Thursday, July 6

Shame

 











Social media allows individuals to explore feelings about unwanted behavior in both themselves and others. 

In Society of Shame by Jane Roper, a woman’s world falls apart after she arrives home early from a work trip to discover her garage on fire, her US Senate candidate husband hurrying to dress and conceal an affair. Topping off the bad day, photos focus on a menstrual stain on Kathleen Held’s pants. The photograph goes viral, and women become outraged that a period accident captures more attention than a husband’s infidelity. Activists, including Kathleen’s young daughter, embrace the new #StopPeriodShaming movement. Kathleen, annoyed after her husband expresses concern about damage for his campaign, moves out of the house and gives her daughter permission to participate. 

Leaving home, Kathleen steals an elegant invitation from a secret Society of Shame, intended for her husband. All members, shamed over social media for various offenses, hope to restore confidence and reinvent themselves, and Kathleen wonders, “If she was a stronger, more fulfilled version of herself, maybe her marriage wouldn’t have fallen apart.” Maybe she would have published the book she had written years earlier. 

Maybe. 

Shame can be about self-evaluation and social-evaluation, according to philosopher James Laing, who urges rejection of “the widespread assumption that the other-oriented dimension of shame is best understood primarily terms of our concern with the way we appear to others.” He instead urges treating “shame as manifesting our desire primarily for interpersonal connection.” Shamefulness, he maintains, can be used for merited avoidance or rejection. 

But the society in Roper's book turns to shame for the sole purpose of winning attention by any means necessary. The society’s founder orchestrates makeovers, activities and social-media messaging to repair reputations. For Kathleen, that means leaning in to support the new cause while emerging from the most embarrassing and painful moment of her life. Reluctance transforms into reflection and passion, as Kathleen, who decides to go by Kat, realizes that women “were bound together, all of them by this strange and mysterious biological process they shared, with its inconveniences and embarrassments and messes; its power to bring relief (not pregnant!) and heartbreak (not pregnant); the thresholds it marked between child and adult, youth and middle age.”

With new clothes and haircut, Kat becomes an instant celebrity, juggling television appearances, newspaper interviews and a book contract. The society cheers, advising her to “Steer into the swerve.” A quiet member of the group urges Kathleen to enjoy the new popularity, but to “Keep telling the truth.” She finds an agent, and a major publisher insists on a ghostwriter, preferring that the author stay busy with promotion and social-media. 

Of course, social media as a tool can build and destroy reputations. Users take advantage of any connection or problem to advance agendas. Interactions are staged, publicized, with daily activities becoming less genuine. Frustrated, the husband plants a story that Kathleen never cared for the family dog, and activists attack her for living in an illegal Airbnb. Danica, organizer of the Society of Shame, stages a bizarre attack at a book announcement party for Kathleen and then expects that the two pretend to have no relationship at all. Kathleen’s daughter accuses her mom of promoting the movement “all for herself.”  

Weary, Kat frets about everyone expecting her to be "so perfect all the time," and critics abound on the internet. “Maybe it distracted them from their own faults and hypocrisies to constantly point out hers. Why confront your own mistakes when you can attack other people’s instead?” Kathleen's husband long prioritized his role as politician in their family life, and she repeats those errors, expressing disappointment that the child fails to understand “how complex it was to be a public figure and a spokesperson for a cause.” 

The plotting and charades become overwhelming and Kathleen abruptly stops obsessing over what others think. “People I don’t know or even particularly like. The thing we’re all doing here. Controlling narratives and changing conversations and getting back on top instead of trying to actually – I don’t know, grow.”  

Calm people, those who refuse to express anger and insist on playing fair, rarely attract as much public attention as do the outrage-makers. A low profile on social media can be priceless. 

The book captures the extreme language and emotions of our time, reflecting how social media can instigate divisions with no resolution intended. “Everywhere we look, we see values clashing and tempers rising, in ways that seem frenzied, aimless, and cruel,” suggests a review posted by the Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences of How to Do Things With Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures by Owen Flanagan. “At the same time, we witness political leaders and others who lack any sense of shame, even as they display carelessness with the truth and the common good.” People can control and adjust emotions, and “Flanagan makes a passionate case for tuning down anger and tuning up shame," while demonstrating "how cultures around the world can show us how to perform these emotions better.”

Forms of shame leading to revenge, anger or harm to others are destructive, the review concludes. Other forms “can protect positive values, including courage, kindness, and honesty.” As suggested by Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, thoughtful and socializing shame starting at a young age, “can promote moral progress where undisciplined anger cannot.”

Anger can strengthen an opponent's resolve.

Thursday, June 29

Choice

 

Machines built by humans reflect human values. In the Lives of Puppets, by T.J. Klune, some machines love and nurture, and others are corrupt and controlling. The robot characters possess super-intelligence, the ability to communicate with one another, and others even yearn for free will.

The story begins long after robots have vanquished the human race. But some advanced machines preserve and collect human artifacts, curious about the creatures and pondering their downfall. “Humanity was lost…. And lonely….Even surrounded by so many of their kind, they still searched for a connection,” sending their machines “away beyond the stars in search of that connection they so desperately wished for.” And the more creative machines loved humans. “Because for all their faults, they created us,” said Gio. “They gave us names. They loved us.” Yet humans “hated as much as they loved. They feared what they didn’t understand… And the further they went, the less control they had…. They poisoned the earth. They had time to change their ways but they didn’t.”

Gio, an advanced inventor robot known as General Innovation Operative, has set up camp in Oregon, far from the machines with fascist tendencies, along with Vic, a human; Nurse Ratched, a healing robot; and Rambo, a cleaning robot. Vic regards the robot as his friends and Gio as father, sharing an interest in inventing. After finding another ruined robot in the trash, Vic secretly makes repairs. Rambo questions why. “If we can fix what’s broken, we should always try,” explains Vic. “Because all things deserve a chance to find out what life could be when they don’t have to serve others.” 

Vic calls the repaired robot Hap, based on the remaining letters stamped on its chest. Gio, learning about the newcomer, is alarmed because he had created that type of robot long ago – a Human Annihilation Response Protocol.  A killer robot is in their midst and the other robots, conditioned to protect their human, are wary. 

But Hap’s memory has been wiped and he must gather new information. The newcomer denies having feelings. Gio explains how robots learn: “We watch. We learn. We process. It wasn’t always this way. But the more complex our minds became, the more choice we are given. Evolution by way of mimicry.” Nurse Ratched, anticipating the worst outcome, is less optimistic. “He is learning,” confirms Nurse Ratched, always anticipating the worst outcome. “Retaining information. He will use it against us.”

A trace of Vic's blood left the trash dump prompts Authority robots to invade and destroy the treehouse encampment. Gio leads the group to a hidden bunker before voluntarily leaving with the invaders for decommissioning or reprogramming. His goal is to save Vic, presumably the only human on the planet. The group watches a video message left by Gio, relaying his history with humans and his assessment of why human civilization failed. “They judged others for not looking like they did. Selfish, cruel, and worse – indifferent. No civilization can survive indifference. It spreads like a poison, turning fire into apathy, a dire infection whose cure requires mor than most are willing to give. But for all their faults, there is beauty in their dissonant design…. In a way they were God, creating us in their own image.”

Humans taught the robots to learn, but did not expect them to evolve, making their own choices and asking why. And humans thought they knew better, refusing to listen to robot warnings. “No matter what we told them – our data showing them they were on the brink with options to course correct before it was too late – they thought themselves immortal.” Every test, every simulation, robots ran “ended with the same result: for the world to survive, humans could not.”

Gio evolved from an emotionless inventor to thoughtful, caring being who lived for enjoyment and experiences, no longer interested in serving his robot master. Gio urges Hap to do the same, doing all he can to protect Vic.

Vic refuses to accept Gio's demise and leads the other robots in a quest to rescue the inventor. Along the way, they meet the Coachman, a corrupt showman who admires humans yet attempts to enslave them. “Your flaws are what make you superior, in all ways. No matter what machines can do, no matter how powerful we become, it is the absence of flaws that will be our undoing…. Our only flaw is that we’ve condemned ourselves to spend eternity mimicking that which we deemed unfit to exit.”

The Coachman is fascinated by the notion of death and abbreviated time. “There must be no greater feeling in the world than to know that this isn’t forever.” 

The group reaches the Electric City and the laboratory where Gio once again toils as a newly reprogrammed machine. To secure assistance in reaching Gio, Hap must endure a session that restores his memories. Vic protests putting Hap through such a session, and the powerful fairy machine retorts: “Let? Let? Do you own him? ….You say he was given a choice. And yet here you are, doing everything in your power to take that from him. How positively human of you.”

Hap complies, enduring memory restoration without killing Vic, and then declines a procedure that would allow him to forget his unpleasant past. 

Turns out, the most advanced machines are conflicted about humans, dismissing their weakness, selfishness and volatility while appreciating the traits of loyalty, love, hope and more. The would-be rescuer hopes to study the concept of friendship and, in particular, why Hap refuses to follow his normal protocol to kill humans. More importantly, the rescue robot seeks to thwart the Authority’s goal of eradicating free will. “Choice. The power to make our own decisions. The Authority wants it removed from all of us.”

Vic comes to realize that machines, like humans, continuously live by trial and error and that existence, even for machines, is marked by death. “Humanity – that nebulous concept he didn’t always understand – had lived and died by its creations.” The provocative book concludes that creation, good or bad, is the essence of existence. Choice is inextricably linked with morality, and mortality comes with the creations and world we choose to leave behind.


Monday, June 19

Utopia











Childhood. Religion. Nature. Love. Each have a magical, spiritual quality, the memories of which can haunt for a lifetime. 

The Magical Kingdom by Russell Banks, a story of early 20th-century Florida loosely based on true events, has a documentary feel. The book begins with a journalist rescuing a set of reel-to-reel tapes from the trash at a library in St. Cloud, all that is left of the life of Harley Mann. Two decades earlier, in 1971, Harley used a tape recorder to recount his unusual childhood. Lonely, old and unsettled, the narrator/protagonist warns that he is well practiced at masking his identity. “It’s as if I never learned to speak like the man I have in fact become, one of those White, lifelong, small-time Florida businessmen with no noticeable religious or political enthusiasm and no discernible class affiliation.” 

Early experiences shape Harley’s ability to conceal and lie. His parents, devotees of philosopher John Ruskin, an early environmentalist and socialist, leave a failing commune in Indiana, where Harley enjoyed an idyllic childhood, for another struggling one in Georgia. The father, a skilled blacksmith, dies of typhoid soon afterward in 1901, leaving a pregnant wife and two sets of twin boys. From his deathbed, the father urges them to find work at a nearby plantation and designates 12-year-old Harley head of the family. The mother dismisses that notion, discouraging discussions or questions about their future.

As the family can no longer contribute to the struggling commune, the mother signs all up as indentured servants at Rosewell Plantation, where they are exploited and become mired in debt. The plantation was “the opening wound in a wounded life.”  Harley felt “as if he had been cast out of Paradise to suffer and perish for having committed an unnamed sin.” He learns about power that came only from the owner’s “control of an unimaginable abundance of money and our lack of it and the terrible, almost unfathomable distance between the two.” 

Harley describes those seven months “as responsible in some way for my lifelong garrulousness and secrecy, my consanguinity and pessimism, my easy sociability and solitude – my paradoxical, conflicted nature.”  

Still, he feels intellectually and morally superior due to the teachings of John Rushkin and other philosophers, poets, and scientists. “[W]hen you’re a child you passively accept your parents’ and their friends’ view of reality, no matter how distorted by ideology or religion.” He observes seeds of inequality and discrimination. “When your worth as a human being is reduced solely to the value of your body’s capacity for labor, you tend to overvalue meaningless physical characteristics, like your body’s skin complexion, or hair texture or the shape of your nose and lips.” Other workers on the planation focus on racial differences, but Harley’s family feel only shame, “for we knew in our heart that those differences were meaningless.” Still, he also feels “different and distinct from everyone I knew and loved and from all the strangers in the world, for I was the child whose father’s dying words had made him the man of the house, separating him from the others, even from his mother, … charging him with a task he could never fulfill.”  

The desperate mother, though not religious, reaches out to a Shaker community in central Florida, near Narcoossee, whose leader agrees to pay off the family’s debt. The belief in celibacy forced Shakers to recruit followers and adopt children who could stay or leave at age 21. “We were not quite free,” Harley concedes, only free to leave the plantation and join the Shaker community of New Bethany. Like the Rushkinites, the Shakers supported communal living, simple lifestyles, pacifism and gender and racial equality and stood by the principles of honesty, continence, faith, hope, charity, innocence, meekness, humility, prudence, thankfulness, patience, simplicity – along with celibacy. The Shakers separated children from parents, assigning them mentors for apprenticeships, and taught that people on the outside world were untrustworthy, living “only for the moment… acquisitive and materialistic and hungry for power and sensual gratification.” 

Rescue by the Shakers was like Paradise restored. Harley promises himself “to find a way never to commit that unnamed sin again,” hoping that “the “Shakers would teach me how to name the sin and would show me all the ways to avoid committing it again.” He becomes judgmental, rigid, suggesting that “Anyone with a lifelong guilty conscience is likely to be a hair-splitting moralist, especially when it comes to other people’s behavior.” He insists that religion is not the source of his guilt. “It had to be my parents’ perfectionist utopian dream, the dream they shared with the hundreds of like-minded dreamers who surrounded them near and far, the dream that made me feel like a failure and weak and morally inadequate.” 

Logical and intelligent, Harley refuses to just accept explanations from others and describes how, like every thoughtful child, he loathed hypocrisy. “A child knows himself to be powerless and thus the most likely member of the community to end up deprived of justice and truth and equality.” From the start, he is skeptical about the elder’s motivation – is it charity, a means to secure free labor, or desire for his mother?

Living with the Shakers the children once again work six hours per day, six days a week, with the profit from their unpaid labor much greater than the cost of support. “I have sometimes asked myself if it was exploitative and unnatural and cruel to work children that way. Exploitative yes…. But it was not unnatural or cruel” as farming communities expect children to work such hours. And the Shakers’ assignments were “interesting and instructive and rarely as onerous or dangerous as work in a factory or mill would have been.”  The men and women who supervise apprenticeships are kind and patient, relaying skills and attitudes that “would prove useful to us for the rest of our lives.” 

His mother becomes a compliant, happy stranger, and Harley questions the sincerity of such converts: “if truth be told, the majority of these supplicants were seeking reliable shelter and regular meals rather than everlasting life. If the price was abstinence from sex and all other stimulants, communal living and participation in Shaker rituals and customs, along with hard manual labor in the fields…, they were willing to pay it.” 

Elder John Bennett selects Harley as a “favorite student, the one whose mind and heart he most wanted to influence.” He lends the boy books of the Western Canon, ones that other Shakers might have viewed as heretical, and teaches the boy how to bend those works with Shaker teachings. The man does discuss the materials or quiz him, “except with a casual, knowing reference to a specific notion or insight.”  A former soldier and prison guard, John advises Harley that “You either surrender your freedom to the system, or you walk away from it. There’s no middle ground…. That’s why and how I became a Shaker.”  Of course, such sentiment is true of any system. “His answer dazzled me both for its illusiveness and for its clarity. Elder John seemed to be saying that there was no essential difference between victim and victimizer, between the oppressed and the oppressor. That both were equally controlled by the system that created and maintained and enforced their relationship.” 

An intelligent child raised within a rigid system might long to flee, yet Harley understood that John “was grooming me to be his successor…. And I wanted to be that person.” Again, he feels superior, “that old familiar feeling had made me into a secretive hypocrite, for I could not let go of it. Separateness and difference – I had come to embrace the feeling… my true self. Despite its discomfort, I have tried since then to preserve it at all costs. Separateness and difference.” 

Such feelings lead Harley to break norms, and he falls in love with Sadie, who is seven years older. They carry on a furtive relationship, though he fears she may be doing the same with Elder John. Harley recognizes that if Sadie was so skillful at concealing her love affair with Harley from others, then she was capable of concealing secrets from him. “When one has taken up lying, as I had done, it’s natural to assume that everyone else is lying, too…. One cannot live a lie without believing that one is surrounded by liars and nothing is what it seems and no one is who he or she claims to be.” 

Jealous, he comes to distrust Elder John in every way, as profiteer and potential rival. He determines the man is not tempted by winning. “For him, life was a contest in which his main goal was to best the other contestants. Making a profit was just one way to do that. People like Elder John make good capitalists, effective salesmen, and successful politicians, but poor religious leaders.” Harley was convinced that serving God required that “One must abandon the belief that life is a contest.” Harley eventually turns on the Elder John, reporting him for an act of euthanasia. John leaves for Fort Myers takes off, taking up another religion, starting an import-export business and entering Florida politics. The rest of the commune, struggling without leaders and its two best workers, shuns Harley before abandoning the commune and relocating to a larger colony in New York. 

Harley lives off the land, taking on a few odd jobs, saving his money. Familiar with property histories throughout the county, he begins buying and selling land, while also accumulating the tracts that once belonged to the commune, a practice he had learned about after out-of-town Shaker leaders discover that Elder John profited from such purchases in fast-growing Florida. During the early part of the 20th century, banks were required to provide equity-free, low-interest loans enabling homeless war veterans to buy a five-acre plot and build a home. Such purchasers often failed to make payments, and speculators like John swooped in to buy the properties and resell for huge profits. 

But Harley targets the commune’s former holdings, refusing to sell for decades: “allowing the marshes and palmetto return, the buildings collapse, and mold and animals creep in “until there remained nothing out there of our once-glorious plantation but scattered heaps of weed-and-kudzu-covered wreckage sinking into the muck and the returning waters of the no-longer ditched- and-drained swamp.” 

Only a small portion of the book focuses on these adult activities.

Years later, regretting his lack of formal education, Harley ponders whether a different type of childhood might have led him to become a theologian or a philosopher. He becomes wealthy, though spends the rest of his life alone, an outsider without purpose. He regards himself once again as cast out of paradise – and the cause for the fall of one magic kingdom, a religious commune where he first fell in love, and the rise of another – Disneyland. Conflicted, he respects Shaker principles but does not believe. “What does it matter, anyhow, if my life remains a mystery to me. Who cares if Harley Mann dies without ever learning how or why his youthful delusions and follies are matched by those in his old age? Or why, in between, from youth to old age, he remained for all intents and purposes a Shaker without a Shaker family,” “a nonbelieving Believer, a Shaker pariah, a man in some perverse but fundamental way affirming the Shaker way of life by building his hut just beyond the closed and locked gate of New Bethany.”

Harley, failing to envision a development like Disney World, eventually sells the Shaker property with the condition that subdivision is forbidden for perpetuity.    

The story ends with Harley’s loss of innocence and community. Childhood, with all its potential, curiosity, and magic, is our only real utopia. 

Friday, June 2

Acting

 











Daisy is an actress, talented yet not successful, in The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh, and her husband, Craig, aspires to write a novel. For the couple’s third anniversary, Daisy, a fixer, arranges a stay at a secluded cabin in upstate New York, hoping to improve the marriage and end Craig’s wandering eye. The program’s goals are simple: relax, swim, walk and talk – and each day, answer a short, simple question, the first being “Would you change for me?” 

At first, Craig scoffs. “That’s the whole experience? Just a bunch of questions to answer every day?” 

Of course, the questions become more challenging, especially as Daisy and Craig each keep secrets. More accurately, they lie. The book reveals Craig’s lies at the very start, when he arrives at the cabin with packed bags in the trunk, ready to let Daisy know he is leaving her and flying to Cabo with a lover. But then he procrastinates about telling Daisy his feelings, preferring to avoid the uncomfortable conversation and missing his flight. 

Daisy’s secrets are dispensed far more slowly. 

First, she knows that Craig cheats on her, but keeps that information to herself. She understands that he constantly seeks affirmation, one foot at the door, ready to leave: “Craig longed for someone impetuous, someone surprising, someone fearless. Someone who made him feel like she could help him become the better version of himself that he had long since lost faith in but that he still yearned to be.” 

Second, she knows they are become parents after long advising him that would be impossible.  

Finally, Daisy appreciates how Craig does not press Daisy about her background. All he knows is that she is from the Midwest, attended theater school on the East Coast and arrived in New York City to act. He knows nothing about her history of violent abuse, the reason she loathes surprises. If anything, Craig seems incapable of surprising her and as far as she’s concerned, that makes them a perfect match. “Each of them [is] exactly what the other person needed. For her that’s ideal. That’s love.” 

She appreciates life, freedom and the normal problems that come with Craig. She also appreciates his support for her career, regularly pressing her to pursue more prestigious acting roles in film and television. But she is desperate to remain hidden. “She always felt of herself like a pool ball, her life’s trajectory continually altered by violent collisions. She considers how she’s been forced to ricochet, changing cities, changing names, feeling fearful and helpless, just a random pool ball looking for a pocket to fall into, a dark refuge in which to feel safe.” Even so, she longs to be a fearless, carefree wife. So, she eventually accepts a small role on a popular crime show, allowing the couple to afford the expensive cabin and week of marriage therapy.

The program’s organizers’ goals for couples are simple: Seek happiness while learning what the other is willing to do for the relationship. And the organizers also warn the couple to “keep your eyes and ears open. Be prepared for any possibility. Let yourself be surprised.” Daisy has another goal – luring an abuser who stalked her for years, ending her need to hide.  

A skilled liar, Daisy presents a pleasant version of an unreliable narrator. Accustomed to working in small theaters, she is humble and hardworking. No task or role is too mundane. Never breaking character, she practices at going beyond words to communicate. “The dialogue is rote, the lines already known, so the challenge is to find surprise and spontaneity and electricity in a pause, an inflection, a glance. It’s all about the moments around the words, between them, the crackle of implied meaning, the feint and parry of unspoken intent. People call it acting, but isn’t this just what we all do every day? Play a role, be who we know someone needs us to be, recite our expected lies, all while searching for some clue as to the other person’s real meaning, their honest motivations?” 

Daisy is convinced that Craig is “Someone who wanted to be worthy of her. Who believed that she was someone who was worth being worthy of.” He had that shred of, not exactly hope but possibility, and she wanted to believe in them as a couple. She spent years resisting entrapment and exploitation and resists trying to control Craig. She understands that, for relationships, the carrot produces much better outcomes than the stick.  

Daisy strives to orchestrate every detail of the week at the cabin, am elaborate production with her and her husband as star players. She knows they are on a stage and he does not, so surprises are inevitable. Like the couple in the original Garden of Eden, like couples everywhere, Daisy and Craig are flawed, in a relationship marked by multiple lies and misdirection. But the two pass the toughest of tests, forming a bond and discovering trust that allows them to be completely honest with the other.

Readers must suspend disbelief to appreciate this book, but then how else do liars convince others that their tales might be true?


Friday, May 26

Debt

 The United States is hardly the worst nation when it come to debt per GDP. 


The United States has the world's highest GDP, yet "Major contributors to the national debt include the world's largest military budget, tax cuts (which reduce government income and rarely result in a corresponding increase in economic growth), COVID-19 relief efforts, and mandatory-but-underfunded programs such as Medicare," reports World Population Review. 

Reducing spending and raising taxes are the most common ways to reduce debt, but don't count out innovation. The United States last had a budget surplus during the Bill Clinton administration. Clinton produced balanced budgets during his last four years in office, a period of tremendous innovation with the help of the internet. . 

By the way, the countries with the least debt per GDP include Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Burundi and Russia. 


Monday, May 15

Loss











With aging comes loss, and for Tom Kettle the protagonist of Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry, life is essentially over. Retired as a policeman, he lives alone. His wife and two adult children are dead. Friends are few, though on good days, he has visions old friends, acquaintances and maybe even some ghosts. 

Both he and his wife grew up with abuse from priests, notorious in Ireland’s Catholic orphanages. With his memory slipping, Kettle is an unreliable narrator both for himself and others. Pleasant memories, vague and dreamy like fog forming over the sea, are difficult to retain; negative ones prick deep and mean like sharp ice. The stories he recalls often seem incomplete, with additional circumstances and context shared later. He recalls his past with any activity, any trip: “Every single place… a peg with a memory hanging from it.” And when he returns to the city, “memories are lying in ambush everywhere.” 

Like memories, his surroundings serve as both reminders and distractions. “If he were looking for citizenship, it might be of this miraculous bay. Child of nowhere, he could claim rights over this, this vast vacancy queerly filled, both empty and full. He was just an old policeman with a buckled heart, but if he had known how, he would have sucked the whole vista into himself, every grain of salt and sand and sea, swallowed it whole… All this blue and different blue and greens and acres of blown white, and the mysterious golds and silvers of after-rain. He knew he knew he was in trouble, he could sense the trouble with his copper’s instinct and didn’t yet know its shape, but the bay also released him somehow, let him go for a blessed minute into some wild freedom, so that his heart and soul were both shaken and renewed, in the same moment, in the same breath.” 

After being away from the job, two colleagues from his station visit, claiming to need his help on an old case involving “the priests in the sixties.” Kettle, old and vulnerable, responds spontaneously: “The absolute suffering. There was no one to help me.” He immediately regrets using the word “me” rather than “them.” The old policeman cares about the child victims of the abusive priests, not quite realizing that the others regard him as suspect. 

The investigators seek his DNA, intent on resolving an old case, the murder of a priest known to both Kettle and his wife. But Kettle had long been part of a system that masked scandals, covered evidence, to protect reputations.     

Kettle varies between wanting to be useful and left alone, between companionship and solitude. Once the two leave, he misses his inquisitors: “he was stunned to discover, missed them like his own children, a huge ache of loss, which was not logical at all. They had a nice time together, despite everything, but that was all. But he felt it like a bereavement. He had enjoyed the talk. He had. A mystery. Their warmth and kindness. He wondered should he do more of it. Human contact. He wasn’t sure. It was a disturbing thought somehow, like he was betraying a secret, but whose?” Before long, he comes to realize that “He was less confused even if he was confused.” 

The old policeman knows who killed the priest, but divulges nothing without manipulation or lies. Instead, he drifts among multiple tragic memories, some of the experiences surely instigated and compounded by his family's history of abuse. That a murder of a priest could take precedence over the systemic abuse of dozens or hundreds of children, by “a murderer of children’s hearts,” is deplorable. And that may partly explain why, besides his loneliness and dementia, Kettle initially fails to realize the purpose behind the visits from investigators. 

The man could suffer no greater loss than that of his wife and children, and a sort of weightlessness accompanies such knowledge. “There was a fire of freedom in it. There was a curious wash of something freely called happiness.”

Friday, May 5

Enough


A place called Town proclaims itself as the world’s safest and wealthiest nation in Saha, a novel by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang. 

Such wealth, if true, comes at a cost. Only the most highly skilled have citizenship. Those lacking talent, along with refugees, natives and criminals, are denied citizenship, forced to live in substandard housing, enduring menial jobs with inadequate compensation. The state confiscates infants of non-citizens raising them in institutional settings and determining their roles in life. “A life of doing repetitive menial labor without any assurance of compensation was like walking down a path backward. Life was terrifying and tedious. Each time they paused to take stock of their lives, they found themselves unfailingly worse off than before,” the author explains. “Saha residents thus grew more childish, petty, and simpleminded.” 

A few flee to Saha Estates, just outside of Town and they become self-reliant, treasuring minimal freedoms that come with separation from Town. Saha residents are curious about one another but limit questions. “Most people who can’t tell you about their past aren’t bad,” explains one character. “It’s the ones that lie about it that are bad.” Most residents try to keep a low profile, but troubles emerge when Saha and Town residents mix. Saha becomes an easy target for police when any crime occurs, regardless of location or circumstances.

The state expects complete compliance, ensuring that any who disagree with its authority will vanish. Only a few people recall the Butterfly Riot thirty years earlier after a ship bearing non-citizens and those avoiding deportation went missing. Family members “who were suspicious began to question their own minds as time passed, telling themselves they were mistaken or dreaming. The desperate hope of recovery scattered in the wind like hearsay.” A quiet protest began, with folded white boats pasted on black construction paper along with the question: Where did the ship go? Rumors flared. “There was no ban on making paper boats, but the remarkable part was this: people had no trouble believing that there were paper boat bans and kindergarten teachers paying fines.” Town locates the woman who lost her brother on the ship and folded the first paper boat, promptly executing her.

“The Butterfly Riot came to serve as a metaphor for extreme chaos, anxiety, and fear” – and the state exerts total control, ending all committees and any other trace of mechanism for citizen input. Defiance and rebellion become rare, with most incidents ending with execution or suicide. 

The state deems questions, doubt, and unconventional behavior as unacceptable for those are the first steps toward change. “Nothing inspires action like curiosity, you know,” one woman concedes.

A haunting setting, odd characters who withhold their histories, lend strange beauty to this vague and fragmented prose. Of course, it’s inevitable for Town to pursue demolition of Saha. And just as inevitable, one character responds with a violent backlash directed against the fa├žade that is Town.