Archive for August, 2017

Remember When: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

August 21, 2017

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – probably the standout novel of 2016 – the narrator is trapped in a town she calls ‘X-ville’, where ‘the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t ‘fit in,’ as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.’

Small towns are also the subject for John Darnielle in his short and curious novel Universal Harvester. The setting is Iowa rather than New England, and jumps about through time rather than sticking to the mid 1960s. There is quietness, routine, comfort, and a loneliness that feels almost solid, that raises your awareness to the point of high altitude.

While Moshfegh’s protagonist wants to escape places like this, Darnielle’s seek to understand them. He starts with the connections between people. For Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk living with his widowed father, ‘conversations tended towards simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place… These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people?…’ But at some point, always, ‘the trail went cold’ and it’s the same small town silence again. ‘The lowest form of conversation,’ Tony Soprano complains in the HBO show, is ‘Remember when’.

The first chapters, which take place in the late nineties, constitute a quietly brilliant depiction of father and son relationships. Jeremy is a college graduate, his father is a low level white collar worker, both are still shaken by the death of Jeremy’s mother. They enjoy a beer and a movie together, but conversation isn’t easy, even though there is no hostility between them – both men are just constantly, acutely aware of each other’s presence. Darnielle is a subtle master of relationships between basically good men.

He picks up this theme of connection later on in the story, and later on in time, when ‘people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation.’ The undergraduates of the 2010s, visiting retired parents in present-day Iowa are investigating a string of missing persons, perhaps connected to a religious cult. The families of the missing put up an appeal website that ‘boasted all the trappings of the initial expansion of the Internet from college campuses and computer laboratories to the wider world: site design from a template supplied by the host, clip art, and several uncorrected spelling errors in the single paragraph atop the frame.’

From the mid twentieth century, something has invaded this quiet world: the strange church, the disappearances connected to it, and something else as well. Jeremy’s video store customers begin to return their tapes early, complaining that the movies on them have been spliced with other movies – odd, furtive handheld clips, called things like ‘Shed #4’, that give disquieting impressions of captivity and restraint.

Universal Harvester is a brief book, in which not much happens, but it could have been twice as long and still not lost the reader’s attention. I suspect it will baffle readers for generations to come. Darnielle writes about a region that is ‘quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries. A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?’ In his remarkable novel Darnielle comes closest to the mystery behind these tensions.

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Let’s Go Back To College

August 11, 2017

Political commentary at its best is disputatious. Pundits are unlikely to give government credit for policies. Except when it comes to tuition fees. From James Bloodworth on the left, to Daniel Mahoney on the right, everyone agrees what a good idea tuition fees were and how unfair it would be to get rid of them.

Both writers make good arguments, and there are good reasons for such uniformity of opinion. Tuition fees are a minor policy issue compared to everything else that’s going on. Marching against them seems self-indulgent, and if you’re not a student yourself, you’re going to look like some fool trying to recover his lost youth. And many students – at least in my experience – support the fees.

Abolishing tuition fees is also a flagship Jeremy Corbyn policy, which makes the idea look more ridiculous still. The hard Brexit he supports makes the implementation of free higher education, and of all the other targeted giveaways he proposes look, well, academic. And I see why people ask how socialist it really is to give more subsidies to the middle classes while leaving swathes of austerity welfare cuts largely untouched.

And yet I still have doubts about tuition fees, and find the arguments for them to be weak.

For example, the Daily Express described Corbyn’s HE policy (pre this year’s GE) as ‘a key bribe being used by the current Labour leadership to younger voters’. Bribe? Excuse me, but what did the Express think British politics is? Most party policy represents the offer of economic or financial support to various interest groups, in the hope of gaining power. Former education minister Alan Johnson complained that the idea would involve ‘cross-subsidising mainly middle class students’. The middle classes are already subsidised with tax credits, child benefit, flexible working, parental leave and pension credit – but apparently, paying for college is where the line has to be drawn.

Then there is the argument that working class people shouldn’t have to pay for an education from which working class people don’t personally benefit… unless, of course, they ever undergo a clinical procedure, fly on an aircraft, lose themselves in a great novel or history book, or utilise any of the other services and innovations produced by graduates. And taxation always involves paying for something you don’t use. I don’t drive, but I don’t complain that my tax contributions go towards funding publically maintained roads.

And then we come to the ‘crazy students’ story. Barely a week goes by without a headline reporting some ludicrous boycott, no-platform or protest initiated by students. The national security professor Tom Nichols devotes a whole chapter in his marvellous polemic The Death of Expertise to the broken US college education system, and the colossal sense of entitlement displayed by many student protestors. He writes:

At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campuswide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming students. ‘In your position as master,’ one student howled in a professor’s face, ‘it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!’

Quietly, the professor said, ‘No, I don’t agree with that,’ and the student unloaded on him:

‘Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!’ [emphasis Nichols’s]

This is a familiar subject. But Nichols’s conclusions are surprising. The ‘crazy students’ story is more prevalent in America because the system costs more at the point of delivery. Students have such entitlement because they have been encouraged to see themselves as customers – ‘children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.’

Conservatives have made a minor cottage industry from the backlash against crazy entitled student protestors but, at the end of the day, they just want clicks and RTs. Some leftists have even sillier ideas about HE. Millennials have become a pilot cohort for sociology’s wackier theories.

Take this piece by the Guardian’s Hugh Warwick. He advocates a year of ‘eco conscription’ prior to higher education. Young people would be sent back to the land for compulsory agricultural labour. ‘Now, conscription is a scary idea; associated with the great threats that come with war, so it is sure to antagonise. But I believe we need to start treating the multiple environmental crises as the serious threat they are,’ Warwick explains. ‘The benefits to our ‘home’ of having people working on the land, reconsecrating the sacrilege of our industry, are immense. Reweaving the connections, rebuilding the Linescape will forge links for wildlife and for people.’

This article is such a classic, I could quote from it all day (‘Yes, this is state coercion. But…’) Suffice to note the subtext – that students are a kind of claimant group, which should be mined for productive use. But students spend money, work regular jobs to cover their fees, even set up small businesses. There are provincial cities and market towns from London to Carlisle that would starve without the September-June influx.

Of course having a big student population does lead to obvious problems with loud noise, transient populations and knocked over wheelie bins. But there is no reason undergraduates and regular people cannot live together peacefully. I used to do a lot of voluntary work, and in that capacity I sat on a student impact panel in my own city, which got students and local residents together to find ways to coexist without problems. I remember an old woman praising the university system because (I can’t remember the exact words) ‘it’s remarkable that we live in a society that sets a little time aside for people just to think, and read, and find out who they really are.’ And I can think of no better rationale for higher education than that.