A Superintendent’s Eyes
(New London: Hozomeen Press, 2001)
(Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2001)
I often wonder what you would see if you turned time inside out. That is, while the pummeling of exterior events is easy to study, what is less visible but more worth wondering about is how people relate emotionally and intellectually to historical surges.
Let’s think about New York City. In the last few decades, we’ve had the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, leading to the empowerment of the banks and the consequent austerity drive, then toward increasing disrepair and the starvation of city services. This story has been laid out in the press and various books but to find the inner history of these times, both here and across the country, one would need to turn to fiction. There one would find a description of the psychological and social coping mechanisms that have been developed to deal with the prickly conditions of little money and shelved hopes. A number of novels, such as Peter Plate’s Snitch Factory (1996) (which describes S.F. social workers dealing with the underfunded, red-tape crammed welfare bureaucracy,) and James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing (2001) (looking at survival strategies of a scrub baseball team), have poked into people’s ways of making their lives manageable in times of retrenchment. In contrast, the two books to be considered here—the first, sulky, melancholy, yet at bottom defiant; the second, brash, deeply lyrical, but more conventional—discuss another psychological register, that of the ability to look forward to better times…
Both answer the question: How do people keep believing in the future after 30 years of generalized hopelessness? Nowadays, though little dreams wander on, the big ones, even those of triumphant capitalism, have been slashed to ribbons.
It’s ironic to think, for example of all the hot air in the 1950s and ’60s about how our affluent, motorized, automated society had escaped poverty. It seemed we only had one major problem left: how we could productively fill our leisure time. Nowadays, there are few grand visions of the future, and those that are produced are decidedly unclear. Thus, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, a book so verbose when it comes to eye-popping, carefully imagined descriptions of terrain, gets downright crabbed when describing the new federated society on the red planet. The author settles for a few vague references to Mondragon and environmental courts.
Sometimes one questions whether one can find any broader hope trickling anywhere. What the two authors under review here provide are very modest attempts at utopianism, one by noting some of the elements that would club together to create happier circumstances, and the other by devising what might be called a utopia of special pleading.
The more elemental work, Steve Dalachinsky’s A Superintendent’s Eyes, documents serendipitous occasions when an individual’s day brightens because it opens into prospects of better social arrangements.
Two emphases should be made immediately. One, don’t jump to the conclusion that Dalachinsky is one of those feather-brained lightweights or patty cake bohos who is delighted by some primal epiphany where he communes with a rock or pencil case. As he makes clear, the bright moments he is illuming only appear when one peers into a better darkness, that is, when a casual concatenation of quotidian insights helps one imagine improved community, not personal, triumphs or understandings.
Second, despite this underlying positive tone, the work is hardscrabble. The narrator is growing older, getting a paunch, worn out, and wound down his jobs and relationships. He is a super and sidewalk vendor in his fifties, feeling creaky when he is asked to climb up to on a ledge in front of the shoe store or when cleaning the drains on the roof, “it’s early dammit, nice & early.” Nor, we learn, has he had easy hoeing in his life, having made fitful visits to psychiatric institutes: “Right after becoming a ‘fountain pen,’ they couldn’t decide whether to sedate me or give me shock treatment … it was my first real experience with drugs but not with electricity. I already had a TV, a record player, and a lamp.”
So, by now, he has thoroughly familiarized himself with misery, but also grown feelers to detect the times when life allows a utopian translucency. This can be seen in “I hear sleeping,” for example, where he describes sitting in a restaurant, bushed from shoveling snow. Suddenly, two links emerge. A couple talk about how they earlier had sex while Steve was plodding away, and a hard-rocking American song, sung in Vietnamese, comes on the box. What’s pressing to consciousness is the deep compatibility between peoples and between the rounds of work and pleasure. This is not a picture, but instead an invocation, of the feeling tones of a more humane society, all clinched by the penultimate image of a reconciled nature, whose wind provides him with this: “the pavement out front has been breathed clean of its gift of snow.”
To end with another case, in the story “little things,” the same narrator charts a night of insomnia in which mundane worries have made a squirrel cage of his brain, only relieved by the inane, repetitive memory of a Beach Boys song, which he comically tries to cancel by “crush[ing] my ears with a heavy pillow,” and by a fixated vision of a beautiful glass inkwell he should have never sold. We can take these night thoughts as presenting the enthrallment of contemporary life with its possessiveness, anxiety-producing work, and sulphurically tedious pop culture. Against this he poses a moment in daylight.
Walking down the dampening street I got lost
in the young Chinese girl’s dark ponytail while
thinking about the archways on the church steeple & the statue of saint someone-I-was-too-far-away-to-tell-who
Standing below them like a mirage
As if blessing the oncoming stale night
This complex finds a suggestiveness in these non-aligned fragments that tie the perky spirit of the half-naturalized Chinese girl with the bulky religious enclosure, whose guardian saint’s namelessness gives it an ecumenical presence. It is this prefiguration, putting together the spirit of the young with a desire for transcendence, not the worries of the present, that serve as the loci of happiness, and, moreover, these moments are “those things that force one to be expressive & to create oneself.” This can be said more aphoristically. He ends by arguing that it is only his ability to sees the fragments of as-yet-not-assembled community that allows him access to his Muse.
One may say Dalachinsky is providing an overly timid, strained utopianism, but isn’t it one congruent with our bleak time? As Irving Howe notes, it is not always possible to spell out one’s hopes. People, he says, “have no choice but to recognize that at any particular historical moment these strivings [toward candor, freedom, truth, and love] can be suppressed effectively, surviving for men of intelligence less as realities to be counted on than as potentialities to be nurtured.” This is the type of nurturing Dalachinsky does in letting his quirky grousing dwell on the yet-unjoined utopian filaments.
A more robust picture of what an alternative social arrangement could be appears in Dylan Horrock’s pictorial novel. Less grandiose, the writer/artist tucks his reformed society into a little-visited corner of New Zealand and gives us not a redrafted blueprint of life but what might be labeled a special interest utopia. Such a utopia is represented when only a single aspect of society is changed and everything else goes on the same.
We’ve seen this type of thing many times. In Lord Bacon’s The New Atlantis, the leading string is science. On this isolated island, scientists rule and have reorganized procedures so that most social energy is directed into the mines, undersea labs, and other sites where experiments are carried on. However, other areas of life, such as marriage, commerce, government by a king and even religion—a shipwrecked voyager has taught the inhabitants Christianity—are left more or less as they were in Bacon’s England. To take an example closer to us, we can cite Edward Bellamy’s late-19th century speculative work, Looking Backward. In this envisioned future, financial inequality has been eliminated, as the whole economy has been nationalized and the government has established the same wage for every occupation, but other key aspects of society, from consumerism to romance to child rearing, remain in place.
In these works, the component of social arrangements that the authors monkey with is so fundamental that the society that results from their manipulation can be radically contrasted with the one of their day. One can imagine, though, that it would be possible to alter a less significant aspect of the world, leave the rest intact, and arrive at a society only slightly bent. This is what we find in Hicksville, where work, religion, romance, science, coffee shops, and other fundamentals are just as they would be in any other backwater, except for one change: the place of comic books in society! In Hicksville, everyone from the local grocer to the friendly innkeeper to a fisherman is an erudite expert on comics, and the town library houses the greatest collection of first editions.
The eccentricities of the town are only gradually revealed through the device of having a stranger appear in town. Leonard Batts, a biographer who specializes in the lives of comic book artists and writers, has made the arduous trek to the out-of-the-way Hicksville, birthplace of the world’s most famous comics creator, Dick Burger. Burger is so rich from TV and film spinoffs of his books that he can afford two hot tubs … in his jet. It comes as no surprise that Burger got into comics, since he grew up in a town as monomaniacal about illustrating them and creating them as this one; although once Batts learns this, he has not got to the bottom of Burger’s life. Certain dirty transactions that caused him to leave town in the dead of night still need to be uncovered and provide a notable bit of suspense.
In an astute few pages on the genre, Howe argues that the author of a utopia or dystopian faces a challenge in deciding how close to append the society he or she creates to contemporary life. “To stay too close to the probable means … to lose the very reason for its existence, to appear merely implausible means to surrender its power to shock.” Horrock’s book avoids this dilemma by keeping his altered society quite close to those now in existence and by generating most of the action from real world problems such as the difficulty of connecting romantically or the inability to keep one’s integrity as an artist when working commercially. He loses the power to shock but gains back literary/graphic force through his affecting realism. Moreover, Horrock’s vignettes are punctuated with arresting images, as in the scene were Grace, having tried to find her ex-lover the whole evening, sits at base of the lighthouse he keeps, as its vast ray sweeps over her head, like a giant’s burning staff.
We can take both of these volumes as testimony that the urge to create a fully elaborated floor plan of the future may no longer be strong, but that a scaled-back utopian urge still feeds into the times. As evidence we have seen Horrock’s creation of a town that has strayed just a little off the plumb line of normality and Dalachinsky’s grasping at straws of luminescence in a demoralized city. French theoreticians have been telling us the day of grand narratives is over, so perhaps these chastened creations are the closest we can approach the desire for a humane society, a desire, I believe, that is still found in our inner skies, moving with the rhythm of the moon.