Thursday, July 20, 2017

On "Out of Depth" by Evelyn Waugh (1699 words) ***

"Out of Depth" is a science fiction story of sorts, one that plays with ideas related to black magic. The main character meets a magician, wishes nothing to do with him, but then somehow ends up being pulled into his orbit. Said magician hurtles him into a future five hundred years hence in which London society has been turned upside down. We get the sense that some kind of devastating war has taken place and society has been propelled backward centuries in technological innovation. Read the story online here.

On "Men at Arms" by Evelyn Waugh ***

The first novel Waugh's trilogy Sword of Honor, this one essentially provides an account of Guy Crouchback's training in the military at the start of World War II. In many ways, the timeline matches that in Waugh's own life. Too young to fight in World War I and too old to fight in World War II, Waugh/Crouchback joined a untraditional group of soldiers for officer training.

Crouchback is divorced without kids. He suffers from a kind of feeling of worthlessness of life. The military, fighting for a cause, will give him something to live for. Alas, it doesn't want him. It is only after a relative tells him of this special brigade that he is able to get in.

What follows are a series of humorous little stories about training. Particularly funny scenes involve one in which Crouchback is about to get back with his former wife but keeps getting interrupted by phone calls from his best army buddy. Another involves the friend's thunder box, which the brigadier takes a liking to and which Crouchback and his friend constantly try to hide.

Overall, one gets the sense that the military is a rather funny place. This is the Bill Bailey type military, one that succeeds, when it does, despite incompetence. There didn't seem to be much in the way of angst here, except a tiny bit toward the very end--and that mostly personal rather the military/war related. As such, the book didn't seem as tied in to most of the other post-1900 war literature I've read.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On "Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" by Evelyn Waugh (2031 words) ***

"Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" is notable mostly for its voice, that of a young girl who falls in and out of love most ficklely, as people are wont to do on overseas cruises to Egypt. One gets the sense she is about twelve, at an age when understanding the viccisitudes of adult relationships is just beginning to don on her. Read the story here.

On "Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Another comic novel by the master, some say his best, this one focuses on skewering the profession of journalism. John Boot is a novelist who wants to escape a relationship with a gal by becoming a foreign correspondent and thus leaving the country. He calls up a connection of his, who promises to get him a position with a newspaper, which she then does.

Alas, the person in charge of hiring Boot mistakes the directive for a different Boot--William Boot--who writes a column for the paper on country living. And thus begins a novel of mistaken identity, a theme that is nearly dropped until the novel's end. William, thus, is presented with no choice but to go the Ishmaelia if he is to keep his job. Ishmaelia is an African country in the heat of civil war. And thus he packs--or buys the many things he is told that he'll need.

It's here, about a third into the novel, that the work loses steam for me. The jokes come furiously in the first third, somewhat less furiously thereafter, but more important, they become more and more easy jibes at the profession and at the characters involved. William Boot is something of a dolt who manages through incompetence and intransigence and even a little common sense (that other reporters seem to lack) to become a great foreign correspondent. Along the way he meets Katchen, a married woman whose husband has disappeared and with whom he falls in love. She promises to feed him news stories in exchange for various favors--mostly money. It becomes clear that she is primarily a gold digger (literally and metaphorically), but William, to all disadvantage, continues to support her in his grand love.

Waugh writes of one legendary journalist who tells great stories. This journalist, he notes, was sent to a country where nothing was going on and through the strength of his reports managed to get every nation to send troops to it to stop a civil war that until then had not even existed. For Waugh, news is in many ways not something that is reported but something that is created.

In this sense, this novel remains relevant in our day of "fake" news. What a media outlet chooses to report shapes what happens as much as it reflects what is really happening. Hence, one network's focus on the Trump campaign's Russian ties brings that prospect into a certain reality, while another network's almost complete ignoring of the story in favor of Clinton's botched e-mail server creates an alternate reality. Each in their own way shape and foster who holds power within the nation. Without reporting, Trump's indiscretions could never lead to whatever downfall might await us. The extent that those indiscretions are exaggerated or minimized--real or not--affects whether that downfall ever comes. If and when the downfall does come, it'll largely be at the hands of those reporting.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

On "Excursion in Reality" by Evelyn Waugh (4499 words) *****

One of the better tales Waugh tells is "Excursion in Reality"--or perhaps I'm just a sucker for Hollywood stories. In this one, a novelist is recruited to rewrite Hamlet for the motion pictures--but to update it in terms of language. In the process, of course, with studio committees what they are, the play loses much of its actual being. Meanwhile, the novelist's fickle relationship with his girlfriend is put on hold, as he becomes wrapped up in a completely other affair. Methinks Waugh uses the term reality ironically. Read the story here.

On "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh *****

I've come late to this classic novel, in part because the work always seemed like it would be something boring to me: the title, the idea that this is about some kind of life among upper-class Brits. And it is the latter, as most of Waugh's is, but it is magnificent.

What do I like about this book? It has a very strong voice, one that beguiles, that ropes one in, as if it were a true-to-life memoir. And secondly, it takes religion seriously--and respectfully--which is not something one sees in a lot of post-1900 fiction.

The story is about one Charles Ryder, an officer in the army who comes upon the Brideshead estate in his work. This is the frame through which the story of the estate--of his relationship with it--is told.

Most of that relationship is with Sebastian, the younger brother of the four children to whom the estate might one day fall. Sebastian and Charles meet at Oxford, where they do as many college students do: they drink and they party. This is the bulk of the first half of this book. It is a story of friendship. And it feels as if it is going nowhere, and yet, as I noted, it beguiles. I was reminded of On the Road, another book about a friendship that has only a loose plot that somehow manages to keep readers hooked. We're not driven to find out "what happens." We just enjoy learning about these young men, sharing in their fun times and enthusiasm for life. And most of all learning about the fun, strange character Sebastian, who carries a teddy bear with him as a friend.

While one can clearly read the story as one of male friendship, there is a subtext of homosexuality going on as well. Some of the friends of the pair are clearly of that persuasion, and at various times we are provided strange asides: the two too naked in a bedroom to come out to see their sister, the two being denoted as not interested in women by other relatives. But Waugh keeps that in the background; his focus is on friendship. This might be a reflection of the time in which Waugh wrote or it might be more that friendship is Waugh's concern here. Or both.

Alas, a plot does kick in. The drunken escapades become more regular, and from here the novel loses some energy as it becomes more and more concerned with Sebastian's alcoholism. Attempts are made to keep him from drinking, and one sees the strain that is put onto a friendship in which one is confronted with wanting to help one's friend in two different ways: giving the friend the freedom he wants but also keeping the friend from destroying himself.

Eventually, Sebastian wanders off into Europe and Africa and drifts apart from Charles, who has become a kind of member of the family. Eventually, Charles is sent to find Sebastian to tell him of his mother's impending death, but such ends up being the climax and end to the friendship. Years later, having moved into a career as a painter and married, Charles meets again Sebastian's sister Julia. The two have an affair, and one has to think that it is in part an unspoken love for Sebastian and for times past that draws them together.

Charles is the lone cynic among the family of Catholic believers. His agnosticism is the point of view from which the novel is written, and thus much of the book is about Charles attempting to understand the family's devotion to Catholicism. It is in this sense that the book takes religion seriously, for rather than dismiss religion, in the end, Charles comes to have an understanding of its meaning.

Waugh, himself a Catholic, thus wrote a Catholic novel. If we take this as being his view of the church, one would see within it a way to stave off or deal with the issues of modernity and death, a way to put order to the world. It's more a feeling than a logic or way of life, insofar as its enacted in the novel, though I'm sure Waugh would see that to be very much logical in itself.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On "Too Much Tolerance" by Evelyn Waugh (1543 words) ***

Just as "Love in the Slump" seems in part a commentary on Waugh's first marriage, so too on some level does this one, "Too Much Tolerance," which is about a very happy man who lets himself be taken advantage of by his business partner, son, and (ex-)wife. But all is good in his book. Something was odd about this piece to me insofar as I didn't really feel bad for the man--perhaps because even though he had much to complain about, he was so happy despite it all. Maybe there's something to being a Penelope. Read the story here.

On "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Were it not for the masterfully cold ending--one that is an almost verbatim casting of Waugh's great story "The Man Who Liked Dickens"--this novel likely would have been almost entirely forgettable. This is not Waugh the humorist at work here; this is Waugh the bitter divorcee. There is plenty of commentary about English high society, and the story itself is compelling enough to keep one reading, but the book consists in large chunks of dialogue and much of it not very good. Characters speak for paragraphs, expositorily telling the story: "I am going to do X, and then because I feel this way, I will do Y. Do you think that will please my spouse or will it make for hurt? I do so hope for hurt." "I believe that your husband will find your actions to be difficult to adjust to. He has always been . . ." And several of the central characters in the story have little to recommend themselves as people.

The book is forged mostly around the Lasts--Tony and Brenda--who maintain an estate called Hetton and throw regular parties. A man named Beaver comes to visit Tony, a man whom Tony barely knows. Brenda takes a kind of liking to him. He is young and difficult to make love her, and that is precisely why she likes him.

Bored by life in the country and wanting to take up with Beaver, Brenda arranges to rent a flat in London that the family can barely afford. She tells Tony it is so that she can study economics. More and more time is spent away from him--and more and more time with Beaver. Tony never seems to catch on, even as Brenda and Beaver become the talk of high society.

Brenda attempts to set Tony up with another woman. The efforts fails masterfully.

Meanwhile, their son John (whose age is hard to fathom since he too speaks in complete paragraphs) is left without a mom. Reared by nannies and butlers, he has a great liking for horse riding. And it is a tragedy involving him that brings the whole affair to light.

So little sympathy can be thrown Brenda's way by the time that divorce is in the offing, Waugh's description of her next acts make her utterly detestable. She's conned her husband of money for months, ignored her child, and taken up with another man. And now Tony agrees to go through with setting up a divorce for her by faking his own affair. The attempt does not go well, but rather than be happy with the alimony Tony is offering, Brenda opts to sue him for an amount that will force Tony to put the family estate on the auction block, this so that she can be supported in the manner in which she is used to and so that her lover, Beaver, can be supported as well (since he has no means of support for himself). It is this that pushes Tony to run away to the jungles of Brazil, where the story's final tragic ending comes into being.

What readers get then is a sense of the utter desolation that divorce works on a man, one that is put into metaphor by Tony's experiences in the jungle. But because the text seems so one sided, the characters fail ultimately to feel fully forged.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On "Love in the Slump" by Evelyn Waugh (3291 words) ****

"Love in the Slump" focuses on a marriage between two friends--a couple who decide to try out marriage because they are getting toward the end of their marrying years and haven't found anyone. Alas, one gets the feeling that as companionable as they are, they still act and feel single, which does not bode well for the future. Read the story here.

On "Decline and Fall" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Waugh's first novel showcases the same dry humor that is apparently present in most of his fiction. Throughout, great one liners are popped off randomly. Meanwhile, the story itself is, while funny, somewhat dark. However, Waugh is definitely English. There's a kind of obsession with class and with title that doesn't quite exist in the same way in American fiction.

The story revolves around one Paul Pennyfeather. Waugh denotes it himself toward the end of the book: Pennyfeather is a static character. Things happen to him, rather than he doing things to others. And that's right where the book starts. Paul is studying to become a minister when he is mistaken for a person from another college, a person whom revelers see fit to attack by stripping him and forcing him to dance naked in public. This results in Paul losing his place at the divinity school and sets into process the rest of the novel's events.

Where Paul ends up first is at a school for young boys. Waugh, in this first part of the book, pokes easy fun at academia and teaching. Paul has no credentials, but he seems utterly perfect to the man doing the hiring. The main job, it seems, of the teacher is mostly to babysit the students. At the school, Paul meets several other men, including Grimes, a former military man; and a man who tells tall tales about himself. The latter ends up being a crook of sorts and is arrested. The former marries but is already married, and so gets caught for bigamy, fakes his death, and escapes.

Paul opts to marry into a noble family, the mother of one of his students. Unbeknownst to him, the woman is a purveyor of prostitution, procuring young English girls for use overseas. Paul, believing he is helping the girls attain noble standards, agrees to help out with the family business, but on the eve of his wedding, he is arrested. His job finally becomes plain to him.

Now in prison, he meets up with all the people he used to teach with. Like Grimes, who begins anew by faking his death at each ill turn, Paul is given such an option as well.

Do we feel for Paul? He is a rather pitiful character, and I found myself not that concerned about him until, in prison, his fiancee, who is the cause of his imprisonment, announces she is marrying someone else. The odd thing is that by this time, Paul doesn't care: he hurts because he doesn't hurt, as Waugh writes. That's the sad part, that he seems so lost to any good in life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On “Dalyrymple” by J. C. Hallman (2005 words) ****

"Dalyrimple" is an odd tale of a man who offers sleep sessions for a fee. Pay a price for a half hour, hour, day, or ??? What are the ramifications if someone decides to sleep forever? Who is responsible and is this more-or-less death or something else? These are some of the questions the story poses. Read the story here.

On "Brief Lives: Evelyn Waugh" by Michael Barber ***

Part of a series that a friend of mine read volumes from a decade or so ago, this book gives a tad more information about Waugh's life than one would read in an encyclopedia but a good deal less than one would read in a fuller biographical expose. As such, it's a bit workmanlike, spilling out facts but not bringing Waugh quite to life the way a longer biography likely could and would. But it's a great for someone like me, who didn't really want to read a really long life study.

In Barber's hands, Waugh comes across as something of a bore to me. He had a caustic wit and seemed to treat people generally rudely, though the wit kept him semipopular. He was also obsessed with British tradition and class. These sort of things suggest to me that I would not have much cared for the man.

Waugh's life began rather rough, not in the sense that he grew up underprivileged but rather he grew up the less-liked son of a family. Alec, his brother (a novelist I've also read but did not realize was actually related), was papa's favorite. Thus, Evelyn and his father did not get along very well. Arguably this helped to create Evelyn's personality. One thing his father did do, however, was introduce him to literary culture, for his father was a literary biographer, and often he read aloud Dickens and other nineteenth-century British authors.

Evelyn graduated to the university, where he studied literature and generally drank too much. He took up with other men, since it was an all-male school. But afterward, almost on a seeming whim, he would marry a woman named Evelyn. She-Evelyn was looking to escape her family and was not really in love with Evelyn. This would prove fateful, as a year later, she would run off with someone else. Still, the marriage granted Evelyn access to the noble class, which is something he seemed to want.

Evelyn, the writer, would turn to Catholicism to address issues with regard to the modernizing of society. Like T. S. Eliot, Evelyn seemed to find in long Western tradition the means to address changes brought about by modernism. As such, he seems like a man out of his time. Indeed, his writing, well often greatly satiric, is fairly traditional; early Evelyn experimented a bit, but he came to think that traditional techniques were all that were needed.

Catholicism wouldn't really affect his sexual behavior, however. He would continue pursue and bed women, including married ones. And he would continue to drink.

And he would marry again too, to another aristocrat. He would travel a lot, in part to write about it. He would mingle with the British literary crowd, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, and others. He would live in an old estate that he'd purchase expressly for the sake that it would look as if it had been around (in the family) for generations.

While he would enjoy quite a bit of success before World War II, his reputation would begin to take a hit later. World War II itself would prove, personally, useful to him in terms of giving him experiences to write about. He set about to become part of it. He would not, however, rise far as an officer, and the three major campaigns he was a part of would each prove not to be very successful. Waugh wasn't really cut out, personality wise, for the military anyway.

Nor does it seem that he was cut out well to be a father. He tended to spend as little time as possible with his children (though that was likely also the British way at the time--he being of a generation not far from my own father, who often denotes how parents at that time did not dote on their kids). The kids themselves, generally, appreciated his humor and were not, according to the biographer, resentful.

The war would provide fodder for his trilogy, in the midst of which he would have a breakdown, which would become material for another book. He would sue and be sued for things he'd say about others and they about him. He'd grow old. And the world would change, and he'd continue on in his conservative aristocratic leanings and seem to be of another time and era.

After his death, the posthumous publication of his diaries and letters and the television production of his novel Brideshead Revisited (a rather atypical book for him) would restore his reputation and bring him back to the literary conversation.

Friday, April 28, 2017

On "Princess of Pop" by Vanessa Blakeslee (3542 words) ***

This is essentially the tale of Brittany Spears retold in lyrical prose. Read the story here.

On "The Loved One" by Evelyn Waugh *****


I last read this book toward the end of my senior year of high school. I remember loving it and wishing I'd picked Waugh for my senior paper instead of Thomas Hardy (who I'd chosen as the least of the uninteresting British writers much earlier in the year). Yet strangely, I never went back and read more of Evelyn Waugh.

And now, here is it nearly thirty years later, and I'm finally picking him up again, with the intention of reading much more of this humorous British novelist.

The book, which I remembered was being about a love affair between morticians, one of whom was a plagiarizing poet, was enjoyable again, as it was those decades ago. I can see why I liked it so much in my late teen years: it was funny, and it was dark. The latter probably would have made me like it even more in my early twenties. For it has, under its core, some of the same themes that pop up in many other modernist works. I was reminded quite a bit of the two most famous novels of Nathaniel West, both because of its setting and because of its use of advice column letters.

Also of note--things I didn't remember: The book is about Hollywood, most specifically British writers in Hollywood. There's a good amount of skewering of the movie industry in addition to that of the funerary industry. And the morticians--well, one of them works at a pet cemetery. I laughed out loud at some parts.

I could say something here about how the interest in death is also about the death of the soul, how the main character's interest in becoming a minister merely to make money represents the loss of religion, how he returns to art to replace religion, after losing his artistic abilities to the materialist interests bound within capitalism, which even tries to sell you on burial spots for your pets. Or I could focus on the title and try to ferret out what it is Waugh is saying about our "loved ones." But those sort of philosophical ideas, while perhaps interesting, to me now seem perhaps a bit put on and also lead me to the one fault I have with the novel in these my older years: it doesn't have much heart. It is a vicious book. Funny, but in the end, these characters are cardboard and/or dreadful, and while I enjoyed the book, I didn't find myself caring much about the people themselves. This isn't to say that all books must accomplish this; I like scathingly funny works, dark works, works with characters no one can love too--but I probably prefer most those books that in the end make me feel, and care.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On “Dendromancy” by Zach Falcon (904 words) ****

"Dendromancy" is about a young man in love with a witch, a real one, into black magic, not "white witchcraft." The story seems innocuous enough, and then it takes a very unsavory turn that shocks, except it's told in such a humdrum manner that one gets the feeling that the narrator does not feel deeply about much, except maybe the beauty of the world. Read the story here at Hawk and Handsaw.

On "The Monopolists" by Mary Pilon *****

I'd had this on my list to read, and then I was listening to the podcast 99% Invisible, and the author was interviewed for the show, and I figured the whole story was just about given away. After all, she went into pretty good detail regarding the origin and histories of the game of Monopoly, something I knew just a bit about.

As it turns out, however, the podcast merely skimmed the surface. Another good chunk of this book is about a court case--and about trademark (in addition to copyright and patents) and what it means for inventors and businesses. As such, this book becomes much more than a history. It becomes a kind of polemic, one that will invest you emotionally and will make you a bit angry. You'll cheer the little guy here, which is to say that on one level, this book focuses more on the disadvantages of trademark than the advantages, on the way trademark stifles innovation and small business. My wife, by contrast, pointed out to me that trademark actually protects the little people, and she has a point. There are usually two ways to look at things. No one would want to go into a store and buy a Gucci handbag and then have it fall apart two weeks later (because it wasn't really Gucci); in this sense, trademark protects the consumer. We know when we buy a brand or product that we are actually getting what we have purchased, and if someone tries to get around that trademark, that person will be punished, eventually, so that counterfeiting is discouraged.

But I like a book to rile me up, and this one did. The history part becomes part of the recounting of the lawsuit. The game essentially arose like this: a certain woman named Lizzie Magie created a board game to promote the economic theories of Henry George. That theory essentially promoted a single tax system--a property tax. That way, in theory, excessive landowning would be discouraged, and landlords would not be able to charge exorbitant rents for lousy properties. It was a game intended to show the evils of capitalism; it was called The Landlords Game. One could play it in two ways, one with a single tax system wherein players ended up working harmoniously or one in a monopolistic way wherein people tried to take advantage of each other. The latter, of course, is what won out.

Her game won little notoriety, but people did play it--and copy it--and change it. Games such as Finance and Inflation all played with similar ideas and concepts. A game very much like Monopoly found form among Quakers in Pennsylvania. Enter Charles Darrow. He plays the game at someone's house one night, then asks that person to write up the rules for him. He hires a professional designer to draw up some pictures and make the components pretty. He then begins selling the work as his own, until finally he sells it to Parker Brothers for big dollars, plus residuals. He claims the game as his own creation. Parker Brothers buys up as many patents of similar games as it can in order to better stake a claim to the rights to Monopoly. Magie gets a whopping five hundred dollars.

Parker Brothers does this because it had been burned in the past. Tiddly Winks and Ping-Pong (formally called Table Tennis) being two games that they invested in and marketed heavily only to see those games be considered public domain. So it has good reason to hold its rights to Monopoly closely.

That's the history part. The court case part considers one Robert Anspach, who creates a game for similar reasons as Magie created hers: to show the evils of capitalism--or rather the evils of monopoly. He calls his game Bust the Trust, but no one knows what a trust is, so he changes the name to Anti-Monopoly and sales begin to take off. Enter Parker Brothers, who claim that Anspach has ripped off their trademark. The rest of the story follows the next ten years of Anspach's life as he goes through hell to defend his right to sell and market his creation. There are surprises along the way, so I won't go deeper into the story than that. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of irony in the story: a game about fighting monopolies that becomes, in a sense, the subject of an intense fight over a monopoly. And in the end, the result is the monopolists and trademark advocates get stronger measures in Congress to defend themselves, lest other people like Anspach come along and create problems for big business. This is the part that really makes one feel angry--how much money really seems to matter in terms of the creation of our laws.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On "The Lung" by Vanessa Blakeslee (2638 words) ***

What is love? Is it trying to force someone to do something they don't want to do for their own good? Or is it sticking by that person, even when they do bad? That's the question Blakeslee poses in this short tale. Read the story here at Split Lip Magazine.

On "Neither Snow nor Rain" by Devin Leonard ****

This history of the U.S. Postal Service is entertaining and easy to read, through perhaps not the most thought provoking. There isn't a strong thesis, as one would see from most more scholarly works. Here, the point is simply to tell us how the postal system has changed over the years and give us some fine anecdotes along the way.

Leonard starts off with a preface that recounts the trips of various postal afficionados, guys with blogs who go traveling to all the various post offices around the United States. But they have to move quick, because those post offices are closing. Many were great architectural works.

And then, we're off, back in the days of colonial America, where the British post master in the colonies generally made money off commission (or really, a salary that only kicked in once one made a profit to pay it). But there were various advantages in terms of connections for one's business; for example, if you owned a printshop and printed newspapers, you could ship your newspaper using the service, and as postmaster, it cost you nill. Benjamin Franklin recognized this advantage and sought the commission for the service, eventually winning it. (Before that, he had bribed postal employees to take his newspaper, since not having the commission, he couldn't get the postal service to carry it.) He then used the commission to send his newspapers accordingly, but he also sent other's papers for a small fee. And he expanded where the service went and how fast it worked, making postal service profitable and then even more so. He and his partner made their salary and became quite well off--enough that Franklin left off actually monitoring the work himself and left it mostly to family members, while he lived in Britain (and then later, after the Revolution, in France).

Even so, sending materials via the post cost a good amount of money. Newspapers generally had a special pricing deal, but for the individual consumer, the cost was such that only the rich generally used the post or the well-connected (politicians generally could send things for free). This inspired various private companies to form, who would send mail for people--companies like Wells Fargo. The U.S. Postal Service stayed out of shipping parcels, which also gave such companies an opportunity. But the private companies could take the best routes, and thus kill off profitability for the postal service. Eventually, Congress passed a law that only the postal service could carry letters. But there were loopholes. For example, it didn't cover letters sent via boat or railroad, and so private companies continued to exploit such loopholes until they were closed. They also were the main bringers of mail to far-flung places like California. Companies like the Pony Express (which only operated for about eighteen months) managed to get mail to the far West much faster overland than the government could do so going around and overland through Panama using a company of ships.

The Postal Service in its early days usually worked by having mail delivered to post offices. People would come to the post office to collect their mail. And that's when one usually paid for the mail--it was collect. There were no stamps. Some took advantage of this by placing short notices on the outside of the letter (envelopes often were not used, because of the extra expense, since charges were by number of pages), much like in the days of pay phones, one might call someone for a ride but that person would not accept the collect call, knowing that the call itself was the signal to come pick the person up. But eventually, stamps were introduced, allowing people to pay for mail in advance. Pricing was made more competitive so that the common person could use the service. And rural routes were introduced, along with home delivery, resulting in fewer post offices. The postal service also began accepting packages, and in the early days, some folks even sent children (up to a certain size limit) through the mail (put the necessary postage on them, and off they go).

But change generally came slowly, and often slower than the postmaster general wished. Congress was often slow to take up new ideas that were being used overseas. The introduction of rural routes, for example, proved to be expensive (and caused losses), as some in the government had feared (because population density was not what it is in Britain, where such experiments were first used). Mail sorting on the railroad was also another innovation, and it sped service quite a bit.

A certain man named Comstock carried out a campaign against sending lewd materials through the postal service, and his work helped to keep various books out of general circulation until the 1930s or so.

Airmail had many fits and starts. In the early day, it was often done by the military, to give pilots something to do in non-warring times. But the military pilots often would not fly in inclement weather, and the postal service wanted to better guarantee service, so when allowed, it hired its own pilots. In some cases, it could speed up delivery by halving the time to send letters, but often weather and crashes interfered, and the service was often cancelled by Congress and then brought back and then cancelled and then put under the military again and so on. Eventually, however, it was farmed out to private carriers at the lowest bid; the proliferation of carriers, however, meant few made much in the way of profit, so one postmaster finally got Congress to lift the bidding requirement--instead, the postmaster chose four carriers to do all the work: the companies that became TWA, United, American, and Eastern airlines. This helped bring in passenger airlines as well. (As short return to military delivery in the 1930s proved a disaster, and the service entered private carrier usage again shortly thereafter.)

Stamp collecting came to be of a certain vogue under FDR, who was himself an avid collector. The post office began to issue commemorative stamps and other items for aficianados, and that generated a lot of profit for the postal service. I got the feeling that this was likely the golden age of the post office (when the postmaster even ran against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1941). After FDR, the office began its descent. Continuing in the red, its buildings aging, its service reduced from twice a day to once a day (because of the decline in the railroad and the proliferation of phone service, even as the number of packages delivered rose), its techniques increasingly outdated (hand sorting, just as had been done in the time of Ben Franklin), the post office would not again have so much positive attention lauded on it.

That decline would reach a crisis point in the 1960s under postmaster O'Brien. So much junk mail would clog the system that there would be a backlog of mail that had become impossible to catch up on and offices too small to hold the backlog; Xmas packages would be delivered in February. The year 1963 saw the introduction of the zip code (first number for region, second for state, and the last three for post office sorting, the last one being the very closest post office). Optical recognition scanners could feed the numbers to computer if the numbers were typed (and 80 percent were, because that was the volume of business mail). The problem: the post office had only one scanner, in Detroit. Unable to raise rates or update technology because of Congressional unwillingness to spend money or raise more, O'Brien suggested turning the post office into a semiautonomous corporation, with a governing board; otherwise, Congress's micromanagement would make it continue to have billion-dollar deficits. AT&T's former CEO (AT&T was profiting about $2 billion per year with twice the volume of message) was brought in for consultation.

While that CEO would have preferred to have privatized the post office, what he ended up recommending was that the service become a federal corporation: it would have its own board, set its own rules, take in the money it needed to pay its own way, but remain part of the government. The plan would not go anywhere until Nixon's presidency, in part because of the opposition of postal worker unions. And just as the plan implementation was about to come into being, postal workers went on strike. They wanted higher wages--and in cities like New York, arguably needed them badly and aggressively. The head of one of the major unions had agreed to the postal organization plan in exchange for a 6 percent raise for workers, but that was not enough for a New York union. Other postal unions in other cities stood with those workers, and mail ground to a halt. This was the 1970s, so mail really was relied on, as it was when I was younger. Without it, paychecks could not be distributed, bills did not go out, payments to bills did not get made. Losses proliferated in the business community. It was sort of hard for me to imagine, to go back to those times, because in the past two decades so much has become electronic--bills and payments and paychecks all can and often are done electronically now. There are options to the mail; not so then.

The strike led to further concessions. Instead of a 6 percent raise, the postal service got a 14 percent raise--6 percent immediately and 8 percent upon implementation of the plan the unions were not keen on.

Meanwhile, private carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL began to offer services. The founding of DHL was rather humorous. The letters stand for the initials of the three founders. They essentially started off by simply offering to deliver time-sensitive materials for people and companies. They literally went to an office, picked up the package, drove to the airport, got on a plane, and then went to where they were supposed to. That would be expensive, so truly these were time-sensitive items. But that became a business. FedEx, a story I'd heard before, began as a college paper that earned a D; the founder had an idea that he, after graduation, put into practice--again to deliver time-sensitive materials. After operating in the red for a few years, it turned a profit in 1978 or so and never looked back. The USPS wasn't happy about the competition and threatened lawsuits and other action, since it has a legal monopoly on carrying letters, but business lobbyists in Congress got USPS to stand down, since ExpressMail never has been quite as dependable as FedEx and some other carriers are.

Meanwhile, with the implementation of the postal corporation, the USPS finally started to turn a profit. Mechanicalization led to needed efficiencies. Bulk and junk mail began to take up more and more of its work. But working conditions were such that some began to feel frustrated and "go postal." Leonard traces two major reasons for this: One was that the postal service tended to hire a lot of army vets, and while they worked with vets with physical disabilities, they did not pay much attention to mental and emotional disabilities coming out of war. Another was that the culture of the postal service was such that once people worked up from regular employees to managers, previous treatment caused them to feel it was their turn to dish out meanness. But a third reason, heavily implied, was that the postal service was also seeing cutbacks--in employees and managers. No matter, the first issue was dealt with, and employees were also provided with a hotline to call to report threats, and after a decade of bad publicity with regard to employees shooting up one another, the problem dissipated.

Alas, the time of surpluses was a short one. The postal service attempted to adapt to the times. It created services such as one where people could send electronic messages to the post office, then have the post office print it out and send it as a hard copy. But these early attempts to deal with the coming electronic age were largely opposed by various lobbyists, who did not want the postal service interfering--or trying to claim a monopoly--in e-correspondence. And then, e-mail really did take off, and first-class mail began to nosedive, especially as bills and bill paying became increasingly fully electronic. The post office saw its mail drop to levels from two decades earlier. Other efforts to update or save money failed also. The post office wanted to cut Saturday service--Congress prevented it (because of the postal workers lobby), even though 70 percent of Americans thought the plan a smart one. Certain rural delivery was to be scratched, but that too was interfered with, though many post offices have been closed. That said, not as many post offices have been closed as would likely have made for more efficiencies. There was a plan, for example, to place postal service kiosks in Sears stores (replacing full-fledged office), but again, lobbyists prevented it from happening.

While the post office bleeds red, its one saving grace during the Internet revolution has been package delivery. Amazon relies on USPS more than on UPS or FedEx. But that is a dubious deal, as Leonard denotes, since Amazon could at any moment pull its support--especially once it forges more efficient means to deliver goods (most likely via its own package delivery service). Such is a quandary I know well. Publishers too find Amazon to be a dubious ally. It sells more books than most other outlets--pays its bills, doesn't return much, makes virtually any book available for purchase to end users--but by controlling so much of the market, it can also more easily dictate terms.

In this sense, the book ends on a sad note. One finds that the postal service has been a great boon to the nation but that in some ways it is aging badly. Attempts to modernize are being interfered with by the government itself. This is where those who argue that private firms do better work win. The postal service could do more to get into the black, but the government and the lobbyists who influence lawmakers won't allow it to do so and then complain when the postal service bleeds red. At the same time, there are reasons the postal service is better as a government entity--most especially because it is the only way some rural clientele are served. The market simply wouldn't provide for such customers. One wishes there were ways to strike a better balance.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

On "Identity" by Felipe Alfau (4636 words) *****

In Alfau's introductory story to Locos, we start with a character--or person--who is slated to be important. That is his role in life. But no matter what he does, he is ignored. The premise seemed so much like the lives of many I know, including myself. We want our lives to amount to something, but in the end, all our artistic endeavors or service endeavors or whatever we do seem to go nowhere far. We trudge on in anonymity, questioning our existence. That is Fulano, who volunteers to be part of the Alfau's novel in an effort to gain some importance. It is suggested the Fulano commit suicide to start the novel, so he sets about that course of action. He won't really do it, but he'll leave a note and disappear mysteriously, making him the center of action--except that when he does do it, he is the victim of a thief, who seeing Fulano drop his possessions and his suicide note in the streets, absconds with the items and makes the suicide note his own, leaving his own possessions with the note in its stead. The story becomes then a vehicle to right this wrong. Read the story here at Barcelona Review.

On "Locos" by Felipe Alfau ****

I'm not sure how I came to this book, but it showed up in some kind of recommended reading list at some point (on metafiction, perhaps), and I took note of it. And now, here I am, a few years later, reading it. And much of it was great!

Alfau plays with the novel form, as writers of the modernist era often did. I am not sure he wholly succeeds, as the work seems more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. Some read Dubliners as a novel, for instance, but I still think of it as a collection; that said, this piece might be more like Winesburg, Ohio, which while also not fully a novel to me is not also fully a collection of stories that stand on their own. Alfau's stories can be read on their own, but the links are useful to understanding the whole. While the stories can be read in any order, the first half of the book focuses a lot on the process of creating a novel.

We start the book with a character--or person--who is slated to be important. That is his role in life. But no matter what he does, he is ignored, as he is in the story. Instead, we go to a cafe where the rest of the book's characters are introduced to us in various forms.

The next chapter focuses on a character who decides to take over in the absence of the author, who had gone off to enjoy some time with friends, intending to take up with the character later. Alas, the character gets into so much trouble on his own that extricating him proves challenging for the author upon his return. What follows is a confusing muddle. The character meets a person from real life. The person from real life then becomes a character. The character proves to have been another character, who had earlier run off with a different woman. And on and on.

In the process of that story, we are introduced to the character of a beggar, which is the topic of the next story/chapter. In it, a professional beggar manages to find a job. But the job does not begin for a month, so the beggar has plans to continue in the begging profession for a while longer, but he accidentally gives away his last coin to another beggar. Said other beggar is an expert, who lives the life of a rich man when not on the twelve-hour begging shift. The one beggar goes to the other to beg his last coin back, and what ensues is a shift in the nature of begging and professionality. This piece proves much less playful in terms of form than the previous chapters--save for some short comments from the author about how he had ruined the character's plans for himself--which is a good thing insofar as the constant interceding of author and character into each other's narratives can wear thin when overused.

The focus on shifting positions in "The Beggar" plays out again and again. In the next chapter, an expert on "Fingerprints" has his technological expertise and certainty turned against him. Fingerprints don't lie, he asserts, and if his father's memory is to be preserved, he must go through with his actions. Likewise, in the chapter after that, "The Wallet," victims become bandits become heroes. The story is set in Madrid at a time when crime is rappant. Lights go out at night, and everyone takes to committing crimes in the streets. The prefect makes a bet that as soon as a young man leaves his side, he will be mugged. Said mugging in fact occurs--or rather, pickpocketing--but the young man is fast and attacks the would-be thief and recovers his wallet. Only, what he gains is not his wallet but someone else's. So begins a series of crimes and mistakes that will carry through the night.

"Chinelato" is a grand epic of a tale, an adventure story, about a man who spends time in the Philliphines and Spain, a man whose dark skin--but also his dubious morals (he flits from woman to woman, wife to wife)--keeps him marrying a woman he sets his eyes on. We come across him in different ways and from different points of view, and incidents and characters from other stories in this collection flit in and out, giving us small insights into other events that happened elsewhere. But still, this piece failed to hold my interest very well. And in fact, as the stories in the book become less experimental, beginning with this story, Alfau's book becomes almost completely straightforward--no more metafictional destruction of the story as it occurs.

The text ends with a two-part piece called "A Romance of Dogs"--a single character and dogs seeming to be the main items that keep the two parts together. In the first half, the character is in school. Dogs try to bite him before and after each day, add to his nightmares. But the main text of the story is about a priest who commits suicide for unknown reasons, though we suspect it has something to do with his love for one of the nuns, who runs off one day and elopes. The second half of the story involves the same character later in life and his growing insanity, as he obsesses over springtime.

Mary McCarthy's afterword shows how the characters show up in different stories. I was aware of this, but without reading the book a second time, it would be impossible for me to have seen just how much. Many characters have two or three names, so it's hard to keep track of them at times across the stories.