What led us here, more than anything, was desire. Even children know this desire, so we must have been toddlers before we felt it.
We arrived into plenitude exactly three-quarters into the twentieth century. We were born into a lifestyle that our parents had created for us and we grew to know no other way. It was what was suggested to us constant and unbroken: a way of living, a golden standard of existence. And we continued to feel it, even into our forties and fifties.
Stephen is named, he hears one day in the early 1980s—around the time when Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave was advancing alongside Crisis Investing: Opportunities and Profits in the Coming Great Depression on the non-fiction bestseller list—for a Stepan in a late Tolstoy story. “His mother was reading ‘Father Sergius’ at the time. ‘Father Sergius,’” his father says as they entertain his out- of-town colleague, a mycologist. But there is no chance that, as in the Tolstoy story, Stephen will vanish to become a monk the moment he recognizes what every important person in his world already knows: that the woman of his fantasies is screwing the man he idolizes.
For one, he has no consolidated world in which anyone would recognize anything of his life, in which his elders eye him for his future promise. And for two, he cannot really see who is important in his world. His life doesn’t appear to be contingent on a few people forming a circle of power around him.
Stephen is approaching middle age, and Tolstoy’s Stepán must have been only seventeen, perhaps younger, and clouded and overflowing in the romance of youth, and by all of its particular desires, its all-or-nothingness.
When I overheard Boomers, sometimes in cafés, and when I saw them on television, they were often talking about investments. The truth is I rarely saw boomers at all except in the news or when I met parents of friends. They spoke about money, especially the men, and if asked about the economy, said there’d be an upswing. Economies go up and down, they always have, they would say. These men and women lived through recessions and lost investment money and then reinvested and gained it back, lost some more again and then won more again—they were gamblers, and on the whole gained rather than lost. Yet they seemed to miss—at least in my conversations with them, which were brief, lacking factual data, over lunch or in dentist chairs— the steady declines. They were, by and large, optimists.
But eventually, I must admit, they did begin seeing that things would not return to a state of prosperity. At least some did. Even reporters on the radio would say as much. Perhaps they came to agree only at the point at which they had mellowed, at which it no longer mattered to them, upturn or downturn. Because, after all, they began to die. So what would it matter? Slowing down, softening, the compulsions of youth and middle-age waning; as their thinking fell into concord with my own, I searched for some other explanation, another narrative, one that would take me elsewhere.
American doctors, he reads in Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, have been using an out-sourcing system for transcribing their patient notes. They read their notes into a recorder and have their secretaries send the digital file directly to India, where someone transcribes the recording and sends it back the next day. Because of the magic of time zones, typed-out notes on the patient appear as though by a wave of the wand on the doctor’s desk the next day. This is all he reads before returning the book to the Goodwill display. Still, the book raises a couple of thoughts. He might get a job at such a company in India. At the library, where he heads afterward, he finds, on the internet, a company based in Bangalore called The Right Hand. He could send them a query. Another idea would be to find work that he could outsource to such a company, while he worked a second job, thereby earning a little extra money by way of the wage difference between him and his foreign employee.
However, since he’s had no success getting any job whatsoever, never mind two, the plan remains untenable. And he questions the whole India thing, because it’s a country he knows about only through movies.
A family member, like many of his older family members, voices concern over his ongoing unemployment. But this particular relative, whose name he often forgets, and with whom he has rarely exchanged more than greetings, tries to set him up with a job. She proposes working for a friend of hers. Something about cataloguing belongings or preparing things for donation, but also cleaning up the yard and performing simple household maintenance. Unclear about it all, and not knowing how to read the situation, Stephen responds with thank you, but no. It sounds to him like his relative’s friend has too much money and wants to pay a person to organize his life. It sounds like make-work, which Stephen absolutely abhors. The relative writes back asking him to reconsider. There is good money in it and surely he needs money, doesn’t he? And then a few minutes later Stephen receives an email from the relative’s friend, the man who wants the assistance. He seems to think Stephen has already agreed to it—“Thanks, Stephen ... That’s just great....” The man asks whether Stephen can drop in the next day to meet with him.
We thought about their lives, their 1960s and seventies and eighties, and their freedoms. They hired guides to take them to the iconic mountains of Asia, and read Hemingway and went up the mountains of Africa. If it had been possible, they would have taken trips to the moon and to Mars, accumulating money from investments even as they booked outer-spatial hotel rooms.
The shelves are Varathaned pine, yellow and glossy. They span the length of the room. As he scans the shelves, one thing becomes apparent. There are no books published since the mid-seventies and not many before the sixties. It is a parent’s shelf, in his mind; it is as though the owner of the collection had stopped reading around the time he was born. He sees some Marshall McLuhan pocket editions. He sees the eastern Hesse, the desert Castaneda, the jungle Levi- Strauss, the aerial Erica Jong. Mailer, Didion, Capote. Joseph Campbell on myth, Wilhelm Reich on fascism and orgasms, Paul Tillich on the anxiety of being, Tom Wolfe’s Americana, books on transcendental meditation and pedagogy of the oppressed, experiencing architecture, and death and dying. Your Erogenous Zones he sees, and Your Erroneous Zones, and I’m OK—You’re OK, Chariots of the Gods?, The Bermuda Triangle, The Primal Scream, Future Shock, The Population Bomb, The Territorial Imperative, Learning from Las Vegas, Walden Two, On Aggression, Small is Beautiful and You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis. He sees more pocket paper-backs: Games People Play, Name Your Baby, My Secret Garden, Madness and Civilization, Utopia or Oblivion, Ways of Seeing, Against Interpretation. He sees Hammarskjöld’s Markings, Laing’s Knots, Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Watts’s Joyous Cosmology, Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Greer’s Female Eunuch, McKuen’s Lonesome Cities. Open Marriage, How to Be Your Own Best Friend, The Total Woman, The Ascent of Man. He leaves them where they are, these books behind spines he’s grown up seeing without seeing. They have aged but for all their familiarity he can’t tell how. He waits in the Marcel Breuer leather-strap chair, thinking about the note on the door that said to let himself in. He waits.
Read Part Two in Issue 52, on newsstands June 20.