Monday, August 23, 2010

J.C. Hallman's "In Utopia": Book Review

Whatever he publishes, I'll read. J.C. Hallman's followed chess masters to Kalmykia and new religious movements across America. These erudite travelogues, The Chess Artist and The Devil Is a Gentleman, foreshadowed this new collection of explorations in their quest for transcendence. Recently, his short stories in The Hospital for Bad Poets and his edition of non-fiction essays by writers about writing The Story Behind the Story (all reviewed by me on this blog and at Amazon US) assert intellect integrated with emotion, detachment tempered by empathy. He's a formidably equipped writer, comfortable with allusions to Lucian and Gilgamesh, Aristophanes and Erasmus. He integrates classical and humanist influences with an alert mind and an eye for attentive detail from his excursions to "six kinds of Eden and the search for a better paradise."

In Utopia lingers from Hallman's childhood inspiration. He grew up in a San Diego "suburban necropolis" on "Utopia Road"; his project "emulates Utopia's toggle between analysis and what scholars call 'speaking pictures.'" That is, Hallman adapts the "episodic strategy of the genre" coined by Thomas More to "get the joke" of the meaning of a place that means "no-place" rather than "eutopia"'s "good place." Five hundred years later, Hallman rescues the ideal from the Greek-inspired pun. The impossible dream of perfection on earth, Hallman explores, "critiques crisis."

He starts in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, where Pleistocene Rewilding attempts an ecological restoration of conservation biology. He interviews Dave Foreman formerly of Earth First! about his Wetlands Project to bring back "megalinkages" across the land as corridors to heal the continent's environmental damage. Hallman visits Przewalski's horse, an equid reintroduced to the terrain where native horses, thousands of years ago, had become extinct. "They were a James Dean of a horse--cropped hair, vaguely cool, accidentally beautiful, and entirely untamable."

This phrasing demonstrates Hallman's style. Parts of his book, crammed with facts and dates, reminded me of John McPhee's fact-packed trudges across geological plates and botanical niches. Hallman mixes personal encounters with accumulated information. The balance, enriched by small monochrome illustrations, for all its popular culture contexts feels as if antiquated, as historical as it is current.

He enters on a trial basis Twin Oaks, a Virginia commune selling sixteen hundred pounds of tofu daily for its upkeep. There he meets Pax, the Ivy League-educated brother of one of the members of They Might Be Giants, and (at least) one of his wives. Hawina's a "feral elf" of a woman "somewhere between fifteen and fifty years of age--you couldn't be more specific than that. She had the heady, fecund air of a bog. She finished all her meals by licking her plate and using the ends of her hair as dental floss." This section, with such character sketches, reveals Hallman's storytelling skills mixed with his savvy in sharing his cultural critiques.

He peers into glimpses of a better world assembled by those who separate themselves from the rest of us. He relates the effect of estrangement as he wanders among cranks and idealists. On a cruise ship purchased by millionaires who live in its apartments as The World circumnavigates the world, Hallman strolls through its floating Village. All the millionaires seem to be on shore that day. It's a deserted public area on board. "The cigar lounge was empty, the chess tables in the game room had no pieces. The World was less like a ghost ship, I thought, than an amusement park you'd leased. Or bought. At an empty bar on deck 11, I chatted with a Filipino barman. He knew my name somehow." Still, I wish he'd met more people or at least had come up with more tales from what appeared a strangely underpopulated embarkation on this enigmatic ship.

In Italy, he finds the most articulate of his informants, a Communist politician turned Slow Food leader. Carlo Petrini tells Hallman their slogan: "A gastronome who isn't an environmentalist is an idiot. And an environmentalist who isn't a gastronome is a very sad man." Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1567 painted The Land of Cockaigne, where food, drink, and satiation of sprawled peasants symbolized the earthy appeal of an idealized, if intoxicated, never-never land. For a few of today's farmers and cooks in Europe disgusted with processed slop, the relationship of food and humanity offers a localized cuisine, a leisurely lifestyle, and diverse sustenance for those who care about our communal productions and intimate bonds upon an increasingly suffering Earth.

But such ideals can challenge those used to a fast-food pace. Hallman and his companion in a "charming town" in Chianti sit down as the only customers in a restaurant. A young woman "left us alone with the menus and stayed away long enough that it was natural to wonder whether the service was slow or non-existent." Yet, this meal with Valentina and her husband, the cook Diego, turns out one of the most memorable moments of the narrative. "Dinner lasted four hours."

New Songdo earns his next visit. This master-planned high-rise Korean city for 30,000 built on an artificial island will be run by "ubiquitous computing." It resembles that of the cruise ship in its populated, yet detached, desolation. This section's compilation of the investments and inspirations for such a dream city, however, proves less scintillating. This may be the moral of The World and the Korean enterprise, for both chapters produce a dispirited ambiance. Hallman visits the Korean construction before it's completed, so much of this section's spent relating such incidents as King Gillette's utopian ideas before his vision of what became the safety razor enlightened him, albeit eight years before any investors for Gillette's invention could be found. Gillette designed a model city as well, and like Hallman as a boy in his Southern California subdivision, the possibility of a transformed community never fully faded from his mature reveries.

When the book navigates the mundane, as in the worlds of the wealthy who try to socially engineer their urban or maritime surroundings, the story accumulates encyclopedic snippets. The Korean setting, like that on the cruise ship, does not catch the imagination as much as the earnest and fumbling attempts of the Twin Oaks "primitive communists," or The Futurist Cookbook's Cockaigne revival of edible landscapes and gustatory skyscrapers, if not big rock candy mountains. Hallman's narrative sharpens when he shows us everyday folks rather than compiling data from magnates and architects who concoct these grandiose projects.

For instance, Seoul's sprawling capitalism dawns on a jet-lagged Hallman. "Young men all awkwardly in suits, clothes worn with no sense of history, chain-smoking in groups with nubs held close to their lips like children blowing soap bubbles, and young women all in tight skirts, either bare-legged or fishnetted, sashaying along in heels that proved you could exchange one kind of foot binding for another and mistake it for emancipation." Some don surgical masks against the "shit smell and desert dust," while "others wore surgical masks loose around their ears as a fashion statement." Any utopian impulse in such a Ubiquitous Dream Hall (a museum he passes) appears dim.

The penultimate chapter brings Hallman to a real desert, a Nevada gun training camp near Death Valley. Front Sight, soon to be a planned but not gated community, testifies to the Second as the most important of all amendments. Hallman reminds us that, as with food, the inclusion of militancy to enforce a utopian commonwealth comprises an overlooked feature of many ideal communities. Ancient Sparta managed, until it taught its enemies by so much warfare to become better than themselves in the martial arts, to be one monarchy where the ruler changed the whole populace to bring about his land reforms, his artistic reduction, his power-sharing senate, "collective child rearing," and worst of all, "compulsory communal evening meals."

At Front Sight, Hallman bristles at the modern paramilitary regimen. He was accepted into the "intentional community" at Twin Oaks (where he kept his writer's cover three weeks as a trial member) and succeeds in mastering firearms, but he resents his atavistic victory. His dystopian instincts jostled his gentler philosophies. He notes wryly how the Wild West did not result in a "marked decrease in bank robberies." He wonders how settling in a frontier tract where all exercise the right to bear arms can result in a happier experience for the paranoid, the jittery, and the combative among us.

However well-trained, those in Front Sight eager to set down stakes betray their supposedly utopian intentions to improve one's status over their complacent neighbors, who are likely ourselves. Such "sham propositions that promise magical stability" rouse Hallman to reject fear-mongering as a rationale for solidarity, a shootout of us vs. them. Free markets or mutually assured destruction prefigure this "self-congratulatory" pseudo-utopian fighting stance on this harsh Western frontier. Hallman concludes his stay by rejecting the exclusionary prejudice that pushes aside the weak to justify a good guys-bad guys, white-hat vs. black-hat showdown. "You cannot dress the whore of greed in the pinafore of competition and call her virtuous."

His final chapter's the briefest. He visits Utopia Road. Weeds sprout in the landscaping; from the battered, faded "Criminals Beware" placard under the street sign he photographs, it looks as if the neighborhood's better days receded towards the same place where his childhood memories reside.

He wraps up his quest. "Not even Utopia was a utopia. Indeed, it was the first dystopian novel." Yet, the humanism at the heart of Thomas More's rhetoric, along with its cruelty, endures. "The joke of Utopia, it turns out, is not that it is folly to try and make a better world. More's blueprint encourages not derision or abandonment, but "better intentions" than, for example, the ones at Front Sight. The impossible dream goads us on, Hallman shares, to make the imperfect a bit more perfect. (Posted in slightly edited form to Amazon US & 8-17-10. Published 8-23-10 at Pop Matters.)

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