Monday, March 29, 2010

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier

An entertaining book that makes a compelling case for "X" as a sensibility rather than a generation. For the author, it all boils down to your answer to one question:

Do you want to change the world?
A. Yes, and I'm proud to say we did it, man. We changed the world. Just look around you!
B. Yes, absolutely, and I promise I will get back to doing that just as soon as interest rates return to where they're supposed to be.
C. Omigod, omigod, changing the world and helping people is, like, totally important to me! I worked in a soup kitchen once and it was so sad but the poor people there had so much dignity!
D. The way you phrase that question is so fucking cheesy and absurd that I am not even sure I want to continue with this pointless exercise.

If you chose D, Gordinier says, accept: you're and Xer, even if you happen to be eighty years old.

But you don’t have to be eighty years old to remember Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory which, Gordinier also says, tells you everything you need to know about what Xers believe in.

In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the four bad kids are punished. They suffer. They shrink, swell up, fall down holes, almost drown in chocolate rivers. And you want them to suffer—they deserve it. Charlie Bucket, on the other hand, is rewarded for his honorable behavior: he inherits the candy factory. I saw this movie roughly four or five times a year when I was a kid, as did millions of Xers, if my unscientific analysis is correct. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to suggest that repeated absorption of these lessons—it’s wrong to sell out, it’s wrong to want to be the center of attention, it’s wrong to be too grasping and transparent in your ambitions—made a deep and lasting imprint on the Gen-X sensibility.

And also why Xers find the millennials so exasperating and cracked.

The millennials seemed to revel in doing exactly what the bad Wonka kids did—who were Paris Hilton and Clay Aiken other than updated models of Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee?—and yet they were not punished at all. They were rewarded. America loved them. Theirs was the infinite jest. Their amusements stretched all the way from Orlando to Burbank like an expanse of monocultural starch. And where did that put Generation X? Well, we were left to look on—not unlike Wonka himself, as played so brilliantly by Gene Wilder—muttering our sarcastic asides and waiting for the brats to self-destruct.

Spot on, Jeff.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

This a political tract dressed up as a novel. The novel it’s dressed up as is a very good novel—but ultimately it can’t help itself and the novel falls away and it becomes all political tract.

The afterward that follows the book says:

The Jungle has been compared to the writing of Leo Tolstoy and other nineteenth-century Russian novelists and to such French naturalists as Zola in its complete pessimism, its mood of black despair, and unrelieved tragedy.

And that’s my major takeaway as well. On page 129 (of 341), when Sinclair begins making literary allusions to Dante, I realized that he was taking us down into the depths of hell, and found myself speculating in the margin how far down Sinclair was going to take us—if eventually Jurgis and his family members would turn on each other like starving jackals and eat their own children. It was the same point that I started wondering how much of what I was reading could possibly be true, and how much of it was accentuated for effect. Regardless, Sinclair does a masterful job of putting you in Jurgis’s shoes, and the depredations visited on him feel as though they have equally been visited on you. By the time Sinclair introduces his socialist philosophy and begins to bend towards political tract, the reader has been so victimized by Sinclair’s capitalist bogeymen that it’s easy to start embracing his solution.

Let me try to detail some of what I mean. Jurgis is Jurgis Rudkus, the main character of the novel, a recent Lithuanian immigrant who goes to work in the slaughterhouses of Chicago—called “Packingtown” in the novel—near the turn of the twentieth century. He is initially full of confidence and high prospects for his extended family and their new lives in America. Jurgis, in fact, recently married to Ona, goes into debt in order to celebrate their nuptials in accordance with the traditions of the old country. When Ona expresses concern about this, he tells he not to worry. He will earn more money. He will simply work harder.

Jurgis talked lightly about work, because he was young. They told him stories about the breaking down of men, there in the stockyards of Chicago, and of what had happened to them afterwards—stories to make your flesh creep, but Jurgis would only laugh. He had only been there four months, and he was young, and a giant besides. There was too much health in him. He could not even imagine how it would feel to be beaten. “That is well enough for men like you,” he would say, “silpnas, puny fellows—but my back is broad.”

But life in the stockyards does eventually break Jurgis—Jurgis and his whole family—and Sinclair is deft in the way he reveals that it is, in fact, not just the Chicago stockyards but the entire capitalist system of America that has been designed to break and use up laborers like Jurgis Rudkus. It begins with a comparison initially lost on Jurgis.

There were two hundred and fifty miles of track within the yards, their guide went on to tell them. They brought about ten thousand head of cattle every day, and as many hogs, and half as many sheep—which meant some eight or ten million live creatures turned into food every year. One stood and watched, and little by little caught the drift of the tide, as it set in the direction of the packing houses. There were groups of cattle being driven to the chutes, which were roadways about fifteen feet wide, raised high above the pens. In these chutes the stream of animals was continuous; it was quite uncanny to watch them, pressing on to their fate, all unsuspicious—a very river of death. Our friends were not poetical, and the sight suggested to them no metaphors of human destiny; they thought only of the wonderful efficiency of it all.

The system Sinclair describes is certainly efficient, and it chews up human beings the same way the stockyards chew up animals. Still describing the way Jurgis is to slaughter hogs, it becomes clear fairly early that Sinclair is talking about more than hogs.

One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some were young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it—it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog-personality was precious, to whom these hog-squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: “Dieve—but I’m glad I’m not a hog!”

But of course Jurgis is a hog—as Sinclair would say that we are all hogs before the power of the corrupt system that really runs the world. And we see glimpses of this awful machinery through Jurgis’ eyes as the novel continues.

Here at Durham’s, for instance, owned by a man who was trying to make as much money out of it as he could, and did not care in the least how he did it; and underneath him, ranged in ranks and grades like an army, were managers and superintendents and foremen, each one driving the man next below him and trying to squeeze out of him as much work as possible. And all the men of the same rank were pitted against each other; the accounts of each were kept separately, and every man lived in terror of losing his job, if another made a better record than he. So from top to bottom the place was simply a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds; there was no loyalty or decency anywhere about it, there was no place in it where a man counted for anything against a dollar. And worse than there being no decency, there was not even any honesty. The reason of that? Who could say? It must have been old Dunham in the beginning; it was a heritage which the self-made merchant had left to his son, along with his millions.

Jurgis would find out these things for himself, if he stayed there long enough; it was the men who had to do all the dirty jobs, and so there was no deceiving them, and they caught the spirit of the place, and did like all the rest. Jurgis had come there, and thought he was going to make himself useful, and rise and become a skilled man, but he would soon find out his error—for nobody rose in Packingtown by doing good work. You could lay that down for a rule—if you met a man who was rising in Packingtown, you met a knave. That man who had been sent to Jurgis’s father by the boss, he would rise; the man who told tales and spied upon his fellows would rise; but the man who minded his own business and did his work—why, they would “speed him up” till they had worn him out, and then they would throw him into the gutter.

“Speed him up” refers to a practice where, in order to maximize production, the bosses would push more and more animals more and more quickly through the slaughterhouse line until someone had an accident and was either injured or killed. It sounds so much like a place I used to work (and about which I’m writing my new novel) that I decided to name one of my minor characters Jurgis in tribute to this bare bones description of a flawed system. In that novel, my main character, like Jurgis, will discover how much he is being lied to, and how much of a fool he was to believe that doing your job well was all anyone ever had to worry about.

He had learned the ways of things about him now. It was a war of each against all, and the devil take the hindmost. You did not give feasts to other people, you waited for them to give feasts to you. You went about with your soul full of suspicion and hatred; you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with. The storekeepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lampposts and telegraph poles, were pasted over with lies. The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country—from top to bottom is was nothing but one gigantic lie.

Everything comes crashing down around Jurgis. I’m going to quote some of the following sections at length because I think they are particularly poignant and painful, especially when you try to imagine real people suffering this trials and indignities. First, his father dies:

Then there was old Antanas. The winter came, and the place where he worked was a dark, unheated cellar, where you could see your breath all day, and where your fingers sometimes tried to freeze. So the old man’s cough grew every day worse, until there came a time when it hardly ever stopped, and he had become a nuisance about the place. Then, too, a still more dreadful thing happened to him; he worked in a place where his feet were soaked with chemicals, and it was not long before they had eaten through his new boots. Then sores began to break out on his feet, and grow worse and worse. Whether it was that his blood was bad, or there had been a cut, he could not say, but he asked the men about it, and learned that it was a regular thing—it was the saltpetre. Every one felt it, sooner or later, and then it was all up with him, at least for that sort of work. The sores would never heal—in the end his toes would drop off, if he did not quit. Yet old Antanas would not quit; he saw the suffering of his family, and he remembered what it had cost him to get a job. So he tied up his feet, and went on limping about and coughing, until at last he fell to pieces, all at once and in a heap, like the One-Horse Shay. They carried him to a dry place and laid him on the floor, and that night two of the men helped him home. The poor old man was put to bed, and though he tried it every morning until the end, he never could get up again. He would lie there and cough and cough, day and night, wasting away to a mere skeleton. There came a time when there was so little flesh on him that the bones began to poke through—which was a horrible thing to see or even to think of. And one night he had a choking fit, and a little river of blood came out of his mouth. The family, wild with terror, sent for a doctor, and paid half a dollar to be told that there was nothing to be done. Mercifully the doctor did not say this so that the old man could hear, for he was still clinging to the faith that tomorrow or next day he would be better, and could go back to his job. The company had sent word to him that they would keep it for him—or rather Jurgis had bribed one of the men to come one Sunday afternoon and say they had. Dede Antanas continued to believe it, while three more hemorrhages came, and then at last one morning they found him stiff and cold. Things were not going well with them then, and thought it nearly broke Teta Elzbieta’s heart, they were forced to dispense with nearly all the decencies of a funeral; they had only a hearse, and one hack for the women and children; and Jurgis, who was learning things fast, spent all Sunday making a bargain for these, and he made it in the presence of witnesses, so that when the man tired to charge him for all sorts of incidentals, he did not have to pay. For twenty-five years old Antanas Rudkus and his son had dwelt in the forest together, and it was hard to part in this way; perhaps it was just as well that Jurgis had to give all his attention to the task of having a funeral without being bankrupted, and so had not time to indulge in memories and grief.

They struggle to survive their first winter:

This old house with the leaky weather boards was a very different thing from their cabins at home, with great thick walls plastered inside and outside with mud; and the cold which came upon them was like a living thing, a demon-presence in the room. They would waken in the midnight hours, when everything was black; perhaps they would hear it yelling outside, or perhaps there would be deathlike stillness—and that would be worse yet. They could feel the cold as it crept in through the cracks, reaching out for them with its icy, death-dealing fingers, and they would crouch and cower, and try to hide from it, all in vain. It would come, it would come; a grisly thing, a specter born in the black caverns of terror; a power primeval, cosmic, shadowing the tortures of the lost souls flung out to chaos and destruction. It was cruel, iron-hard; and hour after hour they would cringe in its grasp, alone, alone. There would be no one to hear them if they cried out; there would be no help, no mercy. And so on until morning—when they would go out to another day of toil, a little weaker, a little nearer to the time when it would be their turn to be shaken from the tree.

A child of Teta Elzbieta (Ona’s stepmother) dies:

During this time that Jurgis was looking for work occurred the death of little Kristoforas, one of the children of Teta Elzbieta. Both Kristoforas and his brother, Juozapas, were cripples, the latter having lost one leg by having it run over, and Kristoforas having congenital dislocation of the hip, which made it impossible for him ever to walk. He was the last of Teta Elzbieta’s children, and perhaps he had been intended by nature to let her know that she had had enough. At any rate he was wretchedly sick and undersized; he had the rickets, and though he was over three years old, he was no bigger than an ordinary child of one. All day long he would crawl around the floor in a filthy little dress, whining and fretting; because the floor was full of draughts he was always catching cold, and snuffling because his nose ran. This made him a nuisance and a source of endless trouble in the family. For his mother, with unnatural perversity, loved him best of all her children, and made a perpetual fuss over him—would let him do anything undisturbed, and would burst into tears when his fretting drove Jurgis wild.

And now he died. Perhaps it was the smoked sausage he had eaten that morning—which may have been made out of some of the tubercular pork that was condemned as unfit for export. At any rate, an hour after eating it, the child had begun to cry with pain, and in another hour he was rolling about on the floor in convulsions. Little Kotrina, who was all alone with him, ran out screaming for help, and after a while a doctor came, but not until Kristoforas had howled his last howl.

And through these struggles Jurgis begins to despair:

As Jurgis lay on his bed, hour after hour, there came to him emotions that he had never known before. Before this he had met life with a welcome—it had its trials, but none that a man could not face. But now, in the nighttime, when he lay tossing about, there would come stalking into his chamber a grisly phantom, the sight of which made his flesh to curl and his hair to bristle up. It was like seeing the world fall away from underneath his feet; like plunging down into a bottomless abyss, and to yawning caverns of despair. It might be true, then, after all, what others had told him about life, that the best powers of a man might not be equal to it! It might be true that, strive as he would, toil as he would, he might fail, and go down and be destroyed! The thought of this was like an icy hand at his heart; the thought that here, in this ghastly home of all horror, he and all those who were dear to him might lie and perish of starvation and cold, and there would be no ear to hear their cry, no hand to help them! It was true, it was true—that here in this huge city, with its stores of heaped-up wealth, human creatures might be hunted down and destroyed by the wild-beast powers of nature, just as truly as ever they were in the days of the cave men!

This, then, I believe, is what Sinclair has been driving at since the happy beginning of the novel—where, interestingly, he details the marriage feast of Jurgis and Ona, replete with their hopes for the future and their pure unbridled joy for the music of life. Through his trials and tribulations, Jurgis has come to see that their life in America is not full of hope and joy, but rather cruel, indifferent, and quite capable of destroying everything Jurgis holds dear. I believe this is Sinclair tearing down the edifice of the American capitalistic society—thought benevolent by some, but despised by Sinclair—so he can now begin to build up a new societal construct based on his socialist ideology. Note that Sinclair is careful not to paint the world itself as this cruel and indifferent tyrant. Indeed, a few lines after falling into the pit of Jurgis’ despair, we are given this perspective on Jurgis’ infant son, who bares the same name of Jurgis’ father.

Then little Antanas would open his eyes—he was beginning to take notice of things now; and he would smile—how he would smile! So Jurgis would begin to forget and be happy, because he was in a world where there was a thing so beautiful as the smile of little Antanas, and because such a world could not but be good at the heart of it.

So it’s not the world that is out to destroy Jurgis, just the economic system in which he is forever subservient. Finding work is now a very different experience for Jurgis, who is no longer the strong and confident young man we met at the beginning of the novel.

The peculiar bitterness of all this was that Jurgis saw so plainly the meaning of it. In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had got the best out of him—they had worn him out, with their speeding up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away!

And even his own precious Antanas gets sick:

Poor little Antanas, for instance—who had never failed to win him with a smile—little Antanas was not smiling just now, being a mass of fiery red pimples. He had had all the diseases that babies are heir to, in quick succession, scarlet fever, mumps, and whooping cough in the first year, and now he was down with the measles. There was no one to attend him but Kotrina; there was no doctor to help him, because they were too poor, and children did not die of the measles—at least not often. Now and then Kotrina would find time to sob over his woes, but for the greater part of the time he had to be left alone, barricaded upon the bed. The floor was full of draughts, and if he caught cold he would die. At night he was tied down, lest he should kick the covers off him, while the family lay in their stupor of exhaustion. He would lie and scream for hours, almost in convulsions, and then, when he was worn out, he would lie whimpering and wailing in his torment. He was burning up with fever, and his eyes were running sores; in the daytime he was a thing uncanny and impish to behold, a plaster of pimples and sweat, a great purple lump of misery.

Then he discovers that Ona has been forced into an illicit affair with her supervisor at work—that or lose her job—and Jurgis goes ballistic, finding the man at work and attacking him, viewing him as a cog in the great machine that has been arrayed against them.

To Jurgis this man’s whole presence reeked of the crime he had committed; the touch of his body was madness to him—it set every nerve of him atremble, it aroused all the demon in his soul. It had worked its will upon Ona, this great beast—and now he had it, he had it! It was his turn now! Things swam blood before him, and he screamed aloud in his fury, lifting his victim and smashing his head upon the floor.

Jurgis is sent to jail for several months—the judge not even taking time to listen to Jurgis’ side of the story—and while locked up on Christmas Eve a new spirit within him begins to awaken.

That was their law, that was their justice! Jurgis stood upright, trembling with passion, his hands clenched and his arms upraised, his whole soul ablaze with hatred and defiance. Ten thousand curses upon them and their law! Their justice—it was a lie, it was a lie, a hideous, brutal lie, a thing too black and hateful for any world but a world of nightmares. It was a sham and a loathsome mockery. There was no justice, there was no right, anywhere in it—it was only force, it was tyranny, the will and the power, reckless and unrestrained! They had ground him beneath their heel, they had devoured all his substance; they had murdered his old father, they had broken and wrecked his wife, they had crushed and cowed his whole family; and now they were through with him, they had no further use for him—and because he had interfered with them, had gotten in their way, this was what they had done to him! They had put him behind bars, as if he had been a wild beast, a thing without sense or reason, without rights, without affections, without feelings. Nay, they would not even have treated a beast as they had treated him! Would any man in his sense have trapped a wild thing in its lair, and left its young behind to die?

This is the beginning of Jurgis’ rebellion, of his open defiance of the system Sinclair has aligned against him. After being released from jail he finds that his family has been evicted and their house now sold to another immigrant family. In reacting to this injustice, Jurgis has indeed now become Sinclair, seeing the system for what the author believes it to be.

Jurgis could see all the truth now—could see himself through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face. Ah, God, the horror of it, the monstrous, hideous, demoniacal wickedness of it! He and his family, helpless women and children, struggling to live, ignorant and defenseless and forlorn as they were—and the enemies that had been lurking for them, crouching upon their trail and thirsting for their blood! That first lying circular, that smooth-tongued slippery agent! That trap of the extra payments, the interest, and all the other charges that they had not the means to pay, and would never have attempted to pay! And then all the tricks of the packers, their masters, the tyrants who ruled them—the shutdowns and the scarcity of work, the irregular hours and the cruel speeding up, the lowering of wages, the raising of prices! The mercilessness of nature about them, of heat and cold, rain and snow; the mercilessness of the city, of the country in which they lived, of its laws and customs that they did not understand! All of these things had worked together for the company and had marked them for its prey and was waiting for its chance. And now, with this last hideous injustice, its time had come, and it had turned them out bag and baggage, and taken their house and sold it again! And they could do nothing, they were tied hand and foot—the law was against them, the whole machinery of society was at their oppressors’ command! If Jurgis so much as raised a hand against them, back he would go into that wild-beast pen from which he had just escaped!

But even with this new found perspective, the horrors continue to pile up on Jurgis. When he finds his family, living with another, he finds Ona in premature labor, screaming in agony as she tries to deliver a breach baby. Jurgis is too poor to pay for a doctor, and he runs to a neighborhood midwife, begging her to come, but nothing can save Ona and the newborn. They both die in the struggle to bring forth life.

Then little Antanas drowns in the flooded street, falling off a wooden sidewalk while playing and getting stuck in the mud. This final horror is too much for Jurgis, and now, with neither a wife nor child to anchor him, he abandons the rest of the family and begins to live the life of a tramp.

The novel takes a decidedly philosophical turn after Jurgis makes this decision, as his experiences begin to take on a much more political meaning within Sinclair’s narrative. Away from Chicago and in the rural farmland of Illinois, he finds some who are willing to feed him and others who chase him away at his very appearance.

Before long he came to a big farmhouse, and turned up the lane that led to it. It was just supper-time, and the farmer was washing his hands at the kitchen-door. “Please, sir,” said Jurgis, “can I have something to eat? I can pay.” To which the farmer responded promptly, “We don’t feed tramps here. Get out!”

Jurgis went without a word; but as he passed round the barn he came to a freshly ploughed and harrowed field, in which the farmer had set out some young peach trees; and as he walked he jerked up a row of them by the roots, more than a hundred trees in all, before he reached the end of the field. That was his answer, and the man who hit him would get all that he gave, every time.

Jurgis shortly returns to the city, probably because Sinclair needs a more pliant canvas on which to paint his portrait of the system that is now out and out trying to destroy Jurgis.

He saw the world of civilization then more plainly than ever he had seen it before; a world in which nothing counted but brutal might, and order devised by those who possessed it for the subjugation of those who did not. He was one of the latter; and all outdoors, all life, was to him one colossal prison, which he paced like a pent-up tiger, trying one bar after another, and finding them all beyond his power. He had lost in the fierce battle of greed, and so was doomed to be exterminated; and all society was busied to see that he did not escape that sentence. Everywhere that he turned were prison bars, and hostile eyes following him; the well-fed, sleek policemen, from whose glances he shrank, and who seemed to grip their clubs more tightly when they saw him; the saloon-keepers, who never ceased to watch him while he was in their places, who were jealous of every moment he lingered after he had paid his money; the hurrying throngs upon the streets, who were deaf to his entreaties, oblivious of his very existence—and savage and contemptuous when he forced himself upon them. They had their own affairs, and there was no place for him among them. There was no place for him anywhere—every direction he turned his gaze, the fact was forced upon him. Everything was built to express it to him: the residences, with their heavy walls and bolted doors, and basement windows barred with iron; the great warehouses filled with the products of the whole world, and guarded by iron shutters and heavy gates; the banks with their unthinkable billions of wealth, all buried in safes and vaults of steel.

I think what I like best about The Jungle is what it does in this passage. It turns the world you think you know upside down and very effectively demonstrates that everything depends on perspective. One man’s black is another man’s white. One man’s truth is another man’s lie. One man’s freedom is another man’s prison.

You would begin talking to some poor devil who had worked in one shop for the last thirty years, and had never been able to save a penny; who left home every morning at six o’clock, to go and tend a machine, and come back at night too tired to take his clothes off; who had never had a week’s vacation in his life, had never travelled, never had an adventure, never learned anything, never hoped anything—and when you started to tell him about Socialism he would sniff and say, “I’m not interested in that—I’m an individualist!”

As part of this new political narrative, Sinclair also begins taking pokes at organized religion—seeing in it something closely aligned with the capitalistic system he has set up as his villain. In the city Jurgis finds himself blacklisted and cannot find work, and he has to beg on the streets for his livelihood. At one of the shelters he sleeps in there is a preacher.

The evangelist was preaching “sin and redemption,” the infinite grace of God and His pardon for human frailty. He was very much in earnest, and he meant well, but Jurgis, as he listened, found his soul filled with hatred. What did he know about sin and suffering—with his smooth, black coat and his neatly starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket—and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death-grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold!—This, of course, was unfair; but Jurgis felt that these men were out of touch with the life they discussed, that they were unfitted to solve its problems; nay they themselves were part of the problem—they were part of the order established that was crushing men down and beating them! They were of the triumphant and insolent possessors: they had a hall, and a fire, and food and clothing and money, and so they might preach to hungry men, and the hungry men must be humble and listen! They were trying to save their souls—and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?

Eventually Jurgis gets drawn into politics and the burgeoning socialist movement. Once he does, the pretense that The Jungle is a novel is pretty much dropped. Jurgis himself almost disappears into the background, and we are given little more than a screed placed in the mouths of the new characters we have hastily been introduced to. Jurgis is captivated by their eloquence, but I find them less so, believing that Sinclair’s skill in presenting his ideas through narrative fiction by far more eloquent than his most carefully constructed manifesto.

But the manifesto also has some interesting segments. We’re giving this as an introduction to one of the movement’s leaders.

Nicholas Schliemann was a Swede, a tall, gaunt person, with hairy hands and bristling yellow beard; he was a university man, and had been a professor of philosophy—until, as he said, he had found that he was selling his character as well as his time. Instead he had come to America, where he lived in a garret room in this slum district, and made volcanic energy take the place of fire. He studied the composition of foodstuffs, and knew exactly how many proteins and carbohydrates his body needed; and by scientific chewing he said that he tripled the value of all he ate, so that it cost him eleven cents a day. About the first of July he would leave Chicago for his vacation, on foot; and when he struck the harvest fields he would set to work for two dollars and a half a day, and come home when he had another year’s supply—a hundred and twenty-five dollars. That was the nearest approach to independence a man could make “under capitalism,” he explained; he would never marry, for no sane man would allow himself to fall in love until after the revolution.

In other words, I initially thought, a nut-case. But under Sinclair’s persuasive pen, some of this Schliemann’s nutty ideas begin to sound not-so-nutty after all. At least to me.

Nicholas Schliemann was familiar with all the universe, and with man as a small part of it. He understood human institutions, and blew them about like soap bubbles. It was surprising that so much destructiveness could be contained in one human mind. Was it government? The purpose of government was the guarding of property rights, the perpetuation of ancient force and modern fraud. Or was it marriage? Marriage and prostitution were two sides of one shield, the predatory man’s exploitation of the sex pleasure. The difference between them was a difference of class. If a woman had money she might dictate her own terms: equality, a life contract, and the legitimacy—that is, the property rights—of her children. If she had no money, she was a proletarian, and sold herself for an existence. And then the subject became Religion, which was the Arch-fiend’s deadliest weapon. Government oppressed the body of the wage slave, but Religion oppressed his mind, and poisoned the stream of progress at its source. The workingman was to fix his hopes upon a future life, while his pockets were picked in this one; he was brought up to frugality, humility, obedience—in short to all the pseudo-virtues of capitalism. The destiny of civilization would be decided in one final death struggle between the Red International and the Black, between Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church; while here at home, “the stygian midnight of American evangelicalism—”

This theme of capitalism and organized religion marching arm in arm together is a powerful one, and one that Sinclair here emphasizes by focusing on just how at odds the Church is with the original teachings of Jesus.

“This Jesus of Nazareth!” he cried, “This class-conscious workingman! This union carpenter! This agiator, law-breaker, firebrand, anarchist! He, the sovereign lord and master of a world which grinds the bodies and souls of human beings into dollars—if he could come into the world this day and see the things that men have made in his name, would it not blast his soul with horror? Would he not go mad at the sight of it, he the Prince of Mercy and Love! That dreadful night when he lay in the Garden of Gethsemane and writhed in agony until he sweat blood—do you think that he saw anything worse than he might see tonight upon the plains of Manchuria, where men march out with a jeweled image of him before them, to do wholesale murder for the benefit of foul monsters of sensuality and cruelty? Do you not know that if he were in St. Petersburg now, he would take the whip with which he drove out the bankers from his temple—”

Here the speaker paused an instant for breath. “No, comrade,” said the other, dryly, “for he was a practical man. He would take pretty little imitation-lemons, such as are now being shipped into Russia, handy for carrying in the pockets, and strong enough to blow a whole temple out of sight.”

Using religion in this way, as a corruption of the beliefs on which it is based in order to serve opposite objectives, is something, I think, not unlike the non-existent god of hogs that Sinclair speculated on early in the novel. And like the hogs who don’t realize their error until the knife cuts across their throats, Sinclair would have us believe that all other religious followers of capitalism are being similarly duped.

Monday, March 15, 2010


“Ultimately one loves one’s desires and not that which is desired.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Monday, March 8, 2010


“No one could prove from the bodies of three wounded men, one with three bullet wounds in his abdomen, one with his jaw shot away and his vocal cords exposed, one with his femur smashed to bits by a bullet and his hands and face so badly burned that his face was just an eyelashless, eyebrowless, hairless blister that they were Russians. No one could tell from the bodies of these wounded men he would leave in beds at the Palace, that they were Russians. Nothing proved a naked dead man was a Russian. Your nationality and your politics did not show when you were dead.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Monday, March 1, 2010

Things Happen (1989)

Mainstream Fiction
2,881 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1989. All rights reserved.

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When Sam and I were in the fifth grade we used to play kickball on our school’s playground. It was the favorite game of us fifth graders, and every recess we would run out to the corner of the playground where the bright yellow lines of the kickball diamond were painted. I remember one game where Sam and I played on opposite teams. I was playing third base and Sam was up to bat. The pitcher rolled the red rubber ball across home plate and Sam gave it a good solid kick. The ball exploded off his foot and hit me square in the face. I fell down with a bloody nose and teary eyes.

Sam was my best friend. He ignored first base and ran over to me. He asked me if I was all right and said he was sorry at least a dozen times. The ball had hurt, and I would feel the pain for a long time, but I knew it wasn’t Sam’s fault. I told him I was all right and that he didn’t have to apologize or feel sorry about it. I think I told him that things happen.

That was a long time ago. Sam and I stayed best friends through middle and high school. But, after graduation, I went to Madison to study astronomy and Sam went to Eau Claire to study criminal justice. We kept in contact with letters and phone calls and we remained close. It was in our sophomore year that I took a bus trip to Eau Claire to visit him.

It was in cold November that I made this trip. I got into town late on Friday night and Sam picked me up at the bus depot. It was really good to see him again. We were laughing before we got back to the dorms.

At the dorms we had a few beers and watched some useless late night television. I met Sam’s roommate, Brian, and Sam’s new girlfriend, Laurie. Sam always had a new girlfriend for me to meet. My relationships with girls were never as frequent, but I used to think that they lasted longer and meant more.

I slept on the couch that night, after the television had been turned off and Laurie had gone home. I wanted to talk to Sam in the dark about girls, like we used to do when we were kids and I was sleeping over at his house. But with Brian sleeping there, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do.

Sam belonged to the karate club up there in Eau Claire and Saturday night they were having a party for members and their friends. Sam was really excited about it, and it seemed to be on his mind the whole day. We went over to the commons and shot some pool and then Sam took me on a tour of the campus. At the bookstore, I bought a UW-Eau Claire Blugolds sweatshirt. I still have it, I think, but it has shrunk and the logo has faded.

Sam and I had a good time that day, but it is not the time I spent with Sam that I want to talk about. Saturday night, at the karate party, I met a girl named Beth, and what happened with her is what I have come here to say.

Of all the people in the karate club, Sam had the nicest stereo, so he volunteered to bring it to the house for the party. We drove over there early with it and set it up behind the bar. We put the speakers in the corners of the living room and covered them with trash bags to keep people from spilling beer on them.

Sam spent most of the time that evening behind the bar, keeping an eye on his stereo. Since I really didn’t know anyone else at the party, I spent the night at the bar talking to Sam. Laurie was one of the first guests to arrive, and with her came Beth, a friend of hers from the dorms. I can’t say that Beth really caught my eye when I first saw her, because she didn’t. She was of medium height, with shoulder-length curly brown hair and brown eyes. Pretty, but certainly no knockout. We were introduced to each other and we said hello. We stood silently by while Laurie and Sam talked to each other, and then we said goodbye when Laurie excused Beth and herself to go mingle. At the time, I really didn’t think much of her. Sam normally pointed all good-looking single girls out to me anyway, and he was quiet about Beth. I figured she was either taken or gay. This was college, after all.

So I sat there at the bar, had a few beers, and helped Sam pick out what song to play next. It must’ve been two hours later when I turned around and saw Beth standing alone in the midst of a crowd of people. She wasn’t talking to anyone and no one was talking to her. She was just standing there. Maybe I was getting beer goggles, but I thought she looked better than I had remembered. She was just wearing a sweater and jeans, but I thought she looked really good in them. I began to fantasize about her.

Beth saw me staring at her and came over to the bar. When she got close enough I saw that her eyes were watering. But I also saw that she was drunk. I’d had four maybe five beers since the party started, and she looked like she had been matching me two for one. Before I could say anything, Sam asked her what was the matter. She never broke out into tears, but all the while she spoke, her eyes were red and wet, and she sniffled like she had a cold. She said that ten minutes ago she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and that he had left the party without her. She wanted to go home, but she lived in the dorms, and in November that was a long way away. Sam offered to drive her home after the party, but she said she didn’t want to hang around waiting for the beer to run out.

So I offered to walk her home. I’d like to think I did this just to be nice, just to lend a hand where one was needed. But after what I was thinking when I saw her in the middle of the living room, it’s hard for me to imagine I was ignorant of what might happen. But regardless, we got our coats and left the party together. I remember stepping outside and feeling the cold wind blow in my face. I was drunker than I thought, but that wind sobered me up some. I asked Beth if she was all right and she said she was cold. I put an arm around her and we started for the dorms.

To get there, we had to walk over a pedestrian bridge that spanned the Chippewa River. Sam had told me that, in the winter, the wind coming off the river caused some of the lowest wind chills in Wisconsin on that very bridge, and that night I could believe him. As I walked across that bridge with my arm around Beth’s shoulders and with her arm around my waist, I remember thinking about the fish who lived in the river. I began to wonder if they could feel the cold, and if they could, how they could stand to be in that freezing water. I wondered if they got scared each year when the surface froze over. If they were afraid because part of their liquid world had turned solid on them and they didn’t know why or what had caused it. I remember wondering if they thought it was somehow their fault the river had frozen. If they blamed themselves and felt sorry about it. I remember wondering if the fish down there could see Beth and me hurrying across the bridge and if they wondered where we were going.

After crossing the bridge we started up the hill that led to the dorms. I can’t say we talked about anything while we were out that night. I think we were both too cold and just wanted to get inside a heated building. When we finally got to her dorm, there was a moment when I paused before following her inside. She didn’t exactly invite me in, but I really didn’t think she would make me walk all the way back to the party without at least letting me warm up first. But the pause wasn’t long, and soon I found myself walking up the stairs and down the hall to her room.

We went inside, took off our coats, and sat down on her bed. She had a fairly typical dorm room, but without lofts. I thought that was really strange. Nearly every dorm room I’ve ever been in has had lofted beds, but the beds in her room sat squarely on the floor, against opposite walls, and made the room seem really cramped. I was feeling uncomfortable. Here I was, alone and drunk, in the room of a girl I barely knew, late at night. She told me her roommate had gone home for the weekend and then she asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no. There was an awkward moment when we just looked at each other and the silence in the room got really loud.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. I don’t think I even thought about it, or had the usual worries about whether she really wanted me to do it. I just did it. She kissed me back, and it was not a thank-you-for-walking-me-home-hope-to-see-you-sometime kiss. It was a spend-the-night-with-me kiss. I’ve gotten a few of them in my life and they are not hard to mistake. She moaned in the back of her throat and began to move a hand up my thigh. I slipped my hands up under her sweater and unhooked her bra. I started to squeeze her breasts. Her nipples were hard, and I don’t think it was because she was still cold. She had placed her hand in my lap and she was rubbing it back and forth. She whispered in my ear what she wanted me to do and I began to do it.

Since that night, I’ve often thought about what happened between us, and even now, I am not sure what it meant. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood what it means to have sex with someone. It could mean so many different things. You see it represented in so many ways that I don’t think you can ever really be sure what sex is supposed to be. Sex could be the purest physical manifestation of love two people can share. Sex could be the swelling abdomen of the expectant mother and the smiling cheeks of the proud father. Sex could be painted thick on the television screen every twelve to fifteen minutes when the programming stops and the commercial begins. Sex could be the worm at the bottom of a six-dollar bottle of tequila. Sex could be in the adult bookstore, patiently waiting amongst the walls of glossy magazines and the racks of rubber toys. Sex could be the bar of soap, your left hand, and your imagination when you are alone and in the shower. Sex could be the fuck the coke-whore parcels out to the pusher to secure some of her candy. Sex could be the lollipop that is promised to the preschooler if she will only get into the blue sedan. Sex could be the fist of the rapist that beats the victim into bloody unconsciousness so she won’t scream or bite. Sex could be any one or all of these things. Or sex could be something else entirely. When you think about it, sex could be locked up in your parents’ bedroom, under the bed and afraid of the light.

I don’t know what it all means, or even what it meant that night with Beth. All I do know is that I had the best sex of my life that night, and that when it was over, with Beth lying in my arms, sleep has never come so gently or so peacefully.

In the morning, she crawled out of bed and I lay there and watched her move around the room. She put on a pink terrycloth bathrobe, grabbed a small blue basket filled with soap and shower stuff, and threw a towel over her shoulder just before she left. She shut the door and locked it. I folded my hands behind my head and looked at the crumpled pile of our clothes on the floor, where we’d thrown them the night before. I looked around at the rest of the room. Beth had half a dozen posters of unicorns on the walls. I hadn’t noticed them the night before. Her roommate had a couple of dopey-looking stuffed animals on her bed. The curtains were pink and frilly, definitely not dorm issue, and Beth had a small framed picture of what I took to be her family beside her alarm clock. Just looking around the room like that, I began to feel really uncomfortable lying naked under her blankets as I was. I felt exposed, as if someone was watching me, and did not like what they saw.

I got out of bed and started to put my clothes on. I was buttoning my jeans when the phone rang. I stopped and looked at it. On the second ring I answered it. Like the first kiss with Beth, it wasn’t something I thought about doing. It just happened. There was a man’s voice on the line and he wanted to talk to Beth. His voice was scratchy and he sounded as if someone had just shot his dog. I was about to tell him that she was in the shower when a little voice in my head sang out.

This is her boyfriend. This is the guy she had the fight with last night. This is the guy who probably loves her and who would wring your neck if he knew who you were and what you’ve done.

And then, before I could say anything, this little voice in my head said three little words into the phone. I know it was the voice and not me because I did not think of these words and I did not say them. I only heard them.

“Sorry, wrong number.”

There was a pause on the line and then the guy hung up. I put the receiver back in the cradle and quickly finished dressing. I was tying my shoelaces when Beth came back into the room. She was still wearing her bathrobe but now her hair was all wet. She smiled at me as she put her small blue basket away and hung up her towel. I told her I had to be going and she gave me a confused look. I told her I’d really enjoyed the night and she said she had, too. She asked me when I was leaving and I said as soon as possible because I had some things to do in Madison before class on Monday. I was beginning to feel like a heel just standing there and I think she began to sense that. I kissed her goodbye, but it wasn’t a real kiss. It wasn’t the kind of kiss I should have given her. It was just that she smelled so clean and I felt so dirty. I just couldn’t bring myself to really kiss her.

I went back to Sam’s dorm room, but he was still out at Laurie’s. Brian let me in and I went back to sleep on the couch. I woke up in the afternoon when Sam came back and I told him everything that had happened. I didn’t tell him everything I thought about it, or that it troubled me for a reason I wasn’t sure of, but I didn’t leave out much else. I think Sam could tell things weren’t quite right, though, because he didn’t joke about it or give me a hard time. He was my best friend. He only asked me if I had a good time. I said I thought I had. I’m not sure, but I think he also told me that things happen.

And now, I guess that that is all there is to say about it. I’ve never heard from nor seen Beth since that night, but I’ve come to grips with what happened between us. It was really nobody’s fault, it was just something that happened. For a long time I felt guilty about what I had done with her, but after a while I realized that I felt worse about lying to her boyfriend than I felt about sleeping with her. But even that, like getting hit in the face with a red rubber ball, or the Chippewa freezing over in the winter, was just something that happened.

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