America

I’ve mentioned it before, but in a scholarship interview to go to the United States to study I was asked to related how I would sum up my idea of Scotland for a curious New Yorker. Social justice and hardcore techno, I said.

Good luck with that.
No, not yer maw; I want to study THE LAW!

I didn’t get that one, funnily enough. But after I honed my interview technique. I did end up going to study in the United States. I started on a J1 student visa before moving on to an H1B visa for foreign workers in specialty occupations which require highly specialized knowledge. [See picture above.]

[Want more of this? Check out the Apoplexy Tiny Letter.]

I ended up spending what, to date, is the majority of my adult life living and working in the United States. I would never have expected that. As a wee Scottish boy growing up in the ‘eighties, I was instinctually sceptical of the US. But the attraction of the idea of studying abroad was too much to resist, and I didn’t get much traction with the great educational institutions of mainland Europe.

Tekno Tekno! TEKNO!
“Nein, nicht deine Mutter; Ich möchte DAS RECHT studieren!”

I didn’t learn much German, but I did learn that the US was a huge collection of county-sized states populated by all sorts of people, not just the folks I’d seen on the telly. As I stayed there longer, I learned about the history of political and legal thought there and realised it was a much richer tapestry than I had imagined. I read Thomas Geoghegan’s memoir of a union lawyer, and Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. As I revisit the dust jacket of the second, I seems terribly predictive of how the academic Left giving up on (the best traditions of) the United States amounts to a collaboration that cedes the ground of action to the Right.

Bing sings, and Walt.... Whit, man?!
Q: What’s the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Whitman?

Rorty decried the loss of the great tradition of democratic intellectual labor that started with Walt Whitman and John Dewey. Back in Edinburgh, I see how that 0.5% of me became one of the innumerable type of American when I think that a piece of fiction I was working on yesterday revisited – however clumsily – Whitman’s themes. For America is large, of course. It contains multitudes.

I was recently interviewed by the National Monument on the importance of a Scottish literature by Scottish PEN as part of a fundraiser to celebrate its 90th anniversary and the part the organisation plays in the fight for freedom of expression.

Unfinished business
Never mind the content, check the view!

I found myself relating that, despite living the US for around fifteen years, I hadn’t seen it so clearly as when I returned to Edinburgh, and my Creative Writing masters course was led by the author of the novel Under the Heartless Blue. It tells the story of a 23 year old widow who rolls up in 1884 Arizona to take up a prospecting claim, a story of women in the founding of the West.

Together with French and Scottish and Irish and English and Japanese stories, and stories of Africa, we read novels that I characterize as telling the creation myth of the United States.  That idea has become something of an obsession of mine. Right now, after the enthusiastic recommendations of our old pal Andy in Brooklyn and my endless wheedling, Mrs Stroke Bloke and I are working through the HBO series Deadwood.

"You're not gay, are you?"
‘I will call you “Chad”.’

Back on the course, we read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, set in a harsh rural working-class New England around the turn of the century. We read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, the story of the daughter of a Swedish immigrant in the late 19th century who makes something of life in Nebraska. We read Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and its loss of a North Dakota reservation to the federal government in the early 20th century. We read Jazz, the second part of Toni Morrison’s trilogy on African American history. And we read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, the tale of two young boys becoming cowboys in Texas and Mexico after the Second World War.

Well, Fife *does* look nice in the sun.
I don’t think we’re in Leith any more, Sick Boy

We didn’t read the second and third parts of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, although I read that somehow – they become increasingly bleak. In the last, Cities of the Plain, <spoiler alert> the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses dies, and the protagonist of The Crossing eventually drifting across the Southwest for many years, working ranches and living in hotels, before becoming homeless, and taking shelter beneath a highway underpass. Ranching is a dying industry, and the cattle ranches around El Paso are devastated by drought and may be claimed by the Department of Defense to become military areas.

The title Cities of the Plain is a reference to a group of five cities including Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis. It’s also the title of this nineteenth century painting of the same subject by the English Victorian-era painter, Edward Armitage held at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

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3 thoughts on “America

  1. I read four “great american novel” style novels this year; “The Nix” (which was the best), “City on Fire” (which was the 70’s-iest and a close second best), “Barkskins” (which was most historical expansive), and “Heat and Light” (the most contemporary).

    While each had their problems (a bit sappy; a bit massive and overhyped; a bit boring and maybe racist but I’m not sure; a bit heavy handed) they each told the story of how people interact with history to create America (the history in question being the 1968 democratic convention and modern tea-partyism; 70s punk and wealth in NYC; logging from 1605-2016; and fracking 5 years ago in western PA).

    And I agree we have a long history of expository fiction which uses the intersection of people and events to shape our view of our country. The Dos Passos trilogy, for instance, was a defining picture of the first part of the last century.

    Which means, perhaps, that the only bright spot I can find in the really terribly unstable, unpredictable, and – frankly – morally reprehensible situation we find ourselves in is that perhaps we will get some good novels out of it in 2027.

    Cause everything else about the last 8 days seems pretty grim for America.

    1. Glad you’re not saying that with your band hat on. Wouldn’t want an Amanda Palmer-style firestorm about how there’s a silver lining to every horrible dark cloud in the shape of a cheeto-faced, tiny-fingered shitgibbon. Or…?

      You call it right, I think, in that these novels will take a little time to appear. Full-length fiction works in progress set in contemporary or near-future time have to be re-examined in the light of current developments in order, and that’s a task. Once again, Ballard’s direction to write science fiction feels instructive. But a quick flowering of short form fiction and non-fiction is on the cards in the meantime, I think. See, for example, 404 Ink’s Margaret Atwood-backed collection, Nasty Women, full of Interrobang-associated writers.

      But, yes, things are dark. And clouds are roiling over what the BBC wouldn’t call the so-called UK while the dog-whistling hosts of its talk news station welcome a parade of racists onto their call-ins. There shouldn’t be any self-congratulations here, that’s for sure.

      1. Yes I didn’t want to cause band strife! Glad that worked. And it goes without saying that a good novel in 2027 doesn’t make this “worth it” in any sense. But I have no idea what palmer said – will google it one day.

        Science fiction helps and it’s good you mention Atwood. I read the handmaids tale after the election; and the fifth season a year before. Both are wonderful allegories about opression (gender/religious in Atwood and racial/cultural in the jesimin) which miss the somewhat cloying recentness that the fracking book had.

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