Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Singular infinitesimal Variations on Thor Garcia’s Only Fools Die of Heartbreak
By Jim Chaffee
People try to tell you what can and can’t be written, what can and can’t be published. It’s a battle to enforce a way of seeing the world. Thank heavens, there’s always been a few who’ve been willing to spit in the face of that thinking…
—A Sun in Every Lake
Drunk, you stagger through a late night downpour to a bar where a group of people you’ve never met sit talking and drinking. You enter the bar and sit with the strangers, misinterpreting their every move as you flirt with one of the women. Without warning, one of the men beats you to an oblivion beyond your alcohol induced stupor. The bartender throws you out.
In the post-Manson Los Angeles days of Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, of the John Holmes murder trial and McMartin Preschool sexual mass hysteria witch trial, of the Night Stalker, your best friend lives a life of contrast to yours. His family is stable; they live in a big house in the better part of town. He attends a military academy and graduates from West Point. Later he tells you that his sister, who had initiated you to petting, performs fellatio on groups of his classmates, that his parents divorced and his father had a sex change and lives as a woman in the house which has become a ruin in a slum. Your friend goes off to Somalia.
Experiential landmines litter the treacherous dreamscape of Thor Garcia’s collection of short stories, Only Fools Die of Heartache. In its minutiae it is reminiscent of a Bosch post apocalyptic vision, a society that self-destructed sometime in the 1970s or 1980s but still stands like a zombie, lifelessly animated without an inner core, able to infect living nations with the propaganda of its pop culture, a self-parodying celebration of mediocrity, of unimaginative, derivative cliché considered high art. It is, of course, the US, viewed at times from within but most often through the Kafkaesque lens of expatriate life in Prague.
Most of the bizarre characters inhabiting Thor Garcia’s world are American, though plenty of Eastern Europeans add chromatic variation. The Eastern Europeans seem to realize they live in a ruin, most especially the Czech, but the Americans are the unaware denizens of the zombie society, the smoking ruins of an inevitable dead zone given their worshipful cult of the Founding Fathers, canonized mythical figures based on a group of lying white supremacists proclaiming liberty and equality for all even as they embraced slavery and set up a plutocracy that lasted until Andrew Jackson broke the political hegemony in the election of 1828. The canonized saints such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and most of the others were at best ambitious liars and mediocre intellects, clear from their writings which most citizens revere and few read with care, if at all. There were a handful of exceptional intellects. Hamilton, for one, who set up the first central bank, and especially Franklin, a petty asshole whose wife died alone of a stroke while he courted younger women in France and who only joined the American revolution after the British mocked his attempt to become a member of their minor royalty. Jefferson was so inept he died bankrupt on his deathbed, depending on friends to buy his concubine out of slavery. A racist who did not believe blacks were equal to whites, Jefferson did believe they might be human. Of course, he is famous for penning the hypocritical public relations piece known as the Declaration of Independence, often mistaken by Americans (including Congressmen) as the Constitution. The benevolent slaveholder Madison was more understanding of the plight of the slaves he held; he thought it best that they be sent “back” to Africa. Washington’s ambition to steal and sell the land of indigenous peoples, which were protected by treaties with the British government, was assuaged by marrying a wealthy widow.
Reality is that the US was the place where the religiously insane were sent. This is evident in the history of witch trials in the US which began before the famous Salem trials (before the existence of the US as a nation) and continued into the 1980s with the outbreak of the sexual hysteria “daycare” witch trials that swept the United States and then leapt to a few other countries (outside Europe and Asia) which were quick to quash the irrational exercise in religious insanity. The US continues to export its cultish organized superstitions along with its childish culture, contaminating the world. The country remains a museum and an incubator of organized superstitions.
Garcia, however, is not a political writer. He is more a reflecting parabolic antenna objectively focusing the signals he perceives. He illustrates the nature of the US with character profiles and events unblemished by the political and economic superstitions that are labeled ideologies, though he does at least once state the opinion that judges and politicians are "not bothering anymore with the Constitution," which begs the question that they ever did, a fallacy easily remedied by reading uncensored US history. Of course, the Constitution and other writings of the Holy Founding Fathers are much like the Bible, which is to say malleable. Such lapses on Garcia’s part not frequent.
What Garcia reflects is the inherent instability of the nation socially, in its political institutions, and in its anti-reasoning culture. These themes are more pronounced in The News Clown. The New York Times and Washington Post as semi-official state media, for example, which list can be augmented with Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC as well as the less partisan media outlets that all entertain select audiences with censored versions of news from within the box.
On food: "I knew they were eating badly in America, chemicals and hormones and toxicity and fecal matter in almost all the food products." One can surmise that soon shit sandwiches will be more than a metaphor in the land of outrageous food cults.
In The Day Michael Jackson Died, while the protagonist tries to get into the pants of an openly anti-Semitic Russian woman, he watches a group of drunken Americans calling black immigrants from Africa who are barkers for whore houses "niggers." He writes, "Over the past decade or so he had begun to treat his Americanism like a small, annoying dog that would not stop following him around — neither proud nor particularly ashamed of it, yet not ready to kick it to the curb once and for all." Of course, when the blacks respond to the racist jibes, the Americans come back with trash talk from within the national box in the tradition of "my dad can beat up your dad," befitting of their mental ages. "America’s the greatest. Don’t fuck around, we’ll bomb you. Most freedom of any country ever." Aping their buffoon politicians and news clowns with meaningless words like "freedom." For example, Ted Cruz speaking to a group of "conservatives" said, "There are two things I have unabiding faith in: One is a benevolent God who loves each and every one of us, and Number 2 is the American people who love liberty and opportunity unlike any nation, any people in the history of this world." When people like Cruz say shit like that, what you can be sure of is that "freedom" means their freedom to keep you from doing what they don’t want you to do. The "conservative" movement is mostly scared white people who want to impose on their fellow citizens the Old Testament proscriptions of a perverse monstrosity of a deity, an intolerant mass murderer and genocidal maniac. The monstrosity of the Old Testament deity was pointed out by Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers who was excommunicated for his sin of heresy.
What travel teaches is that Americans are among the least free people on the planet, by their own choice of dogmatic morality (from both the "left" and the "right"). The US is a commercial prison nation (a useful history to learn regards the practice of debt slavery, peonage and convict leasing in the US until 1955 as de facto slavery, leading to the question whether it continues with the criminal-justice system supporting for-profit prisons) cemented by individual debt. It also teaches how poorly educated Americans are. As Garcia puts it, "It could not be denied that the American people had changed. They had been systematically strangled by fear, and the result was that they were now stupider, meaner and more cowardly than before."
But then consider that Bush the Younger had an ivy league education at the graduate and undergraduate levels and was unable to speak or write coherently. Quite likely he was a functional illiterate. Ted Cruz illustrates the old saw, "You can educate a damned fool but you can’t make him smart," which is more properly translated as ceremonial certification does not imply education. The US is a nation of uneducable, functional illiterates who are dangerous because they have been duped as ceremonially-certified educated. Most labor in the US requiring the ability to read, think and reason, to understand science and engineering and to do even basic arithmetic, is performed by immigrants.
Thor introduces us to some Americans who are at least educable. The budding CPA More Pot II who besides dope is into what she calls "fire-up fucks," very little foreplay and six or seven minutes of frenzied in and out for which activity she keeps boxes of condoms under her bed. The brown baby, daughter of a black US soldier and German mother, is a former model with a graduate degree in chemistry from the Ivy League. She is also a former coke and crank whore who was busted for producing and distributing crank. She has a son who is a twisted heroin addict.
Garcia does make some comments about the capitalist economic system of the US, though it is not clear that he is clear as to what is capitalism. He is not alone in that. I have yet to meet or read anyone who can provide an operational definition of capitalism other than something about private financing. But what is it if the state owns the means of production and sells shares to the public? Beyond the words private financing, they string together more or less syntactically correctly symbols without semantic content involving words like free and market or enterprise, which they are unable to make operationally precise. It doesn’t take empirical observation to see there is little competition in a nation dominated by large corporations, but that is what is sometimes called "advanced capitalism" by Marxists. Garcia does see the US as a murderous thug nation. That is an objective judgment. He fears approaching doom looming on the horizon from financial bankruptcy due to national profligacy. That vague foreboding seems to grip many in the US, but there is no coherent, meaningful expression of it. Some seem haunted by detached snippets of the anti-scientific quasi-religious "philosophy" of Ludwig von Mises and his follower Murray Rothbard.
There is a basis of truth in the fear. The real source is the fact, noticed by most people in the US, that there is no there, there. Almost no one in the US contributes anything pertinent; listen to the commodities guru Jim Rogers to hear this plaintiff cry. What exists there is a financial industry that grew up funding the "economy of production" that was the basis of wealth for the US from the time Americans learned to turn European science and engineering into products via labor. In 1995, the US stopped making its living by producing goods and began to live on sales of intangibles, selling to one another real estate, insurance and financial products. By 2000, the intangible sector led the manufacturing sector in profit. People sense this, but they don’t get it. I recommend reading "Can Numbers Ensure Honesty" by Mary Poovey, a talk she presented in 2002 to the International Congress of Mathematicians, published in the Notices of the AMS, January 2003 (available free online from the American Mathematical Society).
The sad truth is that there are few Americans who have the ability to comprehend Poovey’s article. This applies especially to politicians and journalists, two of the more ignorant classes of "educated" people in the country. They not only have little to no understanding of science or mathematics or technology, they are completely ignorant of the history of science and technology. That is as disquieting as their ignorance of the unofficial history of their own nation, both recent and going back to before the Revolutionary War, of European history, and of the writings of the "founding fathers" they worship. They throw around words whose meaning they have never analyzed, strings of meaningless symbols.
In The News Clown Garcia painted journalists with the disdain they deserve. In these stories, they play a more peripheral role. However, I offer the example of a black journalist who the "conservative" media holds as a sort of final word on Obama, a form of racism oblique to that particular segment of clowns. When asked why he hates the President in an interview, Mychal Massie said that the President was taking the country Communist. The fact is, Obama is a fascist militarist in the classical post-WWII tradition of both the Democratic and Republican Parties; fascist in the classical sense of intertwining corporations and government and of promoting policy with the requisite propaganda through semi-official media; militarist in building a bloated and policy-ineffectual military machine as a tool of fear through threat of destruction, a bully tactic that has yet to accomplish a single policy goal since the Korean War. The march to fascist militarism was given a giant boost by Reagan when he handed over the DOD budget to the so-called "defense industry" as part of his fiscal stimulus program, which also made for an expensive, ineffective military machine since most of the largess went to defense contractors for a permanent make-work jobs program. Bush the Elder tried to bring it to heel with the imaginary "peace dividend," but Clinton co-opted and expanded it, though he was timid for a militarist. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Garcia. It is background noise.
Massie would have made a useful foil in The News Clown by exploiting what was most pathetic in the interview. Like most news clowns, the interviewer didn’t ask his fellow clown just what the fuck he meant by Communism. Nor did he ask for reference to any point by point analysis by Massie or anyone else of precisely how it is that the President’s policies are or promote Communism. I suppose such is unnecessary as we are all educated, so we’ve all read Das Kapital, as well as the amended variations of Lenin and Trotsky and can wax poetic on dialectical materialism, right? So of course we all understand the Hegelian mystical gibberish that Marx inverted for his historical imperative, along with the differences between Marx’s theory of value and labor and that of Adam Smith, given we have all read An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as understand the effect that Newton’s theory of gravity’s power to predict accurately had on Smith who was unable to predict anything with his own "theory," a common issue with Economics. The word Communist is likely used by Massie in a purely pejorative, that is to say emotive, sense. I doubt the guy has even the vaguest notion of the objective structural tenants of Communism, but I await his technical essay spelling it out in detail.
This would be a singularly pathetic example were it not for the black Senator Tim Scott who claims that lowering taxes raises revenues, a bit of horseshit falsified by both Reagan and Bush the Younger. It shows that blacks can be every bit as ignorant as their white counterparts in the news world and in politics: ignorance is an equal opportunity malady, black and white, "liberal" and "conservative," whatever those two ridiculous labels might signify. Diversity in everything but stupidity, which is uniform. I have heard all sorts of news clowns and political buffoons go on about socialism without the foggiest notion of what it might actually entail. As a hint, social welfare programs are not socialism. What might qualify as socialized medicine in the US? Not Medicare or Obamacare, but certainly the military hospitals and the Veteran’s Administration hospitals. The idea that handing over medical care to a government-insurance industry coalition run by a cartel of insurance companies will control medical inflation is not only ludicrous, it is fascist, not socialist or Communist.
In the face of the not surprising information that diversity does not inflate education or awareness, Garcia’s apolitical observations can be quite refreshing, though believers in the ideology of America as world savior would not find it so. But take, "It’s a con, man — get it through your head. Always has been. Lies and endless 'America the great' talk over the decades, but Uncle Sam is always turning to the cheap stuff when things get the slightest bit tough. It’s just basic criminality, really. Gangsterism at the highest level."
You can’t get much more direct than that, and this despite the fact that Garcia is himself a news clown. In that quote his character is talking to your basic "liberal." "Ollie was pretending to be completely flipped. He was apparently still hoping for meaningful change within the political-economic framework as it existed. You know — a little tweaking and recalibration, with more attention paid to the 'moral element' and 'doing the right thing,' and a more appropriate and fair redistribution of the wealth and and and…'
The US is a thug nation, an international bully populated and governed by delusional militarists who are turning ever more tribal, going after each other. It is a pathological liar that believes its own lies. Watching the US self-destruct is not pretty, but it is amusing. How long can the citizens continue to scam each other and the rest of the world? The answer depends in part on how much the rest of the world longs to be scammed. Hopefully the instability of tribalism will kill the monstrosity once and for all on the international stage, but that does leave the question of who will fill the vacuum. Garcia shows we ought not want any nation to fill the gap, certainly not the Eastern Europeans and most especially not the Russians.
One thing that Garcia does hold up to the reader is the US’ inability to blatantly loot third world nations as it once did, as when the Marines looted the Haitian treasury or supported direct US corporate intervention in the politics of third world nations to steal resources as with the Marines fighting for United Fruit in Central America or the Navy aiding Panama in secession from Columbia. Now the US must proceed sanguinely in its efforts to steer events and cash flow its way, more subtle given it wants the world to see its military as a “global force for good.” This is in part why it has become so feckless with its military interventions in which a fast first strike becomes a bogged down insurgency that does not go its way. For example, the US handing the nation of Iraq over to enemy Iran, a trick on Cheney and Bush who were duped by Iranian intelligence agents. It is also why overtly militarist factions in the US want out of the UN.
There is an anti-militarist wing within the Republican Party tied to a splinter party. Within the Republican Party it was headed by Ron Paul. It is called the Libertarian Party, a misnomer given that Paul’s brand is nothing more than old fashioned gold-standard states’-rightism. Libertarians don’t believe in a need for any government. The closest thing to American Libertarianism would be the Posse Comitatus, a loosely affiliated movement (any affiliation but loose would be inconsistent with classical libertarianism) that accepts no authority higher than the county sheriff. The old Posse Comitatus seemed to have no idea of the economic underpinnings associated with classical libertarianism, namely that the “free market” is sufficient for civilized human interaction, a quasi-religious belief. Ron Paul hopes to pass the mantle to his son Rand, named after one of the silliest weavers of adult fantasy of the twentieth century, a woman who developed a “philosophy” of inverted Soviet Communism that demanded a belief in atheism, holding the mutually exclusive positions that the world is as we sense it and that science is ultimate truth. Though there are those who consider her a libertarian, her dogma that society must be controlled by censoring the arts as a propaganda tool, a notion borrowed from Soviet Communism, puts that mistake to bed.
At any rate Ron Paul believes that gold is a holy metal, a natural currency for The True Economy chosen by The Market. This belief is a superstitious reaction to the fear of impending financial doom discussed earlier. Paul claims to follow both von Mises and Hayek, a logically impossible position. Hayek was a monarchist who believed that democracy was antithetical to freedom, that libertarianism (not the state’s-rightism of Paul) was impossible and that the only guarantee of freedom is an economically liberal monarchy. Von Mises was a mystic who believed he had a direct connection to absolute truth and that therefore empirical verification of his “theories” was not only irrelevant but wrongheaded, since falsification is impossible no matter how far reality dares vary from his proscriptive writings. His follower Rothbard carried this to a logical absurdity, claiming that that the only possible monopoly is government, that it is impossible for corporations to create monopolies.
What Ron Paul doesn’t know is that the true successor of Economist von Mises is Economist Lambert O'Cu. If you haven't heard of him, it is because he writes in Portuguese. It is through him that Austrian economics has moved beyond the unnecessary pseudo-rational argumentation of the likes of the false Economist Rothbard. The truth is that not all gold is a natural currency for the True Economy. Only pure gold is true currency. Pure gold has never been in contact with any other element. In particular, pure gold cannot be refined. Nor is there is a scientific approach to determine whether gold is pure or obtained by refining, a consequence of the coarseness of atomic and molecular physics which is bullshit subject to falsification. Truth is not subject to empirical reality, as Ron Paul knows from reading von Mises. The work of O’Cu is based on text represented on pure gold plates (thought by crypto-linguists to be a pre-Latin form of what became the medieval Österreichische Kanzleisprache, a fact disputed by linguists who use more formal methods) that were translated using scrying glasses. Once translated, the tablets were removed by the marginal angel who had revealed them to O'Cu. The content of the tablets is a method for determining whether the gold is pure or refined, deemed to be alchemical from the middle ages.
Not all new clowns wear blindfolds. Garcia is aware. So is Glenn Greenwald, another expat. From Greenwald’s reporting we have learned that the most important revelation about US spying on other nations is that it is not about terrorism but is in good measure industrial espionage. That is what the US accuses China of doing, but the reality is that almost every other nation, China included, is more advanced technically and the US needs to steal their industrial secrets. One of the biggest secrets of the US is its incompetence in most areas of high technology (social networks are not high technology). The reason is that US citizens are backward in education, semiliterate and unable to reason. So it imports foreigners to do the heavy mental-lifting, in graduate schools, as professors, and in industry. However, the US does have the best propaganda (marketing) machine on the planet. That is something the Soviets never learned: having marvels of technology is worthless without the propaganda and finance. You don’t need to develop the most advanced technology, but technology that sells. The mediocre technological innovations rise to the top of the consumer heap for reasons having nothing to do with rational choice and everything to do with irrationality guided by well-financed propaganda. Grand sales pitches and ruthless destruction of competition are the lynchpin of western "advanced capitalism," not "free markets" (whatever those might be) and competition. The US learned that lesson by watching the Soviets defeat Hitler (at great cost: around twenty-two million Soviet dead) while it slipped in and saved Western Europe from the Soviets, claiming it was freeing them from the Germans. It seems that Eastern Europe has not learned that lesson.
There is serious writing in these pieces. In it’s savage satire, it sometimes reminds me of Gilbert Sorrentino, especially the story A Sun in Every Lake which is as good a send up of writing, writers and the publishing industry as I have read. The interview with Peter B. Haling in the story is extravagantly loony in a style reminiscent of the best of Thomas Wolfe. Energetically hilarious to the point of frantic exuberance. I wish I could quote the whole interview here, but I will only give this example, with LLF the interviewer and PBH the interviewee.
LLF: Let’s move on to your critics. Surely you’ve seen some of it — the complaints about the vulgarity, the Manichaeism, the non-conformism to the prevailing approved trends, the misogyny, the misanthropy, the ambiguity, the hedonism, the pro-substance-abusism, the stubborn refusal to bring matters to a tidy, easily understood conclusion…
PBH: Sounds pretty good to me. Yes, I am happy if I have written a book that inspires feelings of the kind you describe. Most of these mealy-mouthed soft boys can only digest what’s already been pre-chewed. They don’t know how to read, and they don’t know what’s in front of them. They want someone to get married and fall in love, or get pregnant or go to rehab. The world, love and laughter is saved — a new hope prevails. If you deviate, they pout and cry and lash out like babies with a load of diarrhea in their trousers. They want punchlines — easily understandable, heartwarming baloney. In sum, they want you to die as a writer. It’s the curse of our times — of every time, I suppose.
Garcia scatters the serialized story The Apocalypse of Saint Cleo through the collection like the continuo in a set of Bach variations, amplified like the bass in the sort of cacophony he considers music. The book is a contrapuntal study in the variational calculus on themes of the US as a thug nation in a world of ghettoes. Czech are proclaimed the Mexicans of Europe. Apocalypse is a caricature of the world as trashy trailer park, amped up on a dystopian vision that makes Mad Max seem like the suburbs.
I think this book ought to be adopted as a text in every high school civics classroom in the US. At least it would be one non-propaganda piece.
I do have one quibble with Garcia. In one story, he goes through every football game he considers significant. But he leaves out the only football game I ever sat through, the 1970 Super Bowl in which Kansas City defeated Joe Kapp and the Minnesota Vikings. Who could forget the defensive line led by the superhero Buck Buchanan? It almost made me forget that the game of American football, like professional wrestling, is a masturbatory fantasia that might be more interesting were it to leave the closet.
As Peter B. Haling says, "Just stop me when you think I’ve started lying."
© Jim Chaffee 2013