And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

—Genesis 3:22-23

I

Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.

I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.

Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell
? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.

Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.

II

Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed

mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.

III

Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.

Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,

suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?

Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,

a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.

IV

And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
1968.
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore

there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.

V

Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.

The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.

But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties

or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—

this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.

So what makes this the Age of Persuasion, and why write about it?

Advertising — like it or not — is the mightiest, most pervasive culture force of the 21st Century. It’s infused in every aspect of life today. Ads are on condoms, in space, in churches, and stamped on the sand at public beaches. Ads are written into books (not ours!) movies, even stage plays. I think we need to start a meaningful dialogue about how all that affects our culture.

 

You and co-author Terry O’Reilly are both functioning ad men- doesn’t that make you biased when you write about advertising?

We love what we do. Make no mistake there. That said: we think a majority of the ads people see and hear on a given day fail. Speaking for myself, I believe 95% of ad creation is garbage, strewn carelessly across the culture landscape. 4% might actually earn people’s time and attention.

 

Okay, ad-guy: are there places you believe ads should not go?

I wish newspapers and news broadcasts were not ad-driven. It forces editors and reporters to look over their shoulders. Imagine reporting on the Gulf spill when you know BP is a sponsor. Or any other oil giant? Trouble is, I can’t think of another economic model that works for delivering news.

Personally- again I speak for myself here- I also believe there’s no place for ads in public schools, no matter how cash-strapped they are. It crosses a line from serving kids to using them- literally selling their time and attention to advertisers.

 

Yikes. So what good is there in advertising?

More than people give it credit for. It underwrites the cost of so much of our media- TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and yes, websites. It helps pay for our public transit. And every now and then- maybe once in every umpteen thousand ads- there’s are ads that actually inspire: rare gems that leave the cultural campsite better than they found it.

 

Name three.

Terry put me onto the magnificent Volkswagen ads of the early 1960s, by Doyle Dane Bernbach of New York, including print ads headlined “Think Small” and “Lemon,” and sensational TV ads such as “Funeral” and “Snow Plough,” which live on today on YouTube.

More recently, the fantastic TV ad for Old Spice, and the “World’s Most Interesting Man” campaign for Dos Equis are better entertainment, to me, than much of the broadcast content they sponsor. There are always a few great ads out there; ask anyone who goes to a revue cinema to watch award-winning ads from Cannes or the London International Ad Awards or the New York Festivals.

 

Gusty day, isn’t it?

Yeah. But then, these are gusty times.

 


JC: A few weeks ago, JR posted a great review of Tom Rachman’s new novel The Imperfectionists. Now that it’s released you’re no doubt hearing quite a few good things about it. Let me jump on the bandwagon by saying that The Imperfectionists is a fine book, whether it’s his first novel or twentieth.

The Imperfectionists centers around the employees of a small international newspaper based in Rome. Using each chapter as a character sketch, Rachman carves a small history of the paper:

At the behest of his editor, obituary writer Arthur Gopal is sent on assignment to interview an obscure, dying academic as information-gathering for the inevitable. Reading her texts, he becomes enthralled by her work, and despite his personal distaste for her, writes a beautiful elegiac obit for her. Herman Cohen, corrections editor, entertains a houseguest for whom he has had a hero-like worship for forty years. CFO Abbey Pineola finds herself uncomfortably seated next to the man she fired on an overseas flights, yet finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him. The onset of the internet age and the slow but obvious deterioration of the newspaper unveil a hazy future for all.

Rachman writes these scenes and scenarios with an unexpected elegance. He gets beneath the skin of his characters and reveals poignant scars and aches, wit and playfulness. Then he combines what feel like stand-alone stories such that he leaves the reader with a bigger, equally elegant whole.

This book deserves every compliment it receives.

jc


Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385335676 by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.

(A Helpful Guide)

Step Number One: Figure out what the story’s about. Try to have it not be about bears. No one likes bears; they’re big and stinky. Animatronic bears are even worse.

Two: When you’re done, write your story down. Try to make it about ninety pages. These ninety pages are your screenplay. Congratulations! It’s done!