Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Science-Fictiony Writing in "Beyond the Sealed World" (1965)

Select prose from Beyond the Sealed World (1965) by Rena Vale

"Daly 1444 moved cautiously on his sponge pallet."

"Was he not pledged to mate with Calinda 1066, the most desirable and influential female in all the world of Science?"

"One of them drew a nozzle from his belt and played a paralyzing ray over the girl's twitching form."

"'I come now to the name of Daly 1444, the promising young scientist who has given Civilization the delightful Fragarian flavor, formerly known as Strawberries and Cream.'"

"'The banishment spool!' Claude whispered in surprise."

"His organs had rebelled against what was called rabbit stew, but he had been able to ingest some quail broth."

"He had not considered it beneath the dignity of an official of the Useless Center to visit a public Recreation Hall and to exchange signals with the first receptive female of sturdy hips and oversized mammary glands who entered."

"He began to dress, noting that the organ of which he was unduly proud had become engorged. He whistled air through wide-spaced teeth. Did he dare?"

"'Brugo make big feast for buzzards with Corn People.'"

"'That shall be the name of this tasty fat grain.'"

"'Jerome excited an endocrine indicator and rather than betray us, he threw himself in an induction oven.'"

"'Your current is deranged, Daly.'"

"'Paralyze the pariahs with your nozzle.'"

"'I am your love, Prince Daly! she shrilled. 'You promised my father you would marry with me, and I gave myself to you when you squeezed my naked teats!"

"As if to emphasize his statement the sirens of zero blasted, their goose-like whonks echoing through the center, adding a note of doom."

Rena Vale (1898–1983) was a writer who was a scriptwriter for Universal Studios in Hollywood from 1926 to 1930 and in the 1930s was an investigator for a U.S. House of Representatives committee that later became the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (wiki)

Whites, Whimsy, and 'Moonrise Kingdom'

If someone wanted to rain on Moonrise Kingdom's parade,  it might very well go like this:

Once upon a time there was an enchanted island where white kids could be safe and magic.  Rather than play Skullcrusher 3 on the X-Box all day, little boys, of their own accord, sat attentively listening to scratchy recordings of Benjamin Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, apparently to prepare for mandatory induction in the local church's neverending production of Britten's opera, Noye's Fludde.  Little girls, meanwhile, didn't text one another all day in vacuous volleys of OMGs and ROTFLs, but instead sat reading in gabled windows lost in a world of imagination.  Sure, girls could still be pretty ditsy, packing ye-ye records and kittens for arduous hiking expeditions, but they could always count on the chivalry and devotion of respectful, resourceful boys who knew how to build fires, pitch tents, and perform other sensible tasks.  A few kids might be "misfits" or "troubled," but they always found their way, especially when the surrounding community, both young and old, rallied to the siren song of true love.  The adults on this enchanted island weren't perfect, by any means, but eventually they did the right thing, for the kids if not for themselves.

Yes, it was New England in 1965, America's psychic center of white whimsy.

But the enchanted "Moonrise Kingdom" is no more.  A giant "storm" came along and washed it all away....

Yep, that's pretty much how you would do it, if you were inclined to do so.

Bill Murray...critic's kryptonite.
Moonrise Kingdom is so well crafted and so profoundly sweet that one feels guilty offering any critical account of it whatsoever--suddenly you're the grinch shitting in a kid's toy box.  A timeless account of "first love" and childhood innocence--who could ever be against that?   Don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom.  How could I not, I was raised white and middle-class (Wes Anderson films as a whole, after all, are Number 10 on the Stuff White People Like blog).  Plus it has Bill Murray in it, and Bill Murray's very existence--even when glimpsed fleetingly as in this film--somehow keeps even the most whimsy-filled balloon from floating all the way up to a cream-cheese moon (in fact, I'm sure if Murray somehow miraculously showed up in Triumph of the Will, at a podium even, I'd find a way to justify it).  And while Anderson remains stubbornly committed to symmetrical framing, wide-angle distortion, clipped dialogue, and flattened affect, at least it presents a conscious stylistic choice in a commercial cinema that now usually vacillates between the laziness of basic coverage and the flying eye of the CGI.

So let me say up front, I'm not "against" Moonrise Kingdom.  But I am suspicious of it, just as I would be of anything hyped as "timeless" and "universal" in its story concerns.  Because Moonrise Kingdom is in fact very mindful of time, the mid-sixties to be exact, and for that matter, rather narrow in its demo on both sides of the screen.

Is it fair to criticize Moonrise Kingdom for having unrelenting faith in the magic of bygone whiteness?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Wes Anderson, or anyone else for that matter, certainly has the right to make a period piece about white people living in a milieu that was, for all practical purposes, all white (although you might suspect that two lawyers with four kids living in a huge old house on an exclusive island in 1965 might have at least one "domestic" on hand).  The argument here is certainly not that Anderson/Coppola should have added a Khaki scout of color to the troop's patrol, a quota solution to the (white) discomforts of race and representation that always flirts with the ludicrous. 

No, it isn't necessarily the whiteness of Moonrise Kingdom per se that is troubling, it's the whimsy.  Or perhaps more to the point, it's the whimsy plus the whiteness.  Or even more to the point of the point, it's the whimsy plus the whiteness plus the nostalgia.

Here's the question: can we afford whimsy right now, especially a whimsy born of a nostalgia for the era "before the great storm" wiped out, or at least marginalized, all the polite, literate, sensitive, ingenious white kids who white people fantasize were thriving once upon a time?  "Moonrise Kingdom," the magical cove, must get washed away because that's the logic of adult nostalgia, you can't go back to that first crush, a first love, or lost childhood adventures.  But when nestled within this larger island of quirky white people, the passing of Moonrise Kingdom implies a loss of social innocence as well, a caesura before America's growing racial, cultural, and technological diversity would transform Franny and Zooey into Snooki and the Situation.  There is the troubling sense in this film that white America was and is ever more whimsical the more it is cut-off from the surrounding social world, in this case on an island, in a hurricane, now lost in time.

Such liminal states are crucial to children's fiction, of course, which is a major if not defining template for Moonrise Kingdom (and Anderson's films more generally).  But in this context, the regressive journey to an adult world ruled by the logic of children makes the segregationist aspects of this fantasy that much more palpable.  The "magic Negro," after all, only becomes "magic" by coming into proximity with a white person.  The whimsy and magic of Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, has a Peter Pan in exile feel to it, not so much as a refusal to grow up, but as a reluctance to take the ferry over to Boston or New York or someplace else where kids haven't built treehouses in over a century.

Look familiar? I bet you've already seenMK
Anderson's preoccupation with precocious families often draws comparisons with Salinger, and The Royal Tenenbaums might well be as close as anyone will come to a bonus Salinger novel, albeit refracted through the multi-protagonist structure and detached humor endemic to recent U.S. art cinema.  But when Salinger's dramatis personae collide with the tone of Roald Dahl, as in Moonrise Kingdom, it has the odd effect of draining both authors of their respective undertows.  White America's nostalgia for the days when every white kid had to read A Catcher in the Rye has, oddly enough, transformed the rather dark postwar anomie lurking in and around Holden Caulfield into a type of timeless teen awkwardness--who wasn't a little weird as an adolescent, am I right?  And while Dahl's whimsy created a magical chocolate factory (and a fantastic Mr. Fox), it was also a place where desire very well might kill you.  Moonrise Kingdom, meanwhile, remains wholly untouched by Salinger's neurotic existentialism or Dahl's ability to highjack whimsy in service of something more sinister.   Sure, a dog gets an arrow through his neck in Moonrise Kingdom (seemingly for the sole purpose of setting up the film's best one-liner), but such sadness is hardly on a par with "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish."  And while "Suzy's" troubled bookishness may have an antecedent in the aforementioned Zooey, I doubt we will ever see The Bell Jar-esque sequel where she's at Smith in the 1970s, gingerly testing razor to wrist after reading Being and Nothingness.

No one wants to see Bill Murray as Seymour Glass, blowing his brains out in the last reel (much funnier that he expresses his marital frustrations by getting drunk and chopping down a tree).  But this Dahl v. Salinger conflict does raise a central question: Is Moonrise Kingdom a mature movie for little kids, or a childish movie for adults?  And what are the implications of that ambivalence?  No one, certainly, is going to begrudge children a little whimsy here and thereOn the other hand, if this is a film primarily for adults (as it seems to be--it certainly isn't being marketed as The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Part II), then its fantasy of white isolation on boy island becomes a bit more troubling.

Most children eventually give up the whimsical for the tragicomic, a subtle shift from weightless wonder to the crushingly unpredictable absurdities, high and low, that define the less insulated realities of adult life.  Moonrise Kingdom seems either unable or unwilling to cross that line--thus the confusion.  

Is it the fantasy of a twelve-year-old boy, Sam Shakusky in fact, imagining the freedoms and competencies he will enjoy after puberty, especially with slightly older and for now inaccessible junior high school girls?  Imagine for a moment if Sam was even an iota closer to Suzy in apparent age--Moonrise Kingdom would suddenly become Badlands. Shakusky's boner notwithstanding, or perhaps standing, but not with any carnal intent beyond some innocent cuddling, Moonrise Kingdom's tone would be impossible from any other perspective than waning boyhood latency (thus the army of uniformed boys--all the way up to Harvey Keitel-- and the one, lone, tall girl. I don't know what the movie would be like if it centered on Suzy, or a girly pack of Bluebirds, but it sure wouldn't be this movie).
"Aren't there any other girls on this island?"
Or is Moonrise Kingdom, more perversely, another early hallucination in a boomer-drenched culture that, now flirting with senility, wants to return once again to the 1960s, but not the 1960s in which "revolutionary" white boomers once fancied themselves the heroes, but the earlier, "nicer" 1960s that older, now more conservative white boomers bemoan having fucked up for themselves?   Ah, to live on a rustic island with no roads, but well-stocked with good books and classic music, be it Britten or Hank, an island where kids wrote letters, played board games, painted portraits-- an island  with cute ye-ye but no shaggy Beatles, Hullabaloos but no Woodstocks, snuggling but no sex, scouts but no gangs, liquor but no pot, Indian trails but no Indians, precocious white kids but no.....

Has every (white) generation now internalized the narrative that the sixties were a "mistake," the threshold of declension rather than the once celebrated vanguard of liberation? This was the explicit dynamic in last season's Mad Men (#123 on SWPL),  as fans of all ages despaired watching Don Draper begin his fall from coolest patriarch in the world to uptight fuddy duddy (and where everyone assumed that Dawn, the new African-American secretary, simply HAD to figure in some type of racially charged plot line that, by implication, would only further disrupt Don's crumbling paradise, a move that would have reduced Dawn to an unwelcome narrative complication in every sense of the term).  Taken together, Mad Men and Moonrise Kingdom seem to endorse a similar premise: (white) America starts turning to shit sometime in 1966.  At the risk of crapping in the toy box a final time, it is worth noting that Moonrise Kingdom's Hullabaloo hurricane hits just two weeks after the Watts riots, and only a few months before Megan Draper culturally emasculates Don by forcing him to listen to that acid nightmare, "Tomorrow Never Knows."  Moonrise Kingdom can only remain magical, whimsical, and timeless by thoroughly extricating itself from this messier social world on the mainland, wistfully stopping the clock before the real hurricane hits. 

The Annotated Ann Coulter: Volume I

Concerned citizens have debated the Ann Coulter question for many years now.  Does Coulter sincerely believe in the often ridiculous positions she champions in print, on Fox news, and during her campus lecture tours?  Or, as many have suggested, is Coulter an ongoing "performance" project of some kind, a hyperbolic parody of conservative anger and illogic dreamed up by a conceptualist collective somewhere in the Village?  Rachel Maddow has recently attempted to make this same "art school" argument about GOP pizza magnate and freelance genital inspector Herman Cain, but in truth, it is Coulter who first compelled left-leaning cultural elites to contend with the enigmatic posturing of feckless fascism.  So, for example, when Coulter claimed after the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that there now exists "burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine," baffled bystanders could only wonder at her motivation.  Regardless of one's position on nuclear energy, no one would really take a "pro-meltdown" position, would they? Talk about seeing the glowing silver lining around a hazy cloud of Cesium-137-- this has to be a stunt, right?  Ultimately, however, Coulter's "intent" in her books and punditry is not all that important.  Be it sincere or a sham, the effect on American culture and politics remains the same.  If you want to drink from a mountain stream, after all, it matters little if a horse up river pissed in the water by design or by accident; either way, you still have a mouth full of horse piss.

One of Coulter's signature moves, both in print and in person, is to appear so consistently agitated by the moral bankruptcy, political hypocrisy, and all-around stupidity of the American "liberal" that she might at any moment hyperventilate and pass out.   From a performance perspective, these histrionics involve conveying a sense of boiling rage that, if not for the displacements of her "wit" and/or the threat of incarceration by the state, might actually erupt into either localized or more systematic programs of violence, perhaps an on-camera seizure triggered by patriotic exasperation or a call for a national liberal-cleansing program based on information gathered from Amazon marketing cookies.  Slander, Treason, Godless, Guilty, Demonic--these are the words Coulter has deployed to brand her engagements with the American "left," inflammatory generalizations that work well in stoking her core constituency of hotheads who prefer to live their lives in a perpetual state of generalized inflammation.  Given the cartoonish provocations of these titles, one might assume Coulter is hoping her political adversaries will respond in kind by simply drawing Hitler mustaches on her annual point-of-sale ad flats, thereby taking the reactionary bait that would drag an otherwise thoughtful progressive down into the limbic mud with her.

But what if Coulter's perpetual rage is actually sincere, grounded in the frustration that so few take her seriously at whatever it is she is attempting to do (beyond selling books, of course, still the primary conservative test of "truth"--much as one might consider Ray Kroc the greatest chef in the history of the world for having sold some astronomical number of easily consumable meat-units).  Even more intriguingly, perhaps Coulter is a bored überfrau, despondent that no adversary appears worthy or willing to join her in mercilessly demolishing and then transcending the doxa of western political thought.  Driven to despair that she alone must drive the final nails into the coffin of rational political discourse, her rage has gradually assumed the logic of excrescence described so beautifully by Jean Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies; that is to say, bored with the dialectics of "left" vs. "right," Coulter has worked feverishly to will into existence a world that is "more right than right," an ambition that increasingly has little or nothing to do with anything an imaginary "left" might be doing, but is simply a death-spiral into evermore extreme positions of purely experimental conservatism, a type of "string theory" for post-Bucklidian politics.

Coulter is no ordinary thinker, that much is clear.  The easy thing to do would be to ignore her, or when that is not possible, simply dismiss her as a kook wandering somewhere along the continuum between  the bitterly insane and the insanely bitter.  But this would be shirking our moral obligations, I think.  For example, if Coulter truly believes what she writes, to ignore her is to reward and even encourage her harrowing descent into an ever more terrifying (albeit lucrative) form of madness, one that can only end with her camped out by the Bellvue ambulance bay hectoring the sick and injured for their cowardly reliance on public EMTs (Did you even consider for a second that you could have your neighbors submit private bids to bring you here, you parasite!)

On the other hand, if Coulter's act really is a bluff, and she in fact spends all her free time in Manhattan clinking cocktails with book editors, gallery curators, and a few cynical but discrete Ivy League professors, laughing about the endless gullibility of the stupid hayseeds who are paying for her new walk-in jacuzzi--then don't we owe it to her miserable captives to set them free?  If, back in 1964, I had been struggling to sit through all 8 hours of Warhol's Empire, I know I would certainly have appreciated it if someone had come into the theater to let me know it was okay to leave, that I was just a prop in the execution of someone else's conceptual stunt.

Perhaps those of us who identify with progressive causes would benefit by digging a bit deeper, by subjecting Coulter's oeuvre to a more sustained and probing form of textual explication.  By "deconstructing," if you will, the logic of the Coulterian universe, there is a chance--a slim one, I will concede--that we might better understand, a). what she professes to believe; b). whether or not she really believes what she professes to believe; and c). the sensibility of a readership that truly believes that she believes in things that she may or may not actually believe.

The only way to do this, I propose, is through a line-by-line examination of the work itself--what we in the academic game sometimes call a "close reading."  As a slanderous, treasonous, godless, guilty, and demonic member of the professorial class, I hope that I might be well-suited to such a task. In the interest of critical self-reflexivity, I will admit up front that I think she's probably faking it, that she doesn't really believe most of the positions she advocates (like carrying heavy water for the "pro-meltdown" community).  But I am willing to keep an open mind, and if somehow Coulter can win me over with the strength of her arguments, I will be more than happy to concede that she is correct and that my "liberal" ass deserves immediate incarceration for crimes against the state, at least until it arrives at its final destination in hell where Coulter and other heavenly conservatives can pelt me and my fellow damned with burning copies of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Let us begin with Coulter's fourth book, How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).  Though the title remains confrontational (it implies, you see, that talking to a liberal is so unpleasant that one would do everything in his or her power to avoid such a fate), I begin here because this book suggests, at least implicitly, that some type of dialogue might still take place (at least as of 2004, the date of the book's original publication).  Admittedly, in Coulter's ideal form, this "dialogue" would be a Thanksgiving dinner wherein a witty "conservative" systematically decimates the sophistry of her uptight liberal relations by demonstrating that there is no problem in the 21st century that can not be answered by some creative combination of Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Jesus.  To put a positive spin on this otherwise depressing scenario, let us emphasis that this scene at least has us all sitting at the same table, as it were, and that if Coulter's woefully naive young cousin doing an Anthro degree at Smith began choking to death on the ceremonial wishbone, she still might have enough empathy to get up and administer the Heimlich maneuver (then again, perhaps Coulter really does have the courage to commit an unparalleled act of pure Objectivism:  No one help her!  It is not in our interest to prevent this lazy, under-achieving masticator from choking, for her death shall leave more turkey and stuffing for the rest of us!  Turn the highchairs this way so that the babies might also learn this lesson well!)

So let us begin (Coulter's prose will be in bold black, my annotations in red).
A special note to conservative readers: Given that modern American conservatism has now become indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia, there will be no attempt made here to "persuade" or "convince" you of anything.  Rather, much as one might address a co-worker who suddenly professes a belief that extraterrestrials are filling his head with voices telling him to kill the neighbor's dog, the following will proceed from the assumption that logic and reason are of little use in convincing you of anything, and that your best hope resides in a carefully monitored regimen of Haldol or Thorazine. I'm so sorry.  If somehow appeals to cooperative reason and socio-economic justice prevail in the future, we will try to send a time machine back to rescue the rest of you from yourselves.  Until then, good luck.  Also, I think someone on your local public access station just suggested adding a penny in sales tax to help clean up that toxic dump site that's been festering out by the Johnson place and breeding all them mutant super-raccoons---your time might be better spent writing a letter about how the free market is the only way to deal with the mutant super-raccoon problem, and that you'll shoot any city animal control officer who comes on your property to implement a socialist "one-size-fits-all" campaign of mutant super-raccoon eradication. 

How to Talk to a Liberal

(1) Historically, the best way to convert liberals is to have them move out of their parents' home, get a job, and start paying taxes.

Coulter begins here with a touch of folk wisdom, essentially adapting Churchill's bromide, "If you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at 40 you have no brain," so that it might better appeal to her most loyal readers (crucially, however, Coulter is not willing to concede the 20 year-old part of the equation.  Even deciding to share your toys in preschool would be counted as a moronic flirtation with wealth redistribution).  Conservatives love using this quotation because they believe it imbues the speaker with a type of practical philosophy born of hard-won experience and incontrovertible common sense.  By dropping it into everyday conversation, the conservative signals that he or she possesses the necessary intellectual depth to reflect on life's big questions, but still has not been swayed by the more "complicated" book-learned philosophies favored by liberal elites. 

Unpacking the sentence, we see three interlinking assumptions:

1. Liberals are children.
2. Liberals are unemployed.
3. Liberals do not pay taxes.

By casting the liberal as a child who will, under ideal circumstances, be "cured" by confronting the more sober truths of adulthood, Coulter endorses the rather sad but protoypically conservative position that the world is what it is and nothing will ever change it.   Only children believe that the world's inequalities and injustices might be productively challenged.  The "adult" conservative, on the other hand, knows how the world "really works," and that the child-liberal will eventually understand that s/he must give up the ridiculous aspiration for a world that is less horrifying.   Most often, this "adult" perspective is the product of having been worn down by age, fear, and fatigue so that no other possibilities remain imaginable.  A mortgaged and mirthless 40 sees what carefree 20 cannot--life is an endless struggle to acquire shit and protect it from other people who want to take your shit, all so that when you get really old you don't end up dying penniless in a ditch.  Thus it has been since Thog the caveman first suckered-punched Grunda the hill person so that he might steal his woman, jaguar paw, and pointed stick.

By choosing to open her 2004 book with a generational mapping of right and left, Coulter gives us some insight into her core readership.  While I have no empirical data to back this claim up, I am willing to follow Coulter's lead here in baseless speculation to suggest that her books are most avidly consumed by white men who are married, middle-aged, and fairly well-off (given that this is the key constituency of the Republican party, this would not be surprising).  Why this particular demographic?  Because Coulter "gets" them, she understands the frustration of being a "wealth-producer" surrounded by parasitical sucklings--the wife, the kids, an idiot brother, the city, the state, public education, tollways, welfare deadbeats, the chronically ill, and so on.  Thus the appeal of the regressive Randian fantasy of holding one's breath and refusing to "produce" so as to teach all the ungrateful morons around you a lesson (much as the toddler will withhold feces during toilet training as a way of protesting the oppressive discipline of the parents).  

Yes, Coulter--or at this point, "Ann"--truly understands the middle-class white guy's pain.  She arrived on the national scene during the dark days of the Clinton presidency, a Godsend as the most vocal in a new battalion of younger, blonder, female Republicans who at last showed the world that not every right-winger had to look and talk like Robert Novak.  Prominently unattached, Ann is the kind of gal you fantasize about while putting on your cleats to play the back nine at the country-club.  Unlike your mollycoddling wife, Ann would understand the horror of having your oldest son come home from college to announce his plans to be a professional "graphic novelist," or seeing your daughter go out every weekend with a trio of pierced weirdos who are most obviously homosexuals.  Ann knows what it's like to have your hard-earned pay taxed by an evil bureaucracy that wants to throw that money away on the prostitutes and drug dealers you sometimes think you see loitering around as you drive to the baseball stadium downtown. And with Ann by my side, I would never lose an argument ever again.  Next time that wise ass liberal neighbor of mine points out that I'm much more likely to get shot by my own gun than to shoot a burglar, Ann would be right there to call him out for the dickless coward he really is!  In fact, I wouldn't mind if she called me a few names as well.  Don't get me wrong--I still think it is the man's role to take the lead in any relationship.  But when I see Ann in that tight, little leather vest...I don't know, suddenly I want her to get mad at me.  Really, really mad.  I want her to tell me what a worthless weakling I am.  I want her to yell at me for nicking the upholstery in the Beamer.  I want her to lock me in the bathroom with just bread and water until I work up the courage to go tell off those pricks at the Sanitation department for cracking our new trash bins, just because they're too lazy to put them back down gently (and I pay there goddamn salaries with my taxes!).  And then I want Ann to hold me as I cry and cry.  Why has the world become so scary and why don't I understand anything anymore?  How could anyone be against a flat tax, Ann, I just don't get it--it's so obviously and objectively fair to everyone.  What do you mean you found a picture of Ashley's vagina on her cell phone?  Why would she do that?  I don't care what anyone says, Ann, this democracy will only really work as long as white people are in the majority. 

And so on.

It would seem explicating the first line of Coulter's book has taken more time and space than I anticipated, so perhaps this is a good place to stop for now.  See you next time...maybe.  I can't decide if it's really worth it or not.

Editor's Note: I would also like to note that in googling the phrase "annotated Ann Coulter," I discovered another site that had this idea long before me.  You might want to visit them as well (here).


"I Had Sex with Hitler and then Almost Fed His Brain to a Condor"

If you're like most dolts produced by the American education system, you probably actually believe Adolph Hitler died in his bunker in 1945 when the Russian Army reached Berlin.  Such ignorance is understandable, given how important it was, then and now, to protect the world from the terrifying REALITY of the situation, namely this: At the end of WWII, Adolph Hitler's brain was surgically removed, placed in stasis, and then transplanted into a willing new host!   Most likely, "Hitler" is still somewhere on the planet today, scheming, ever scheming, to return and complete his plans for world domination. My money says the brain is now in Rick Perry.  Every Texas yahoo talks about secession now and then, but Perry's recent campaign pledge to annex the Sudetenland is troubling to say the least.

They Saved Hitler's Brain (aka The Madman of Mandoras) (1963) dared speak this truth in the tortured logic of Z-cinema some fifty years ago.  Legend has it that the film began shooting in the late fifties--only to be shut down by Nazi agents in Hollywood looking to suppress its startling revelations.  It took the courage of a rag-tag band of UCLA students in the early sixties to shoot some additional framing footage, thereby padding out the original film by ten or fifteen minutes so that it might get distribution and thus see the light of day.  But it turns out the Nazis had nothing to worry about.  The temporal rift created by grafting together the film stock and styles of the late fifties and early sixties was so jarring that the movie elicited only jeers and ridicule.  For years it played in the post-fringe graveyard of late-night television, leaving an astonished few to admire the stamina of the actor forced to kneel for hours at a time behind an old ham radio set and under a bell jar in order to "sell" the illusion of functional decapitation.

Happily for lovers of historical drama,  the saga of Hitler's itinerant brain did not die with that noble, yet failed cinematic experiment.  In 1973, novelist Roland Puccetti tried once again to alert the world to the ongoing hazard presented by allowing Hitler's brain to remain at liberty,  giving us the sublime revisionism of The Death of the Führer (Arrow Books-1973).

I have now read Puccetti's book.  Before recounting its alternative history of the years after the Second World War (absolute and total spoiler alert), let me say this:  The Death of the Führer MUST be adapted for the screen as soon as possible.  How it hasn't already ended up as a major motion picture is a true mystery, one that makes me suspect Nazi sympathizers are once again pressuring Hollywood to ignore the R-rated bombshells contained in this book.  The Death of the Führer is everything Inglourious Basterds hoped to be--but done with such economy and ease that it utterly shames Tarantino's lumbering attempt to pass off what are essentially five interminably long dialog scenes as some kind of fast-paced caper film.  If you want brutal and stunning Nazisploitative action, then Puccetti is your man.

We begin at a Bavarian ski lodge some time in the 1960s.  A young man--his name is unimportant, call him Mr. Framing-Device if you like--has twisted his leg and must stay off the slopes.  An old man sitting on a bench nearby accurately diagnoses the skier's condition from afar--for you see, this old man is a doctor: Karl Giesvius. As so often happens when strangers meet in the Bavarian Alps, their conversation soon turns to Hitler.  Karl, it turns out, knows the REAL story, which he proceeds to tell us:

Ten or so years after the end of WWII,  Karl had been sitting in a Parisian cafe when suddenly a local rushed in and begged him to attend to a dying man elsewhere in the city, a dying man who claimed to have information about the whereabouts of....Hitler!  Understandably intrigued, Karl rushed to the man's bedside to hear a startling confession: "I assisted in the removal and transplantation of Hitler's brain!"  Later, after the man dies, Karl looks through some old photos and verifies that the dying man had indeed been a member of the Führer's personal medical team.  He decides to fly to Berlin and begin his investigation.

First task: get inside the Führerbunker and see if any clues are still there.  Now, you might think the Führerbunker would have been picked over for just about any and all items of historical import, and that accessing it would be difficult if not impossible.  But this turns out not to the be the case.  Consulting a map of the compound, Karl figures out where the ventilation shaft should be, and after moving a few well-placed rocks, he's unearthed the entrance.  After shimmying down the vent, he's the first person to stand in the Führerbunker since the Russians collapsed the entrances at the end of the war.  What's down there?  Junk, mostly.  It would also appear a Russian soldier took a retributive shit on Hitler's bed, an extremely resilient shit considering it somehow survived for a decade before Karl descended into the bunker to witness it.  He checks out the conference room.  Nothing.  Eva Braun's bedroom.  Nothing.  He's just about to give up and/or suffocate from a lack of oxygen when finally Karl discovers a hidden passageway connecting Hitler's bedroom to... a secret surgical theater! 

Looking around the tiled room with his flashlight, Karl discovers a bloody operating table and scalpels that still have hair on them (the hair of Hitler!).  Strangely, though the Nazis had apparently pioneered the art of brain transplantation, they still didn't quite understand that one should shave a surgical area before operating.  Karl continues his search for evidence.  His flashlight illuminates a strange object on the floor.  Bingo! It's a brain!  

Hitler's brain?  Well, no, actually--Karl quickly reasons it is the brain of the poor schmuck who donated his body so that Hitler could have a new ride.  This was some particularly good writing, I thought.  Here Puccetti captures the urgency of the situation back in 1945.  With the allies advancing, Nazi doctors had no time to wash down the operating theater nor throw away the old brain--a point Puccetti emphasizes by revealing that the floor-brain is still in the steely clutches of the forceps used so many years ago to wrench it from its skull!  There's also a bucket of congealed blood nearby, but Puccetti does not speculate as to why the brain didn't end up there rather than on the floor. Also, we are left to wonder how this brain tissue, much like the enduring pile of Russian infantry crap in the next room, could survive more or less in tact for over a decade.

Karl's investigation continues. He finds a plaque bearing the name of the surgical genius responsible for all this brain shuffling: Dr. Wilhelm Tager.  Karl is flabbergasted.  Tager, as it turns out, was his buddy from medical school before the war, his old fencing partner, and a genius of neurology who finished at the top of their class.  That just about seals it.  Find Tager find Hitler's brain, he reasons.  And then he can kill them both!

After a little more detective work, Karl tracks Tager down to a remote castle somewhere in Spain.  Next obstacle: How to infiltrate a well-guarded compound full of evil Nazi scientists?  Here Karl decides for an elegantly direct approach--he simply floors his motorcycle and breaks through the front gate (as seen on the action-packed cover above).  That might seem crazy, but Karl's plan is actually a bit more complicated.  After taking a few Nazi bullets and wrecking his bike into a tree, it is Karl's hope that Dr. Tager will attend to him and then recognize him from their college days.  And this is precisely what happens.  After surgery, Karl wakes up and tells his "old friend" that he just happened to be vacationing in Spain and that the throttle on his motorcycle just happened to get stuck--that's why he crashed through the gate uncontrollably. 

One might think that the Nazi brain trust (those entrusted with the Nazi brain, that is) hiding out in Spain would be the most paranoid gated-community on the planet--but no one seems to question the fact that Karl, unseen by Tager since before the war, has suddenly and seemingly coincidentally arrived on their doorstep.  Before you know it, all the Nazis have welcomed Karl into their little clique, probably because Karl wastes no time fishing for Hitler leads by constantly bemoaning the fate of the Third Reich.

Later, once he's completely healed from his injuries, Karl is invited to a big party hosted by the owner of the castle, the beautiful Baroness Gerda Bach-Wisliceny. The party goes well as Karl learns a few new tidbits by eavesdropping.  But still no sign of Hitler's noodle.

Things really heat up later that night when a guard knocks on Karl's door.  The Baroness has requested a private audience.  Well, one thing leads to another, and before you know it Karl and the Baroness are in her bedroom ripping off each other's clothes.  And then this happens:

Her fingers dug into my arms with sharp nails, her back arched spasmodically, she started to pull me down deep into a bottomless pit.  Somewhere within my body a train of cold liquid left its station with relentless fury and plunged on to its destination.

Here Puccetti is telling us, as artfully as he can, that Karl is about to ejaculate into the Baroness.  The story continues.

Gerda's eyes opened widely now.  The pupils looked dark in the fire glow, much darker than before, and somehow beyond them and behind them there was a deep rustling of Teutonic forests, of shadowy predators roaming in the night...Only then did I raise my trembling, terribly tired fingers to her head, slide them under the golden hair and feel the bony ridge across her skull.  Only then did her lips part to give the fateful cry. 
Yes, friends, our intrepid hero and narrator has just enjoyed a simultaneous orgasm with Adolph Hitler-- a drop-dead gorgeous Hitler, mind you, but Hitler nonetheless (an alternate cover for the book foregrounds this reveal a bit more forcefully). 

Some might be thinking this was surprisingly enlightened on Hitler's part, this willingness to have his brain transplanted into a woman.  Funny thing about that--it was actually a complete surprise for the Führer.  Later we learn that Tager and his team had a young, strapping Aryan male all ready to host Hitler's brain, but the kid died during surgery from an unforeseen complication.  The original Baroness Gerda Bach-Wisliceny, a loyalist if ever there was one, stepped right up and volunteered her body.  Man, was Hitler ever mad when he woke up.  But we are told that the Führer eventually warmed up to and even embraced the idea of being a sexy Baroness.  Realizing it made for a good hiding place, the brain decided to stay put.

But back to the post-coital revelation that our narrator just had some manner of queerly heteronormative gay sex with Hitler.  "What would I do," wonders the reader, "under such circumstances?"  Given that Karl is dedicated above all else to his mission, he loses no time recovering from this quite literal "mindfuck" and stabs Baroness Hitler-brain straight through the heart, leaving her for dead.

For the next twenty or so pages, Karl is on the run trying to evade capture in the compound.  He jumps a guard and steals his uniform, which buys him a little more time to wander around the castle in search of a way out.  Eventually he finds another series of hidden passageways leading deeper and deeper into the castle's foundations.  Finally he stumbles upon, wouldn't you know it, another goddamn secret operating theater!  No sooner have you killed Hitler's host body than his evil surgical team is right back at it putting his brain in yet another body.  Actually, Karl probably should have seen this coming. After all, as narrator, he of all people should understand the basic premise of his own story.  Caught off guard indulging in some well-deserved self-recrimination, Karl is taken into custody and whisked away to a holding cell. 

You're probably thinking at this point that Karl himself is destined to be the new donor body for Hitler's brain.  Makes sense.  Hitler needs the body and the Nazis no longer need Karl--that's certainly what a lesser writer would settle for here.  But Puccetti has other and much more incredible ambitions.  Karl is wheeled into surgery alright, but finds that his nemesis Dr. Tager instead plans to implant a type of experimental electrode "harness" in Karl's brain.  In fact, he forces Karl to remain awake as he cuts off the top of his skull and inserts the electrodes one by one.  Later, in post-op, we discover that Tager and his assistants can now control Karl's actions simply by pushing the appropriate buttons: THIRST, HUNGER, LUST, etc.  This is the sort of thing Nazi doctors live for, apparently.  Bouncing Hitler's brain from body to body is a neat trick and all, but Tager's real ambition is to rule the world by implanting electrodes in every human skull!  We also discover here that Tager has no real investment in Nazi ideology--he chose to ride Hitler's coattails only because Hitler seemed--at the time at least-- the most likely to make his dream of global brain control come true.  He would just as easily have cast his lot with the Americans or Russians, if need be.  That's just how evil Tager is--the pure evil of pure science.

After some pleasure/pain interrogation from Tager and his buttons, Karl is taken back to his cell, which it so happens is a glass cube.  There he devises a brilliant plan.  He will break the glass by ramming his head into the wall, which will also probably disable the brain-electrode stuff at the top of his brain.  At the very least, he reasons, it will interfere with its optimal operation.  Gathering his strength and courage, he runs headlong into the glass--so hard that he blacks out.  When he comes to, however, he finds the plan has indeed worked--there is nothing but shattered glass all around him (and no guards, apparently).  Karl quickly runs back to the lab and pulls all the wiring out of the control-console so that Tager cannot send any more brain signals.

But the console can be quickly repaired, Karl reasons.  No, there is simply no way around it, the electrode net in his brain must come out.  But how?  Who will do the delicate surgery?  Karl.  Karl will do the surgery.  Karl will do the surgery on himself.  Brain surgery.  Karl will perform brain surgery on his own brain.

Are you beginning to understand why this novel must be committed to film as soon as possible?  I already have Scarlett Johansson down for the role of the Baroness.  As for Karl...well, who cares really?  I just want to see the scene wherein Scarlett Johansson reveals that she is actually a busty receptacle for Hitler's devious brain.  I would trade you any number of Final Destinations and/or Centipede units for such a moment to be captured on film.

Back to the brain surgery.  Karl sets up a mirror to see the top of his head.  "The scalp was easy," Karl tells us.  Then the skull bone.  Then the membrane covering the brain.  Underneath are the electrodes.  Though delicately inserted only hours earlier by Dr. Tager, Karl finds he is able to simply rip them out of his brain with no real consequences.  But the suspense isn't over:

There I was, nude and exhausted, unarmed and with the whole top of my brain exposed to raw air. If I so much as leaned forward, the cerebrospinal fluid encasing my brain would spill out; I could imagine the sticky liquid dripping over into my face and blinding me.  

To make matters worse, a guard suddenly appears and interrupts the operation.  Luckily, Karl still has the presence (and fluid) of mind to dispatch him with a nearby bone saw.  But there he remains, his brain still exposed to "raw air" and all of his brain juice about to spill out.  He decides he has no time to stitch the membrane and just goes for wiring the skull back in place.  After that he's so tired that he just kind of flops his scalp back over the bone, figuring he'll deal with that after he's finished killing Tager and finding Hitler's new cranial hideaway.

Eventually he corners Tager and forces him at gunpoint to the "vault"--the most secret of secret chambers in the bottom floors of the castle.  Inside is the requisite vat with Hitler's pulsating brain floating inside, awaiting its new host.  As an incidental detail, we are also told there are two crossed sabers on the wall as part of the castle's Coat of Arms. Almost immediately, however, this proves not to be incidental as Tager calls Karl's bluff on the number of bullets in the gun, which leads directly to the two men retrieving those very same sabers and reliving their days as college fencing opponents (remember? I told you about that earlier).  Karl is worried, for he never beat Tager in their university matches, but it remains his only hope.  Thrust and parry.  Thrust and parry.  And then Karl spies an "Auto-Destruction" button on the wall.  It's true.  He really does.  A big red button that will blow everything up.  Even if Karl can't escape, he can blow up the entire castle, Hitler's brain, and all the remaining Nazis at the same time!  

Karl pushes the button.  No, you fool! screams Tager.  Ten minutes to absolute annihilation.  Just then Karl sees that the brain vat has become unmoored and is rolling into the periphery of his vision.  Two quick ballet leaps and he is standing over the bubbling vat. He then drives his sword directly into the Fuhrer's brain!  Tager screams in horror, and Karl takes advantage of his shock to stab Tager "in the crotch" all the way back to the pelvis.  Tager collapses, and in doing so, knocks over the now pinkish red vat of brain and blood.  Hitler's brain slides across the floor where Karl, not wanting to leave anything to chance, scoops it up. 

Karl must escape--the castle is still going to blow at any second.  Miraculously, he discovers another secret door leading to some kind of mining-car contraption below.  Still clutching the well-stabbed yet still relatively cohesive Hitler brain, he jumps in and releases the brakes.  A bloody Tager crawls along the tracks begging for mercy.   But no dice.  Karl rides the mining-car out of the castle and out into the open air.  There he sees a mighty condor flying through the sky, and considers throwing Hitler's brain on the grass so that the majestic bird might swoop down and carry it away.  For that would be a fitting final indignity for Hitler's stupid evil brain--snatched up by razor-sharp talons and fed to a nest full of baby condors.  Just then the earth rocks with the force of the castle exploding.  In the end, Karl simply falls on the brain and "collapses" it good and flat.  


Back to our Bavarian ski-lodge in the present day.  The story over, Mr. Framing-Device doesn't know what to think. Did this old man really have sex with Hitler in a woman's body, operate on his own brain, and then almost throw Hitler's brain to a hungry condor?  Just then a nurse appears on scene to retrieve Karl--the sun is setting and it's time to go back home.  Mr. Framing-Device takes the nurse aside and asks if he might visit Karl again some day.  "Why not?"the nurse responds, "visiting hours at the sanatorium are open to everyone."

And there we leave it.  Karl might be crazy.  Then again, he might just have a bad case of tuberculosis.  I guess the next generation of historians will have to make the ultimate determination: did Tager somehow get the brain back and put it in Scarlett Johansson, or did it end up in the bellies of a dozen hungry little condor chicks?

Summer Hoarding Season on A&E

Good news for those who have an inordinate interest in symptomatic neurosis: Hoarders has returned for a fourth season on A&E.  Since its premiere in 2009, Hoarders has become a rather unexpected “hit” (at least in basic cable terms), introducing viewers to some 80 “hoarders” over 40 episodes.  “Hoarding” should be a self-evident condition, but if not, here’s the Mayo Clinic’s definition:

Hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Some people also collect animals, keeping dozens or hundreds of pets often in unsanitary conditions.

The Clinic goes on to add that “hoarding” is sometimes but not always linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and that treatment for the condition can prove difficult in that individuals “often don’t see it as a problem.”

The Foucauldian and/or libertarian in you might be saying, “If so-called hoarders don’t perceive a problem, then why not just leave them alone?”  That would be fine, except the practice of hoarding typically leads to a confrontation with an institution that will not abide such behavior: neighbors complain about the junk in the yard; the courts threaten to take children away; landlords threaten to evict; spouses move-out; rats move in; and so on.  The A&E series usually starts each story at one of these crisis points, the moment when friends and family decide grandma can no longer be allowed to live buried underneath piles of ever expanding garbage (lest they have to take her in themselves).

"Hoarders" appear to come in two basic forms: 1). those who fixate on accumulating a particular item (dolls, plates, junked cars, animals, etc); and 2). those who manifestly refuse to allow any material object to exit the home (empty bottles, old newspapers, pizza boxes, etc).   The first type is the more rare and of interest precisely because the symptom is so specifically Freudian (why tea sets? Parrots? Cabbage Patch dolls?)  But the real meat of the series is the second type—those who have let a once pristine house or apartment devolve into abject squalor, not only “hoarding,” but abandoning any attempt to organize—much less utilize—any of their precious possessions.

A&E tries to pass off Hoarders as a “documentary” series, but do not be fooled—it trades in the very same class horrorshow as bottom-feeders like Cops.  The problem for most “hoarders” is not so much that they hoard things; rather, it is the lack of resources that prevents them from hoarding items in a more socially acceptable manner.  Jay Leno, for example, is by all accounts a disturbed hoarder of vintage automobiles.  Given that he has sufficient real estate to house the vehicles, however, no one seems poised to make an intervention.  If Jay collected vintage microwave ovens on his front yard in Encino, on the other hand, the Sheriff’s office would be there each week ticketing him for his socially and psychologically disturbed behavior.  

The “intervention” structure of the series flatters viewers into believing they are concerned for the psychological welfare and eventual recovery of each week’s hoarder—but in truth the primary attraction here is the anarchic spectacle of unchecked consumption and the ensuing cycle of obsolescence, decay, and contamination.  Perhaps this explains the unexpected popularity of the “hoarding” meme over the past three years (even Marge Simpson temporarily fell under its sway this past season).  As the economy contracts, severely impacting the lower middle-classes that Hoarders so frequently showcases each week, the series stages a surprisingly frank confrontation between a commodity life disrupted and a psychological life traumatized—something that now almost everyone can relate to in some fashion. 

Looking back from the other side of the economic meltdown, George W. Bush’s wartime advice to “keep on shopping” now seems even more pathetically desperate and sad—a “clap for Tinkerbell” strategy that could only succeed for so long.  Now that everything has gone to shit, the “hoarder” stands as a particularly tragic yet fascinating figure, an individual who makes the inevitably deteriorating cycle of consumption and happiness most explicit.  Some hoarders, like demented squirrels, have to bring some new “acorn” home everyday lest they feel intense psychic distress for not making an acquisition.  And, as the series loves to showcase repeatedly, once an object—no matter how insignificant and utterly disposable—is in the home, the prospect of removing it causes what is obviously an intense psychological crisis. In one episode, a therapist confronts a woman with hundreds of sweaters that have never been worn.  Following the fashion-industry’s rather self-serving advice that any item not worn in a year should be given away, the decluttering team attempts to persuade the woman to sell some of them at a garage sale.  But when the time comes to pick the actual sweaters to put on sale, the woman becomes anxious and distraught—her expression revealing a mental calculus equating “having” with happiness and security, “not having” with depression and vulnerability.  Given that other family members are threatening to walk unless the sweater problem comes under control, her pained and almost panicked reaction enacts Marx’s “commodity fetish” in most literal and poignant terms. Having the magical cloak of 500 sweaters seems more important than any human relationship within the house.

Hoarders intersects in an odd way with a major theme in the last few novels of J.G. Ballard.  Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) are all essentially the same book—each trying to capture the post-millennial malaise of a western middle-class for the most part immune to scarcity and danger, bored to death in their suburban compounds, and half-heartedly invested in the last remaining erotics of contemporary life: cycles of sexy commodity consumption.  Millennium People is perhaps the most successful of the three novels, telling the story of a London psychologist slowly drawn into a middle-class terrorist cell operating out of the privileged neighborhoods of Chelsea.  The cell’s targets involve, not governmental or military sites, but rather those institutions that symbolize the politics of leisure: travel agencies, video stores, cat shows, etc.—disruptions staged in an effort to wake the slumbering middle-class from their insulating cocoon of unreflexive consumerism (in one chapter, a “terrorist” dons the garb of a social scientist/market researcher and goes door-to-door in a rich development asking homeowners survey questions specifically designed to make them uncomfortable about just how boring their lives have become).  The thesis that middle-class consumption replaced proletarian labor as the primary engine of capitalism in the twentieth-century is not necessarily original or unique, but appearing in 2003, right at the threshold of the global economic meltdown and the rise of the TV hoarder, Ballard’s novel seems—once again—eerily prescient.   

Perhaps these are the times we are living through: a disenchantment with commodity life attached to its future improbability.  All of which makes the “hoarder” all the more fascinating—an empathetic figure who believes if they just store enough shit in the house they might just get by (or better yet, find happiness), even as the continued storing of said shit in fact only makes them more miserable.  And hats off to A&E for designing a compelling advertising vehicle that hinges, for the most part, on our growing revulsion at spectacles of consumer alienation and dysfunction.

Mobile UPC Scanner Dude

In the spirit of the Philip K. Dick future that awaits us all, I would like to confess to a murder that I have not yet committed but, statistically speaking, am probably due for any day now.  The person I am slated to kill is not someone I know personally, but is rather a “type” of individual that has emerged from the technosphere over the past decade and who seems hell-bent on destroying one of the last remaining pleasures of the pre-digital browser, and by “browser” I mean s/he who browses and not the latest compulsory update of Firefox.   

The person I will kill is the A-hole who shows up at Goodwill, Oxfam, or any other thrift store with that groovy iPhone App that allows him to scan the UPC barcodes on the backs of books, CDs, and DVDs, all in a quest to pillage the store of any and all valuable titles so that he might take them back home to sell online.  I hate these people so much it’s all I can do not to kick them in the trachea and throw their cell phones into the great black hole at the center of all thrift emporiums—the used underwear bin.  In fact, they produce such a boiling rage at the very core of my being that I’ve had to take time, for purposes of emotional prophylaxis if nothing else, to consider why they push my buttons even more than tailgaters, birthers, or Yankee fans.

A little back story first.  In the days before Amazon cookies began telling us all what cultural artifacts we wanted to consume before we even knew we wanted to consume them, there existed a proud tradition of un-digital browsing in second-hand book and record stores.  The point of such browsing was not so much to find Item “X,” but was instead to find Item “?”—an odd novel or record that so far had eluded your taste formation’s vast radar array.  Thus, you dipped into the used bookstore to see if you could find a cheap copy of the most recent James Ellroy novel, and emerged instead with a strange ‘70s thriller about a psychotic mime killing people in Central Park.  Or, in your quest for a decent Dick Dale retrospective, you were unexpectedly and delightfully derailed by the discovery of a Turkish funk anthology.  I suppose Amazon’s algorithms will one day be sophisticated enough to posit a link between My Dark Places and The Mime (a day, I might add, when the final illusion of any unique “core” to one’s self will be so thoroughly compromised that a Roman bath will be the last remaining option; but then again, Amazon will probably predict that as well and have recommendations ready for ‘final exit’ razors and scented candles.  Thinking about exsanguinating in a bathtub?—you might also enjoy jasmine bubblebath from The Body Shop and Joy Division’s Closer).  For now, anyway, such discoveries remain primarily a product of happy accident. 

The last decade has been a real bummer for those of us who actually enjoy “wasting” an hour or two wandering through physical piles of paper, cardboard, and vinyl in search of petit objet WTF.    Used book and record stores are going out of business left and right.  Second-order substitutes like Borders, Tower, and Virgin—all dead.   In the future, the only people who will have access to the simple pleasure of “browsing” for books will be the forklift operators in the Amazon warehouse as they organize incoming pallets of teenage vampire fiction.  And then the book itself, like vinyl and the CD, will finally shed its mortal coil and exist purely as data on the web.  Perhaps at that point we will begin burning old books and records for fuel, creating campfires of obsolescent culture to dot a hellscape where we all walk around with our PDA’s finally and irrevocably sutured into our belly fat.  Wait, doesn’t Amazon call their e-reader the “kindle?”  Truly, we are doomed.    

Given this sad state of affairs, we browsing dinosaurs have increasingly had to depend on the thrift store/charity shop as the last bastion for the unstructured contemplation of physical media.  Back behind the beat-up couches and racks of discarded clothing, there is usually a corner featuring old books, records, and CDs (for now, most places still keep their DVDs under lock and key, testament to the format’s lingering value in the hierarchy of donated detritus—once the current Blu-Ray hegemony is complete, however, the DVD will no doubt join its brethren in the dead media section).  Here is the one place where the easily distracted can spend some time relaxing by digging through piles of discarded culture in search of…well, again, who knows what? 

Not that the ongoing devaluation of physical media hasn’t had an effect here as well.  Most thrift stores used to keep fairly tidy book/record sections, displaying the donated items on appropriate shelving and in custom bins.  While some thrift shops still have at least one volunteer who cares enough about these items to make sure they are easy to access, many more are simply dumping books, records, and CDs on the floor like the abject shit they have become.  A Salvation Army near me no longer even bothers to shelve book donations, but simply wheels them out in institutional-sized laundry bins that require customers to dig, like pigs in search of truffles, through layers and layers of Tom Clancy paperbacks in the hope of finding something more rare, exotic, and/or interesting. 

Records are even worse.  I think there is now an unspoken agreement among all used-record folk that every valuable piece of vinyl from the album’s heyday has finally been tracked down, priced, and collected—all that remains in the thrift stores are infinitely printed and infinitely disposable Barbra Streisand, Janis Ian, and 101 Strings albums (for a while I considered covering an entire wall with Elton John “Caribou” album covers because: (a) it’s an amazing artifact of 70s post-glam bubblegum weirdness and (b) you could find 20 of them for a dime apiece each time you were at Goodwill).  Now many thrift stores practically dare you to browse the vinyl section, piling them to the ceiling in a deadly game of Jenga that both warps the records and threatens to bury you under the collected works of the Longines Symphonette.  CDs, oddly enough, still rate a few actual shelves in most thrift stores, even though that medium is arguably even more dead than vinyl.

Which brings us back, finally, to the jerks with the mobile UPC scanning Apps.  Their very presence disrupts the entire vibe of the thrift experience, transforming what should be a relaxing journey of exploration into a bloodsport of bitter competition and contestation.  While you are trying to leisurely sort through a shelf of books or CDs in search of nothing in particular, cyberdude is systematically scanning each and every item to see how much it goes for on Amazon.  In earlier iterations of this App, the user had to actually read each price on the screen, but with even more annoying software updates, the user can now set a “price point” and wait for his phone to “ding” when it gets a hit.  Anything under, say $5 bucks, and the App ignores it; anything over and the phone dings, rings, barks, or zaps to let the entire store know that Mr. Wizard has made a real find and you, alas, have not.    

Now, obviously, people have cruised thrift stores for years in search of hidden bargains that they can then re-sell, either at their own store or to a more specialized vendor trading in rare books and records.   I don’t begrudge that; in fact, I will sometimes even buy a record for a buck that I know I can sell for five, not because I need the money necessarily, but because I feel that record should ultimately end up with a person who really, really wants it and will take care of it.  I don’t listen to a lot of jazz, but if I see a "near mint" Thelonious Monk elpee sitting on the floor waiting to be eaten by silverfish or reduced to moldy pulp the next time the store’s toilet floods, I feel an almost moral imperative to rescue it for future generations.  Similarly, if I find an early twentieth-century novel at a garage sale for a buck or two, I will usually buy it to donate to the Newberry Library (which specializes in such things).  I relate these stories, partly to parade my own awesome taste and generosity, but also in solidarity with the many others out there who I’m sure share a similar complex about protecting rare ephemera from neglect and destruction. 

And this is why the growing army of mobile UPC-scanners irks me so.  With one simple download, they now enjoy an ability to convert cultural capital into economic reward with little to no effort, in effect electro-poaching the collective expertise of pop literati like myself who learned to separate sublime wheat from pedestrian chaff the “old-fashioned” way--perhaps even by once working in a book or record store.   If given a test identifying minor label icons from Factory to Asthmatic Kitty, I think I’d score at least a B+, and with a little squinting, I can still distinguish a “Book Club Edition” from an original imprint at about ten yards, usually based only on the color saturation of the book's dust jacket.  But while I spent years immersed in marginalized music and marginal authors, acquiring “knowledge” that allows me to recognize a boutique label, a limited pressing, or a rare paperback, Calculon can now mindlessly put phone to barcode and “discover” a long OOP Japanese import Traveling Wilburys promo that will fetch $50 on eBay.  

It’s not fair and it’s not right.  Scanner-boy hasn’t earned it. 

Granted, the real prey of UPC scanner guy is typically the recent bestseller and not the obscure collectible.  Most vinyl, after all, doesn’t have a UPC marker in the first place, nor do older books.  But even in the pitiful world of the useless CD, these guys will occasionally beat you to a genuine oddity, not because they know or want the item, but because the collective hive of digitized taste-valuation has set off their freakin’ dinger.  Recently one of these pests beat me to a Bobby Sherman “2-Albums on 1 CD” disc, and based on his age, insouciance, and woolen cap, I am certain he didn’t have a clue as to what or who a Bobby Sherman might be.    

And it just gets worse.  Recently I went to a local thrift and discovered not one, but two of these budding young cyber-capitalists scanning opposite sides of the CD rack. At first I thought there might at least be some amusement in seeing them pitted against one another, racing down their respective aisles in an effort to score all the big finds before the other guy –-but after a few moments, I realized that one of them was actually being paid by the other to make this thrift raid more efficient!  They even took breaks! 

Annoying, yes, but enraging?  Again, I do not necessarily begrudge folks converting thrift stock into cash, and I guess I could even live with having the arcane esoterica of my synapses downloaded into the WWW.  But the impact these idiots have in the physical space of the store itself drives me to the brink of homicide.  Collectors have always competed against one another in these situations.  Even twenty years ago, you could easily recognize by shirt and haircut alone who else in the store was also looking to load up on old pulps and forgotten new wave singles.  Still, there remained at least some modicum of camaraderie among those afflicted with the collecting disease.  Occasionally thrift divers would even discuss what they typically collected, and when it didn’t overlap with one’s own taste, might even pull titles for each another.  And if someone found a Loretta Lynn record you already had, politeness dictated you say “thanks,” put it in your stack, and then quietly pass on it at the checkout counter.  It was the thought that counted—a small gesture that said, “I understand and share the thrills and disappointments that come with plowing through a stack of Kansas and Foreigner albums to unearth a miraculously placed Moby Grape record still in shrink wrap." 

You will not have such conversations with the mobile UPC-scanner dude as there is a good chance he neither reads books nor listens to music; or if he does, it has little or nothing to do with why he’s in the store with you.  As he meticulously and mercilessly proceeds down the aisle—scanning books and CDs without even bothering to look at the titles—he inevitably makes you hurry your own search lest he finds first that rare gem for a quarter that he hopes to later sell back to you for twenty bucks at his e-store.  As an emblem of a certain technogenerational formation, “he” has already for the most part ended theatrical exhibition, book browsing, and the record store—and now he’s prowling the last remaining sanctuary of the culturally damned (i.e. those over 40) looking to leverage your own nostalgia and taste—born of brick-and-mortar bookstores and record shops, no less-- into profits gleaned from the antiseptic exchanges of the Internet. 

He is, in short, a ruthless cyborg—one that has melded a scanner-wielding meat-frame with a Gibsonian knowledge-chip programmed to "ding" at all your old analog desires, all so "he" can buy a new and more powerful computer to help make the future suck even faster.   

God help me, if “he” gets between me and some rare item I really want, I’m going to be doing twenty to life in the State pen.