Two years spent in an MFA program, in other words, constitute a tiny and often ineffectual part of the American writer’s lifelong engagement with the university. And yet critics continue to bemoan the mechanizing effects of the programs, and to draw links between a writer’s degree-holding status and her degree of aesthetic freedom. Get out of the schools and live!
The Intellectual Situation
Has any concept more completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation than so-called elitism? Ever since Richard Nixon’s speechwriters pitted a silent majority (later sometimes “the real America”) against the nattering nabobs of negativism (later “tenured radicals,” the “cultural elite,” and so on), American political, aesthetic, and intellectual experience can only be glimpsed through a thickening fog of culture war. And the fog, very often, has swirled around a single disreputable term.
One begins to think of race in Obama’s America like sex in some caricature of Freud’s Vienna: simultaneously the main theme of all conversation, and the one that can’t be mentioned. Instead of being “overcome,” historic American racism against nonwhite people has gone into deep cover and, with the irrefutable illogic of the unconscious, emerged as a newfangled American antiracism for the protection of white people.
All the conditions that nurtured a powerful left in California have virtually disappeared. Today, the educational plans of the Sixties administrators read like fables, while California’s legendary liberal consensus has unraveled to the extent that no Orange County conservative would identify with the Ronald Reagan who, as governor, signed into law the largest tax increase in California’s history.
Fiction and Drama
I had met Israel once before, several years ago, and never forgot it. I was married at the time, and was going down in an elevator in a building of artists’ studios. He entered on the same floor and stood there beside me. He had killer eyes, huge, jaded soul-sucking eyes, a nice, easy, lazy smile, big thick lashes, and the lips of a real pervert.
After my two years of war I’ve never been so free, I own nothing now, not even my real name — I have an appropriated passport under the name of Yvan Deroy, born almost at the same as me in Paris and locked up a long time ago now in an institution for psychotics in the suburbs, he never had a passport and his doctors would be quite surprised to know that he’s wandering around Italy today, . . .
IIPM formed the center of Arindam’s empire — the school was not only his first source of wealth, but had also produced nearly all of his employees. It had also become the target of much hostile scrutiny from journalists and bloggers, who insisted that IIPM was a factory for worthless degrees, banking tuition by churning out ever greater numbers of graduates who, if they didn’t get a job from Arindam, would be unable to get one at all.
On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita and killed George Tiller, the abortion doctor, who was passing out bulletins for the morning service. Roeder put a .22-caliber pistol to Dr. Tiller’s forehead, shot him point-blank, stood beside him until he collapsed, and then ran. In the days following the murder, we were told just enough about the killer to imagine him as a familiar kind of American character. He had been caught in the ’90s with the makings of a bomb.
Halfway through freedom I was feeling angry, disoriented, and upset. I walked into the living room in search of my girlfriend, who’d already finished the book, and then past the island separating her living room from her kitchen. She was cooking something. “These people are really messed up,” I said to her back.
The simple answer is that our transportation system isn’t logical. More precisely, the logic of the system has political and cultural components that exert more force on the evolution of automobility than simple technical logic would dictate. Since their appearance a century ago, cars have become embedded in human culture in a profound way, and the government and industrial and social system that’s grown around them like a concrete sarcophagus will not easily be budged.
In L. J. Davis’s excellent A Meaningful Life, published a year after Desperate Characters, Lowell Lake, married managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly,” impulsively purchases a brownstone in Fort Greene. Once home to an industrial baron, it is now a half-decayed rooming house. The novel is dense with details of Lowell’s labor: by its final third, neither he nor the narrative leaves the house.
There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book. It shoves injustice in your face and then, having gotten your attention, refuses to hold still and look at the war or suffering or whatever, but instead soars so high into an atmosphere of self-generated abstraction that very soon you can no longer recognize any earthly landmarks at all.
In June 1985, TV Guide published a cover story called “Why Hill Street Blues is Irresistible.” It was written by Joyce Carol Oates. The police drama’s fifth season had finished airing a few weeks earlier, and Oates could hardly believe what she had seen. She began by reminding her readers what TV was usually like: “Television was entertaining, often highly diverting, but not intellectually or emotionally stimulating, like serious literature. Until a few years ago, my husband and I did not even own a set.” But Hill Street Blues changed all that.
Issue Nine was a real barn-burner. Keep it up! And please keep the first person plural in the opening commentary — we are living in a dark age of technological isolation, and speaking collectively is a source of comfort and an act of resistance. I crave companionship and n+1 is good company, in no small part due to its reviving the “we.”