Here’s the first half of the original sleeve notes for sometimes expatriate American writer, Robert Coover’s 1977 novel, The Public Burning:
It is the month of June 1953. A new administration has just taken office, headed by former General Dwight E. Eisenhower and his second-in-command, ex-Congressman Richard M. Nixon. They have inherited a country, and a world, fraught with danger and menace, a world in which Uncle Sam’s dream of the American century seems to have gone sour. Only ten years before, the score had been 1,625,000,000 people for the Sons of Light and only 180,000,000 for the Phantom and his Legions of Darkness. And yet, by the beginning of the fifties, the Phantom had a score of 800,000,000 to Uncle Sam’s 540,000,000, with a dubious group of 600,000,000 vacillating in-between. What had gone wrong? Who was responsible? Surely, with both right and might on our side, such a perfidious shift could never have occurred without treason. Up on the fifth floor of the FBI building, Chief Crimebuster of America H. Edgar Hoover is marshalling his formidable forces to ferret out the Enemy Within. And, jumping Jehosophat! he may just have them; maybe not all of them, but two very useful ones. Out of the Lower East Side, he plucks Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Arrested in the summer of 1950, they are tried, found guilty and, on April 5, 1951, “sentenced by the Judge to die—thieves of light to be burned by light—in the electric chair… Then, after the usual series of permissible sophistries, the various delaying moves and light-restoring counter-moves, their fate is at last sealed and it is determined to burn them in New York City’s Times Square on the night of their fourteenth wedding anniversary, Thursday, June 18, 1953.”
May 1, 1994, in his obituary for Nixon, “He was a Crook,” published June 16 in Rolling Stone Magazine, Hunter S. Thompson, whose fingerprints are all over Coover’s novel, wrote: “When he arrived in the White House as VP at the age of 40, [Nixon] was a smart young man on the rise – a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American Dream with a heart full of hate and an overweening lust to be President… As long as [he] was politically alive – and he was, all the way to the end – we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard.” According to Thompson, it was Nixon, not the Red Menace, who “broke the heart of the American Dream” – and the Enemy Within was him and everyone around him. Agnew, Hoover, Kissinger – “brutal brain-damaged degenerates worse than any hitman out of the Godfather.” For Thompson, not even the rose-tinted triumph of the Free World, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Collapse of the Phantom’s Empire could conceal the fact that the American Century had already rotted from within and was now nothing more than a spectacle “finely staged for TV,” as squalid and trumped-up as the eulogies at Nixon’s funeral. Seven years later, whatever optimism Thompson might’ve felt, about the new millennium washing the dirty hands of the old, was definitively put to rest by the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers, hot on the heels of George W. Bush’s phoney election to the White House. “The Towers are gone now,” Thompson wrote in his September 12 ESPN column, “Fear and Loathing in America”:
reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives…
A year later, speaking in an interview on Australia’s ABC radio, Thompson alerted his audience to what is most prescient in Coover’s satire, where it would now be possible to see 9/11 seamlessly elided with that long American tradition of the Public Burning, in which the Voice of Reason “has been cowed and intimidated by the massive flag-sucking, this patriotic orgy that the White House keeps whipping up. You know,” added Thompson, “if you criticize the President it’s unpatriotic and there’s something wrong with you, you may be a terrorist.” Not as if there was anything coincidental about this state of affairs – where, after all, the illegitimacy of the President was already in full public view.
In a section of his ABC interview cut from the broadcast version, Thompson effectively likened 9/11 to the Rosenberg case: “the public version of the news or whatever event,” Thompson said in reply to a question about whether 9/11 ‘worked in favour of the Bush administration’, “is never really what happened. And these people, I think, are willing to take this even further… just looking around […] for who had the motive, who had the opportunity, who had the equipment, who had the will… Yeah, these people were looting the treasury and they knew the economy was going into a spiral downward.” In a radio interview with KDNK (Colorado) in January 2003, Thompson – speaking of US foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 – went further, saying that “Bush is really the evil one here and it is more than just him. We are the Nazis in this game and I don’t like it. I am embarrassed and I am pissed off. I mean to say something. I think a lot of people in this country agree with me…” adding, with eerie prescience, “we’ll see what happens to me, if I get my head cut off next week – it’s always unknown or bushy-haired strangers who commit suicide right afterwards with no witnesses.”
If Thompson’s thinly-veiled “conspiracy theories” (like his “journalism”) deserve to be called fictions, sometimes these play out on the historical register in strange and disturbing ways. And while the business of “fiction” during the normalization period of the ’80s and ’90s drifted far afield of what writers like Thompson, Coover, Mailer, Kesey and others attempted in the wake of the revelation that the American Dream had become a Slough of Despond – into the voluminously self-infatuated autism of the faintly ironic, painfully sincere apologists for America’s collective narcissism, whose most accomplished practitioners were probably Franzen, Foster Wallace, Lethem – there has more recently begun to emerge a post-9/11 reaction; a renewal, in part, of the incomplete business of Thompson’s Gonzo War on Political Hubris and Criminality, fed through the meatgrinder of American Psycho and James Ellroy’s forensic reports from the Hollywood underbelly of “the Dream.”
Among these (a loose grouping that would include the likes of Travis Jeppesen, Joshua Cohen, D. Harlan Wilson, Sean Carswell and precursors like Chris Kraus, Harold Jaffe, Lynne Tillman, Dennis Cooper & Kathy Acker) is an ex-reporter who after fifteen years working the Radio Free Europe nightshift published The News Clown, a monumental indictment of the Bush administration’s all-out assault on the intelligence of the average American. Thor Garcia, the author in question, shares the first-person identity of his main protagonist, a Bay City reporter covering the city’s crime beat and drawn increasingly into the bizarre realities that constitute the new “normal” post-9/11. The premise is not only that reality has outstripped fiction’s capacity to test disbelief – if not to assuage doubt, collective anxiety, or what have you – but that the “real” has infiltrated the realm of the fictional to such a degree that Baudrillard’s famous assertion that “the Gulf War will not have taken place” is not simply inverted (the “media event” is the “real war”), but outstripped (the “real war” is the one you can’t see, because the “real” is the war).
Written between Hunter S. Thompson’s “suicide” in 2005 and the end of the second Bush presidency, The News Clown is a Bildungsroman for those hapless enough to’ve been born during the Nixon administration, weaned under Reagan, and taught the facts of life by Monika Lewinski. Set during the first term of office of one President W.G. Mnung, Garcia’s novel is a swan song for an amnesiac America’s “innocence regained,” afforded by the supposed victory over the communist USSR; a kind of “fear and loathing” in the age of hyperreality where, despite “Star Wars” and a significant increase in US satellite launch activity between 2000 and 2003, Secretary of Defence Colin Powell could nevertheless, and with a straight face, pass off onto the UN Security Council “evidence” of Saddam Hussein’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that made the Cuban Missile Crisis aerial pics look like pure science fiction. An age, too, where grainy videotape footage of Osama Bin Laden, duly authenticated by the CIA and supposedly claiming responsibility for 9/11, could air four days before the 2004 US presidential election, gaining Bush an immediate 6-point lead in opinion polls over his Democrat opponent, Senator John Kerry – encouraging even the least paranoid to consider the possibility (as Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin himself openly remarked at the time) that this crudely designed video’s sole actual purpose was to secure a second term for George W. Bush, the sitting “War President.”
There’s an anecdote that Greil Marcus relates about two-thirds the way through his 2006 book about “a nation whose sense of righteousness goes hand in hand with paranoia,” called The Shape of Things to Come: Prophesy and the American Voice. The anecdote centres around David Thomson, author of the novel Suspects, a kind of film noir “alternative history.” Marcus relates how Thomson, addressing an audience of Princeton students born in the ’80s, explained how the beginning of film noir could be precisely situated not in the 1940s, or 1930s, or even 1920s, but “in the basement of a Dallas police station” on 24 November 1963, two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald – when, to make history into genre, a nightclub owner shot and killed the man arrested for the crime.” It was at that moment, according to Thomson, “that all the paranoia and fear that film noir had been prophesying for twenty years, the sense that our lives are not our own, that forces we cannot see or name are ruling our lives and our destinies – it was then that everything that film noir had prophesied in America exploded into real life.”
But if film noir exploded into real life in November 1963, by the time of the Apollo moon landings and Nixon’s landslide re-election in ’72 – followed by Watergate, the secret tapes and almost certain impeachment – “real life” had already exploded into farce and, as Hunter S. Thompson never ceased recounting, this farce (as if only to prove the oft-abused Marxian dictum) continued its downward spiral, through the Reagan and Bush years, until it finally exploded onto television screens across the world on September 11, in the form of two Boeings flying into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan sometime around 8:45a.m. (the moment at which “farce” became the new credulity and “postmodernism” ended). It’s a chapter of American history that both dominates the background and occupies the centre of Garcia’s The News Clown, where Hunter’s “weird” is no longer weird at all, and where Coover’s enemy menace has become the globe’s most diabolical purveyor of travesty: President W.G. Mnung himself – pictured in the chapter entitled “In Our Time: War is Over” standing shirtless on a tank as part of the “War Victory Celebration,” a naked reference to George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
A sheet of early evening sunlight fell across his right side, draping him in golds and amber, his profile outlined against the pink-orange sky. The president beat his chest with his fists and yowled. He stamped his booted feet against the tank armour. A giant banner hung, lights blinking in the virgin dusk: COONSKIN ACCOMPLISHED. The film showed fighter jets screeching overhead, tanks rolling over sand dunes, the dictator’s statue crashing down. The film cut to pictures of thousands of troops waving flags and shouting: “HOO-HAAA! HOO-HAAA!” (112)
This is meant to be the crowning moment of the second Bush régime’s post-9/11 invasion spree, finishing the job Bush Senior began back in 1991. History has hardly been kind in its assessments of this particular spectacle, but that hardly matters. As one of Garcia’s stock “news clowns” says:
I think the President is trying to send a dual-message here. First he’s telling the American people that he is their triumphant warrior-king, and that they can trust him to secure victory over those who would harm us… And secondly, he’s giving fair warning to all the terrorists and non-allied regimes out there – he’s saying, Look out, Buster Brown, because I’m coming after you with my bare hands, in the grand American tradition. The strong, tough American nation that I lead is not in the mood to compromise with anybody, whether you be Islamic fascist terrorist or wine-guzzling tolerance-spouting European UN waffler… And I think “COONSKIN ACCOMPLISHED” really declares his resolve, his steel, if you will, and it’s a message the American people are anxious to hear, and the community of foreign nations will want to hear as well… (114-5)
The novel then turns its sights on 9/11 itself. The chapter in question, entitled “Hide in ‘Plane’ Sight: Cannibals on the Loose,” begins with Garcia’s protagonist lounging with one of the novel’s legion of freaks and losers (ordinary people, in other words) named Eugene Keeks. “Gene” has a thing for exploitation films, Presidential assassination stories and assassination attempts (Lincoln and Reagan), and conspiracy theories generally:
Gene would say: “Everything’s connected.” For example, he said John Hinckley had known the Bush family, and wasn’t it “strange” that no one talked about how George H.W. Bush took over as President after Reagan was shot by Hinckley? … “Everything’s connected. Everything. Or it just happens that way, right? … Just a coincidence?” (120)
Thor and Gene watch a VHS of Cannibal Holocaust (a 1980s mockumentary/exploitation horror directed by Ruggero Deodato, originally inspired by Italian media coverage of Red Brigade “terrorism”), with a vodka-addled Thor having his credulity severely tested by the film’s schlock special effects. “It looked real,” he informs us before becoming violently ill. “It is real!” Gene says – yanking Thor’s chain. This is all just a set-up for the novel’s pièce-de-résistance: the conspiracy of the cartoon planes. The episode is worth quoting at length:
After I joined Cities News, Gene took it as an excuse to start yanking my chain even harder.
“You claim to be a reporter – or are you one of them?” he would egg me on. “You’re one of them! You probably believe what they say. You probably think I’m crazy…”
“The hell,” I said. “I don’t believe a word they say.”
Once, during the break between Golden Ninja Warrior and Bride of Chucky, I asked him, “So what about the Boeing, Gene. Did it hit the Pentagon on 9/11 or not?”
“THERE WERE NO PLANES!”
“EVERY PLANE SEEN ON TV ON 9/11 WAS FAKE! THEY WERE CARTOONS!”
“Goddamn it, Gene. Come on, man. I’m seriously asking you about the Boeing here.”
“Do you believe everything you see on TV? As long as it looks sort of real and it’s on the news, you believe it?”
“Gene, Gene – that’s crazy. No planes? Cartoon planes? What the hell are you talking about? I mean, nobody could… it’s too… it’s too-too much. It’s way on the other side of too-too much.”
Gene giggled, sipped vodka, bugged out his eyes. He cackled.
“Don’t think they can’t do it? Anything can be faked on TV. Who do you think’s running the TV signal? How do you know the TV wasn’t on tape-delay?”
“My God, no planes. That would be the biggest fake-out of all time. The absolute biggest. Kennedy assassination and Bay of Pigs and Oswald be damned.”
Gene sipped, cackled.
“You’re one of them. YOU ARE! You’re one of them! You believe whatever they say…”
“The hell I do.”
“It was easy,” said Gene. “They exploded the buildings and then pasted the planes on to the videos. It would only take a few seconds to do that. Then they showed it to the world, and everybody instantly became convinced that aluminum airplanes can knock down steel and concrete towers! JUST LIKE THEY TOLD YOU ON TV! The World Trade Center!”
“Goddamn it, Gene. I tell you, that’s monstrous. It’s sinful to even think about.”
“Don’t you know that the only way to beat them is to think as crazy they do? They call it The Big Lie. Ever hear of the Big Lie?”
“Goddamn it, Gene.”
“They also call it Hide In Plain Sight. Everything there is to know is right in front of us, right in front of our eyes. They just control us so much we don’t even believe our own eyes.” (122-3)
In a review of The News Clown published in nth position (entitled “A Sickness Called America”), Jim Chaffee describes the book as a “coming of age” set not against “an adolescent nation establishing borders or growing through hard times, but rather against a decaying and degenerate nation populated by inbred, narcissistic adolescents long past their second decades”:
A tapestry of a post-apocalyptic society whose debt-bound, clueless denizens are so anaesthetized from noise, shopping and drugs, prescription or otherwise, that they are unaware the calamity they fear as bogeyman has already overtaken them.
For Chaffee, Garcia’s America is a “third-world intellectual trailer park of violent, superstitious, uneducable functional illiterate turds-in-a-bunch bowl, smoking ruin of an air-conditioned nightmare” – more Ferdinand Céline than Henry Miller. The dominant tone of the book, however, isn’t anger (as in Céline) but resignation: this is, after all, the echo-chamber after Fukuyama’s End of History; it’s Hunter S. Thompson on the eternal campaign trail, knowing the beast never truly dies, it just goes on being re-elected. Which, in the Land of the Free, is probably exactly as it should be. But the precursor to whom Chaffee most fully associates Garcia’s comedic, self-deprecating poke in the eye of the national consciousness isn’t Thompson but Gilbert Sorrentino, specifically the latter’s novel Steelworks set, in Chaffee’s thumbnail overview, in the period “when America began its path to global empire, feudal corporate dominance of society and government with a citizenry in indebted servitude, and built a constant war culture around a mythical enemy from which,” he adds, “the US is required as knight-errant to save the world.”
While Sorrentino “approaches the portrait locally,” Chaffee argues, “Garcia presents his global study juxtaposing news stories against the quotidian existence” of his eponymous “gatherer.” And while “the news grows more surreal as time elapses and events progress,” it “never becomes more outlandish than what appears literally in the US press on a daily basis.” By shrewdly manoeuvring within the surreality of spectacle news, Garcia steps beyond any purely satirical or even anthropological impetus. At root, there is nothing didactic or even vaguely instructive about The News Clown – like Thompson, Garcia eschews irony (in the common understanding of that word), just as he eschews history’s self-denial as genre. There are no “rules of the game” that can meaningfully be abided by, as Chaffee points out, in a period in which “the CIA began to run drugs into the US as part of national security, beginning with heroin in Vietnam [and continuing] with cocaine from Latin America during the Reagan presidency as a means of supplementing the clandestine income earned by selling weapons to terrorist nations like Iran as a means of funding the war in Nicaragua, legitimate funding for which had been cut off by Congress.”
This is the reality in which Garcia’s news clowns operate as propaganda fodder, serving up the kind of tripe that passed for informed reporting in the lead-up to the second Gulf War (Chaffee admonishes his reader to remember Judith Miller, “who filled her New York Times reporting with Bush administration lies”). On the side of investigative journalism reminiscent of Bernstein and Woodard, we are given to recall the fate of Gary Webb, whose attempts to expose the CIA drug-running behind the Iran-Contra affair led to a media smear-campaign that destroyed both his career and his life. Aware that a dirty war is being waged against the so-called “free press,” Garcia’s protagonist responds by effectively “drinking himself to death… living in a worm-infested apartment in the heart of a ghetto.” And here Chaffee makes an important distinction: Thor’s suicidal drinking “isn’t the joyful rebelliousness of Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a book to which The News Clown has sometimes been compared. “Anyone who mistakes this joyless banging of the head… with Thompson’s,” Chaffee insists, “misses the point.” It is, he argues, a form of self-brutalisation, “bludgeoning consciousness, not enhancing it,” with The News Clown as New World Order parable in which all the Horatio Algers fall flat on their arse and kick themselves lying down, because that’s the only way to move forward in this life. As in the noir template on which all of this is founded, the Hero is really just the biggest loser in the room at any given time.
In 2014, Chaffee published his own monumental assault on decency, entitled The American Dream (Studies in Mathematical Pornography) – an almost 700-page insult of a novel hurled in the face of Norman Rockwell, the Statue of Liberty, and James Truslow Adams – which Garcia (returning the favour) described in a (spoof) interview as “a horrifying, hilarious, soul-sucking, psychedelic experience of excruciating unforgettable intensity… likely to be the least reassuring thing you will read this decade, perhaps in your lifetime… If you don’t come close to dying during the reading of this book, you’re probably already dead.” Garcia, never known for his moderation, went on to take aim at the current purveyors of the “Great American Novel,” with Chaffee as the long-overdue antidote to what was dead already in the hands of Mailer and Bellow (though Greil Marcus makes strenuous claims for the genre still being alive and well in the hands of Philip Roth). Garcia’s real target is David Foster Wallace, whose penchant for obsessive detail Garcia sets against Chaffee’s pure excess, as one might set Proust against the Marquis de Sade.
Like de Sade, The American Dream is something of a godless morality tale, a type of deranged Paul Bunyan, instructing America on a path of “redemption.” That this path should pass both through masochistic domains of mathematical (un)reason and the lowest forms of wilful bodily degradation speaks volumes for Chaffee’s vision of contemporary America. The novel opens in classic realist fashion – somewhere between Dos Passos and Jonathan Lethem – “with a claustrophobic scene involving a pathetic family and a dying mother [‘Jehovah’s most devoted and single-minded witness’]” as if gathered around the deathbed of the “American illusion” (says Garcia). Chaffee’s protagonist, named Whitey Butcher, stands there “looking one last time at this dying woman racked with cancer” (7):
She opened her brown eyes to see me standing there alone beside the bed; offered no smile, not even with her eyes, certainly not in the set of her mouth. The weak voice emitted just above my signal-to-noise ratio and I bent nearer to capture the words.
“I tried to wait… to see Armageddon… the resurrection.” (5)
Whitey, an 18-inch-hung Vietnam vet and New Orleans maths PhD specialising in partial differential equations, thence proceeds for the rest of the novel as if tasked with precisely the business of bringing a type of personal Armageddon about: a funereal orgy dedicated to dead Mother America. Soon Whitey is marauding between the Latin Quarter and Tulane campus like an avenging Tyrone Slothrop, stirred from a flaccid, undirected Oedipalism into a kind of tumescent, nihilistic rage, as if his one wish is both to “degrade” and/or apocalyptically fuck every Mother America surrogate he finds (or rather, it’s them who find him and initiate all the insatiable fucking, he’s really just a catalyst, an apocalyptic agent rather than an agency). Unlike Pynchon’s “rocketman,” though, Whitey’s apotheosis isn’t directed by hidden forces at work in the world: the real conspiracy here is not in the subtle (or not-so-subtle) manipulations of Reason (causality in Slothrop’s case, the very “reason for being” in Whitey’s), but in Reason’s wholesale dissipation. Behind its Norman Rockwell veneer, the leftovers of Nixon’s America is nothing but cheap pornography: pornography, to paraphrase Bataille, in the form of Reason.
Whitey’s “progress” thus begins with the realisation of what is in fact his ontological condition, against which the “American Dream” (in whatever form it takes) is revealed as collective somnambulism – with all the machinery of a dream-rationalisation at work to prop up its “consensual hallucination” – as perverse and involuted ultimately as the mathematical screeds (Lie groups, manifolds, tangent spaces, cohomology, etc., etc.) that digress the narrative of Whitey’s otherwise mundane existence of drug-taking and sex whenever something like a “moral” threatens to be extracted from it. Chaffee wasn’t joking when he subtitled his book Studies in Mathematical Pornography, and there are countless instances in which The American Dream reads like a gonzo porn down-and-out-in-New Orleans version of Sade’s Philosophie dans le Boudoir, oscillating between excesses of “rationalism” and “debauchery” like some sort of topological equation designed to show us how each is in fact a superposition of the other.
Nor is Whitey an especially likeable character: the first person narrative is no doubt designed to test the reader’s sensibilities in allowing any identification through the elision of subjectivities. In fact, as Garcia ably notes, Whitey is more than simply figuratively a prick. Unlike Pynchon’s Slothrop, Chaffee makes no attempt to give Whitey “attributes that might make you sympathetic to him.” In this sense, he’s as all-American as can be. “Instead,” notes Garcia,
we see this guy smoking hash and babbling about Riemannian manifolds and so forth, but in a totally asshole and condescending way. You have no idea what he’s talking about, but he acts like you should, like, right – you should know exactly what he means as he rambles on about diluting his hash and Cauchy-Riemann equations. It’s a staggering combination of arrogance and madness, but totally lucid. You’re thinking – this guy’s a real prick, come on, man, what’s next… Well, sure enough, without much explanation, the next thing you know he’s drinking and having a threesome with a couple of nymphomaniacs named Lori and Millie. It seems perfectly natural.
What doesn’t seem natural is the extent of America’s complicity in Whitey’s acts of degradation – and that is perhaps the most scandalous element in this book. When Whitey finds his ultimate Mother America surrogate in the figure of Dina, a highly intellectual and perversely sexed woman (she’s supposedly a linguistics PhD) who Whitey gradually transforms into a dog (and eventually “sells”), it is as if the true nature of the American Dream has been revealed at last.
There is something in Whitey’s “rage” that is so obvious it could easily have been passed over (were this a book by Mailer or Kesey, for example) without remark, except that Chaffee makes it impossible to sublimate. While Chaffee openly courts charges of misogyny (when not inviting accusations of outright misanthropy), there is arguably a far more caustic examination of “America” as gender-dysphoric at work here. Whitey’s first sexual encounter in the book puts us on notice: having returned to New Orleans from his mother’s deathbed, Whitey falls in with Lori, who takes him straight from the airport for a night on the town. They wind up, at Lori’s instigation, in a lesbian bar, where Lori picks up Millie, who remarks that Whitey is “pretty” and questions Lori: “You sure he’s a boy?” Lori later riffs on this herself, describing Whitey as “a pretty boy. With a big dick” (23). Whitey, though completely passive at this stage of the novel, is faintly riled at being called a “Nellie,” though is happy to “camouflage” himself by living in a downtown gay neighbourhood off Bourbon Street.
The threesome with Millie immediately subverts the conventional gender descriptors: Millie is described as being “flat as a little boy, her dense sprout of pitch-black pubic hair narrowing at the mons… to thread up the middle of her stomach and branch to tufts of black sprouts like anemone scattered around puffy nipples the colour of moles…” (19). In an inversion of the later dominant/submissive role Whitey will play with Dina, here it is Lori who controls the action, directing Whitey in his intercourse with the gender-ambiguous Millie, who he is finally instructed to sodomise. Before doing so, however, we are given a description of the “luxurious black growth that clamoured vine-like up over her ass and along her spine.” Whitey, who may indeed be suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder – but one characteristic of the whole “nightmare” of post-Nixon USA rather than superficially the Vietnam War – appears at this moment to reveal, or even be symptomatic of, a kind of autogynophobia at work in the “American psyche” (insofar, that is, as the novel can be read as “allegorical” of an America at large: Coover’s repugnant “Uncle Sam” transgendered). But Chaffee isn’t interested here in participating in any sort of simplistic ritual “emasculation” of his protagonist (a sophomoric Freudianism of unacknowledged homo-erotic impulses, for example – though this, too, is offered up to the reader vis-à-vis Whitey’s insistance that he “knows” Millie is really a female while drawing the line at Lori’s suggestion of group sex with a couple of Aussie blokes). Masculinity, for Chaffee, is part and parcel of the novel’s sense of ambivalence (or as Joyce says, ambi-violence): like every other complex manifold, it’s a question of where and how that line is drawn. Rather, what Chaffee is concerned with in probing Whitey’s binary emasculation/hypermasculation is the exposure of a deeper nihilistic impulse: the libidinal “violence” directed at the “Mother America” within.
Which inevitably requires us to consider what in fact the nature of this violence is. At a certain point in the book, Whitey’s “sublimation” of his dead mother is matched to Dina’s mythic “transcendence”: by way of the degradations (referred to as “cuckold training”) of which Whitey has become the ambiguous agent, Dina is gradually transformed not only into a “dog” but also into a kind of porn “goddess,” “Ma-Dina,” complete with a ménage of avatars (“information ghosts” who inhabit a “deformation retract” in Whitey’s apartment). This is all hocus dialectics up to a point. As one of Dina’s avatars explains towards the end of the novel, “Some think of her as Aphrodite, others as Ishtar or Astarte, but it is all the same. She is ascended. Her ordeal is over. She has been transmogrified and transcends mortal concerns” (533). Just as Whitey himself is gradually transformed – into a type of mathematical Priapism (“the biggest dick in the world,” as one of Dina’s avatar’s says. “The great white hope” [563-4]).
At the end of the book, Dina (who, though immaterial at this point, is referred to as Whitey’s “betrothed”) is renamed “Faith.” Faith, obvious connotations notwithstanding, is thence revealed as the controlling agency of Whitey’s dominant/passive “binary switch.” Whitey, like a parody of Duchamp’s “bachelor machines,” is – despite his constant appeals to mathematical reason – programmed by the algorithm of Faith’s absence (643). In essence, she has become the classic “ideal object” whose surrogates, like Lacan’s petits objets, keep the libidinal circuit spinning out its narratives of displacement and deferral, of satyriasis and insatiety. And it’s at this point that it becomes clear that Whitey himself is really just a type of allegorical sub-programme: a filter in the general psychic apparatus of “America,” corresponding to an impossible desire. The American Dream necessarily ends with a kind of looping back, a topological fold, returning to the oft alluded-to yet constantly elided “trauma” of the Vietnam War: perhaps Whitey, himself a veteran who’d been seriously wounded in action, is really dead – one more “information ghost” fed into the great Dream Machine? We’ll never know.
The novel’s irresolution differs from Pynchon’s in Gravity’s Rainbow by its banality: the causality switch hasn’t simply been re-set in the mind/body of the protagonist alone, but in America as a whole – what we might call Whitey’s delirium is symptomatic and becomes increasingly pronounced the more he (as a kind of readerly avatar) tries to cognize it. In the end, Whitey’s mathematical “reasoning” blurs into a type of “schizophrenia” (what Mailer called a “state of unfocused paranoia”) in which everything that appears to be real is in fact a construct, world-without-end.
At stake here, just as in Garcia’s The News Clown, is the very status of “fictionality.” Both novels taunt the sanctimonious “wailing wall” of newsreel culture with their schlock gender horror and “cartoon planes” – not out of some gratuitous impulse, but from a refusal to ingratiate themselves with an ideology of the “evidentiary real” which is in truth nothing but a simulation anyway. These novels don’t trade in the “plausibility” of genre – as if to say, no matter how whacked-out fiction aspires to be, “real life” is always one-upping it. As Tom Waits remarked at the launch of his 2008 “Glitter and Doom” concert tour, “Leona Helmshey’s dog made $12 million last year. Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio, made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains.” We live, after all, in a world in which the benchmark of “reality” is the endlessly recycled paranoia of Fox TV and CNN newsfeeds.
But observations of this kind are commonplace, so much so that “fiction” of a certain type has become a refuge, not for the escapists among us, but for the “realists.” (What place is there in literature for an avant-garde when fiction’s most radical task is to ameliorate and reassure?) Not so very long ago, writers like Mailer and Roth could seriously imagine their work exercising an influence over the moral consciousness of their own, or ensuing, times (“the submerged wrath of some good American minds,” as Mailer said). But taken all-in-all, the likes of Chaffee and Garcia – as with Coover, too, had he written The Public Burning today – are nothing short of “terrorists.” This seems the only available conclusion in a world where “literature,” merely by affirming a state of affairs, would provoke mass hysteria if taken at its word (which is also to say, in the first place, read). From “fiction” we proceed to “history-as-genre,” in which “history” itself has been, as Chaffee says, “replaced by acceptable mythos… with modern communications systems providing impossible forms of social networking in which people live without having to experience reality first hand.” It would constitute, therefore, an act of subversion commensurate with Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, to read Chaffee and Garcia in the literalist mode that, in a certain sense, they were intended.
To call either The News Clown or The American Dream a “parody” would thus be to miss the point, since these novels possess, like Thompson’s reporting, a core element of exact sociological realism. Which is also what makes this a writing without obvious redeeming qualities, since the “realism” in question is not the kind that provides a critique from which society, however uncomfortably, can draw a lesson – since it first requires society (this bought-and-sold pornocapitalist America) to renounce itself. Here is the point at which Chaffee comes closest to Dos Passos’s dissections of America as genre, and to Roth’s “ecstasy of sanctimony” and “the prosecuting spirit” turned inside-out. If for Dos Passos “the Bill of Rights is a children’s story, the Constitution a rumour,” for Chaffee they are in fact insults to be spat in the eyes of any self-respecting intelligence.
In a recent review of Damien Ober’s novel, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America (2015) – another, if less acerbic attack on the “society of the spectacle” – Chaffee zeroes in on the frequently abused “notion of freedom,” a word, he says,
that has no well-defined meaning and yet is bandied about with the US push for what it calls Democracy, a form of government that has little to do in practice with freedom. That is clear in the Declaration of Independence, with the famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need not quibble over the distinctions between liberty and freedom (or the notion of Creator among a group of plutocrats, most especially Jefferson, who were deists, not Christians), but instead focus on the real intent of this statement of mostly aristocratic property owners who were incensed about taxes and more generally the mercantile system run by Great Britain. John Witherspoon says it pretty clearly in the novel at the time of his death: “That’s what we did with The Declaration. It’s a masterpiece, the best slogan ever, the kind you can build eons’ worth of civilization on.” That captures the essence of The Declaration, a slogan, a propaganda piece by plutocrats, a statement of limited scope that applied to a handful of white men.
The true perversity of Chaffee’s novel is not that such implied degradation of “the notion of freedom” could ever be openly countenanced (of course it has been), but that it represents, in the face of all the flag-sucking protestations to the contrary, what D.H. Lawrence in his day called the “dark suspense” at the bottom of the American soul: that longed-for personal Armageddon which is the secret object of desire of The American Dream.
Against the perennial drama of foreboding which has defined American consciousness since the dawn of the Cold War, Chaffee poses an ecstasy of revelation that is fully consumed within itself. Whitey is the archetypal primitive man possessed of a Reason undifferentiable from libido: the nation’s “black” soul, so to speak, in white-face, like some sort of return of the repressed. As in Pynchon, Whitey’s mathematical autism is more or less a metonym for the whole rampant military industrial complex in whose grip the memory of what Lincoln called “a nation of free men” was driven to suicide. Not the nation, which already had been, but the memory, which after all was nothing but the memory of a dream. This is the unsought-for corollary to that vast body of writing that has treated America as “an experiment in form” on the assumption that it is forever in the process, and ever available to the desires, or reinvention, of making anew. But if America is such an experiment it is because, as Marcus says in the voice of Dos Passos, “it can be unmade at any moment,” since “the language everyone really uses is babble” and “to say even the simplest thing a new language must be found.”
Mailer famously described America as “the most dialectical of nations” by dint of its inner tyranny: a “tyranny whose borders are undefined; one discovers how far one can go by travelling in a straight line until one is stopped…” Which is a fine idea if you believe in the availability of such a landscape, with the cut-and-dried topology of straight lines and concrete objects. But in the complex manifold of contemporary spectacular society, walking the line gets you precisely nowhere – as Hunter S. Thompson time and again demonstrated, and Mailer tacitly acknowledges when he points ahead from the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam, civil rights, the student revolution, Watergate and everything that followed: a “dialectical inversion” in which “subliminal political sense” was no longer enough to disentangle the finely spun “dream” that clothed the hidden hand of the corporations, secret services and mafia whose interests the “republic” now existed solely to serve. And while still holding to the belief that the Kennedy assassination had opened “a hairline crack in the American totalitarianism of the fifties,” Mailer – anticipating Thompson, was obliged to concede that, in doing so, totalitarianism as it had previously been understood had come to transcend itself into a new manifestation of the American “dream,” with the operative elements “working so well joined together that nobody could begin to point an accusation without wondering if he were irremediably paranoid.”
Presented as a lecture in the Department of English, Sydney University, 12 August, 2015.
Louis Armand is the Director of the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. His books include The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013) and the novel Breakfast at Midnight (2011), described by 3:AM magazine’s Richard Marshall as “a perfect modern noir”.