Talking Back to the Owners of the World
Talking Back to the Owners of the World
Steffen Hantke on Tom LeClair’s and Richard Powers’s novelistic imaginations of terror.
Since the end of the Cold War, American fiction has aided in the cultural and political effort to reorient the public imagination, making sense of this brave new world and its concomitant order. It is a significant ideological gesture to think of the present geopolitical situation as “post-Cold War” - constant repetition of the term reinforces a view that is perhaps not as clear cut as it first appears. The label itself establishes a cultural dominant, a watershed moment or turning point that could very well be considered questionable; just ask those in both East and West whose lives have not changed all that significantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as differences between social classes continue to entrench themselves more deeply or drift even further into polarization. Instead of giving a proper name to whatever it is we are all living through these days, the label of “post” tells that we are at a loss. It marks the spot where definition should take place but hasn’t yet. The label of “post” passes the burden of definition to the predecessor, which either implies a sense of deference or a sense of loss. Though the consensus emerging from the collective cultural effort to define the present may be nebulous or two-dimensional, certain distinctive features recur. They constitute what I would call, in the absence of a clear definition, the myth of the post-Cold War world.
This is the consensus: it is a world of bewildering diversity and multiplicity, a world that has lost the center from which its complex structures were organized. It is a world in which America, stripped of its political Other in the shape of the Soviet Union, is struggling to define a new identity. For that purpose, it is searching for new enemies, settling on images of enmity that are as vague and nebulous as “the Evil Empire” used to be: international terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, upstart Third Worlders on the threshold of going nuclear, two-bit dictators wreaking more or less publicized genocide on their own peoples and their neighbors, destabilizers of regions, contenders for the throne.
Beirut, one of the settings of Richard Powers’s novel Plowing the Dark, is a microcosm of this bewildering new world:
They say that you know more about this place on the day you first touch your foot to it than you will ever know about it again. And they’re right. Each day that passes leaves you more confused about this stew, let alone the recipe that produced it. You understand Shiite versus Sunni, Maronite versus Orthodox, Druze, Palestinian, Phalangist, AMAL, the radical Party of God and their fanatical cell the Holy Warriors. But the fourteen other religions and splinter factions plunge you into the same despair that your students feel when confronting irregular English verbs. This al-Jumhuriyah al-Lubnaniyah: even the name is a maze. (46-7)
This is, of course, a view of the world through the eyes of the innocents abroad, a textbook example of what Tom LeClair, in a review of Powers’s novel, calls “the highly mediated and selective knowledge Americans have of international politics” (Book, May-June 2000, 74). False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters LeClair has also reviewed Othello Blues by Harold Jaffe in ebr It is a world robbed of Cold War comfort; a world in which safe either/or propositions have given way to unsettling both/and scenarios; a world defined best by a rather alarming version of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. For this Babel of voices to stop short of open conflict, communication is essential, and communication requires translation. As Powers puts it, “Americans speak nothing and own everything. The world needs to learn English, just to talk back to its owner” (45).
This theme of “the world talking back to its owner” is also a central concern in Tom LeClair’s Well-Founded Fear. (Chris Messenger has reviwed LeClair’s Passing Off for ebr: Enthralled by Systems.) LeClair’s heroine, Casey Markham, takes a job in the labyrinthine community of international humanitarian aid, redistributing the vast masses of displaced persons by assessing the immediate danger each refugee is exposed to if he or she were to return home. Casey’s job is to inquire if the “well-founded fear” of the title, which bridges the gap between individual subjectivity and political rationality, is among the refugees’ reasons for uprooting themselves. That this process is one that comes with great moral challenges goes without saying: how far should she get involved; how can she distinguish the victims from the perpetrators? The theme of LeClair’s novel is how these moral complexities arise from problems of cultural difference and cognitive limitations, how they are imposed upon the observer by stereotypes, political agendas, personal sympathies and antipathies, and, most of all, by the bureaucracies that serve as the intermediaries between the individual and larger historical events. Access to the world, according to LeClair, requires the mechanism of bureaucracy, which in turn requires translation from one language into another.
Quickly, however, it becomes obvious that tools like bureaucracy or translation, with which we make history, are deeply flawed. As part of the material world they must alter, they exist in the muddy Cartesian waters between subject and object. “Casual talk abounds with the knowledge,” Jim Neilson quotes Powers in 1998 in an interview for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “that there is no understanding a system without interfering with it.” This realization, examined particularly for its political implications, also feeds into Plowing the Dark. Taimur Martin, a high school teacher from Chicago who has taken a job teaching in Beirut, is kidnapped by one of the numerous factions in the civil war that has dropped below the perceptual threshold of the U.S. media, but still continues. Confined to a room with boarded-up windows, chained to a radiator, his eyes covered by a blindfold, he spends the duration of the novel coloring in the blanks left by sensory deprivation and the random cruelties and indignities imposed upon him by his captors. During this captivity, both he and we as readers learn, sometimes painfully, just how much the brain is really “wider than the sky.” Through Martin’s attempt, as a language teacher, to intervene in the larger world - which Powers identifies with great sensory detail and cultural specificity as decidedly non-American - he recognizes that there is no intervening in, nor even understanding of, other cultures without getting in over one’s head.
Just as there are no neutral observers, there is no neutral ground in the post-Cold War world. This realization, as obvious as it may seem to most of us, carries great political weight in a specific historical context. Consider an example in which more than observation or “passive” understanding are at stake: the recent German discussion, dominated by a sense of public outrage, of how to handle Kurdish immigrants. A country that “imported” masses of Turkish workers in the late 60s and early 70s to meet the bottom-level labor needs of its booming economy, Germany has witnessed acts of Kurdish terrorism on its territory. These acts are committed within the context of the civil war between the Kurdish minority and the modern state of Turkey. All questions of international law and sovereignty aside, Germany’s public outrage feeds into a discussion about policy from which Powers’s and LeClair’s point is conspicuously absent: in acting upon the affairs of another culture, you yourself are at risk of becoming the Other. For a club member of the G8, being treated this way by a bunch of raggedy Third Worlders still has a taint of scandal about it: how dare they?
The example of the Kurds is especially relevant here because their struggle against the Turkish genocide provides the specific background to LeClair’s novel. Casey Markham’s job takes her to Athens, where streams of Kurdish refugees, many of whom are escaping from Iraq by way of Turkey especially since the Gulf War, pass through the offices of the agency she works for. The people who draw her into this conflict and eventually bring it home are Kurdish - a young female refugee who ends up working as a translator for Casey’s agency, and a young man who eventually becomes Casey’s husband even though his identity remains ambiguous until the end.
It is in this highly specific political context that LeClair demonstrates how the unidirectional model of geopolitics fails in the post-Cold War context. On a fundamental level, the structure that mediates all experience is language. Contingent upon this mediating structure are bureaucracy and administration. To bring language to bear upon political action, LeClair argues, a further structure is necessary that abstracts from the individual terror, pain, and fear a historical condition that is open to political action. The problem with these mediating structures is that they simultaneously make their objects accessible and distance them. Language theorists, psychologists, and economists have long belabored this double effect of representation: what gives us power over reality by modeling, reifying, conceptualizing, or objectifying it, also severs any immediate link we have with reality. What alienates us from others also shields and protects us from them. To interfere in the lives of others we must see them, to some degree or other, as separate from us. Applying this argument to pain and suffering, LeClair highlights its political dimension, but cannot resolve the ambiguities inherent in the use of such structures. His descriptions of the bureaucracies of political refuge alternatingly focus on the heartlessness of such structures and on their beneficial effects. His approach to language, reflected in the use of official documents and interview transcriptions, equally acknowledges this ambiguity, an ambiguity we have to accept if we want to take action.
Near the end of Well-Founded Fear, there is a remarkably self-reflexive scene summarizing the problems of victims of political violence in geographic and political areas exposed to the mixed blessing of American media attention. Casey Markham has just learned that her husband, the Kurdish refugee Osman, is planning to launch a chemical attack against American civilians in retaliation for the United States’ tacit, and not so tacit, complicity in Turkey’s persecution and extermination of the Kurds. Because she is married to Osman, who is slowly dying from a drug administered to him during interrogation and torture in a Turkish prison, and because she expedited his progress through the international bureaucracies of political asylum, Casey feels implicated in Osman’s desperate plan. Her personal, moral, and political convictions, which throughout the novel prove increasingly irreconcilable, deadlock at this moment. While trying to inform the authorities of Osman’s imminent terrorist act, Casey hitches a ride with “two middle-aged women in a beat-up Dodge” (281) somewhere outside of Denver. Concerned with their passenger’s obvious state of distress, the two women ask Casey what happened to her, an innocent question LeClair uses with great ingenuity to reflect upon the discursive machinations that got us all - Casey, LeClair, and the reader - to this point.
At first, one of the two women mistakes Casey’s use of the word “Kurd” for “cur,” as in “It’s a mean dog that beats his wife. But murdering people, now that’s something else again.” LeClair lets these words linger for a moment, raising the question of whether these two forms of violence - one directed against somebody familiar, the other against strangers; one personal, the other political; one intimate, the other of almost incomprehensible dimensions - really are so different after all. What distinguishes one form of violence from the other? Are they really all that different? Are there differences that matter to the victims? Obviously, the women, who are after all among Osman’s projected victims, know nothing about the Kurds. “You know, Emily,” one explains to the other after Casey corrects the initial misunderstanding, “one of those A-rabs we fought in the war against Saddam” (282). On the surface, this is of course patently false, suggesting that Osman’s plan to raise public consciousness will fail because of the profound ignorance of his audience, an ignorance made all the more dangerous by the Orientalist imagery that takes the place of true understanding. On another level, however, there is some truth to this statement. In outlining the basic historical constellations of Kurdish persecution in the course of recent history, the novel has already taken great pains to illustrate that, in some oblique way, the American war in the Persian Gulf was a war against all “A-rabs.” The enemy of your enemy, in the world of post-Cold War global politics, is not necessarily your ally any more.
Though Casey tries to remind herself that these two women are “just transporting” her, “like translators delivering a message,” she cannot help being alarmed at hearing her own story repeated back at her, translated, so to speak, into the perception of her audience. The first response to Casey’s story is so disillusioning that she subsequently switches strategies. She tells the police a bold-faced lie, trying to get Osman arrested by making him out to be a rapist. Again, there is some truth to that story. After all, the events linking Casey to Osman involve sexual attraction, secrecy and betrayal, and violence, all of which make Casey a victim. But this attempt also fails because Casey just isn’t a good liar; the details of her second story don’t add up, failing to convince the desk sergeant and leaving him unwilling to take action.
Similarly, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Powers’s kidnapped American to cast himself in the role of the victim. Although the group that has abducted Taimur Martin, “Sacred Conflict, a unit fighting for God’s Partisans” (150), proves itself to be just another contender for geopolitical clout - “the terrorist group of the hour, just now enjoying their moment on the geopolitical stage, their suicidal, scene-stealing walk-on” (151) - it has nothing on its declared enemy, the United States of America, and everything it represents. Plowing the Dark, like Powers’s earlier novels, shows a sense of moral outrage at the price exacted by whatever historical force dominates at any given moment. His previous novel Gain, for example, focuses on the downside of America’s precarious lead in the global economic race. Operation Wandering Soul, Powers’s angriest and perhaps most despairing book so far, grants us glimpses into a global village ravaged by greed and exploitation - its citizens washed up, limping and bleeding, on the shores of America. Being American anywhere other than in America means being always already implicated. Even Taimur Martin realizes that there are no longer innocents, especially not when they go abroad. Powers insinuates the reader’s complicity with his use of second person in the passages of the novel describing Martin’s ordeal as a hostage.
In the second narrative strand of Plowing the Dark, a group of scientists including Powers heroine, artist Adie Klarpol, develops “a total immersion environment” nicknamed the Cavern, a three-dimensional high-tech simulation, which, with each advance of technological progress, aims to either perfectly imitate physical reality or to embody pure thought. The Cavern promises to bring about victory in “the war against matter” as it approaches the ideal of “[closing] the gap between sign and thing” (400). Imagine a picture so perfect as to be identical with what it represents; imagine a map on the scale of 1:1, indistinguishable from the territory it shows. Once completed, such a representation would allow us to literalize our thoughts. We would live inside what Freud calls the infant’s “omnipotence of thought,” the fantasy, now fully-realized, that our thoughts are what shapes the material world around us - if we think it, it happens. Such technology can serve as a mirror in which we see consciousness split off from our own subjectivity, transferred into material reality, and held up for inspection.
Linked by analogy with Taimur Martin’s cell, the Cavern serves as a multivalent metaphor. Powers offers a series of analogies for these two rooms, flipping their function along their connotative axis: an infinitely small space of the mind, holding the infinitely vast space of the universe; a shelter from a brutal world outside, turning into an even more brutal isolation chamber; a conceptual modeling tool that brings the world into our reach, standing between us and the material reality of this world; a space apart from politics, being impinged upon, penetrated, contaminated, and even created and justified by politics; a space of the imagination in which we can see the imagination’s inherent limitations. As the permutations continue to proliferate, we gain a sense of how all these spheres of activity are connected, and how power flows in all directions simultaneously.
Powers’ vision, however, is remarkably free of paranoia. There is an encyclopedic urge in his writing, a clear-eyed view of complexity that can only be understood within the language of systems, of wheels within wheels, correspondences, analogies, reciprocities, internal and external differentiations and filiations. Significantly enough, it is Tom LeClair, a distinguished academic, who has attempted to set aside writers like Powers, whom he calls “systems novelists,” from their colleagues who go in for paranoia as a conveniently orderly answer to the baffling effects of complexity. Powers’s novel Gain, for example, traces the historical development of big business and its impact on individual (biological) life. It depicts capitalism as a highly complex organizational structure. It can have devastating effects but it is without malice. Its actions are directed at goals and objectives but don’t show intention. It booms and busts according to transparent, predictable laws, and yet it lacks a master plan. At best, it may develop to a stage where self-awareness sets in; a stage where “the spreading world machine” is capable of “catalyzing… mass revolution,” where civilization, with the help of technology, can “assemble the thing all history conspired toward: a place wide enough to house human restlessness. A device to defeat matter and turn dreams real” (125). This sense of intrinsic order and direction, however, is a given for Powers. It is not a secret, transcendent truth that needs to be unmasked in a flamboyant, scandalous gesture at great personal cost to his novels’ protagonists. There is, in short, reason to be confused, misdirected, or desperate, but never to be paranoid.
The group of scientists at TeraSys is itself a microcosm of the post-Cold War world, “a dozen stunned lives,” as they appear to Adie during a moment when history seems to overtake technological progress, “huddled in a picture-pitched tent, trapped in the rising information flood” (141). It is an assemblage of ethnicities and creeds, a rainbow coalition of refugees of all sorts stranded on the shores of Puget Sound. It is held together by pragmatic interests, most of which serve the economic advantage of the Visualization Lab and its parent company TeraSys. The lineage of these companies may be opaque, yet Powers insists that, essentially, the business of these companies is business. For its employees, only the project itself creates enough of a temporary and volatile social cohesion to keep conflicts within the reach of resolution. Only the bureaucratic structures and communal discipline of science hold together the bewildering diversity of this microcosm of post-Cold War America. Like LeClair’s organizations distributing humanitarian aid, the Visualization Lab makes it difficult to draw clear ideological boundaries, separate victims from perpetrators, and discern an organizational center.
Adie Klarpol’s pursuit of the pure metaphor, like Casey Markham’s pursuit of justice, is a narrative trajectory in search of an overarching order reminiscent of the Cold War. Both protagonists strive to separate their spheres of action into neat dichotomies: public and private, artistic and political, perpetrators and victims, oppressor and oppressed. Adie’s moment of recognition comes when she realizes that the company she works for does business with what used to be called, somewhat polemically, the military-industrial complex. Disillusioned, Adie, like Casey, quits her job. She considers swearing off her ideals, but then returns to the world having learned to live with its contradictions. Though Casey’s husband Osman is allowed to vanish into history without a trace, his terrorist actions still a possibility for future occasions, Casey herself has settled into compromise: “I’ll say simply, ‘I want to help,’” she concludes, nearly overwhelmed with reports of continued persecution and atrocities, “I don’t know why. That doesn’t worry me, not now” (293). Powers, for his part, ends on a similarly bittersweet note. Characters who have been tragically separated are finally reunited, though the world they are granted is metaphorically identified as that first, flawed simulation of the Cavern, “the crayon world,” a child’s vision of the universe, held together more by faith than by the efficiency and reliability of the tools that created it.
Underneath this acceptance of ambiguity and faith, both novels take place in a world that is not as chaotic as it may seem at first glance. For both authors, the defining conflict of the present is that between the West and the Arabic world, which finds its exemplary expression in the Gulf War. In Plowing the Dark, it is the display of high-tech weaponry on CNN during the Gulf War that makes Adie Klarpol realize that her work has been co-opted, serving purposes that she herself never intended and is even adamantly opposed to. Politics has intruded upon the scientists of the Visualization Lab before, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But all of these events function more as background noise, the murmur of history, while the process of technological development takes center stage. Powers gives this murmur of history added poignancy by playing Adie’s story against that of Taimur Martin, in which politics violently pushes into the foreground. Only in the parallel construction of the novel, the contrapuntal intertwining of two narrative trajectories, does politics emerge as a key theme from the very beginning. The convergence of these two at the end of the novel, its most political moment, coincides with the Gulf War.
That the Gulf War plays such a pivotal role in Powers’s thinking about the post-Cold War world is hardly coincidental. Early in Plowing the Dark, one of Taimur Martin’s students in Beirut asks, “Mr. Martin? What means this? ‘I am leaving the material world, and I am immaterial girl’?” (45). The trace of the original text, Madonna’s “Material Girl,” is still visible in this creative misreading by this subject of American cultural imperialism. The question sounds deferential. The power relations between student and teacher are still intact, though the tables are to be turned by Martin’s imminent abduction. But out of the mouth of the Lebanese girl, the trace of the original words suddenly sounds all the more distinctly American. For the words to make sense to her personally, their meaning needs to be reversed; it’s all about leaving behind the material world rather than embracing it. The “war against matter” (400) strives for the realization of pure ideas with the help of technology, both for American technoculture and for Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Each side in this struggle has a different idea how the material and immaterial are to be balanced. This struggle for the control of images manifests itself in the Gulf War, a war of and about images.
On the surface, the Islamic world is personified as the iconoclast fanatically opposed to the great producer and consumer of images, America. But this conflict over images is really about economics and politics. When Powers and LeClair address the question of property, their inquiry is into what has been called “postindustrial society” or “late capitalism,” a model that acknowledges the crucial role of images, functioning in ways so complex as to override conventional Marxist distinctions between base and superstructure. Despite Powers’ play on “immaterial girls leaving the material world” - or maybe even because of it - neither he nor LeClair suggests that the Gulf War is exclusively about ideology. Though it is a war between idolators and iconoclasts, it is also a war over the material forms that each immaterial image assumes. It is a war about who controls the means of production and distribution, a source of economic power which, in late capitalism, relies on the image as its crucial commodity. The Gulf War, in short, is primarily about economic competition.
Plowing the Dark and Well-Founded Fear both move toward a moment of political recognition for their respective protagonists. This moment, when the main character realizes that each action occurring within the complex field of the post-Cold War world has far-reaching, often contradictory implications, is also a moment of recognition for the reader. However, none of the diagnoses LeClair and Powers offer strike me as particularly groundbreaking; global politics in the post-Cold War era is complex but ultimately governed by economic competition. Any reader of political thrillers in the vein of John Le Carré already knows about the conceptual and moral ambiguities running amuck in this world. We know that we are often operating in circumstances so complex that we do not understand what consequences our actions have or how we ourselves are acted upon. If we, as readers, come to Powers and LeClair expecting a fundamentally new insight, we will be disappointed; neither novel has anything to offer that goes beyond the confirmation of this already given setting.
What both novels do have to offer, however, is a closer look at the cognitive tools used to arrive at politics, among them, most significantly, the medium of the novel itself. Jim Neilson reminds us that Powers
has regularly resolved his novels by pointing to their contrivances, by identifying the reader’s complicity in his fictions, and by directing us to act upon this complicity by dirtying our hands in whatever work we can do. (“Dirtying Our Hands,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12)
As we are made aware of the political implications of reading a novel, Powers admits to his own political ambitions in writing one:
…I feel that the book does provide a forum for the reawakening of conscience. Social conscience and moral conscience. And I think if I felt that it weren’t a political forum, that I would be much less interested in writing. I’m not finally a believer that private aesthetic experience has much redemptive value. It’s got to go back out. (interview with Michael Tortorello, Rain Taxi)
Writing in perhaps one of the most “private” forms of aesthetic experience, the novel, Powers resorts to self-reflexivity in order to shape his chosen medium into a tool of political awareness. His diagnosis is somewhat disheartening, though. The Cavern in Plowing the Dark serves, among other things, as a metaphor for the novel itself, a total immersion environment which is simultaneously a part of the material world and an immaterial metaphor for it. The Cavern is a hybrid metaphor, merging the metaphor of architecture with the process and product of writing a novel. In an essay entitled “Being and Seeming: the Technology of Representation,” Powers praises architecture, “the pre-eminent art form of the pre-informational era,” for being “durable, representative, and comprehensive” (15). Though the Cavern belongs to the “informational era,” Powers endows it with all of these desirable properties; it is “at once, usable, beautiful, and sound.” To the degree that the Cavern shares these desirable properties with the novel, Powers is confident in his medium. But the critically self-reflexive impulse Jim Neilson detects is not satisfied with letting this vision stand; like the novel, architecture is defined by compromise.
Against the backdrop of political tension, releasing itself in the violent spasm of the Gulf War, the final simulation of the Cavern is, significantly enough, a piece of “profoundly collective” architecture. To boot, it is a structure located exactly at the crossroads between East and West, the Hagia Sophia, “the Holy Wisdom.” Yet again, Powers evokes the complexity of the post-Cold War world. “Byzantium. Constantinople. Istanbul. A place like that can never have too many names” (341). It is the highest accomplishment of human ingenuity and creativity, and yet it stands for imperfection, ambiguity, or, as Don DeLillo calls it in his novel The Names, “the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.” This is what Powers places at the pinnacle of his own novel:
The room of holy wisdom is a ruin. The world’s largest, as large as the ruinous world. And propped against the stripped arcades, amnesiac, disinherited, illiterate in the unreadable wreck, you pitch your home. (344)
Though we are “disinherited,” like squatters, we still make a home in a place that’s pre-owned. Powers appends a brief quote from former hostage Terry Waite in which Waite compares hostage negotiation to “putting up a stage set” that features an exit “through which both the captor and the captive can walk with sincerity and dignity” (417). The stage, though erected collectively, is made out of materials and with the help of tools that aren’t properly ours. Faith - or, in a more aesthetic terminology, the suspension of disbelief - is an essential requirement if we want our metaphors to work in our interest. Even if the artifice involved is all too transparent, faith allows us to steer clear of cynicism and the political paralysis it fosters, yet remain aware of the property relations in which we operate. As a gesture of faith, not cynicism, Powers reminds us that even Terry Waite’s confident pronouncement remains caught in ambiguity because it is credited to an ABC interview conducted before he was taken captive.
LeClair’s novel is equally haunted by distrust in its own effectiveness. It examines the novel as, simultaneously, a product (a commodity, a coherently structured image, literature as an institution) and a means of production (a form of discourse that produces ideology: opinions and sentiments in the reader, critical discourse in the professional critic). LeClair addresses this type of institutional distrust in his novel’s title, Well-Founded Fear, a term that is simultaneously a product of the official bureaucratic vocabulary of international political refugee administrations, and a means of production, a conceptual linguistic mechanism creating “refugees,” “displaced persons,” “terrorists,” etc. It describes the necessary precondition for being granted political asylum - the reasonable expectation that, in the course of one’s daily life, one may be arrested, displaced, incarcerated, tortured, or murdered. Marking the fluent and permeable boundary between psychology and politics, the term works both ways. Individual subjectivity is seen as a legitimate dimension of history, while history itself is personalized, individualized, and considered as a nexus of forces with emotional impact.
Surely, the title is meant ironically. Can there ever be a fear that is “well-founded”? Isn’t fear, by definition, a state of mind induced by latency, by something that has not happened (yet)? Isn’t fear a state of ambiguity, in which the worst case scenario is always held as an equal option to all those less-frightening, more normal ones? To prove that you live in “well-founded fear” is an impossible endeavor. How can you prove that something is “about to” happen? You can verify facts, but how do you verify a possibility? That the term is used as a standard by a bureaucracy that decides whether people are allowed to live or die becomes the target of LeClair’s critique. Refugees are sacrificed to the imprecision of language. Bureaucracies hide their inefficiencies behind the ambiguities of language. In the interstices of language we find politics.
And then there is the literary form itself. More than Powers, who operates unrestrained by genre conventions, LeClair uses elements of the thriller: a hapless protagonist, betrayed and double-crossed; the threat of physical violence in the context of international politics; a terrorist attack about to be averted at the last minute. The plot of Well-Founded Fear relies heavily upon suspense. Granted, LeClair leaves the connoisseur of conventional thrillers with far too many ambiguities and unresolved questions in the end. But that only makes Well-Founded Fear a literary thriller, operating in the gray area between mainstream and genre and appealing to an audience willing to see the genre challenged and broadened. LeClair does write in a sophisticated genre, but a genre nonetheless. Critical self-reflexivity, which takes place in the scene involving the two women in the beat-up old Dodge outside of Denver, infuses the novel with a sense of genre anxiety, a concern that the limitations of genre are too narrow for what the author is trying to say.
The questions most readers will have after finishing both novels, however, concern the description of the post-Cold War world - its accuracy and its usefulness. In a review of Plowing the Dark, LeClair detects in Powers an uncharacteristic lack of investment in the position of the other: “Powers could have allowed the captors [of Taimur Martin] to explain themselves and their history, the causality behind an ‘innocent’ American’s captivity” (“Cave Paintings” 74). The confusion Martin experiences on his first day in Beirut never lifts; the otherness of the world outside America persists. LeClair’s criticism makes all the more sense considering his own investment in the plight of the Kurds. Though hampered somewhat by the thriller formula, Well-Founded Fear is driven by what almost seems a muckraking impulse, a genuine sense of outrage and a desire to raise the reader’s consciousness about the political issue at hand. Though readers are free to consider the Kurds as representatives of geopolitical disenfranchisement in general, LeClair’s politics are grounded in this specific historical incident and none other. Given this position, Powers’ depiction of the Islamic world must appear somewhat foreshortened. The politics insinuated in Plowing the Dark try to orient readers in an arena that is defined more broadly and more in the abstract. Beirut is an exemplary scenario, a test case for the post-Cold War world as a whole, which lends itself metonymically to Powers’s examination of the power of the imagination and its products. The difference between both novels becomes visible in their respective epigraphs. LeClair selects Article 14 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”), while Powers chooses, as the first of two epigraphs, lines from Auden’s “In Memory of William Butler Yeats” (“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its saying where executives/Would never want to tamper; it flows south…”).
Where LeClair’s review suspects, perhaps justifiably, a trace of Orientalism in Powers, most readers will ask whether he, and LeClair himself in his role as a novelist, present a vision of the world after the Cold War that makes the complexities of this world manageable rather than surrendering to them. This question is even more important because both writers’ emphasis on the complexity of systems, their embracing of faith as a viable political position in a postlapsarian world, and their turn toward self-reflexivity constitute a program that can easily be misconstrued as a form of political complacency. Granted, both novels advocate political action and involvement. But it is an action based on faith, and it is a faith that is necessary because of the ambiguity and at times impenetrable complexity of the world. This faith is necessary because of the imperfect tools with which we are forced to operate.
However, there is also a kind of argumentative floor to the politics in both novels. Underneath their plea for faith and systemic complexity, they both offer a reading of history that is familiar. Though the boundaries might be constantly shifting, there are boundaries, and the crucial one is, in Powers’s words, the one between “the owners of the world” and those who need to talk back to them. The business of the post-Cold War world is business. The shifting boundaries negotiated and re-negotiated in the arenas of geopolitical systems and the individual conscience are more often than not bottom lines. Both novels, indebted as they may be to formal and philosophical positions of postmodernity, demonstrate a belief that there is in fact an ontological ground zero. There is a material, or rather materialistic world that is really quite simple and straightforward - remember Powers’s pun on the Madonna song? The goal of both novels is not, though, to take readers all the way to ground zero, to provide the eye-opening revelation of conspiracy fiction: there is a secret center that holds the world together. These moments of revelation, as I mentioned before, are reserved for the novels’ protagonists, not for their readers. For the readers, the reward comes with the internal balance, the precarious equilibrium both novels establish between simplicity and complexity. Because neither opts for one or the other - an effect perhaps of the theoretical sophistication they espouse - both are such valuable political reading experiences. It is left for the reader to determine the exact relationship between the simple and the complex. This decision may change in response to the requirements of particular situations, be they matters of life and death or the nitty-gritty of everyday life.
DeLillo, Don. The Names. New York: Random House, 1989.
LeClair, Tom. “Cave Paintings.” Book (May/June 2000): 73-4.
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