Saturday, November 19, 2022

A stomach ache in the heart: American frauds


We are all, as Americans – I speak as one of the flock – still at the low stage of civilisation of one of the Mississippi towns in Huck Finn.

By a fortunate coincidence, I’ve been reading Huck Finn each night for the last month  to Adam before he goes to sleep. We have an agreement – a page or three of Huck, then A. reads to him from the Vam-wolf-zom book. We are now deep into the Duke and Dauphin’s  greatest fraud, the imitation of an English minister and his deaf and dumb brother to bedazzle a rube Mississippi Valley family and worm out their goods. It is one of the great episodes. I’m revisiting it just as frauds of a larger scale but basically with the same mirthworthy unctuousness  – the FTX fraud, the Elon Musk twitter jamboree – are leading a dance though the papers, and, more importantly, through Twitter. Twitter has taken up the burden of the tabloid, because the newspapers – the WAPO, the NYT – have become so country club that they don’t know what to do with such rich materials, recognizing in the spoiled children who are the begetters of this scheme their own children from their own prep schools, and hesitating between the scolding and the “aren’t they adorable” talk that they give their progeny when they come home stoned with the fender bent Porsche.

Sad, that. At one time, when it had more hustle, the NYT played the role of a sort of choral character in Gesine Cresspahl novels of Uwe Johnson. No more. To find out what happened at the Bermuda HQ of SBF’s lemonade stand, you have to go to places like AutismCapital and tweets like those of Tiffany Fong. O brave new world, which has such trolls and trombones within it! That it is being shaken by the antics of one of the world’s dimmest characters – a damned good salesman cosplaying an engineer, Elon M. – makes it all the more slapstick.

But to return to the Duke and Dauphin. Their apotheosis comes from the most admired American virtue – the ability to keep a face in the light of discrediting circumstance. The poker face, the face of the stone killer cop, the face of the politician “with his pants down/and money sticking in his hole” going on the attack about his enemies – in Trump’s case, the politically correct, in Clinton’s case, the witchhunters who didn’t understand that running the executive office like the Playboy mansion was not sexual harassment, but mock-Kennedyism. It is all there in Chapter 29 of Huckleberry Finn. The Duke and Dauphin, imitating the Wilkins brothers and stealing their relatives blind, are confronted by the real Wilkins brothers, who have finally arrived at the little tree stump settlement. Huck, naively, thinks the jig is up:

“But I didn’t see no joke about it, and I judged it would strain the duke and the king some to see any. I reckoned they’d turn pale. But no, nary a pale did ¢hey turn. The duke he never let on he suspicioned what was np, but just went a goo-goo- ing around, happy and satisfied, like a jug that’s googling out buttermilk; and as for the king, he just gazed and | gazed down sorrowful on them new- comers like it give him the stomach-ache in his very heart to think there could be such frauds and rascals in the world. Oh, he done it admirable.”

A stomach ache in his heart. How much this goes right to the heart of the American dream, gone a little crooked! You do have to sit back and admire the audacity of it all.

Monday, November 14, 2022

JR and SBF - It is Gaddis's world, we just live here


In the popular sport of guessing which novel, philosopher, poet etc. will be read a hundred years from now, the answer seems to be mostly – the novelist, philosopher, poet that I like. One likes to think one’s likes will be immortalized by others who are like oneself.

However, I can well imagine a novel and novelist I don’t like at all being read one hundred years from now, and one I adore not being read one hundred years from now. Why not? The community of readers in which I find myself is, I hope, going to socially reproduce. I do my best by writing to help this process along. However, as I am a wee little pea and my writing is certainly not going to be read one hundred years from now, or even one year from now, I am not optimistic about my contribution to the general culture of sweetness and light. It is here that I flash the tears emoticon and move on.

This is why I can’t say if J.R. will be one of those novels, like Moby Dick, that re-emerge after a hundred years as one of the major works, one of the touchstones of literature, American division. I can see similarities: Moby Dick is encyclopedic, and includes everything from a glossary to reflections of a cosmic nature. J.R. is encyclopedic in its way too – it parades such tag ends of culture as Mozart’s letters and the highflying vocabulary of hyper-conglomerates, fall out shelters and the privatization of education, etc. etc. Moby Dick’s characters engage in dramatic dialogues, where’s J.R.’s characters engage in dialogues in which misunderstanding, misspeaking and in general the failure to communicate is the standard of all communication.

But it is not only the unique way Gaddis finds to link together his story, but the story itself, that seems to say something about the America we all know, who have lived in the United States in the last fifty or so years. At the center is a little boy, JR , who – though a mechanism not dissimilar to any of the great swindlers and boy wonders of American capitalism of the past decades – amasses an imaginary fortune on Wall Street. Since J.R.’s voice has not broken, or is breaking – since he’s a boy child – he has to buy and sell using a dirty handkerchief, which he puts over the phone to disguise his voice. And because he needs an adult to help him, he ropes into his scheme a music composer who is a scion of old wealth come down on its downers with the significant name of Bast, which might or might not have anything to do with Forster’s Leonard Bast. But this way of telling the novel, book reporting it, does not convey the experience of the novel. It is huge, and, unfortunately, one reading is not enough. Myself, I started it and stopped it and then, for some reason, picked it up again when I was in the mood, and I was simply astonished by what the novel does. It is never referred to when the tycoons go down, the Milikans or the Lehman Brothers. Shame, that, as Gaddis clearly saw that buying junk – whether junk bonds or junk real estate or whatever – gave you leverage to keep going and blow a financial bubble, and it could be done by a twelve year old boy whose slang and abbreviated speech is taken as the height of financial genius by the press. The special lingo of, say, crypto currency buffs would fit right into JR. And JR has a natural eye for business as an elaborate board game, cause he is a boy who likes to play games and read the back of comic books and junk mail. The junk mail comes in fast as he takes one stock that his class bought and builds an empire of investing on it.

‘See, I read in this thing where you sell everything and lease it right back off the people you sold it to on this like ninety nine  years lease because I mean who cares what’s going to happen in ninety nine years , see so then you stay right in business and get to keep on losing money  just like before only now you have all this here cash.”

I imagine if you took, from this 700 plus page book, all the dialogue of J R, who gets it all from the junk mail he so happily receives – using Bast’s address – you could make an encyclopedia of every get rich quick scheme that has made America the showplace of financialized capitalism. Including such items as integrating old folks homes and medical supply companies to create stores in these homes for the clever prosthetics limb shopper.

The SBF fuckup is special, in one way: apparently all the wisemen of silicon valley and private equity grandly overlooked that the man’s companies didn’t even have real boards. They overlooked the fact that SBF, much like JR, played video games while he was conferencing to get funding from various hotshots. All, of course, via zoom. Gaddis must have looked down from heaven and smiled a big smile. He predicted it all.  

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...