America should be more open than ever. Women and minorities are no longer excluded from high-earning professions and, if you are willing to take on the debt, a university education is more accessible than ever before. But if anything America is less egalitarian than it once was. The income gap between rich and poor has been growing since the 1970s. More worrying than that, a permanent class system seems to be calcifying into place: people born rich are getting richer, while the poor stay poor. America’s elite has found a way to protect and perpetuate itself within what should be an inclusive system.
SHORT literary fiction and critical essays are the publishing world’s equivalent of weapons-grade plutonium. Dense, highly refined, and for all but a professional few, something best avoided. The world’s demand for the stuff is met by a handful of respectable quarterlies, such as the Paris Review and Granta, and countless “little magazines” that publish experimental fiction and serve more as a proving ground for authors than something people actually read.
In the 1970s it was unusual to see wealthy families on television. The Jeffersons with their deluxe apartment in the sky, the occasional rich couple flitting over to “Fantasy Island” or booking a cruise on “The Love Boat”—these were the exceptions. But as the economy accelerated, mass culture was suddenly inundated with images of affluence. The wave hit around 1981, as the economy slowly recovered from the stagnant wages and inflation of the 1970s. Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s scampering everyman, began to make serious money on his appreciating property and selling Toyotas on his father-in-law’s lot in Rabbit is Rich; Joan Collins joined the cast of “Dynasty” as the splendid and venomous Alexis; and the second edition of The Official Preppy Handbook came out, gently mocking but also instructing a peculiar subculture of well-coiffed, pastel-hue wearing teenagers who wanted to look as if they summered on Cape Cod and worked on Wall Street.
There is a junk store a few doors down from my house. Actually it isn’t even a store; it is just an alley with a tarp stretched over it and a chicken wire gate in front to protect the merchandise, which is mostly old furniture and baby things.
There used to be a guard dog chained to the gate. His name was Roscoe. I detest dogs, for the most part, but Roscoe wasn’t bad. He was beautiful. A pit bull with a pink muzzle and fur that was mostly white but had a faint orange hue. Roscoe was ferocious; terrifying, the streetlamp was out on his side of the street and at night he would hurl himself against the fence if you so much as looked in his direction, let alone walk past him.
We vet families and can bar them from joining the Op – but once they leave our sphere of influence, the Op must seize control and wield kin as clandestine cover. But the pliant, detached creatures we select for foreign assignment are not householders by nature. Much as we suffer the consequences, and much as it might be humane to do so, we simply cannot execute our children without risking accusations of profound hypocrisy and international outcry.
Hot, smoke-fouled air is a powerful mnemonic. As the sun set over New York City on the 4th of July, my fiancée, Amy, and I took a break from comforting our shell-shocked cats, to stroll through our neighborhood. We live in a decaying industrial area perched on a scarp between the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens. By peering down one of the avenues we could just make out the puffs of incandescent orange exploding over the East River. We climbed the hill into Ridgewood. It was dark. New York had had one of its wettest summers yet, and a dank hot fug lingered beneath the foliage. All around us explosions rocked the city as families fired bootleg fireworks off their balconies, and the air reeked of sulfur and smoke.
Last week, gracious youngsters from Google, Inc. were stationed below 14th Street, handing cards to commuters. The cards confirmed that those wireless signal bars appearing on certain subway platforms weren’t phishing expeditions by identity thieves or digital phantoms. Rather, they were the fruit borne of a partnership between Google and a wireless Internet provider named Boingo. Log in to their hotspot and get a summer of free Wi-Fi access all over New York City. In return, Google gets to hoard the information they generate, assembling an accurate picture of who exactly was passing through the station and when.
So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.
Pundits on the right and left have described President Barack Obama as having a distant attitude toward the United States – on the right they call it narcissism and hint at secret agendas and question his patriotism, while on the left they wonder darkly whether he might be “too brainy to be president.” I think it is something else. I have never met President Obama, but our lives have converged in unusual ways. Perhaps unpacking my own intense and complex relationship with the United States might shed some light into what might at first seem like an aloof and distant attitude toward our homeland.
PULITZER prizes are better known for honoring American journalism than fiction. Their heft in literary circles is far outweighed by the Nobel prize or MacArthur Fellowship. Yet the Pulitzer remains one of the few literary honours that can substantially increase an author’s sales in America. The Pulitzer prize for fiction last year boosted sales of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by an order of magnitude. Publishers had been keen on a similar revenue injection this year, in light of disappointing sales and a looming (and costly) anti-trust decision on digital rights.