Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pique: Oil!

(Yes, I'm quite proud of that atrocious pun)

First: a nod of appreciation to the previous, anonymous owner of my copy of Upton Sinclair's Oil, who went through the entire novel and did nothing but neatly and unobtrusively correct the occasional typos, without adding any other annotations and without inflicting any wear whatsoever on the book. You're good people.

Oil! is a much better novel than his earlier King Coal--stunningly so, in fact. While King Coal is generally flavorless, didactic, and, truth be told, probably of more interest to labor historians than anyone else, Oil! is anything but. It has a clear rhetorical purpose, true, but it also has actual characters, whose lives are detailed not solely in relation to labor disputes and the corruption of the capitalist system (although these themes become more dominant as the book proceeds). There's also all sorts of interesting, incidental stuff about the culture of the day--driving customs, sexual rituals of upper-class teenagers, Hollywood aesthetics--that enliven the narrative quite a bit.

It's also a somewhat dispiriting novel, both on its own and especially in light of its predecessor, and I'll tell you why: for all that it's about workers being exploited and how bad that is, King Coal is actually a pretty darned upbeat novel: the system may be rigged against the people, but the villains are pretty cartoonish, and the hero, Hal, is generally able to overcome them without all that much difficulty. The atmosphere is conducive to hope, is what I'm saying. Organization is necessary, but victory is possible.

By contrast, the ultimate attitude in Oil! is much more pessimistic--closer to Dos Passos' USA than to Sinclair's earlier work. Once again, the hero, Bunny, is a privileged kid who becomes involved with the struggles of socialists and communists, but unlike Hal, he can't just use this status to magically solve everyone's problems. He can temporarily alleviate some of them, but it's clear that this is not a winning battle (King Coal sort of occasionally tries to make this point as well, but it is decidedly contrary to the book's rhetorical thrust). The ending is quite dark, and while Sinclair does hold forth the possibility that the situation can be improved IF the greed and corruption that power the engines of the world can be extinguished, given that he's just spent five hundred fifty pages showing us in exhaustive detail how completely overpowering these forces are, how optimistic can you be, really?

One wishes that this attitude didn't seem much more realistic than that of the earlier novel, but…well. And if a tireless social crusader like Upton Sinclair can't hold out much hope, how can you or I be expected to?

This shit never works. Sure, you get some things that make the world better--a few token brakes are put on corporate power--but this just isn't enough, because you're not doing anything to affect the structure of the actual system. You're just switching in a few new parts. The machine remains what it is, and just how the FUCK do you expect it to change, I ask you? In a world where the Supreme Court rules that it's A-okay for corporations to purchase elections--in a world where one political party is monstrously, monolithically corrupt and evil, while the other is so massively stupid, cowardly, and ineffectual that a special election that should have been a meaningless statistical blip causes them to completely lose their shit and start running around like headless chickens--in a world where we're all narcotized by endless, numbing consumerism and relentlessly trivializing media--in a world where a substantial portion of the population is suffering from an absolute and permanent Stockholm syndrome causing them to identity absolutely with the corporate masters whose entire raison d'être is to squeeze every last penny they can out out of them--how, in this world, can you possibly expect anything good to come?

And the really scary part? Politically, the current situation is absolutely as good as it gets. Conditions will NEVER, EVER be more favorable for positive social change than they are now. This seems indisputable. And just look how well that's going. Blech.

(If you're curious, the book has essentially nothing in common with There Will Be Blood. It's actually kind of risible that there's a picture of Daniel Day-Lewis on the cover of my edition, since the character in the movie and the character in the novel are completely different people in every way.)


Anonymous Melvin pontificated to the effect that...

ughk, that's depressing. I'd never heard of false consciousness described as Stockholm Syndrome. I like it - the insight that is, not the condition.

5:27 PM  

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