Friday, November 27, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: A second lockdown

In the past few weeks, Covid numbers have skyrocketed. I am staying home, giving up the yoga classes, the eating out (primarily in outdoor settings) that had gradually seeped back into life during the warm fall, the bits of non-essential shopping, the small physical gatherings. 

World War II has become a touchstone as I hunker down for another few months of isolation. If there was novelty in the first round of social isolation, now comes a grimmer feeling of holding on, especially as the enemy feels closer to the gate: the numbers are skyrocketing not just in some distance place, but where I live. 

Virgina Woolf observed the changes that descended on London during World War II, remembering when: 

houses were open and crowded with friends ... everyone brimming with radical ideas and possibilities.

Now, however, London had become:

merely a congerie of houses lived in by people who work. There is no society, no luxury, no splendor, no gadding and flitting. All is serious and concentrated. It is as if the song had stopped ...

Tavistock Square: One of the Woolf's London homes

 Woolf's description does not describe exactly how my life has changed, as I never was flitting from party to party, but it is close enough to catch the gist. Physical social interactions have all but ceased: what  little "gadding" I'd resumed has once again stopped. 

Yet, I tell myself, there is no threat of bombs dropping, no blackouts, no rationing. We have the comfort of space, rural emptiness, a view of a lake, books, music, film, Zooms, the life of the mind. I have found a literature discussion group, and a Zoom community. 

There has, too, been the heartening election that means the reign of terror brought on by an unhinged leader will soon be over. I read--fittingly enough-- that last time people danced and celebrated in the streets the way they did over Biden's election was at the end of World War II. We did not dance in the streets, but we popped open a bottle of champagne--the first time I can remember doing that for a presidential election. I have been sleeping peacefully through the night since that time. 

Then the virus hit again. We had planned to rent an airBnB so we could meet Will and Olivia halfway between our homes for Thanksgiving. Instead, we zoomed on Thanksgiving with them and Sophie and Ben. Roger and Nick and I made our own meal. 

For about a decade, I had abhorred cooking. But since the pandemic--actually this started slightly ahead of that-- I have been enjoying it again. I liked making the Thanksgiving dinner with Roger, each of us working on our own dishes. 

We hope Will can join us for Christmas, but even so, it will be another quiet celebration. Last Christmas when he visited, we had a fine time doing last minute shopping and going out to dinner--a time that seems a hundred years ago now. It is one of the last moments I can remember that I didn't have a nagging worry about Covid--by late January, when I flew to visit Jane in Maine, I had bought a mask, which I didn't use, but later was very glad to have.


Time in the age of Covid is a subject of an article in Venkatesh Rao in a publication called Noema, put out by the Berggruen Institute, which describes itself as hoping to transform  capitalism and free markets so that they can better respond to climate change and other challenges. While I am highly dubious of any project trying to save so called "free markets,"  the article is nevertheless interesting, if only for providing one of the more creative metaphors for Covid I have ever read:

In lieu of being beamed back up by Scotty, we put ourselves through elaborate decontamination rituals upon our return to base, to rid ourselves of invisible tribbles.
Tribbles from the original Star Trek. Maybe a little too cute for Covid?

 Rao also evokes The Terminator, a movie that couldn't be more relevant as frame for both Trump and a deadly virus, writing: 

The virus could not be bullied, argued with, negotiated with or stopped. (The Terminator quote: "That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!")
He has to strike before his threat can be felt

Rao's point is that Covid has us suspended in a liminal time or time out of time. We are a water drop, waiting to fall. Or as Rao puts it:

Aion rules ... outside of time .... The weeks and months spent in pandemic time will be weeks and months spent outside of time itself, in Aion’s doorway.

Rao evokes Virginia Woolf to talk about time. He gets her wrong: Mrs. Dalloway was hardly her first novel, and Chronos or the factory time of the clock hardly began with the modernist era, but his evocations at least point to the increasing importance of Woolf as a cultural icon. 

He might have better pointed to the sense of stasis she experienced during World War II, which was a similar period of waiting.  For example, characters in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, set in the early 1940s, wonder when the war will ever end. Will it go on for a decade? Will they ever have the chance for a normal life?

After the war, life went back to "normal" surprisingly quickly, and for a few years,  looked much like life before the war, although, at least in Europe and Japan, with many ruined buildings. But life did change fundamentally because people irrevocably began to understand the world differently.  It will be interesting to see if the same holds true now. 

The most hopeful note of change I see, and one that started before the pandemic, pushes back against the socially destructive  "me me" individualism that has been rampant since the late 1970s.  I came across this in the New York Times, in which a student writes to Jil, an advice columnist, about  his wish Biden would forgive student loans. For me, the piece's relevance is in its inconsequence. This is no grand philosophical  statement but someone trying to advise the other on the mundane nitty gritty of life in a practical:

My uncle [when the writer wished his loans forgiven] angry and took it very personally: “No one forgave my student loans!” I didn’t know how to respond or if I should have. But it’s awkward now. Any advice?


Your uncle’s apparent grievance at the prospect of social progress seems odd. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, for instance, I don’t recall older members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community expressing bitterness that they hadn’t enjoyed the right to marry in their youth. No, we all celebrated the decision as a big step on the road to greater equality.

Same with student debt. The ever-rising cost of higher education has long worked as barrier to students of lesser means and saddled others with crippling debt loads. Black and Latino students have been disproportionately affected. And I would expect people who had experienced this hardship personally to applaud student debt reform.

Jil's support of social unity that applauds the good of others as a good for all and exposes the  attitude of the uncle as mean-spirited, selfish, and petty, is a welcome change. If the virus and the recent appalling spectacle in government and the looming climate change disaster bring us to realize once again what other generations have known--that we are in this together--that would be fairly remarkable. 

Getting back to time, I wonder--will the time before the pandemic seem utterly different? Will this be the great dividing line or simply a blip before we slip back into our old lives?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Lady Chevy: An Interview with John Woods

John Woods's first book, Lady Chevy, a horror novel, is set in Barnesville, Ohio, the town where he grew up and I live. In the novel, 18-year-old Amy Wirkner, nicknamed Chevy because of her weight, shares a trailer with her parents and infant brother Stonewall. Her parents--and most of her adult relatives--have been psychologically deformed in various ways by relentlessly harsh lives. The latest issue they are contending--and colluding--with is the widespread fracking in their area. In this mythic, inferno-like Barnesville, water bursts into flame as it comes out of faucets, and infant Stonewall suffers seizures and froths at the mouth. The family breaks out in rashes, their eyes burn, they cough. Amy is both laconic and angry over the situation, laying the blame on her parents for signing a contract:
The fracking rig is an industrial spire at the back of our property line, about a quarter mile from our trailer. At night, its twenty-foot flame enchants the orange horizon, a fire’s dance, a hellish light that is no light. We get a check for $900 every month. Mom cashes it quickly, ashamed to have it in her home. The land is ours. It’s still ours. We sold the mineral rights, but that wasn’t all they took.


Amy studies to earn a scholarship to Ohio State so that she can become a vet. At a party, she runs into her close friend Paul. He persuades her to drive the truck he is taking into a fracking station to help sabotage a fracking plant. Plans go awry, and Amy ends up killing a guard--though nobody beyond Paul initially knows she is involved. From there, her nightmare widens. 

Perhaps the best social and political context for Lady Chevy  is China Mieville's 2015 essay “On Social Sadism:" ( Woods makes art out of the sadism Mieville describes as endemic to neo-liberalism: in Woods's telling, Barnesville is one of the locus points on which a neo-capitalist culture of power has unleashed its fury. Mieville's concepts of "a normalised sadism" emerges concretely in this novel. Woods's description of poisonous fracking, is the language of rape:

The earth trembles beneath us, hydraulic blasting, deep groans in the subterranean dark. Chemicals strip away shale, seep into the aquifers, contaminate the soil, and extract natural gas to feed our nation.

and becomes an embodiment of Ann Coulter "gloss" of Genesis 1:28:
God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.’ (Mieville)
The larger society's cruelty is inscribed on Amy's body (an added "value" of her 270 pounds is more opportunity for shaming) and those of her family and neighbors, who alternatively are filled with abject self loathing and an equal and opposite will to suppress compassion to present themselves as ruthlessly  "strong." When not abject, they become the mirrors of the dominant sadism.

The characters often lash themselves as harshly as the billionaire class berates them, and many internalize the ethic of the sociopath. To escape and to make something of herself is Amy's driving passion--but as the novel illustrates, for the poor, the cost of such a will for success becomes a never-ending horror story. Amy's deep temptation is to adopt a fascist morality, as articulated to her by Officer Hastings:
“God does not exist. Neither do human rights ...The strong know this, deep down. But we must return to a time long before Christian crosses and Jewish prophets, when the ideas of equality and good and evil were recognized as the idiocies they are”

-- which replicates the ethics of the master, as described by Mieville:
‘The ability psychopaths [in the financial sector] have to turn down their empathy and block out other concerns make them the best operators in high- pressure environments,’ McNab tells the Telegraph. ...
Woods shows the colonized as living in the midwest United States. The bleakness of the novel is the deep shade of the dark enlightenment turned against its own.  Mieville states:
The Enlightenment was always a dark enlightenment. Viciousness and brutality in their most unmediated forms were still – and are – deemed appropriate for the colonies.
Woods uses relentlessly hard hitting sentences and a consistently dark tone to amplify a story animated by a compelling central character and surprising plot twists. Beyond the strong writing and story, it is worthwhile to read the book to explore the consequences of internalizing the sadism of the colonizer. 

All of the above is  prelude to an interview: I had an opportunity for a conversation with John via e-mail about his book and writing life:

1. Me: As we discussed briefly, I have lived for the last 12 years in Barnesville, where the story is set. To a resident like me, the Barnesville you describe, though it keeps some of the street names and mentions some familiar places, is a dark, Gothic version of the town as I know it. Could you talk a little bit about why you used the name Barnesville, and what drove the darker vision of the town? 

John:  I grew up in Barnesville, Ohio. It is my hometown. My childhood was filled with memorable and formative experiences. My family lived just off Main Street next to The First Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. As a child, I had great freedom. I left my front door, rode my bicycle, and explored the town: the Victorian houses, the abandoned factories, the shaded hills, and the dark woods surrounding everything. I got in all kinds of adventures with friends. But in a small, Appalachian community, life is hard. Children are not sheltered from reality, or poverty. You see a lot. You grow up fast. You become haunted. .... at first, I wrote about a no-name town in an undefined state. Then I wrote about a place suspiciously called Belmont. ...  all my writing fell flat. None of it worked. And it didn’t work because it was not grounded in a place I knew and understood intimately. I was withholding. 

... So, I chose the place that influenced and shaped me most. All of my writing is set in the Ohio Valley, with Barnesville at the center. ... [but] ... My depiction of Barnesville is fictitious. The Barnesville I explore in my writing is not the Barnesville that exists. It is a shadowed stage, a nightmare version of a specific place that reflects the world we all inhabit. 

 2. Me: Amy’s a great character, and a reader tends to be on her side, especially at the beginning, yet her character also leans deeply into a “kill or be killed," “survival of the fittest mentality.” Can you talk a little about that, and why you choose that path for her?

John:  I fear such thinking lurks at the core of Amy’s family, our country, and the world. I feel Amy chose her own path. One can’t be surrounded by such darkness without being influenced by it. 

 3. Me: A good writer can—and no doubt should!!-- get inside the head of all sorts of characters that aren’t “them,’ but I am interested in why you chose a female protagonist. 

John:  My fiction involves many different characters and narrators, men and women and children. First person is a special thing. Before writing in first person, a voice must come to me, and then I must inhabit the mental space and language of that distinct voice. That may sound odd, but it’s true. I listen to the voices. And so, the choosing of a female protagonist was not deliberate. Amy’s voice sounded clearer than the others, a kind of severe sorrow and strong resolve tinged with gallows humor and rage, and then I imagined a baby crying on the floor in the shadow of a kitchen where fire came from the faucet instead of water. I imagined a girl wandering that home’s dark halls. That voice, and those images, is what I followed, and then everything developed from that. These voices, of course, are influenced by people I know. And the women in my life have always been strong. And they have always been strong on their own terms, without adhering to any societal conventions of this or that. They are their own authentic selves and make no apologies. They are survivors. 

 4. Me: The novel seems to lack a redemptive moment where good wins over evil in favor of a relentlessly “good guys finish last” ethos. Could you comment on that? 

John: I consider Lady Chevy to be an antithesis to Crime and Punishment. That is the comparison that lingered with me as I wrote Amy’s story. Except here, those redemptive forces are not victorious. I value moral ambiguity, and the existential dread that arises from it. I feel it is dangerous to assume our world is stable, and that a civilization’s moral compass is dependable. 

 5. Me: Amy’s ironically named Uncle Tom, a survivalist Nazi, turns out to be a hollow man—talk rather than action-- or so I took him to be. Why is that? Does that motivate Amy to act? 

John:  Thomas Schmidt is a traumatized character, primarily from his war experiences in Iraq, but also from a “violent childhood.” I understand him as a man possessed by an ideology that does not align with his true self. I would not mistake him as hollow, because I think he truly believes such racist hatred and would act upon it under the right circumstances. But he avoids those circumstances by isolating from the world. I wanted to explore what is beneath such racism, diminishing human beings into nothing more than their biology. And I believe it is the allure of Fascism. Fascism is the amoral application of power, a worldview where “Might makes Right,” and violence ultimately achieves all ends. This pathology then characterizes the state, and its defined people, at the expense of all others. In a toxic environment, these horrific ideas seem attractive and empowering. This is the dynamic between Tom and Amy. Their relationship is an unusual form of influence, because I am not certain either knows transmission is happening. Amy is not a racist, but she is negatively affected by Tom’s worldview. Tom eventually comes to understand this. But it is too late. 

 6. Me: Amy says: 'Barton Shoemaker was never evil to me, just a loving grandpa who told me all life is struggle, an evolutionary war of survival, winners and losers, those who eat and those who get eaten. He told me all this like a bedtime story. I never liked it. I didn’t like how it tore away at everything good. He said it makes a person sad, makes them sick, alone, even when it’s necessary, even after you’ve chosen what side you’re on and carved your name in stone. It all seems wrong and makes you feel wrong. But that doesn’t make any of it incorrect, does it." AND "We’re the apex predator now, nothing to fear but ourselves. I’d eat someone to survive. No doubt in my mind. In a cold, dead world of infinite winter, without sunlight or crops or plants, where nothing grows, a fallen world, I’d chain people up in my basement, harvest them as resource, choose the finest cuts. I’d remove their tongues first, a kind of delicacy. It would stop their talking." Amy, especially in the second quote, seems to have internalized some of the masculinized memes of our culture, at least the far right culture, in large part, I assume, because of her male role models. It seems to me she has developed a gap between her feelings—what feels “wrong” --and her intellect. Are we meant to take away that her intellect has blind spots? Or are we supposed to feel that in her situation she has no choice but to divorce herself from her feelings if she wants to survive? She doesn’t seem to be a sociopath—for example, she has real feelings for her little brother—but she does seem to make a choice to aggressively tamp down her humanity. Can you comment on that? 

John: This is all connected with the previous question concerning Tom’s influence. His intellect has hardened his spirit, his humanity. Amy navigates her experiences similarly, so that she can escape punishment. This also speaks to that Darwinian “survival of the fittest mentality,” which echoes throughout the novel. In my writing, I feel it is important to question some of our most sacred assumptions. One of those assumptions is our association of intelligence with goodness, our belief that logic and reason somehow equate to moral authority. I do not trust human intelligence. The creeping presence of Fascism is the undertow of Lady Chevy. The most dangerous thing about Fascism is that under certain conditions its worldview appears convincing, and its violent methods become, in fact, logically persuasive.  

7. Me: Ultimately, the book left me with the take-away that there is no way out of a dog-eat-dog mentality if one is to survive: Hastings and others seem to survive by that ethos. Is there a way out of that loop for the reader? Is that what you meant as the take-away? 

John:  Amy’s story is not prescriptive. And all the characters in Lady Chevy reflect a similar and shared tragedy. I believe tragedy—personal, familial, intergenerational, historical—often becomes cyclical. It is a closed loop, a kind of Mobius strip, forever repeating and alternating. When I critically consider history and the state of our world right now, I am not sure there is a way out. I hope so. But I also feel that if humanity were capable of creating a world without conflict and violence, we would have done it by now. I would like readers to leave Lady Chevy with a sense of empathy, and a greater awareness of our shared tragedy. 

8. Me: Could you comment on some of the writers and genres that have influenced you? 

John:  I am a literary child of Horror. Without an early attraction to Horror stories, I doubt I would be an avid reader, or writer. Only later did I enjoy the genres of Noir and Literary Fiction. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe were my earliest influences. Then I discovered the Southern Gothic Tradition: William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, then William Gay, Larry Brown, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Tom Franklin, followed by Ohio authors Toni Morrison and Donald Ray Pollock. And then William Golding, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, James Carlos Blake, John Steinbeck, and Raymond Carver. All of them influenced me. But Cormac McCarthy and Sylvia Plath are the writers who unlocked the power of language in me and allowed me to discover my own voice, which is the most important thing. 

 9. Me: And finally, what is your next book about? 

John:  It is a collection of short stories, Something Tender. The stories are all set in Barnesville. They are linked narratives, featuring many of the characters in Lady Chevy. In my writing, I want each work to be autonomous, but to also enhance all the others. It is a shared universe. This collection has been acquired by a publisher in France, but it does not yet have a home with an American publisher. I am currently finishing another novel, a murder mystery set in Barnesville during the 1990s. It explores many of the unanswered mysteries within Lady Chevy.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Journal of a Plagued Year: an election day...good leadership...Macbeth

 Four years ago, on the day before the election, I wrote with optimism that soon the Trump candidacy would be over. I imagined we would be celebrating the election of our first female president, a very highly qualified candidate.  I woke up election day morning to The NewYork Times polls telling the public she had a 95 percent chance of winning. By that evening, her poll numbers had slid to five percent.

Malcolm in Macbeth puts Scotland ahead of personal loyalty to him.

Four years later, older and more sobered, I face tomorrow's election with dread--as I am sure most do on both sides of the aisle. Yes, the polls tell those of us center and left that Biden is ahead, but we've been down that road before. We're told this time the polls are "different." My sense, living amid a sea of Trump flag and banners, is that hardcore Trump supporters don't talk to pollsters, so perhaps the situation is not different. 

I fear, too, that a close election will be quickly contested and end up in a Supreme Court that now contains three justices handpicked by a man who puts personal loyalty to him ahead of all else. I wonder whose side they will be on? One is an entitled imbecile who joined the right Clinton-hating boys' club at the right time, while another is a cold-hearted cult member who recently ruled that a supervisor calling a Black the N-word is not evidence of a hostile work environment. The mind reels.

Still, one hopes. Hope is this and that: I won't rehearse the cliches. To look at the bright side, the current situation has galvanized many people out of political apathy. . 

But what I really wish to talk about is good governance. From the time of Sophocles, who lived in the 400 BC era, thoughtful and ethically grounded people have understood that responsible leaders have a responsibility to put the good of the people ahead of their own self-interest. Oedipus, for example, though an arrogant man, voluntarily exiled himself from Thebes so that his people would no longer suffer a plague. He gave up his power for the benefit of the governed.

In Macbeth, written some 2,000 years later, the same ethic applies. Macbeth, who cares only about his own power, has increasingly thrown his country into chaos, to the point of civil war. He is indifferent to the fact that he has proven himself divisive and unfit to rule. He simply wants to win, no matter how. He makes personal loyalty to him all important: he assassinates those he perceives as a threat.

In contrast, Malcolm, the rightful heir to the kingdom, places loyalty to country ahead of loyalty to self. He tests Macduff in Act IV, scene iii,  pretending to be an evil, greedy, rapacious, and self-interested would-be king. He sums up this false self to Macduff, saying he is:

But I have none: the king-becoming graces,

As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

I have no relish of them, but abound

In the division of each several crime,

Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should

Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,

Uproar the universal peace, confound

All unity on earth.

In other words, Malcolm paints a picture of a poor leader as a man almost exactly like Donald Trump. Malcolm claims not to care about justice, truth, moderation, stability, mercy, humility, devotion, or patience. He says he will do what he can to create disunity and chaos in his country and on earth.

Macduff, as Malcolm hopes he would, recoils in horror. He refuses to have anything to do with such a person, stating that Malcolm is not:

Fit to govern!

No, not to live. 

One of Blake's illustrations of Dante's hell

 Malcolm is well pleased with this answer. As a good king, he wants followers who put loyalty to Scotland ahead of loyalty to him. A person like Macduff  who tells him the truth  is a person he wants behind him.

We might contrast this to what those close to Trump have repeatedly said about him, as reported by Ron Suskind  in The New York Times (

  It all came back to loyalty. He needed to get rid of any advisers or senior officials who vowed loyalty to the Constitution over personal loyalty to him. Which is pretty much what he proceeded to do.

That we might vote in such a man shows we are a country, like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, that has lost its way. Part of this arises from being propagandized in dramas such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld. Here we see ruthlessness and sociopathology valorized as central to success, not as the unfortunate and evil shadow that sometimes dogs and destroys assertive leaders. We need to go back to a world in which these traits are understood as evil. 

Like Dante, we are now on the brink of the last circles of hell, having spent four years in some of the outer circles. I hope we have learned enough to avoid the rest of the tour, but the future seems very much in the balance.