The Great Experiment
The New Yorker, March 31, 2008
Jeffrey Eugenides' story
In Leaving for Kenosha (see my review HERE), Richard Ford foregrounded a day-in-the-life of a family set against the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. While their story forms a discrete part of the disaster, it is never a offered as a microcosm pretending to represent the whole. The experience may be shared, but it is not shared as a continuum; the whole is not only greater than its parts, but its reality cannot be inferred from them. Jeffrey Eugenides' "Great Experiment" also deals with the relationship between collective and individual experience, but here, the individuals are presented more as manifestation of their social condition. I'm going to hold the opening paragraph analysis for the end.
Kendall is a forty-five year old editor of a small, non-profit publishing house, called the Great Experiment, after a passage from Alexis de Toqueville. The owner, Jimmy Dimon, is an octogenerian former pornographer turned advocate and supporter of free-speech and civil liberties. The great experiment, of course, is America, and Kendall finds himself locked out of what it has become since 1831 when Toqueville made his pilgrimage through the young republic. In his twenties, Kendall had been a promising poet and intellectual, but he has grown tired of doing without; unable to afford health insurance or to make the improvements his wife dreams about, he wonders where his life has gone wrong. Over mini-barrel tumblers of Scotch at the Coq d'Or, Piasecki, Jimmy Dimon's accountant plants the fateful seed. "If you and I weren't so honest we could make a lot of money." Piasecki had been fired along with eighty-five thousand other employees of Arthur Anderson.
“I don’t know,” Piasecki said. “It’s just that, once you’ve been screwed like I’ve been, you start to see things different. I grew up thinking that most people played by the rules. But after everything went down with Andersen the way it did––I mean, to scapegoat an entire company for what a few bad apples did on behalf of Ken Lay and Enron . . .” He didn’t finish the thought. His eyes grew bright with fresh anguish.
So begins the slippery slide. The shinny apple is dangling from the tree and Kendall is ready to take a bite. He arranges for another meeting at the Coq d'Or. How is it done? Piasecki lays out the plan. Set up a dummy corporation, invoice the publishing house. In a year or two, dissolve the company. Good for $500,000, maybe a million each. Keep cool. Don't be conspicuous. Jimmy Dimon never checks the figures--too busy spending his money on Viagra and whores. They file incorporation papers for a storage company, then bill Dimon for storing books that were never printed. Kendall is careful. His money goes to restoring the interior of his Oak Park house, visits from a Venezuelan maid--nothing too visible from the outside.
They have, of course, underestimated Dimon. At the end of a phone call in January, he tells Kendall that he's been looking at Piasecki's accounts.
"...The numbers look funny, " he tells him.
“What do you mean?”
This plot is layered against a running social commentary, for which it serves as both illustration and object lesson. Toqueville provides the binding interface. Jimmy Dimon "has decided that that what the country needed was a super-abridged version of Tocqueville's seminal work, culling all of the predictions the Frenchman had made about America, but especially those that showed the Bush Administration in its worst light.". Working on this project has had the double effect of making him think about America, about what it has become, and at the same time, increasing his feelings of alienation, loosening his sense of identity with the country, and with it, his moral anchor. The business pages of the Times and Tribune were instructive.
" Here you found the pension-fund manager who'd siphoned off five million, or the Korean-American hedge-fund genius who vanished with a quarter billion of Palm Beach retiree money and who turned out to be a Mexican guy named Lopez. Turn the page to read about the Boeing executive sentenced to four months in jail for rigging contracts with the Air Force. The malfeasance of Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlowski claimed the front page, but it was the short articles on A21 or C15 detailing the quieter frauds, the scam artists working in subtler pigments, in found objects, that showed Kendall the extent of the national deceit.
Then from Toqueville:
... I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates with inconceivable rapidity, and experience shows that it is rare to find two succeeding generations in the full enjoyment of it.
That clinched the deal. He was on the phone with Piasecki in an instant. A good man undone, not so much by his own greed, as by an irresistible climate created by the greed of others, a climate that demanded complicity as the price for belonging. Once American politicians had denied that the United States was an empire. Now every accepted it. Everyone was pleased. "Victory was what counted, power, muscularity, doublespeak if necessary. You saw it in the way people drove..."
Everyone knew what he wanted and how to get it. Everybody you met was nobody's fool.
One's country was like one's self. The more you learned about it, the more you were ashamed .
* * *
Here is my impression of the opening before reading the rest of the story, with added commentary.
As I explained in my Priliminary Remarks, and a HERE, typographical paragraph breaks can be misleading. Here, the minimal opening unit covers eight typographical paragraphs, and even then is not complete.
“If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?”
Proves to be an ironic epigraph--Kendall's failure to reverse the order of the conditional will be his undoing.
It was the city that wanted to know. Chicago, refulgent in early-evening, late-capitalist light. Kendall was in a penthouse apartment (not his) of an all-cash building on Lake Shore Drive. The view straight ahead was of water, eighteen floors below. But if you pressed your face to the glass, as Kendall was doing, you could see the biscuit-colored beach running down to Navy Pier, where they were just now lighting the Ferris wheel.
The characters are manifestations of "the city." And not only the characters in the story, all of us. You too, dear reader, as you would know if were to press your face to the glass like Kendall. Inside/outside. Cut off. Floating above the "real" world.
The gray Gothic stone of the Tribune Tower, the black steel of the Mies building just next door—these weren’t the colors of the new Chicago. Developers were listening to Danish architects who were listening to nature, and so the latest condominium towers were all going organic. They had light-green façades and undulating rooflines, like blades of grass bending in the wind.
There had been a prairie here once. The condos told you so.
Parentheical commentary. What follows breaks the sequence, but not decisively: neither subordinate to the sentence before the comment, nor structurally coordinate with any sentence before it, but parallel and continuous with the image of Kendall, face pressed to the glass.
Kendall was gazing at the luxury buildings and thinking about the people who lived in them (not him) and wondering what they knew that he didn’t. He shifted his forehead against the glass and heard paper crinkling. A yellow Post-it was stuck to his forehead. Piasecki must have come in while Kendall was napping at his desk and left it there.
The Post-it said: “Think about it.”
Thinking about the conversation that led to their attempted scam.
Kendall crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket. Then he went back to staring out the window at the glittering Gold Coast.
Gazing. Wondering. Staring out the window at a world to which he does no belong.
Sentences: 14 17.64 wps avg.
Suggests story that follows will be heavy on sociological/ economic setting, status and belong... from a POV above the fray...
Narrative Time: present
Voice: unlimited third person. Voiceover to a documentary.
Language: conventional exposition (?)
This completes the exposition for the plot, but not the contextual setting--the devolution from Toqueville's America to twenty-first century Chicago in its "late capitalist light," the world Kendall and Piasecki and Jimmy Dimon inhabit, a second layer which they do not so much represent, as are themselves its manifestations. The next five paragraphs ( Typographically set apart by white space and double-line height initial capital letter) form something close to a second opening, continuing to add to Kendall's back story in the beginning, but essentially devoted to Toqueville, the "Great Experiment," political historical observations--culminating in a then-and-now comparison consisting of a long quote from Democracy in America and the following paragraph.
In these, as in the forests of the Old World, destruction was perpetually going on. The ruins of vegetation were heaped upon one another; but there was no laboring hand to remove them, and their decay was not rapid enough to make room for the continual work of reproduction. Climbing plants, grasses, and other herbs forced their way through the mass of dying trees; they crept along their bending trunks, found nourishment in their dusty cavities and a passage beneath the lifeless bark. Thus decay gave its assistance to life.
How beautiful that was! How wonderful to imagine what America had been like in 1831, before the strip malls and the highways, before the suburbs and the exurbs, back when the lake shores were “embosomed in forests coeval with the world.” What had the country been like in its infancy? Most important, where had things gone wrong and how could we find our way back? How did decay give its assistance to life?
There is the question that binds the story line to the documentary background: how can the decay of the Great Experiment give assistance to life? A question this story is not able to answer.