Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Karma Bad. Andie Macdowell Good.

Let's talk about death and reincarnation. A common trope in Buddhism used to express the never ending energy cycle of life, death and rebirth. What you get reborn as is entirely up to the karmic investments you've made. Help out at a homeless shelter? Maybe you get to be a sleek, wild stallion in your next life. Punch a grieving widow in the solar plexus on Black Friday because she grabbed the last half-priced waffle iron? Welcome to your new career as Kanye West's toe fungus.

Or maybe you are like Harry August; born in 1919 on the bathroom floor of a train station, killing your mother in the process. It's not the ideal way to start your life but you manage, thanks to the saintly kindness of your adoptive family. The good news is you were born after that nasty world war, that statistically speaking, you probably would have died in. Annnnnnd....Germany annexes Austria.

Turns out you are pretty good at fixing stuff, so you manage to avoid being on the business end of Nazi machine guns by being too valuable as an aircraft mechanic. When the war is over you go on to lead a modest life and die of natural causes just before the turn of the new millennium.

Not bad. You managed to get through World War 2 without killing anyone and you always tipped the paper boy. You're probably looking at a nice songbird or something for your next go-round....Annnnnnd.....What the hell? You're back on the bathroom floor in 1919. You're Harry August again and you remember EVERYTHING.

You're not alone. There are a whole bunch of people who hit the reset button every time they die. They even have their own club that they invite you to join. They have a rule though, and it's a pretty big one: Even though you know exactly how the next 80-odd years are going to play out, you are not allowed to interfere with major historical events. Because really bad shit can happen if you do. They found out the hard way.

After reading this book I couldn't help wondering what I would do with my life if I was granted a mulligan every time I died. I would probably be a little more Bill Murray from the movie Groundhogs Day than Harry August. Sure, you could eventually learn dozens of languages, become obscenely rich, and master the most complex disciplines in the world but how awesome would it be to drive a Chevy pickup off a cliff and learn everything about Andie Macdowell?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Feeling Bad about Laughing

At the heart of Paul Beatty's hilarious novel lies a simple thought experiment: Could you prove that racism in the United States is still alive and well by bringing back segregation?

 After the election of the first black president there was a suggestion that we had evolved into a post-racial world. A belief that all of the seeds planted by the civil rights movement had borne righteous fruit and very soon the colour of your skin and the country of your origin would be irrelevant in this great democracy of ours.

Then we woke up on the morning of November 9th, turned on the news and discovered that we were just a tad too optimistic about the state of the world.  The idea slowly dawned on us that maybe racism isn't just the hallmark of the intellectually inferior mind. Maybe it is something we are all guilty of. The elephant in the room of our collective conscious as we drive through the bad part of town.

The bad part of town in this case is an agrarian suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens, where our nameless narrator is home schooled on a diet of unconventional psychology served up by his father. Dickens itself stands in as an effective metaphor for our ill-conceived ideas of a post-racial world. When our hero makes it ground zero for the reintroduction of segregated schools, buses and drinking fountains it is not outrage that greets him, but a sense of civic pride, a sense of order and a relief from the pressure of pretending that intolerance is a thing of the past.

My feelings for this book are tangled up with my feelings about the upcoming Donald Trump presidency. I laugh because on some level it is very funny and absurd. Then I think about the very real consequences and I feel bad for laughing.