Monday, 07 November 2005

Unbuilding the World Trade Center;or, Another Vaguely Political Post William Langewische's "American Ground" articles—first published in The Atlantic Monthly and later compiled into the slim but substantial American Ground —passionately describe the "unbuilding of the World Trade Center" without ever invoking the larger consequences of its destruction. The War on Terror never enters the scene. Neither does the Bush Administration. The fallen Twin Towers don't represent the first volley in a global conflict so much as they are the lost livelihood of the men who helped build, manage and later dismantle them. Not that Langewische even needed to allude to the burdensome emotional and metaphorical baggage of that day or its daily evocation. It is the undefendable slapshot in the game of American politics, the justification for affairs foreign and domestic. He need not say anymore. Yet his deliberate decision to focus on the lives of those who work "the pile" still unsettles me. How can he not talk about the impact their fall had on American politics, on affairs both foreign and domestic? How can he concentrate on the lives of the engineers who "unbuild" these fallen metaphors of American eminence when they fell because they were metaphors and were mourned for much the same reason? Early in the article he provides one possible explanation: But the buildings were not buildings anymore, and the place where they fell had become a tabula rasa for the United States. Among the ruins now, a large and unscripted experiment in American life had gotten under way. This "unscripted experiment" does not consist of patriotic pablum, but of the "emergence" of order from chaos. Cognates of "emerge" litter the essay, appearing almost any time he discusses the organizational structure of the recovery effort. The strict hierarchies of corporate America, the networks of old boys returning favors—they all falter and collapse at the site. They are replaced with the very substance they claim to embody: the meritorious selection of those who can get the job done on the basis of their getting the job done. The meritocracy of the pile put to lie the "meritocracy" of corporate America by consistently selecting those best suited to the job; but "selected," Langewiesche suggests, is too strong a word, and so he employs "emerges" instead. Why did the old boy network break down? Langewiesche offers some clues: Freon is a manufactured product containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and its use has been restricted by international accord because of the damage it does to the atmosphere's protective ozone layer. The threat it posed at the Trade Center was more immediate, and stemmed from the fact that it is a heavy gas and it aggressively displaces the oxygen in the air that people breathe. With the huge quantities potentially involved here (as much as 168,000 pounds, under pressure, if the tanks remained intact), a sudden leak would fill the voids underground and spread across the surface of the pile, suffocating perhaps hundreds of workers caught out on the rough terrain and unable to move fast. To make matters worse, if...
On Fathers & Sons; or, "He'd Already Rather Be Bow-Hunting" [Cross-posted . . . why do I even bother saying where anymore?] Sons only learn about their fathers obliquely. The rituals of father and son relations dictate an insurmountable formality which compels them to seek other avenues of understanding. For most of the 20th Century, those other avenues terminated in weekly sessions with other sons' fathers (and infrequently mothers) who would tell them about Oedipus' father (and unfortunate mother) and ask for payment in cash. For reasons which have more to do with the culture of analysis captured by Woody Allen than anything else, I associate this obsession with Freudian psychotherapy and unkempt beards with the 1970s. All of which I offer as introduction to the idea that Noah Baumbach, writer of the recently released The Squid and the Whale (2005) and the brilliant Kicking & Screaming (1995), learned about his father through the fiction of his father, the novelist and short story writer Jonathan Baumbach. Why do I find this interesting? If Jonathan Baumbach's fiction is staunchly personal but ultimately fictional, then Noah Baumbach's depictions of the fathers of his characters don't refer to his father so much as the narrators of his father's fictions. In other words, the narrator of Jonathan's The Life & Times of Major Fiction appears as the father in all of Noah's films. I originally thought I would land somewhere in the vicinity of "Jonathan's narrators are autobiographical in an uncomplex fashion," at which point I could dismiss the artistry of Jonathan's novels and claim that Noah's depiction of Jonathan (played by '70s icon Elliot Gould) nailed him. But as I re-read The Life & Times today I realized that argument would be facile in the extreme. Jonathan's obsessions can be catalogued with ease: pointless games imbued with meaning, the awkwardness of lives acrumbling, the divorces of the preternaturally witty and their relation to the kids' unconscious, and basketball. This particular constellation of interests appears both in the narratives of Jonathan's The Life & Times and B. and Noah's Kicking & Screaming. (And what, I ask, would Freud make of this family's obsession with ampersands?) In Noah's film, the viewer witnesses Gould attempt to connect with his estranged son through talk of the Knicks' failures and Patrick Ewing's failings. Grover, Noah's surrogate, belongs to a circle who fall out via an argument about the protocols of an improvised bar-room trivia game. Having read Jonathan's work, viewers of Noah's films cannot help but see a world limited by his father's obsessions—a Bloomian anxiety in extremis. Lest you think I desire diminishing the brilliance of my favorite film of the 1990s, I will add that I think this appropriation, intentional or not, an incredible glance into the relation of authors to their lives. That Noah crafts a fictional father who resembles his father's fictions more than his father fascinates me. Take Jonathan's short story "Familiar Games." It contains a pointless contest irrationally imbued with significance, intimations of lives teetering on the flimsiest of fulcrums, portentions of...

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