Two of the best novels I read last year were both written as if the authors lived in a Cold War-less world, The Plot Against America and Roadside Picnic—the latter, and I’m not sure how, managed to nearly live up to Stalker; not just the game, but even the film! Solaris didn’t live up to Solaris, and I can safely say that without having even watched Solaris yet!
Being ‘70s Soviet Sci-Fi, Roadside Picnic reads like ‘50s-‘60s American sci-fi: hardbroiled lowbrow noir, with all the comical sexual anxiety appeal of such nonsense, yet without the Freudian or Jungian silliness. I.e., it reads like shit, but it could be even worse. Not that it matters, as the setting is so rich, and by the end of it some of the characters seem almost human (in spite of, or because of, the lack of psychological “insight”). I recommend the recent edition with an afterword on the Soviet censorship process: prudery, not ideology* is the blunt tool of censorship, whether the patsy is the Goskomizdat in the Soviet Union, the FDA in America (somehow they used to ban books—or whatever the institution preceding the FDA was did; does this have anything to do with the etymology of Diet in Japan; coincidentally, another American institution), Mary Whitehouse (or teenagers eager to be on TV) in the UK, or Jack Thompson in gaming (the OG SJW who was apparently not worthy of a massive cultural backlash and persecution campaign, even though he’d happily expunge most games—not just campaign for voluntary aesthetic and narrative changes in some of them).
The Plot Against America, on the other hand, is very nicely written. Not only is everyone in the book a human being (except for political agitators, who are all the sort of caricatures one might encounter in newspapers and on the radio—which is how Lil Timmy Roth, the protagonist, keeps up with them anyway; and when one of them becomes his kinky unky in-law, it turns out that this political agitator at least is indeed a human being off-air), it’s also a wonderful portrait of the era—a time of absolute madness in America: the lead up to the second world war:
Not touched on in the book, but the army had just been shooting unemployed world war I vets, burning down their shacks and, unlike Italy which tested its bombs on blacks in Africa, its police were testing its bombs on blacks—in America. All cause of communism or something.** Now, to be fair, unlike during Red Scare 2.0, there actually were some communist political figures at the time in America—but even then, there weren’t the sort of communists that try to incite revolution through violence (that was still the domain of the KKK), but they did, ironically, manage to make mainstream much of the ideological basis that built the post-war America that reactionaries have comically grown so nostalgic for.
Which brings us to America First, depicted in the novel as it was by the warmongering publications of the time, such as PM (look it up, it’s pretty fascinating stuff! Who knew Dr. Seuss was an even better propagandist for the military industrial complex than he was for the educational industrial complex; obviously you did, because I told you so in the previous volume—you read that, didn’t you?), so all potential pacifists are unpatriotic, racist dicknkobs that just want to fawn at the feet of Hitler and/or Mussolini—as many of them were, of course; but bear in mind so were most of the warmongers: blacks were being denied military service during the war (to their credit, PM was one of the few warmongering publications to righteously rail against this) and those that weren’t faced segregation and white officers who inspected their weapons..to make sure they weren’t loaded! Indeed, the most disturbing thing my grandfather witnessed in the war was the treatment the black American troops received from their white officers: lynching was one of the comforts afforded to American troops to remind themselves of just what they were fighting to protect back home; lynching was also an important tool for the Australian troops recruiting the locals for the cause.*** But, as with political agitators, this depiction of the pacifist movement makes sense, given everything is through the filter bubble that the protagonists lick up from the dribble of their radio channels and newspapers of choice.
The maverick madness of Charles Lindbergh and Walter Winchell is tremendously amusing and exciting, as well. [Spoiler] But the funniest bits are more personal, even when the shit really hits the fan. Some poor sap who has been royally dicked over by Little Timmy Roth and as a result is talking to him via telephone at his new home states away in the anti-Semitic South, complains that he’s run out of fig newtons and his mummy isn’t home to make him his dinner, that he has no friends, and yet still marvels at the fact that although he is in a different state and talking via long-distance telephone, everyone is in the same time zone—meanwhile poor Little Timmy Roth is trying to warn him that the KKK is currently performing a petit pogrom just down the street.
But how exactly extraordinary political measures are able to be implemented is never really described, nor why everything didn’t turn to utter shit but worked out pretty well when a bit of dues ex machina saves the day really makes much sense either, but it’s still an absolutely convincing portrait of the terror of political upheavals at ground level; even if the machinations of the political upheavals on high don’t really make much sense. [End spoiler]
For a surprisingly accurate description of events on high, I recommend It Can’t Happen Here, a book written during this time of comical upheaval, by an author who was well aware of the Cold War, decades before Churchill erected the iron curtain—if America wasn’t going to declare the hot wars it fought during the cold war, it was hardly going to declare the cold war itself! Anyway, other than a few details in the administration of violence its description of ground level events is as unconvincing as The Plot Against America’s political [dues ex] machinations are. For this reason, they complement one another perfectly: one historical artefact; the other historical study.
Lastly, I finally got around to reading The Trial, as translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, whose translation of the Metamorphosis I’d still recommend—even though there are much more modern and Teutonic ones. As in Lolita, it’s funny how what is essentially a metaphor is portrayed in so lucid a manner that it becomes a perfectly cogent description not only of the subject, but the object as well. In this case, the object is dysfunctional mass bureaucracy (a word which, today, for the first time I spelt correctly without consulting a dictionary), while the subject is an unsolvable existential conundrum: our subjective experience of guilt and innocence. This quality (object and subject being equally treated) is also the great achievement of Metamorphosis. While I have waded through dysfunctional mass bureaucracies, I have not turned into vermin; yet in the eyes of a variety of institutions and people I have and thus discovered that people behave in such a situation just as they do in Metamorphosis.
The subjective analysis is not quite as successful as the objective in The Trial; though it is in Metamorphosis. But then, I have made it my business to judiciously destroy any innocence I detect polluting myself, so perhaps my judgement is clouded.
*Obviously censorship is an aspect of a broader ideology which informs to some degree what is taboo and how many things to make taboo. I am not suggesting America banned as many books as the Soviet Union or that the Soviet Union banned as many books as American school libraries, merely that ultimately both were following the principles of prudery as much as any political ideology which might influence precisely what disgusts the censor who cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not.
**While Phil is technically correct that Churchill started the Cold War, America and the Soviets had been conducting a “cold war” of their own the moment it became apparent that the Romanovs were getting political advice from one of the filthiest mystics in history.
***Or at least the most disturbing thing that was a topic of discussion. Ever considered that your granddaddy might be a psychopath (or, more likely, a posturing coward) if he wouldn’t shut up about the war?