The Assignment Review

I write a bi-monthly review column for Flagstaff Live called “Words That Work.” This is a reprint of my June column. It ran on June 15, 2017. You can read the original here.

Durrenmatt AssignmentA few months ago, the US dropped something called the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. It created an explosion the size of a small nuclear weapon, killed 94 members of ISIS and a handful of civilians who had the misfortune of being ISIS-adjacent, and made it through one quick news cycle during which most Americans responded by saying, “Wait. You mean we’re still at war in Afghanistan?” Yes. We are.

Shortly after that, the presidential budget came out with cuts to everything we love and a large increase to the military budget, which is already up around $600 billion and larger than the next 12 largest military budgets combined. All of this leads to a question that doesn’t get asked nearly enough: if we’re spending this much money building weapons and armies every year, don’t we have to do something with them? In other words, if we have this many people’s livelihoods based on warfare, don’t we have to generate warfare?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m just here to review books, and works of fiction, at that. Still, works of fiction are the places where we can take on these larger, somewhat philosophical questions. And fiction’s response to my questions about the Mother of All Bombs and military budgets lies in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment.

The Assignment begins with the murder of an internationally-known terrorism expert’s wife. The terrorism expert flies her body, in its coffin dangling from a helicopter, from the North African country where she was murdered and raped to Switzerland. The coffin is dropped into the ground straight from the helicopter as part of a spectacular funeral. Documentary filmmaker F. films the whole affair. After the funeral, the terrorism expert offers to hire F. and her crew to go to North Africa and document their investigation into his wife’s murder and rape. F., despite her best judgment, agrees.

Once F. gets to Africa (the specific country is never mentioned, but any of the five nations that border the Mediterranean will do), she realizes that she’s in way over her head. First, she is ushered by the chief of police through a performance of the investigation. At no point does F. think the police chief is actually investigating the murder. Instead, he’s using her film crew to produce the impression that the police have done everything they can. Second, she’s enlisted by the head of the secret service, who is at war with the police chief because the police chief wants to lead a military coup. And from there, F. is just a pawn shuffled across a desert chess board.

The investigation into the murder never takes a back seat in the novel, but the murder itself pales in comparison to all the other mischief that power brokers are engaging in. F. struggles to understand her role and why she continues to play the game, all the while getting more entangled. Along the way, she meets a war photographer who maybe wants to kill her, but at least takes the time to explain to her what she’s gotten into. He tells her that this North African nation’s “principal source of revenue was a war with a neighboring country…a war that had been creeping along for ten years now and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries.” He goes on to say that, “since the stability of the market depended on weapons exports, provided these weapons were truly competitive, real wars were constantly breaking out.” For the war photographer, wars like the one currently raging in Iraq and in this North African desert, exist solely to keep the military industrial complex running. Everything F. has seen proves this point.

The heartbreaking and ironic thing about reading The Assignment in 2017 is realizing that it was written 31 years ago. One of the wars Dürrenmatt criticizes is the Iran/Iraq conflict, in which Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, helped bolster the power of a little-known autocrat named Saddam Hussein. Part of the deal brokered between Rumsfeld and Hussein was a cooperation agreement to limit the military might of Syria. Of course, at the same time, the US was selling weapons to Hussein’s enemy in Iran so that the US could fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

Three decades later, only the names have changed. This is why Dürrenmatt—a Swiss author who wrote mostly during the mid-twentieth century and died in 1990—is still so relevant today. His novels transcend the immediate and explore the larger frameworks of how society operates. The Assignment goes beyond that, beginning with a Kierkegaard epigraph and folding Kierkegaard’s views of the abyss into the plot. It’s a novel that is as thrilling as it is deep.

Someone at the University of Chicago Press has seen fit to bring several of Dürrenmatt’s works back into print. Whoever it is, we all owe this person a debt of gratitude. I recommend any and all of Dürrenmatt’s books, but definitely start with The Assignment.


Liberal University Professors

Holocaust Memorial BerlinMy university has a running column in the Ventura County Star on Sundays. Our public relations person asked me to contribute a column recommending books for the summer.  She also wanted me to make it newsy. So I did what everyone in the news is doing. I started with Donald Trump. This was my original first paragraph:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. It’s like we’re all in a room with a small child wielding a knife. We know he’s just a narcissist trying to get us to pay attention to him, but we still have to pay enough attention to not get stabbed. We keep thinking someone is going to take the knife out of his hand. But, no. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

This situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help. I can’t take the deadly weapons out of the narcissist’s hands, but I can help with the anxiety.

I sent it off to the PR person. She liked the column, but she didn’t like the part about Trump being a small child wielding a knife. She feared that some of the university’s donors would be offended. So she rewrote the first paragraph for me. This was her version:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. For or against Trump, it’s a continual topic of conversation.

Those against him may feel like we’re all in a room with a child who has a knife and we must pay attention or be stabbed. Those who support him may feel they are constantly under attack themselves.

Either situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help with the anxiety.

Not to be a prima dona, but I couldn’t let this opening stand. This tone isn’t me, and I wouldn’t let my name be associated with these ideas. I disagree with the whole idea of “for or against Trump” being equally valid positions. Trump is following the playbook for establishing a totalitarian regime. He has scapegoated an entire religion and tried to ban members of that religion from entering the United States. His nationalist rhetoric has led to unconscionable attacks on immigrants. He has marginalized academics, intellectuals, and the free press. These are the first three steps that every totalitarian leader takes: scapegoat a minority population, heighten nationalist feelings, and silence opposition.

The next step is to push for a war to solidify this ideology.

It’s personal to me. My wife immigrated to this country. I’m an academic. Trump’s stances are stances against me and my wife personally. I teach at a university that is largely comprised of white women (another group he has attacked) and Latinos. His attacks are directed at my students. The guy even took my sister’s health care away. Her premiums went from $190 a month to $1300 a month when he insisted on trying to repeal the ACA, then refused to fund parts of it.

None of this is okay. If you support Trump and you feel attacked for your support, that’s a good thing. I honestly believe most Trump supporters are better people than Trump is. If you’re one of his supporters, I hope you do feel attacked and this leads you to rethinking your attack on politically precarious populations.

I didn’t say all this to PR person. Instead, I wrote a compromised third opening. You can read it and my five recommendations for good books here.

13th Anniversary of Vermin

17-Aug-VOTM-PosterThis Friday, August 18, there’s another Vermin on the Mount. I’ll be doing a sort-of reading at it. Come out. Come out.

This will be my seventh or eighth performance at a Vermin. I guess I do one every couple of years. I read the title story for my short story collection Barney’s Crew at the second ever Vermin, back when it was still at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown. I read there to promote my last two novels, Train Wreck Girl and Madhouse Fog. I did not do a Vermin for my last short story collection, The Metaphysical Ukulele. I don’t know why. But I have the new book out, Occupy Pynchon, and I’m going to do something with that. It’s an academic book that doesn’t lend itself too well to a Friday night reading, so I won’t read straight from it. Instead, I’ll do something a little more fun and dynamic. You’ll be entertained. I promise.

The festivities kick off at 7:30 at Book Show in Highland Park (5503 North Figueroa St., LA). You can learn more about it here.


ME Review in Los Angeles Review of Books

ME HoshinoAt the beginning of the summer, I read the bizarre and amazing Japanese novel ME. I reviewed it for Los Angeles Review of Books. The review ran last week. You can check it out here.

I have to add that comment sections usually bum me out. I put all this time and thought into writing something. I revise it myself, hunt down a publisher–which isn’t always easy–and work with an editor who seeks further revisions. All of this care goes into what I say.

On top of that, I’ve published hundreds of stories, articles, reviews, and essays over the past 27 years. And I have a doctorate in literature. These are no small things. Still, anybody can log in and have the last word on my work.

With that said, I sure do love the comment at the end of the ME review. I’ll take comments like that all day.