[14 November 2010]
Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time is divided into two sections: “Reflections” and “Refutations”. While Slouka may see a logical division here, the essays all contain common threads of varying intensity. Slouka identifies himself as an outsider, a questioner, a “student of the narrowing margins”. He turns his merciless eye on the government, on the herd mentality so many Americans pay fealty to, the human cost of technology, the importance of thinking critically and American society’s efforts to quash such thinking.
Death pervades. If that sounds grim, try reading the opening essay, “Hitler’s Couch”, which is quite literally shows us a bit of the eponymous object. It also sets the tone: there will be no warm fuzzies here. Slouka’s parents are Czech, each with vivid memories of World War II. Even after moving to America, they harbor a kind of historical disenchantment American-born children cannot begin to understand—unless their parents are immigrants from a war-torn homeland.
“Arrow and Wound,” takes on death even more squarely. What happens when we outwit death? Slouka describes the Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert’s near brush with assassination by German forces. After being lined up along a wall, Seifert and his compatriots were abruptly dismissed. As he waited against the wall, Seifert gazed at the apartment building across the street. He wondered what the inhabitants were lunching on.
There is the more famous case of Dostoyevsky’s mock execution, more drawn out, its lasting effects better documented. And what are those effects? How does one who has nearly died live? Slouka adds his own story, having nearly been killed by an deliberately erratic driver who took a winding hillside road at top speed. Slouka realizes the event, dulled to a dinner party anecdote, is far more than that:
“As for me, I had been driving that canyon road all my life. In all my work, in all my deepest imaginings, tragedy had always been invited, played with, then sent on its way.”
In “Blood on the Tracks”, Slouka examines our increasing desensitization to death. Confronted daily with television, newspapers, internet, somebody’s cell phone video, we feel little when reading of the mother and her four sons, who, having left a shelter in the middle of the night, are walking the train tracks. Their destination is forever unknown. Julia Toledo was an Ecuadorian immigrant with a complicated life. She was walking the tracks in the middle of the night. Her four boys were walking with her when they were struck by an Amtrak. All died. The engineer was devastated. The weather had been bad, the train traveling well below the speed limit. How can we comprehend, much less accept, these senseless deaths? Slouka probes into the corners of the story: the husband, blameless, Julia’s sister Maria, insensitive but unlikely to have wished her sister and nephews dead.
And what of God? Slouka, true to his nature, is an ardent agnostic, and has little patience with the religious, who would smooth this horror with pabulum about God’s will. If you are religious or think Dubya was swell, this isn’t the book for you.
Many of the essays in Nick of Time were written during George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House. Slouka clearly despises Bush and his ilk, but his real concern is the American people. Those who elected Bush (depending on your counting skills and trust in “hanging chads”), those whose decisions were based not on Bush’s credentials, but on how he made them feel. Wound through this is an epidemic American ignorance coupled with Right-Wing religiosity, courtesy of our failing educational system, and the perverse pride many Americans take in being “just folks”. Slouka quotes a woman who votes for Bush because she likes cowboys. A young woman in one of his college courses admits, stunned, that she always assumed Jesus was an American. At a Tulsa motel, a man tells Slouka:
“Way I see it is…if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”
Slouka lashes out at this mentality in several essays. In “Quitting the Paint Factory”, he links the American cubicle mentality—toil endlessly in your cube, bow your head to the boss’ abuses—to an effective halt of critical thinking. To buy into this most American of mentalities, that work is the ultimate good, success measured by money, to allow even leisure time to be infected by endless action, is to have no time for idleness. And we all know what idle hands are up to.
The only hole in Slouka’s argument is the need to work. Many of us have not, to quote Roger Waters out of context, subsided into quiet desperation. Yet we must seek shelter, food, health care. Meaning the majority of us are forced to work in jobs we might not have chosen. Nowhere in a book that encourages us to think for ourselves, to contemplate the world both inner and outer, to question our leaders, does Slouka acknowledge that we must manage to eat while watching the dragonflies skimming the pond. “Sometimes,” he writes, “money costs too much.” He’ll get no argument from me, but the irrefutable fact of the matter is that without money coming in, I’m living in the streets.
“Dehumanized” takes on the Math/Science/Humanities battle currently raging through academia. Slouka readily admits the importance of math and science, but rails against a society so concerned with employment it dismisses the humanities. What good is the best scientist if he is functionally illiterate? Unable to read or compose an email? A paper? The broader implications are more frightening, for a citizenry that hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird or heard of Picasso is ripe for a certain kind of tyranny. Slouka points out that math and science are politically neutral; one may only look to the success of scientists in repressive regimes like China and Singapore. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird, or looking at Picasso’s Guernica, well that’s something else again.
When not deriding the frightening herd mentality, Slouka turns a dubious eye on technological innovation. That some of the essays are dated, written before the advent of the internet, I-pods, downloadable music, e-readers, texting, Twitter, and Mac Airs only adds to their urgency. Here is Slouka in 1999’s “Listening for Silence”: “The cell phone interrupts lectures, sermons, second acts, and funerals.”
The cell phone interrupts everything now, leading me to wonder how many others despise them as much as I do. Slouka likely does, noting “There is no aural equivalent for the eyelid.” And how he wished, 12 years ago, there were. Yet here is death, again, for doesn’t life begin and end with silence? Well, yes, but for some of us there is a hell of a lot of aural suffering in between. Silence, Slouka writes, is increasingly a commodity, an escape we are forced to pay for.
Slouka also takes on videotaping, then only the crudest of forms, the large camera and extinct videocassette. He is dubious of these objects, distancing us from the event as it happens, only to insistently overwrite our own memories, or worse, our forgettings. There is the beloved dead, perfectly restored, if you will, at the Fourth of July barbeque, the wound opened afresh. There is the refutation of your memory of the day, and isn’t your memory worth something? Slouka thinks so, only to be handed a video of his toddler son, splashing in a child’s pool. He watches and is charmed, but wary.
In writing this I see Slouka coming off as a grinch, a man obsessed more with death than life, a luddite extraordinaire. He is not all darkness: he writes tenderly of his wife and children, of his parents, and his abiding love for nature. “Eclogue” makes a fine argument for all of us to tromp off into the woods, sans technology, and simply take in the earth’s wonders.
I closed Essays from the Nick of Time with an unsettled pang. Slouka’s essays make alarming, though-provoking reading. Only I fear he is preaching to a shrinking choir of questioning, thoughtful individuals capable of reading and comprehending more than a tweet. I agree with Slouka’s sentiment that these people, if recent election returns are any indication, are increasingly rare in the United States. Slouka knows, and warns us. Has Dubya ever settled into bed with a Graywolf Press book in his lap? Has he heard of Graywolf press? Has Sarah Palin? Rand Paul? The tyranny of idiots Slouka feared years ago has begun. And yes, it is being televised.