Ben Dolnick, Accidental Fascist

Ben Dolnick is the contemporary master of a little-used freelancing device: the willingness to sell your soul for a pittance to draw attention for a forthcoming novel. Dolnick knew that nobody would read his latest book outside of his mother, his ex-girlfriend, the barista who humored his vaguely charming but obnoxious narcissism whenever he ordered a chai latte, and maybe a few former roommates who would buy his latest volume, The Ghost Notebooks, out of pity (and to prevent Dolnick, a resolute promoter-cum-novelist, from barraging them with endless texts urging them to attend every Dolnick reading within easy access of the L line).

Dolnick had written four previous books, which not many people had read outside of fatigued bookstore clerks who were obliged to read everything written by anyone who wrote and lived in the Brooklyn area. They rightly resented yet another ho-hum 300 page offering from another goddam white dude. “Haven’t these white men had their time?” they asked themselves. And some of them were white. And some of them were men. But it was not self-hatred that motivated their ennui, but rather the sense that something was severely missing within the publishing ecosystem. All who read in New York had become quite exhausted by the limitless and often superficial chronicles of white men so abundantly championed and repugnantly propped up as True Literature for many decades, even when the goods rarely matched the hype. Even though the VIDA warriors had exposed the bankrupt patriarchal bias that had fueled the publishing industry for far too many years, white males were still being published. But none of these bookstore clerks had ever encountered the likes of Ben Dolnick! Ben Dolnick would show them all that he was a white male novelist who mattered! Even though he had nothing much to say at all. Ben Dolnick would show them all that flip and superficial views on humankind still demanded a vast readership!

Faced with declining sales on his previous books, Dolnick considered changing his name to Jonathan, but was advised by his agent that this was not a good idea, as the literary world was quite fatigued with Jonathans in general. The Jonathans had stopped winning awards in recent years, although there were certain older men who believed that it was still 1962 who still wrote highly of them in the papers of record, even when the books in question still portrayed women as little more than one-dimensional doormats. With this intelligence, Dolnick adopted a winning strategy! He sought a blurb from Jonathan Safran Foer, believing that a hastily written sentence from this insufferable draw could win him the mass readership for which he had rightly toiled! Did not the fruits of his pen count for something? Surely, it must! For he had nothing else. He was a bespectacled white man in his mid-thirties who looked pretty much like any other bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn and he possessed a Weltanschauung that was virtually indistinguishable from any other bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn. It was tough, really tough, being a bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn. Dolnick, possessing little more than a generic look and a generic oeuvre, was in need of a new way to get his generic ideas and his generic fiction –most important fiction of our age! – into the hands of new readers.

Dolnick had a contact at The New York Times. They had just published an offensively superficial article on a Nazi written by a white male. Superficial articles about fascist white males written by white males were now the Gray Lady’s bread and butter. It aggravated people on Twitter and was a cheap tactic to keep the New York Times in the headlines. But Dolnick saw an opportunity! He cast aside his half-hearted liberalism (Who had he voted for in the last election? Dolnick could not recall.) and summoned his shaky understanding of Buddhism and pitched the valiant editors at The New York Times‘s Opinion page. Donald Trump! That would be the way in. Being a novelist, he did not have an especially deep or nuanced view about the political situation. He had never attended a rally. At times, it was difficult for him to identify the political party of a particular Senator, even when the television flashed those little Rs and Ds. Could they stand for something else? He knew many businesses that had R&D budgets and he did not know what this meant. Still, blindly stumbling into a situation had never stopped Dolnick before! He was a novelist! And novelists were supposed to imagine!

Dolnick knew little about Trump other than that the President was fond of red baseball caps, allcaps tweets, and was fond of referring to himself in the third person. Perhaps he could empathize with Trump by spending his time referring to himself in the third person. He did not have time to reread Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, but he dimly recalled a chapter on the banality of tense. Trusting his infallible white male memory, and not bothering to vet his ideas with his friends, Dolnick progressed anew with the trajectory of his article. He thought of innocuous metaphorical parallels. Baby pandas! Buddhism! Yes, this would win the doubters over! He began to write his article with relish. The words flowed fast. After 400 words, he took a break to rub one out and, after he had relieved himself, he came up with the phrase “Uniqlo-clad lump of meat.” Brilliant! That would show the world that he was more than just a superficial bespectacled white male writer from Brooklyn!

Dolnick had never seen Donald Trump as an enlightened figure before. But as he wrote the final paragraphs of his article, his pants saddled around his pale white legs like an old worn blanket waiting to be donated to Goodwill, Dolnick realized just how easy it was to sell his soul and how malleable his perspective could be. He could treat a man that most of the nation had perceived as a pathological liar and a dangerous madman and an illiterate speaker as a trusted friend, the trusted friend who would help move a few units of The Ghost Notebooks. For hawking books was the novelist’s new Faustian bargain these days. And who would actually care? The editors at the Times, much to Dolnick’s delight, signed on enthusiastically for Dolnick’s hot take – and Dolnick had certainly been quite hot and warm with himself during the act of writing. They slapped Dolnick on the back and said to themselves, “Dolnick, my man! You are a genius! This is the stuff of journalism!” And as more Muslims were banned from entering the United States, and as the middle-class was further eroded with another hastily passed act of legislation, Dolnick smiled, looked into the mirror, and took in the moment of blissfully ignorant Zen. If you were white, male, bespectacled, and living in Brooklyn, you could pretty much publish anything you wanted, even if you knew nothing whatsoever about the topic you were writing about.

A Bright Shining Lie (Modern Library Nonfiction #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: West with the Night.)

Young scrappy soldiers came to walk the villages and the jungles and the ricepaddies from all hopeful parts of America, itching to step into boots that matched the size and the bravery of their heroic fathers. They hungered to prove their manhood and their patriotism even as their spirits dwindled and their moral core dissipated as it became common knowledge that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. They came home in dishonor and disgrace, losers who had sacrificed their bodies and minds and souls in the name of failed American exceptionalism, and they were left to rot by their government and sometimes by their fellow citizens.

Much as the shellshocked men in World War I returned to their native soil facing similar indifference to their trauma and their pain, as memorably chronicled in Richard Aldington’s brutally mordant novel Death of a Hero, the men who served in Vietnam learned that the best years of their lives had been little more than a cruel joke, even when they defended napalm-soaking sorties that burned vast horrifying holes into villages and hospitals and fields and homes and schools that happened to be situated near a hopped up Huey often manned by a pilot who was losing his mind. Their collective shellshock was as commonplace as heartbreak and many dozen times more devastating. The Vietnam vets, who were all very brave and worthy of the same valor afforded the Greatest Generation (but never received their due), suffered PTSD and traumatic injuries and severe psychological damage. Every day of their lives after the war was a new battle against painful inner turmoil that spread to their families and their friends and their loved ones, stretching well beyond the poisoned polyester of the flapping American flag itself. It seemed that nobody wanted to hear their stories, much less any news about the one million civilians and Viet Cong soldiers who were slaughtered above the 17th parallel or the estimated 741,000 who died below it or the 312,000 people who died by direct order of various governments or the 273,000 Cambodians and the 62,000 Laotians.

They all died, and none of them needed to, because the conflict had escalated through the foggy hubris of war and the dogged jingoism of three U.S. Presidents and the exacting Pentagon number crunchers who believed they could will their analytical acumen into a guaranteed victory even when the truth was fudged and altered and far too frequently ignored and contemned. For all the Pentagon’s professed understanding, the imperious powers that be could not comprehend that the massive influx of American supplies would be plundered and reused by resourceful Viet Cong soldiers with a very long memory of history who learned how to take out Bell UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers from the ground. They carried out the strategic hamlet program without providing basic needs to the very villagers who were supposed to be their allies. Most disastrously, the American interventionists severely underestimated the damage that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was doing to South Vietnamese loyalty, culminating in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which persecuted religion in a manner shockingly similar to ongoing present-day American indignities against Muslims.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people died in the Vietnam War. That’s close to the entire population of Chicago or the total population of Jamaica. It is the entire population of Nebraska. It is the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Alaska. It is the combined population of Iceland, Fiji, and Cyprus. It is a staggering and heartbreaking sum by any stretch of the imagination that should cause any human being to stop in his tracks and ponder how so much bloodshed could happen. Those who would blithely dismiss the study of all this as a priapic man’s game to keep close tabs on some completely insignificant item of celebrity gossip usually cannot comprehend the full scale of such unfathomable devastation and our duty to closely examine history so that such a bewildering bloodbath never happens again. And yet, even with the strong reception of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, the Vietnam War remains one of those subjects that Americans do not want to talk about, even when it epitomizes the toxic mix of Yankee Doodle Vanity, bureaucratic shortsightedness, savage masculinity, unchecked hypocrisy, credibility gaps, imperialist dishonesty, and cartoonish escalation of resources — all pernicious checkboxes that still mark American policy today.

We wouldn’t know of this American complicity without the invaluable work of reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were raw and young and brash and sometimes foolhardy in their dispatches. It was undoubtedly their dogged free-wheeling approach, a fierce pursuit of journalistic truth that is unthinkable to such useless and unfathomably gullible New York Times company men like Richard Fausset and Peter Baker today, which caused Americans to ask questions of the war and that eventually led Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers (which Sheehan himself would later acquire for the New York Times in 1971). The quest for understanding, especially in the conflict’s early years, proved just as intoxicating to these sleep-deprived and overworked journos as it did to the soldiers who kept coming back for further tours of duty. All wondered why common sense had been so rashly and cheaply capitulated.

Sheehan and Halberstam followed in the footsteps of such famous war reporters as Francois Sully, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, and Horst Faas. (William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and vivacious account of this period, although not without its minor liberties. A 1988 Neil Sheehan profile that Prochnau wrote for The Washington Post, offering some useful carryover material for his book, is also available online.) The two men arrived in Vietnam separately in 1962. They had both attended Harvard, but had arrived at the hallowed university through altogether different routes. Sheehan came from a working-class Irish background and lucked out with a scholarship. By the time Sheehan arrived in Saigon, he was a reformed alcoholic and a tortured man who had learned the fine art of carving extra hours out of any day, a talent he had honed while running a dairy farm as a kid. Sheehan worked for the penny-pinching UPI wire service and, much as a contemporary journalist is expected to write, shoot and cut video, and preserve his crisp telegenic form if he wishes to hold onto his job, he was often responsible for logistics extending well beyond the writing and transmission of copy.

Halberstam was a tall and lanky man from a middle-class Jewish background, but decidedly brasher than Sheehan. His trenchant reporting of civil rights struggles in the South attracted the notice of The New York Times‘s James Reston. Halberstam was a formidable if slipshod workhorse, banging out thousands of words per day that often had to be shoehorned into coherent shape by the exasperated Times team. But Halberstam’s reporting in the Congo was strong and gallant enough to land him in Saigon.

Sheehan and Halberstam would become friends and roommates, working very long days and often falling asleep at their typewriters. They chased any source that led them to demystify the war, but they were both seduced by a man named John Paul Vann, who became the subject of Sheehan’s journalistic masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie. Halberstam would write two books from his Vietnam experience: The Making of a Quagmire, a short and useful 1965 volume that faded into obscurity within a decade, and The Best and the Brightest, a juicy and detailed top-down account of bureaucratic blunder that Stephen Bannon even pushed onto every member of the Trump transition team in February 2017 (as reported by the New York Times‘s Marc Tracy). But Neil Sheehan, who carried on with a quieter and more methodical approach than Halberstam’s gigantic and flagrant “us vs. them” style, rightly decided that more time and considerable rumination and careful reporting was the way in. He wisely believed that John Vann was the key to understanding American involvement and the mentality behind it. The book would consume sixteen years of Sheehan’s life. And for all the anguish that Sheehan suffered through that long and painful period, we are incredibly lucky to have it.

John Vann was a wildly energetic colonel from Norfolk, Virginia who could survive on four hours of sleep and sometimes none at all. He had built a military career on the “Vann luck.” He would willfully fly aircraft through a suicidal fusillade of fire and drive down dangerous roads that were known to be mined and patrolled by the Viet Cong. He would miraculously survive. Like Robert McNamara, he was very certain of how to win the war. But unlike McNamara, Vann did not rely on problematic data, but rather the know-how of knowing people and the pragmatic logistics that he picked up from his experience in the battlefield, often talking with and distributing candy to the South Vietnamese citizens suffering under the Diem regime. It was through such gestures that Vann avoided a few attempts on his life. Vann was savvy enough to court the trust and admiration of reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam pining for a few dependable truth bombs, to the point where the reporters pooled in their resources to buy him an engraved cigarette box when Vann left Vietnam the first time. But Vann would find a way back a few years later as an Agency for International Development official. He portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog whose candid bluster had prevented him from advancing to general, whose near twenty years of service and bravery and experience had simply not been heeded. But the truth of his checkered life, carefully concealed from many who knew him, told the real story.

Sheehan is both sensitive and meticulous in telling Vann’s take. We cannot help but admire Vann’s dogged work ethic and charisma in the book’s first section, as we see Vann attempting to bring the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army known to recklessly attack insurgents under Diem) together with the then comparatively diminutive American presence in an attempt to win the war. Vann hoped to train the ARVN to better fight against the guerillas, but faced indifference from Huỳnh Văn Cao, an AVRN colonel to whom Vann was appointed an adviser. Cao often liked to don the bluster of a general. We see Vann being kind to the common soldiers, whether peasants or seasoned regulars, but we also see Vann as an egomaniac willing to overstep his rank to get results. One of Vann’s guides to negotiating the tricky turmoil of Vietnam was a 1958 novel called The Ugly American, which depicted American diplomats in a fictitious nation named Sarkhan that proved incredibly arrogant towards the culture, customs, and language of the people. The book would inspire Kennedy so much that he had sent copies of the book to every American Senator. (The Peace Corps would later become a Kennedy campaign talking point turned into a reality.) Vann would take an altogether different lesson from the book in attempting to turn Cao to his side by appealing to his ego and by flattering him. But in practice, Vann’s benign puppeteering as military command could result in disaster, such as a July 20, 1962 battle in the lower delta, in which Cao resisted Vann’s efforts to load helicopters with a second reserve to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from escaping by flatly declining the request. Such stalling allowed the Viet Cong more opportunities to pluck American ordnance, transforming .50 caliber machine guns into antiaircraft weapons through tireless ingenuity.

This communicative combativeness between the Americans and the ARVN would reach its nadir with the Battle of Ab Pac, which is one of the most gripping sections of Sheehan’s book. Vann would watch helplessly from a L-19 Bird Dog surveiling the battlefield as the AVRN delayed sending troops, not knowing that the Viet Cong had intercepted radio transmissions using stolen American equipment. This allowed the Viet Cong to strike hard and accurately against task forces that were effectively separated and caught adrift, leaving them open to attack. The American Hueys disregarded Vann’s orders and were hit by the Viet Cong. Vann, whose domineering tone could be off-putting, was unable to send M-113 carriers across the canals to save the remaining soldiers and reinforce the territory. Vann, increasingly desperate and flustered by the ARVN’s recalcitrance in advancing, approached Captain Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN man holding up support who said that he refused to take Americans, and ordered Robert Bays to “shoot that rotten, cowardly son of a bitch right now and move out.” The battle became the Viet Cong’s first major victory.

By presenting the facts in this manner, Sheehan leaves us with many lingering questions. Was Vann a somewhat more informed version of American interventionist arrogance? Was American might, in Vann’s obdurate form, needed to atone for serious deficiencies from Diem and the ARVN? Even if the ARVN had permitted the Americans to have more of a commanding hand, would not the Viet Cong have eventually secured a victory comparable to Ab Pac? Even at this stage in the book, Vann remains strangely heroic and we can sympathize with his frustration. But in allowing us to vicaroiusly identify with Vann, Sheehan slyly implicates the reader in the desire to win by any means necessary.

And then Sheehan does something rather amazing in his portrait of Vann. In a section entitled “Taking on the System,” he broadens the scope to the soldiers and the command contending with Vann’s aggressiveness (while likewise exposing the hubris of civilian leadership under McNamara, along with the bomb-happy pacification strategy of Victor Krulak and the foolhardy optimism of MACV commander Paul Harkins). And we begin to see that the Vietnam quagmire, like any intense battle for victory and power, was absolutely influenced by strong and truculent personalities, which young reporters like Halberstam and Sheehan were rightfully challenging. Unable to get the top dogs to understand through meetings and communiques, Vann began to weaponize the press against Harkin’s reality distortion field — this as the Diem regime’s increasing persecution of the Buddhists revealed the vast fissures cracking into South Vietnamese unity. Sheehan begins to insert both Halberstam and himself more into the narrative. With Vann now retired from the Army, we are rightly left to wonder if he was indeed as indispensable as many believed him to be.

But then Sheehan backtracks to Vann’s past. And we begin to see that he had been living a lie. He pulled himself from an impoverished Virginian upbringing, where he was an illegitimate child raised by a wanton alcoholic mother, and married a respectable woman named Mary Jane. But while stationed as an Army officer, he cultivated a taste for underage girls and hushed up both his numerous affairs and the allegations, even persuading Mary Jane to lie for him during a court-martial for statutory rape and adultery while also training himself to pass a lie detector test. While stationed in Vietnam the second time, Vann could not control his sexual appetite. He carried on numerous affairs, devoting his attentions quite ardently with two mistresses who were half his age, one of whom had his child, and keeping the two women largely in the dark about each other for a sustained period. His predatory behavior presents itself as a bigger lie more unsettling than the Harkin-style prevarications that resulted in needless deaths.

In the end, the “Vann luck” could not hold out. His death in 1972, at least as portrayed by Sheehan, is almost anticlimactic: the result of a helicopter crashing into a series of trees. As Vietnam changed and the American presence grew with unmitigated enormity, Vann’s apparent know-how could not penetrate as an AID commander, even though Sheehan depicts Vann having many adventures.

A Bright Shining Lie isn’t just an epic history of Vietnam. It also reveals the type of conflicted and deeply flawed American personality that has traditionally been allowed to rise to the top, influencing key American decisions, for better or worse. I read the book twice in the last year and, particularly in relation to Vann’s obstinacy and his abuse of women, I could not help but see Donald Trump as a more cartoonish version of Vann’s gruff and adamantine bluster. But the present landscape, as I write these words near the end of 2017, a year that has carried on with an endless concatenation of prominent names revealed as creeps and abusers of power, is now shifting to one where a masculine, wanton, and ultimatum-oriented approach to command is no longer being tolerated. And yet, even after war has devastated a nation through such a temperament, it is possible for those who are ravaged by violence to be forgiving. In 1989, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for two profiles published in The New Yorker (these are collected in the volume After the War Was Over). In his trip to North Vietnam, Sheehan is baffled by the farmers and the villagers showing no bad blood to Americans:

I encountered this lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North and kept asking for an explanation. The first offered was that the Vietnamese had never regarded the entire American people as their enemy. The American government — “the imperialists” — had been the enemy; other Americans, particularly the antiwar protesters, had been on the Vietnamese side. This did not seem explanation enough for people like the farmer on the road to Lang Son. He had suffered dearly at the hands of Americans who had not been an abstract “imperialist” entity. One afternoon in a village near Haiphong, when Susan and I were with Tran Le Tien, our other guide-interpreter, we were received with kindness by a family who lost a son in the South. On the way back home onto Hanoi I said to Tien that thee had to be more to this attitude than good Americans versus bad Americans. “It’s the wars with China,” Tien said. I decided he was right.

In other words, the enemy in war is the one that has most recently caused the greatest devastation. While the North Vietnamese’s forgiving character is quite remarkable in light of the casualties, perhaps it’s also incumbent upon all nations to be on the lookout for the character flaws in failed men who lead us into failed wars so that nothing like this ever has to happen again. Men do not have all the answers they often claim to possess, even when they look great on paper.

Next Up: Lawrence Gowing’s Vermeer!

The Limits of Moral Depravity (NaNoWriMo #9)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: The Intake (Chapter 8)

Six years before, Dottie and I were sitting on the black leather couch as the television blared and the anchors tried to make incantatory sense of the madness the world was welcoming. There had been another mass shooting. The worst in American history. Just like the others had been the worst in American history. 426 people had been shot in Atlanta over the course of three hours. It had been three white men this time. The lone gunmen were learning that they didn’t have to be so alone. Even after this, and many other deadly sprees, the calls for gun control had fallen upon deaf opportunistic ears. Atlanta had seemed the tipping point, the one awful tragedy that would finally get America to wake up. This was all before the Virginia Massacre turned such discussions into reductio ad absurdum.

“Even children,” she said. “Innocent children.”

“We have to stop this.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Electing the right people. Holding them accountable.”

“That didn’t work. We tried. And they won. And they will go on winning.”

“Don’t be so cynical. It won’t continue like this. People have limits.”

“Do they?”

“Maybe there’s a certain point where people will put their feet down. I mean, you couldn’t kill anyone, right?”

“No. And neither could you.”

“Or could we?”

“What?”

“Under certain circumstances, we could kill.”

“But neither of us believe in the death penalty.”

“When a soldier returns from war, he is considered a hero. Nobody asks him how many men he’s killed. His service is honored, even though he has committed murder that most people would overlook. Because the murder occurs beneath the shadow of warfare.”

“That’s different. Most soldiers know what they sign on for. They die. They sacrifice their bodies for us if they’re lucky to live.”

“Yes, and we leave the vets in the cold. But let’s say every vet had a number attached to his name. A number that reflected just how many men that he killed in battle.”

“Come on. That could never happen.”

“Just hear me out. I mean, we are shifting to a more quantified world. Would a number appended to the name of a vet change your opinion about him? Would you give Joseph Richter 4 a more preferential treatment than Herbert West 17?”

“But that could never happen.”

“Let’s say that it did.”

“I’d probably be bothered a little by it. Or maybe I’d do my best to ignore the number.”

“But you can’t. Let’s say that the vets have to walk around with the number affixed to their foreheads. So you would see just how many men they have killed. It would be a little bit like The Scarlet Letter, but you’d have to see these men buy their groceries, work out in the gym, or on the subway.”

“It would be unnerving at first. But maybe I could get used to it. Even though I’d try to stay away from the vets with the largest number.”

“But could you actually visualize these deaths? It’s not unlike going to the meat market. You walk into the store. You get your meat wrapped up in plastic. But you have no idea how the animals were slaughtered or what their pain might have been because you’re too busy marinating the meat for a tasty dinner.”

“Come on, Alex. My rack of lamb was pretty damn good.”

“And so was the taste for blood among some of these men. They might have butchered children for all you know. Is a child’s death worse than a man’s?”

She turned off the television just as two pundits were screaming at the top of their lungs, very close to getting into a fistfight.

“Yes.”

“But it’s still a whole number. A child’s death is tallied without weight onto the vet’s forehead.”

“You know, I’ve had about enough of this. I know that Atlanta is depressing and I know that we need to watch just to stay informed. But can’t we just switch off?”

“What if one of the men that a vet killed was your brother? Or the love of your life?”

“Alex.”

“And you ran into the vet with the number on his forehead. It would be more than a whole number, wouldn’t it?”

“But this would never happen.”

“Don’t you think a few people might have said that right before the Middle Ages?”

“It’s not over, Alex. We could still get them to listen.”

“Or maybe we could move to Canada or New Zealand.”

“We have to fight this. We must fight this. I mean, we’re never going to turn into animals, are we?”

“No.”

14002 / 50000 words. 28% done!

The Intake (NaNoWriMo #8)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Elevator Romp (Chapter 7)

It was bad form to mutter the first name of a new intake. I had neither seen nor heard from Denise in two weeks and had thought she had merely needed a backgammon break. It turned out that she needed a hiatus from New Amagaca.

She could still spill about us. I knew that she had been a former Black Lives Matter activist, which I admired, although the will to resist had been knocked out of both of us long before. If she fessed the deets of our faux hookups to the thugs who had taken her in, then the department would not have assigned me to conduct the preinquest. There were no cuts or bruises on her face, which typically happened when an intake slandered an abrogator even with solid proof. The volunteers rounding up anti-pleasure detractors were quite sensitive to anyone who besmirched the Ruler’s good name and proud cockamamie principles.

It was my role to lay out the deets of her fail, to learn why she sidestepped the daily seven and why the algorithm had somehow believed in her by not choosing her and why she had been transferred to the Abrogation Department as a candidate for reentry into society. My review be the first word on whether she would be sent to the camps or executed in the wastelands. And regardless of how I felt about her, I would have to be tough and follow the law to the letter.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t meet you yesterday.”

I wished she would stop. I didn’t want to use the implements, all cleaned and delicately arranged on the silver salver prepped at my cedar station.

“Be quiet. I have never seen you before in my life.”

“Alex.”

“If you want to live, you must abide by protocol.”

She tried to reach out to me with her hands, but the manacles mired her arms to the cold swampy surface of the stainless steel table. She was shivering on the stool. New intakes were not allowed garb. They had to earn it by showing that they could change. Ben had cranked up the air to help get her changing and the goosebumps shot across every inch of her naked body.

“I’m cold. Please, please stop it, Alex.”

I paced across Chamber 22, which was somewhat smaller than the others on our expansive floor, took the seat across from her, deposited the dossier upon the blotting paper and began poring through the file. The file said that she had been picked up the previous night for crying. I took out a fresh intake form and the inkwell and began filling it out with my quill.

“Alex.”

“You will refer to me as Abrogator Schuld. How did you know my first name? Are you an augment? A double agent? Protocol dictates that you must confess your allegiance, if you have any.”

She sniffed. And she stopped crying.

“Good. That’s a start.”

“Oh. I get it.”

“You don’t. You were crying in public.”

“And I’m trying not to cry now. Can I…can I have a tissue?”

“No. Crying is forbidden. You will have to live with the tears that you sow. Haven’t you been able to find pleasure?”

It was tough playing the stern pedant, but I knew they were watching. Every intake was taped and all the data was fed into the computers, cross-referenced against other behavior so that we would all become better pleasure seekers and offering tips to abrogators on how to correct pleasure apathy in those who rejected it.

“Alex. Please. Come on. I’m sorry.”

Abrogator Schuld. That is how you will refer to me if you wish to reform.”

I can’t say that I was enjoying this. The booming fans grew louder. There was the sizzle of static from the speaker system above us.

“Is everything all right in there, Alex?”

“Fine, Ben.”

“How does she know your name?”

“I don’t know yet. Give me time.”

“No problem, Captain.”

The fuzz faded out.

“You know how I know your name.”

I leaned up to her ear and whispered, “Do you want to live? You’d better stop knowing me.”

“I don’t care!” she screamed.

Later I would wonder if it was Ben who sold me out. It was easy to latch onto an abrogator’s feed, to put one’s eyes into another for as long as you needed to. This was how they got Harris two months before. He was a good abrogator, but he refused to hook up and had made the mistake of going a month without a fuck. His success rate with the intakes had not been enough to overturn his disappearance. Unlike other municipal positions, abrogators were required to wear networked contacts, although this was not so tightly enforced because the saline supply was short and it seemed too much of a burden to pound the iron fist so long as the abrogators could ensure that the government could save lives and resources. My contacts were still in my billet, which I hadn’t seen in two days. It was wise to put on the contacts intermittently. You were supposed to work hard and play harder. You were supposed to find time for pleasure even when the paperwork was tall and vertiginous. So the eyes in the sky looked the other way provided they could track your GPS location and the ratings continued to pour in from the citizens.

“Why are you here?” I asked Denise.

“I didn’t come here willingly.”

“You made the choice to cry.”

“I didn’t, Al…er…Abrogator Schuld.”

“Why did you cry then?”

“Because I’m pregnant!”

There was a pause. And she continued to sob some more.

I looked at the places in the wall where they had hidden the cameras. You didn’t get too many pregnant intakes. So I knew that Denise’s tale was being captured and streamed for the highlights reel projected during Friday happy hour. Pregnancy was supposed to be reported upon discovery. You didn’t have to report the hookup who knocked you up, but the government did need to know you were expecting so that it could provide fertility measures for a new citizen building a better tomorrow. The data was always reliable in anticipating who was pregnant. Morning sickness, mood swings, and faintness before detecting a missed period were always discoverable in the reviews and what you confessed to the social networks.

“I don’t want it. I don’t want a child. Even if I did want a child, I can’t have a child grow up in a world like this.”

“Then why didn’t you honor Scott Baio’s memory and go to a designated suicide zone?”

Before Baio had sacrificed himself at the Virginia Massacre, he had gone off the deep end and said that he would personally go to Virginia and deal with the troublemakers. In a desperate bid for attention, Baio had spouted a tirade on what was then known as Twitter about how women needed to shut up and listen to men and reproduce without question. And then came his sacrifice and his disgraceful lionization. The Ruler believed in television and nostalgia and he had whimsically renamed a prominent bridge in his name to “be down with the kids,” who often shambled down the streets of Williamsburg wearing ironic Napoleon Dynamite T-shirts and not really understanding what was going on, even with the rise of riverfront monstrosities, until it was too late. They had once been called hipsters and their detached attitude proved instrumental in helping to make the Great Turnover happen.

Denise looked at me with desperation. I wanted to save her. But I also needed to save myself.

“Fuck you, Alex. I will tell them EVERYTHING!”

“Wh…what are you talking about?”

“Our backgammon games. Our fake hookups.”

There was the rustle of static.

“Alex?” boomed Ben. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t make us send you to the camps. You can be a citizen!”

“I’ve run out of fucks to give. Execute me. Execute this kid growing up in my stomach. You told me you cared.”

More static.

“Alex, is this true?”

“Denise, don’t.”

“Or you’ll do what? Don’t paint yourself as a hero. You’re just as bad as all the other men. And I will NOT be silenced.”

“I understand that you are under duress.”

“I never liked backgammon. And I never liked you. I was lonely and I was tired of hooking up. But I had to anyway. And now I have this….this wretched thing kicking inside me.”

As an abrogator, you could never let an intake belittle your authority. Sure enough, there were beeps on my phone. Downvotes from Ben and the abrogators who were watching.

“You have one minute to retract.”

“No.”

My rating had dipped to 4.1. I couldn’t go back to being a three.

I grabbed the gun on the implement tray and shot her in the head. Denise’s blood stained my beige coat. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to see the dead look in her eyes, even though the dead look was quite present in everyone who was alive. This was an unorthodox move, given that abrogators were supposed to preserve lives. I didn’t know how this would play out. Applause erupted over the speaker system.

“Niiiiiiiiiiiice.”

I knocked on the chamber entrance. My rating had climbed back up to 4.2. A cleanup team arrived to remove Denise’s corpse.

Ben was the first to congratulate me in the hall, slapping me on the shoulder.

“Dude, we didn’t know you had it in you!”

Samantha was there with him. She was beaming. But I think she was more flush from her romp with Huld.

“That was great, Alex! She really seemed to think she knew you.”

My stomach had twisted into nauseating knots. I had never killed anyone before. This was against everything that I stood for. I had become just as bloodthirsty, just as willing to save my own skin, as the starving mobs who gathered outside the death house every day at seven o’clock. Maybe Dottie had known me better than I realized. Maybe she really did remember the five years we had together and knew how I’d change if the world went mad. In hindsight, it had been naive to think that I would not be violent when killing had become the new norm.

“I need to take the rest of the day off,” I said.

“Dude, you earned it!”

“I hope you’re not feeling sick.”

“No,” i said, thinking of the ward where I would have to fuck six people each day. “Not sick. Personal time.”

“Wow, Alex, you never take personal time.”

“Well,” said Samantha, “if you ask me, it’s long overdue! Alexander Schuld is one of the best abrogators we have in this department. And if you’d like to go somewhere right now…”

It was rare to be asked to hookup outside of the digital. And you couldn’t turn down a Vice President without suffering severe downranking.

“Sure.”

The office cheered Samantha grabbed my hand and took me into her office, where I performed as well as I could under the circumstances.

Next: The Limits of Moral Depravity (Chapter 9)

13220 / 50000 words. 26% done!

Elevator Romp (NaNoWriMo #7)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Bumper to Bumper (Chapter 6)
(Image: Daniel Lin)

“Car…three…to your right.”

The grating automatic voice burrowed into my skull like a hand drill boring into wood. I was still wrapping my head around what Dottie had become, repulsed by how casually she had stubbed out lives for my convenience and nearly forgetting that I had a twelve hour day ahead of me. But I had to do it. Even if I didn’t know if I could take up my perch across from the death house at seven o’clock. But I would still it. Bigger men than me had turned with the Ruler and I wondered if my number would ever come up. Bearing witness to our nightmare was the only way to figure out how to fight it. It kept what was left of my heart alive, although I felt like the most frivolous impostor for playing backgammon, for daring to connect, for finding my own entertainment outside the hookups and the violence. In some ways, I was just as culpable as the murderous rabble.

I stepped across the long stretch of the chartreuse laminate floor that had just replaced the neon orange granite, which in turn had uprooted the gold-tinted limestone installed and drilled out only months before, and entered the elevator that every worker had downvoted in a rare act of passive-aggressive solidarity. The world had hardened so much that you had to be grateful for even the smallest acts of resistance. It was a minor affront to the myth of zero tolerance, a New Amagacan policy that could only be upheld when death was as cheap as flour. The rattling building was always under construction, always aflutter with relentless aesthetic tinkering to get closer to the Pure Pleasure ideal. We would spare no expense in erecting a pleasure friendly infrastructure. The government had deep pockets from the wealth it extracted from the daily seven victims, who were denied even basic inheritance rights as the death house growled for their lives. It was important for New Amagaca to be a sustainable nation, preserving and redistributing resources to any fine corrupted mind who was prepared to carry out the Ruler’s edicts. We had somehow enacted billet transfer programs for the widowed and the orphaned, but if these souls didn’t grieve within a month or display the appropriate gratitude for the many “thoughts and prayers” that the aldermen had announced on the social networks, they would be sent to the camps for emotional recalibration.

I had been able to justify most of my repeals simply by filing reports to the hard-hearted bean counters showing why and how it would be cheaper for my cases to use their talents for the world rather than getting trucked off to the camps. If I had to, I would painstakingly coach a near lost cause on how to act and eat at brunch. I wanted people to survive. If enough people lived, perhaps there would come a day in which the daily seven would stop.

The smart elevators were not as intuitive as the government believed. When the Ruler had banned all up and down buttons, he had believed, as many New Amagacans did, that tech was the infallible path forward. But in halting those accidental run-ins with people on different floors, the Ruler had deracinated the more natural connections between strangers. The jokes joking about the latest news. The friendly chatter about the weather. We were meant to hookup because it was vital for the government to log every social interaction. Even before the Great Turnover, we had surrendered all our personal information to the social networks, giving our most intimate feelings away for an opportunity to find love or to move animated bits of candy around on a pulsating screen. When you train a populace to surrender the tenderest knickers for nothing, it is easy to push them into behaving for much less.

The climb to the 427th floor was always a long one, but that had not stopped two hookups from going at it behind me. The elevator romps had grown more popular in recent months as people scrambled to preserve their status ratings. They had replaced the morning quickie as a fast way of earning an upvote. They were working us harder and some of us didn’t have the energy to hookup as much as we like. I straightened my tie as I noticed Samantha Lowry, Vice President of Claims Review, against the elevator wall, arching her legs around Cliff Huld’s alabaster torso. I didn’t like Huld very much. He was smug and pompous and always delivered these interminable and uninteresting tales whenever you replenished your coffee. He had a nurse named Leni who often followed him around as he moved from chamber to chamber leading his case load on, never granting repeal and always boasting about how he had become the ping-pong champion in Sector 52. But I didn’t downvote him. I tried not to downvote anybody, even the most deplorable souls screaming obscenities in the streets. But Huld really liked being a four and had to hookup more frequently than the rest of us to preserve his precarious status. That Samantha had taken pity on him was something of a surprise, given that she was less than a tenth away from being a five.

“Ohhhh, ugh, ohhhh — oh, hi, Alex — yes! yes, that’s it! Hit me right there — ugh, ugh — did you have a nice Thursday?”

Small talk was always difficult when you saw a colleague thrusting his hips into someone who you had delivered a report to only two days before, but it was not impossible.

“It was okay.”

Huld didn’t say hello at all. But Samantha was enjoying herself so much that this hardly mattered. She shrieked with want at the top of her lungs as the elevator dinged and the doors slid open.

“YESSSSSSSSSS!!! That’s great, Alex…oh yeah, keep going, Cliff! Ohhhh….see you at the lunch meeting?…oh, yes, yes, YESSSSSSSSS!! I think I’m going to come! Ohhhhhhhhh!”

“Yeah. See you there.”

I walked into the receptionist area. The elevator doors closed behind me. Ben was there with a big smile. He handed me the morning dispatches.

“You may want to call the building. It looks like they’re going to have a mess to clean up in the elevator.”

“I already have, Mister Schuld!”

“How many cases do I have today?”

“Just one this morning. I cleared up your schedule so you could finish your paperwork….or….get lucky. I’ve noticed your rating has taken a minor dip.”

“Thanks, Ben. I appreciate it.”

“You’re looking a little pale.”

“Rough morning commute, that’s all,” I said, flipping through the new reports.

“Well, if you want to get an early start, the attendants have prepared Chamber 22 for your intake.”

“Thanks.”

I skipped the morning coffee routine and passed up the Casual Friday bagels. People often got so excited about bagels that you would often see scenes that resembled something out of that old Pasolini film, Salo, as you spread your schmear. I decided to head to Chamber 22 and get the new case intake out of the way. I opened the doors and saw a woman handcuffed to the stainless steel table. She was crying.

“Alex?”

“Denise.”

Now I knew why she couldn’t meet me for backgammon.

Next: The Intake (Chapter 8)

11357 / 50000 words. 23% done!