December 30, 2010

Press Release for a Dirty Bomb

Press Release for a Dirty Bomb

A dirty bomb is set to go off in Boston this fall, and the clever evil-doers are hiding in plain sight – they have announced their act of terror in a press release:


(BOSTON) The organizers of the Boston Book Festival have announced that Tom Perrotta’s The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face has been chosen as the first short story in the organization’s One City, One Story program. 30,000 copies of this story, chosen for its accessibility, literary merit and ability to stimulate discussion, will be distributed as a bound booklet throughout the City beginning in late September. Festival organizers hope that thousands of Bostonians will read and discuss the story in the weeks leading up to the second annual Boston Book Festival, which takes place on Oct. 16, 2010.[1]

And the most sinister part:

Distribution will take place at Boston Public Library branches, subway stations, community centers, farmers markets, open studios and other places where people gather…

But let’s back up and look at how the plot unfolded.

Now in its second year of self-congratulation, the Boston Book Festival was organized in 2009 after Deborah Z. Porter, current president of the festival’s board, noticed that Boston was the only major US city that didn’t host such an event. A palpable embarrassment, because New England was home to such an unbroken line of book-culture excellence, from Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dennis Lehane, and Steve Almond.

Unfortunately book festivals don’t grow on trees, so Porter signed up some major culture-loving institutions to help bankroll the project, including Verizon (currently partnering with Google to keep the net neutral), Hachette (one of the “Big Six” global media monopolies that control most publishing in the US), and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt (a subsidiary of another of the Big Six, Education Media and Publishing Group Limited, registered in the Cayman Islands). But the real breakthrough came with a generous grant from State Street Corporation, who was awarded the status of the festival’s “Presenting Sponsor.” Thus all the promotional materials for the first festival, from posters to programs, were effectively branded: “The Boston Book Festival, Presented by State Street Corporation.” Not as concise as a Nike swoosh, but it would do.

State Street Corporation is a financial investment giant headquartered in Boston, with billions in annual revenue and $1.7 trillion in total assets, and the 2009 book festival is not the only item in its list of good works. More recently, State Street helped Republican Scott Brown take Ted Kennedy’s seat in the US Senate. State and its other banking friends then successfully lobbied Brown and other senators to gut key provisions from the financial reform bill, including a $19 billion tax on banks which the senators insisted should be made up in spending cuts. (Who knows, maybe they’ll finally trim all that fat off the NEA budget.)

This year’s festival lacks a crowning “Presenting Sponsor,” but the list of patrons features some heavy hitters nonetheless, including the nation’s biggest bank, Bank of America, and one of its largest insurers, Liberty Mutual. How nice to see recipients of recent government largesse – the TARP bailout and the industry-friendly health care “reform” bill – give something back to the community. They’ll get a tax write-off, of course, and what Boston gets is a second middlebrow celebration of its professional-managerial class’s idea of itself in the company of poets such as Edward Hirsch and Elizabeth Alexander, fiction writers such as warhorse Joyce Carol Oates, hip youngster Joshua Ferris, and the inevitable Lehane, and nonfiction authors such as David Shields and torture apologist Alan Dershowitz. For the overall taste and texture of the event, think NPR: inoffensive liberal sweetness on the outside with a hard nut of “neo-” at the center.

What’s new about this year’s festival, however, is the dirty bomb angle: spreading the cultural radiation beyond the convention center via the pseudo-community of the “One City, One Story” program. In an otherwise cheerleading article about the city’s adoption of a read-and-discuss initiative like those already piloted in Seattle and Chicago, a Boston Globe writer inadvertently let the mask slip when he identified such programs as “cousins of the team-building exercises commonly staged at corporate retreats.”[2] And sure enough, Boston’s version does have a primary corporate sponsor, the Goldhirsh Foundation. Set up in 2000 by Bernard Goldhirsh after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, the foundation awards grants for brain cancer research and “social entrepreneurial ventures.” But the late Goldhirsh’s philanthropy goes back further than that: as a young engineer he worked on ballistic missile systems to keep us safe from communism and later moved on to found Inc., a business magazine best known for their annual “Inc. 500” list of fastest-growing companies.

The story itself was selected in bureaucratic back-room fashion by a committee made up of “a designee from the Mayor’s office, several branch librarians, several Boston Book Festival Board members and one or two other representatives of the community,”[3] in which Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” – originally published in Post Road and reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2005 – somehow emerged as the consensus choice (Perrotta also sits on the festival’s “Honorary Advising Board”). In describing the story and its selection in the press release, however, the festival’s organizers strain to give the whole affair a democratic, participatory gloss. President Porter:

“Centering around that quintessentially American experience – a Little League game – Tom has crafted a story that is at once funny and poignant, exploring the universal themes of family, parenthood, adolescence, and intolerance in a fresh and absorbing way. The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, will appeal to men and women, adults and teens. It is truly a story to be read, shared and discussed.”

And the festival’s Executive Director, Emily D’Amour Pardo:

“We love the idea of many thousands of people in Boston reading the same story and talking about it against the backdrop of the Boston Book Festival . . . The huge success of our inaugural Festival last year proved that Boston has a passion for reading. We want to explore this further by uniting the City around a single story and examining it from the many different perspectives that exist here.”

Many of the “different perspectives” that Porter and D’Amour Pardo enthuse about, however, might find themselves entirely left out of the story, however “quintessentially American” and “universal” the organizers try to bill it. Set in a New Jersey suburb, its protagonist-narrator is a middle-aged, middle-management white guy who regretfully mulls over the failure of his marriage and estrangement of his gay son while he acts as umpire for a Little League championship game, pitched for one of the teams by an Asian-American girl with an amazing arm. It’s not a given that African-Americans in neighborhoods like Dorchester and Mattapan or the Latino/a community in East Boston and Chelsea, among others, will find their universe in this “universal” tale.

This shortcoming can be partially remedied, however, by the educational apparatus: it’s a sure bet that there will be plenty of special assignments focusing on the “One City, One Story” program in the region’s high school English classes, in which students will be coached to “discover” how universal the story is while being exhorted that they are participating in the city’s cultural life. And no doubt the program’s organizers will branch out in the coming years, selecting a Black or a Latina author at suitable intervals so long as their stories reflect the appropriate values.

And what are those values? Tolerance is one – the story’s main character learns to accept that the playing field of his community must be widened to include Asian people such as the pitcher and her father and gay people like his own son. Even though they are painted with an After School Special brush of middle-class, model-minority respectability (the Asian-Americans have strong family bonds, work hard, and achieve excellence, and the son’s homosexuality is signified by his desire to perform in musical theater), no doubt they will be read as standing for “all” minority or marginalized groups.

But the story has a further lesson as well: personal responsibility. The narrator recalls how the year without his family gave him, in his words, “a lot of time to stew in my own anger, to indulge the conviction that I was a victim too, every bit as much as my wife and son.” The turning point for our hero comes when he watches the star pitcher’s father, Happy Chang, punch out the opposing team’s coach for setting up his daughter for a dangerous bean ball when she comes up to bat. As Chang is taken away by the police, the narrator sees on his face “the proud and defiant smile of a man at peace with what he’d done and willing to accept the consequences.” Happy Chang isn’t going to spend any time feeling sorry for himself but rather instantly takes responsibility for his actions, even if it means assault charges; thus he represents an alternative to the narrator, who punched out his own kid and then wallowed in self pity. The story reaches its climax when the narrator, inspired by Happy, makes a courageous and lonely stand over the final call of the game.

The homiletic arc of the story curves from “victim” to “accepting the consequences,” key words that will no doubt find themselves highlighted in many of the copies of this “free” corporate-funded and state-blessed story that find their way into classrooms and book clubs. Ideologically, it’s a perfect “third way” narrative, thoroughly in tune with the values of the Democratic Party under the hegemony of the business-friendly DLC and the Clinton and Obama administrations: tolerance for those who can merit it in the “free” marketplace.

The story is aesthetically conservative as well, a textbook example of the “well-made” realist epiphany story that remains the dominant mode in many MFA programs and literary journals and in most of the “literary fiction” published by the Big Six monopolies. The chief function of such fiction is humanist apologetics for the “literate” professional-managerial class, to keep them on board with galloping inhumanity; readers find in it – along with markers of their cultural distinction – the narcissistic reflection of their “uniquely human” and “free, spontaneous” interiority and autonomy. With a slight shift in the angle of light, however, that reflection becomes just the sheen of the commodity.

Literature doesn’t fall from heavens, it comes to us thickly mediated, and those mediations are not merely “frames” or “contexts” but deeply braided into its very materials. Writing which is art – as distinct from “literary fiction” – is conscious of this and strains against it, against its own materials, and invites us to participate in that struggle, and its inevitable failure, and its inevitable next attempt. Literary fiction, on the other hand, goes with the grain, is easily consumed, and enjoys success.

Such success will now be enjoyed by Tom Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” and the organizers of the Boston Book Festival, and their corporate sponsors. In the pseudo-community of their “One City, One Story” program, a space is created for the discussion of artistic and social issues that is neither authentically dialogical nor democratic, but rather one in which some are invited to enjoy their profit and privilege, and all are invited to enjoy their alienation.

(originally published in SOUS LES PAVÉS 1.1, Nov. 2010)

[1] Press release. Ashmont Media. Boston, MA: 26 August 2010.
[2] Carlo Rotella, “Binding Boston with a Story.” Boston Globe, 30 August 2010.
[3] Jess Huckins, “Bringing Boston Together, One Story at a Time.” Blast Magazine, 19 June 2010.


Frances Madeson said...

*The chief function of such fiction is humanist apologetics for the “literate” professional-managerial class, to keep them on board with galloping inhumanity; readers find in it – along with markers of their cultural distinction – the narcissistic reflection of their “uniquely human” and “free, spontaneous” interiority and autonomy. With a slight shift in the angle of light, however, that reflection becomes just the sheen of the commodity."

Thank you, Edmond! You just further illuminated the "bars of light" in Steven Millhauser's story Getting Closer, from this seductive sentence:

"And so the day's about to get going at last, the day he's been looking forward to in the hot nights while watching bars of light slide across his walls from passing cars, he's here, he's arrived, he's ready to begin."

Admittedly the occasions are rare, but sometime's the gatekepers do fall asleep at the switch. Working with play-doh like Perrotta's output all day long, they're getting dumbed-down too, you know. Which is a built-in structural flaw on hegemon's part, and one like Genet's rolling paper or origami or whatever that was, I cling to.

Another is, sometimes they make poor judgements in their personnel decisions. I've got a little such wager riding on Thomas Frieden, titular head of CDC, at the moment, re: the disclosure of pharmolcologic waterboarding at Guantanamo reported by Andy Worthington and Trying to get Frieden to break his unmanly silence. I'll let you know how I do.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thank you, Frances. I've never read any Millhauser -- do you recommend?

And I agree that "the system" is not airtight, that it has its cracks and flaws and fissures, through which a little light gleams from time to time.

In other moods, though, I worry that this is part of its new updated optimum design to withstand earthquakes, like those gently flexible skyscrapers that merely sway like reeds when the earth trembles. It's the rigid structures (like those Stalinist states) that topple.

Frances Madeson said...

Important to test it every so often and see what shakes out, if anything. As for Millhauser and recommendations, I suppose I would recommend that he read you (if he's not already doing so).