Off the Shelves
Empire of the Senseless,
by Eleanor J. Bader
Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (South End Press, paperback August 2004)
The seven essays in Arundhati Roy’s latest collection—all of them reprints of lectures or previously-published polemics—will not alter the mindset of most progressives. Nor, despite the title, will the text appeal to "ordinary people" who follow Republican or fundamentalist ideologues. But this is not to suggest that the book is anything less than riveting. Trenchant, and at times provocative, it is an important tool in the fight against America’s most recent rush to imperial domination.
Roy is particularly critical of media and the communication industry’s role in fostering war and racism. What’s more, she questions the need for fast-paced sound bites and is repelled by what she calls "crisis reporting." According to Roy, "If you don’t have a crisis to call your own, you’re not in the news. And if you’re not in the news, you don’t exist.… Starvation deaths are more effective advertisements for drought or skewed food distribution than cases of severe malnutrition."
Equally problematic is the way language is manipulated. Roy writes that when "victims refuse to be victims, they become ‘terrorists.’" Similarly, U.S. government officials have dubbed Guantanamo Bay detainees "unlawful combatants," rather than prisoners of war. Al Jazeera is repeatedly denounced as a purveyor of anti-American hate-mongering, while U.S. news anchors mouth blanket denunciations of anyone critical of our foreign policies. While "Iraqi defense is ‘resistance,’" she concludes, "clearly for the ‘allies,’ the only morally acceptable strategy the Iraqi army can pursue is to march out into the desert and be bombed by B-52s or be mowed down by machine gun fire." Anything else is a shameful show of contempt for the "liberators."
While Roy is adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, she also homes in on other themes: how the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) is used to repress the poor and suppress Muslims and Sikhs in India; how "development" projects displace people throughout the world; how age-old inequalities are masked when a smattering of women or people of color are placed in positions of influence; and how powerlessness is transmitted.
In "When the Saints Go Marching Out," Roy assesses the legacies left by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, assailing the broken dreams that have followed their efforts. Take the Indian state of Gujarat. In 2003, a half-century after Gandhi’s death, Hindu mobs murdered at least 2,000 Muslims, gang-raped countless women, and burned Islamic temples. These heinous acts took place under the nose of a Chief Minister whose affection for Adolf Hitler was legion.
South Africa’s transition from apartheid has also been thorny. Massive privatization programs have left 50 percent of the black population without land while 60,000 white farmers retain title to virtually all agricultural properties. Roy reports that two million South African people have been evicted from their homes; approximately 600 die from AIDS each day; and 40 percent of the population are unemployed. Shockingly, many continue to live without either running water or electricity.
And the U.S. after King? Roy points out that African Americans—12 percent of the population—comprise 21 percent of the armed forces and 29 percent of the Army. More than a million blacks have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions and scores are presently behind bars.
Yet for all her fury at social wrongs, Roy remains a guarded optimist and proponent of militant, grassroots activism. "In times of war, one wants one’s weakest enemy at the helm of his forces," she quips. "And President George W. Bush is certainly that. Any other even averagely intelligent U.S. president would have probably done the same things, but would have managed to smoke up the glass and confuse the opposition.… George Bush’s tactless imprudence and his brazen belief that he can run the world with his riot squad, has done the opposite.… He has placed in full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American Empire."
As the presidential race heats up, let’s hope that this is as clear to the "ordinary person" as it is to Roy. On the other hand, we can rest assured that Roy is watching carefully; indeed, the victor’s antics will undoubtedly provide fodder for her continued provocations.
Eleanor Bader is a writer based in Brooklyn.
Stairways to Heaven
by Richard Klin
Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong; Revised and Expanded Edition (University of Michigan Press, 2004)
It is a musical genre lacking any real codified definition, and it is instead delineated by a series of catch-all, derisive phrases: "beautiful" music, elevator music, dental office music. Occupying a special perch in surveys of American ephemera, this particular canon has remained paradoxically both ubiquitous and yet almost totally anonymous, hovering deep in the musical subconscious. Anyone of a certain age has entrenched memories—willingly or not—of what Joseph Lanza describes as those weirdly "unobtrusive instrumental versions of movie themes, show tunes, old standards, and ‘current’ pop hits" often absorbed via radio stations apparently lacking any causal connection to the rest of the FM band.
Lanza’s Elevator Music is a zealously researched dissection of this mega-popular musical "Esperanto"—those ethereal tunes any self-respecting cognoscente loves to hate. But the idea of a background music worthy on its own terms has deep and noble antecedents, tied in with Futurism, the European avant-garde, and the tradition of the silent-film score; examples include Erik Satie’s "furniture music" and the Marxist-inflected Gebrauchsmusik—or "utility music." Beginning in the late 19th century, there was also a pernicious and enduring attempt to harness music as a tool for industrial motivation, most notably via Thomas Edison and soon a host of others.
The lion’s share of Elevator Music is devoted to a precis on the history of Muzak—which, contrary to popular misconception, is not a generic moniker but a distinct, far-reaching corporate organization founded by one World War I-era Brigadier General George Owen Squier. Muzak’s saga rests on that distinctly American mélange of can-do fantasy grafted onto military-industrial high tech. It was an early example of branding, as Muzak sold its wired-music technology and in addition "conducted its own studio sessions to produce custom-made ‘functional music.’" According to Lanza, General Squier "helped usher in the ‘global village’ by concocting a hook-up system capable of compressing vast areas of time and space"—technology eventually "responsible for today’s fiber-optic phone lines and cable television’s 500-plus channels."
Muzak, hatched during an era that abounded in utopian ideals, was simultaneously part of a "mass technology synonymous with repression." Squier’s spawn provided telecommunications, intelligence, and motivational aid to the armed forces. Its state-of-the-art musical transmissions to stores, restaurants, and hotels seemed to be industrial psychology gone amok. "A typical [musical] sequencing program for restaurants complemented the daily eating ritual…[while] the breakfast hours… offered cheery melodies and caffeinated rhythms." Early evening meant "cocktail tunes," suppertime was "discreet and quietly classical." Industrial-grade Muzak, geared specially for proletarian consumption, displayed an obsessional interest in harnessing workers’ circadian cycles and maximizing profits. And "although it was a private corporation," Lanza writes, "Muzak constituted one of the most intricate federal-private mergers in American history, with civil defense, public service, and entertainment issuing from the same source in the service of profit and public welfare."
Muzak, though, is not the sole focus of Elevator Music. As the medium of radio grew in dominance and popularity, it was discovered that high-pitched, overlapping strings were an ideal antidote to distracting static and poor reception. America’s post-World War II national affluence—along with the understandable need of some to forget the war—"required softer, more enchanting, and even haunting textures." Coupled with the emergence of the stereo LP (with its often eye-candy cover art) and the hi-fi, a potpourri of interrelated sounds entered the scene, including the often saucy mood music, or what Lanza calls "Muzak’s id." Soon, the hitherto-overlooked FM radio proved ideal for these "sonic showcases."
The music’s various frontmen were significantly less anonymous than one would suspect. Larger-than-life Jackie Gleason captained an immensely popular orchestra (Music, Martinis and Memories, among other swingin’ titles); one album boasted cover art by Salvador Dali. Mantovani, was "the first musician to sell 1 million stereo records in the United States," racking up 51 million albums sold by 1972. Andre Kostelanetz’s lifetime album sales were 52 million. And many of the recordings themselves originated—not in sun-splashed Miami or Vegas—but in an acoustically superior church on East 19th Street.
Elevator Music is a true completist’s guide, with careful attention doled out to the genre’s forms and sub-forms: exotica, the Franco-Brazilian fusion, Italianate primacy, and the dateless technophile’s "Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music." As the counterculture reared its shaggy head in the 1960s, Muzak stood as a "beacon of order in a world gone mad." It was featured at Richard Nixon’s 1969 inaugural gala, piped aboard the Polaris submarine, sampled by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. But eventually Muzak and the entire world of easy listening had to bow to a groovier era. Electric guitar, previously banned, was rehabilitated, psychedelia-friendly sitars were incorporated, and the music’s typically bizarre eclecticism grew to eventually absorb the likes of Bob Dylan, Ted Nugent, the B-52s, and Helen Reddy’s "I Am Woman."'
Ironically, it was not the Woodstock generation that lead to the form’s demise but an aging audience lashed to a terminally undesirable demographic. "Adult contemporary" and the truly wretched "Lite" FM format finally drove the nail in the coffin. Its legacy lives on for good and bad. New Age groovesters would be shocked at a linkage with the terminally unenlightened Mantovani or Pat Nixon favorite Ray Conniff. And to be fair, a complete trajectory would encompass Brain Eno, Devo, and the "elevator noir" of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack. Glenn Gould and John Lennon were surprising defenders. And some of the legitimate qualms about Muzak’s obtrusiveness seem almost quaint today, with music commodified to a shocking degree.
Some of Lanza’s detailed distinctions may be obscure for the beautiful-music neophyte, and probably the best way to truly differentiate among the various artists and styles is to listen, not read. That aside, Elevator Music is a worthy study of this "genuine, home-grown surrealism." The genre does not truly deserve its consignment to an eternal, low-brow purgatory, nor was it solely an exercise in musical Babbitry. Lanza’s book can be read as part populist screed: don’t belittle this aural pastiche and effectively nullify the tastes, temperaments, and desires of a significant swath of the American body politic. Muzak and its myriad offshoots deserve serious hearing, which is not the same as easy listening.
Richard Klin is a writer based in the Hudson Valley.CULTURE
A Peculiar Place,
by Priya Jain
Julia Reed, Queen of the Turtle Derby: And Other Southern Phenomena (Random House, 2004)
When I saw the title of Julia Reed’s book, I immediately became defensive. You see, I grew up in the South, and as Reed herself points out, there is "the deep-dyed fear that lives in the heart of every Southerner, myself included: that a Yankee is putting us down." Reed is from the Mississippi Delta and now lives in New Orleans and New York, but to be a Southerner is to fear that even this part-time Northerner is making fun of us. In fact, Reed does poke fun at the South, but in the way you poke fun at the people you love the most: with great affection and a deep identification with the butt of the joke. Reed isn’t laughing at the South; she’s laughing with it. And by the end of the book, the rest of us are, too.
As Reed explains, there are two prevailing theories about the modern South. The first, which she calls the "Scratchin’ and Spittin’" school, has it that "we are, at heart, gun-toting, beer-swilling, Baptist-church-going, pickup-truck-driving, Republican-voting good ole boys and girls with names like Billy Earl and Rayette." The other school says that the South has become like every place else in the country, "full of Home Depots and Blockbusters and people wearing Dockers pants." Reed sets out to prove that the truth is "much more complicated and more interesting than either caricature indicates," and she does this, thankfully, without trying to impose her own neat theory on the region.
Of course, as Reed knows, there is some truth in stereotypes. The first three essays deal with the Southern phenomena of God, food and guns, and Reed returns to the themes of eating and violence throughout the book. She doesn’t deny that there are rednecks, drunks and trigger-happy grandmas in the South, or that there are Wal-Marts with seas of parking lots. The point that Reed elegantly makes is that the beauty and poetry of the South can be found in these very sour-looking things. In the mouth-watering essay "Eat Here," Reed contends that Southerners use packaged foods like Triscuits and Philadelphia Cream Cheese in ways that are so particular to the South that, rather than contribute to the demise of Southern cooking, they simply become a part of it. You can smear your Triscuit with cream cheese up here, too, but only in the South can you top it off with Jezebel Sauce and pepper jelly.
Reed is a senior writer at Vogue and often writes about food for The New York Times Magazine, so it is little wonder that the best of her essays deal with Southern women and with cooking. Most of the pieces culled for this collection were originally published in these magazines or The Oxford American, and they haven’t been properly edited for the book. Repetition runs rampant, sometimes in short, yet annoying reminders of small facts, sometimes in longer recaps of what we’ve already read in previous chapters. But Reed’s enthusiastic voice is strong and entertaining, so the inflicted déjà vu is only a minor irritation.
A true stereotype is that Southerners love to tell stories, and at the heart of Reed’s collection is one often told by her father: before she was born, during a barge and towboat operators’ convention in Greenville, Mississippi, several of the conventioneers were having drinks when they met a young lady from Arkansas. The girl told them that she held the pageant titles of Miss Pink Tomato, second runner-up to Miss Arkansas, and Queen of the Turtle Derby. The men decided that, if they had a crown, they would immediately dub the girl "Queen of the Waterways." The girl returned to the motel where she was staying, pulled a crown out of her suitcase, and brought it back to the men.
Reed is "blown away by the fact that that girl traveled with her crown," and she finds "a pride and resourcefulness in this idiotic child-woman that speaks to me." The Queen of the Turtle Derby (crowned annually in Lepanto, Arkansas) indeed may be an "idiotic child-woman," but there is also something marvelous in her story. It is this Queen, of course, that Reed honors with her collection’s title. And it is the girl’s ability to be graciously prepared for anything that fills Reed with affection and cultural pride. "The Queen of the Turtle Derby and her crown prove to me one all-consuming fact," she writes: "Southern women know how to rise to the occasion."FICTION
A View from Queens, by Hirsh Sawhney
Yongsoo Park, Las Cucarachas (Akashic Books, 2004)
In Las Cucarachas, author Yongsoo Park enters the consciousness of Peter Kim, an urban pre-teenager whose life is defined by stickball, racial boundaries and fist fights. The son of Korean parents, Peter is an ordinary twelve-year-old in 1980s Elmhurst who is crass and excessively hormonal, and who has an inevitable disdain for authority. He is the leader of a crew called the Warriors, a group of foul-mouthed Korean boys who pride themselves on their toughness. What separates him from his peers is his ability to solve a Rubik’s cube in minutes, as well as his precociousness and ability to tell a great story.
In his second novel, Park doesn’t mimic the narrative conventions of his previous book, Boy Genius. While Boy Genius is an enigmatic tale of arrival that reads like a thriller and at times recalls Rushdie’s magical realistic representation of the underbelly of cosmopolitan life in the Satanic Verses, Las Cucarachas is far less dramatic and sensational. In fact, this novel focuses on the harsh experiences of urban immigrant youth and forsakes James Bond-like plot twists and surreal characters for an urban poignancy that rivals Junot Diaz’s prose in Drown.
At the onset of the novel, we learn that Peter’s home has been recently robbed, and most importantly, his Atari has been stolen. At first, Peter tries to forget about the robbery and proceed with his morning as if it were any other day of his summer vacation. But he has a lingering desire to find out who broke into his family’s home and stole his precious possessions. Peter ends up wandering the streets of Elmhurst in haphazard pursuit of the robbers who stole his Atari, the whole time indulging his fellow Warriors’ kleptomaniac tendencies, fantasizing about unachievable sexual conquests, laughing at little boys who fall, and urinating on people and in elevators.
Early on in the novel, Peter is challenged to a game of stickball by Diego, the son of his building’s superintendent. After Peter is defeated, he’s compelled to fight Diego to defend the honor of a fellow member of the Warriors. Peter and Diego scuffle for several minutes. "But," according to Peter, "when both of us are dead tired and huffing and puffing, Diego picks up his broomstick off the ground and comes charging at me. Sure, it’s sneaky. But he’s Puerto Rican, so I can’t really blame him. It’s in his genes." Peter is all too aware of the ubiquitous racism and classism that define his neighborhood; unfortunately, for much of the novel, he doesn’t know better than to embrace them.
The most significant and exceptional feature of Las Cucarachas is Park’s effective and disciplined use of a first-person narrator. In this novel, it’s clear that Park doesn’t use his narrator-protagonist as a vehicle to put forth his own agenda, a feat that even the literary world’s most accomplished authors seldom achieve. Rather, Park wholeheartedly assumes Peter’s twelve-year-old personality to write this novel and unapologetically takes on all of his pre-teenage prejudices and misconceptions. Consequently, Peter recounts his tale without any retrospective wisdom or fancy MFA words—unlike several of Diaz’s narrators in Drown—and almost never betrays Park’s Swarthmore education. Instead of learning about the severity of urban life in the 1980s through the hindsight of an unsympathetic adult, readers hear Park’s story straight from the mouth of a sarcastic pre-teenage immigrant from Queens.
But while Park seamlessly develops Peter’s voice, something is unavoidably lost in a tale told by a twelve-year-old. Peter’s depictions of the book’s other characters—particularly his young friends and foes—are often two-dimensional and oversimplified. For example, Fatty, one of the members of the Warriors, is a humorous but unoriginal character who is part Piggy from Golding’s Lord of the Flies and part Virgil from Justin Lin’s movie about drugs and violence in wealthy suburban Asian-American communities, Better Luck Tomorrow.
By the end of the novel, most of the book’s conflicts remain unresolved and Peter is left friendless. Still, I can’t help but read Las Cucarachas’ ending as an optimistic one in light of Peter’s heightened mental awareness. In this novel, Park does more than showcase a harsh perspective of life in 1980s New York City. He offers readers an unflinching and unique perspective on the dark side of our contemporary society while retaining a subtle hope for some sort of begrudging multicultural harmony.ART
Strange, Dark Places
by Ellen Pearlman
Anne Arden McDonald: Installations and Self-Portraits (Autonomy and Alchemy Press)
Anne McDonald is one of the 60 artists living on Water Street in Dumbo that were tossed out on the cold night of December l7, 2000 at 11 pm, by the Buildings Department. That action, directly instigated by the slumlord Josh Gutman, still ricochets throughout the New York art world. Recently that nefarious building went up in flames (surprise, surprise), and it will soon morph into a luxury condo development. McDonald’s book of photos belies that attack of the nasties. It is filled with landscapes inhabited by imaginary ghosts, spirits, angels, and body doubles—crumbling worlds showcased through tour-de-force black-and-white photography and honed, astute printing techniques.
Hauntingly romantic yet neither sweet nor saccharine, McDonald’s photos tread territory similar to master illusionist and lover of the grotesque, Joel Peter Witkin—minus the bizarre or blatantly twisted erotic. Instead she retreats into the personal and mystic, using a lone female figure as her calling card. It’s hard to tell if her installation sites are remains of an earthquake or portraits of a war-ravaged-siren-cum-self-immolating femme fatale. This kind of lyric, devastated and poetic sensibility peaked most noticeably during the fall of Soviet Communism, and it is not surprising that McDonald also specializes in working professionally with Czech artists.
It’s hard to tell if McDonald’s lone subject experiences ecstasy, torture, or an out-of-body experience and it is this ambiguity that makes her work so deeply provocative. The litheness of the composition belies the threat of the gruesome. Doorways lead to light and illumination but reference back to darkness and trapped corners. Does the figure perform sacred rituals, or is she ensconced in a cloak of deep mourning? Was she strung up and raped after the fall of a village, or is she celebrating a druidic moment and communing with nature spirits? Is she lost after the savagery of war has destroyed her home, or is she consciously seeking isolation through her own devices? Does she hide from her pursuers, or does she hide for her own inspiration? It’s impossible to tell. McDonald says her portraits are "part self-discovery and therapy, part performance and escapism and partly a response to the spaces I work in."
In fields, streams, woods, and rotted-out industrial buildings, barns, rathskellers, decrepit houses, and translucent greenhouses, McDonald mediates experiences that cross the tenuous boundaries between innocence and dread, birth and death and ultimately that murky Freudian Scylla and Charbydis, the realm of Eros and Thanatos. There are ambiguous references to sexuality and threat but also careful steps into subversive reverie, which in certain critical circles is highly passé, though I beg to differ.
These pictures cannot be digested in one quick glance that appropriates a fixed signifier, nor is their surface immediately forthcoming with answers. As McDonald pithily comments, "The closer I get to myself, the more people tell me it resonates with them as well." The prints draw you into the picture plane and ultimately lead to the most dangerous place that there is—the confines of your own imagination.