Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

Following the 2016 election, George Orwell’s 1984 was sold out online and rushed into sinclair_lewisanother print edition. Last year’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a monster hit, and expectations are high for HBO’s stab at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

If nothing else, the election has made dystopian fiction great again.

There is another classic that should be required reading for our times: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

What sets this 1935 novel apart from the others is that there is no great cataclysm throwing the country into turmoil, and we are not dropped into a future dystopia with little understanding of how we got there. It Can’t Happen Here disturbs by how blasé the descent into fascism can be.

Before delving into the narrative, it’s important to distinguish between political philosophy and the rhetoric of politicians. Having particular opinions about fiscal policy, foreign diplomacy, and tax rates doesn’t make someone evil or racist or fascist.

Political philosophy is something that decent, intelligent people can debate with merit. They can share a common goal, but disagree on how to achieve it.

The rhetoric of politicians, however, is another matter, and this is what is most startling and prescient about It Can’t Happen Here. The novel begins at a Rotary meeting, with a populist speech by anti-suffragette Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, calling for a return to traditional values.

“We don’t want all this high-brow intellectuality, all this book-learning,” she says.

Seated in the crowd is the hero, Doremus Jessup, local newspaperman. He warns the crowd of the dangers of fascism disguised as nationalism, the likes of which was rising in Germany and Italy at the time. When members of the audience dismiss his warnings with the refrain that it can’t happen here, Doremus prophetically retorts, “The hell it can’t.”

It’s been more than 80 years since the book was published, but the populist rhetoric is eerily familiar. The outside challenger to FDR is Buzz Windrip, who, parroting the words of his chief strategist, appeals to the “Forgotten Men” who don’t feel appreciated now that women have the right to vote. Windrip goes after other populist bogeymen: labor unions, minorities, Commies, and the press.

While that is the rhetoric of modern Republicans, it is not proprietary to any party. Windrip runs on a socialist platform in the novel, and for a real-world example, read Democrat George Wallace’s disgusting 1963 inauguration address (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”).

As Lewis writes, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”

During the campaign, Jessup muses that President Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet position) “were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.”

Jessup can’t understand Windrip’s appeal and how he can draw such large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”

In one speech, Windrip vows “to make America a proud, rich land again.”

Cue the dystopia. Once empowered, Windrip erodes civil liberties and Jessup is torn between fighting as part of the resistance or fleeing to Canada. Resistance fighters (or those simply accused of this) are herded into camps.

Remember, this novel was published in 1935: before Pearl Harbor, before we learned of the concentration camps.

While Lewis can’t match Orwell, Atwood, and Bradbury for creative totalitarian societies, he bests them in verisimilitude—what Hannah Arendt would later call the “banality of evil.” There are no two-way TV monitors or book-burning firemen, but there are heavily armed militias editing all newspaper articles and “encouraging” loyalty from businesses and citizens.

Inevitably, there are camps, and there is a resistance force… but it is clear to Jessup that the resistance has come too late. What good could pamphlets do against propaganda? Not surprisingly, fatigue and hopelessness set in: “What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness?”

Fast-forward 80-plus years, where daily scandals, transgressions, incoherent Tweets, and deceptions have become mundane. The inundation has numbed us to the absurdity. Whether it’s noble or naive, Lewis, through Jessup, encourages us to soldier on, even if the cause is lost.

Jessup answers his own query about why one should seek “after righteousness”: “He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.”

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Peter Stenson: Thirty-Seven

Whether it’s sociological interest or morbid curiosity, we are fascinated with cults. From Heaven’s Gate and Scientology to NXIVM, we alternately view their members as 37monsters, martyrs, or victims. Mason Hue, the narrator of Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven, is all three.

When we meet Mason he is still a teenager, but of legal age, freshly discharged from a mental institution where he lived after being part of a cult known as the Survivors. The Survivors, who ritually poisoned themselves with chemotherapy drugs to achieve a state of pure honesty, earned notoriety after going on a killing spree and committing mass suicide.

But what happens to Mason, who was 15 at the time, when you survive the Survivors?

Now living in Denver, he has a boss and sometimes-girlfriend Talley, and when she learns his secret she becomes fascinated with the movement’s beliefs. And before long, she’s as entangled in Mason’s narrative as we are.

Thirty-Seven is the early front-runner for best transgressive novel of the year, not only for the story itself (a gritty mind-fuck confessional) but for Stenson’s handling of the narrative. There are many great passages in Thirty-Seven, but perhaps none as stealthy as this one: “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step.”

It’s a simple line, yes, one that you breeze over at first, but at this point in the story Mason (the eponymous Thirty-Seven), is sneaking into his childhood home. In a book filled with violence and philosophy and sex and recreational cancer treatment, why does this seemingly innocuous line stand out?

Because unreliable narrators are fun to read, but difficult to write convincingly. This is the world according to Mason Hues, and time and again, he proves to be untrustworthy, confused, and more than a little dishonest (evasive, at best). At various times he is a huckster, a victim, possibly a psychopathic mastermind.

We don’t know what to make of Mason a lot of the time, but subtle touches like “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step” make him relatable. I’ve never joined a death cult, but, like most teenagers, I learned which steps to avoid when sneaking home late at night.

These are the dark insights that make transgressive fiction so powerful. Pure villains and monsters often lack depth. Anti-heroes can become too cool and charming. But when truly sick and disturbed characters reveal themselves to be all too logical, shit gets uncomfortable.

For me, the gold standard example of this type of line is from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows.”

It’s a moment of familiar comfort followed by a horrific gut-punch. The muscle-memory of footsteps on the stairs reminds us that Mason isn’t well, but he’s not a madman. He’s a logical thinker, as are the others in Thirty-Seven. And that’s what makes this novel so delightfully unsettling.

Full disclosure, Stenson and I were in the same MFA program, but this is a merit-based review (it’s his second novel, and his debut, Fiend, has been translated and published internationally). Many of the elements in this book appeared in his work in the program, and his talent was ever-present. It’s great to see them come together and generate well-earned success.

For fans of transgressive fiction, put this on your summer reading list.

Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has it all: an unreliable narrator, embellishedHead_Full_of_Ghosts memories, “reality” television, mental disorders, and a guilty conscience.

If you’re a fan of dark, cerebral fiction, then you’ve heard the hype around this book (if you haven’t read it already). Well, it’s all true. This is a finely crafted narrative that tickles the brain stem without skimping on the gut-punches.

This Bram Stoker Award winner had me on my heels from the opener. We begin with Merry being interviewed for a book about her life. Fifteen years earlier, her family, in the midst of a financial and emotional crisis, starred in a television show called The Possession. The show centered on the exorcism of Merry’s older sister, Marjorie, and once production finished the family was left in tatters.

Horror is often most powerful when it is most disorienting, and already, we have multiple layers of unreliability: a first-person narrator (inherently biased), the interpersonal dynamics of an interview (subject- and observer-expectancy bias), reliance on memory, in particular childhood memories (too many to list), and the influence of post-event information (misinformation effect), to name a few.

So, whom can we trust in this tale of madness and malaise? A mysterious horror blog, The Last Final Girl, may be the most insightful source—and that’s saying something!

The blog provides an episodic breakdown of The Possession, and right or wrong, this becomes the definitive history of Merry and her family. This is the perfect book for our “post-truth” times, where all narratives have come under suspicion, including our own.

As the novel progresses, we grow attached to Merry and Marjorie, who have a complicated but loving relationship, as siblings often do. Marjorie is the trickster, the unruly adolescent whose antics unsettle her conservative father.

Merry is the impressionable kid who is confused, enchanted, and terrified by her older sis, and she tries to reconcile these emotions while making sense of what happened to her family during the filming and after.

And what are we to make of her interpretation of events?

That’s what makes A Head Full of Ghosts so unsettling. Our foundations are cracked, our institutions unreliable—even our own memories. Just contemplating this book will have you questioning your senses, and that’s what great horror is supposed to do.

Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

Review: Universal Harvester

John Darnielle’s second novel is the literary equivalent of getting lost on a country road.universal-harvester You think you know where you’re going, but after a random turn you’re not so sure. “Yep, that water tower over there is the landmark I’m looking for,” you say to assure yourself, but then that queasy feeling gets stronger, “Didn’t I drive past that barn a half-hour ago?”

In Universal Harvester, you’re not just unsure of where you are, but whom you’re traveling with.

At first, you’re hitching a ride with Jeremy, a recognizable small-town kid without ambition or direction. He works in a local video store in the late-1990s, and Darnielle does a great job of capturing the rural America of that time.

Jeremy, in his early 20s, lives with his widowed father, and their interactions are some of my favorite moments in the novel. Sadness backdrops all their conversations, as they struggle to communicate in the way all fathers and sons do at that age. Yet, there is clear, unstated affection for one another.

Initially, Universal Harvester reads like a pre-YouTube alternate reality game (ARG) or a snuff film. Whereas today, it’s common to come across snippets of unsettling videos that serve as clues to a narrative, this wasn’t as easy in the days of dial-up.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when Video Hut customers complain of creepy vignettes recorded over the rented tapes. The deeper we (through Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane) dive into the footage, the more certain we are that:

  1. Solving the ARG is the novel’s ultimate destination
  2. Sarah Jane is about to become the next victim when she locates the source of the videos and mysteriously stops coming into work

Then we take an unexpected turn down one country road, and then another, and Sarah Jane has the wheel, and then Lisa, and then Jeremy again. The abrupt shifts in perspective and storyline are jarring, and the polarized responses to this novel are probably deserved, with some readers feeling misled as to what type of book this is going to be.

Fair enough. Universal Harvester reads like straight horror at first, but then makes a hard left, thereby dialing down the menace, unfortunately.

But this is still a horror novel for my money, just of a different variety. It is about the isolation of small-town America pre-broadband, the slow suffocation of a life stuck in neutral, and the knowledge that not all mysteries can be solved.

And even when they are solved, the answers are seldom as satisfying, and the motives never as clear, as they are in an ARG. “We’re not hurt,” Jeremy rationalizes as he drives away from the farmhouse in the mysterious video clips.

In Darnielle’s Midwestern malaise, this is damn-near a happy ending.

Revisited: “No One Helped”

With the death of Winston Moseley bringing some closure to the sad case of Kitty Genovese, it’s a good time to revisit one of the greatest books written about the episode, No One Helped. Marcia M. Gallo’s account explores the context in which the crime occurred, which fueled the narrative of urban apathy. She follows that thread to the lasting legacy of Genovese, whose murder led to positive change, such as the birth of the 911 system.

We can happily turn the page on Moseley, but Genovese’s story is worth remembering. And Gallo’s wonderful book is worth another read.

 

“No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy

Marcia M. Gallo

From an early age, I longed for the big city life. Growing up in a sleepy township that didn’t even have sidewalks will do thatNo One Helped to a kid. To dissuade me from fleeing the Rust Belt for bright lights and tall buildings, my parents served up the tale of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman who, in 1964, was famously murdered on a Long Island street while everyone just stood back and watched her die.

It terrified me. In my mind, I envisioned a crowded street, broad daylight, pedestrians having to sidestep this dying stranger as she pleaded with them for help.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine. Though not the best time for New York City, the 1970s and early ’80s was a fruitful period for dystopian cinema set in the metropolis. My impression of the city was shaped entirely by Escape from New York and Fort Apache, the Bronx.

Though the story of a woman left to die on the sidewalk stayed with me, I never actually learned her name until college, when we studied the case in psychology class. Many psychology classes, actually. At the time, the prevailing narrative was still treated as gospel: 38 neighbors watched and did nothing as Winston Moseley assaulted Genovese, left, assaulted her a second time, left, and came back a third time to finish the job.

It’s hard to fathom how this could happen, and of course, it didn’t. At least, not the way it was reported in 1964, and certainly not the way it had been mythologized by the time it reached my ears as a cautionary tale. A more accurate telling was done by Kevin Cook in 2014’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.

The focus of Marcia M. Gallo’s “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy is not so much on the murder as the social incubator in which the narrative of urban apathy was spawned and evolved — and how, by focusing on the witnesses rather than the victim or perpetrator, Genovese “had been flattened out, whitewashed, re-created as an ideal victim in service to the construction of a powerful parable of apathy.”

The biggest omission from Genovese’s story, writes Gallo, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that she was a lesbian. Being young, pretty and white made her the perfect media martyr, so details of her romantic preference would have been inconvenient to the “ideal victim” narrative in 1964. As the story of her murder took on a life of its own, she became a nameless victim of urban decay — more of a plot device than a character in her own horror show.

“No One Helped” is on the shorter side, but Gallo deftly packs in a lot of information — and unpacks five decades of history. The chapters are like linked short stories, exploring in turn the history of Kew Gardens and the racial tensions of the time, the changing media landscape and the marketability of an erroneous New York Times article that fumbled the facts but resonated with “white flight” suburbanites.

As for Genovese, Gallo writes, the article “rhetorically reduced her to the chalk outline left on the sidewalk at a crime scene after a body has been removed.”

About those 38 witnesses? Only four were actually called to testify at the trial, and even fewer were aware that Genovese had been stabbed. The Times failed to mention the fact that Moseley’s initial assault was interrupted by a neighbor’s intervention, and his second assault took place in a darkened back hallway beyond the vantage point of any neighbors.

Gallo writes, “In all of the accounts that have followed in the story’s wake, what has rarely been noted is that there is only one actual eyewitness to Genovese’s death. That person is her killer, Winston Moseley.”

In reclaiming Genovese’s identity, Gallo reveals her personal connection to the case. She does so in a tasteful, informative manner, steering clear of navel gazing and drawing attention instead to the resonating significance of the story.

For all the horror of the Genovese murder, and its aftermath, it also gave birth to the 911 emergency response system and community policing efforts. It furthered the movement to reexamine our societal acceptance of intimate partner violence (some witnesses had dismissed the assault as a “lover’s quarrel”).

And it exposed racial bias in crime reporting. Just two weeks earlier, Moseley had assaulted another woman, murdered her and set her on fire. “Significantly, no photographs of Moseley’s earlier victim, Anna Mae Johnson, a young black woman, ever appeared. Within weeks she would fade from most popular versions of the story, as would her killer,” the author writes.

Most of all, for Gallo, the legacy of the Genovese murder still matters “because it raises the central question of how we engage with those around us, individually and collectively, when they need our help.”

Digging beyond the murder and the myth, Gallo has penned a remarkable portrait of Genovese and her enduring legacy a half-century later. Her murder inspired an entire branch of psychology, but perhaps her lasting impact on social science will be the study of media myth-making. No matter the fables and fallacies that have emerged, the impact of Genovese has endured.

I’ve been on the Long Island Railroad, and at the Kew Gardens stop, it’s impossible not to look down at the nondescript parking lot and the neighboring houses, all crammed together, and wonder how this could have happened.

After 50 years, we know it happened differently than we’ve believed, but the true story of the assault is still as brutal and horrifying, if different, than we imagined. Gallo succeeds in redirecting our attention from the “witnesses” to the victim, who became a footnote to the fable. “No One Helped” restores the individual who existed before the chalk outline.