Can the cannibal | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

A lumbering parable that asks “what if we used humans as livestock?” A provocative question that has never been asked before, except in A Modest Proposal and Soylent Green and Sweeney Todd and The Road and…

Marcos works at a processing plant for “special meat”, ie, people. An infectious plague has rendered all animal meat poisonous, and the government (through euphemism and bureaucracy) has legalized cannibalism. Most of his book involves Marcos going about his daily life while feeling sad.

The book never gets out of its own way. It’s so certain that it has a great premise that it never moves past that premise and does anything with it. Marcos is a flat and uninvolving character. The endless quotidian detail of his job just provokes a response of “Yeah, eating humans is horrible and awful. So what?”

I suppose the book is intended to shock us awake about the horrors of factory farming, or whatever. It’s a thought experiment often advanced by environmental ethicists. “How can you be comfortable eating a cow but not a person?”

For the same reason I’m comfortable driving over asphalt but not a person. Asphalt isn’t people, and neither are cows. The parable falls apart for me because it comments on a real life issue in a way that distorts the issue beyond recognition.

Moral philosopher John Rawls proposed that ethical decisions be made behind a “veil of ignorance”. Imagine you’re a baby that’s about to be born. You don’t know anything about who you’ll be, or your circumstances, or anything. You might be a king or a pauper. In light of this, what world would you like to be born into?

Specifically, would you want to be born into Bazterrica’s world? I wouldn’t: I might be special meat and suffer any number of horrible experiences. But suppose Rawl’s veil of ignorance crossed the species barrier. You might be born as a human, or born as a cow. Would you like to exist in that world (ours)?

The thing is, I can’t imagine life as a cow. Do they experience pain? Certainly. Is it the same pain as ours? I don’t know. Are they conscious? Probably. Is it a sort of consciousness where they can anticipate the future, feel regret, imagine different circumstances, and so on? I don’t believe so. These are questions Tender Is The Flesh doesn’t get around to answering. Most people object to factory farmed livestock because the animal suffers in the process, but raising humans as livestock would (to my view) be morally wrong even if the human didn’t suffer, because you’re infringing on the will of a highly conscious being. You can’t swap animals with humans in this scenario, the whole equation changes.

Bazterrica’s world needed a stronger sense of realism. Instead, it comes off as fantasy, totally disconnected from our world, less A Modest Proposal than Gulliver’s Travels. The scenario makes little sense. Nobody would raise humans as livestock even if it were legal to do so. Humans are strong, intelligent, and capable of communication and using tools, all of which would make them extremely dangerous to their captors. Worse, they take fifteen to twenty years to reach maturity, during which time they must be fed millions of calories. How could that be economically viable? I think if meat became inedible we’d start meeting our protein needs with things like soy instead.

The inciting incident is that Marcos receives a female human as a gift-slash-bribe. He’s supposed to eat her. He develops feelings for her instead, and eventually impregnates her, (ironically) a major crime. I was reminded of something I saw on Reddit. If Elmer Fudd was trying to rape Bugs Bunny, it would be horrifying. Luckily, all he’s trying to do is kill him.

This is another big moral issue: pets. We have furry animals in our homes that we consider part of our families. But on a certain level, this is more manipulation. They’re there to fill selfish emotional needs. Thousands of dogs get abandoned once they’re no longer cute puppies, and even well-cared for animals are living a life they weren’t designed for. There’s an argument that keeping a big dog in a suburban apartment is as wrong as raising a cow in a feedlot. This was the stronger side of the book for me.

They used to make these little boxes where you’d jiggle... | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

They used to make these little boxes where you’d jiggle a dial and someone’s voice would come out. The voices belonged to radio jocks, who were in constant competition for listeners. Some had smooth voices, some played the right music, others had the “local perspective”. Then, in the late 80s, they started saying naughty words.

“Shock jock” radio hit its peak in the 1990s. The usual format (used by scores of stations) was two guys with a line in outrage, dodging fines and performing increasingly outrageous stunts. It was a simple, effective storyline with ready-made heroes and villains: the plucky, scrappy radio DJs versus the big bad “management” entity that was always trying to ruin the fun. The FTC enforced strict content guidelines for public airwaves, and it was a game to see how far jocks could take edgy content. You almost had to keep tuning in: it might be the last day your favorite show was on the air.

Opie & Anthony were a shock jock duo of exceptional quality. They achieved success (in between repeated firings and cancellations) as a kind of everyman Howard Stern show, doing a mix of stunts and pranks and gross-out bits. They weren’t afraid to lampoon the radio business itself – their “Jocktober” bits were quite revealing as to how fake and constructed almost every part of a commercial talk radio show is. In their later years they transitioned to being a proto-podcast, focusing almost entirely on interviews and nonscripted content.

This new focus on personalities made something clear: one of the hosts was far more talented than the other.

Gregg “Opie” Hughes had gone to broadcasting school and knew how to push buttons and go to segues. But Anthony Cumia was a dementedly funny, with thousands of fascinating stories, a skill at impressions, and an ability to “rap” with almost anybody. He was self-destructive, prone to race-related rant, but supremely skilled at what he did.

Or as Jim Norton says:

“Regardless of the discussion, the context, the topic, Ant has the ability to reach in with perfect timing and pull out something funny. He is by far the most talented radio performer I’ve ever known, and he’s as fast as any comedian who has ever lived. I’m a great get if you nee someone to describe an old lady falling down the steps or a blumpkin joke, but Anthony can be captivatingly funny describing air-conditioning duct installation. He can walk you through every aspect of the most monotonous activities, paint a perfectly clear picture, hilariously veer left and right, and will not once stray into the territory of boring.”

Permanently Suspended: The Rise and Fall… and Rise Again of Radio’s Most Notorious Shock Jock is Anthony’s biography. Disappointingly, it has coauthors. Indeed, large sections read like one of Anthony’s broadcasts transcribed. It basically covers his life from childhood to 2017 or so, when he was hosting a show with Artie Lange (which he no longer does). I’m not sure who it’s for. Non-O&A fans won’t care. O&A fans will have heard all of these stories told before on the radio, many times. But it’s funny and fast-moving, and there are lots of photos.

I found hardscrabble early O&A years particularly interesting. Again, most of it you’ve heard, though it’s good to see Ant’s hatred for WAAF program director Dave Dickless continues unabated.

This Dave Douglas guy was always just a bug up our asses. He once said, “You know what you should do? Take a picture of who you envision as an audience member. Who do you picture? Find a magazine with a picture of someone who resembles this person you have in mind and put that picture in front of you on your mixing board. So when you’re talking into the mic, you get an image of who you’re talking to.” The fucking guy actually said this! Well, we nodded and smiled, and I couldn’t look at Opie and he couldn’t look at me at this point. We were just laughing our fucking asses off. […] Then we found a Swank magazine and cut out pictures of a woman squatting and posted the pictures. “Here’s how we picture our audience: a bunch of filthy cunts.”

The book captures Anthony’s head at a particular moment, when he’s immersed in his current gig, and that weights the book in a way I didn’t care for. Reading about a millionaire building a studio in his Long Island mansion is boring. And there’s a lot of juicy drama that he leaves out – stuff like Sue Lightning that you’d only know about from the now-banned subreddit.

Anthony has zero business skills (as he admits himself), and his career has been spent waiting for lucky breaks. But in the long run, nobody in radio was that lucky. In 2000, satellite radio emerged as a commercial force. Because it didn’t use the FTC’s airwaves, it could be completely uncensored. Everyone thought that satellite would be God’s gift to the shock jocks: instead, within a few years the format had been killed forever.

Why? It turns out that shoving a wiffle bat up a female intern’s fundamentals was never that funny (particularly when you couldn’t see it). It was interesting because you weren’t allowed to do stuff like that on the air. Once you were, the shock value disappeared, and the whole enterprise stood revealed as boring and hack.

The book is bittersweet, because it records an era disappearing into history. The mid 90s exist in a cultural gray zone of sorts: too late to be lionized like the 60s, too early to be effectively archived by the internet. Shock jockery is the kind of thing that was once everywhere, but now mainly exists in memory. Anthony Cumia is a graying part of a once-great legacy.

 

There are books that don’t sound real.

“A parable from the 70s about a seagull that wants to fly really fast. He strives day and night to set a new speed record for seagulls. The others make fun of him, but he never abandons his dream. Finally he dies and goes to heaven, where he attains perfect speed.”

Described as what it is, this book sounds like a parody of banal inspirational literature.  “The author must be a Holocaust survivor” was my thought while reading it. “Or a Guyana survivor. Or a survivor of something. That’s the only way this could have been published: on the back of the sobbiest sob story ever.” I was wrong, Richard Bach was an aviator turned technical writer, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull took wing entirely on its own merits.

There’s a thing called “irony poisoning”, where detachment is used as a weapon against criticism. “Didn’t laugh at my joke? Get bent, I never meant it to be funny.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull has the reverse problem: sincerity poisoning. It’s painfully earnest, solemn as a hymn, and blind to its own ridiculousness.

Why is the seagull called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”? Why is his surname his species? Can seagulls smile (as they do here, repeatedly)? How does he always know his exact velocity and altitude? It doesn’t even make sense to ask questions like that: the book exists in its own little world.

Sometimes this works. Bach’s story choices create a weird and dislocative mood, and you go along with Jonathan Livingston’s odd adventure. At times it approaches CS Lewis’s vision of a fairytale for grown-ups.

Other times I agree with Roger Ebert’s pan: “a book so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it.”.

One problem is that seagulls can’t actually do much. Jonathan just flies, and flies, and flies, setting pointless speed records over the ocean that nobody will document, remember or care about. This is a metaphor for following your dreams and believing in yourself (along with some Christian/Buddhist spiritualistic hippie mumblecore), but the meaninglessness of what he’s doing makes it tragicomic, not inspirational.

The book has three sections (dealing with Jonathan’s life, adventures in Heaven, and return to Earth). In 2013 it was reissued with a fourth part, which is set hundreds of years after Jonathan Livingston’s life. The flock that rejected Jonathan now reveres him as a spiritual figure, but has stifled his teachings in ritual and cant. This is satire about organized religion, and seems to have been created reactively to silence critics who found the book pointless (not so – apparently it was written concurrently with the first three). It’s more interesting, but also less sincere.

The book is slim and could have been slimmer. Photos of seagulls pad the pages. Specifics about angles of descent and wing profiles about are endlessly elaborated, to soporific effect. It’s like reading a book by an autistic child whose special interest is the airspeed of birds.

From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke. Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed. Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right. He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water. The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds — to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still. From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!

Being the world’s fastest seagull is only slightly more interesting than being the world’s fastest tapeworm, but this is the personality type the book appeals to: the pointless striver. The person who thinks that effort, in and of itself, is valorous. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the battle hymn of the illiterate “writer” with a shoebox full of manuscripts, the tone-deaf singer, the 5’2 wannabe pro basketball player, the aging LA actress who mails (ten years out-of-date) headshots to every agent in Hollywood. “Follow your dreams,” it says “no matter how unlikely success is, or how pointless success would be.” In the real world there’s a dark side to dream-following. Athletes cripple their bodies, entrepeneurs bankrupt themselves (and sometimes their families), naifs are exploited by scammers and grifters. Sometimes it is both good and necessary for a dream to end, and the book doesn’t confront that possibility. Jonathan Livingston only wins. He wins so much he gets tired of winning. He barrel-rolls past every obstacle, breaking even the laws of physics, proving every doubter wrong. It’s a shot of wish fulfilment pornography, both endearing and toxic. It takes twenty minutes to read and might ruin your life.