Monday, April 27, 2009


When John Updike died, I read him for the first time. The New Yorker ran a selection of prose that snared me, particularly a piece about a man joining a pick-up basketball game.

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
I later learned this gorgeous passage was from the beginning of Rabbit, Run. Hard times have reduced the book budget, but I convinced mrs. august to support purchase of the paperback.

I should have gone to the library. Somehow I missed that Updike's quartet of novels feature a first degree schmuck, Harry Angstrom, the "rabbit" of the title who is too timid to make a decision and simply drifts around hoping for a redemptive moment, or at least the passing exhilaration of a good golf swing.

I do not require protagonists to be good. I love Humbert Humbert, who is klutzily evil and is all too gloriously aware of both his demons and his incompetence. In Rabbit, Run, the figure who bothers me is not Rabbit, but Updike.

My sympathy for Humbert comes in spite of my revulsion, but Updike wants to make the revolting sympathetic. Pauline Kael once wrote a review of Clockwork Orange in which she took Stanley Kubrick to task for making the audience cheer on the main character:
Stanley Kubrick's Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist. The end is no longer the ironic triumph of a mechanized punk but a real triumph. Alex is the only likable person we see -- his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier -- more alive than anybody else in the movie...
So too with Rabbit Angstrom. He is the only complete character in the novel, and I am meant to see his quest as noble. I'm supposed to feel his pain, to want to leave an alcoholic wife and fart about town in search of sex acts amenable to purple prose. We only meet his abandoned wife for a few pages, the only time the omniscient, present-tense narration enters her mind, just in time for her to drown her baby. Do not commit adultery, but if you do, take the kids

I can see the argument that Humbert is just as bad, that you can't love Lolita without loving Lolita. But in fact you can, and part of what makes Humbert so morosely depressing is the gulf between his reveries and the truth of teenagers. Humbert also anticipated the oversexualized world of now. We should all be so self-hating.

Both Humbert and Angstrom are literary creations that germinated language and allowed new angles on post-war America. The problem is that I don't find Updike's lens to be all that interesting. Maybe it was more revolutionary in 1960 to note that young men can be dissatisfied in their marriages, unable to express their feelings, and self-absorbed. Rabbit is too bland to be incisive, and Updike offers no other opening into the novel's world. I feel no better equipped to make sense of Rabbit and his habitat at the end of the novel, and by then I don't care.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Somalia and the Leaden Age of Piracy

Wikifray seems lonely lately. So I decided that I'd share one of my recent posts with it. I rather like this one. It came together fairly quickly, and I think that it's coherent and rational. If you'd like, please comment, either here, or on Nobody In Particular. Thanks, y'all! -Aaron
While Somali pirates have been a quietly brewing story on the back burner for years, their recent seizure of an American ship and crew suddenly lifted the SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) field that had grown up around the issue here in the United States. With their usual outrage of the fact that some lowly foreigners would dare to attack anything American, angry commentators have been filling online comment pages with calls for ground invasions and carpet bombings.

Of course, the situation is much more complicated that many people understand. Gently woven throughout the current news is the idea that Somali piracy is an outgrowth of waterborne vigilantism, sparked by illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in the waters off Somalia after the collapse of government there. A quick Google search turned up the fact that Somalia's government was outed by warlords in 1991, and an article in the New Scientist about concerns over the dumping of waste in 1992. NS is a subscription site, so I couldn't read the whole piece, but it seems that foreign companies were looking to make deals with warlords for permission to dump, and they weren't wasting any time.

By the start of 2005, the issue had poked its head into the news again, as the Indian Ocean Tsunami had deposited previously dumped waste on the Somali coastline, and some estimates put the haul from illegal fishing in Somali waters at $300,000,000.00 a year. The infant pirate operations made it into the American news with an attack on the Seabourn Spirit cruise liner, but since the crew drove the pirates off with water cannon and an acoustic device on the ship, American interest quickly faded again.

In Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms makes the point that people see the outcome of an attack as the purpose of an attack. This puts the Somalis in a bit of a bind. People reject the argument that the piracy is a response to the illegal fishing and waste dumping, seeing it (rightly or wrongly) as a self-serving rationalization for common brigandage. But the only attention that their claims of maritime injustice get at all nowadays is within the context of that piracy.

This is not to say that the international community SHOULD consider the root cause of the piracy to be the accusations of foreign fishing and dumping. To do so would remove the Somalis themselves as an active agent in their own activities. And even if these things had not occurred, piracy for ransom takes place in other parts of the world - the former pirate hot spot, the Strait of Malacca, has been largely forgotten recently, but it's not inactive - and it's not a stretch to imagine that a warlord could have hit upon the idea of piracy as a moneymaking venture, or simply to steal goods being shipped. And also ignores another important fact - the best way for Somalia to manage its coastline and fisheries is to have a functioning government that can do the job. Of course, that's going to come with issues of its own. The warlords are unlikely to take kindly to being shut out of power, while the international community is unlikely to accept any government that includes them, and foreign powers have shown a willingness to back efforts to destabilize governments they don't like.

But in the end, the piracy will persist, until it's no longer the most profitable (and not simply in terms of money) option. Simply setting out to make piracy unprofitable can be done - the French have shown a hard-nosed unwillingness to take any flack from the Somalis. If everyone acted in this way, it would likely nip the problem quickly - although some hostages would be killed in the bargain, and public opposition to that in some places will make a unified front unlikely. Or an effort could be made to stabilize the place long enough for a viable government to establish itself, and get the waters around Somalia under control, and keep out illegal fishing and dumping. I'm nor betting on that one, either. Yet. But the status quo won't work forever, and nothing is more constant than change. So we'll see what evolves out of this.