The shelves of America’s bookstores do not accurately represent the inner life of their customers. Where are the Tea Partiers dreaming of libertarian utopias? Whence the poets who howl for the rights of the unborn? The Mormon missionary comedies of manners? American literature seems to want for authors of a Republican slant.
After four debates and with a tsunami of political advertising inundating the United States, it is clear that neither presidential candidate is willing to act decisively on what should be the most pressing issue of our day: student loan debt. Democrats offer crumbs. Republicans even can’t be bothered to pander to young voters. Yet no other issue so neatly encapsulates the miseries of contemporary American existence. An entire generation of smart, educated people are being crippled with debt. Without some sort of relief, upward mobility will vanish, the gap between rich and poor will yawn wider, our economy will be left in ruins, and what’s left of our once vaunted ability to innovate will die. The parasite is killing the host.
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.
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.
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.
The rocket had failed. Kim Jong-un snapped off his the monitor and turned to face his advisors. What could they possibly tell him? This was total failure. Five ashen men in uniform glittered in the gloom. They groveled and made excuses. Kim lifted a hand and batted the air as if to shoo a fly, and the men backed away slowly, heads bowed deeply in shame. He waited for them to leave and left the control room for his private chambers. The hallway smelled of sandalwood and cognac.