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In the Middle of Nowhere
The commercial accessibility of Quake is counter-balanced by the second book in the series, Flats (released simultaneously with Quake by Two Dollar Radio), a solipsistic narrative where most of the action occurs in an interior landscape.
Flats takes the concept of interior monologue and stands it on its head, empties out its pockets, and slaps it around a few times. In Quake Wurlitzer challenges the west of L’Amour and with Flats he is laying down the gauntlet for existentialist Samuel Beckett (if only Beckett were alive to accept the challenge).
Essentially an extension of tone and themes introduced in Nog, Flats is also a post-apocalyptic novel, though the conflagration to humanity is merely hinted at and never described in detail, an unnerving plot device that would be employed more than 30 years later by Cormac McCarthy in his award-winning novel The Road. What does it matter to the survivors, after all, if the holocaust was man-made or natural? What’s done is done and all that is left now is to survive or, in the case of the protagonist in Flats, to die.
In the bleak landscape of Flats, “effect has since been separated by cause” and the narrator spends the length of the tale – unfolding with no chapter breaks and shotgun blasts of one paragraph stretches – in an animalistic attempt to “surrender the illusion of control”. There are a multitude of characters, all named after once-prominent cities like Halifax, Wichita, Memphis, Flagstaff, Houston, and Tacoma.
It should not take an astute reader an inordinate amount of time to figure out that what one is witnessing in Wurlitzer’s fractured (and at times maddening) narrative is the complete and total dissolution of one man’s “self” and his various personalities as he lay dying in a boxed-in, claustrophobic landscape, with a strange blue light constantly blinking in the dark sky overhead.
Structural arrangements of time and place are absent from Flats, the author relying instead on “a rush of elliptical passages arriving nowhere in particular, but still arriving somewhere, anywhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.”
Of course, as any French literary theorist worth his weight in Barthes research papers will tell you, just because an author has stated intent or symbolism does not by any means foreclose the text, or cut off other possible meanings and interpretations; art, in other words, cannot be overanalyzed because it is a subjective experience and with a novel like Flats, every reader’s mileage may vary. Some readers may find the entire exercise pointless and self-indulgent, others may feel compelled to ponder the meaning of the blue light hovering in the sky (an echo of Gatsby’s light at the end of the pier?) or attempt to distill meaning from the place names of the characters or what the hell that damn Dixie cup is all about. Knock yourself out. It’s all good.
Whether it took an astonishing amount of naiveté or just plain guts to re-issue Flats to a modern reading public is a question that only Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio can answer but on the face of it one thing is as certain as that blue light in the sky: Most contemporary readers, whose attention span is sorely compromised by the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle, would be left stumped and frustrated by Flats.
With the myriad of general challenges facing publishers today – including the rapid digitization of text, the death spiral of the independent bookstore, and a collective attention span that is rapidly reducing as you read this – no publishing house in their right mind would touch Flats with a ten foot pole, even if an agent attached a contract for one James Patterson novel in exchange as bait.
In a keynote address on the future of book publishing at the 2009 Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, Steve Wasserman, a former Los Angeles Times book editor, indicated that the most troubling crisis facing the industry today is “the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”
In the November 2009 issue of Harper’s, Richard Rodriguez, an editor at New American Media in San Francisco, writes in “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper”:
“We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’ – Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. – two stars out of five).”
Indeed, it is frightening to think that a novel like Flats, certainly deemed worth publishing by Random House in 1969, would be tossed onto the slush pile with a dismissive grunt and guffaw by a modern-day editor for the same publishing house.
But consider an ‘influential’ element among modern-day the readership. While preparing this month’s column, I had C-Span on the TV in the background as white noise to accompany my work. The United States Senate was debating President Barack Obama’s proposed overhaul of the health care system. I looked up from my work as a senior senator from North Dakota was addressing his colleagues, recalling a recent Town Hall meeting he had with constituents a few weeks prior.
One constituent, the Senator from North Dakota explained, took the mike and groused to his representative about “government this and government that”, a virulent anti-government rant. At a reception after the meeting, a woman approached the Senator and apologized for the man’s behavior, explaining that he had recently undergone open heart surgery and was, well, a bit cranky.
The Senator sidled up to the man at the reception and said, “I understand you had heart surgery.”
“Yep,” the angry constituent said.
“Did Medicare pay for that?” the Senator asked.
“Yes,” was the man’s terse, suspicious reply.
“Well, then,” the Senator smiled broadly and clapped the man on the back, “I guess that’s something good we can say for the government.”
“Medicare isn’t the government,” the constituent responded sharply.
As Bob Dylan sang in “Idiot Wind” from the Blood on the Tracks LP (1974): We’re idiots, babe/ It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
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