By Cordelia Strube
The problem with liberals is that they’re no fun at parties. There are various reasons for this. In the first place, progressive types want people to progress (morally if not materially) and become better than they are. As a result they are less tolerant and forgiving of the dark side of human nature than your typical complacent conservative. Complacency isn’t an option for people who want to right wrongs and save the world from itself. Liberals care.
Reese Larkin, former Greenpeace activist, is a man who cares too much. This is a near fatal quality for a telemarketing manager, which job presupposes a level of insensitivity to others bordering on oblivion. But he is stretched further on the rack by his impending divorce, a fight over access to his children, the destruction of the environment, exploitation of third world labour, and an inability to find comfortable shoes or the right mattress.
And so he is no fun at parties.
“Let me ask you something,” Nick says, “do you sleep better being so fucking negative?” Reese has never heard Nick use such an expletive before. Nick is a model of self-control and salesmanship. He is not wearing his usual co-ordinated sock and tie arrangement but jeans and a V-necked sweatshirt which reveals his hairy chest. “Because it’s fucking tedious. We’re just trying to have a life here, share a few laughs.”
“Laughing is difficult if you can’t breathe.”
“If it happens, it happens, alright. We all burn, who gives a fuck?”
Reese notices a heightened redness to Nick’s complexion. “It won’t just happen,” he says. “It is happening. Global warming is killing off hundreds of thousands of people. The death toll will double in the next thirty years.”
“Listen to him, are you hearing me? We don’t care! People like you fuck with progress.”
“All that freaky weather in the news, you know droughts, floods, ice storms, avalanches. It’s all due to radical shifts in the way heat circulates around the planet.”
“Somebody turn him off,” Nick says, “or I’m going to do it.”
Reese is occasionally given to such outbursts. But most of the time he is a passive receiver of other people’s confessions, rants, and appeals for sympathy. The novel is a collage of such voices, with Reese as a walking buttonhole. He can’t go for a walk in the park, visit a store, or have something to eat at the Burger Palace without being intruded upon. And yet nothing anyone has to say to him is all that important, and there is no communication since Reese rarely responds. Indeed the voices of strangers are much like the hectoring voices in his head of childhood terrors like Mrs. Ranty and Scout Leader Igor. They similarly admit of no response, simply needling Reese with factlets concerning the destruction of the environment. Which makes them, in turn, the internalized equivalent of the headlines that run through the book like DeLilloesque white noise or the scrolling highlights running across the bottom of a cable news show. Mostly concerned with sensational stories of domestic violence or planetary cataclysms, they are heartbreaking and tragic but also garbage. And yet at the same time it all speaks to him and he speaks to it. He is a part of all this degraded environment. He appears on television, turning his accidental celebrity after killing a suspected terrorist into a soundbite. To him the meanest rag that blows connects in ways that lie too deep for tears.
A piece of newspaper blows against Reese’s leg. He tries to shake it off but it clings to him. Pulling it loose, he’s halted by a photo of Pamela Anderson, the woman famous for her breasts, who refers to them as “props.” He reads that she contracted Hepatitis C from sharing a tattoo needle with her former husband who belted her outside their Malibu home. The husband pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal abuse and was sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation. Pamela Anderson has won full custody of their children because of the abuse. Full custody.
Is the media really the vast echo chamber described by cultural critics, amplifying and repeating our personal anxieties? Or is the echo chamber in our heads? And if the latter, is the only way to inoculate oneself to turn off one’s personal receiver entirely? To not care? It’s all enough to make Reese yearn for “the innocence of perfect oblivion”: “The allure of annihilation is that it offers the ironclad assurance that, once dead, he will no longer have to care.”
Cordelia Strube makes an entertaining mosaic out of the spiraling chaos of Reese’s life and the incessant jumble of signals he has to navigate daily. Her style is to swiftly re-arrange fragments of larger narrative chunks gathered from events that take place at different times and in different places into chapter-size streams of present consciousness. Most of the time it works very well, but it also has a flattening effect that makes such seemingly important parts of Reese’s life as his relationship with a television actress and the death of his kid sister finally appear irrelevant. And the ending is too easy, pat, and clichéd an answer to the problems the rest of the novel poses. Central to those problems is Reese himself, the fact that he is, unavoidably, a part of everything he wants to avoid. And he knows it. He understands that hypocrisy isn’t just a defence mechanism but an essential part of modern life. Hence the allure of annihilation, which is something very different from a time-out in the great outdoors.
You wouldn’t want to live on Planet Reese. Clearly Reese himself has days when he would like to get off. But with her sharp eye, alert ear, and the humour and quick energy of her writing, Cordelia Strube nevertheless makes it a fun place to visit. A place with much to say about Planet Us.
Review first published online April 30, 2007.