Mars Review of Books: Issue 1

Which Way, Western Author? by Christian Lorentzen ~hasdus-nalhep

Jul 31, 2022 • ~bidbel

Bronze Age Mindset

by Bronze Age Pervert

Independently Published, 198 pp, $16.48

Selfie, Suicide: or Cairey Turnbull’s Blue Skiddoo

by Logo Daedalus

Independently Published, 164pp, $14.99

The most generous and useful way to read Bronze Age Mindset by Bronze Age Pervert, as someone suggested to me, is as fiction. The narrator is anyway a fictional persona, and though it would be a strain to call the book a novel—there is, after all, no narrative, no cast of characters—the book is an act of make-believe. The narrator calls his book an “exhortation” and avers that it is not a work of self-help. Classification in the latter category would be all too pedestrian and unworthy of the drama the author conceives of himself as staging. That drama is an awakening in his followers of an archaic style of masculinity, which he eventually identifies with Achilles and Patroclus. Heroes and bros capable of great victories garnering them eternal fame. What’s not to like?

Despite its title and the often obscure and certainly old-timey character of much of its content, Bronze Age Mindset strikes me as an ultra-contemporary book. Why are these young people, who are actually adults, constantly in search of role models? One obvious answer is the deficiency of those currently on offer: actors and actresses, politicians, broadcasters, musicians, the occasional but now mostly obsolete author or scientist or artist or filmmaker, and of course athletes. Hardly a military hero, actual gangster, or great seducer on offer. Oh, I almost forgot: businessmen, tech moguls, billionaires generally. In short, celebrities whose appeal is born of glamor, fleeting physical perfection, or material accumulation but hardly ever triumph in struggle. Less and less talent or genius, especially as the rocker, the singer-songwriter, and even the rapper have ceded the field to the mere pop star, and the comedian has been shoved into the role of truth teller, either becoming unfunny (either as contrarian or apologist for the status quo) or just a pariah.

Most of this landscape is neglected by Bronze Age Mindset. A stray reference to Larry David and his shtick about being oppressed by service workers points up the absence of pop culture in its pages. But it is certainly part of the dispiriting present that sends the narrator into his “reveries.” Mostly these reveries take their lead from Nietzsche, but a few of the other usual suspects come up: Empedocles, Schopenhauer, Houellebecq. The book is largely a hodgepodge of anecdotes from history, philosophy, and science. The nuggets of wisdom and counter-wisdom the narrator puts forward are often broad to the point of rendering scrutiny pointless and the anecdotes minor to the point of rendering fact-checking a form of niggling pedantry. The book is above all a performance of a persona that is of its time but claims to be of another, a 128-page troll that claims to be entirely in earnest or at least not ironic, irony being “ghey.”

A few assertions are clear enough that we can take them to be in earnest and bear some examination. First there is the “bugman.” On the one hand, it is the catch-all concept for everything the narrator hates. On the other hand, it’s the default state of most of humanity for most of recorded time. In their present embodiment the “bugmen” look like this:

If you look around eyes of some people you see a kind of demented energy. It’s pure anger or lust for power with nothing more. I hate to dirty these pages with mention of names of nobodies in our time. But if you see photo of Hillary Clinton or Adam Schiff with his eyes bugged out on stims and antidepressants or who knows what, you know what I mean. There is a crease around the eye that tells it, it looks like cyborg gone off-script, these people have an inhuman gaze and are vehicles for something else. You see this also in the chiefs of the EU bureaucracy with tiny moleman eyes behind small glasses, and the tiny lenses that reflect light. You see it in the dead robot eyes of the new hue-man automatons running government departments, the DMV, the brutal zombies running the security in airports or hospital “health care” rooms under vicious yellow fluorescent lights.

So among bugmen we have prominent Democrats, senior EU technocrats, most bureaucrats, the people who renew your license, scan you before you get on a plane, and care for you when you get sick. The condition seems to be related to prescription drugs, bad eyewear, and too much time spent working under flourescent lights. Not the most stable of concepts. Elsewhere the “Bug-man” is identified with “the left,” with Darwinism, with “betas,” as the enemy of youth and beauty, as fearful of heredity and nature, as despoiler of oceans via microplastics, as the malignant zookeeper of noble animals like the jaguar, and as the sort who would dismiss the appearance of the ancient gods in dreams as meaningless. The “bugmen” have their prototypes in pre-modern “peasants,” who are “wretched” and “locusts” and “like animal” (though presumably not the cool animals the narrator favors, like jaguars and various dogs, more like glutted cattle). They are the reason for the emergence of feminism, which is “the proximate and ultimate cause” of “the decrepit times we live in.” The “final cause” is of course democracy.

Whether you decry it as mob rule or as the handmaiden of capitalism, skepticism of democracy is as old as the practice of ostraka. The narrator believes the concept of rights was a mistake. Justice is the interest of the stronger, as Thrasymachus or Callicles would say, and in addition to Achilles and Patroclus his gallery of heroes includes two-time traitor Alcibiades, Napoleon, who died in captivity of a rotten stomach, and the “greatest president,” James K. Polk, the absentee Tennessee plantation owner who snatched the Southwest from the Mexicans. (Maybe he should have built a wall.) He doesn’t leave out a kind word for Hitler and Mussolini—never mind that they were taken out by a trio that consisted of a fat drunk, a poncy cripple, and a Tbilisi street thug.

The narrator is not much concerned with endings, preferring the cliché of dying young and leaving a pretty corpse. Otherwise he might pay more heed to the events that transpired after Achilles chased Hector around the walls of Troy and put a spear through his throat, certainly one of the great passages in all of literature and a joy to read in the Ionic when I was a 19-year-old. His kleos secured—fame never being the pure boon we imagine it—he died from an arrow in his heel shot by Hector’s coward brother Paris. When Odysseus later meets him in the Underworld, he tells him he would rather be the lowest tenant farmer among the living than the greatest hero among the dead. Troy is sacked, but Aeneas escapes with his household god, the penates, and his father Anchises on his back and goes on to found Rome. We learn that in the Aeneid, which may be a work of Augustan propaganda, but what isn’t propaganda these days.

Despite the excitement it set off on the right and the pearl clutching among people who haven’t read it on the center and the left, Bronze Age Mindset doesn’t strike me as a very effective work of propaganda or “exhortation” or “manifesto,” whatever you want to call it. Whether you call it exiting Plato’s cave or being red-pilled, the epiphany that America has been governed by a bipartisan consensus that goes under the names neoliberalism, capitalism, meritocracy, professional managerial class, empire, or yuppie scum isn’t exactly news to anybody with a magazine subscription or two. And if this regime consists of pathetic beta neo-peasants, why is it so good at retaining power? Why would it require a new Napoleon to bring it down? And why is the most substantive point in the narrator’s final practical exhortation, aside from affirmations of body building and homosocial male friendship, a call for reviving the Boy Scouts? His followers would be better off, and at less risk of pulling muscles and spraining joints, playing Dungeons & Dragons, which is not much different from reading this book and no doubt more fun. More likely they’re playing video games.

I agree with the narrator that it’s good to spend time outside in the sun. His opponents might have reasons to be wary of a movement of his followers if it included compulsory training in ancient Greek and Latin (as well as another dead language, like Sanskrit, and a few modern ones), actual comprehensive history rather than great warrior highlight reels that leave out bloody or pathetic endings, the hard sciences, and physical training oriented to competitive team sports rather than cosmetic weight lifting. That’s something like what many of the Ivy League elites who go on to be “bugmen” endure, and that’s why they’re actually the most efficient killers on a global scale that the earth has ever known. It’s no coincidence that the narrator makes only one mention of Obama as one among those who are “entirely creations of this or that faction within the security system.” This estimate is not wrong. As Obama himself said, “It turns out I’m really good at killing people.” Probably better than Napoleon, who never got a nine-figure deal from Netflix.

The most intriguing leitmotif of Bronze Age Mindset is the narrator’s fondness of pirates generally. It’s of a piece one with another subtheme of the book: a taste for mafia-run gray zones, red light districts, porno theaters, and brothels. Sometimes you get the feeling he’d like nothing better than to tie one on, have a blacked-out orgy, and wake up alone. This slumming instinct is hardly at odds with his nostalgia for the pre-Revolution aristocracy, and he has a point when he says that modern forms of deviance are degraded and rather pathetic relative to the days of Nero. What I don’t buy is his idea of beauty, which seems to me hardly different from kitsch, because he never describes it beyond a taste for the youthful and muscular male form. Contemplate gazing on the physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger for eternity and you’ll get the idea. The narrator testifies to sitting alone in an empty museum and contemplating a kouros for hours until achieving sexual climax without manual stimulation. I recall a similar scene in William S. Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night, but at least there the cum shot was straightforwardly gay rather than merely onanistic.

Out of the same maelstrom of political rage, online pranksterism, and historical esoterica, comes Selfie, Suicide: or Cairey Turnbull’s Blue Skiddoo, a novel, also self-published, by Logo Daedalus. Harder to place than Bronze Age Pervert, in that he doesn’t simply lapse into run of the mill nationalist agitation while in retreat from his reveries, Daedalus has called himself a “right-wing communist” and also framed his book as a response to Bronze Age Mindset, perhaps a leave-taking of that scene. (I wouldn’t quite know, as I wasn’t there; I just saw Daedalus say it once on Twitter.)

Unlike Bronze Age Mindset, Selfie, Suicide is a genuine literary narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn’t strike me as a book that would ever be published by a big publisher, in part because it’s a genuine downer, start to finish, despite a persistent inventiveness and obvious animating intelligence. Whereas on the sentence level the Pervert affects a babytalk/caveman prose by often omitting definite and indefinite articles, Daedalus doesn’t shy from sophistication and writes in a style that suggests an imitation of Houellebecq (depressive, cynical, bitter) undertaken by an erstwhile admirer of Nabokov (alliteration, sentence sinuosity) who lacks his former idol’s capacity for delight and lacks the discipline to elude wordiness. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the novel a lot more than many specimens of corporate literary product on offer in recent seasons (your Emily St. John Mandels, Hanya Yanagiharas, Anthony Doerrs). Of recent mainstream Anglophone fiction, it reminded me most of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, published a few months after Selfie, Suicide in 2019.

As in that novel, there is a protagonist who passes beyond the edge of sanity into a paranoid state at least partly induced by an obsession with a fictional television serial and its charismatic creator. In Kunzru’s novel the show is called Blue Lives and stands in for the reactionary tendencies of American law enforcement, its creator a stand-in for Steve Bannon. In Selfie, Suicide the show is called Symon, and its anti-hero is an anarchist street artist and cult leader played by the bohemion scion of a fortune made in finance, Simon LeFeint—it’s his vanity project. (Has there ever been a scripted vanity television show with a broad audience? No doubt there will be one day.) The decadent right on the one hand, the decadent left on the other. The similarities mostly end there, and part of the difference is generational. Kunzru’s hero is a disaffected Gen X father who comes face to face with racist reactionaries and is scared straight, which is to say, centrist. Daedalus’s Cairey Turnbull is a lonely young millennial man whose youthful ideals and aspirations are strangled by the con game of higher education, a pornified technocapitalism, and the dreariness of modern algorithmic dating.

The action of the novel transpires over a single day. Cairey is on a date with a woman he thinks of as Abigail (it’s her dating profile handle, and he forgets her real name, which is Helen), and after brunch they visit the Museum of Expressive Humanism (MEH, get it?). Among other indignities, the experience of the museum is premised on the idea that visitors will constantly be mediating their own experiences by taking pictures, including pictures of themselves. Of course, there’s an extra charge for this, an irritation to Cairey because he’s near broke. Abigail/Helen is carrying a selfie stick, and Cairey submits to the ritual. The museum’s exhibits partake of depressing trends currently at loose in the art world: an emphasis on the presence of artists, rather than the art; a “performance” by a gamer, Cairey’s now wealthy and successful roommate from “youniversity.”

During an interlude Cairey spends in the restroom having a panic attack, Daedalus relays a flashback that explains a lot and lends the book most of its substance. Born accidentally to indifferent parents, Cairey as an adolescent realized a talent for drawing, cultivated an aspiration to become a manga artist, and developed a rich if somewhat basic fantasy life to do with knights, maidens, dragons, etc. There was an ur-Abigail he met on vacation and then carelessly lost forever, a dispiriting and friendless passage through high school, and a debt-burdened spell at the youniversity. There he embarks on the project that’s to be his achievement of “True Art,” a panoramic portrayal of his knight-errant fantasy life. The project is unfinished, the youniversity liquidated, and his art repossessed in its closure. He gets a low-level job in animation, but as in high school finds it easiest to sell pornographic drawings freelance. Another Abigail comes into his life, and one day on a visit to an Ikea-like furniture store he finds that a detail from his panorama, a painting of a blue moon, has been turned into a best-selling piece of kitsch home decoration. He winds up in the bin, his girlfriend takes out a restraining order when he gets out, and his social credit score (we are in a near dystopia if you hadn’t noticed) is so low that he doesn’t qualify for an algorithmically assigned date until the day of the events of this novel.

Conceptually, Selfie, Suicide is coherent and insightful if also entirely depressing and not quite as funny as it wants to be and should be. The Abigail/Helen character is at one point sketched sympathetically as a serial dater who’s just about ready to settle down and willing to consider Cairey husband material. Nice of her to be open to that, but she’s still not much more than a cliché. Simon LeFeint enters the scene towards the end to enact his own Christ fantasy, but we know that Cairey’s the one who has to die and somehow die for or in his art, and so he does.

Along the way, Daedalus lands many sharp points about the dispiriting present in the realms of media, art, academia, courtship, family life, consumer culture, etc. His version of what the Pervert would call Bug-world is more detailed, more realistic, and more damning all in all. And while the narrative doesn’t quite build to a satisfying tragic catharsis, neither does it cop out into a corny resolution. Its dead end has something in common with Houellebecq’s recent novel Serotonin. But a dead end is still dead, and kitsch is kitsch, whether it’s fantasizing about a new Napoleon coming to conquer the world or becoming a knight and slaying dragons; whether it’s a naked manchild with big muscles or a frustrated artist dreaming of escaping forever to his own dreamworld of knights, maidens, and dragons. It’s enough to make you think it’s the damsels this time who’ll do the saving because the boys, whether psychotic or depressed, are clearly in distress.

by Christian Lorentzen