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 Then Opel mysteriously dies, and Bucky becomes ever more withdrawn from the outside world.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 166

The election map from 2016.

Wednesday, November 4

When I first heard the term conformism, I thought: “Yeah—I know all about that.” I didn’t need a dictionary. I lived in Memphis, where the people I knew couldn’t imagine any place better to live.

History books said that American conformism had seen its high-water mark in the 1950s. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The national preference for buttoned-down lives of prosperous ordinariness was, the books said, challenged by only a few, such as Greenwich Village beatniks. As Richard Yates put it in his bleak look at that period’s middle-class, suburban life, Revolutionary Road: “Nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.”

The 1960s, on the other hand, were an era of non-conformism—or so the history books told us. The University of California’s free-speech movement protested against those who would fold, spindle, or mutilate the computer-generated Berkeley students. The Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 founding statement declared war on the “loneliness, estrangement and isolation” that kept people from reforming society. Before long, hippies were promoting free love and free acid. Turn on, tune in, drop out, as Timothy Leary put it.

But conformism was far from dead in the era of feelin’ groovy. Most white boys in my hometown of Memphis wanted nothing better than a good paying job, an obedient wife, a suburban ranch house, and endless games of golf on the weekends—leavened with a few shots of Jack in the Black.

And conformism is still very much with us today—as one more national election demonstrates. I believe that it’s not ideology that compels all of the Northeast to vote Democratic—or the Old Confederacy to vote Republican. It’s largely conformism. 

I suspect few white people in Memphis even know anyone who voted for Biden. 

Certainly in New York, the expectation is for just the opposite—that everyone is voting for Biden.

These pleas that you hear from the various celebrities and pols that you GO VOTE—they’re not calls for good citizenship. No, they think they know who you will be voting for.

In The New York Review of Books, Yale historian David W. Blight recently wrote : “Democrats represent a coalition held together loosely by an ideology of inclusion, a commitment to active government, faith in humanistic and scientific expertise, and an abhorrence of what they perceive as the monstrous presidency of Donald J. Trump. Republicans, with notable defections, are a party held together by a commitment to tax reduction, corporate power, anti-abortion, white nationalism, and the sheer will for power.”

Well, I suppose. But I doubt that voters are really drawn by such abstract ideals. Instead, I think conformism—doing what your neighbors are also doing—has a lot to do with just which candidate’s oval one fills in on the ballot.

I believe this is especially true when it comes to the so-called red states. Maybe that just represents my own conformism to blue-state norms—along with a lack of understanding of how anybody could vote for the short-fingered, mentally-ill vulgarian, Mr. MAGA.  It’s that conformism that is pushing the U.S. toward an ever-greater sectionalism. Just look at the election-night maps on TV: big swaths of red bunched together, then big swaths of blue down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Dinner: Wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, quinoa, and green salad.

Entertainment: More election news, the Danish film The 12th Man,  and early-to-bed for two sleep-deprived political junkies.