Herb (hardyharhar) wrote,

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A Question of Characters

After a week of a hurricane imposed news-blackout, I've been gorging myself on analysis regarding the current financial meltdown.  It all started when I picked up an abandoned copy of USA TODAY at the airport gate on Friday.  It was open to the front page of the "Money" section, and though I'd normally toss aside the bs fluff paper that is USA TODAY, the lead headline caught my eye, "U.S. BENDS THE RULES OF FREE MARKETS:  Nation isn't practicing what it preached to other countries." 

WTF?  USA TODAY was sounding like a downright socialist rag, comparing the US to Mexico, Russia, Thailand and Argentina, upon whom the US (through the IMF and World Bank) had hypocritically imposed harsh structural adjustment policies in the past fifteen years.  Then I recalled a cell phone conversation I'd overheard from a man standing near the bathroom entrance a few minutes earlier.

"What is happening to this country?" he asked the person on the other end.  "Have you seen the WALL STREET JOURNAL?"

The tv mounted overhead was tuned in to CNN where Wolf Blitzer was getting pundits' reactions to a WSJ editorial that had called John McCain "un-presidential" for saying that the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission should be fired. 

Like I said, I'd spent the past week walking from friend's house to friend's house, drinking and bbq-ing and playing games and kissing and sweating and waiting for the power to come back.  It was an intensely local existence.  All we really wanted or needed to know was Is Galveston still there?, When will the power come back?, and Where can I get ice/recharge my phone? 

Last I'd heard, McCain was feigning outrage over Obama's questioning whether pigs can really fly, but this was sounding like some real drama.  Since my plane hadn't even started boarding yet, I took the opportunity to go pick up a more reputable paper, THE FINANCIAL TIMES.

It was shocking.  First of all, the terms they were using seemed so dramatically over-the-top, as if this were some kind of real catastrophe and not just the smoke and mirrors of exposing themselves to be...smoke and mirrors.  The opponents of regulation and public oversight, those Free Market Fundamentalists were finally having to admit that their "science" is built on a foundation just as shaky and unproven as the most closed-minded religious dogma.

"American capitalism has an in-built reverence for market price signals," writes Gillian Tett, (emphasis mine).

A couple of choice phrases from the lead cover story from Friday's FT:  "terrifying events of the past week...teetering on the brink of disaster..."  Are they serious?  The fearmongering didn't stop there, here's some from page three:  "risk...failing...fear...damage market confidence...taking action...crisis...desperate...desire for systemwide approach...structural approach to toxic assets..." And on page thirteen there's a huge article with the headline, "After the crash:  why global capitalism needs global rules."

Meanwhile, the London Times is lamenting the tough decisions rich housewives will have to make in the coming weeks: 


Who can they let go from the staff? Most would rather do without the nanny than without the cleaner. With any luck the cleaner likes children anyway and will help out in a pinch. If there is a cook, she goes before the nanny. The cleaner also knows how to roast a chicken and wash up. Forget the garden altogether - expect to see a lot of weeds as the crisis worsens - although the unemployed may take some comfort in doing the gardening themselves. Shopping ... they have been meaning to cut down on shopping for years. Haircuts, though, they can't do without.


and Condoleeza Rice is somehow telling Russia that THEY, and not WE, are "authoritarian at home, 'paranoid and aggressive' abroad, and on a 'one-way path' to international isolation."  Huh?  Really?  I mean, she might be right about the Ruskies, but you could say the same things about our fine country, no?  And how does she plan on doing anything about Russia when we're broke and already at war with half the world?  Frickin neocons sound more and more like Scrappy Doo every day.

"Lemme at 'em!  Lemme at 'em!"

This is the first financial meltdown I've been old enough to (start to) comprehend, so I'm not sure what to make of it.  Is it the end of the world as we know it?  Or is it just a short reprieve before we get back to business as usual?  Or is it a New World Order all over again, this time with the rise of "the east?"

Now...there is a point to all this.  See, my novel is set in Houston in 1999.  Enron is on top of the world.  More roads are being built to accommodate more SUVs commuting to-and-from the exurbs.  The Seattle WTO shut-down has not happened yet.

I aimed for it to be a satire, after The Great Gatsby, about our gilded age.  The moment before the fall (9/11.)  A comment on the greed unleashed by deregulation and fed by vapid materialistic soulless appetites.

But a few months ago, as gas prices went through the roof and the mortgage crisis really began to hit real families, doubt began creeping in.  It was becoming clear that the house of cards I had set my sites on was collapsing on its own weight, and my "satire" is not only arriving about five years too late, it could be read as something like pointing and laughing and saying "I told you so!"  At best, it would be like kicking a dead horse.   At worst, it would be adding insult to the injuries being suffered by my desired audience.

Meanwhile, the fictionalized film version of The Battle in Seattle arrived in theaters this week, complete with its counter-protest attempt to "set the record straight," and the perennial post-Seattle hand-wringing on the tactics of protest, not to mention questions about its timely pertinence:


We hardly need a movie to convince us that corporate greed is killing the world, not this week at least.

All this is forcing me to question whether I'm miring my story in the timely (whose timeliness may have passed) at the expense of the timeless.  Ideally, I'd like for all my work to combine elements of both timeliness and timelessness, but should I take it out of 1999?  Should I tone down, or consciously remove, the snide critiques which have become painfully obvious to everybody (with the exception of the London Times writer I linked to above, of course)? 

I don't know.  But I do know that I'm running out of time.  And I have to remind myself that I'm a story-teller, first.  My characters are my primary responsibility.  Readers?  Audience?  They are just figments of my arrogant imagination. 

But my characters...I can't just dream these people up and then leave them floundering about the ether (unless somebody buys me a ticket to London so I can watch a new production of a play that's a major influence on my work).  I owe it to my characters (and to my student loans) to get this thing done, however I do it.

So, I remind myself that in the three years between the time that John Steinbeck began researching what would become The Grapes of Wrath and its publication in 1939, the Great Depression had begun to end.  Steinbeck's criticism had come too late...and yet it still seems so pertinent today...I remind myself and I roll up my shirtsleeves and I get to work.

It is solid, real, sympathetic characters who make audiences care about the timely and carry them across the timeless ages.  Characters, not ideology.


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