A Farewell to Schmaltz
by Jim Chaffee
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Gradually, as industrial activity further displaces predatory activity in the community's everyday life and in men's habits of thought, accumulated property more and more replaces trophies of predatory exploit as the conventional exponent of prepotence and success. Thorstein Veblen
A whore is good on her back and a used car salesman is good on his feet. I, on the other hand, am good on my ass. Sam Edwine, the Botticelli of Bullshit
Literary types and their expatriatitis. It puts me in mind of a mindless discussion in Brazilian Portuguese, a language within the boundaries of which I almost learned to count change in real time, regarding what I believed to be pseudo-intellectuality. As in, what is a pseudo-intellectual? And of course, the question that naturally arises to those of analytical persuasion is, What is an intellectual? And one approach to that question is, What is a pseudo-pseudo-intellectual? Would this be an intellectual? Or might it be someone pretending to be a pseudo-intellectual? This is sort of like media absurdities of the ilk of Rush Limbaugh who scream parody as no one of such ilk, drug addled or not, actually exists outside the realm of comic book fantasy. Perhaps a simulation? Doc Bradley would likely scream simulacrum but not physically, for sure, the fat blah blah-radio host so substantial of girth as to belie his noetic insubstantiality, manifesting as it does an extremely high ego-to-intellect ratio (EIR). But the likely reality is that old Towering Tom has no inkling regarding who the hell Limbaugh is anyway. After all, Bradley spends his days as far from his native absurdity as he get, albeit within the midst of other absurdities.
As if it were possible to escape absurdity. Consider Mishima, for example.
Which meanders to the heart of the matter. What is Bradley up to? It seems such a small book, a handful of stories, but upon entering one encounters a twisted adjoint representation of the world, an idea brought to literature, as most readers will already know, by none other than John Barth. But unlike Barth's works, this group is compact only in the weak*-topology, with a mind-numbing array of characteristic headings providing infinitely many orientations, requiring a countably-gimbaled guidance system perhaps formed much like Alexander's horned sphere but in any case assigning direction cosines to an infinity of trails (of course, the various inclinations bent into an infinite dimensional Hilbert space of ratiocinations, unlike the finite dimensionality of Barth's universe. This means Bradley requires the application of Alaoglu's theorem, the only famous theorem by an Eskimo). Lost in the fun house, indeed. (Note: The author of this review is at work on a bit requiring uncountably many gimbals for uncountably many orientations, and it is still open to question whether such a work, let alone device, can exist.)
Unlike his predecessor Lafcadio Hearn, Bradley chooses to not venture forth in search of the bizarre. Rather, he sits firmly on his bony butt and lets the bizarre search for him. His everyday world is, as it were, bizarre. More to the point, he sits squarely in the world and shows us that in truth each and every one of us inhabits a bizarre, non-coherent and fast-fading world. Of course, given his propensity to accost and rub elbows with everyone from the scurrile and frequently unwashed lumpen-proletariat to the persecuted lumpen-intelligentsia, sometimes an overlapping lot as in his split tale of designer celebrities and pseudepigraphy, the unconscious reader will mumble it ain't the world I inhabit. And that mumbler would be the target of these several stories, a slap to awaken the lumpen-slumbering.
And unlike the "Lost Generation" of American expatriates who struggled so mightily to pronounce the individual, to "preserve the autonomy and individuality of their existence in the face of overwhelming social forces" more or less quoting the "sociologist" Georg Simmel, Bradley is of sufficient physical stature to be reminded daily of his otherness while constantly reminding us that socially there is no such fucking thing as individuality. Another of those absurd Western myths that divide his ancestors from the people among whom he has chosen to reside. A situation with which I sympathize, having also spent time in Asia. But rather than dwelling on this overmuch and beating a dead horse as did some of that Lost Generation, Bradley lavages away the schmaltzy Western gleet that passes for literature from among some of the more highly celebrated expats of the generation of The Great War.
Bradley's tales of China mirror US culture with the crystal clarity of the outsider's vision, the Martian among us much like Thorstein Veblen a century earlier. Nor is that fun house reflection a distortion. Just as Veblen pointed out the fraud in our "economic system" whatever the fuck that expression might actually mean (a question with which Veblen skewered all the superstitious/mystical/religious quacks of his day who called themselves "social scientists" or "economists"), so Bradley points out the fraud of our time by reflecting it in the mirror of China. Most of our fellow US citizens can see the fraud of the foreigner but are blinded to their own. The absurdity of the grand propaganda of the Declaration of Independence alongside slaves who were Constitutionally three-fifths human. The illegality of miscegenation in much of the US until 1969. The US began as a fraud and, though it has modified the fraud over the decades, remains a fraud. Bradley has chosen to immerse himself in foreign fraud instead of the strange and senseless fraud that has grown up around most of us here.
Playing hopscotch along the sidewalk of the Pacific aligns dual images in a nonstandard epipolar geometry with focal points on either side of this large pond, the seemingly disjoint images (as if from affine cameras on either side of a metal rod aligned with the hopscotch chalk marks, the lines of sight opposed one hundred eighty degrees) resolved by masterful point transfer without any recourse to trifocal tensors (since there are but two affine cameras, not three, and any degenerate configurations are resolved out of sight in any case). Or, in language readers will perhaps more readily recognize, the visions are mixed to form dual pairings, much in the same way that de Rham cohomology groups (in their role as vector spaces) "are" (in a Clintonesque sense) the dual spaces of the homology groups (via, of course, integration of n-forms over n-cubes). Or at any rate for those without proper education, there is a mixing (in the statistical sense now) of distributional metaphors. Like when poor old Bu Yu visits the beauty shop or Sam Edwine visits the literary stylists or a literary workshop or I turn on CNBC for a good laugh.
Bradley's seemingly disparate collection proceeds as a thematic whole, beginning with his WWII anti-hero father setting us up for the encounter with modern US literature as American literary idols, hype and style the heart and soul of the brownish-yellow flux of the money-clyster from which these "stars" emerge. The sole pivot point for promotion is the size of the advance. After all, in a culture where money is the only metric by which to judge value, what better way to create genius than to pay out crappers full of it? This is the scat of the current debate in the US regarding how much one must pay to get superb talent. As with bankers. The pin heads who run the large financial institutions, both within and quasi-without the government, are excellent by definition because they swim in latrines full of money.
The argument that to get the best and brightest one must pay exorbitant sums leads to some stunningly logical questions. Such as, Einstein didn't get paid shit, so does that mean he was not a particularly sharp tack? Worse even for such as Kurt Gödel or Elie Cartan or James Clerk Maxwell or Norbert Wiener. Think how advanced our technology could be had we but paid physicists and mathematicians sixteen figure salaries! Surely we would have found much brighter than those blighters who worked for peanuts. The fools. Perhaps we might have jumped directly to relativity, bypassing Newtonian physics entirely had we only paid someone enough in Newton's day. Or maybe if we had paid Newton more. Perhaps had we paid Einstein enough he might have produced a unified field theory.
At any rate, Bradley dumps the reader into a bar filled with ambisextrous literary star-groomers decidedly taken with Edwine's ensemble: "The sheer untutored vigor of certain presentation-selves transcends even the minimum requirements of grooming and personal hygiene." Yes, well, at least they didn't try to get him to eat cardoons a la Wolfgang Puck. "Yours, Dr. Edwine, is a naturally perfect ensemble. Unassailable from any angle, possessing amplitudes of unity and variety and radiance. And I can find absolutely nothing to change. Not so much as an orange nostril hair." This probably exhausts only a finite subset of the available directions, actually, but then just as we begin to settle along a path, maybe a geodesic even, WHAP! Bradley jerks our asses off to fucking China and the one child policy.
The suddenness with which Bradley's hops the Pacific to plop us smack amidst a bull-in-the-china-shop moment within the one-child-policy China leaping and dancing to its own set of cultural myths and revolutions makes the head spin until one understands the pairing (and like a good author, Bradley leaves it to the reader to work out details). And I say, trust the direction finder, since you can scoot along this new path of female human longing for progeny until
BAM! one more leap to a meeting of the minds of two literary figures in a US airport in a cultural backwater, one a mind firmly entrenched amidst the effete but highly stylized literary dorks and the other an angry young man on his way to an angry old-manhood of venomous words. A once and future author versus the man of the moment in what seems a discussion of conjugation of the autogamy variant, as with sister nuclei, but whether of protozoa or fungi is yet another discussion awaiting teams of future literary theorists in universities amongst distant galaxies. Or not.
And then BIF! yet another leap to the hero Bu Yu confronting his former comrades now hunkered within their very own beauty shop named for none other than Sylvester Stallone, an encounter pivotal in understanding the pairing. To aid the reader who may not have access to requisite time to work out the classes or their generators for himself or herself or itself, I here expand a bit. The reader who feels comfortable with the cohomology operations of the modern day replacements for the old Taoist monks, or their more modern Zen descendants in the land Old Bradley now occupies, on those higher dimensional squares (that is to say, the n-cubes) can skip this and the next three paragraphs, but I recommend against it. We're getting to the good parts.
Like Rip Van Winkle, a rusticated Bu Yu appears from out of the countryside, having slumbered during the Cultural Revolution into the beginnings of Deng the pepper-farter from Sichuan's road to Economic Reform and Openness. The confrontation with his former colleagues over the sudden reversal of right meanings is hilarious in its multiple ties to the literary stylist visit in Los Angeles and the cudgeled heroism of Bradley senior in the second great war, though perhaps a tad obscure. But fear not that you want of modern Chinese history, since the pairing itself is the meat of the work.
Imagine instead then Adam Smith Himself awakening from slumber joyously to join the US after the much-heralded Conservative Reagan Revolution only to come upon derision of his own quaint and superannuated advice, to wit: government spending ought be paid for with taxes. Somehow tax and spend has become monetarily imprudent. Horrified to learn that Reagan's Conservative Revolution has turned his counsel on its head and means to replace tax and spend with borrow or, more truthfully, print and spend. And even more horrific, to learn that his own exhortation that government not spend money unless absolutely necessary has been reinterpreted to mean that government spending on military hardware and endeavors to realize science fiction is not really spending. That the Reagan Revolution is to build the largest bureaucracy of all time, a bureaucracy that joins government agencies and corporations under a single umbrella called simply "Defense," with money printed by the Treasury with the help of the Federal Reserve, all the while cutting taxes. Smith would certainly belong to the same equivalence class as Bu Yu. He would be entirely out of it. He would be deemed a fucking LIBERAL, a vicious slur in this US emerging from its own masturbatory Cultural Revolution. And like Mao's dicta, his own writings made Gospel, paid lip service and contradicted in every action. Poor Adam Smith, who penned in his classic The Wealth of Nations that when government spends money for war it must not borrow, let alone print, that money lest it wound its citizens and the nation.
Of course, some kindly Conservative, taking poor old Smith for an addled bumpkin, would say, But Dr. Smith, don't you see that the tax cuts of Reagan have generated more revenue? To which Sharpeyed Smith would reply, Laddie, doncha see that these "increased" revenoos is but a wee percentage of the hordes of money ya printed? Doncha see, laddie, that this money ya printed makes up this massive deficit? Are ya daft, laddie? Are ya stoopid by nature or do ya take lessons now?
Daft or no, Edwine muses "How does one grasp capitalism or Marxism or any other materialistic system, assuming that all sentient creatures seek maximum repose and nothing else?"
And here perhaps Dr. Edwine has a small problem. Perhaps it is within him to escape the compulsion that one must earn one's daily bread with labor, thereby giving meaning to life, but not so for most in the western bliss he has escaped. Instead, most in the native bastion of big-noses are typified by my housebound cat Milly who hunts down small yellow Post-its wherever they may be and deposits them in her water dish. And not just by dropping them in, mind you, but by working them in from the ground with her paw, no mean feat given that the edge of her large, round bowl has a wide, extended lip. Yet singing all the while. This work keeps her busy and happy, giving meaning to her life just as for the vast majority of US workers and entrepreneurs. It causes us much trouble, what with her need for acknowledgement of each and every feat, the necessity to repeatedly empty and refill the dish, and the need to hide new Post-its. Nor are we any longer able to leave one another or ourselves notes on Post-its. But then this is exactly like work in the US, requiring clean up of the products of the labor, acknowledgement in the form of showers of material goodies usually on promise of future endeavor and leading to an endless cycle of prestation and counter-prestation, and inevitably the invention of new forms of unnecessary and pointless work necessitating inculcation of the meaningfulness of such effort, such inculcation itself a form of fruitless activity called teaching.
Ping-ponging back to the same culturally desolate hinterland of the airport encounter, this time Bradley juxtaposes an example of academic nonsense, a creative writing seminar, an oxymoron of a concept if ever there were one, well beyond such simple verbal incongruities as military intelligence. Indeed, within the class of oxymora the juxtaposition of seminar with creative writing is way beyond verbal abuse, irony in action on so many levels as to be worthy of an entire semester of study in and of itself. While not surprising that these processes excrete cookie-cutter clones from the language-impaired, word-deaf attendees who graduate to produce gobs of cliché spit any practiced reader can detect as Iowa Workshopish or Antioch Worshipish or MFAish from San Marcos or USC et alia, but that they are in fact able to reduce any attendee with natural talent to a mass of quivering word-slinging Jello of their own characteristic flavor is a marvel of modern education. Consider, for example, the list of Pulitzer Prize winners from some of these processing centers, a prize given in the US to its most slavishly studied amanuenses. Of course, one must take into account the audience for their words, the rapidly declining population of US citizens who can read with comprehension, a ratio which seems to have the greatest negative instantaneous slope among college graduates.
Bradley returns the reader to Asia with a slight detour at Japan, visiting the families, the dependents, of the heroes who keep us safe from bugaboos, the US Military. These warriors are in the direct lineage of the great ones that Bradley's poor father could not join for reasons of uniformization. I think I would prefer Yokosuka, though, to Hiroshima. Not so far from Kamakura, for one thing. More bar girls for another.
This detour is but an interlude in the trip to Foo-Chow, Dr. Sam Edwine back in the good Old People's Republic and in discussion with a crippled street beggar whose tricycle Edwine must commandeer. But not until after a prolonged and witty repartee saturated with soul searching regarding that most important of all questions for artists of the great cultures of the Atlantic, that is, when to sell out and how best to accomplish it. The man he grapples with intellectually is certainly a more useful foil than the senseless blather of US broadcast media which is almost uniformly of such high mouth-to-brain ratio (MBR) as to be useless, if not downright dangerous. The bum with whom Sam converses offers far less data than, say, CNBC, especially since he and Sammy do not share a common language; nonetheless within the plethora of data spewing from CNBC there is at best no information. One might argue in fact that the constant prattle of mostly syntactically correct strings of words is not only void of semantic content, but is of negative semantic content. Certainly one can find across the political spectra of US media eruptions of constantly infinite mouth-to-brain ratio (IMBR), as from Rachel Maddow (who thinks that NASA guides satellites) to Katie Couric (who thinks that one can get a PhD in "calculus") to Bill O'Reilly (infinite EBR), and it can be shown quite rigorously that with IMBR transmitters the receivers have what might be termed negative gain resulting in outflow of information from the receiver (that is, the transmitters suck information out of the word-receptacle's brain). This is a difficult concept to encode within communication theory since the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is measured in decibels wherein a negative SNR does not imply that the transmitter is an information sink (that is to say, a drain of information from the receiver). Minus infinity would in essence be zero information, so there is no way to discuss information sinks and negative gain in traditional information theory, but suffice it to say that if you pay attention to (that is, receive) the data of the IMBR source, you will most certainly experience a drain of information. Whether there is a level at which a finite MBR is sufficiently high (loud and puerile) to cause information drain is an open question at the present (see, for example, Carl Grant Looney, Loopy wave guides, incestuous feedback, screaming incoherent sources, negative gain and delusion-correcting-codes in the human primate transmit-receive system, Trans. Obs. MF, MF-26, 644-91, 2008).
It certainly does put one in mind of the famous quote of Fearless Sanders: If you always go right, you'll never go wrong.
But we ought not dwell overlong on this segment, as it is no longer de rigueur to pen analyses wordier than the analyzed. Besides, we have arrived at the very title story itself, a cautionary moral tale of expats so foreign that they would have been unrecognizable as fellow human primates to the literary expats of the Lost Generation, a clutch as it were even old Papa Hemingway himself would fastidiously avoid. Once again education plays its part, clearly within the equivalence class of US compulsory miseducation for the proles, to train them to keep their little thoughts within the box of orthodoxy. The Chinese have their own methods, not so elegant to be sure, more along the lines discussed by Bradley in his Breakable Bayonets, Made in China.
Education this time is somewhat higher, medical to be exact, and not quite so compulsory. The story offers us not only Sam Edwine and his long-suffering, procreant-yearning Catholic mate, but another tall, red-haired big-nose who could be a malformed female variant of Sammy himself, nicknamed in Chinese "Even the Dog Won't Touch Me," a Western practitioner of Eastern medical arts in constant communication with a Chinese guru residing, it seems, within her own native New York City. All of this thrown amidst a gaggle of medical students from third-world backwaters serving internships in modern Western medical practice. As if to shake things up, the female big-nose gained her nickname from her Palestinian boyfriend Mustapha, one of the interns practicing compulsory abortions in an assembly-line implementation of the one child policy. Typifying the extent of foreign misapprehension of US political culture, Mustapha exclaims to sleepy Polly, Edwine's long-suffering spouse, "When I laid eyes on your slumbering head, so luminescent in its dazzling halo of curls, I could only be thankful to Allah on high, the Merciful, the Compassionate, that such an extraordinary Gallic beauty was not on Stalin Square with us this evening, awash in soot and mucus and misguided hooligans who think democracy is Pepsi and Rambo and disco marathons in dan wei halls." Is it any wonder the third-world misreads the US? Where do the lumpen-intelligentsia of these poor nations get the idea that US democracy is NOT Pepsi and Rambo and whatever now passes for disco marathons in dan wei halls? Perhaps it is time to export our compulsory miseducation to these misguided peoples.
At any rate, the surprise ending will rip out your lungs.
Bradley knows it is essential to leave the reader with incomplete closure and this he expertly accomplishes with the final story, sliding across to the geodesic in space-time where it mostly began with the adult Dr. Samuel Edwine facing down the literary stylists. Not to say too much here, but one will be put in mind of the famous (oft misquoted) words of Calvin Coolidge, "The business of America is bullshit." Which puts me in mind of an advertisement I recently found in my mailbox for prepaid cremation. With a drawing for those who respond to the request for more information to win a pre-paid cremation. Undoubtedly with fine print for the winner: Must be used within sixty days. The future of US business, I am sure.
Certainly generations to come will recognize the true artistic revolutionaries of the twenty-first century US and her sister zombies of the Great Atlantic Cultures. They will have forgotten those awarded prizes for cliché within the box. The misplaced worship of those goons will be a cause for wonder. Instead, the epitome of fictional art will one day ring with names like Sasha Grey, Kelli McCarthy, Jayna Oso, Lorelei Lee, Princess Donna, Sara Jane Ceylon and certainly the pre-boob job Felony. Theirs is the only real art left within the US, magic lantern art requiring no reading. Bradley has his own way of pointing to it. I suggest that this little book will help guide the reader into the genius of these artists as a true expression of US values. Consider it an introduction, at least on its most fundamental level.
A final tip for using this little book. Pay attention to Poincaré duality and don't afraid to resort to the Mayer-Vietoris arguments when appropriate. Localization ought to be always in the back of your mind, whatever that might mean, and remember that the Poincaré dual and the Thom class are in fact one and the same thing. For more details, I suggest returning to your high school algebraic topology text, though I think the best source for this particular work is Raoul Bott and Loring W Tu, Differential Forms in Algebraic Topology. The computational methods developed therein are directly applicable to Bradley's work.
A good class in mathematical literature wouldn't hurt, either.
This previously appeared in Exquisite Corpse.