From the first draft of chapter two of Hunger the Giant. This bit of writing is so dense that the revised extension of the ideas and imagery will likely span twenty pages.
In the high lonesome grasslands Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. What else did they have? Writ of deed. Money on credit. Deer at the flesh of an aborted orchard. Soil turned against their seed. Early frost, late frost, hail. Neighbors more distant than clouds with hearts hard as red winter wheat.
The settlers swarmed the plains possessed by a greed they had come to call hope. Any man cut away from his homeland is by necessity an opportunist and a thief. Anders’ people had worked their thin Nordic valley for more than a thousand years; Ikka’s lineage ranged far older still. Every corner of that world was filled with stories; in that earth lay all the bones of their ancestors. In Hunger’s inconsolable hours, when Ikka looked at Anders with the panicked eyes of a snake-bit mare and Anders stared back with the blue exhaustion of ice-melt, where were his grandmother’s practiced hands, the mellowing smoke of his grandfather’s pipe, or the rough camaraderie of his cousins? Gone as never was. Revenants. Memories. The continent was conquered thus. The southlands humid with the blood of flayed slaves, the northlands choking on the acrid kindling smoke of its workers, and all of them asking the tribes to choose between swindle and massacre before giving them both. The westland settlers were flung from that horror like spittle on a madman’s chin. Anders was among the best of this lot: a romantic and a fool. When, in the enormous ignorance he explained as bad luck, the north wind took Anders’ hay or the chickens got opossumed, he hoped for an Indian raid. Let my scalp fly from my head and arrows tie me to my fields. Let them carry off Ikka and raise the boy red. But then he’d slide hangdog into the dugout at dusk and lay eyes on mother and child naked in their nest of beaver fur, cotton, and silk. For three more visions like that Anders figured he’d fight to live forever and began to wonder like everyone else where the railroad would run. Ikka’d see these thoughts on his leaf-broad features, tell him to throw more sod and chips in the cracked iron stove and, when he’d undressed, set Hunger square on his chest. And so Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. It felt like redemption but it wasn’t. These debts would be paid down through the generations.
Hunger fed mostly on milk.
Late rains bring out the low green new grass beneath shorn and golden fields– the wheat-like light on the distant elevator tower, the distant antipodal fields of clouds, and in between, a horizon of river-rim leaf line.
In 1830, after one hundred years of unprecenteded population growth, emigration from Sweden became legal. Frustrated activists, reformers, and free-thinkers painted settling in the American Continent as an opportunity to reassert traditional Swedish values that had been repressed by an imported and unwelcome monarchical society.
Many European emigrants saw America as a place to establish a new and authentic community. Germans, Latvians, Swedes, the Irish– all came to America to establish towns and countrysides full of their fellows. Although co-opted into myths of American individualism, the vast majority of European immigrants sought new freedom to be with their countrymen- to establish new Uppsalas, new Amsterdams, new Counties Clare.
The notion of ‘becoming American’ hardly existed and certainly didn’t have the meaning it has today.
Once the first brave men and women escaped the poverty and oppression of feudal Sweden, they quickly realized they needed a lot more of their countrymen to live as they would like, in their own tongue, according to customs and beliefs specific to their shared history, and eating the dishes that tasted of home. Many were (or became) liars, opportunists, and thieves who knew how best to prey upon their own countrymen, but the communal human need they exploited was real.
Across Sweden a steady rain of leaflets fell, telling of the ideal conditions and perfect freedom migrants had to recreate their homeland away from the parasitical monarchy. Some of the information was true, much of it was lies. Emigration moved memetically.
Once sizable Swedish farming communities had formed on the prairie, the greatest impetus for further peasant migration came through personal contacts. The iconic “America-letter” to relatives and friends at home spoke directly from a position of trust and shared background, carrying immediate conviction. At the height of migration, familial America-letters could lead to chain reactions which would all but depopulate some Swedish parishes, dissolving tightly knit communities which then re-assembled in the Midwest.
The powers that be in Sweden, however, were in a bind. Too little emigration meant civil unrest. Peasants were getting uppity all over Europe and the monarchs were antsy about it. Letting the most agitated loose their energies on the American wilderness was a much needed release valve. Too much emigration, on the other richly ringed hand, would deprive the landowners of their wealth of serfs.
So the government began a propaganda campaign of their own, replacing the idyllic scenes with representations, in many ways more accurate, of frontier terrors such as hungry cougars, hatchet-wielding natives, and hard weather. The local clergy, in their usual collusion with state power, also warned of moral hazards and foreign heathen. Those who left often did so secretly or in the face of public shaming only to arrive in an America vastly different from what was promised and sometimes in indentured servitude to more established families. The Swedish press, in its usual collusion with state power, stated: “No workers are more lazy, immoral and indifferent than those who emigrate to other places.”
This last attack was less directed at the potential migrants, experienced laborers eager to clear a cougar plagued wilderness and so not very lazy, than the mining, railroad, and lumber industry recruiters setting up offices around the countryside. These industries knew, however, that peasants isolated by language and culture would be less likely to resist exploitation– a fact that continues to drive migration today.
Another agent advocating emigration by printing and dispersing sunny pamphlets about the growing free Swedish metropolises was the Shipping Industry. They made out like bandits. The true extent of their influence is still unknown because most of the companies, which still exist today, refuse to open their archives to researchers. For thirty years these companies charged as much as they could to bring wealthier European peasant families to America. Once that resource was exhausted, shipping companies bottomed out the price so that the poorest could climb aboard. But don’t worry, they made up for the profit loss by packing migrants into desperate and choleric piles, charging exorbitant prices for rotten food and water stored in old turpentine barrels and coercing female passengers into prostitution– doing the deed we can imagine, on mattresses stuffed misprinted pamphlets extolling the freedom and ease of America.
Rather than seeing these ‘hardships’ as an unbroken chain of exploitation that led migrants from European serfdom to helpless sea-bound chattel to American wage slavery and ultimately the dismemberment of their communal ideals, our myths portray the journey as a trial by fire that sanctifies their abuse and the country founded upon it.
Are migrants, as a release valve for domestic tensions, easy marks for highway robbers, and then disenfranchised cheap labor, the grease that keeps the whole machinery of modern human cruelty running? Easy to think so if you’re in a Texas border town or in the sweatshops of Bangalore, less so if you’re on the streets of Lindsborg, Kansas, Little Sweden U.S.A. where for at least a little while the communal and egalitarian dream of Swedish immigrants thrived and the traces of it still remain.
(Photo credit: Jeff Cooper from the Salina Journal.)
My American Unhappiness begins as incisive satire on the lives of liberal arts educated sometimes activists in the panegyric-inducing Bush years, and in that is clever and clear-eyed and perhaps even necessary, but quickly morphs into an off-putting mess. Bakopoulos’s aims and interests are simply too varied. He wants to first, skewer the nonprofit funded navel gazing lives of over-educated liberals, second, create an engaging but increasingly dangerous and unreliable narrator, third, borrow the structure of a romantic comedy while switching genders to reveal the stalking and mate-juggling to be scary and gross, and fourth to wildly entertain his audience with clever asides and absurd situations.
Add to this a smudge of ripped from the headlines political commentary (an important republican senator and one of his major corporate donors are gay lovers) and some pseudo-magical quirk (Zeke, our narrator, can guess the Starbucks orders of strangers to impress a cute barista) and a high minded post-Studs Terkel survey of “American Unhappiness” and what do you have?
Hot dogs, like they make at the factory where Zeke’s dad died the day after 9-11. Fatty salty and ready for ketchupy sweet. The ideal American non-food. There was also a really interesting and completely unexplored subplot about a secret government agency devoted to stamping out cynicism in the humanities, but… there and then gone.
I do not normally enjoy books that trade in pop culture references, but in the opening chapters Bakopoulos dealt so cleverly with some issues of great importance to me, Midwestern Brain Drain, the importance of the humanities, fatherhood, that I forgave all the Facebook, Starbucks, Cracker and Barrel references and even the paint-by-numbers rants against the then-emerging Neo-Con America, at least for the first few chapters.
The lesson I can take from this is that I can enjoy topical branding if it is in the name of Satire. If only Bakopoulos had been committed to that dark art, his talents and my time would have been better used.
Our narrator, Zeke Pappas, runs a nonprofit that funds projects in the humanities that concern the Midwest. He’s beset with personal tragedies (dead college wife, brother killed in Iraq, mother dying of cancer, father dead from heart attack, a conservative family who doesn’t understand him, and a cushy job at a nonprofit that is running out of money and obviously doomed) but is given meaning and joy in life by taking care of his dead brother’s twin daughters. His mother, however, has decided that unless Zeke is married before she passes, that the girls will live with their married aunt in Michigan.
This inspires Zeke, rom-com style, to make a list of his ‘prospects’ including a mid-divorce neighbor, a Starbucks barista, his secretary, and Sophia Coppola.
Most of the narrative has to do with his pursuit of these women, mild successes, and then complete and devastating failures. Zeke is not supposed to be a positive character. He’s a self-absorbed alcoholic prone to flights of indulgent rhetoric and public weeping, but he’s also obviously intelligent, good-looking enough to model for billboards and bed four attractive women in the space of a few months, and has genuine love for the humanities and his nieces and so the message is muddled. Over the course of the novel Zeke is revealed to be a sad sack with latent rapist tendencies and his life is destroyed, but so much of his behavior seems to be at least partially exculpated by the avalanche of personal tragedies in whose terrible force he is caught that we are not encouraged to fully loathe him. Plus he can drop some Chekhov on you like that! The novel ends with a note of Obama-driven hope and reset, leading Zeke to move from Madison to be nearer to the nieces he lost. He even finds a new barista to crush on and impress with his drink guessing tricks.
Had the novel been not only about Zeke but also more about his liberal milieu (which is also mine), allowed Zeke to truly become the monster he is meant to be, and followed the anti-cynicism men in black down the conspiracy rabbit hole, the result could have been formidable and unabashedly entertaining. Instead the novel leaves us frustrated and confused by how much leeway the author thinks we should give to a man who breaks into one girl’s apartment and later follows another into her shower after she told him in no uncertain terms to leave. I think none.
What’s wrong with you lassies? When you go parading your wares around, catching the flotsam-and-jetsam men in your wake, letting ‘em pet and seagull around the flesh of you, do you ever, for a moment, think of Michael Murphy? He sits there, only wishing he were blind drunk, watching the whole sordid scene, worshiping you, seeing clear as day the filth attached to those men– so called, jackels more likely– who caught your scent. Michael Murphy! Asking me for a billy-club, grinding his poor teeth down to stumps, drowning, poor boy, drowning! And not even in drink! Do you spare a single thought for ‘im? This Michael Murphy, imperfect, unwanted, full of something as terrible but not quite love? Michael Murphy!?!
No, you don’t, do you? You carry on, innocent as saints, oblivious as the setting sun, slippery as sand, all smiles and laughter, don’t you? Meanwhile, Michael Murphy sees hell on earth, he does, the very harrowing of hell, right there on the floor of his local pub.
You should be ashamed, lassies. In my time, if we met a man like Michael Murphy, we blessed the day we were born, and the day after as well! Nowadays ‘e’s condemned! Unloved and doubtless sleeping in filthy sheets as no woman is there to keep ‘em clean. The world’s gone topsy-turvy. If I were thirty years younger I’d show you a thing or two. So he drinks too much- that’s just men! These tee-tot-allers, fancy, sober gents acting like the goddamned English all the time, not men those, gov’ners more like. And worse, these boors, these Americans, drinking less but drunk more, and worse, and without the fight in them! As bad as a woman on the bottle I say.
Oh, Michael Murphy, you were born outside of your day! Had we known ye, Micahel Murphy, you’d be a prince…
(She trails off here, and the author begs apology for the voice inside of him. She came unbidden.)
The Great Plains, as we have seen, is many things. It contains thick layers of rock that formed in oceans, and younger layers of rocks deposited by streams. These rocks have been affected by earth movements and injected by hot molten rock, some of which reached the surface as volcanic rock. The rocks have been carved by streams, dissolved by ground water, partly covered by glaciers, and blown by winds. All of these agents have played important roles in determining the landscape and the landforms of the Great Plains. But the streams were the master agent. They formed the great depositional plain that was to become the Great Plains, and then began to destroy it–leaving only the High Plains to remind us of what it was. Those long miles we travel across the High Plains are a journey through history–geologic history.
Both the illustration and the quote are from The Geologic Story of the Great Plains. Interestingly, these geologic plains do not include the eastern half of Kansas, which are my plains. Where I am from, geologic Missouri?
I don’t think so.
I find this map more helpful.
I wonder why it ends so abruptly at that sharp hook on the Rio Grande– I have seen maps that continue into Mexico. This map also cut off the Northernmost terminus of the Great Plains in Canada. There be dragons, I guess, or worse, politics.
I ask “what is the Great Plains?” today because I am shaping a storytelling project within it. The project will involve perhaps ten years of travel throughout the region crowdsourcing folktales, or fakelore (the line between the two is actually pretty blurry).
What is crowdsourcing folklore? It’s hijacking oral history. It’s curating imagination. It’s reverse engineering the Brother’s Grimm. It’s… still in the process of being defined and even named, but the form of the project is very clear. I would like to set up folktale workshops all around the Great Plains. In these workshops I would provide the parameters the stories should follow and plenty of research materials made up of regional historical and scientific texts as well as myth and folklore from the world over. Then, over a period of perhaps two weeks, I would help participants hone and share their stories and then present a night of storytelling to the community.
All the original stories would go online. Over the years, however, I would rewrite the stories for style and tone and even sometimes content (can’t promise I won’t) until a tome emerges full of stories that are not rehashed fairy tales nor co-opted Indigenous mythology but…
But something new. Rooted to the Great Plains as thoroughly and specifically as the Big Bluestem, but in the embrace also of this global moment with its swirl of histories and ever-changing technologies.
One of the issues I face is how and where to organize these trips, how to capture the breadth and depth of this region while not chasing Coronado-like an El Dorado of completeness that will ever be “in the next village.”
Should these workshops take place in a few cities? Or roam the prairies like wolves once did and will again? Cities would probably yield the most participants and partner organizations, but are also more likely to create urban stories.
Or are there, and this just occurred me to, natural fonts of storytelling? In Kansas, which I know best, I would set up in Lawrence, Lucas, Garden City… but that’s already six weeks of workshops and I haven’t even left Kansas.
The thinking continues outside of this post…
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms. The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way. Who are not, but could be. Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper. The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.”
— Eduardo Galeano, “The Nobodies
It has been a fine day for texts. Some lovely digital artist has created a data sculpture inspired by Borges’s The Aleph in which a man sees the entire universe and all time through a spot on his stairs. David Hirmes created an ever-evolviing text by mining Project Gutenberg and Twitter for sentences that begin with “I saw…”
I am always healed by invocations of infinity.
And then I found excerpts from a new day book by Eduardo Galeano, an(other) Uruguayan writer.
After Roman legions invaded Egypt, during one of the battles waged by Julius Caesar against the brother of Cleopatra, fire devoured most of the thousands upon thousands of papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria.
A pair of millennia later, after American legions invaded Iraq, during George W. Bush’s crusade against an imaginary enemy, most of the thousands upon thousands of books in the Library of Baghdad were reduced to ashes.
Throughout the history of humanity, only one refuge kept books safe from war and conflagration: the walking library, an idea that occurred to the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, at the end of the tenth century.
This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. One hundred and seventeen thousand books aboard four hundred camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalogue: they were arranged according to the titles of the books they carried, a flock for each of the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet.”
And to think just yesterday I was all worked up about a job.