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АИЛD ЛАNГ ЅYNЄ

An evening, sometime in the near future…

Simon Critchley
KADASHEVSKAYA HOTEL
26 Kadashevskaya nab. 115035 Moscow

January 1st, 2019

I guess we could all have seen it coming a few years back. Things really started to get worse around the end of 2013 and then dragged on into the long, cold winter months. That whole business with that guy, what was his name? Mountain in Wales. Snowden. That’s it. He went underground for a while and then emerged as the CEO of Bozhe Moi! (My God!): the amazing Russian search engine that overtook Google early in 2017. Totally wiped them out. I find it reassuringly old world and Le Carré-like to have the FSB watching all of us rather than the NSA.

Shortly after the President’s death, events moved fast. Well, suspicions were raised when they declared it accidental. Everyone knew it was suicide. He lost face (and faith) after that awful video circulated. You all know the one I mean. That was just after the attempted toppling of 1WTC. Why did they build that thing? It looked like a huge robot schlong. It was lucky that only a couple of hundred people died in the rogue drone strike, but the building’s been empty – cursed – since then, apart from a shelter for the homeless on the ground floors. The city began to go bankrupt after whatshisname, Di Blasio, was unable to raise taxes to pay for all the damage from the great storm of summer 2016. That was when the BBB movement (“Bring Back Bloomberg”) really got momentum. It turned out that people missed his bad Spanish at those press conferences. He’s been in power for a year now, even bringing back everyone’s pal, Ray Kelly. It’s just like old times.

Biden governed heroically, if ineffectively, until they called an early election due to the state of emergency. But he was never going to beat Chris Christie, particularly after Hilary had to pull out of the primaries because of that scandal with Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife. God that guy really embraced new technology. I think he’s still serving time. Chris Christie was a surprisingly popular president. It was like being governed by Tony Soprano. People love a benevolent despot. But I guess we weren’t surprised when the heart attack happened. He was inspecting the Acela line to Boston after it had been destroyed by floodwaters.

President Rubio has been in power for over a year now. He looks the very picture of health, glowing like the self-satisfied Miami sun when he speaks. Obamacare has been fully repealed, the rather minimal tax increases on the rich have been reversed, the federal budget has been slashed (his “War on Debt” campaign), and Rubio plans to implement the NRA’s proposal to arm all schoolkids. That’s equality. Everyone gets a gun. People seem to feel safer that way. Or they just stopped caring after that horrific school shooting in Greenport: the sixth one last year. I mean, who’s counting, right?

The truth is that national politics no longer seems to matter. Neither does the state. Cosmos is the new 1% international political force, set up by Jamie Dimon and other senior business figures from across the world. Its radical plan is to abandon all states and national borders and establish an independent league of mega-cities (initially New York, Shanghai, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, Moscow, but many others want to join) with its own police force and border agents. They’ve already begun to issue passports. It comes free when you sign up for their premium credit card. I have one here in my wallet. It has their catchy motto engraved on the titanium: “The world is ours. Make it yours”. They were initially called “The League of Rootless Cosmopolitans”. But they shortened their name: like the magazine, like the drink. The only political imperative was how to preserve the patina of liberalism while maintaining existing levels of inequality. Unsurprisingly, this is not that hard. It turns out that this is what we had anyway. A large proportion of the funding base for the Democratic Party has evaporated. Bozhe Moi ! is also a big funder of the Cosmos party. Secession from their various states is expected to begin this year.

After the whole Google glasses debacle and the copycat suicides where people filmed their own deaths while wearing them, huge amounts of money were spent on lawsuits and the program was abandoned. Capital was poured into the development of what was called “inner space research.” There were various plans to insert probes under the skin at the wrist in order to internalize search functions with fingertip control. They also tried to develop an ultra-gossamer type mask where computer and skin surface would meet and merge. They called it “2 Skin”. It also failed. As did the plan to insert implants in the retina. The stroke of genius at Bozhe Moi! was realizing that the search engine and the whole apparatus could be run from a customized pair of headphones. People really like headphones. It turns out that there is still a huge difference between what you are prepared to stick in your eyes and your ears. I’m wearing mine right now to talk to you. The translate function means that everyone can speak any language they wish which is what I do here in Moscow. Rosetta Stone is already a distant memory.

Of course, we knew that the rise of Bozhe Moi! was a soft authoritarian takeover. Old-fashioned leftists would proclaim that the promised means of our emancipation (the internet circa 1996. Remember that?) had merely shackled us more tightly in virtual servitude. Boring! I mean we read Foucault too when it still mattered.  But the truth was that people didn’t really care about their privacy. Not really. Not even the Germans.

Wars came and went in the Middle East, huge populations were displaced and innocent civilians were killed. Business as usual. The pieces moved slightly on the global chessboard and then moved again. We stopped caring, particularly after the big broadcast networks began to fold – CNN was first. We knew less and less about world, particularly after all those attacks on BBC journalists. But life was just fine here. There is still no two-state or one-state solution in Israel and settlements are still being built. After the attacks on Iran following their nuclear tests, the Ayatollahs even took out a new fatwa on Salman Rushdie and one on Bono too, after he was involved in that hit musical about the Iranian Revolution. But I think they both still go to parties.

I guess the weirdest changes have been around sex. The omnipresence of the highest quality 3D pornography, combined with “sensorium” patches that went on sale in 2015, effectively killed it off. Together with the first cases of a fatal testicular cancer caused by a variant of the HPV virus that was said to be in 90% of the sexually active young male population. That got their attention.

This led to two trends. A sudden vogue, that summer, for reckless, public sex: in buses, parks, sidewalks, subways, everywhere. It became a kind of display of political indifference or even resistance among the poor, but it was picked up and imitated by a lot of college kids. They call themselves the “League of Lovers” or LOL as way of mocking the Cosmos. There continue to be many arrests and an African-American couple was shot last weekend for refusing to stop making love in Prospect Park. Not so much “Stop and Frisk” as “Stopping Friskiness.”

The other trend – less numerous, but much more influential – was the Cenobite movement, where people would pay significant amounts of money to live together but in such a way that they could remain apart and not constitute any kind of threat to each other. The first one was founded outside Warren, Vermont a few years back. But they have spread all across Vermont, New Hampshire and Upstate New York. After electing to withdraw from the world – what they call anachoreisis – each Cenobite is given an “anchorhold” where they can stay safe and warm with their devices and sleep. Any participation in public events is optional, but with the right use of a wonderful new anxiety medication called Atarax, cenobites are able to be together socially and even main eye contact without looking at their devices for up to two minutes. For fear of contagion, celibacy is the rule in all cenobite groups. This did not extend to masturbation, of course. That would have taken things too far.

People incapable of even this degree of social activity or who could not bear to be disconnected from their devices began to gather outside the Cenobite communities in more extreme groups. They began to be called “Hamlet camps” or the “Inkies” after their customized black clothing, that was something between sports clothing and a Beneditcine habit. The sign up fee is prohibitively high in order to pay for the private police force and guarantee exclusivity. But I hear that some of the “Inkies” are beginning to produce some really high-level electronic music.

New York City began to feel too much like Alexandria in the late fourth century and I decided to get out when the right job offer came through. I’ve been living in this hotel in Moscow for the last 6 months working for a contemporary art space funded by one of oligarchs behind the Cosmos. It’s alright. The Russians make a generic version of Atarax and I have a bodyguard and a driver. But I stay in the hotel most of the time as it’s too dangerous to go out. Oh, happy new year.

Cole and Lucky Gus

Ambassador of Love

By Victoria Patterson

My brother and I grew up in a family prone to tragic holidays, but now with families of our own and growing kids, we’re trying our best to change the course.  “No drama,” my brother said, in our pre-Christmas Day strategy phone conversation.  “No more drama in our lives,” I agreed, quoting Mary J. Blige.

Traffic wasn’t as bad as usual on Christmas Day morning, though it still took us more than two hours to get from South Pasadena to my mom’s house in Pauma Valley: me, my husband Chris, our sons Cole, who was fourteen, and Ry, twelve, in the minivan, and also our beloved lemon-colored Bassett hound, Lucky Gus.

All during the drive, I prayed, gave myself pep talks, practiced breathing, and checked my pulse.

We loved our dog like crazy.  Arthritic at eleven-years-old, Lucky loved us more than we thought possible, and he’d grown up with Cole and Ry.

The boys had been one and three years old when we’d found a puppy wandering the streets.  When we’d returned Lucky to the address on his tags, the woman who owned him seemed to be ambivalent about having him back.

“If you don’t want your dog,” I said, emboldened, “we’ll take him.” She was in the midst of a divorce, had three children in diapers, and so she took our name and number.  A month later she called, saying, “Do you still want him?”

She’d always wanted a Bassett, she explained, since she’d grown up with one.  But Lucky was too much: he chewed everything, ran away every day, and her other dog hated him.

“I saw how you and your boys looked at him, and the way that he looked at you,” she said.  “He belongs with you.”

Lucky’s pedigree papers, which she’d also given me, showed that he’d been born to a breeder in North Carolina, and that his ancestors had names like Sir Napoleon Woodrow and Lady Natalie Tootee.

Lucky slept with my boys, rotating beds each night to be equal.  They called him their brother.  He was their brother.

Ry, Cole, Lucky Gus 2

When we arrived at my mom’s on Christmas Day, I watched Lucky jump out of our minivan and run—his happy trot—not to the tree or to the grass or to anywhere else, but straight to me, and I got my usual jolt of pure joy.

My mom’s husband Robert stood and hovered by a large trashcan while we opened our gifts, picking up the wrapping paper and throwing it away.  Lot of gag-gifts: Glow in the dark toilet paper, Superman socks.  My mom gave me a box of Chanel No. 5 perfume samples she got free with her purchases at Saks.

Robert made a big production of one final gift to Chris, my brother, and me. “Genuine leather Armani jackets,” he said, bringing them out from the garage on hangers. “So exclusive,” he claimed, “they aren’t on the market yet and won’t be for over a year.  These jackets are worth a lot of money.”

We thanked him, as I fought my suspicions, thinking, “Really?”

The dogs got presents.  My brother’s dog Sugar—an Australian shepherd found on the meridian of a busy freeway—ran around the house in a San Diego Chargers jersey, a little snug, her hair puffing out.  Lucky got a squeak bone toy reading “Fifty Shades of Fur.” He sat under the coffee table, mildly interested in the toy, holding it in his mouth, his tail thumping softly.

Everyone went outside for football before our Christmas dinner—our traditional game.  The boys love to play, especially Craig, my nephew, who was born with Spina bifida and is wheelchair bound.

I looked around.  There was Sugar but no Lucky.

“Where’s Lucky?” I asked.

I followed my mom to her small wading pool in the patio area, and she said, “Why’s the pool cover collapsed?”  It had folded up at the center, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”

I went to pull the cover straight and I saw him floating—slanted upward—his back legs like he was running.

I looked away and screamed and didn’t look again.  But I kept seeing and reliving that instant, especially at night when I tried to sleep, every day for weeks.

Someone pulled Lucky out of the water and attempts were made at reviving him.  I watched as my son Ry threw up his fists to curse the sky, asking, “Why?  Why, God, why?” I left him alone, sensing that he wasn’t ready to be comforted.

We wrapped Lucky in a Hefty garbage bag and loaded him into the minivan.  We hugged and said our goodbyes, ready to start for home, but a few blocks away, Ry remembered where he’d forgotten his cell phone by a tree, when he’d taken it out to play football, so we went back. Standing by the car as Ry collected his phone, Robert brought up the Armani jackets again.  “Don’t sell them on EBay,” he said.  “They’re worth over $1,300 each, very exclusive.  That’s why I bought them for you.”

Back in the minivan, Ry said, “What’s with Robert?  Why’d he talk about money and those jackets?” and I said that I had no idea.  “Actually,” I added, “it’s because he’s an asshole.”

It didn’t take long for us to notice an awful smell in the minivan.

“Is that from Lucky?” I whispered to Chris.

“No,” he said.  “I think it’s those jackets.”

A long drive, traffic, lots of weeping, and intermittent discussions about Lucky, and what we needed to do with his body, and more weeping.

The best dog ever, we all agreed.  No dog like him, ever, ever, ever.

“He loved everybody,” Ry said.

Chris called him the Ambassador of Love.

I phoned the emergency vet hospital near our home, and we brought Lucky.  A woman buzzed us inside.  Short dark hair, piercings all up one ear, she was somber and kind as she greeted us, and then she helped us put Lucky in an examination room.  She’d already called the cremation place, she explained.  He’d be picked up the following day.

Chris uncovered Lucky so that we could see his neck and part of his head.  He still looked so beautiful, except for his tongue, which hung from his mouth, a pink-gray color.

The woman let the boys make hot chocolate in the waiting area before we left, but they just poured it out when we got to our car.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  Though we’d stashed them in the laundry room, the whole house had begun to smell of the jackets, a rancid gasoline stink.  I got up and went to Google the tag name—Emporio Collezione—and saw proof of what I suspected: Fakes, selling on EBay for around forty bucks.  All over the Internet, warnings and tales of Italian men scamming people in Walmart and Costco parking lots, pretending to be on their way back to Italy with extra inventory, this one great opportunity!  This once in a lifetime chance to own Armani!

Infuriated, I called my brother the next morning to tell him.  “Don’t tell Mom,” he said.  “They’re not that bad, and the smell will fade.  It’s Christmas—isn’t it the thought that counts?”

“But why’d he have to bring it up in the garage in front of Ry?  We had our dead dog in the car!  What kind of a person says something like that in front of a kid who has just lost his dog?”

“He’s weird,” my brother affirmed, for about the thousandth time.

I didn’t tell my mom, and I gave my jacket away.  I began to troll the humane society and rescue sites, staring at the puppies and dogs.

We all missed Lucky.

Sometime late in January, I found a black Pug from the humane society and adopted her.  In order to function in the world, I realized, I needed a dog.  The first thing Rosita did when I brought her home was pee on the carpet.  She had ear infections, eye infections, and mange.

Now she’s healthy and happy and peeing outdoors, a very loving dog.

Happy Rosita

A good dog, my boys say. No Lucky Gus, that’s impossible, but a really good dog.

Then on toward spring, my mom came home from playing a tennis match to find Robert’s things packed and gone, a note on the dining room table.  He’d left her for another woman, the friend she’d been paying to help around the house.

A few months later, he begged my mom to take him back, which she did.

Not more than three months passed before Robert packed up and was gone again. So after fifteen years of marriage, my mom is divorcing him.

When I finally told her about Robert’s fake Armani jackets, she wasn’t surprised.

Someone in the Bank of America parking lot, she told me, bumped into Robert’s car. It was some Italian guy and rather than paying the claim through his insurance, the man talked Robert into taking those jackets, though none was big enough to fit him.  My mom refused to wear the one that he tried to pawn off on her and eventually gave to me, probably because of the smell.

There’s something fitting about Lucky leaving us on Christmas Day, we’ve decided, gone off to walk the Star Path.   He’d been born, after all, at the same time that my sons’ great-grandfather passed away, and we’d always joked that our dog was like a reincarnated undemonstrative, suffering, and difficult Grandpa brought back as Pure Love.

We can turn the narrative, I’ve learned, we can bend the tradition of the tragic holiday to hope. So this coming Christmas and each one after, no matter where they happen to be or who they’re with—and I like to imagine adventures and travels and truly intimate friends—my sons have vowed to toast Lucky Gus, Ambassador of Love.

Thanks for the Memories, Dhaka: Selected Notes From the Hay Festival, Bangladesh

IMG_5377by C.P. Heiser

A few weeks ago I found myself in Bangladesh for the Hay Festival.  I was visiting the capital Dhaka at the invitation of our friends at Bengal Lights, a literary journal and book publisher affiliated with the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. In the typical Western imagination, a literary festival is not what crops up first at the mention of Bangladesh. Instead you get, if anything, a Third World potboiler of cyclone disaster, garment industry horror, and political unrest, backed by a George Harrison soundtrack (if you’re old enough to remember).

But get this: Bangladesh, the People‘s Republic of Bangladesh, is a nation of Muslims with a secular constitution. It provides more U.N. peacekeeping forces than any other nation in the world. And since the Liberation War with Pakistan in 1971 (the same year Ravi Shankar got his buddy George to write a song about it) Bangladesh has made great strides in primary education, gender equity, population reduction and health services.

The capital Dhaka is also home to one of the many Hay Festivals that have proliferated around the world.  Now in its third year, I arrived at the Hay with a contingent of Americans, including Mario Bellatin, the Mexican novelist, David Shook, poet and translator, and Eliot Weinberger, the essayist and renowned Octavio Paz translator. Dhaka, a megacity, teems. With a population of 15 million, it is perhaps the densest city in the world. It surprised us at every turn.

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, the British Pakistani journalist and novelist headlining this year’s Hay Festival in Dhaka, had not been been back to Bangladesh since before the ’71 Liberation war. At that time, he predicted that anything short of independence for what was then East Pakistan would not be enough. His return was, to say the least, well received. He appeared several times on panels and speaking engagements and each time the Q&As had to be cut short due to time constraints. His rather grim assessments of global capitalism’s destructive path – Ali’s unrelenting focus – were incapable of dampening the enthusiasm of the Hay attendees. But this iconic figure was not the only one to enjoy such a reception. Other panels were equally enthusiastic, whether the topic was translation or Latin American fiction or “world literature” – Tariq Ali or no Tariq Ali – Dhaka’s literary and intellectual scene is engaged, opinionated and focused on a global discourse. It was inspiring to witness such involvement given what so often feels like a parochial and self conscious community back home. Even the headliner Ali, who lives in London and clearly brought a very contemporary brand of First World pessimism, could not dampen the mood. In fact, his pessimism seemed, refreshingly, out of place.

Rickshaw art from the "CIty of Rickshaws"

Rickshaw art from the “CIty of Rickshaws”

In the street, the bicycle rickshaw prevails in Bangladesh though it’s virtually disappeared in other South Asian cities. Confiscated rickshaws get impounded by the police and sit, waiting to be recouped in lots outside the city. You can buy a new bicycle rickshaw for about $300, but a majority of the drivers rent their rickshaw for a few dollars a day. In trying to wrap your mind around Dhaka – an impossible task to be sure – it might be best to simply ride with the rickshaws.

The sheer awesome human effort of the drivers, collectively, might just power not just their own movement but the city’s daily electrical output as well.  Even in nightmare traffic, even in the chaos of streets without apparent rules, some of the happiest faces I’ve seen in any urban setting are passengers on the bicycle rickshaw – mothers and children, friends, lovers – when they are suddenly breaking free onto an open stretch and sailing in the open air with a contentment you never see inside a New York City cab. Dhaka never lets you forget what a city is for.

Dhaka skyline.

Dhaka skyline.

Like other “emerging market” cities, Dhaka (and its economy) grew from a provincial capital to an unplanned megalopolis in less than forty years.

Dhaka’s architecture defies easy category, then – finished, unfinished, ruined – it’s not always immediately clear. But the primacy of rebar is without question – sprouting like weeds from concrete pillars and pilings on rooftops of apartments and office buildings wherever you look. At first, you think every building is perpetually under construction, or in the process of demolition.

A masterful dystopian effect, it has everything to do with lax construction practices though not what I first guessed was a kind of rainy day move: why finish a building when you might want to add on a story or two later? It should have been obvious there was no intention of adding to the weather-beaten urban-stained buildings, the kind which you mostly see in Dhaka. Instead, the city’s tax code – which collects only on completed buildings – compels the rebar rooftop style. It’s hard not to wonder at such monumental tax evasion. It’s also hard not to see that this endemic kind of corruption will be solved as the Bangladeshi middle class continues to grow and prosper.

And this is the thing about the Hay Festival Dhaka, and Bangladesh generally: though the political and social realities are still very difficult, there is ambition, and energy, and debate. Returning from Dhaka, back to our own problems in this country, I was reminded that the future is still a possibility.

Thank you, Dhaka.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

 

 

West Park Asylum, Epsom, Surrey, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Life Hacks and the Undead: On Urban Exploration, “The Walking Dead” and “Revolution”

By Brigette Brown

A deserted prison sits in the middle of an open field, fenced in with gates several feet high, and topped with barbed wire for good measure. Padlocks keep possible trespassers from opening the gates but they don’t keep them from climbing the fences and dropping down on the other side. Infiltration is possible despite the walls, locks and fences that say otherwise. It’s easy to get in if you really want to.

Embedded social norms keep everyone in their place because of the fear of what could happen. Boundaries often go untested.

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

That is hardly the case for Bradley L. Garrett and the dozens of urban explorers he chronicled in his book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Garrett, an ethnographer who spent three years on place-hacking missions in Europe and America, describes urban explorers in his book this way: “Urban explorers, much like computer hackers in virtual space, exploit fractures in the architecture of the city. Their goal is to find deeper meaning in the spaces we pass through every day.” They go to the places they’re not supposed to be, places that are normally off-limits, to photograph and share their experiences. The point is to show that nothing is impenetrable, that beyond the walls set up to keep it out of reach, a secret city exists.

Our experience of the city is more or less dictated by the rules of a capitalist society, and the choices we make to move through these spaces everyday are therefore not our own, but those already laid out for us. Urban explorers choose to do as they please. They challenge the “underlying message of constant and immanent threat promised by neo-liberalism that is used to codify the urban environment for our ‘safety,’” ultimately calling the bluff of that threat.

Decaying structures and ruins hold a special promise for explorers who love to document disused spaces for their aesthetic value, for the image of the post-apocalyptic future and the liberation from the fast-paced urban environment. It’s about the exploration of urban space as much as it is about exploring a period of time; the now, the past and the future locked in an environment that is largely ignored. These confrontations with urban space also include infiltration. Urban explorers enjoy breeching the security apparatus at corporate and state sites and networks, not to damage the property or exploit the system, but to show that there are chinks in every suit of armor. The illusion of security is just that.

But urban explorers don’t necessarily care if the general population engages in these exploits.

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

The excitement and the possible danger of exploration often exist in the phantasm of our dreams, as fleeting moments of rebellion — boundaries, in actuality, go untested. The adventure comes to us. Our aspirations are played out on our televisions.

Take the mass appeal of The Walking Dead (2010–) or Revolution (2012–), for example. Both television shows run with our fascination with a post-apocalyptic future (something urban explorers are also driven by) and transform our views of the city today into something at once more magical, more dangerous and more exciting. We hold our breath as we watch the stories unfold.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

In The Walking Dead, zombies infest our cities, laws and accepted social practices go out the door, and we are free to roam…anywhere. That prison which had previously been secure, guarded and untouchable is now home to anyone who wishes to take it over. The prison becomes not a place of exclusion, oppression and punishment, but a shelter that functions more like an apartment building, an urban garden and a soup kitchen all in one. The meaning of space has been altered.

The lights were turned off in Revolution, and though the city tries to function as it once did, citizens are more daring and fearless than ever before. They take what they feel is theirs and don’t give it back without a fight. Rather than enslaving people with the imposed practices and boundaries of city life, the post-apocalyptic city works for the people. It’s free.

Revolution season 2, Sebastian "Bass" Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte "Charlie" Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

Revolution season 2, Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

It’s freedom at its most pure and we fantasize about liberating ourselves from the holds of the present. We dream of a world where we can take our own risks, solve our own problems, and do all the things we were told not to. Still, most of us aren’t bold enough to take those risks in real life. We can’t give up our nine-to-five jobs or risk our lives or spend years paying legal fees and avoiding jail just to explore. Boundaries and exclusionary practices are in place to keep us safely tucked away on our couches, not causing problems for anyone, oblivious of the fact that we aren’t really free.

But as Garrett and his fellow explorers tackle boundary after boundary, skyscraper after skyscraper, and tunnel after tunnel, they demonstrate to us what freedom can feel like. Though we can hardly imagine a world where freedom of exploration, discovery and risk are the norm, it is possible to take back our urban spaces by exploring one “new” place in our backyards every now and then, with or without fear, with or without the zombies.

uc logo

The UC System Is Failing Its Graduate Students

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I have enjoyed the best experience one could possibly hope for while getting a PhD. I feel a little bit guilty for saying that, knowing that it’s a rarity for graduate school to go so well, but the past five and a half years have been relatively smooth ones for me. I was admitted to my two top programs and decided to go to UC Irvine for a PhD in modern Chinese history. I entered in the fall of 2008, before the worst of the financial crisis really hit, which meant that I received a generous locked-in funding package. I found faculty and colleagues who “got” me and haven’t pushed me in the direction of the tenure track, which I’ve always known isn’t for me. I haven’t suffered any significant setbacks or crises that weren’t of my own making (as all of my professors will tell you, I’ve never met a deadline I couldn’t miss). All in all, things have gone better than I’d ever dreamed they would.

And I’ve loved being a grad student at UC Irvine. I’ve studied with amazing professors — not just in the Chinese history program, though they’ve been tops, but also in fields like American history, gender history, and world history. I had the freedom to take classes in those fields because the history department encourages grad students to think beyond their specialties, and while I love studying China, I’m interested in lots of other things, too. I spent three years as part of the editorial team of the “China Beat” blog, a site started by two UCI history professors and their grad students, which enabled me to work with scholars and journalists from around the world. Every year, I talk to prospective graduate students considering UCI and enthuse about the history program at such length that even I realize I need to tone it down.

Here’s what I dislike about UCI: it’s a UC. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be enthusiastic about a university system that has so completely lost sight of its mission.

That California has been systematically dismantling its once world-class public university system isn’t news. A number of UC faculty, including LARB founder and UC Riverside professor Tom Lutz, have written publicly about the cutbacks their schools have suffered and the negative effect they’ve had on the quality of education students receive. A UC Santa Cruz grad student recently crowd-sourced testimony about the difficulties of surviving on a stipend of $17,000/year (just for comparison, Yale History offers its grad students fellowships and teaching assistantships that carry an annual stipend of $26,500). Last week, UCI’s Catherine Liu circulated a somber report detailing the collapse of funding for Humanities projects within the UC system. I have seen many professors leave for jobs at other schools, including Ken Pomeranz, one of my own advisors, who had turned down many attractive offers throughout his 25-year career at UCI but finally decided that the time had come for him to leave the UC system.

I could go on and on and on (let me tell you about professors having the phones removed from their offices!), but here’s the latest blow to graduate education in the UC system, the reason that I felt fired up enough to put fingers to keyboard today: the UC Pacific Rim Research Program, or “PacRim,” has suspended (temporarily? who knows) its full-scale research grants. This year, grad students may only apply for a $5,000 “minigrant” to support their dissertation research. The program will award “10 or more” minigrants in this year’s competition, meaning, most likely, one or perhaps two per UC campus.

Since 1986, the PacRim program has offered faculty and graduate students funding to hold conferences and undertake research projects in any discipline. Scanning the list of PacRim recipients since 2004, I spot many familiar names: former UC graduate students who received PacRim funds for dissertation research and have gone on to hold tenure-track jobs at schools including the University of Hawai’i, Penn State, Duke, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And that’s just in Chinese history, the field I know best; the program has supported hundreds of projects in a wide range of disciplines focusing on other countries around the Pacific Rim. PacRim grants have been especially important for UC’s many international graduate students, who are not US citizens and thus not eligible for the prestigious (and better funded) Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant.

I received a full-scale PacRim grant for the 2012-13 academic year, which supported me during 10 months of dissertation research in Shanghai. There’s no way I would have been able to move here and undertake that research if I hadn’t won the PacRim grant; though I was awarded two other small grants from professional organizations – together they totaled $4500. A round-trip plane ticket generally costs $1200-1500, so at most I could have supported myself for three or four months on the remainder of those grants. Having the PacRim, which awarded me $18,500, made all the difference in the world, even in an expensive city like Shanghai. Getting the majority of my dissertation research done in 10 months was difficult enough; trying to accomplish all of it in three or four months would have simply been impossible. It takes time to develop relationships and establish yourself at the library and archives here, as well as to figure out everything you need and where to find it. I had done a preparatory research trip two summers ago to familiarize myself with what would be available in Shanghai, but I still spent more time than I expected getting myself established once I arrived for my full research year.

What’s the reason for this latest cutback? The PacRim website explains that it’s “Due to the change in leadership at the University of California President’s Office,” which doesn’t really explain anything. (Janet Napolitano thinks lazy PhD candidates should hurry up and get all their research done in one summer, perhaps?) But that explanation does reflect my perception of the primary problem within the UC system: on an individual campus level, I can’t imagine finding a more supportive environment for graduate training. System-wide, though, there is little support from the top, and as a result, resources erode and morale dissipates. Virtually any time I’m in a group of people from two or more UC campuses, the conversation inevitably turns into a bitch fest with an undertone of “You think you have it bad — wait until you hear about how budget cuts have affected my campus!”

What makes news of the PacRim cuts hit me even harder is that I had actually believed that things might be looking up. When Ken Pomeranz left UCI last year, for example, we quickly got approval to hire a new Chinese history professor in his place—something that would have been impossible under the hiring freezes of several years ago. This has enabled UCI’s Chinese history graduate program to remain a leader in the field and attract new graduate students, who don’t receive nearly as much funding as their colleagues in grad programs at private universities, but who are guaranteed support for five years (a guarantee that wasn’t offered to everyone who entered the program with me). I was also optimistic to see that more funding for travel to conferences had been made available to UCI graduate students, since these professional meetings are crucial venues for forming relationships with other scholars and potential employers.

But my optimism has been tempered by the realization that I was lucky to have received a PacRim grant before the program was gutted. The thing is, I shouldn’t feel “lucky” that I managed to slide in just under the wire and have my dissertation research funded. And students who entered after me shouldn’t see those doors slammed shut with no explanation beyond “change at the top,” and no indication of whether or not that funding will ever return. Programs like the PacRim grant have been shrinking for years, but completely cutting out its full-scale research awards sends a clear message that the university system isn’t committed to offering its grad students the resources they need to complete their degrees. UCI might be able to give me money to attend a conference, but without the PacRim grant, I wouldn’t have research findings to present at that meeting.

When I finish my PhD, I know I will be sad to leave UC Irvine behind — but I also know I won’t feel a single pang about no longer being part of the increasingly broken UC system.

The Death of the Humanities?

sunupordownBy Monica F. Cohen

I spent much of the summer exchanging links with friends to articles documenting the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher education. The confluence of forces seemed apocalyptically confounding: public universities requiring higher tuition for humanities courses; careerism infiltrating curricula; parents worried about tuition that demand rationalization in terms of investment and returns; MOOC’s and short-term instructors substituting for the sustained attention of a traditional teaching faculty; the possible decline in the number of English majors and worries about employability; lap-tops in classrooms whereby today’s admirably multi-tasking student can seem to fully participate in class discussion while simultaneously shopping for shoes on Zappos and making social plans on Facebook; and, finally, wannabe exercises in digital humanities whereby scholarly inquiry into the things that matter achieves value only through a patina of social-science authority. Now that The New York Times has made it official with an article entitled “As Interest in the Humanities Fade, Universities Worry,” it feels on some days like just a matter of time before the academic world giving prominent place to humanities study would be a distant memory.

What greeted me on the first day of fall classes this year, however, was something entirely different. When I walked into my Nineteenth-century Novel class, I found nothing like what my greatest apprehensions led me to anticipate. Whereas I expected thirty students, more than seventy poured in. Whereas I expected laptops, only four brought them and only two later asked to use them (and since that day no one seems to bring them out). Whereas I expected twelve or so students to actively participate while the rest avoided eye contact, nearly everyone raised a hand at some point. Whereas I expected the rustle of notebooks closing and books returning to bags five minutes before the official end of class, everyone stayed riveted until I gave the signal that we were finished, seven minutes later than we were scheduled to end. (That might not seem like a long time, but my previous experience suggests that college students live a frenzied, back-to-back life of dashing with a bagel and cup of coffee from one place to the next. Rarely do students seem to have the time to linger after class.) They just want to talk about the books: about Balzac’s impossibly long sentences, about Kant and moral choice, about failure and maturity, about the possibilities of agency in an urban mob, about Breaking Bad and Dickens.

I’m not a star professor. I’m not even a tenure-track professor. There’s no buzz about my course and there’s not much likelihood that I can really help a student climb a professional ladder other than making sure their work is really compelling. And I teach at a competitive school where students think about such things. But my students seem to come to class as if discussing these books is the most important event of their day. They want to talk so much that they gather around the front of the classroom when our designated time is over and email me lengthy comments after the next class has dislodged us. For the first time, I had to set up an electronic discussion board because I can never call on the number of hands that are up. And sometimes I feel my role is just to orchestrate: they respond to each other with an alacrity and respect I cannot really remember being the norm when I was in college.

Maybe the numbers of English majors are really going down –or maybe just recovering from an irregular rise as Nate Silver demonstrated. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask about the state of the humanities.  Instead of statistics, maybe we need anecdotes. I remain awed by the energy in my classroom. And most of my colleagues have said the same. (An example: 80 students signed up for a lecture course on The Canterbury Tales!) Students come to the study of books, even today, with a sense that the endeavor is crucially important. They are interested in a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term.

Some of my best students are English majors, but many of them are not. One is in the engineering program. One is majoring in environmental studies. One is pre-med. Their love for reading and writing and talking about books is undiminished by their very pragmatic career plans, or their very real worries about tuition. Or the very serious concerns of parents and administrators who see one thing, the irrelevance and decline of the humanities, while students and professors experience something else. These students are looking for something genuine, real and engaging—and they are finding it.

The long-term prospects for humanities research may lie in applying Big Data to the study of books (I’m dubious) or (perhaps more promisingly) in reaching out to other growing fields—there’s lots of fascinating crossover work with medical humanities going on, and many interesting engagements with Environmental studies.   The long-term prospects for humanities study at the college level, however, may lie in remembering that career preparation is only one of the many missions American colleges have organized themselves around. Literature classes continue to speak, and to speak powerfully, to students of all fields. Whether it’s despite or because of warnings from parents, hyperbole in the press, or a presumed sense of the impracticality of talking and thinking about ideas and books, I am reminded every day in my own experience  and by that of my colleagues that the appetite of students for reading, writing, and discussing novels, stories, philosophy and poems remains unabated, and it’s that which might well guarantee the well being of the humanities at large.  There seems to be a new vitality in today’s humanities classroom. I don’t entirely know how to explain it, but perhaps the new world it heralds might still be an exciting and rewarding place .

Monica F. Cohen teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College.

leimert park

Save The World Stage

By Scott Doyle

“Save The World Stage” Campaign Launched
Community Rally Set for October 26

Jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis, Max Roach, Roy Hargrove, Elvin Jones, Billy Childs, Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell, Pharaoh Sanders, Horace Tapscott. And of course, co-founder Billy Higgins, the most recorded jazz drummer in history. Writers like Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Kevin Powell, Ruth Forman, Ishmael Reed, Toi Derricote, Al Young, The Watts Prophets. And co-founder Kamau Daàood, one of many notable alums of the legendary Watts Writers Workshop.

These are just some of the artists that have graced The World Stage over the last 30 years, and their names were a strong presence at an October 16th press conference held as the non-profit performance and educational space seeks to chart its future in a changing Leimert Park. The neighborhood, called by some the “black mecca” of Los Angeles, is almost certainly on the verge of a significant transformation following the MTA’s approval of a Leimert Park Village subway station on the new Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Neighborhood activists had long lobbied for the stop, which until late spring appeared to be far from a done deal. But within weeks of a May press conference finally announcing funding for the station, investors had bought up two buildings on the east side of lower Degnan Boulevard, home to a cluster of black-owned businesses, most of whom have been there for over 20 years.

Operating as two LLCs and communicating with tenants through a property manager, the new owners have chosen not to renew leases, posted numerous pay or quit notices, and failed to respond to requests for a meeting. A handful of businesses are already gone. After an unsuccessful attempt to get Councilman Herb Wesson to intervene on its behalf, The World Stage has gone public with its fight. The non-profit is seeking, among other things: short-term emergency funding to forestall the possibility of imminent eviction; a meeting with the new owner to discuss his plans for the building; “cultural landmark” designation that would solidify its status as a stakeholder in the neighborhood’s redevelopment; and political and economic assistance from city and county officials to ensure the organization’s long-term viability.

The emotional press conference (which later spilled out onto the street in a spirited conversation about the neighborhood’s future) featured a number of speakers paying homage to the rich legacy of The World Stage. It is a space that is, in the words of stage manager Matt Gibson, “humble but hallowed.” Its motto affirms the Stage to be “not a space but a spirit.” Writer and performer Jerry Quickly calls it an “art church.” Artistic director Conney Williams (a guest the previous day on a segment of Warren Olney’s Which Way, LA? on KCRW) spoke of how, in the difficult months after the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the unrest that followed, The World Stage provided a critical haven for “fellowship and healing.” Executive director Dwight Trible highlighted the thousands of young people who have passed through the drum, vocal and writing workshops offered at little or no cost; as well as the thrice-weekly jam sessions giving aspiring local musicians of all ages and abilities a chance to cut their teeth.

But the afternoon was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition insisted that the huge investment in the Crenshaw line, which he characterized as the largest public works project South LA has ever seen, must translate into economic development that truly empowers the local community, and not the kind targeted mainly at tourists. The gathering attracted nearly 40 attendees, a number of whom stepped forward with ideas for putting the organization on more solid footing, and with offers of help. KPFK music director Maggie LePique presented a $1000 check from Doors drummer John Densmore, a long-time admirer of Billy Higgins. World Stage board president Adé Brown is hoping to raise $25,000 to stabilize operations in the coming months. Supporters are encouraged to donate via a PayPal button on the group’s website.

save the world stageA somewhat paradoxical challenge facing The World Stage is that, while it is well known within the black community and has a national and even international reputation amongst jazz aficionados, in many ways it flies below the radar in Los Angeles. Leimert Park itself, set just far enough off the main thoroughfares of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw Boulevards that you can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it, has its own visibility problem. Happily, this weekend offers a couple of excellent opportunities to discover (or rediscover) this vibrant and diverse neighborhood.

On Saturday, October 26th at 1pm, The World Stage invites the public to its performance space on 4344 Degnan Boulevard. Against the backdrop of its Saturday Jazz Workshop there will be a community rally with speakers and poets and the latest information about The World Stage’s campaign to remain in Leimert Park. Then hang around to check out the rest of lower Degnan, including Eso Won Books across the street.

And on Sunday, October 27th from 3pm – 8pm is the Leimert Part Art Walk, which will feature art exhibits, live music, and food vendors. As a special attraction, the historic Vision Theatre (currently being renovated under the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs) will be opened up for an exhibit curated by Ben Caldwell of the multi-media art and training center Kaos Network.

The Great Gatsby

Bizarre Love Triangle: Me, Murakami and The Great Gatsby

By Kalliope Lee

Kalliope Lee

To Haruki Murakami

The late Matthew Bruccoli, who made a distinguished career out of studying Fitzgerald and his oeuvre, wrote in his introduction to New Essays on The Great Gatsby:  “The Great Gatsby and deserving readers will always find each other.  And the discovery must be a private act.  After that happens, the serious reader will require…help….”  The statement is nothing less than an oracular pronouncement, an enlightened master speaking in koans to his disciples, preparing them for the arduous, solitary path ahead.

Whether or not I was “deserving” of my own first encounter with Gatsby, I cannot deny a sense of fatedness.  After my childhood in Queens, my ambitious, upwardly mobile, immigrant parents moved us to the North Shore of Long Island, where the novel takes place.  Our new house was situated halfway between East Egg and West Egg.  Upon moving in, I unpacked a box of books, from which I pulled out a copy of Gatsby.  A synchronicity right out of Jung, so symbolically resonant in its mise-en-scene.  

I was nine years old and had never even heard of the book before, but I knew it belonged to my father, who had majored in English Literature at Korea University.  Likely, he picked it up while living in the States alone for a year before the rest of his family joined him.

I still have the book; in fact, it’s lying open next to me as I type this now, a Scribner’s Contemporary Classics paperback with a simple red and white striped cover.  The title and author are in the original Art Deco font.  The corners of the cover have lost their ears, and the binding has completely given way.  Even the Scotch tape used to patch together the pages has become brittle and desiccated, having lost its stickiness long ago.  The price on the back says $1.65.

I’ve since picked up other copies — the Oxford edition with Bruccoli’s commentary and the Everyman Library version.  Both are hardcovers, purchased with a view to their longevity.  But it’s the original paperback that draws me back — with its uneven underscoring and notes in the margins, scribbled at various times of rereading.  It’s become a historical document of sorts, charting the evolution of my understanding.  Like the timetable on which Nick Carraway writes down the names of those who come to Gatsby’s house, it too is old and disintegrating at the folds, a palimpsest.

My discovery of Gatsby was a “solitary act,” as Bruccoli deems necessary, the serendipitous find of a bookish misfit.  When we moved to the North Shore, there were virtually no Asians to speak of, and I felt my cultural disenfranchisement in all aspects of life.  Not only in school, but also, inversely, at home, where I was the disregarded Korean daughter among culturally favored sons.  In both worlds, and because I had no Asian girlfriends to commiserate with, I was relegated to the fringes.  So I sought with desperation a refuge in books.  Gatsby, in particular, sustained me.  Within its pages I stored my soul for safekeeping — while the rest of me went through the grudging motions of my pained adolescence. 

My other sanctuary was the city, where I’d escape whenever I had the chance.  I’d ride the Long Island Railroad, taking the same route Nick Carraway takes on his daily commute from Great Neck — the real town behind the fictional West Egg — to Manhattan, and his job as a bond trader.  When the train passed through Queens, I would see the Valley of Ashes, and the dispirited George Wilson limply pumping gas at his auto body shop.  I imagined Gatsby’s glorious yellow car driving past “with fenders spread like wings, scatter[ing] light through half of Astoria.” The journey released the images that had taken root in my imagination; the movement of the wheels and the chugging of the engine freed me to romp in the terrain more real than the reality I knew — and I was reminded again “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

As the city came into view, I would recite the lines, halfway between prayer and incantation:  “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”  I sensed the approach of a critical threshold, not only from Queens to Manhattan, but something more profound — literally so, as though we were descending into the shadowy underworld.  A dim, malleable place where, as Fitzgerald provocatively forebodes, “anything can happen…anything at all.”

Fitzgerald’s North Shore became my North Shore.  And every journey I took on the Port Washington/Penn Station line became a pilgrimage of sorts, the way Jay Gatz returned after the war to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville to pay homage to their love affair.  Each time, the path was forged more deeply in my mind, the attendant images evoked again and again, so that I could practically recite the entire book by heart.  The peculiar turns of phrase, the recurrence of puzzling motifs, its runic, fragmented quality, became more pronounced.  They began to nag at me, stealing my attention at unexpected moments.

Gatsby itself seemed like “the volumes…that stood on [Nick’s] shelf…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.”  For instance, this very line holds a clue: the first two names of the triumvirate are common enough, but the third sends you on a hunt, all the way back to antiquity (not easy during an age without internet access) to a rather shadowy, enigmatic patron of new Augustan age poets.  References to Maecenas even in ancient literature are sparse, prompting further curiosity.  And the most famous of his charges, Virgil, is more maddeningly cryptic than Fitzgerald in Gatsby.  Soon the reader is caught in a Chinese box of puzzles.  And that is only one clue in a novel rife with such provocations.

My curiosity roused, I began gathering Gatsby facts and reading Fitzgerald biographies.  But my growing preoccupation wasn’t something I could share with anyone.  Not only would it have sounded absurd:  “Sorry, I can’t go out this Friday night; I have to stay in and re-read The Great Gatsby for the 23rd time because I’m trying to figure out what it really means.”  I also assumed others would judge it an eccentric and inexplicable passion as I did Star Trek conventions or trainspotting.  If I were to hazard the effort of explaining my peculiar hobbyhorse, my enthusiasm would have to be met with equal enthusiasm.  But I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, even in the face of those who’d read the book because I saw in their eyes and heard in their tones that they didn’t “get” the book like I did.  They had read it in high school, they would tell me, and didn’t see what the big deal was.

Though I cannot say that Gatsby was the sole reason I chose to major in the classics in college, its original working title, Trimalchio in West Egg, colored my decision.  I had become acquainted with the eponymous hero and flamboyant host in my high school Latin class, when we read Cena Trimalchionis.  Goaded by Gatsby, I read it again more critically in college.  Not surprisingly, like Fitzgerald’s reference to Maecenas, Trimalchio lured me into yet another puzzle — another cryptic text that opened another can of mental worms.  In graduate school, I read the Satyricon again in light of the entire classical tradition and its inter-textual influences, both past — and future.

I took a detour into T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which appropriated lines from the Satyricon, spoken by Trimalchio, for its epigraph: “For I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, Sibyl, what do you want?, she answered, I want to die.” From Eliot, I went on to his hero Dante and back to Dante’s hero Virgil and further back to Homer; I explored the neoteric poets, particularly Catullus and his connection to the patron, Maecenas.  Eliot also pointed the way forward, to Conrad, from whose Heart of Darkness Fitzgerald revealed to H.L. Mencken he had “learned a lot” and which he had “consciously imitated…in Gatsby.”  I went on to read other writers on whom Conrad exerted a significant influence and studied them side by side, hoping one would shed light on the other — and ultimately, Gatsby.

Growing claustrophobic, I left graduate school, trading my place among the dead and suffocating for more expansive pastures where Gatsby awaited, breathing, living, inexhaustibly deep.  If I’d navigated the maze of the western literary tradition with Gatsby as my companion, it would now compel me to come out of closet and disclose my true desire — to write fiction.

As much as I had faith in Gatsby, however, I had no confirmation that it wasn’t somehow “all in my head.”  I don’t know how long I would’ve lasted if I hadn’t discovered Haruki Murakami.  The lone Toru Watanabe, narrator of Norwegian Wood confides:

I would pull [The Great Gatsby] off the shelf when the mood hit me and read a section at random.  It never once disappointed me.  There wasn’t a boring page in the whole book.  I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was, but no one around me had read The Great Gatsby or was likely to.  Urging others to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, although not a reactionary act, was not something one could do in 1968.

Reading these lines, I had to stop and calm myself.  It was a revelation — silent yet seismic.  Gatsby, the novel, also catalyzes the meeting between Toru and his friend, Nagasawa: “When I did finally meet the one person in my world who had read Gatsby, he and I became friends because of it.”  Murakami’s fictional world was giving me what I had desired in real life — a friend and mentor who intuitively understood and shared my obsession. And though I had not exchanged one word with the author, I understood it wasn’t a matter of words.  Murakami and I, to quote Fitzgerald’s opening of Gatsby, had “been unusually communicative in a reserved way.”

To be sure, one can glean the Gatsbian influences in Murakami’s work, not only in the conscious literary ways the author himself professes, but in its very vocabulary and metaphors, the way one picks up the accent or the mannerisms of a lifelong companion, or even takes on his features.

“Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel,” Murakami writes in his essay “As Translator, As Novelist,”

I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).  Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby.  It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life.  Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel.  I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.

My meeting with Murakami and our shared enthusiasm for Gatsby was nothing short of deliverance, and this solidarity invested me with a sense of hope.  It championed my strange, secret mania for Gatsby, whose addiction had been perplexing even to me.  But most of all, I felt truly accepted for the first time in my life.  Whether Murakami experienced the pain of alienation as I did, his narrators, like Toru Watanabe, are solitary figures, preferring books and music to the company of peers.  And with this, my soul identified.

Fitzgerald confessed to a similar plight of exclusion:

That was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton…. However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.

Transferring this sense of indignation into his art, Fitzgerald rendered Gatsby, a parvenu par excellence, who by hook and by crook tries to make his way into exclusive East Egg society.  But Fitzgerald’s resentment, which prevented him from ever being “able to forgive the rich,” finds resolution in the resurrection of another secret society, whose membership doesn’t require money, but a different sort of wealth — esoteric, literary knowledge.  Though Gatsby ultimately “failed” to penetrate the upper class, Fitzgerald succeeded in joining another elite cabal, which boasted its own blue-blooded pedigree of literary cognoscenti.    Mental agility has been the alternate way “in” since the ur-upstart Hermes tricked his way onto Mount Olympus and secured tenure as a god (as legitimate as Zeus, who had fathered him illegitimately during a clandestine relationship with mother Maia).  Who needs money when you have smarts, which can get money and a lot more?  It can even catapult you from the time-bound realm of lowly mortals to the eternity of the gods.  Ars longa, vita brevis.  Fitzgerald seems to have been aware of these stakes, as the motif of time figures recurrently throughout Gatsby.  (According to Bruccoli, there are at least 450 time words in the novel.)  A spiritual son of Hermes, Fitzgerald’s true wealth was his prodigious verbal talent, and it is with this currency that he ensured his place among the literary immortals.

And yet, there was a price, a grave, bittersweet price, for this ultimate victory.  Just as Hermes learns the art of sacrifice en route to the top, Fitzgerald too paid dearly — with what he referred to as “the whole burden of this novel — the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” These sentiments are echoed with aching eloquence at the close of the novel, as Nick imagines Gatsby’s last moments, referring to the “high price he paid for living too long with a single dream.”

Though the publication and posthumous success of Gatsby proved redemptive of Fitzgerald’s sacrifice, the author’s longing did not disappear.  Its pathos, which inspired the most poignant, hauntingly elegiac passages of Gatsby, is a signature leitmotif that runs through his entire corpus and tragically, in the corrosive alcoholism that dissolved his talent and shortened his life.  This weltschmerz is both the Muse, who inspires, and the Siren who lures to death with her seductive whispers.  Daisy Buchanan incarnates both aspects.  In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the roles are meted to two love interests.  Emotionally fragile Naoko portrays the exquisite sensitivity of the artistic soul, which cannot bear the pain of reality and pines for the blissful union she once shared with her dead boyfriend — while spirited Midori represents its contrary world of hope amid the everyday rigors of reality.

Naoko’s eventual suicide and Toru’s wrenching grief over her death replay Nick’s sober reflections upon Gatsby’s murder.  For both narrators, time must elapse before they can tell their story.  Framed retrospectively, the deaths of Naoko and Gatsby become a trope for the loss of artistic innocence.  Or rather, the sacrifice of otherworldly waters of life, its womblike warmth, which is in essence creativity’s romance with the imagination, where anything can happen.  And where life is eternal, possibilities are infinite and the mind free to “romp” like “the mind of God.”

To finish a book, to publish the product, the writer must leave his Eden.  He must give up his union with the divine and enter the cold, hard reality against which his ideals may “break up like glass.”  But this is the price exacted.  It is the initiation of the writer.  Perhaps it is because Fitzgerald never experienced the extraordinary success of his novel in his lifetime that he sought wistfully his ideals in the anesthetic of alcohol.  Or perhaps it was the age of which he was a part that enabled his dissolution.  Whatever the case, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is linked intimately with his failure in life and his early demise.

Though I’m well aware of the dangers of ascribing qualities of an author’s characters to the author himself, I also know how desperately an aspiring writer needs a model to emulate.  Reading Norwegian Wood and following Toru Watanabe’s journey to the end — through his wrenching, cathartic grief over Naoke’s death and his subsequent return to the world of the living and the vivacious Midori — was heartening.  Not only had Toru chosen to commit to life, but so had Murakami, it seems.  A decision which is reflected in his lifestyle and his art — in his marathon running, healthy eating and the strict discipline of his prolific writing.  Novel after novel, Murakami mines more deeply the ore of his prodigious talent.

Murakami’s books have for me served as a commentary on Gatsby.  I read his work as if with a Gatsby divining rod, alert to allusions embedded in his narratives, which confirm my understanding of the classic.  Reading Gatsby through Murakami’s lens has also refined my perspective, as it refracted the success of Gatsby from the failure of Fitzgerald’s life.  Consequently, I could admire the novel, but choose to live otherwise as an artist.  I did not have to sacrifice my life for my art.  Or at least not in the destructive way Fitzgerald had.  If Gatsby had served as “a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which [Murakami] was able to organize…the world of the novel,” Murakami’s life served as a model for me.  His example inspired me to finish my first novel and see this rite of passage not as the beginning of the end, but of better, perhaps greater, things to come.  And for this, I love Murakami most.  But perhaps, and with terrible irony, it is a love that I can only imagine, keeping its hope alive eternally in my dreams, daring not to risk its meeting in a world where a rose can appear to be a “grotesque thing,” and the sunshine shows raw on “the scarcely created grass.”

Kalliope Lee studied the classics at The University of Chicago and Columbia University and received her MFA in Fiction from NYU.  She could not have finished her debut novel, Sunday Girl, without The Great Gatsby and Murakami’s books by her side.