Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mapmaker's Opera, Fight Club, and the Byzantines

Yesterday I finished two novels: The Mapmaker's Opera by Bea Gonzalez; Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. They make an odd pair, to say the least. The first is about preservation: all through the book people variously try to preserve the memory of a beloved grandmother, a song, a species of bird, their honor, their family, their individuality, their posessions, their culture. The second is about the desire to dissolve individuality and tear down history with a world-encompassing tantrum.

Gonzalez laments the extinction of the passenger pigeon:

As for the fate of the Passenger Pigeon--that, alas, is all too well know. In 1896 the last significant chapter for these birds was written in the state of Ohio. By then, only a quarter of a million remained of the billions that had once filled the sky. In April of that year they came together in one last great nesting flock in the forest on Green River near Mammoth Cave. Recently installed telegraph lines were used to notify the hunters of the appearance of this flock and they arrived by railway from far and wide. The result was catastrophic--two hundred thousand carcasses were taken, another forty thousand were mutilated and wasted, one hundred thousand newborn chicks were destroyed or abandoned to predators in their nests. Only five thousand were thought to have escaped.
The hunters' efforts were wasted in the end. The birds--packaged for shipment to markets in the East--rotted under a scorching sun when a derailment prevented them from being shipped as planned. The putrefied carcasses of two hundred thousand birds were disposed of in a nearby ravine.
The last bird of its kind, Martha, died alone at the age of twenty-nine inside the Cincinnati Zoo at about one o'clock on September 1, 1914. There were few then who understood the significance of what had just come to pass. A bird that had once thundered across open skies had been vanquished for good--driven to extinction by man's ignorance and greed.

Palahniuk's nihilistic pique stands in counterpoint.

Tyler asked what I was really fighting.
What Tyler says about being the crap and the slaves of history, that’s how I felt. I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see.
I wanted the whole world to hit bottom.
Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.

At the very end of the book, our protagonist takes a parting shot at the beauty of the individual with one of his most memorably snarky lines.

I've met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, "Why?" Why did I cause so much pain? Didn't I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can't I see how we're all manifestations of love? I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God's got this all wrong. We are not special. We are not crap or trash, either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens. And God says, "No, that's not right." Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can't teach God anything.

The interesting thing about Gonzalez's story is how she portrays those who seek revolution vs. those who seek beauty. Naturalist Edward Nelson spends his life observing and documenting birds. His friend Robert Duarte, a grower of the henequin plant that is in such high demand by the Americans, shares in his passion; he loses himself in books and birds, occasionally intervening on the side of leniency for his workers but generally preferring to know as little as possible about how his overseer does his job. One could present these characters as morally bankrupt dreamers, but instead they are some of the most likeable characters in Gonzalez's story. The Mexican revolutionaries, on the other hand, get short shrift: amid the smoke of a burning plantation, an unseen and anonymous member of the rioting mob unknowingly causes the book's greatest tragedy. Gonzalez seems to be saying that, for the most part, humans can't help themselves because their endeavors inevitably become chaotic and corrupt. I think the following may be the most telling quote in the book.

"Forget about it, muchacho," Mr. Nelson says again, gently, and he places his arm around the young man's shoulder, delivers some reassuring pats to his back and then returns to the bounties of nature that, alone on earth, have the power to make things right.

This is not Nelson talking, but Gonzalez! I think that in her cosmology nature is the only bootstrap by which humans may pull themselves above their own flaws. I tend to agree with her.

The interesting thing here is that Gonzalez and Palahniuk aren't as dissimilar as they first appear. The way in which Gonzalez pointedly de-glorifies the Mexican revolutionaries isn't all that different from Palahniuk's pathetic portrayal of Tyler Durden's "space monkeys". Of course the main difference between the two is that, for Gonzalez, salvation lies in nature. For Palahniuk, man has no salvation; man just is.

All these thoughts of chaos and anarchy lead me inevitably to thoughts of the 12 Byzantine Rulers series I've been listening to. I know that my perception of chaos is somewhat exaggerated because the lectures compress a hell of a lot of history into each lecture, and the chaotic bits get the most attention. Still... just look at the events surrounding the reign of Andronicus, and the whole notion of history as ordered progression becomes a Brobdingnagian joke. Manuel, grandson of Alexius I, dies, leaving his wife, Maria, to piss off Constantinople with her westernness. Italian and French merchants jump at the opportunity to renew their trade stranglehold, and things go from bad to worse. Nutty, charismatic, buff, exiled old Andronicus catches wind of all this and sweeps into Constantinople, having been cheered on the whole way. He slaughters all the Italians in town and everyone related to Manuel except Alexius II, the son of Manuel and Maria. Then he slaughters Maria and declares himself co-emperor with Alexius. Then he slaughters Alexius. Then he marries Alexius's thirteen-year old widow. Then he compiles a list of all the people he's slaughtered and he slaughters all their dogs. The last sentence was the only one I made up.

Andronicus, inspired by all this slaughtering, turns his energies to dealing with corruption. By slaughtering everyone who's corrupt. Thirty seven of the fifty nine people left in Constantinople are all "Corruption sucks. Andronicus is cool." but the rest think he's gone too far and start hatching plots to take him out. Andronicus, having had one too many nutbars, really concentrates his vital energies on being the best slaughterer he can be. King William the Good of Sicily, always eager for a chunk of the Byzantine pie, welcomes refugees from the nuttiness and comes up with an ersatz Alexius II to legitimize a move on Constantinople. His army easily takes Thessalonica, and Andronicus responds by going for ISO 9000 certification on his slaughter industry. His cousin Isaac Angelus, after narrowly avoiding execution, gathers support, captures Andronicus and leaves him to the mob, who treats him to a nice slow slaughter of his own. Isaac trounces the Sicilians, marries the daughter of the Hungarian king, and proceeds to completely destroy the economy, get humiliated by the Bulgarians, and go nuts à la Andronicus. But wait, what news from the east and west? "You got your Muslims in my Jerusalem!" "You got your Crusaders in my Constantinople!" This time the English and French aren't a problem because they go by water, but Frederick Barbarossa wants to march through and Isaac is forced to comply. Frederick, totally pumped from having shown off his power, blows a raspberry over his shoulder at Isaac, makes his way across most of Anatolia, and then gets his ass drowned in a river.

So one of Frederick's generals turns to his men and says "Buck up, lads! We're a massive and utterly directionless army hanging out in Asia Minor. What could possibly go wrong?" Cut to Venice, where the Doge Enrico Dandolo is listening to the soothing, far-off sounds of Isaac's older brother Alexius, who is: deposing Isaac and having him blinded; crowing himself Alexius III; messing up the economy even worse; allowing more and more of his empire to be whittled away by the Turks. When the Crusaders come to Dandolo for support he spins a story about invading Egypt and then pulls a monumental bait-and-switch; as he must have known would happen, the Crusaders can't come up with the money they promised, and they effectively become indentured to Venice. He sics them on the Hungarian coast of Dalmatia, ignoring the Pope's wagging finger. Here he meets Alexius Angelus, who had headed west to drum up support for a coup. In exchange for help he promises to end the schism and reunite the Orthodox and Cathoic churches, but Dandolo really has his eye on Constantinople. As the Crusaders lay seige to the city, Alexius III buggers off. His ministers look blankly at each other and then one of them says "Um, the Crusaders came to overthrow Isaac's usurper, yeah? So, like... they might go away if we restore Isaac. (beat) Yes, that blind old Isaac whom we've had rotting in a dungeon for eight years, what, you got a better idea??" They quickly realize that Isaac is too far gone to rule, so they crown Alexius Angelus to rule alongside his father. It doesn't help. Alexius strips the church of its wealth in a desperate attempt to pay the Crusaders, thus further enraging a populace that already hates him for his promise of unification. As Dandolo encourages the Crusaders to invade, Alexios Doukas has Isaac and his son killed and assumes the throne. He does a pretty good job of defending Constantinople - for a short time. Cut to smoke, thuds, men going gaga over shiny gold, screaming, raping, pillaging, murdering. Entropy descends, ravening, on the greatest city in Christendom. It never recovers.

Is this any less anarchic than the space monkeys?

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