A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–Chapter 181

Monday, December 21

Could there be a moment more suited to the work of a particular writer than our current period is to the jottings of Don DeLillo, the poet of unanticipated catastrophe and its handmaiden, paranoia? Way before MAGA and its antifascist dissectors, DeLillo invented a university Department of Hitler Studies for his 1985 novel White Noise. Was it Bhopal or Chernobyl—or maybe intimations of COVID-19—that, in the same work, led the author to give a primary role to an “airborne toxic event”?

And as luck—or possibly the clairvoyance of the Scribner marketing department—would have it, DeLillo has a new novel just hitting the shelves of the few unshuttered bookstores. I don’t have access to the just-published The Silence, but according to The New York Times Book Review, its themes include a technology-dependent humanity abruptly deprived of its fix… and the possibility that the end of days has arrived. It just may be the “eschaton”—a new word to me, thanks be to the Times reviewer.

As my luck would have it, I have just begun reading an old DeLillo work, also suited to our current moment, Great Jones Street. This 1973 effort focuses on a burnt-out rock star, Bucky Wunderlick, who has abruptly deserted his band’s tour and entered a period of self-isolation in an unheated and deteriorating lower Manhattan building. Looking out the window, he sees little other than a crust of brown snow on the window sill, ubiquitous derelicts, and and old woman “bundled in pounds of rags, an image in the penciled light of long retreat from Moscow.” It is, he says, a “time of prayerful fatigue,” of unbroken solitude.

After a few days, his girlfriend Opel arrives. They live mostly in the room’s bed, and “each day passed, detached from time,” as she waits for her drug-trafficking “operative” to arrive. Then Opel mysteriously dies, and Bucky becomes ever more withdrawn from the outside world.

In time, the lost “mountain tapes” are passed along to him. In the vein of Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes,” these are unpolished, “genuinely infantile” recordings of Bucky accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The songs are “strange little autistic ramblings.” But the fabled tapes offer him a way back, a chance to remake himself, he figures.

There are other themes in Great Jones Street, some of which seem more of its period than of our own. There’s an ironically named commune, Happy Valley Farm, which has stolen from a “top-secret U.S. Guv. installation” a “mind-crushing” drug that everyone now wants. (Does anyone still do drugs so recklessly?) There’s a Timothy Leary/Doctor Robert-like “scientific genius of the underground” who’s called Dr. Pepper. And while our age knows all too well the relentless pursuit of celebrity, Bucky’s is marked by rock stars who, Dylan-like, seek isolation—which only increases the desire of the press and the public to see and hear from them. “The less you say, the more you are,” remarks a television interviewer who traps Bucky in the hallway of his building. 

Great Jones Street putters along until it finally sputters out. It’s more of a mood piece than a real novel, but the mood is appropriate to our wintry period of desolation and hoped-for rebirth. Bucky never returns to the limelight and lives on only in the form of rumors. There may be worse fates.

Dinner: Penne with roasted red peppers and goat cheese and a lettuce, pear, and snap peas salad.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 111

A school in Cuba: Che, not Ivanhoe

Thursday, July 9

The debate over public school reopening seems to be missing one thing: Kids really do learn a lot on their own. 

Maybe what they learn won’t comply with the official requirements, but kids will continue to learn stuff—and be interested in learning—without any bullying from credentialed teachers or school-board commisars. They get information from their friends. They learn everything from self-discipline to cooking and cleanliness from their parents. If parents are bad role models…well there’s little schools can do to overcome that. 

Home-schooled kids “miss out on learning gains in reading and math relative to in-class instruction,” says Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

Baloney. They miss out on bullying, boredom, snobbery, and enforced conformism.

My own experience probably demonstrates little more than personal frustration. Nevertheless, I must say that I already knew how to read when I went to first grade. They gave me a little, unofficial test, and at age 6, I could read virtually everything in the sixth-grade reader; the only word I didn’t know was “Maria.”

But they decided I shouldn’t “skip” any grades. Consequently, for several years I sat and listened as other students attempted to read out loud, stumbling over words or just sitting for lengthy, agonizing periods of silence.

Did this benefit me or other already-advanced kids? I was supposed to gain some maturity or socialization from being around others my age—but I remained hugely immature and shy.

Up until college, it was much the same. In high school, I learned a lot of math and a little biology—most of which I’ve long ago forgotten. The history classes were almost all taught by football coaches—it seems they needed lots of those. I remember one coach reading the textbook aloud to us—that was his idea of a lecture. As he read, students misbehaved, throwing spitballs or wads of chewing gum at each other. Others dawdled, drawing airplanes with firing machine guns rather than taking notes. Some kids slept.

Another memory is of a study hall, presided over by yet another football coach. He amused himself by digging in his ears with his keys. Then, he’d carefully examine whatever he had managed to remove. Occasionally, he’d pipe up and utter some word of criticism at a perceived miscreant. 

There was compulsory attendance at pep rallies held in the gym. Memphis Central High School’s fight song was performed to the tune of “On Wisconsin”—or was it the Notre Dame Victory March? I guess there were no original melodies in the hometown of Elvis.

Then there was ROTC, or Rot-C as we called the paramilitary marching around while wearing army-surplus duds and toting disabled, WWII-era rifles. What did we learn there? Obedience? That was already a theme in almost all other classes.

There was really only one class I liked—senior English. There, we read the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (And, famously, 40% of the students at my school were Jewish.) I should note that Ivanhoe did have virtues—it celebrated the Che Guevara-like Robin Hood.

Mrs. Davies, the English teacher, made it known that she disapproved of a group of students who, on their own, were reading J.D. Salinger and admiring Bob Dylan. Today, both figures are on the approved list, I gather. Other authors and popular musicians have to bear the load of official disapproval. They cry all the way to the bank.

Dinner: leftover grilled vegetables, Capriccio salad.

Entertainment: Our faulty Internet connection won’t link to Britbox, so two episodes of Netflix’ The Stranger.