There’s been a lot about soldiers in the news recently, both good and bad, and suddenly all us civilians are struggling to understand military culture. For the curious it might be worth taking a look at David Lipsky’s Absolutely American (I’ll be reading it sometime soon since it’s on the reading queue). The book is about the four years that Lipsky spent following a class of cadets through West Point. Lipsky is not a military guy, and his outsider’s perspective helps explain how the military fits in to our heterogeneous society. Of special interest to those who might have read the book already, here’s the transcript of a chat with Lipsky that follows up on a lot of the cadets that are in the book. Nearly all of them have been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
After spending a lot of time over the last week discussing Borders’ new strategy to display more books face out (and thereby reduce the number of books a typical store carries), it turns out that the whole discussion may have been moot. The struggling chain had a need for more money to “remodel stores and pay for new technology,” but, thanks to the rocky climate on Wall Street, Borders was initially unable to find a willing lender. Translation: without an infusion of cash, Borders was going to run out of money.This left CEO George Jones with few options. Pershing Square, a hedge fund with investments in many large retailers and Border’s largest shareholder, has agreed to “lend $42.5 million and to make an offer for some of [Borders’] international chains,” according to Bloomberg. The loan comes with a huge interest rate and comes with various provisions that give the fund ever larger control over the book chain’s fate. Borders has also said that it is now seeking a buyer and the company has suspended its dividend. This deal is something of a last resort for Borders, and the stock plunged nearly 30% on Friday, the biggest drop in the company’s history.So what does this mean to Borders customers and employees? It’s still too early to know. the deal with Pershing staves off the possibility of Borders running out of money in the near future, and offers a life raft for the chain to get through the challenges brought on by the slowing economy. The path forward is tenuous at best; expect more developments in the coming months.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you’d prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) “400,000 people downloaded the report within hours” of its release.
I got a real kick out of this story about Edward P. Jones doing a reading at a Volvo dealership near Washington, DC.The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he’d be appearing at a school or in a conference room. “I’ve never been in a car dealership before, not having a car,” he mused. “But I used to pass by here on the bus.” Classic. And, by the way, is this the sort of thing we all talk about when we wish that literary fiction got more exposure? I think maybe it is.
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.
In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.
Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.
But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.
No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.
But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.
Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.