It’s hard not to marvel at the way The Illuminatus! Trilogy savages the concept of believability. Despite its remarkable depth of research, the trilogy refuses to distinguish between the credible and the credulous. Over the course of its wanderings, it presents a still-living John Dillinger (in hiding under an assumed identity), the lost continent of Atlantis, a talking dolphin, a battalion of hibernating Nazis, and a rakish proto-libertarian submarine captain named Hagbard Celine, who periodically makes reference to an Ayn Rand–satire text entitled “Telemachus Sneezed” while simultaneously expounding upon the value of free will and drug use.
I couldn’t help but suspect that the technological renovation of my eating habits had done as much harm as good. For all the energy I lavished on the particulars of my food intake, I wasn’t sure I’d seen tangible benefits. I certainly hadn’t lost weight; I’d only managed to oscillate between the moral poles of good and bad, neither of which I could clearly define. And so, as with so many recent innovations, I began to wonder: How could I consume the thing I wanted, when I wanted it, and still end up feeling unsatisfied?
Though computer shows were unglamorous, they were also prescient in a way that bears re-examination. To attend a computer show in the 1990s was to experience an unlikely celebration of the tinkerers and inventors who saw mechanical systems not as products to be consumed, but systems that could be bent and modified and tuned to their particular needs. In the years before our devices became sealed and seamless fetish-objects, computer shows were a brief but vibrant manifestation of the open-source spirit underlying all great technological innovations: invention as play. And among today’s tech-savvy young people, that same spirit is again in resurgence.
Discovering app-dating in 2016 was sort of like discovering hot yoga or a band called the Arcade Fire. All the think pieces about hookup culture had already been written, slagged in the comments section, backlashed and counter-back-backlashed ad infinitum. It was what I imagined someone in the late 1990s might have felt in finally succumbing to a Prozac prescription. Fine, okay, I give up. This is the way of the world now — like credit card finance charges or high cholesterol, yet another aspect of modern life warped by the demands of instant gratification.
But if school shootings have resisted easy classification, their cultural ubiquity was fomented in the 1990s. The years between 1995 and 2000 saw some fourteen separate attacks, up from a scant three in the previous half-decade. Following Columbine, the country’s largest newspapers printed an estimated ten thousand articles about the phenomenon. Suddenly school shootings were no longer a discrete crime, but an idea—a repeat occurrence with measurable dimensions that could be mourned, studied, or imitated, depending on to whom they spoke.
The Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot is one of several “machine-gun shoots” around the country. For two days in June, hundreds of people traveled to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for the opportunity to fire nearly every species of automatic weapon from the past century. There were UZIs and M16s, Barrett .50-caliber rifles, WWII-era belt-fed Brownings, and even a Minigun—a giant, chair-mounted cylindrical device powered by a car battery. As of 10 a.m., all 84 firing positions were trained downrange onto a hill stocked with junked cars and dead kitchen appliances, waiting for the starting signal.
Had I been more cynical, I might’ve taken this as cause to question the efficacy of my training. Instead I forced myself forward. I memorized the elaborate Japanese names, the mind-numbing kata routines, the call-and-response that ended each class, kneeling forward so that my nose brushed the floor. I did sparring drills in my padded foot-guards and headgear, pushing past the point of fatigue where lights exploded at the edges of my vision. I stayed late to punch a bag full of gravel in the hopes that my knuckles would one day be seasoned enough to endure it. I did so partially out of my own stubbornness, and partially because stubbornness seemed the essential tenant of the style. A hard form meets adversity with repetition, impassibility with blinkered persistence, and by this measure I considered that any deficiency I found was my own.
I hadn’t seen an edition of Clue, much less its disembodied pieces, since I was maybe twelve. And yet here they were in my mailbox. I wasn’t sure whether to find this funny or sinister, and so I experimentally mentioned it to a few close friends as a casual Hey, you’ll never believe this but species of oddity. I avoided using the words murder and weapon to the extent that such censorship was possible. What I got in return was an elaboration on my barber’s reaction: a moment of incredulity followed by a better-you-than-me laugh. It was definitely peculiar and possibly distressing, and no one knew what to make of it.
For my parents' forty-seventh wedding anniversary, we make a brunch reservation at a nautical-themed restaurant called Danfords on the northern coast of Long Island. It’s just my mother, my father, and me. My younger brother can’t make it down from Massachusetts. He is the assistant manager of a sporting-goods store, and vacation time is a luxury he can’t often afford. I, on the other hand, live a mere two hours away in New York City, where I earn my living as a marketing consultant. So my brother visits when he can, and I visit less often than I should.
Of course there is no such thing as ephemera anymore; all objects live forever on the Internet. Which is how I learned that Kotzwinkle's novel is in fact a cult phenomenon, the sort of thing to which people attach descriptions like "indestructible," "insane," and "perfect."
Monday morning, when Tomek should normally pick me up for school, he doesn’t. In two years Tomek has never missed a morning ride without warning me first. So I wait twenty minutes on my porch for sight of a blue Trans-Am that never appears. Then I wait another twenty. I have visions of Tomek in a fiery wreck by the side of the road. Images of Tomek handcuffed over the hood of a police car. Slow-motion thoughts of him launching off an overpass and into space. Everything except the truth, which is that Tomek isn’t coming.
Here’s what happens when you have urethral surgery. You arrive at the hospital in a tracksuit with your mom and your best friend in tow. They give you hugs. An administrator swipes your credit card for an “estimated payment” of $3,200 and change. Then you trade your clothes for a gown and hairnet, and sit in a small room while various people ask you to verify your name and date of birth. You sign consent forms. The surgeon and his assistant come to tell you that everything’s going to go great. Your mom and friend are permitted one last hug and squeeze of the hand. Finally you’re escorted down the hall, around the corner, and through a door into a very bright room in which a team of people are moving purposefully. You lie on a large metal bed and are promptly covered with blankets. The IV goes in. Suddenly you’re floating.
Around us the other kids move in little oscillating circles, fish in a fish tank. It’s mostly guys aside from Lisa, but there are a couple of girls, both in patterned tights and very drunk. One leans over and throws up into a bush. I wonder if technically I’m responsible for that. But if not for me, then they would’ve just gotten their alcohol elsewhere. I mean, who’s really supposed to be the adult here—me or their parents? The thought makes me indignant. Why shouldn’t these kids get drunk and flail around, searching for space of their own? Why shouldn’t they be misfits? After all, they are at the receiving end of the greatest swindle our culture perpetrates. We promise them salvation for being themselves and then punish them for not knowing who they are.
Within the first forty minutes of our tour, my mother discovers a major problem: The crafts-room is not up to her standards. She doesn’t see a throwing wheel or a sewing machine. She doesn’t care for the vinyl floor or the folding tables. She’s not crazy about the light. If she donated her loom, she asks the sales associate, they certainly wouldn’t put it here, would they? There must be another facility for the serious artisans.
I’m at work when Lenny tells me that Jeff Cuttner has died. His news arrives as the innocuous chime of an instant message, the intermittent soundtrack of my empty office. It’s a link without context, and it takes me a minute to make sense of the Florida daily-news website that subsequently pops open. The entire article is barely a hundred words. A car accident, four in the morning, driver suspected to be asleep at the wheel. And Cuttner’s stats of course: six-foot-five, three hundred ten pounds. The article closes with a quote from his agent, calling it a tragedy.
The truth of the basement becomes apparent to you in moments fleeting as waves that break and recede. After your father’s stroke, when you and your uncle install an extra banister for balance, you realize that the computer wires that litter the stairs like brambles are actually the bigger health issue. Afterwards you can remember your uncle going to the liquor cabinet and pouring you each a shot of vodka that dissolved into another half-decade—so that you are no longer a college sophomore, you no longer visit as often, and your therapist tells you on occasion that separating from your parents is a natural part of becoming an adult. Well, sure, you say, but so much stuff might be a real problem as they get older. It’s not Hoarders reality TV yet, but it’s not far off.
“Well, you are alone,” Marco says. “We all are. Maybe if you were an accountant or a banker, you wouldn’t be. But really, there’s no place more alone than knowing that you’re not alone when you want to be. Try telling that story,” Marco laughs. “You’ll be alone in no time at all.”
And then one day he sat down to a microwaved Stouffers dinner to instead find himself on the house’s wood-veneer floor, staring into the space between the dining table’s legs. There was no pain, not as though the chair had been pulled from under him, but more as if he had simply moved through the chair and come to an abrupt stop. As though he had frozen in a sitting position and the chair, the floor, the house, all of it had rotated a few degrees upwards around some arbitrary celestial axis, stopping seconds short of where it should have been.
A few weeks ago a small Florida-based bicycle shop called Republic Bikes entered into a partnership with Urban Outfitters. The company, launched in March of this year, offered an eye-catching deal: one off-the-shelf frame (in three sizes), one set of parts, and an endless color palette—configurable over the internet, all for $399. The guardians of urban cycling did not react kindly.
Is it such a bad thing that everyone can now sate their base desires with the click of a button? Maybe it’s not. After all, billions of advertising dollars are wasted every year in an attempt to figure out what people want when in reality people are already shouting it with their remotes and their beliefs. The more content available, the more people will be able to demonstrate their desires. And the more people demonstrate their desires, the more things can become available. Sounds great, right?