Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review of The Honorary Consul, by Graham Greene

The Honorary Consul, published later in Graham Greene's career, is not listed among his major works (at least by the tools at Wikipedia). This is probably why I was able to nail a hardback for a buck from the Friends of the Library, but evidently it was one of the author's favorites, and also one of his most personally challenging. I can see how the way it's constructed might defy momentum. Greene asks, basically, "What if they started a political incident, and nobody came?" It's not the sort of question that keeps the reader (or, presumably, the writer) insatiably ripping through pages in search of a resolution. It's context is northern Argentina in the 1970s, and Paraguayan dissidents, in an attempt to coerce (the American-supported) General Stroessner to release political prisoners, have attempted to kidnap the American ambassador as he visits ruins south of the Paraná (South America has fabulous proper nouns), but have instead wound up with an irrelevant local British diplomat.

With a political anticlimax practically built in, the tension must play out on personal levels, and it's as if Greene upped the challenge with his variously disaffected protagonists too. The usual fault of novelists creating ambivalent characters is that they're either completely unsympathetic or completely unlikable (Robertson Davies is the first offender that comes to mind here, but I'm sure I can think of others), but Eduardo Plarr, the unemotional physician who is tangled in the intrigue by virtue of childhood ties, and Charley Fortnum, the sentimental drunk (and honorary consul), are both easy to relate to. Especially Plarr--Fortnum could get annoying, but the doctor comes off as a man with whom it would be comfortable to pass time. People are drawn to him, but the company he prefers is with others that are similarly distant and self-involved. It's a manifestation of the stiff English half of his heritage, and Plarr, like all of the characters, is to some extent a stereotype, but there's a difference between making up complicated individuals that represent some notions of national character and using ethnicity as an unflattering shortcut.

Likewise, Plarr's occupation may either have been a facile characterization or a brilliant inspiration. Everywhere, he shows a detachment from the moral concerns of family and of the hardship of living that could be best called clinical: analytical, and strangely incurious. It's not a defense mechanism with Plarr, it's his basic constitution, and scribbling off a prescription he has no confidence in, or making a snap judgement based on some hurried palpation is in character (even if those acts didn't show his medical training in convincing detail). Plarr is not an empathetic man, but he is accessible. He has childhood friends, difficult parents, he has opinions, close connections to atrocity, fond memories, things that make him angry, even if only people's annoying tendency to care about life's petty theater.

And he reads fiction (writers writing about reading is always a little precious) but the Argentine predilection for melodrama makes the local literature (the literature not written by Borges anyway) difficult for him to swallow. Greene takes great care to draw out and ostensibly revile South American versions of machismo, but Plarr makes a poor opposite to his own notions of that stoic and formulaic melancholy. (He is, it's made clear, only half English.) His solitary suffering is not so far removed from the noble gauchos of the Argentine litererary universe. It is amusing that his sexual feelings are dispatched as efficiently as the self-serious local writer's, and when he develops an attraction to a prostitute, even that is only on an intellectual level. Quite possibly her own job skill of clinically returning her clients' desires is what draws him. He treats women selfishly, but it's too easy to call it misogyny. He's aware of others' individuality, but only in the abstract.

Cleverly, Charley Fortnum makes a better contrast to Plarr than the Spanish-speaking nationals from which he (Plarr) feels apart. Fortnum is an alcoholic, overly friendly, and, if he were given to self-examination, deeply lonely, and he projects his simple emotion onto every person he meets, some English version of forced bonhomie and patronizing affection. Fortnum has married the prostitute, now pregnant with Plarr's child, and the doctor is too detached to care, and Fortnum too simple to suspect and too sentimental to hold it against him. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that they meet and conflict over the relationship, and despite the fact that they don't meet minds any more than anyone does, they get closest, as opposites, to fulfilling one another than anyone else in the novel. I don't know that the story is always perfectly paced, but the conclusion and the coda are spot on, and they bring the themes brilliantly together.

I would call this book, above all, a love story, or entwined love stories. Greene plays off it on several levels--it's subtly glimpsed in almost every minor character, from the married priest-turned-dissident, to the British ambassador, even to the blind old man that accidentally walks in on the kidnapping, they all work around a similar depressing theme of love as scripted comedy (as Plarr calls it), which rarely involves seeing past your own projected image and unlikely ideals, even when the others' need is uncomplicated. The occasional actual connection is poignant... and unlikely to redeem a goddamn thing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Debate, 2088

The candidate was an imposing presence, with great bushy eyebrows hanging down over his eyes, themselves settled deep in their cavernous orbits. With his aquiline nose, somewhat reddened, and broad ruddy cheeks, and in his uniform, he looked like a figure pulled from some previous century, from the pages of Kipling maybe, or C.S. Forester, every inch the aging admiral. The truth was, he'd fought on the ground in Syria as a young marine, and had been injured by a bullet in the thigh which still caused him to limp, although he preferred to hide it. He was a career soldier in an era where there the need for his kind diminished by the year, as nations, those few civilized lands that had staved off anarchy anyway, had turned to maintaining the battle against dire domestic threats. The sections of the Department of Defense that hadn't been reallocated toward research and food distribution were aimed at controlling separatist movements that occasionally flared up among the variously indignant geographic and economic centers. As the titular head of these federalist endeavors, the candidate was beloved by his soldiers, which most voters did know, although his actual capacity was more as an administrator, which most voters did not. At his advanced age, the candidate spent most of his time, as he himself often phrased it, glorifying the troops. A real throwback.

He had a booming voice, and when it filled the room, it left little space for thought. "I, for one, am sick and tired of so-called 'infrastructure limitations' of the sun sector," he said. "As usual, it all comes down to the council that calls itself wise."

The audio techs amplified the crowd response for the purposes of the broadcast, capturing the predictable gasps.

The candidate went on. "Americans who should be able to use choose their hours of power use for their own benefit. When I was a boy..." he leaned his towering frame forward and glared at the camera, "we had something called the free market that we used to swap goods and services around efficiently. People got the power they were willing to work for!"

His opponent, by contrast, was a dark and wiry little man, with small round glasses that nonetheless made his eyes look enormous. He also wore a tight and archaic necktie, which coupled with is high smooth forehead and magnified eyes, gave the impression of a curious frog peeking from the mud. He needed to tip up on his toes to get his head over the podium and close enough to his mike to offer a rebuttal.

"Now look," he said, and the candidate did, turning his shaggy head toward the little frog man. "As something of a student of economics, I can inform you that most sources say that the rampant growth in capital of the last century was predicated on several irreproducible factors, to wit..."

"Haw! The last century would have turned out fine, if money was concentrated in the hands of the real movers. My Granddaddy used to tell me about Communism! Central government planning! My own father was head of the Walton Conglomerate, got the distribution done right, made the decisions himself!"

"...and growth that was unsustainable vis a vis the finitude of natural resources, and the short-term focus of the so-called capitalist model, which in fact was not capitalist at all, but was heavily supported by the government. In fact, the Wise Council even today encourages free markets on a local scale, but..."

"The council! Haw. The council is the one that declared itself 'wise.'" The candidate had copious gray moustaches, which he used for effect.

"Well, that's not precisely true, but--"

The moderator chose this moment to interject. "Excuse me, honorable candidate, honorable incumbent." The incumbent looked at the moderator, and the candidate glared imperiously at the camera facing him. "This conversation is getting far from the mark. Honorable candidate, how would you propose to increase the power flow to every American?"

The candidate harrumphed. "An excellent question, and I'm glad you asked it. First of all, power should flow to the honest citizens who contribute most to society. Second of all, it's common knowledge that the council hoards petroleum reserves.."

"Hoards? That is not true!"

"Sir, please. You will get an equal chance at a reply when it's your turn to speak. Go on, Mr. Candidate."

"Yes, thank you. As I was saying, if we concentrate the flow of power to honest hardworking Americans, families that have been contributing to our cause for generations, they'll know what to do with it. Make our economy strong. In my Daddy's day, we could always find more oil. If the Wise Council would bother to look for it--"

The incumbent had been fidgeted at his podium, but he couldn't let the last comment pass. "Sir! You know as well as I do that what oil deposist that are still known are preserved for research and in case of invasion. And for that matter, waste from that industry nearly destroyed our arable land and has surely limited our lifespans. If it were not for the work of Wise Council's life sciences commission--"

"Invasion, you say. And what about the South American menace? How will that affect our lifespans? I ask you Mr. Incumbent, and you, America, what about the South American fighters so eager to come across the border? The Free States of Venezuela is starving its people in the name of weapons research." He spit the word. "And breeding an army. They'll re-introduce the nuke, you mark my words. Can we afford to leave America underpopulated?"

"Underpopulated? Sir, have you no memory of the century you lived through? As it is, we already allow the maximum sustainable--"

"Do you want them to come over the border and attack us? Our precious sun sector rests right on their doorstep."

"First of all, the Mexican Federation, which borders us, is our ally. Second--"

"Gentlemen please," the moderator said, " both sides of this argument deserve equal time. Now Mr. Incumbent, why do you want to expose our precious power resources to the Venezuelan hordes? "

"The Venezuelan hordes aren't--"

"Do you see? He admits they're waiting just over the border! My Daddy, he used to tell me stories about what they do to their women. Can you imagine if they invaded?"

"Your assertions, sir, are simply bizarre."

"Now please, the candidate deserves his chance to speak."

"Thank you. As I was saying, our population would be stable without the South Americans coming over, and--"

"Our population is stable, thanks to the strict administration of the Wise Council."

"Haw. A matter of opinion, of course. Another talking point of the so-called wise. Can you even think for yourself, sir?"

"If it weren't for the Wise Council..."

"Who gets to be on the council? I, for example, am a decorated field commander." The candidate gestured at the patchwork of ornaments on his chest. "And yet, I am childless. I come from a long line of Americans, sir. My ancestors came aboard sailing ships, defying English elitism. My ancestors commanded the American economy, and yet, the Wise Council insists my line must end. You call this a system of merit? Nobler societies fought wars over this, sir."

"We all know the tests are extensive, Mr. Candidate. My own children have not--"

"Your children. So you admit you are a lazy, privileged elitist, then?"

"The council works as hard as anyone."

"Haw! My Daddy used to say 'show me a politician without a manicure, and I'll show you a chicken without henfeathers.'"

"Didn't your father sit on the board of the Walton Conglomerate?"

"And proud of it! A man of the people! Worked hard for his living, just like his Daddy did, on the very same board. With his own two hands!"

"Most historians agree that the loss of industrial base due to corporations like Walton's was one of the primary causes of--"

The moderator interrupted. "Sir, are you going to defend against the candidate's charges of elitism or are you not?" The camera turned to the man, who was shuffling papers, or what looked like them. Like the incumbent, the moderator wore glasses and a necktie, but was somewhat younger, and heavyset. The clothing was the fashion of the leadership academies and frequently it was adopted by the socially conscious, or worn in formal settings like this one. Arranging papers was an old-fashioned on-air gesture, but like the debates themselves, they were a part of American tradition. "Our insta-poll suggests that nearly 53%, an overwhelming majority of respondents, feel that you are not being honest with your responses."

The candidate cleared his throat, which, when processed through the gigantic speakers, sounded like stentorian thunder. Production assistants in the sound booth slid levers to tone down the effect for the viewing public. "The fact is" the man said, "is that my opponent is positively un-American."


"And he is bordering on hysteria. Can we really entrust our national security to such an excitable little man?"

"Look, it's only because of the council that our children will--"

"Aha! He meanshis children, America. His children, he admits it from his own lips. Not mine, and not even yours. Who would you like to see living here in a hundred years?"

"Well, I admit," the incumbent said, "that in a hundred years, things will have hopefully improved, and--"


The incumbent jumped from behind the lectern, in order to be seen. "Now, see here, this is simply not fair." He took a step across the stage, but stopped when the towering candidate rotated his iron gaze toward him. The incumbent was not a physically imposing man.

The moderator pressed a button, and a bell rang. "I believe our mandatory broadcast hour is drawing to a close." He looked at his notes and raced through the catchphrases of the New American Federation. "Remember citizens, conservation-is-our-strength, and natalism-is-starvation. Good night."

As the cameramen dismounted their rigs, the production booth announced, "power out in two minutes." The incumbent, the moderator saw, was already making his way offstage, gesturing with animation at one of his assistants, something about South American diplomacy and damage control, and then onto something about how plastics mining was looking more productive than ever. The candidate remained at his podium, blinking and staring at nothing. His attendants were making their way over.

South American diplomacy, eh? He'd have to remember that for the next debate. The moderator simply didn't trust those filthy little jungle howlers. American women! He knew as well as anyone that they were hoarding oil, living like Incan royalty in their tropical paradise, half naked women all around them, and dripping with gold, while honest Americans struggled just to keep alive.

The moderator shuffled his meaningless papers and stowed them under the production desk as the fluorescents clicked off, on cue. With the mandatory power-down, the only light was the late summer sun that filtered down through the high windows. Not fair? He'd always wanted children himself, but like the candidate, had never passed the tests. Still, he was smart enough to read history, and learn from it. With such limited and exclusive access to information, the media could be powerful once more, maybe more powerful than they'd ever been in the previous century. He thought of Venzuelan gold, nubile mestizo women, dozens of fawning children. The candidate must get his chance. His own prestige--no, America's prestige--depended on it.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Technology and Nostalgia in Children's Books

Slate ran a slide show article this week by Erica Perl about the representation of technology in young children's books. It was cute, and she brought out half a dozen examples of books that have representations of a child's world with primarily retro hardware. I don't know if I'd call it a theme, there are oceans of the things published, and you could pick out any ten and probably come to different conclusions. From the overflowing library and bookstore shelves, I'd have said that the overwhelming cohesive structure is a landscape for artists of obscure technique: everywhere are watercolors, paper cuttings, collage, fabrics, whimsical pens, and a heavy focus on the object itself, with holes in the pages, things to pull, things that make noise, and characters interacting with the paper. You might call it retro too, but I think it's more fundamental. The writers and illustrators are people that are comfortable interacting with homely techniques and art-class sorts of creativity, they want to put their hands on things. But so does the target audience.

But Perl's onto something too, I think. Technology has had an odd focus in children's literature for a long time. Some of the earliest stories that I remember being read to me were about anthropomorphic machines--trains and steam engines that always had faces--living to improve the lives of children to their dying gasp of coal-smoke. Looking back, I see them almost as industrial propaganda: better living through both backbreaking labor, adherence to routine, and celebration of technological prowess, and since all of them were obviously old when I was a boy, I'd guessed they must date to some marvelous industrial revolution heyday, but these books were all retro too. Little Toot, that happy little tugboat, was written in 1939. The Little Engine that Could trucked toys over the mountain in 1930. Tootle learned the importance of conformity in 1945, (after the war for God's sake). When these were written, all the little engines were already anachronisms, and while my parents no doubt could spot trains and such in their childhood, no one was shoveling coal to feed them.

One of my earliest exposure to pathos had to be Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939). (I have no idea how old I was when it was read to me.) In this story, the machine was facing obsolescence in the face of diesel power, and the poor thing was so loved, it broke boy Keifus up every time, and thankfully everyone was happy in the end. The Little Engine that Could faced competition from worthier locomotives too, but she managed to get the toys over the hill by herself anyway, proving, just like the steam shovel, that even if she was still relevant despite her obvious obsolescence. You can blame some of it on the thirties, and this business of coping with the modern, of loss and optimism, jibes well enough with the adult literary themes I can think of from that time.

(Did children's authors have much of a career before the thirties? [UPDATE, if anyone's reading. Yes, of course.])

Adults' portals to children's minds have to go through the past, right through the author's own childhood memories. No surprise that writers for young children in thirties and forties called back their fond memories of engineers in overalls and striped hats who'd wave from chugging locomotives, and no surprise at the theme of transition, of growing up and growing old and good times past permeates the enduring stories too, and works into modern kid-lit. It's more than the times: they're memorializing their own childhoods, and if you see typewriters or a corded phones today, well, there you go.