Lucy Ellmann’s new novel Ducks, Newburyport, is nominated for the Booker Prize.
Are Americans the victims of some awful experiment? You almost expect the gigantic bald pate of a mad scientist to appear over the horizon one day, checking on his helpless specimens, each stuck in a hamster wheel of indefatigable optimism.
Chased by Fox News, flummoxed by fake facts and the phoniest guy we could find for President, we derive superficial comfort from Disney, opioids and pizza, Vietnam bombing-raid reenactments, 500 billion YouTube gaming videos and self-congratulatory movies about Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the more prominent heroes of the Underground Railway – while awaiting our possible execution at church, or the mall, or the parking lot. Or at home.
When exactly did the U.S. give up on love of life? When we tire of killing each other, we slaughter some foreign peasants. No wonder extraterrestrials won’t visit us anymore. Sad!
One recent idea for preventing school shootings is to train dogs to confront the shooter. The dog, unarmed and unprotected, is expected to make his or her way right up to a homicidal maniac mid-rampage and wrestle him (or her) to the ground. They are kamikaze K-9s, doomed from the start to be shot along with everybody else.
Or here’s a good suggestion: Arm teachers. As a result, children are now exposed to guns, gun threats and gun accidents at school. For extra protection, they can wear bulletproof backpacks. Parents dutifully join campaigns for “gun sense,” while their kids attend school-shooter drills to learn how to have nightmares and panic attacks, and run faster than a speeding bullet.
Never in all this is the possibility of simply banning all firearms mooted. Forget gun control, gun reform, gun sense. How about no guns at all. There is no unassailable right to own an AR-15. Most of the population really wouldn’t miss guns a bit.
Sigmund Freud said the United States was a big mistake, presumably because it was a place where the id was allowed to run rampant, from Christopher Columbus’s outrages on through all the white man’s land-grabbing, massacres, slavery, greed and insensibility. In the mid-1800s, Fanny Trollope was appalled by Americans, finding them not only cheerless, misogynistic and inhospitable, but also vulgar. She couldn’t believe how much they spat.
Some spit, others are spat out. With the built-in inevitability of bullfights, the go-getters go get, the rest get got. Carlos Fuentes identified the anguish beneath all this American enterprise, the anguish of “doing, getting things done, making it.” Failure, pretty much guaranteed, goes unloved; it’s not part of the story. But the fear of it drives people back into their uptight bubbles of “me.” From the safety of solipsism, they participate in the collective daily orgasm of consumerism, which is the only “us” in the U.S. Buying stuff seems like citizenship to us.
Even the niceness of many Americans is now suspect, because you never know if it’s politeness born of terror. The kindness of calamity. Stockholm syndrome, multiplied in 330 million captives. You have to be generally pleasant to avoid being shot in the head. What if those sweet innocent chocolate-chip cookies we offer around all the time are the result of fear, not friendship? “When terror descends,” was how Edward Albee put it.
We have swapped our hard-won democratic rights for gossip, super PACs, lobbyists, peer pressure, bullying, the antique insanity of the Electoral College and gerrymandering, and all the modern chicanery of the electronic ballot box. But there’s an upside! This powerlessness leaves more time for the “me” stuff. Because, you know, there’s all this pop music to approve of or reject, and so many foreign slave-labour jeans and trainers to purchase, beggars to belittle, billionaires to envy and theories about the purifying effects of green tea to develop and propound. So much purifying and putrefying going on! It’s really very absorbing. Never mind what the police are doing just down the street to black men.
For some, charity work has transmogrified into the moral duty to go to the gym. If only these people, so enamoured of exercise, would use their muscles for the greater good! Instead of feeling superior, they really could help out a bit more. Plant trees, lug food to the poor, scrape plastic debris out of rivers every day, fortify cities against flood. Forfeit their cars and run (if run they must) to work. March, too, on Washington, until Superman’s nemesis is gone. But so much time and money are devoted to the self, there’s none left for sorting out society.
Meanwhile, the ice man cometh. Guantanamo wasn’t enough; the Republicans want more torture zones, and the right to incarcerate would-be immigrants for life. At the sight of the weeping children, we cry out, “This is not America, this is not who we are!” – but it so clearly is who we now are. Or what we became while we were drinking the requisite amount of sody-pop and gazing stupidly at our smartphones.
Nothing really matters beyond the self anymore. At the beck and call of low-paid jobs, social media and advertising, with the instincts of a cornered animal, people have no time to think beyond the bounds of family. Americans are trapped in trapped families. And the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire.
And the American family is at the mercy of commerce, with family packs of aspirin and burger buns, family size gallons of milk and beer and OJ, family cars big enough to shove trucks off the road, family pets, family movies, family vacations, family men, family trees, family fun, family favourites, family hunting trips, family secrets, family vendettas and family murder-suicides.
You’d think that mothers might be awarded high status in such a family-oriented society, but women in the U.S. have no status at all. That became obvious during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Kavanaugh good for America. Women not heard in America. Women not safe in America. Women just slaves in America. “Free to wait tables and shine shoes,” as they sing in West Side Story.
Where is the compassion or sense of community? The latter word is unhelpfully close in sound to communism, which triggers more terror. Tellingly, the new nickname for protesters against climate change, those compassionate people hoping to preserve a future for life on Earth, is “watermelons”: green on the outside, red inside. “Nah, we don’t want life on Earth. Leave us alone.”
It’s no accident we chose the least safe pair of hands (be they small or bigly). Just as Brexit is the apotheosis of British self-hatred, the U.S. has embarked on its own ruinous act of self-immolation. The country blinked and scratched its head, Stan Laurel style, and decided to go for more corporate criminality, more exploitation, more terror, more indifference, more conformism, more inequity, more bread, more circus – and astonishing levels of sadness. The mad scientist seems to have instructed everybody to play dumb and await vivisection. We obediently munch our apocalypse stew – dumbo gumbo – and every house blazes with a sinister blue light.
What riches there once were, what beauties! Raindrops on roses and crop tops on cuties. Now it’s just tear gas and water hoses, and immigrant children tied up with strings: These are a few of our favourite things. Climb every mountain, ford every stream? “Sure thing, ma’am, long as it’s worth fracking.”
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.