I was sitting around in the auto shop the other day and picked up a used copy of The New Yorker that was already folded around and opened to an article that I started reading about who’d won the Nobel Prize in literature. And I stopped reading and took a picture of it on my iPhone not far into it when the winner, Svetlana Alexievich, was quoted as saying, “We live in an environment of banality. For most people, that’s enough. But how do you get through? How do you rip off that coating of banality? You have to make people descend into the depths of themselves.” And I starting thinking about the news I’d read earlier that morning through Google news; and how Douglas Tompkins, I had read about the next day, had been killed the day before that on December 8 in a kayaking accident in Patagonia, an eco-baron who wanted to save hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres of forest by buying them up so that they’d be preserved forever, spared the onslaught of industry, development, and technology.
I read about the daily murders, and the daily bombings, and the blowings-up. And I had looked over noticing how in the last weeks the headlines had shifted from money and earnings and accounts of money and earnings, to the next scene of carnage and murder in California or Paris and so on, and that money and politics had seemed to drop pretty much away from them. And I thought about how the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, sitting around the auto shop that same day thirty-five years later, hadn’t been anywhere, how when he was shot and killed on 72nd Street and Central Park West then, this didn’t even come up.
A friend of mine and I had been trading newspaper articles that we read online for years. It began with a line I read once by Noam Chomsky that you had to read a news article to the last line of the article, that you had to do this to really understand it. It was there that you got what it was really all about. And last lines we read proved to be great. They were really doozies at times. They spelt out there exactly what the writer meant. Everything worked toward that last line, and if you didn’t read an article to the last line you didn’t get it. For years and years we’ve been sending each other these last lines in emails, with just the smallest and often most obscure commentaries we choose to make on these lines, as well as the links to the online articles themselves.
Over time this had changed between him and me to the reading of news not for the news’ sake, but from our reading these articles from a position of their complete banality. Embedded within news, if you read the news well, we found that there was this incredible preponderance, if you will, of the most unlikely kinds of language being used in places that you would never ever expect language to being used that way actually being used that way. For instance, in a story about a man who’d drowned in a local river, there’d be some friend in the article quoted as saying something like, “He’d been fishing for trouble for the last five years.” How could this happen? We, my friend and I, didn’t want to know that exactly, but we were keen at how often this happened. I mean, beyond just its being a self-conscious easy-play with a cheap pun, as is common and on purpose in sports headlines and articles, we found these totally inappropriate metaphors being used all over the place. So, it made the comedy of the banality of the news worse, in a way, but in another way better. Why? Because we never had to feel it. Why? Because there really was nothing left to feel. Not with writing like that. Left or right, patriotic or terrorist, political or familiar, news was never actually news. It was something else entirely.
So when I Googled The New Yorker magazine at home over the next few days and read the account of a woman describing the pieces of her husband’s body falling apart, which article I had begun and put down in the auto shop, I did feel what Alexievich had meant, I think. (This I let myself feel somehow trying, or at least trying to push to the side that everything printed in The New Yorker is entirely banal and commonplace. This is because first off, the writing reduces everything to a level of coffee table-, or at most coffee shop-banality; and, secondly, the intended readership is the readership of the self-minded, and self-appointed intellectual guardianship of the bourgeoisie, whose lifelong performance of book-and-magazine reading complements and likewise fulfills the living definition—both urban and suburban—of being the very working expression of that banality.) Alexievich simply interviewed people whose life experiences from Chernobyl to Afghanistan, are absolutely true and unimaginable, and copied out longhand, I read, these interviews, and turned them into books.
Some people in Russia, where Alexievich has lived in a tiny two room apartment much of her life for years, don’t say she’s even a writer. Others say she’s invented a new literary form. I probably remember the day John Lennon died because it’s the same day my father had been born, and I remember that, and they had happened to come together. So, for me they were fused, the way realistic irony makes that happen sometimes, not because I have a particular memory for those kinds of things, or a sense of memorabilia for the Beatles. I remember in college a professor of mine had said to me offhandedly one day once that the only place left that people felt terror in their lives anymore was in their dreams. All this, like a fairy dancing on the head of a pin, had also made me think of that, it struck me.