ON THE STRUGGLE FOR AUTHORITY AND THE IMPRINT OF AGONY

Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.

Welcome to Connection Degree Three …

Several dystopian books have resurfaced lately, striking a chord with readers around the world on account of recent developments in the USA, the UK, Europe and beyond. The most notable examples are 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, stories that focus on the power of groupthink, oppression and tyranny.

But how about those other books, the not-so-obvious but equally gripping and insightful stories that are not necessarily dystopian or political, but which nevertheless and with great acumen speak of a world in upheaval, shedding light on the madness of civilization? …

 Black WaterWhite NoiseAmerican Gods: three haunting tales of a civilization inundated by its worst elements, caught in a deadly power struggle that never ends.

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates is the poignant story of a young woman enamored of a charismatic politician from afar, whom she finally meets in person at a Fourth of July party on the small island of Grayling, off the coast of Maine.

The man is gracious, alluring, he ticks all the right boxes, says all the right things, and yet …

It’s a big, trapping yet, as murky as the water surrounding the island, providing the perfect setting for a spectacular fall from grace. This isn’t a comedy or light drama. This is the story of trust violated, of innocence sacrificed on the altar of expedience in a world where appearances fool even the most idealistic and prudent among us, wounding us, hurting our loved ones and the world at large, a setup that brings us to

White Noise by Don DeLillo, the story of a town in the grips of mass folly, where appearances have become more important than essence – where the professor of Hitler studies in what is referred to as College-on-the-Hill is urged by his boss to assume an air of unhealthiness – bulk, gravitas, imposition – so as to impress his peers. That’s how it works there.

College-on-the-Hill is a college in the small town of Blacksmith, state unknown, where everyday reality is commanded by brands and images and predispositions to what something is, or ought to be, what everyone expects it to be and builds it up to be and makes it out to be – images and ideas to which people live up, eager to be part of the manufactured auras, the exclusive labels, the will to live for as long as one can, life reshaped and preserved at will, prepared in ways that defeat time, or at least claim to. A crack at immortality and invulnerability, power and control. An attempt to defeat fear and death, and the fear of death, the powerlessness of being lost inside a system too big and complicated to pause when people’s lives and livelihoods come under threat. Lose your footing and the troupe won’t stop for you. The show goes on. You know it, everyone does.

It does things to you, this realization, messes with your mind, making individuals do crazy things. An overcompensation. An assumption of power by bereft people living in the middle of a cultural everywhere-and-nowhere-at-all, exercised via insane means. They claim the absurd for themselves, hiding behind the fallacy it provides, the spectacle it bequeaths, for which they would do anything, not least of which is lose their goddamn minds, which brings us to

American Gods by Neil Gaiman, a story about a man sucked into a world consumed by conflict and power. Old gods are dying by the roadside from neglect, eclipsed and displaced by the new gods and their shiny, attractive, new-kid-on-the-block guises.

These young deities are powerful, firmly settled in a world of progress, all too happy to deny the old ones a fresh start. But don’t count out the old geezers, they have plenty of weapons at their disposal, desperate to reclaim their lost authority, craving to be worshipped again.

The rivalry leads inexorably and without fail to a vicious power struggle, a dogged fight for the spotlight. There are no good or evil parties. Both sides are at fault, and both have a right to fight for their cause, their way of doing things. No room for compromise in the daily matters of the divine. Deities are fickle creatures, and explosive. Theirs is a binary world translated into a binary struggle, one that repeats itself in great cycles, one side attacking the other for a position under the sun and moon and sky. It’s about total dominion – no compromises, no mercy, nothing but the persecution of all rivals and the gerrymandering of power, which leads to the evisceration of one of either side, time after time, ad infinitum. This is a world consumed by conflict, at war since the beginning of time, in the middle of which sits Shadow, a man minding his own business, staying out of trouble until the world creeps up on him in the middle of the week, just like that, finding its way inside his private space, inside his mind, leaving him no choice: help the old ones or face destruction.

And so he does — Shadow enters the fray to avoid his doom, squaring up against anyone who gets in the way, pushing toward some unknowable conclusion, eager to make sense of things.

In the process he goes over his life in his head, examining his past choices, shedding light on key events, eager to understand what is happening to him, why things went down the way they did, how they happened – and still unfold as a result of the past – what was said when, to whom, to what purpose, on what grounds, by whose authority, which brings us back to

Black Water and its gross betrayal of trust, the reminiscence of a life gradually slipping away, the sacrifice of innocence in the wake of selfish charms in a dark and cold world filled with shadows and ghosts from the receding but ever-present past, all in the cold light of a beaming cheshire smile that beguiled and ensnared and destroyed at will, leaving behind an imprint of agony.

Black WaterWhite NoiseAmerican Gods: three haunting stories overflowing with insight on the times we live in and the extent to which people will go to preserve their authority.

PS – as a bonus, and to avoid ending on a bleak note, here’s a fourth book that ties in to the above, and which provides a solution to the dead ends they allude to: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami – the memoir of an author who runs every day, or almost every day, to stay fit, healthy and focused. No matter what he’s doing, where he is or what’s happening in his life, Murakami runs long distances, he explains, making sure his body and mind are subjected to extreme challenges. The aim is to discipline himself. In combination with the surrounding terrain, the weather, and his own age, he faces a struggle that keeps him honest, helping him stay focused, providing him a number of coping tactics, plus many useful insights, which he applies to the rapidly shifting world at large. He charts out his course and hits the road with impunity (and what humble impunity it is) building up his energy and determination and wisdom to withstand whatever life throws at him when he’s not running on the road per se, when he’s running down life’s never-ending paths and trails.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Another awesome book, perfect for the times we live in. It may not be dystopian – on the contrary, it’s inspirational – which makes it all the more worth a read, especially today.

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