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Review of “A Consumer’s Republic” by Lizabeth Cohen

This is an older nonfiction book that has recently been rediscovered by the media. I heard an interview with the author on NPR and immediately purchased the Kindle version. Overall, I found it very entertaining and informative, despite a few issues. By the way, the subtitle is incorrect; the book is definitely not limited to “Postwar America,” assuming that is a reference to the Second World War. It actually starts at the turn of the twentieth century. It was first published in 2003, so it covers a tempestuous century of changes in how and why we buy stuff.

The grammar and punctuation are good, but the sentences get a little long, sometimes losing their train of thought and morphing into a new sentence before they end. I did a lot of rereading. At its core, this book is the culmination of an in-depth study of economic growth in New Jersey, extrapolated to the entire nation using reasonable assumptions, usually demonstrated to be legitimate. The Garden State is a good prototype because apparently that’s where the suburbs and mass marketing began, a response to the cost of living and lack of space in the New York City metropolitan area.

The author does a good job presenting the lighter side of consumerism while describing the struggle of disenfranchised groups (e.g., women and African Americans) to gain access to the market, which was seen as just as important as political rights. The entanglement of economic and political development is complex but presented pretty well in this book.

The author proves the existence of the “Consumer Republic” using many quotes from social leaders from the era that demonstrate the intentional development of the modern segmented, mass-market political economy called America. I had never heard any of this before, even though I lived through it and was one of the consumers that made it tick.

Everyone should at least be aware of their part in the evolution of identity politics in the segmentation of the mass market, which occurred over the last third of the twentieth century. It is a humorous and frightening story.

Unfortunately, I don’t think very many Americans will read this book (it is 800 pages long); at least, try to find a summary or, better yet, an interview with Lizabeth Cohen.

Home World

“Excuse me sir, but could you tell me where I am?” 

The young man’s eyes were glazed when his stumbling progress stopped and he faced me. His countenance exploded in delight as he responded, “Oh, man, you are not from this world, it’s like I needed to meet an alien…”

“What?”

“I never met a blue man in person. Awesome!”

“Could you tell me where I am…on earth I mean?”

The young man wrapped his arm around my shoulder and said, “The more important question is where did you come from?”

I understood. He wouldn’t accept me without knowing my origins, as awkward as that might be. “I came here from another galaxy, a long way from here.” I realized that my ability to speak with this stranger, enabled by my universal translator, couldn’t bridge the gap in our life experiences.

The young man lit a cigarette and said, “Bring it on, dude!”

“What?”

“Tell me about your home planet. What’s it called?” 

I had to think a moment before responding. “Eclectic. I come from another galaxy, a planet where everyone does whatever they wish at any moment. Is that how it is here?”

The young man took a drag from his cigarette and said, “It can be pretty crazy, but I don’t know if it’s like Eclectic…I mean, that’s wild. Tell me more.”

“Let me see…on Eclectic people don’t have physical bodies so we don’t have houses to live in, or offices where we go to work, no freeways or metros—”

My companion stepped back and asked, “Are you like ghosts? Did you come from the afterlife? That is way cool!”

“Not at all. What I mean is that it isn’t like…this. I don’t have to walk to get around, so we don’t have roads or highways, no cars. We move between places by…hmmm…I just have to think about where I want to be.”

“I get it, like in Star Trek, with the transporter and all. Cool. What about trees and shit like that?”

“We don’t have any trees or plants on Eclectic. No wild animals either. What I mean is that life didn’t evolve like here, with bacteria and plants and animals and intelligence. We just skipped straight to the top of the evolutionary ladder, and became virtual beings, but grounded in reality–not ghosts…”

“Is Eclectic a planet, you know, like earth?”

“As far as our scientists can tell, we live in a subset of dimensions from the eleven that define the multiverse we share with you. There are no planets.”

“Do you have a family?”

“Yes. I have a partner and two children. We live in a beautiful sphere surrounded by a sea of blue methane, sparkling with effervescent bursts of red.”

“Why are you here?”

“I am an explorer.”

“So, you guys have like a NASA or some shit?”

I had been briefed on this universe, so I answered, “Yes, exactly the same.”He threw the cigarette into the street. “Cincinnati, Ohio.”

Review of “Neighbors” by Danielle Steel

I’ve seen paperbacks by this author all my life, in airport book shops and bookstores. I never read one of her more than 100 books (I guessed at the total but they’re listed on the frontispiece), so I figured I might as well. If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know I don’t have very high standards. Still, for Danielle Steel to still be on the shelves, her books must be pretty popular. The back cover claims that she’s sold almost a billion copies of her novels. That’s quite a feat.

I’m not sure how to begin. I didn’t find a single cut-and-paste error or misspelled word. Commas weren’t randomly distributed and the grammar and punctuation were textbook correct. Either the author is extremely careful or she has an outstanding copy editor. For all I know, she may write on an old Remington typewriter, like I started out on as a child (from the photo on the back, she looks old enough).

This novel reads as if it were written by a third-grader, for a third-grade audience. Most of the sentences consisted of a main clause, followed by a “comma” and “and,” followed by an often-unrelated clause that had nothing to do with the original topic of the sentence. A few “buts” were thrown in, possibly as afterthoughts.

I have never read a book as repetitive as this one. Material from chapter one was still being repeated (for the tenth or twentieth time) in the last chapter; sometimes a detail about a character’s background or personality was repeated in the same paragraph! And I thought the Qur’an was repetitive (actually, it wins the prize…so far).

This is an outstanding example of why it is a really bad idea to use an omniscient narrator, especially with a lot of characters. The narrator was head-hopping (sharing the thoughts and motivations of different characters within a short span of words) so much I got dizzy, going so far as starting a sentence in one mind and ending it in another. And there were a lot of minds to invade, at least ten, probably a dozen if you count late-comers.

Because of the omniscient narrator, there was no surprise in what passed as a plot. The reader knows all about everyone, long before they can show their true colors. What a sham! I found myself wondering what meaningless scenes would fill the remainder of the book long before I reached the half-way point.

Needless to say, every one of the ensemble cast of characters was sorted out and either sent to Heaven or Hell by the end. If you like simple stories with no suspense and happy endings, this novel is for you. And there are so many others to enjoy, as listed in the frontispiece photo above. For me, I’d rather read a poorly written novel with some surprises and (hopefully) a plot rather than third-grade prose.

Have fun…

Heaven or Hell?

I’ll keep this short.

Most Americans believe in hell and heaven.

I don’t blame them because they are living it, just not in the afterlife, but right now. They aren’t alone, as evidenced by the billion people who live below the United Nations’ poverty level. Being hungry every FUCKING day is living in hell.

I would argue that being so afraid of the world that you reach out to anyone who promises redemption, even if through extreme ideologies, is the same as starving to death, one day at a time. The only difference between these two extremes is the physical pain suffered by those in a “physical” HELL.

The pain suffered by those in psychological HELL is no different, even if it doesn’t entail as much physical discomfort and even pain. They suffer, but they are in a position to share their pain with those less fortunate, creating the HELL we all share.

Let’s stop this BULLSHIT drivel about some kind of afterlife. We are all in HELL, from the day we were born until the day we die. Some think they are in HEAVEN because they are reaping the rewards of temporary success in HELL, at the expense of other conscious beings, but they will join us all in oblivion.

That is their choice of HELL.

HEAVEN is more difficult to comprehend, because the complex ideas of pleasure, joy, satisfaction, and even spiritualism cannot be defined. I suppose that the wealthy sometimes say to each other, that they are living a heavenly life. It makes sense. A few percent of the population is in HEAVEN while the vast majority is living in HELL.

This is it. Right here, right now. History tells us that life is what it is…there is no afterlife, a myth invented by the elites in past millennia…

My positive message is that life can be HEAVEN or HELL and it’s up to us to choose where to spend our time, which will seem like an eternity no matter which choice you make…

Funhouse

Clarisse Yankovic’s faded blue eyes scanned her surroundings without recognition, the house she had lived in for almost fifty years now an alien landscape. She had fallen in love with the brick-clad, French Revival home the first time she laid eyes on it and, with help from their families and a large mortgage, she and David had moved into their dream house immediately after getting married. That had been forty-seven years earlier. The three children who’d filled the stalwart edifice with life had moved out decades ago to raise their own families, only visiting on holidays, birthdays, and her and David’s wedding anniversary. The house had quietly been invaded by cleaning and maintenance crews supplied for a monthly fee by a property management company. They had lived as tenants in their own home for too many years, a situation tolerated because of its simplicity. All that had changed when David died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year. 

It had suddenly dawned on her that there was no longer any reason to remain in St. Louis, dealing with the cold winters and an army of professionals keeping the house in perfect working order; their home had become nothing more than a repository of fond memories, not to mention a money pit. Her dream home was a museum. And she was a mannikin, part of the display, brought to life for special occasions like Christmas–Sacajawea in Night at the Museum

Today was the day. She informed the house of her decision. “I’m moving to Florida or maybe Southern California and I’m afraid I won’t be able to take you with me.” She waved her arms expansively and continued, “I have plenty of memories stored in my diaries, countless photo albums, and in the cloud, so I don’t need daily reminders from every corner of your beautiful interior. I’m sorry but that’s how it has to be…”

She paused but the house didn’t respond.

“Very well then. Let’s spend our last few months together pleasantly. I’m going to start sorting out the physical memories while my children and several charitable organizations pick your bones clean. But don’t worry because a new family will soon move in and I’m trusting that you will shelter them and keep them safe, right?”

Still no response. 

Clarisse danced up the stairs as she continued, “We’re going to start in the attic. Get the worst part over first was always my motto. I know that’s your most personal area but don’t worry, I won’t violate your privacy. I’m just going to remove a lot of what you probably see as clutter but which, to me, represents memories stored away for many, many years.”

She reached the second-floor landing and used an extendible hook to pull down the attic door recessed in the ceiling, revealing a folding stair. The maintenance people had kept it in perfect condition over the years, so she confidently climbed the sturdy treads. Reaching the top, she flipped the light switch that had been expertly installed decades ago, bathing a space defined by steeply dipping rafters bathed in high-efficiency LED lighting. She spent several minutes identifying the contents that had been randomly stored over the decades. It was like a library where the books had been arranged using a classification scheme based on a dead language, something like the Dewey decimal system. With no one to argue with her, Clarisse made an executive decision. She turned off the light and carefully descended the steep attic stair, closed the ceiling door on its hydraulic pistons, and called the property management company to request a couple of able-bodied young men to move the attic’s contents to the ground floor. 

*      *      *

“Where do you want us to put everything, ma’am?”

A pair of strapping young men appeared at Clarisse’s door the next day, ready to haul heavy boxes and to whatever manual labor she asked. “Would you mind rearranging the furniture in the living room to make space for everything? I’m moving out and it doesn’t matter where it all goes as long as it can be removed by the people who are coming from Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity…”

The young Hispanic man glanced around, shrugged indifferently, and said, “No problem.”

Clarisse stayed out of the way while her house became a three-dimensional, full-size version of Tetra. She watched in amazement as the dining room became a storage facility, the chairs carefully stacked on the table’s unblemished surface, covered by bedding from her ample linen supply. The living room was emptied in a few minutes, before being filled with the contents of the attic, which included open cartons containing items piled haphazardly which it made no sense to have saved. None of it was intimidating when exposed to the sunlight streaming in the front windows. She thanked the two men after several hours of hard work and offered them a tip for their services.

“You two have worked so hard, catering to all my stupid whims…”

The older man waved his tattooed arm and said, “Just doing our job, ma’am. We’re glad you’re happy with our work.”

Clarisse wouldn’t be satisfied with just telling them they’d done a good job. She wanted to give them a tip. “As a token of my appreciation, I would like each of you to take one item you like from the house, but of course not my memorabilia.” Their confused expressions prompted her to elaborate. “Anything you can carry with you…” She glanced out the window at the moving van parked in her driveway and added, “Anything that will fit in your truck.” 

She waved her arms as an invitation.

“Anything?” the younger man asked.

She nodded.

“The big-screen TV?”

“It’s yours,” she replied nonchalantly.

The sixty-inch TV and sectional sofa disappeared into the truck with as much alacrity as the attic’s contents had been transported to the living room. Feeling that the house was glad to have its attic emptied, relieving it of supporting so many memories it couldn’t possibly comprehend, Clarisse was compelled to rush to the side of the van as it was about to leave. She pushed two crisp hundred-dollar bills into the tattooed hand and said, “Someday, you’ll be my age—what I mean is that you did a lot more than move some boxes out of the attic…”

The two young men responded in unison, “Yes, ma’am.” 

*      *      *

The first thing Clarisse found among the attic’s displaced contents was a sealed box labelled, “Clarisse’s Diaries.” It had a date, just like several other boxes closed as tightly. But there wasn’t enough space to move the cartons around, to find the first diary she’d ever written, a record she had forgotten about long ago. Unable to find space in the crowded ground floor of her dream house, she had to wait for the removers, the men who would take away all the furniture that made it impossible to expose her memories to the light of day. She was certain the stoic house was looking on, taking no more than a passing interest in her efforts. 

“I hope you’re having as much fun as me,” she proclaimed, waving a glass of wine poured from a bottle discovered amongst the attic’s treasures. 

There was no answer. 

The next day, the game of Tetra continued. The moving men, representing competing philanthropic enterprises, arrived within minutes of each other, creating a tense situation and forcing Clarisse to make decisions about which charitable organization got what. Not having given it a lot of thought beforehand, she used a simple rule: Habitat for Humanity got anything made of wood whereas the Salvation Army got everything else, including David’s clothes, which had been hanging in the closet for more than a year. Having a set of rules in place, the house watched silently as its contents were systematically removed, leaving only Clarisse and the minimum necessities: a single bed from a guest room; an armchair; a folding TV tray; a few pans that neither of the charitable organizations wanted; some random plates and bowls; and the contents of the attic.

Clarisse breathed a sigh of relief as the last team of mercenaries left, transporting the bulkiest evidence of her previous life to unknown places. She sat in the sole remaining chair and looked at the blank walls, no longer adorned with expensive decorations, and expressed her feelings about the day.

“Thank god that’s over with.” 

She was certain the house breathed a sigh of relief.

*      *      *

“I don’t understand, Thomas,” Clarisse began, gazing questioningly into the sharp blue eyes of her father’s younger brother, now ninety-three and still living in the same house he’d occupied for more than sixty years. 

“My diary repeatedly refers to you as not being welcome in our house. There are countless entries talking about how you forced your way in but papa was too polite to call the police. But that isn’t what I recall at all. You were always visiting—spending all day on Saturday—taking me to the park. You showed me how to throw a baseball for Christ’s sake!”

Thomas’ pearly teeth gleamed, matching the twinkle in his bright eyes, as he responded to her despondent query. “First off, your first diary entry is accurate. Ivan went nuts when I told him I was gay and it was on Christmas Eve, 1954, and he called me a lot of names. I seem to recall throwing some back at him as well before storming off, swearing to never set eyes on him again. But we cooled down. He got over the initial shock and so did I. He had trouble accepting that I was gay—I had to fit his idea of a proper, manly brother. But, like I said, Ivan and I got over our first reactions and patched things up. So, your memory is more reliable than the diary you wrote when you were a young girl, almost seventy years ago, probably because your memories haven’t been transformed into words.” He patted Charisse’s hand and added, “A lot gets lost in translation.”

Clarisse was glad to have Thomas verify her recollection of events so many years in the past, which only served to remind her of so many other ambiguous entries, recorded when she was older. They talked about her diary while sitting on his front porch, occasionally interrupted by neighbors passing by, and eventually concluded that neither of their memories of past events was perfect. They argued about several of her diary entries, recorded through the decades, and each came to recognize the frailty of what they had assumed was reality. Thomas wrapped up the long conversation, lubricated by coffee and tea, by standing up suddenly.

“I think we have established that the written word isn’t very reliable. I’m just glad that the camera was invented, giving us visual proof of events and more importantly, the existence of our ancestors and thus ourselves.”

Clarisse added, “Not to mention the internet and social platforms, where we can…” Her words trailed off as she recalled when she’d discontinued writing in her diary because of the easy access of a multimedia platform like Facebook to store her memories. No more need of a diary, photo albums, or scribbled notes in the margins of letters and newspaper clippings. It was all digital now. 

She found her voice and added, “Oh my, that’s another can of worms, Thomas. I think I may have propagated my myopic, self-centered view of reality into the digital age.”

He looked at her comfortable shoes and said, “Are you up for a short walk?”

She nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Let’s go for an early dinner or late lunch, what do you say? We can discuss how you’re going to reconcile your treasure trove of historical documents with your mind’s unique point of view.”

Clarisse stood up and, nodding emphatically, said, “That’s a great idea, Thomas. Talking to you is mentally challenging and I think I’ve burned at least a thousand calories already. I’m famished.”

Her arm naturally entwined with his as they stepped off the porch. Suddenly self-conscious she grasped his bony forearm and said, “What will your neighbors think, with you walking with…I guess I’m a younger woman?”

He patted her grasping hand and admitted, “I was so excited about your visit that I told the entire neighborhood about my niece coming to visit. I don’t know if they expected a young girl or not, but you will always be Jackie to me.”

Clarisse squeezed his arm and said, “You called me that until I quit playing softball after high school. It was your private way of telling me how much you loved me…” She stopped, unsure if she’d stepped over a forgotten line.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Thomas quickly kissed her forehead and said, “Damn right, Jackie, that’s exactly what I was doing.”

She felt like a child again, memories of throwing a baseball awakened, the feel of the glove on her right hand, Thomas laughing as she threw the ball past him, too fast for him to catch, him standing behind her showing her how to hold the bat, his excited cheering from the four-tier bleachers at the middle-school fields where she’d played. The memories were so overwhelming that Clarisse stopped, her eyes filled with tears, and stammered, “I remember everything now, Thomas. I’d forgotten how close we were until just now. Can you forgive me for abandoning you for so many years?”

He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his tweed blazer, dabbed the tears from her eyes, and said, “You didn’t abandon me, Jackie. We both had happy and fulfilling lives. Now we are back together, sharing old memories of younger days filled with promise. We both lived our dreams and now…here we are, given a rare opportunity to be reunited after such a long separation. My eyes are filled with tears of joy too.”

She loosened her grip on his arm. “I feel like a little girl right now, walking with you like this, Uncle Thomas…”

He stopped and, tossing his long arm around her shoulders, looked into her eyes. “And I feel like a young man, so let’s avoid mirrors for the rest of the day.”

They laughed together. 

*      *      *

Clarisse had considered putting her diaries in storage because she definitely wasn’t going to haul them around the country with her. She had mentally committed to leaving St. Louis for a warmer place, but she hadn’t yet decided where exactly she was going. She was going to travel light, taking whatever fit in a large suitcase. During their late lunch and the drinks that had followed, Thomas had convinced her that she should have a cleansing ceremony, with a bonfire as the central theme, and then and there burn her diaries. She had at first been mortified at the idea of tossing her precious memories into flames, but he had persuaded her by sharing his own experience with loss. When his lifelong companion had died ten years earlier, Thomas had followed Edward’s wishes and destroyed all evidence of his existence. As Thomas had explained it, they had shared a beautiful life in this world and there was no reason to expect more than that. His argument had been so eloquent and deeply emotional that Clarisse had acquiesced, with the condition that he would attend the ceremony. He’d accepted the responsibility but made a request that had sent her into a panic: She had to invite the entire family to attend as well, presenting it as a celebration of life and renewal, like a wake for the recently deceased. 

“Everyone?!”

He’d nodded confidently and answered, “RSVP of course. No one will attend except me, but you will have declared your freedom from the past, and your intention to live as you wish.”

She’d been convinced by his argument, and now found herself standing in front of the firepit in the backyard, its blackened stones reminding her of the decades of joy this place had given her. What had seemed like a good idea was starting to look like a desperate plea for attention. The diaries, which had been so overwhelming in a house filled with furniture, comprised a pathetic pile next to the firepit, whose flames they were supposed to feed. They wouldn’t last five minutes.

Her mental anguish was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Thomas, accompanied by a very old woman Clarisse didn’t recognize, who clung to his arm as if it were a life preserver in a stormy sea. 

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” the elderly matron began. 

Clarisse was at a loss for words.

Thomas filled the silence with an informative comment. “I reckon it’s been more than fifty years since your college graduation, Clarisse. As I recall, that was when you and Helen last met…” 

“Aunt Helen?”

The elderly woman suddenly became enervated. “Where is the drink you promised me, Thomas? I’m thirsty and I have a feeling this bonfire is going to look more like a book burning and I hate destroying literature. Don’t light the fire until I’ve had a couple of drinks.”

The young man Clarisse had hired to bartend this exclusive event appeared with a cocktail, which he offered to the centenarian woman. She sipped it and looked at Thomas before saying, “You always were a sly fox. You could have made a fortune on Wall Street. But you never were a greedy man.”

Clarisse was overcome with memories. Again. This was a woman who, like Thomas, had made a profound impression on her, telling her at her college graduation party to forget all that sports bullshit because she wasn’t that good, and focus on making money. Clarisse had followed the advice she’d been given that day by the wife of her mother’s brother, Aunt Helen. Memories flooded into her consciousness and she lunged toward the frail, elderly woman, her assault stopped by Thomas’ surprisingly strong arm. 

“Don’t get carried away, Clarisse.”

She felt foolish when she realized that Aunt Helen, who had inspired her to pursue a business career rather than sports, was physically frail because she was more than a hundred-years old. Clarisse accepted the glass of sparkling wine offered by the server in lieu of hugging her aunt. 

“Hold this, Thomas,” Helen said, passing her glass to the younger man without looking. “Give me a hug, Clarisse, I’m not as brittle as he thinks.” She opened her arms wide enough for Clarisse to fit between them.

They hugged but Clarisse made a point of not squeezing too hard, as much as she wanted to compress five decades of missing affection into a single moment. She was crying again, a fact noted by Helen as she retrieved her drink from Thomas. “I’d join you in a good cry if I could, Jackie—yes, Thomas told me about that, centuries ago, but you don’t recall any of that, you were too young—but the truth is I don’t have any tears left…”

Clarisse wiped her eyes, sipped from her glass of wine, and tried to sound understanding in her reply. “I guess you have cried a lot of tears, losing so much, people you loved, I’m sorry—”

Helen waved her hand dismissively as Thomas helped her into a chair that had been placed near the fire pit. “No, Jackie, I mean that I can’t cry anymore. I’m too old and I don’t have any extra moisture to waste on emotional displays, or at least that’s what the doctor told me. I’m all gummed up inside, nothing working like it’s supposed to. I’m surprised I can still think; in fact, my memory is as sharp as a tack…” Her mouth emitted a shallow, hoarse cackle that grated on Clarisse’s nerves, the residue of a hearty laugh that her body was no longer able to reproduce. 

The bartender appeared with fresh drinks for everyone.

Clarisse took a moment to examine Helen as she pulled a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from her jacket pocket and removed one with fingers as steady as a surgeon’s. Her hair was as white as snow and cut short, but she wasn’t balding. Faded blue eyes peered out of sockets no deeper than Clarisse’s, shadowed by white eyebrows without a wisp of eyelashes for adornment. The smooth face was broken by no more wrinkles than Clarisse confronted every morning in the mirror, moot evidence that reaching Helen’s age was the result of factors having nothing to do with personal habits. She proved that when a lighter appeared in Thomas’ hand to light her cigarette.

“Thank you, Thomas. Now, let’s burn these books and get on with the real fun!”

The bartender lighted the prepared fire and retreated discretely, leaving Clarisse to supervise the proceedings. She tore some pages out of the first diary she’d ever written and threw them into the small flame to applause from Thomas and Helen. Encouraged, she became more daring, tossing pages and even entire diaries into the flames, feeding the fire with wrinkled newspapers used as packing for some of the other contents of the attic. 

The three elderly people watched the funeral pyre, feeding its appetite for paper, while the bartender kept their interest fueled with alcohol. When the last of the diaries had been consumed in flames, Helen lit another cigarette and offered one to Clarisse. At first offended, then confused, she accepted it and followed Thomas’ advice to not inhale but just puff it enough to keep it burning, instructions enthusiastically supported by Helen. It was somehow relaxing to hold the burning cylinder, a weed wrapped in paper, a habit that hadn’t killed Helen after more than forty years. Clarisse laughed and choked at that thought, that Helen hadn’t started smoking until her husband had died of lung cancer, when she was sixty. 

“What’s wrong?” Helen asked.

Struggling to get a grip on something she couldn’t identify, much less control, Clarisse stammered, “I feel lost, as if the floor just dropped out from under me…nothing makes sense anymore—where are my children? I mean, for god’s sake, I invited them personally, on the phone, it’s not like this is the middle of the night…” She glanced at her watch before continuing, “It’s only seven o’clock. They only live a few minutes away and their children are old enough to be left home alone for days if not weeks…” She was sobbing by the end of her tirade and collapsed into the chair next to Helen.

A shriveled, dry hand covered hers and a hoarse voice, coming from just before the grave, said, “That’s how it goes, Jackie. Don’t fret about it or you’ll go crazy. Let’s go inside and take a peek at some of the old family photos you’ve been storing in the attic. I have a feeling we may have another book burning before too long.” Her lively eyes didn’t have to look far for support because her mouth was twisted into a grin that reminded Clarisse of the Crypt Keeper

Thomas and Clarisse helped Helen to her feet as she threw her cigarette butt into the dying embers filling the firepit, floating on the soft breeze, reminders of the fragility of memory. Clarisse recalled a painting she’d seen once in a museum. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali had made a deep impression on her even when she was only thirty years old, and now she was living that dream, or was it a nightmare? She accompanied the two people who seemed to be the only humans who cared about her and, holding tears of loss and pain deep inside her chest, made Thomas and Helen as comfortable as she could in the empty house she was occupying alone. 

Helen settled into the armchair, Thomas and Clarisse seated on folding chairs at her sides, and said, “I’m going to need another drink before I can deal with whatever your photo albums contain, Jackie…” 

Before she could finish her sentence, another whiskey sour appeared, delivered by the taciturn bartender, along with drinks for Clarisse and Thomas. Helen was in a good mood, so Clarisse wasted no time laying her oldest photo album on the TV tray, exposing images she only vaguely recognized to a centenarian mind as sharp as a scalpel.

*      *      *

“After what you’ve told me Clarisse, I would recommend Facebook Story instead of News Feed, and you aren’t a good candidate for platforms like Instagram or Snapchat because most of your contacts are on Facebook. They will eventually adapt to your new presence within the same platform whereas asking them to migrate their on-line presence—that’s highly unlikely.”

Jessica Holmes had been Clarisse’s internet consultant for almost twenty years. Intrigued by the unfamiliarity of the internet and the confidence exuded by a young black woman straight out of college, she’d become Clarisse’s first client. They had become good friends. Jessica had gone through Clarisse’s oldest photo albums (annotated with Thomas and Helen’s humorous comments scribbled on post-it notes) with her and digitized the images, including any comments as what she called metadata. It would all be stored in The Cloud for future retrieval, maybe by her children when they grew up a little more and weren’t so occupied with their own kids. Several boxes of memories were going to be reduced to a few gigabytes of data, according to Jessica, well below the storage capacity Google allowed at no cost. Clarisse would have been lost without her friend’s help, but she was confused.

“What’s wrong with just continuing with what I’m used to? It’s pretty straightforward, posting a photo or something and reading any comments, what’s wrong with that?”

Clarisse recognized the look on Jessica’s face, the same expression she used when she was about to explain something so obvious that anyone would know it, anyone familiar with the internet and social media. But she’d learned to listen to Jessica’s condescending lessons without getting defensive, so she bit her tongue as yet another example of warped perceptions, no more than the reflections from a funhouse mirror, was revealed.

“Of course, it works fine, but you want to get rid of false memories and inconsistent communications, especially to yourself, right?”

Clarisse nodded emphatically.

“I’ve analyzed your Facebook activity for the last ten years, Clarisse. That’s why I think you should switch to the Story paradigm.” Clarisse’s blank look prompted Jessica to continue, “A couple of people respond regularly to your posts, mostly with Likes rather than comments. A slightly larger group sees them but doesn’t react consistently. In fact—I don’t know how to say this, but you look at your own posts more than anyone else. They are a digital extension of your diaries and photo albums, a trip down memory lane and not much more. I’m not suggesting you disavow social media, only that you use it more effectively given your recent epiphany. And, by the way, I fully support your decision, in case I didn’t make that clear earlier…”

Clarisse was aghast. She swallowed hard and made up her mind. “So, this Story thingy is like gossip, I guess? I post a photo, maybe with an inappropriate comment, and it just disappears the next day? I don’t have to constantly check to see how it was received…one or two people might comment but then it goes away—could you show me how to do that?” 

*      *      *

Clarisse woke up in a strange place, sunrise’s first rays streaming through the thin curtains illuminating the austere room sequestering her from reality. This wasn’t her bedroom in the house she had emptied of her worldly possessions. She wasn’t lying in the bed she’d become accustomed to but instead in a soft, twin bed, a stiff pillow supporting her head. Recent memory sharpened and she recognized her surroundings. She was in Thomas’s guestroom. 

She had sold the house to a young couple with three children and two dogs. She was certain it would be happy with the new family. 

The week she’d spent with Thomas had been like a vacation, getting up late, having brunch instead of breakfast, going for walks in the park, window shopping, and of course visiting Aunt Helen. When Clarisse had pressed her elderly aunt about her health, Helen had sworn on an old, dusty bible she dragged out of a closet that she was in perfect health for someone her age. Her only medication was an occasional sedative to get a good night’s sleep and Tylenol for aches and pains. She had patted Clarisse’s arm and concluded her medical summary with, “I’ll probably just die in my sleep with no one the wiser. Of course, spending so much time with you and Thomas will probably add ten years to my life.”

Clarisse sat up, suddenly alert. Today was the day. Thomas and Helen were taking her to the train station, where she would board a local Amtrak train to meet up with the Southwest Chief in Kansas City. She would occupy a private suite for the scenic ride to Los Angeles. Her bag was packed. Her morning shower seemed to take forever, and getting dressed was far more complicated than she remembered it, but she finally made her appearance in the kitchen, where she and Thomas had coffee and discussed the day’s activities. It was dark. She looked at the clock and realized it was only 5:30 a.m., not even close to their usual time to get up. 

Feeling foolish, she went to the living room as quietly as she could, not wanting to wake up Thomas. Feeling her way in the semi-darkness to turn on a table lamp, she was startled when the room lit up, revealing Thomas sitting in his favorite chair, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Why don’t you join me, Jackie?”

“Whaaaa—” she began.

“I couldn’t sleep and I’ve found that when I have insomnia, it’s better to get up because otherwise my back hurts in the morning. It’s something about being asleep, is what my doctor tells me. I’m so excited about your adventure, it’s like I’m the one getting on that train and going to California…”

They finished a pot of coffee and walked to a diner for breakfast. At Thomas’s insistence, she had the Full Monty, a pile of pancakes topped with blueberries, surrounded by scrambled eggs and home fries, covered with a mix of gravy and syrup, with a plate of sausage and ham on the side, not to mention toast and homemade strawberry preserves. As she worked on the delicious pile of heart-stopping instant death, he explained that he ordered it about once a month, but he didn’t eat anything more substantial than fruit and salad for several days afterward. In other words, she might not like the food on the train. 

“I wish you were coming with me, Thomas. You could get a ticket because we would be sharing a suite. And you could come back anytime you wanted on a plane or the return trip of the Southwest Chief. Please join me?!”

“Eat your biscuits, Jackie, and don’t leave any of that gravy. Now, about your childish demands, I would love to accompany you, and I may visit you in a couple of months and ride the Southwest Chief, but this is your voyage of discovery and emancipation. You haven’t done anything this adventurous since you went to college…”

Clarisse cleaned up all of her plates with Thomas watching approvingly, while she contemplated his words. Sitting there with him, she realized he was right. It wasn’t that her husband, David, had been overbearing, only that they had done everything together. Every decision was a team effort. Cleaning out the attic was the first personal decision she’d made without his input. Thomas had recognized this because…because he was older and wiser than her, and he’d been through it all himself. This really was something she had to do alone.

“Can I get you to promise to come out for a visit after I get established, not necessarily in a house or whatever—I am going to get a two bedroom apartment, expecting a guest to appear at any moment.” Her gaze dipped as she added, “Please?”

Thomas examined her plate as if making sure a child had eaten their broccoli, before his hand gently lifted her chin, urging her gaze to meet his. 

“I already bought a ticket.”

Review of “Six Easy Pieces” by Richard P. Feynman

This old book (published in 1963) crossed my path so I read it. It contains six essays (actually lectures) from a class the author taught in 1961-1962 as an experiment in changing how physics is taught to undergraduates. Prefaces written in 1989 and 1994 describe it as a beautiful journey led by a great thinker (Feynman won a Nobel prize for his contributions to Quantum Electrodynamics, or QED). I think it’s more useful to read Feynman’s original preface, written in 1964. He thought the experiment was a failure as an alternative way of introducing undergraduates to the world of physics. Taking into account that this was written almost 60 years ago, I didn’t expect any brilliant insight into state-of-the-art problems.

I was curious because I was one of those introductory physics students he was supposedly teaching to in this lecture series, sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other students from every scientific and engineering discipline. Of course I suffered through this material 20 years later. It’s possible that some of the methods introduced in these lectures made their way into the University Physics courses I took because our professor used a lot of props to demonstrate different processes, very much like Feynman discusses and includes as figures. I can only imagine how it was taught before — probably like Calculus, another mind-numbing, abstract subject.

Feynman writes like a scientist, clear but a little wordy. Some of the examples he uses to introduce scientific topics are very simple but concrete, and he is clear about how far analogues can go. He uses them a lot and, from his comments in the preface, I assume he left it to the teaching assistants in the recitation classes (graduate students earning a little money to help undergrads with their homework), to actually teach the textbook material. I had a chemistry professor like that…

I guess the title is a reference to the easiest lectures in the course. This is certainly an eclectic choice for the book because a couple bordered on simpleminded (as opposed to simplified) whereas at the other extreme was a mind-numbing summary of the results (in 1961) from particle physics. I’m glad I didn’t take a pop quiz on the elementary particles from his “Basic Physics” lecture!

This material is dated and there is no sign of brilliant teaching anywhere to be found. Much better presentations have been created in the last 60 years, which is no surprise. This was an experiment, to try and interest first-year undergraduates in physics, and change what was (and still is) basically a weed-out course, into a recruitment drive. From the comments in the prefaces, it failed, but it probably influenced how physics was taught to me. If so, that was a significant accomplishment on its own.

I can’t recommend it, only because there are probably better summaries available now.

Review of “The Chaos Kind” by Barry Eisler

Another random read, this time a preposterous fictional story based (very loosely) on conspiracy theories surrounding Jeffrey Epstein’s death in jail. At least that’s my take. The grammar and punctuation are okay, but the writing style becomes very ponderous after the halfway point, a phenomenon I’ve mentioned before. I think the author was being sucked into a black hole (aka publisher’s deadline) and didn’t have time to clean it up. Not that it would have mattered.

There is no actual story. What tattered plot can be found is nothing more than transitions between a never-ending series of gun fights. If you like guns, you’ll like this book; just don’t get any ideas about reenacting the scenes. There aren’t even any chase scenes or detective work — we don’t need no stinking effort, just put that in background. There are a lot of characters but no real protagonists, just a bunch of government (sometimes ex-government) contractors (read mercenaries) who know each other and have some kind of Three-Musketeer camaraderie. The number of bad decisions by people with reputations to lose (not to mention their crime-fighting careers) cascades into the same black hole as the author’s attention.

Despite my negative opinion, I found many of the scenes exciting and turned the page as fast as anyone; however, I also found myself reading the action scenes quickly in anticipation of hopefully finding a plot after they were finished. Never found it. The author is good at short scenes that get the pulse going but they aren’t integrated into an interesting story. The characters may be based on real people but they are not much more than permutations on a single personality, probably not a surprise since they are all (or become in the story) murderers, also known as assassins and simple killers. Having a personal interest in killing doesn’t change it.

I just wish that Eisler hadn’t tried to make them all “good” guys and gals. Because they are not.

I can’t recommend this, unless you like reading about gun fights and what are the best weapons to use in a particular situation…

Review of “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

This book was translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. I mention the translators because this is not the book written by the author in Japanese, but a hybrid created by the translators with Murakami’s input. I want to be clear that I did not read the original novel and I have no way of knowing if it was written in the same style, if that is even possible. It’s been my limited experience with Spanish that a translator has to make a lot of judgement calls. Some phrases and ideas simply do not have equivalents in different languages.

This was originally published as three novels that comprise a series. This version included all three as Books One, Two and Three. This choice makes sense because the first two books are clearly not the end of the story, not by any stretch of imagination. Unfortunately, this means that the combined story was almost 1200 pages, longer than War and Peace.

I don’t recall finding a single punctuation or grammatical error. Not one. The writing style is verbose and plodding. Some of the repetition can be explained by the original three-book structure, but it was tiresome in this version. Also, redundancy was comprehensive, extending from the sentence level to deep background material. The story wasn’t complex enough to justify so much repetition.

This book has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s masterpiece. It is a literary novel and it uses several points of view (POV) in presenting the story. Scenes are painfully described, to the extent that opening a door can take a paragraph. There is a lot of reflection mixed in, again unnecessarily redundant. However, the detail of simple actions is not blended with reflection and narration, instead presented in blocks, alternating rather than using action as prompts for introspection. I mention this because there is a lot of both exquisite detail and reflection within a scene, they just aren’t correlated very well. Just as with War and Peace, so much text is devoted to physical details that everything else is explained in huge blocks of either monologues or introspection. There are several very suspenseful scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat, but they always ended with a convenient escape or happy coincidence. In fact, it appeared as if the author went out of his way to avoid any unpleasantness happening to the central characters, no matter how risky their behavior.

Like War and Peace, this is a love story which is identified within the first hundred pages. I felt slightly cheated, however, that the central theme wasn’t developed more. It was alluded to frequently (and repetitively), but not explored as a plot element in its own right. Repeating something again and again isn’t the same thing as close examination. Another common theme between 1Q84 and War and Peace is the introduction of extraneous characters, who appear occasionally but have no impact, then fade into the darkness. They aren’t even red herrings, just meaningless people who gum up the story. This may have been intentional, an opportunity for social commentary or just poking fun at idiosyncratic social conventions. The inevitable conclusion is approached through the POVs of the main characters. Alternating POV scenes is a dynamic way to tell a story that keeps the reader interested, but the author pushed the method beyond reasonable limits; the first two books never varied from the alternation of Tengo and Aomame’s POVs, going so far as to add superfluous (and repetitive) descriptions and reflections. This isn’t a mathematical formula, however, so Murakami lost control several times and briefly let the narrator become omniscient, reading everyone’s mind. Book Three adds a third POV (and thread) but it doesn’t work, becoming even more confusing.

Unlike Tolstoy’s grand historical novel, this is a fantasy love story, not that different from Snow White. None of the rather fantastic occurrences are explained or even delved into deeply. The protagonists repeat their conjectures but don’t add to the explanation. I was left feeling cheated again, this time by not having the background adequately explained, even in fantasy terms. With so many long soliloquies on every topic under the sun, there could have been an explanation better than what the clueless protagonists conjectured.

Again, this may have been intentional. Maybe Murakami wanted to write a long, ponderous, ambiguous, love story with no plot but lots of social commentary because he felt like it. It was, after all, a bestseller in Japan.

I could go on but I’d like to make one point perfectly clear: This novel could have been called Aomame just as easily as 1Q84, although the latter title is catchier. None of the other characters contribute to the story meaningfully.

Despite my overall negative impression of these books (combined into one for the English translation), I was very interested and read far more each day than I would normally. I was caught up in the nitty-gritty representation of the mundane lives of the characters. I ignored the fantasy aspects of the story, and it didn’t hurt that I knew it would have a happy ending.

However, I can’t recommend it unless you want to delve into the lives and problems of the working people of Japan. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a lot was lost in translation…

Rearview Mirror

“It’s time for you to retire.” 

The CEO’s words were still ringing in Charlie’s ears as he waited for the traffic light to turn green. After almost forty years, his blunt and honest management style was suddenly a problem, making him an embarrassment, refuse to be tossed out with the trash, yet another victim of the politically correct world. The “Me Too” movement. His contributions to the company’s bottom line, boosted by the recent acquisition of strategically located transshipment facilities throughout the world, apparently meant nothing. Political correctness was more important than running an efficient operation, making sure that the goods and services demanded by Americans were delivered on time—even more than profits. Charlie Worth was not ready for retirement. At sixty-three, he was in his prime, a fact attested to by the rush of shipping customers wanting to sign contracts utilizing the warehouses that would soon be available. All because of his hard work.

Charlie’s reflection was interrupted by a brief toot emitted by the horn of the car behind him, prompting him to notice the green signal but, before entering the intersection, he stole a glance at the driver in his rearview mirror. A black woman’s impatient eyes urged him to get moving, so he pushed the throttle pedal and shot forward, barely missing a delivery van that had run the opposing red light.  

The black woman following Charlie didn’t pass, but instead followed so close that he was able to examine her facial features in detail. He recognized her as the branch head who’d filed a complaint against him for an innocuous comment made during a recent division meeting. After she had ranted about the lack of racial diversity in the company’s hiring practices for ten minutes, he’d asked her a straightforward question.

“What does racial or ethnic background have to do with hiring warehouse employees? We hire whoever is available in the area and then we train them. The location of the facility is determined by logistical constraints, not by what minority group lives within commuting distance. We can’t hire Hispanic workers if they don’t happen to live in central Kansas, but there are plenty of Americans looking for a job there.” He’d shrugged and added, “I wouldn’t want to live in Kansas but…we work with the people who are available. Frankly, I don’t see what your problem is, unless you’re one of those people who likes to make a tempest in a teacup. You know what? You remind me of that Marvel character, in those X-men movies: when Storm got excited, there could be a tornado, a snowstorm, whatever… Maybe she was your mentor? At any rate, you don’t have Halle Berry’s figure so you should present more facts and less speculation.” 

Charlie kept an eye on the rearview mirror as he joined the line of cars entering the expressway. The blue Toyota finally passed him, the driver studiously ignoring him. But he knew the driver.

He was welcomed home with as little enthusiasm as usual by his wife of almost forty years, dinner on the table along with a glass of Zinfandel. 

WHITE SPACE

The black woman who had followed Charlie the day before greeted him as cordially and coolly as ever, her countenance revealing not a trace of their vehicular encounter the previous afternoon. Despite his imminent retirement, or perhaps because of it, Charlie had no time for reflection, grabbing a quick lunch from the cafeteria, only to find one of his replacements inviting himself to share the table.

“Do you mind if I join you, Charlie?” the Pakistani man, whose name escaped Charlie at that moment, asked in his mild accent.

“Whatever.”

The nameless marketing manager sat down and unwrapped his plastic utensils as he said, “You are a very difficult man to replace, Charlie. As you know, it will require four people to fulfill your role within the company, and I don’t know if we can do it.” He paused to attack his spaghetti with his plastic fork and knife, probably expecting Charlie to say something. When no response was forthcoming, the uninvited lunch companion continued, “You are a legend whether you know it or not, but you are more than that, you are an inspiration to all of us, to work hard and apply our talents to their greatest effect. You are a great leader.”

This caught Charlie off guard, considering his early retirement. He and the unnamed associate ate in silence until Charlie finished his salad. “You’re a Moslem, aren’t you?”

A quick nod confirmed Charlie’s suspicion, so he continued, “I was recently informed, just before I was also told that I should retire, that I’m Islamophobic. I didn’t know there was such a word.”

His lunch companion put his plastic fork down and said, “These are crazy times we live in, Charlie. I have the greatest respect for you, as do the other employees who have filed complaints against you. You are not a bad man. You aren’t even racist or xenophobic, much less Islamophobic.”

Charlie nodded. “Thank you for recognizing that I never intended to hurt anyone. I’m not as stupid as my age suggests. Or my words!” He laughed aloud and was joined by his lunch companion.

Head down, he swallowed his pride and said, “I’m sorry about whatever I did to you, but at least you won’t have to deal with me anymore…”

His Pakistani lunch companion’s arms flew into the air as he struggled to swallow, pouring water into his mouth before stammering, “Your words didn’t hurt anyone but they did reveal the difficultly of working with people who are unlike ourselves, wouldn’t you agree?”

Charlie nodded warily and replied, “I suppose that I probably should have given more thought to my public pronouncements.”

His lunch companion’s head shook methodically, a pasta-laden fork hovering in front of his mouth as he said, “I respect you because you spoke what was in your heart, and it wasn’t hatred. I have experienced hate, even from Moslems, and you are not like that. You have always been an honest man, Charlie.”

Confused and embarrassed, Charlie was compelled to ask, “What is your name? I haven’t bothered memorizing my replacements’ names because I’ll be gone next week and I’ll never see you again…”

“Harib,” was the response, accompanied by an extended hand, which Charlie accepted as Harib added, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Worth. The pleasure is all mine.”

Charlie shook his head quickly, his thoughts jumbled after what he’d heard, and tried to smile at Harib. “I think it’s a shared experience…”

Charlie spent the afternoon with the people who would replace him. What he had expected to be a difficult and unproductive meeting proved fruitful and enjoyable, thanks to his lunch companion’s diplomacy. Charlie realized that if someone like Harib had been there to speak plainly and without rancor, he wouldn’t have been forced to retire at only sixty-three. Feeling good about his legacy, he left the building at his usual time and strolled to his parking space near the building entrance, indicated by a sign that stated his contribution to the company’s growth over the years in two words: “Logistics Manager.” He admired the sign a moment before stepping around his five-year-old Buick, chuckling to himself at the parking problem his retirement would create: They would need four reserved parking spaces near the door to replace his one. 

Traffic was light but that didn’t make the commute go away. Confronted by a red signal and going nowhere anytime soon, Charlie glanced in his rearview mirror to recognize Harib behind the wheel of the gray SUV behind him. He refrained from waving, or even holding his hand up in recognition, because he was suddenly uncertain about the identity of the driver, whose dark complexion and narrow face no longer appeared to be Harib’s. This epiphany startled Charlie, causing him to respond slowly when the light turned green. A long blast on the horn of the SUV was proof that this was not his lunch companion. 

“I can’t tell one dark-complexioned man from another,” Charlie complained to the rearview mirror. “I grew up with nothing but white people, and then all these dark people started arriving, but they weren’t Negroes with their black skin tone, living in the ghetto, but more like Mexicans or…”

Charlie glanced in the rearview mirror to see the same dark face, now clearly not that of Harib. He was prompted to scold himself, “Maybe you had trouble identifying details of facial features for Pakistanis, but that was no reason to make so many insensitive references to Moslem practices. Your comments were no different than telling a Baptist that Jesus was an itinerant boozer. I know you don’t buy any of this religious nonsense but why do you give those loser evangelicals a break but come down so hard on the equally delusional Moslems?”

He didn’t have an answer. 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie’s past improprieties haunted him that night, unwelcome memories keeping his mind in turmoil, leaving him tossing and turning in bed. The agony was finally interrupted by the first rays of sunlight peeking around the curtains. His bleary eyes greeted the new day hungrily, desperate to escape to the solitude of his office and the work that awaited. He dressed in a typical blue suit but went a little wild and donned a bright red tie his wife had gotten him for Christmas that had been relegated to the back of the drawer for more than ten years. He had never worn it because he’d read that red ties were power symbols, a visual message totally out of synch with his personality. After eating his usual breakfast of a banana and bowl of oatmeal, he brushed his teeth and said goodbye to his wife before going to the garage.

The rearview mirror was turned to face him when Charlie sat behind the wheel of his car, reminding him of his drive home the previous day, a trip filled with self-reflection and recrimination. But this was a new day. He adjusted the mirror and backed out of the driveway.

He hadn’t driven a mile when traffic came to a standstill, probably because some idiot had run the red light ahead, a notorious intersection where three streets crossed. There wasn’t a day that someone didn’t run the light on MLK Boulevard. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he recognized the driver of the red Ford behind him as a Hispanic woman who’d filed an HR complaint against him for an innocent remark that he’d made during a staff meeting. As he recalled, she was pregnant with her fourth child and he’d suggested that she was taking the pope too seriously, spending all her time pregnant. She should try focusing more on work.

He’d wanted to fire her but HR had told him that was out of the question.   

Traffic crept forward. Charlie’s lane was apparently blocked by an accident and traffic was merging to the right, directed by a police officer. Charlie signaled his intention to move into an opening when the car behind him lurched forward, barely missing his fender, cutting him off and slowing traffic down even more. He wished he was driving one of those big four-by-fours so he could force his way past her but, certain she was driving on luck, with Jesus at the wheel, he waited as she crept past. He glanced at her to discover that it wasn’t his coworker. Just someone the same age, her attention focused on the smartphone held up in front of the steering wheel.

When he got clear of the traffic jam, Charlie had time to reflect on his reaction to mistaking the woman for someone who’d been a continuous thorn in his side, not because she was a poor worker. She actually had performed very well during and after her pregnancies, even while raising what eventually became a full house of five children. That was why HR had nixed his idea to fire her. But why had he cared about how many children she had, much less insult her publicly, and even try to fire her? 

Charlie turned the mirror to see himself, examining his face carefully, peering into his own eyes for something abnormal, maybe evidence of a brain tumor that would eventually kill him. Pale blue orbs gazed back at him silently, giving no hint of what was going on behind them. 

“What is wrong with you!” he shouted.

He answered his own question. “You know the answer. You don’t think before you shoot off your mouth, Charlie Worth. That’s what wrong with you. And the first thing that crosses your mind is always based on bias and prejudice because you are a white guy who, even though you came from a similar socioeconomic base as people like Harib, it was always easier because you aren’t a minority, a person with a different skin tone. That’s what’s wrong with you.”

He readjusted the mirror for the remainder of the drive to his office, where he parked in his reserved space, soon to be replaced with four reserved spots. That brought a smile to his face. He was irreplaceable, at least not without hiring four people to do his job. 

It was Wednesday. With only two more days of coming to the office, Charlie felt there was something he’d overlooked, maybe an old acquaintance, or a misplaced key that would open an abandoned lock securing a repurposed room. He set to clearing the drawers and shelves in his corner office, quickly filling the trash can. On a lower shelf, buried beneath years-old technical manuals, he found a folder that awakened more of the memories he’d been struggling with recently. 

Charlie sat in his chair and perused the colorful brochures and fact sheets that had underpinned the company’s diversity training a few years previously. He was browsing them when a knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said.

His secretary entered and held the door open for a tall man, at least ten-years younger than Charlie, the head of human resources, David Bowman. The door closed behind the secretary as she left.

“I thought you might have forgotten our appointment,” David began. 

“I knew there was something I’d overlooked,” Charlie responded. “I was cleaning the office, searching for a reminder but you beat me to it. Do you remember this?” He held up the brochure for David to see.

His guest scoffed. “Believe it or not Charlie, that was a very successful program. HR complaints decreased in every division, even yours.”

“I can believe it because I had a recent conversation with one of my replacements, who expressed respect and understanding of my restraint in dealing with people of different backgrounds. However, I think the decrease in HR complaints from my division was related to my team’s recognition that my racist and misogynist remarks were semantical defenses of my own insecurity, rather than reflecting a fundamental bias against them.”

David scoffed and said, “If you’d acknowledged that a few months ago, you wouldn’t be retiring on Friday.”

Charlie scoffed. “I’m sixty-three. My job has expanded tremendously and now, four people will be responsible for different aspects of what I was doing alone. To be honest, it has become a burden. I could have continued for a few more years but it would have cost the company. The world is just too complex nowadays, but we didn’t have crystal balls back in the day. For all I know, I became an asshole because my attention was focused on my technical duties. I was too busy to think about people…”

David nodded. “I think that’s exactly what happened. The owner, the CEO and the Board agree, which is why I’m here today. I have the pleasure of informing you that you will receive more than a gold watch as your retirement bonus. Your severance package includes not only health insurance and a moderate monthly stipend, supplemented by your personal retirement plan, but a bonus, in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the company, of eight-hundred-seventy-four-thousand dollars. That is a cash bonus.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped. “That’s more than five years’ salary! Have they lost their minds? That wasn’t in my contract so what’s going on?”

David was grinning as he responded, “This isn’t a Christmas present, Charlie. If there was a contest within the company for the most valuable employee, you would have won the prize a dozen times during your tenure. The company is in an excellent position because of your prescience and this is a token of the owners’ appreciation.” He held up a facsimile check and passed it to Charlie’s quivering fingers. 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie looked in the rearview mirror. The black face he saw was strangely familiar, another of his employees following him. After so many mistaken identities, it was comforting to know for certain that he was being followed by—the name escaped Charlie, but he recognized the face. He had reluctantly hired this man, who hadn’t been his first choice, under pressure from HR, which meant that top management was serious about minority hiring after the diversity training that had been imposed on every division. Their first conversation presented itself as Charlie gazed at the black face in the review mirror. 

“There are better-qualified applicants than you, but apparently the company has a quota system, and you’re the lottery winner. I’m certain that you are highly motivated and will do a mediocre job, not because you are a member of a minority that has certainly been subjected to systemic racism all your life, an obstacle you have obviously overcome, but because you are not the person I would have hired. And to be clear, I am well aware of the advantages I had, despite coming from a disadvantaged, poor-white background not that different from yours, because I am light skinned. When I look at you, I don’t see a black man. I see someone who is not my first choice. You should thank Jesus, which I think is the preferred deity of African-Americans, that you will get this job. But you have to meet my performance standards to keep it. Do you get my drift?”

The man’s dark complexion partially obscured his expression, which Charlie interpreted as neither contriteness nor rancor as he replied in a professional tone, “I am confident that I will prove myself to be the best person for the position. Your resistance to my being hired over your objections is perfectly understandable—I would have felt the same way—but you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll make a pledge to you, just between us, that if you find my job performance unacceptable after six months, I will voluntarily leave the company and seek employment elsewhere.”

That had been ten years ago. 

Charlie pulled into his reserved parking space and was immediately met by Nathan Adams (the name had suddenly come to him), who had followed him all the way to work as if in a convoy. Nathan would be taking over part of Charlie’s duties, having proven himself a capable manager just as he’d promised.

“You know Nathan, I was just thinking about when we first met, after recognizing you in my rearview mirror, do you remember that?”

Nathan scoffed. “I sure do. And I especially recall that you didn’t call my bluff about quitting on your say-so but gave me a chance to prove myself. Oh yes, I certainly remember, but you know I actually was intimidated by your attitude, and my wife almost took my head off when I told her about my challenge. You proved to be a tough but fair boss, and I learned a lot from you.” He paused a moment, contemplating, before adding, “But you have to admit that you wouldn’t have hired me if not for the intervention of HR, right?”

Charlie stopped at the front door, turned to Nathan, and replied, “That’s why I love working here. Teamwork. We get the job done together.”

Nathan opened the door and said, “After you, Sir.”

Charlie’s second-to-last day at work was filled by short meetings with the people who would take over his responsibilities, all of whom conveyed their anxiety at assuming their new duties. He still had full access to the computer system but refrained from correcting minor errors committed by his replacements. He emailed his comments, but sometimes they needed a face-to-face discussion to fully comprehend his admittedly brief and acerbic comments. These meetings ended amicably. Then he had an impromptu meeting with the Jewish man who would take responsibility for calculating the financial costs of the current expansion of warehouses, using proprietary software created under Charlie’s critical supervision. 

“This software is antiquated, it’s so old my grandmother would be comfortable using it, I mean what the hell have you done?!”

Charlie scoffed and, feeling calm in the knowledge that he would probably never see Jerry Bessemer again, said, “What did you expect? This is a trucking company, not a software development firm. The antiquatedprogram you are referring to was written before the cloud or servers or even mainframes existed. It ran on desktop computers, Intel 386 chips for Christ’s sake. I kept this kaleidoscopic software running as the internet evolved, from dial-up connections, broadband, all the way to 5G, whatever the hell that is, so now it’s your turn to keep it working. For starters, I would suggest that you demand an in-house software expert.”

Jerry retorted, “I can’t fix this mess. I can’t even contract it out for a reasonable cost. Nothing within the budget…” He paused, his expression suspicious, before adding, “You knew this! You left me with a Gordian knot to untie, didn’t you!”

Charlie scoffed and said, “You people are so paranoid, and I don’t blame you, but you are simply inheriting the mess I created, just as I had to deal with what my predecessor had done…I don’t think any thought went into the logistical nightmare I had to deal with forty years ago. Do you get my point?”

“We people? What does that mean?”

“It’s too late to file an HR complaint, Jerry. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Jews are great problem solvers…”

Jerry retorted, “You can’t leave me with the mess you made, your only defense being a racial insult—”

Charlie interrupted, “Actually, that is exactly what I’m doing, but your being Jewish is a strength because your people are like mine, the Irish, in accepting a challenge and facing it. The only difference between our ancestors is that yours travelled the world, picking up knowledge along the way, whereas the Irish just sat there and stewed on nothing. I envy you Jerry because your people have had a wild ride and, despite some serious setbacks, the Jewish race is far ahead of the Irish…or anyone else to be honest.”

Jerry rolled his eyes and between pursed lips said, “So, you really trust me to carry the baton, to fix the mess you created as you tried to keep up with the evolving digital world?”

“Naturally. Remember when I hired you?”

Jerry nodded.

“I spoke about your unique ethnic background, which I thought made you especially qualified for your position. I was thinking of this day, Jerry.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” 

Charlie shook his head slowly before saying, “Jews aren’t the only people who can plan for the unforeseeable, otherwise you’d be running the world rather than just dominating the scientific and entertainment sectors.”

Jerry’s head was slowly nodding as he said, “I guess you have confidence in me?”

Charlie scoffed yet again and said, “It’s my job to know the people I work with. You will make me look like a fool, a possibility you have already alluded to, but you will also solve the problem of connecting our truck drivers—this is where the software meets the real world—using this 5G technology.”

Jerry abruptly stood and extended his hand. “You are a coarse man, Charlie. You would have made a good Jew.” 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie felt pretty good about his last commute to the office. It had been a rewarding week, getting his replacements up to speed on current and planned facilities projects. He’d also learned that he wasn’t reviled by his coworkers, as he might have assumed from top management’s comments, but was instead perceived as plain spoken, a trait that rankled people and motivated them to complain but not to openly hate him. He was okay with that. The truth was that it was time for him to move out of the office he’d occupied for forty years. He’d never wanted to be a manager. What he loved was solving puzzles—jigsaw puzzles, anagrams, crossword puzzles, sudoku, and of course logistical problems involving thousands of people moving commodities between hundreds of cities in trucks and on railways. Not that he would be spending his time solving the New York Times crossword. He’d already been contacted by several consulting firms and even offered a position teaching part-time at a business school. Charlie Worth wasn’t being put out to pasture, not for several more years.

The morning commute went smoothly. He laughed at himself for seeing so many ghosts of Christmas past in his rearview mirror, glad to see what could have been a stressful week ending on a high note. There was an informal send-off in the lunch room just before quitting time that included alcohol and a visit from the CEO, who spoke humorously of expecting to have to pay Charlie an outrageous consultant fee to get his unfiltered opinion in the future. Charlie didn’t mind people poking fun at his coarse personality (to use Jerry’s term) now that he was leaving. Retirement was a good time to clear the air and make a fresh start. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Charlie was tied up in traffic on his way home and, waiting impatiently to find a way forward, he glanced in the rearview mirror. The Mercedes behind him was at a politically correct distance (the thought made Charlie laugh aloud)—neither jammed against his bumper nor hanging back so far you could park a Greyhound bus between them. What got his attention was the driver of the black sports sedan. 

He was looking at himself in the rearview mirror.

Adjusting the rectangular mirror didn’t change the view, so Charlie laughed aloud again and said to himself, “Here we go again! Another mistaken identity in the mirror. I can’t goddamn believe it!”

Charlie responded to his own uncertainty sarcastically. “What did you expect? It isn’t that you’re hallucinating—the brain can play tricks on us at times, like all week. That driver is just an old guy like you, maybe it’s his last day at work too?”

“Yeh, that’s probably what it is, but I’ve never had so many similar experiences—”

Charlie’s alter-ego cut him off. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to adjust your behavior, after so many people speaking honestly about their perceptions of you over a period spanning decades.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Charlie retorted.

The other Charlie scoffed and replied, “The worst thing in life is to be perceived as someone you aren’t. Do you get my drift?”

Charlie nodded.

“So, you have a lot of issues, Charlie, starting with thinking of yourself as some kind of self-made man but nevertheless feeling inadequate, not quite up to speed, not qualified to use the executive washroom. Am I right?”

Charlie nodded again.

“I think you got the message from your co-workers: You are a pain in the ass but not quite an asshole, so let’s move on. We are way past—”

A horn blared, breaking Charlie’s train of thought, urging him to move forward a few feet.

“This week was a lot of fun, don’t you think?”

Charlie nodded again.

“Let’s keep it up as best we can. I know what you’re thinking, that this retirement experience was like attending Easter service and rededicating your life to Christ, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Just try and remember that you will always have to answer to—”

The goddamn horn blared again, interrupting Charlie’s thought. He wanted to flip-off the driver behind him but had to concentrate on creeping ahead, negotiating the intersection, avoiding blocking it when traffic came to another standstill. 

Charlie instinctively looked at the rearview mirror and, when it showed an elderly man with gray hair, he adjusted it and gazed into his own eyes. He finished his alter-ego’s statement. “I will always have to answer to myself. Like right now. I like the way it feels to retire with nobody wishing I was dead. That’s a nice feeling. I have to find a way to maintain this agreeable sensation of co-existence when I move into my next career. I get it.”

Traffic cleared and Charlie accelerated to a breathtaking speed of 30 mph. 

Looking at himself in the mirror, Charlie said, “Can I change who I am? After twenty years of HR being on my back because of my unedited comments, I think the answer is ‘No,’ so let’s cut out all that turning over a new leaf crap. At any rate, I won’t have to deal with employees anymore—”

The other Charlie interjected, “You’re right about that. It could be a lot worse. For example, if you take the teaching job, you’ll be dealing with college students, young people with sensitivities you can’t even imagine. You wouldn’t last two weeks in an academic environment.”

Charlie thought about that as traffic moved along in fits and starts. He glanced in the mirror at a face he barely recognized, puffy cheeks starting to collapse towards his jaw, eyes buried in slumping and swollen sockets, thoughtful wrinkles now permanently written into his brow and emanating from the corners of his mouth. His facial examination was interrupted by a blast from the horn of the car behind. The rearview mirror wasn’t positioned to verify his suspicion that the same person was still following him, expressing frustration with their slow progress through the medium of high-decibel outbursts. Without thinking, Charlie’s right fist flew up with the middle finger extended. He retracted it immediately.

“Great job, asshole,” his alter-ego said in the mirror.

Charlie responded by shooting across the intersection as the light turned red, his car partly blocking the crosswalk. Before he could formulate a response, his head was slammed into the headrest, accompanied by the muted sound of plastic crumpling. Dazed but uninjured, Charlie opened his door and climbed out of his car, annoyed to see traffic moving along now. He walked uncertainly towards the vehicle that had rear-ended him, contemplating his own contribution to the accident. His indecent gesture may have been the catalyst for this driver’s frustration reaching the boiling point. Charlie wondered, as he approached the vehicle, if this was a reminder from the universe that he should be less impulsive in the real world. The unremitting flow of cloistered work, which had defined his career, punctuated by a series of social blunders, had left Charlie uncomfortable dealing with people, preferring the company of spread sheets and the data they contained. He scoffed and knocked on the driver’s window, not knowing what to expect.

The window lowered, to reveal a white guy about Charlie’s age, wearing a blue, pin-striped suit. The airbag hadn’t deployed. 

“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.

The bald head nodded and thin lips, still trembling from the experience, said, “I thought traffic was moving and I could make the light…”Remembering his conversation with himself in the mirror, Charlie smiled amicably and replied, “We all make mistakes. That’s why we have insurance.”

Review of “The Changeling” by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

I’m going to follow the advice of the author, as conveyed through the protagonist who is himself a novelist and literary critic, and review the novel I read rather than second-guess the author. Thus, I will not comment on the well-known tendency of Ōe to disguise memoirs about his own life as novels, including the tragic death of a director-friend with an uncanny resemblance to the antagonist in this novel. Instead, I will focus on the novel as translated into English from Japanese.

The prose is overly wordy, to the point of being difficult to read at times. Punctuation and grammatical errors are exceedingly rare, however, so I was able to slog through it to the end. It starts with the antagonist’s death and his reaching out to Kogito (the protagonist) through a series of tape recordings. This was very cleverly done and promised to be a very interesting discussion of aging and death. (Both Kogito and his lifelong friend, Goro, were approaching 65.)

But then the entire thread was dropped like a hot potato, and the story shifted to random musings about an event in the past, when Kogito and Goro were teenagers, an event that had already been briefly described and so was no longer a source of anticipation for the reader. Nevertheless, this event was repeated in painful detail as flashbacks while Kogito was reflecting on his life without the benefit of Goro speaking to him from beyond the grave. I really missed Goro.

The event (referred to as THAT by the characters) was nothing more than the kind of misunderstanding that occurs between young men looking for excitement and having a brush with criminal types. Yet, the author got hung up on it and wouldn’t let it go. There was also a drawn-out description of a previous futile and pathetic display of violence by Kogito’s father, again with no dramatic consequences. Just plain boring.

Then Kogito and Goro are both dropped from the story with no closure of any of their reflections or even personal relationship, leaving far more issues unresolved than were examined (much less addressed). The third-person perspective shifts to Chikashi, Kogito’s wife and Goro’s sister (although the author seems to be confused about whether she is younger or older than her brother). This last chapter, which is called the epilogue (I guess because of the shift in POV), reads as if each section was written without reviewing previous sections, after several weeks had passed. I had the distinct impression that the author just wanted to finish the book at all costs. (Maybe he had a book contract deadline.)

For example, in his haste to address (but not resolve) all of the issues that were brought up in the story, Ōe has Chikashi make a list of how points in her life compared to the main character in a children’s story (Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak). He even switches to first-person narration by Chikashi, interwoven with flashbacks of undisclosed chronological age or duration. It was a bit confusing. The entire book ends with her reflecting on this list, which I suppose allows a third-person (i.e. not Kogito or Goro) to throw in their two-cents worth. However, her discussion didn’t contribute to the discourse on death and growing old, suicide, friendship, and many other cans of worms that were opened but left lying about. It just repeated the same fragmentary data points.

The literary theory attributed to Sendak, tossed into the mix in the epilogue, only confused matters more since it was presented by a non-literary person (by Chikashi’s own admission) and was fragmentary and allusive at best. I looked “Reiterative Divergence” up, along with the other literary references used in the book, including many to the author’s own works (attributed to Kogito). I liked that technique and I’ve done it myself.

Viewed from the perspective of a work of fiction, I cannot recommend this book. It’s just too long, repetitive, lacking a plot (required for a novel) or character development, and incomplete.

However, if I do what Ōe himself opposes through Kogito and treat this, not as what is purported to be, a novel, but instead as a memoir written during an emotionally difficult time (the possible suicide of his good friend), then I can compare it to The Obscene Bird of the Night, by José Donoso. This exercise makes it readable although it still falls far short of Donoso’s nightmarish tale of poverty, schizophrenia, and depression in Chile. Reading the author’s mind in this scenario (like Goro’s multiple versions of THAT) it still comes up short because the pain and loss felt by Kogito and Chikashi, not to mention the mental anguish suffered by Goro, is never presented fully; how can it be when the story jumps around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

The Changeling wasn’t sold as a memoir, a genre I generally don’t read because they aren’t FICTION. Authors and publishers shouldn’t get away with false advertising any more than doctors or lawyers.