian actor and comedian Nkem Owoh, in his 2005 song “I Go Chop Your Dollar”:
National Airport na me get am / National Stadium na me build am / Presiden na my sister brother / You be the mugu, I be the master / Oyinbo [“white person”] I go chop your dollar / I go take your money disappear
Once a new generation of spam filters had learnt to spot the distinctive, cajoling language of commercial spam — as the programmer Paul Graham, developer of the successful Bayesian spam filter observed, “the Achilles heel of the spammers is their message” — spammers turned to innovative new techniques with increasingly mind-boggling results. Cue the arrival of “Litspam,” cut-up literary texts statistically re-assembled to take advantage of flaws in the design and development of Bayesian filters. Filtering may have killed off conventional spam — couched in the language of the respectable sales pitch — but Litspam was an entirely different register, devoid of the usual syntactic rhythm; words functioned not as signifiers but as carriers. The messages read like utter gibberish, with excerpts from Shakespeare plays or Obama speeches messily spliced with the occasional significant word.
New laws and filters had all but wiped out the world of legitimate online marketeers pushing low-margin products, leaving the field open to criminals pushing low-take-up, high-margin products. Spam had shifted from sales pitching for goods or sites to phishing, identity theft, credit card scams, or spreading viruses, worms, and other malware. It became
much more criminal, experimental and massively automated…A striking example of the move into a new kind of computationally inventive spam production. Somewhere, an algorithmic bot with a pile of text files and a mailing list made a Joycean gesture announcing spam’s modernism.
This new phase also saw the proliferation of “splogs,” spam blogs designed to deceive search engines into directing people to their pages. Comprising more than half of the total number of all blogs, these were made up of RSS feeds from other blogs and news sources, chopped up and remixed, inserting relevant links, hour after hour and day after day with minimum human supervision. “Content farms” actually produced human-authored text for some such blogs, filling the web with what Brunton calls “a nonsensical poetry of uselessness” — articles such as “How to wear a sweater vest” and reviews of deodorant containers. The content was utterly meaningless, but just about realistic enough of to attract both search engine returns and clicks.
Having established a working definition of spam — “the use of information technology infrastructure to exploit existing aggregations of human attention” — Brunton is realistically pessimistic about the prospects for a spam-free future. Because the very characteristics that enable spam to happen are also at the core of what makes the Internet what it is: that unique openness and ease of communication, the flexibility of open access, of anonymity and ambiguity. Lose these and you lose the essence of the Internet as we know it, and what remains is “a carefully specific theme park of a system,” a civic-minded, highly-managed proprietary space — in relative terms, a closed network.
The poise and elegance of Finn Brunton’s prose is all the more remarkable considering the high level of technical detail that necessarily pervades this Shadow History of the Internet. For all his pragmatism, he still dares to imagine that our contemporary online ecology might someday evolve into “media platforms that respect our attention and the finite span of our lives expended at the screen.” If there is hope, it is surely to be found precisely in the communitarian ethic of the anti-spam movement itself, in the tireless efforts of a multitude of enthusiasts driven by a desire to fulfill the tremendous potential of the digital revolution — a movement whose own history comprises, in Brunton’s words, “a decade-long case study in online collaboration, community work, and negotiation at the barricades.”
Image Credit: Flickr/epSos.de
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions — is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior — Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society.
The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished — “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place.
In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza — a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love — we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched.
Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers — Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption — her redemption, to making him a better person.”
Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions — when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper — with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions.
If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls — when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life — it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.”
Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma.
And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.”
Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel — forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) — but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other — expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.