Who Gets to Be a Genius? A Reading List

If you Google “Constance Fenimore Woolson,” the top item is her Wikipedia page. The second is an excerpt of a book about the author Henry James.

I hadn’t heard of Woolson until recently. She’s the subject of a new biography by Anne Boyd Roux, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady NovelistTo herald her new biography, a collection of Woolson’s short stories has been published, too.

Until now, Woolson has been an interesting, tragic anecdote in the lives of others. She’s the alleged inspiration for the Lady in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Never mind that she was an accomplished writer in her own right or a world traveler.

I like calling Woolson “CFW.” It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s oft-used nickname, and Wallace is one of those names people gesture at emphatically when they toss out the words “literary genius.” I like sneaking Woolson into the lit boys’ club.

DFW aside, the concept of “Genius” has been abused. Sexual harassment and rape, entitlement and rudeness—these are all excused in the face of “great” art. How do we live with the tension between a movie that makes us cry with joy and its douchebag creator? Or a favorite book, written by a man who committed his wife to an insane asylum when she got to be too much trouble? Why does it often take decades, even centuries, for work by women to be “discovered” and appreciated? I don’t know, but I think each of these pieces gets at an aspect of these questions.

1. “‘Constance Fenimore Woolson’ Gives 19th Century Novelist Second Look.” (Amy Gentry, Chicago Tribune, February 2016)

It would be silly for me not to include (one of the only) reviews of Anne Boyd Roux’s biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, and writer Amy Gentry does an excellent job of summing up the double standards Woolson faced in her lifetime.

2. “Srsly.” (Sarah Mesle, LARB, November 2014)

Sarah Mesle uses her review of Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre to analyze the sexist bent of “Genius with a capital G”—that there is opportunity to use modern communications (texting) or “unserious” mediums (Twitter) to dismantle patriarchal grandstanding:

Genius, of course, is not necessarily male, but Ortberg’s work makes us realize the extent to which the idea of genius — let’s mark it as Genius with a capital G — remains strangely masculinized; strikingly available to men regardless of their actual talent…

Ortberg dismantles Male Genius so effectively that she allows her readers to create an imaginative space outside of male seriousness; this is her appeal. In the space she creates, Male Genius is not so much a powerful symbolic order as a self-involved and bumbling habit, one that we might easily leave by the snack table while we get on with the more serious business of living dynamic creative lives.

3. “The Difference Maker: Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Women in Tech.” (Molly McArdle, Grantland, January 2015)

To combat the concept of the tech bro, there must be a tech sisterhood. Tech history is not a chain of command, it’s a crazy quilt — no machine is ever really built by one person alone. It would be a mistake to consider Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper as just lone geniuses — the same way it is a mistake to think that way of the men. But they are two avatars of importance for women in tech — the proof that natural talent knows no type.

4. “Quaint Interviews: Madame Clairevoyant on Anti-Genius.” (Soleil Ho, Quaint Magazine, December 2014)

“Shit-talking from a place of love” with Claire Comstock-Gay, fiction writer and creator of the Anti-Genius school of thought.

5. “In Your Own Image.” (Anna Fitzpatrick, Rookie, May 2013)

Anna Fitzpatrick decries the misplaced accusations of narcissism that plague female creatives: “If you’re a guy who makes stuff and you tend to be oblivious to the needs of others because you are obsessed with the inner workings of your own mind, people will call you a genius. A woman with these qualities is more likely to be called crazymonstrous, an attention whore.

from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/28/who-gets-to-be-a-genius-a-reading-list/


The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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* * *

1. A South Florida Boxing Rivalry Leads to Cold-Blooded Murder

Tim Elfrink | Miami New Times | Feb. 23, 2016 | 20 minutes (5,237 words)

A rivalry between two boxers becomes a one-sided case study in obsession and jealousy, culminating in a fatal bullet wound. Elfrink relays both men’s stories in the wider context of South Florida’s boxing history.

2. The Real Story of Germanwings Flight 9525

Joshua Hammer | GQ | Feb. 22, 2016 | 23 minutes (5,859 words)

Last year, a young pilot crashed an airliner into the French Alps, killing the crew and 144 passengers. Hammer investigates how it happened.

3. We Are Hopelessly Hooked

Jacob Weisberg | New York Review of Books | Feb. 25, 2016 | 16 minutes (4,200 words)

Smartphone use has grown faster than any other consumer technology in history. But has our transformation into “device people” corroded our humanity?

4. How Mark Zuckerberg Should Give Away $45 Billion

Michael Hobbes | Huffington Post | Feb. 25, 2016 | 22 minutes (5,697 words)

A thoughtful essay on effective philanthropy.

5. H.

Sarah Resnick | n+1 | Feb. 22, 2016 | 45 minutes (11,340 words)

A powerful essay on heroin and harm-reduction that centers on the author’s relationship with her uncle, who is a recovering addict and long-term methadone user.

from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/26/the-top-5-longreads-of-the-week-106/

When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman

Chris Jennings | Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism | Random House | January 2016 | 29 minutes (7,852 words)

Below is an excerpt from Paradise Now, Chris Jennings’ look at the history of the golden age of American utopianism, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. 

* * *

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at… .


Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

At noon, darkness spread across the sky. It was the nineteenth of May 1780, a Friday. On the rolling pastureland of western New England, sheep and cows lay down one by one in the damp grass. As the darkness became total, finches and warblers quieted and returned to their roosts. Above the white pines and budding oaks, bats stirred. Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

The fratricidal war for American independence was grinding into its fifth year. A week earlier, the Continental army had surrendered the smoldering port of Charleston to the British navy after more than a month of heavy shelling. In New England, with so many young men off fighting, gardens went unplanted and the wheat grew thin.

For many colonists the war with Great Britain aroused a stolid nationalist piety, a consoling faith in “the sacred cause of liberty”—the belief that providence would guide the rebels to victory and that the fighting itself constituted an appeal to heaven. But in the hilly borderland between New York and Massachusetts, the anxiety and austerity of the long conflict inspired frenzied revival meetings. This was the New Light Stir, an aftershock of the Great Awakening of radical Protestantism that had coursed through New England in the 1740s. From makeshift pulpits, the New Light evangelists shouted an urgent millenarian message: These are the Latter Days; the Kingdom is at hand.

Standing at the crack of American independence, these backwoods Yankees believed that they were living the final hours of history. It is written: He will come back and the righteous will be delivered from sin for a thousand years of earthly peace and happiness. The New Lights believed that the time had come and that their small revivals, held in fields and cowsheds, would trigger the return of Christ and the millennium of heaven on earth. Looking up from their plows and their milking stools, these hill-country farmers scanned the horizon for signs of His approach.

* * *

Nobody could say for sure when or if the blackness would pass and the light return.

In this atmosphere of millennial anticipation—days of “war and rumors of war”—the sudden midday blackness was an indisputable sign of the times. As New England and eastern New York were plunged into total darkness, nervous farmers lit smoky, fat-smelling candles just to eat their lunch or read a few lines of scripture. Lacking telegraphy, they were left to assume that the unnatural darkness had enveloped the whole globe. “People [came] out wringing their hands and howling, ‘the Day of Judgment is come,’ ” recalled a young rebel fifer. Nobody could say for sure when or if the blackness would pass and the light return.

A doctor in New Hampshire tried to get an empirical grip on the situation. “A sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes,” he wrote by candlelight, “was equally invisible with the blackest velvet.” Others turned to familiar stories for illumination. The black sky echoed the plague of darkness that God summoned over pharaoh’s Egypt. Or it was a reprise of the midday eclipse that supposedly occurred while Christ hung suffering on Calvary. Even in the rational precincts of the Connecticut legislature, the sudden blackness stirred apocalyptic thinking. When the darkness forced the House of Representatives in Hartford to adjourn, Colonel Abraham Davenport stayed at his desk and asked that candles be brought into the statehouse. If the Day of Judgment was at hand, he said, he wished to be found at his work.

Near dawn the next day, the moon finally came out. A day past full, it shone red.

* * *

She told the men that the millennium…had already begun.

A month before the darkness, Talmadge Bishop and Reuben Wright, a pair of New Light revivalists from New Lebanon, New York, were walking west along a wooded footpath just north of Albany. Passing through a remote territory known as Niskeyuna, they happened upon a low, boggy homestead. Hoping to rest their feet and cadge some food, they knocked on the door of the rough, two-story cabin. Inside, they were surprised to discover a crowd: five men and seven women, living together in the small building. These were the Shaking Quakers, a raggedy sect from Manchester, England, gathered around a short, forty-four-year-old mystic named Ann Lee.

Lee, whom her followers addressed as “Mother,” invited the travelers in. Bishop and Wright lived nearby, but they had never heard any mention of these people. The Shakers had been in the area for six years, but they had maintained a low profile. They had good reason. The Hudson River, which linked British-controlled Canada and the forts of the Adirondacks to the vital port in New York City, was of great strategic importance. The surrounding Hudson Valley was a hotbed of royalist counterrevolution. Improvised rebel militias were on hair-trigger guard against Tory sabotage. It was a dangerous place to have your commitment to the Revolution questioned. In this paranoid atmosphere, Lee and her followers had kept their eccentric faith and Mancunian accents to themselves.

The Shakers fed the two travelers while Mother Ann explained her unusual gospel. She told the men that the millennium they and other New Lights had been furiously calling down from heaven had already begun. Its promised life of sinless perfection was free for the taking.

The next morning, Bishop and Wright hurried back across the Hudson to New Lebanon. They brought their tale of an ethereal, blue-eyed woman living in the wilderness to their minister, a popular New Light revivalist named Joseph Meacham. Meacham, a tall, grave young man who had left the Baptist Church to preach the new millenarian faith, had been leading revival meetings in New Lebanon for most of the past year. In the barn of a wealthy convert, he would whip his congregation to great heights of spiritual excitement. As he called out the good news of the coming paradise and the need for immediate surrender to the Holy Spirit, his audience trembled, stamped their feet in the straw, and let loose flurries of glossolalia.

The kinetic enthusiasm of Meacham’s revival could not hold. His message, like the message of other revivalists throughout New York and New England, was one of bated anticipation: Paradise or Apocalypse is imminent. But nothing happened. The fall of 1779 closed into winter; winter opened onto spring; and still the world had not ended. The New Lights had been primed for cataclysm: fire from the sky, the Son of Man swinging a golden sword, the descent of the holy city of New Jerusalem. Instead, the long, hard days of spring planting started up again. Having screamed their millenarian faith until they were hoarse, many New Lights felt adrift.

After hearing Bishop and Wright’s account of the woman called Mother, Meacham dispatched his friend Calvin Harlow to investigate. A few days later, Harlow returned to New Lebanon, spellbound. Meacham himself then set out on foot for Niskeyuna. And that is when the sky went black.

* * *

Mother Ann… . inspired wave upon wave of Americans to come, as they liked to say, ‘out of the World.’

In her cabin in Niskeyuna, Ann Lee interpreted the “Egyptian darkness” as a divine signal that the time had come to open her gospel to the people of the New World. When Meacham walked up the trail, Lee greeted him warmly. She said she had been expecting him.

Sitting with Shakers in their cramped cabin, Meacham quizzed them about their claim to have discovered the true nature of salvation. Had they really triumphed over sin? How was it possible that they were led, against the unambiguous teachings of Saint Paul, by a woman? Something in the serene eloquence of their responses convinced Meacham that he was among a godly people. He converted that day. Mother Ann anointed him her “first-born son in America.”

Following the lead of their impressive young pastor, other New Lights from across the Hudson made the trip to Niskeyuna to sit with Lee. They came from New Lebanon and also from the nearby Massachusetts towns of Pittsfield and Hancock. After six years of living in poverty and obscurity, the Shakers opened their small home to all comers.

Within a decade, thousands of Americans regarded Ann Lee, the scrawny daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, as the Second Coming of Christ. Eventually, more than twenty thousand people across much of the United States would live in the society she founded. The vision Mother Ann offered them, of an immaculate New World Zion—an austere, celibate, communistic paradise—inspired wave upon wave of Americans to come, as they liked to say, “out of the World.”

The opening of the Shaker gospel in the weeks after what came to be called the Dark Day represents the start of a remarkable chapter in the history of the United States: a long, sunny season of American utopianism.

* * *

Thus in the beginning, all the world was America.

The dream of utopia is eternal. We walk through this world imagining another, better existence. Sometimes that perfected life is thought to be waiting on the far side of death, or on a remote island, or in the green shade of prehistory. Sometimes we imagine a flawless society right here, just a few years hence. Occasionally, people set their vision in brick and mortar—they frame the buildings of utopia, write out its customs, furnish its rooms, and try to move in.

No moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. Countless people on both sides of the Atlantic believed that a new and wondrous society was about to take form in the American wilderness. It was a time when the imminence of paradise seemed reasonable to reasonable people.

This surge of utopian energy came out of the confluence of two ideas, one mystical and ancient, one rational and modern. The first is the Judeo-Christian proposition that history is bookended by golden ages. In the beginning, God planted a garden in the East. And with it was planted the half-remembered dream of a bountiful, property-free existence in the orchards of Paradise, a life uncorrupted by capitalism, technology, or even pants. Scriptural history begins in a garden, but it ends in a metropolis—the gleaming, prefab city of New Jerusalem that God will lower down to us at the time of the millennium, the thousand-year reign of heaven on earth. All human existence—history, time, suffering—is just the hard distance between these two utopias, a long but finite exile from paradise.

The second idea, dating back to the seventeenth century, is that the human race is advancing ineluctably toward a perfection of our own making. The intellectual triumphs of the Enlightenment—Newtonian physics, astronomy, rationalism, chemistry—all seemed to point toward the possibility that the universe is one big mechanism, as elegant and soluble as an equation. Thanks to the scientific method and the semi-miraculous power of Reason, humankind will eventually discover the obscure but predictable calculus—the science—beneath every phenomenon, even the muddled scrum of human affairs. A genuine science of society will not just be descriptive, telling us when and why people act the way they do, it will allow us to change how people act, to fix every social problem. The basic assumption was this: As knowledge deepens and old superstitions fade, the world will become more comfortable, more just, and more happy. Progress without end, amen.

This impression of endless and inevitable progress had particular force during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Republicanism had taken firm root in the New World, and it was starting to germinate in western Europe. New technologies of mass production augured a future in which scarcity would become a dim legend. New ideas crossed the globe with startling speed. To many, it felt as though history itself, like a hot-fired steam engine, were gathering momentum.


Shakers dancing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

For horizon-scanning millenarians, this same sense of historical velocity and the uneasiness that was its constant attendant fueled the impression that things were coming to a head, that the End was nigh. Some combined the two strands of thought. The new faith in limitless, human-driven progress merged with the old faith in an imminent golden age. Perhaps human genius—manifested in new ideas, buildings, machines, and social institutions—would be the lever by which the millennium of fraternity and abundance was activated. New Jerusalem was coming, but it would not be winched down from above. It would be built from the ground up, by planners and engineers.

In Europe, this type of thinking was amplified by the vast, silent presence of the North American continent. Looking west across the Atlantic, European visionaries saw a wide-open wilderness, sparsely populated and loosely governed by liberal institutions. Through the rosy lens of millenarian optimism, the New World looked like a blank slate, blessedly removed from the ancient tangle of European principalities and churches. On the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald called it, any future might be inscribed. This sense of a clean start was woven into the keenest hopes of the American Revolution. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.”

The notion that history, like the sun, travels east to west has been around since the Middle Ages. Under this theory, civilization began in the East (in “a garden eastward in Eden”) and has been westering steadily across the face of the earth toward some unknown apocalypse. This view of things had obvious appeal to theologians and cartographers perched on the western limit of the known world. Later, when people began to suspect that the earth is a globe, some claimed that the End would come when we arrived back at the location of the beginning, when some Christian explorer macheted his way through the jungle and arrived back at the Tree of Life. This was certainly Captain Columbus’s view as he probed the eastern fringe of the New World in search of Eden. The presence of a large indigenous population only added to this European impression of Edenic innocence. Even for those who did not see North America as the literal historic location of Paradise—and there were plenty who did—the virginal continent seemed inherently Edenic. Sailing west from Liverpool was like traveling back in time. “Thus in the beginning,” wrote John Locke in 1690, “all the world was America.”

To people steeped in this conception of time and space, the New World in the West looked to be the inevitable staging ground for the final dispensation of history. Many early Anglo settlers sincerely believed that North America, conveniently hidden from Christendom until the Reformation had gained traction, was destined to be ground zero for the millennium.

In the nineteenth century, secular-minded Europeans took a surprisingly similar view. They claimed that the final chapter of history, the top rung on the ladder of progress, would play out in the New World. In Berlin, Hegel lectured that the United States was “the land of the future.” It was there that “the burden of world history shall reveal itself.” North America was not just an expanse of plains and mountains; it was a messiah made of land: the locus and guarantor of all redemption. The most optimistic observers hoped that post-Enlightenment man, with all of his newfound cleverness—his sudden zeal for steam engines, hygienic tenements, the scientific method, and equality—finally had a chance to get things right, to build paradise.

* * *

Friendly whales will tow our ships.

The spread and evolution of these ideas can be tracked through the rise and fall of five communalist movements that flourished during the busy golden age of American utopianism. These groups do not represent the sum total of that era’s utopian experimentation, let alone American utopianism in general. At least one hundred experimental communities were founded in the United States during the nineteenth century and countless more since. But, taken together, these five interconnected groups represent the high-water mark of an intellectual impulse that has flowed through the American experiment since day one, an impulse that may now be near its lowest ebb.

The idea of a New World utopia was born in the fever dream of religious revelation and the waking nightmare of early industrialization. Led by the prophet Ann Lee, the Shakers decided that the Second Coming had already happened and that it was up to them to build the perfect earthly society: a whitewashed stronghold for the dawning millennium. To construct their Zion—a federation of tidy, communistic villages—the Shakers invented a new type of society from scratch, scorning the most fundamental and sacrosanct building blocks of Western civilization. In Zion there would be no property, no family, no sex. Women and men would be equal. Labor would be worship. And the individual would dissolve entirely into the collective.

By the 1820s, the Shakers had established prosperous villages throughout most of the settled regions of the United States. Inspired by their success, secular utopians took up the idea that small, planned communities might be the ideal mechanism with which to remake the world. In 1824, the Welsh socialist and textile magnate Robert Owen, a student and admirer of the Shakers, came to the Indiana frontier. In the village of New Harmony, Owen hoped to build a rationalist, communist utopia that he called the New Moral World. He would raise a “parallelogram,” a palatial building in which thousands of people of every class could live and work in peace, abundance, and total equality. At New Harmony and a dozen smaller communities, the Owenites hoped to prove that property and religion were all that stood between humanity and a glorious future in a man-made paradise.

In 1840, a decade after the dramatic collapse of Owen’s grand experiment, with the Republic in the doldrums of its first major depression, a New Yorker named Albert Brisbane began publicizing the doctrines of the French social theorist Charles Fourier. Like the Shakers and the Owenites, Fourier believed that the road to paradise lay in the establishment of small, cooperative villages. Fourier claimed that the right kinds of social institutions could unleash the powerful forces of human passion and usher humanity toward its true destiny: an orgiastic global utopia that he called Harmony. To hasten the ascent into Harmony, Fourier proposed building enormous complexes called “phalansteries,” in which groups of precisely 1,620 people would live and work. Like Owen’s parallelogram and the Bible’s New Jerusalem, Fourier’s phalanstery was essentially an entire city contained in a single building, a high-tech Versailles for the people. Once the era of Harmony commenced, Fourier prophesied, every human impulse, even the most taboo sexual predilection, will be satisfied and rendered productive. Abundance will prevail; mosquitoes will go extinct; friendly whales will tow our ships; and the oceans, tinctured by “boreal fluid” from the melting arctic icecap, will taste like lemonade. Fourier’s ideas, broadcast daily on the front page of the New-York Tribune, the country’s bestselling newspaper, spread fast. By the end of the 1840s, twenty-nine Fourierist “phalanxes” had been founded in the United States. Most were half-cocked, underfunded ventures that folded quickly. Others fared better. The longest lived was the North American Phalanx in New Jersey. The most famous was the Brook Farm Phalanx in Massachusetts, home to some of the illuminati of the New England literary renaissance.


Charles Fourier’s Phalanstére. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1848, as the Fourierist phalanxes were falling apart and Europe erupted with republican uprisings, a fresh infusion of French utopianism arrived in the Port of New Orleans under the leadership of a Parisian radical named Étienne Cabet. In the mid-1840s, Cabet, known to his devoted followers as “Papa,” was the leading communist in France. He preached a mystical strain of socialism in which Christ was celebrated as the first communist. The artisans who formed his base of support called themselves “Icarians” after the fictional people described in Travels in Icaria, Cabet’s hugely successful utopian romance novel. Under Cabet’s semimessianic leadership, several hundred French Icarians crossed the Atlantic to build the techno-communist utopia of Icaria in the Trinity River valley of east Texas, where Robert Owen had helped them secure cheap land. The community in Texas ended in disaster, but the determined Icarians went on to build colonies in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and California.

While the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, and Icarians all had intellectual roots in Europe, the most remarkable and, by many measures, the most successful utopian venture in United States history was entirely homegrown. New York’s Oneida Community thrived for three decades under the brilliant and mostly benign autocracy of John Humphrey Noyes, a Dartmouth- and Yale-educated prophet of “Perfectionism,” “Bible Communism,” and free love. Like the Shakers, the Perfectionists believed that the prophesied millennium had already commenced, that they were freed from sin, and that it was up to them to commence building the perfect earthly society. To do so, they discarded institutions they deemed anti-Christian, such as the nuclear family, monogamy, and private property. Underwritten by several highly successful manufacturing enterprises, the Perfectionists lived a comfortable, intellectually rich life in a sprawling brick mansion in the spiritually turbulent Burned-over District of central New York. While earlier utopians often stumbled over their own rigid visions of the perfect society, Noyes and his followers lived in a state of constant social experimentation. To avoid the pitfalls of their forebears, the Perfectionists studied the strengths and follies of the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and others. On their beautifully manicured estate they championed gender equality, a novel form of birth control, and a unique method of group therapy. They also practiced “complex marriage,” a carefully regulated system by which almost any woman in the community could have sex with almost any man. In their final decade, they initiated a program of eugenics to breed the ultimate citizen, the perfect Perfectionist for the dawning millennium.

* * *

Industrial capitalism… . seemed, to them, to lay waste to everything in its path while offering as its sole compensation cheap goods and a few private fortunes.

These five groups were guided by five different visions of utopia, yet they generally regarded one another as fellow travelers. They exchanged letters, newspapers, and visits. From time to time, Owenites became Shakers; Fourierists moved to Icaria; or Perfectionists joined Fourierist phalanxes. Despite their divergent views on sex, pleasure, and religion, they mostly shared a basic set of (then) radical values that put them at odds with the ascendant values of Jacksonian America. They all believed that men and women are more or less equal, that financial competition is morally corrosive, and that material equality is a precondition of a just society. To their fellow citizens, the various utopians looked to be part of a single, loosely defined movement. More significant, they all shared the basic premise of utopianism: that the society in which they lived required a total overhaul. Utopianism may be a species of optimism, but it is always born of discontent. Every utopia, whether it remains on the page or takes shape in brick and mortar, reveals the anxieties and disappointments of its author(s). “The great utopians,” wrote the historians Frank and Fritzie Manuel, “have all borne witness to their anger at the world, their disgust with society.”

Utopia is diagnostic. Suffering yields hope, and each particular shade of hope is colored by the particulars of the suffering. The plow-broken serf places his utopia on the rock-candy mountain, where hammocks swing between sandwich trees and rivers run with beer. The harried, well-fed urbanite puts her utopia in an arcadia of primitive farmwork. The nineteenth-century utopians shared a common anxiety about the rising specter of industrial capitalism, a then novel system that seemed, to them, to lay waste to everything in its path while offering as its sole compensation cheap goods and a few private fortunes. Rather than blaming technology itself, the utopians sought to hitch the remarkable new engines of mass production to a higher purpose. They could not believe that something as unsavory—for many of them, as irreligious—as competition was going to be the foundation of modern society. They refused to accept that “Cash Payment,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1843, was destined to be “the sole nexus of man with man.”

The various utopians all agreed that society was rotten and that for the first time in history, the means to perfect it—through human ingenuity, divine providence, or both—were at hand. Even more than the scale of their ambition, the thing that set them apart from the other reformers of their day, the thing that really earns them the designation utopian, was their method. Rather than trying to improve the world in any of the usual ways—through electoral politics, prayer, propaganda, civil disobedience, armed insurrection—they intended to catalyze a global revolution by building a working prototype of the ideal society. Once a model of the new system is up and running, they believed, its example will be so compelling that it will be replicated ad infinitum. In short order, the new system will blanket the earth, spread entirely by the force of its own evident perfection. As the Owenite turned anarchist Josiah Warren wrote, the new ideas “only needed to be seen in their beautiful and consistent symmetry to be at once approved and adopted.” This was how the utopians intended to trigger the man-made millennium. “The only practical difficulty,” wrote Robert Owen, “will be to restrain men from rushing too precipitously” into the new paradise.

* * *

The very specific belief that small communistic societies could trigger a new and perfected existence across the entire globe.

The word utopian, when used in reference to communal experimentation, is partly a matter of style. As Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, you know it when you see it. The usual roster of American utopias is long and shifting, encompassing everything from small, back-to-the-land hippie communes to artists’ colonies to architectural experiments to austere sects of religious separatists. The five movements chronicled here fit within a narrower definition. The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneida Perfectionists all labored under the very specific belief that small communistic societies could trigger a new and perfected existence across the entire globe. While these communities often resembled their less ambitious counterparts, their hopes, and therefore their rhetoric, set them apart. They did not wish merely to take leave of a fallen world or retreat into a pious enclave. They intended to lead the charge into a new and wholly transformed future.


Round Shaker barn. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This narrower, grander definition of the term utopian comes mostly from those tireless coiners of terminology Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They used the designation utopian-socialist to classify a group of thinkers who preceded them historically and whose socialism they found fundamentally bourgeois (because its aspirations were the aspirations of the bourgeois and because it depended upon the largesse of private donors). To populate this dubious intellectual category, Marx and Engels named names: Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet. Marx and Engels sought to distinguish the theories of these “utopian socialists” from their own brand of self-styled “scientific socialism.” Mocking Fourier, Owen, and Cabet in a single breath, The Communist Manifesto memorably scoffs at the “dream of … founding isolated [Fourierist] ‘phalansteres,’ of establishing [Owenite] ‘Home Colonies,’ of setting up [Cabet’s] ‘Little Icaria’—duodecima editions of the New Jerusalem—and to realize all these castles in the air they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.” Beneath this condescension was a grudging respect, evidenced by the great quantity of ink that Marx and Engels spent upon their analysis of utopian socialism. They granted that the utopians had accurately diagnosed society’s chief ailments—economic competition and private ownership of the means of production—and correctly determined that an extreme cure was required. Besides, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote about the relationship between Team Marx and the utopians, “Even revolutionaries like to have ancestors.”

* * *

A certain type of observer even seems to find reassurance in their failure.

Today, when these castles in the air warrant mention it is usually to underscore the extravagant “enthusiasms” of the middle nineteenth century. The utopians are remembered as little more than the crazy froth at the crest of a general wave of Jacksonian optimism. The sheer scale and folly of their expectations—the wrongheadedness of Owen’s geometric paradise or Fourier’s lemonade sea—are indeed baffling. We occupy the future about which they dreamed and we can plainly see that it looks nothing like their imaginings. A certain type of observer even seems to find reassurance in their failure: those self-proclaimed realists who keep watch over every sally into utopia, awaiting the moment when, as Mary McCarthy put it, “some practical joker … called ‘human nature’ ” shows up to spoil the picnic.

Yet the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools. To be sure, in an era thick with cranks and faddists, the utopias sheltered more than their share. But the majority of the communitarians were intelligent, hardworking people. They came from every denomination and every social class. Significantly, unlike the utopian communalists of other eras, they were not primarily young people. They were blacksmiths and farmers, journalists and lawyers, tailors and scientists, teachers and clergymen. A few of them were among the most articulate and prescient reformers of their day. After their respective sojourns in utopia, many went on to illustrious careers elsewhere. They may have been dreamers, but they did their dreaming out loud, with their dollars, their arms, and their time. They tried to manifest their impractical visions with great practical skill.

* * *

They bought too much land and went bankrupt; they bought too little land and went bankrupt.

It is not news that they failed. If they hadn’t, we would be living in a communist paradise, flying about in Icarian hot-air balloons or spending four-day weekends at grand, state-organized Fourierist orgies. The immediate reasons for their failure are mostly mundane. They bought too much land and went bankrupt; they bought too little land and went bankrupt; their buildings burned down; they got so rich that they feared letting in new members. Often the children of the founding generation wanted to see something else of the world. Sometimes the communards quarreled over doctrine. Sometimes they simply got sick of one another. The close quarters and shared chores of rural communalism make equanimity difficult. As the trustees of the doomed Nashoba Community learned, “That which produces in the world only common-place jealousies and every-day squabbles, is sufficient to destroy a community.”

Mostly they failed because the utopians ceased to believe that paradise was waiting for them just around the corner. Breaking ground in the wilderness and building a new society from zero is incredibly hard work. As long as the colonists believed that their dream might be realized, they labored with heroic energy, gladly bearing immense hardships. At their best, they worked with an inspiring sense of solidarity, laboring, as Étienne Cabet wrote, “as one man, afire with dedication and enthusiasm.” When the faith slipped, the wind spilled from their sails.

These serial failures have become the most potent legacy of the communal utopias. Many observers read the history of experimental utopianism as one long cautionary tale, told in a series of dismally repetitive chapters, about the hazards of radical adventurism. The failure of the nineteenth-century utopians to produce even one enduring society cannot be ignored, but neither is it the whole story. Questions about why these communities formed in the first place and what they were like during their relatively brief lives can be just as instructive as the mechanics of their ultimate self-destruction.

* * *

My ears hear them driving, thick and fast, nails into the coffin of despotism.

For better or worse, the utopian visionary sets out to remake the world by reordering life’s most basic features. The base unit of utopian thinking is not the individual or even the community; it is the day. One of the most consistent features of utopian literature is the description of the typical citizen’s typical day—a blow-by-blow accounting of how he or she wakes up, eats breakfast, dresses, rides to work aboard some newfangled conveyance, and so on. The experimental utopians (as opposed to those who simply wrote utopian fiction) were not much different. While they spoke of abstract virtues such as Equality and Peace and Brotherhood, the distinctive appeal of their visions was in the details.

As it happened, few of the nineteenth-century utopian colonies looked anything like what their citizens had hoped for. They set out to raise granite palaces and feast on peach cobbler; they often ended up with drafty shacks, hard labor, and cold beans. Yet even when life within utopia looked just as shabby as life in that place they invariably called “the World,” it felt extremely different. Within the communal utopias, when things were going well and the sun was shining, the most quotidian tasks were imbued with a sense of high purpose and historical consequence.

In 1844, on a summer afternoon at the Trumbull Phalanx, a Fourierist community in the wilds of eastern Ohio, a young Oberlin grad named Nathan Meeker took stock of his new home:

Seating myself in the venerable orchard, with the temporary dwellings on the opposite side, the joiners at their benches in their open shops under the green boughs, and hearing on every side the sound of industry, the roll of wheels in the mills, and merry voices, I could not help exclaiming mentally: Indeed my eyes see men making haste to free the slave of all names, nations and tongues, and my ears hear them driving, thick and fast, nails into the coffin of despotism. I can but look on the establishment of this phalanx as a step of as much importance as any which secured our political independence; and much greater than that which gained the Magna Charta, the foundation of English liberty.

Looking upon the most ordinary scene of village life—a dusty orchard, a gristmill, men swinging hammers—Nathan Meeker saw the earth shifting on its axis. His impression may be hyperbolic, but it captures the daily experience of many utopians: a sense of actively transforming the world, of living on the cusp of an incandescent future.

The spirit of improvisation that prevailed within these communities charged life with extraordinary creativity. The utopians were in the business of reinventing society from the ground up, and they left no flaw or inconvenience unturned. Along with a flurry of radical social institutions, they produced dozens of new inventions: the flat broom, the lazy Susan, the clothespin, a new mop ringer, a hernia truss, motorized washing machines, a new mousetrap, vacuum-sealed cans, the circular saw, cut nails, a superior animal trap, a cheese press, a corn cutter, a pea sheller, an elastic women’s sneaker, and new types of barns and houses. Almost every community designed some new type of costume, usually one that liberated female colonists from the suffocating garb of the Victorian era. Whatever truth there is in the axiom that communism suppresses innovation, the long list of marketable inventions to come out of the communistic utopian colonies offers a strong counterpoint.

* * *

One young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the ‘chilling cordiality of the world.’

Along with this invigorating sense of creativity, the citizens of the small utopias tended to have much more fun than the people living beyond their fences. Except for the Shakers, who felt theologically compelled toward tranquility outside of their raucous prayer meetings, most of these communities kept up a dizzying schedule of contra dances, lectures, card games, séances, philosophical debates, cotillions, history lectures, picnics, stargazing expeditions, concerts, plays, tableaux vivants, boating trips, berry-picking outings, ice-skating parties, quilting bees, fishing trips, baseball games, oyster suppers, and croquet tournaments.

All of this took place at a time when rural Americans often went months without seeing a nonrelation. When the British journalist Frances Trollope (mother of novelist Anthony) came upon a rural western homestead in 1832, the woman working the stove told her, “I expect the sun will rise and set a hundred times before I shall see another human that does not belong to the family.” By contrast, the utopians sat down to supper each afternoon with more than a hundred people. And while most Americans, even in big cities, seldom conversed with people outside of their class or denomination, the utopians lived intimately and in (theoretical) equality with people of every class and creed, although not every race. African Americans were mostly absent from these communities. This jumble of experience and opinion produced predictable tensions, but it also bred intellectual excitement and an enduring liberalism.


Shaker dance. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When the end inevitably came, some utopians returned to the World with a sense of relief, exhausted by the thousand small frustrations of clumsily enforced equality. Others were sick with disappointment. For a great many, their years spent living “in association,” as they said, would be remembered as the highlight of their lives: a merry springtide of intellectual ferment, pleasure, and hope. For many, the end came like a casting out. After the Brook Farm Phalanx disbanded, one young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the “chilling cordiality of the world” or “feel contented again with the life of isolated houses, and the conventions of civilization.”

* * *

Influential utopian novels… . are seldom read, let alone written, anymore, yet we require fifteen-year-olds to spend their holidays underlining paperbacks of Brave New World and 1984.

Today, thinking grandly about the future is regarded as a sin in and of itself. Calling a proposal “utopian” is among the more routine slurs on Capitol Hill. The supposed end of history—with the laurels for “final form of human government” going to Western liberal democracy—has been trumpeted for at least three decades. The prevailing view on both the left and the right is that the current state of affairs, while far from ideal, is better than the hazards inherent in trying to make things too much better. Not long before his death, the historian Tony Judt wrote that the task of today’s intellectuals and political philosophers “is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones.” At best, American politics, in both rhetoric and practice, is concerned with finding the least bad version of the status quo—the prevailing assumption being that what we have is well enough and well enough ought to be left alone. Tocqueville saw this coming in 1835: “I cannot overcome my fear that men may come to the point of looking upon every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a vexing disturbance, and every sign of social progress as a first step toward revolution.”

Literature is a sensitive indicator of utopian sentiment. The shift in attitude from the 1840s to today can be tracked in the library. Influential utopian novels of the kind written by Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Étienne Cabet, or Edward Bellamy are seldom read, let alone written, anymore, yet we require fifteen-year-olds to spend their holidays underlining paperbacks of Brave New World and 1984, chilling visions of utopia run amuck. Dystopian blockbusters dominate the summer box office. When utopia is not depicted as soul crushing, it is farce. Laurel and Hardy’s late, second-rate film Utopia (1951) nails the modern view of utopia as fool’s errand. When the fat man and the thin man set out to build paradise on a remote island, their naive fantasy is overrun with slapstick venality. (Their island, the world discovers, sits atop a uranium mother lode.) The cumulative moral is precise: Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making.

One reason that history does not look kindly upon the utopians of the nineteenth century is that they trafficked in extreme, absolutist visions of the future. Today, we have ample reason to recoil from such visions. Many of the darkest episodes of the twentieth century—the Thousand-Year Reich, Soviet gulags, the Khmer killing fields—were born of utopian and millenarian ideologies. Regardless of the details, we now flinch at the notion that there is one specific way in which the world ought to be arranged. This reflex is well justified. Again and again, collectively held visions of paradise have been used to justify systems of terror and repression.

Surprisingly, the American utopians of the nineteenth century and the European visionaries who inspired them shared our post-twentieth century fears about the hazards of revolutionary social change. Owen, Cabet, and Fourier were all intimately aware of the darkest and most utopian episodes of the French Revolution. While their Jacobin comrades descended into paranoid, self-consuming terror, the communal utopians tried to take a different road to a similar, although not identical, paradise. They hoped that discrete experimental communities would demonstrate—to worker, boss, and baron—the obvious superiority of an egalitarian society. For their faith in the basic decency of the rich and powerful, the utopians were derided by the next generation of radicals as terminally bourgeois. Rather than exerting influence incrementally through politics and propaganda, or instantly through insurrection, the utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example—to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.

Although it surely did not feel this way to them, theirs was a relatively low-stakes method of reform. If the scheme fails, the corrupt old world will always be right where you left it, just outside the gates. For the utopian vision to spread beyond the seminal prototype, it must prove itself. As Albert Brisbane, the leading American Fourierist, put it, the new order will take hold only “when practice has shown its superiority over the present system.” In utopia, size makes all the difference. When Brook Farm collectivized agriculture and sent the intellectuals out to mow wheat, the results were goofy and edifying. When Mao Tse-tung tried the same trick, forty million starved.

* * *

An Age of Reason in a patty-pan.

Because of their small scale and grand ambitions, these communities offer an unusually clear window onto the practical working out of various social theories. Every community, utopian or not, is composed of notions about how people ought to live together. The state, Hegel wrote, is the ethical idea made actual. But on the scale of nations and empires, those actualized ideas are submerged in an obscuring bath of time and happenstance. A political notion—say, democracy—is animated within the history of a democratic state, but only under the influence of countless personalities and externalities over the course of generations. By contrast, utopias, both literary and experimental, tend to be born fully formed from the mind of one individual. Fourier plotted every detail of his perfect society—what time everyone would eat, how many people would work in the pear orchard, how they would elect their foremen—before he recruited a single follower. Within utopian communities, social and ethical ideas are put into play in a very narrow span of time and space. Tracking the miniature revolutions that repeatedly sundered New Harmony or the various Icarian villages is like watching several centuries of modern history—the glacial advance and retreat of big ideas about power, liberty, and community—transpire inside a beaker. Emerson rightly called Brook Farm “a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.”

The brief histories of these miniature societies reveal, with remarkable clarity, how their citizens approached a set of timeless questions. Must the family be the base unit of civilization? How does diversity affect a highly socialized society? Can citizens really be transformed by the institutions within which they live? Is monogamy required for a stable, prosperous society? Is private property? How much must theory bend in the face of circumstance? How does spiritual authority interact with political authority? Does social progress flow from the initiative of self-advancing individuals or from broad, collectivist reforms? Is competition the ideal motor of innovation and prosperity? Can social solidarity be stimulated or must it arise spontaneously? Hovering above all of these questions is the overarching dialectic that defines civil society: the back-and-forth between individual liberty and mutual aid, between the freedom to do as you please and the freedom from being cold, hungry, and alone.

* * *

Sensing a deficit in our own time, a way in which their story mocks us.

The ideas that undergirded these communities, like the ideas enshrined in our founding documents, were born out of the European Enlightenment. While the utopians’ aspirations can seem alarmingly foreign, their basic outlook was hyper-American—American, but more so (in terms of ideals, if seldom reality). Americans cherish freedom of conscience; where better to nurture new heresies? America is profoundly egalitarian; where better to abolish property? Americans cherish liberalism; where better to emancipate women? America is a land of new beginnings; where better to kick off the millennium?

The lunatic optimism and creativity of our utopian predecessors can be infectious. They took no social institution for granted. With bearings fixed toward a meridian of joy and perfection, everything old and familiar—monogamy, property, hierarchy, family—went overboard. Mistakenly sensing that the world was on the brink of total transfiguration, they built their tiny societies according to a single criterion: their own shining vision of the future.

It is almost impossible not to mock the extravagant hopes of the nineteenth-century utopians. Yet it is difficult to linger amid the ruins of those hopes without sensing a deficit in our own time, a way in which their story mocks us. In the company of these strange, familiar Americans, we might revive their essential question: What sort of a future do we want?

* * *

From the Book:
PARADISE NOW: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings
Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Jennings
Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/25/when-the-messiah-came-to-america-she-was-a-woman/

A Year and a Day in a Mars Simulator: Reflections at the Halfway Mark

At Aeon, Sheyna Gifford, mission physician for NASA’s HI-SEAS IV space exploration analogue, reflects on six months in a Mars simulator. When the six-person crew emerges on August 28th, 2016 — after a year and a day “off-planet” — they’ll have completed the longest NASA-funded Mars simulation in history.

Life on sMars, like on Mars itself, is elemental. Our chief concerns revolve around sun, air, water and rock — specifically, what we can and can’t do with those four basics in the right combinations. The Sun creates our energy. We, in turn, transform that energy into artificial light, in colours of the spectrum that most please our plants. The plants take up water, and set their roots in rocks that we’ve gathered from the surface. Their stems reach up towards the light, and our hopes grow with them: exhaled by the green leaves, born in the flowers that will bloom into fruit.

We brought along seeds, soil, and a special kind of bacteria. Cyanobacteria, as the name suggests, are green. In the bottle, they look thin and luminescent, like jello before it congeals. These versatile little creatures can convert carbon dioxide into breathable air. They can purify water. They can feed off the sparse Martian menu, using nitrogen from the air and minerals from the ground, or they can consume urine and break down our waste. Purely by living, breathing, eating and excreting, these little bacteria turn soil that’s been dried and fried under the pink Martian sky into a useful growing medium, and in the process make everything from biofuel to proteins — proteins by the ton, potentially — for future Martian colonists.

Collaboration is one of the key motivations behind the sMars project: to find out what people need to live, work and survive together on other planets, and how to give it to them. The idea sounds simple in principle, but is difficult in practice. To work together effectively, people need more than just food, water and energy. Shared mission goals help, but they still aren’t enough to keep people happy for months on end. So what is enough? The belief — the hope — is that there’s a recipe for making it work: that the right people, given the right tools, can live together in a small space under stressful circumstances for years and continue to perform at near-peak levels, the way that astronauts do when in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Our jobs as simulated astronauts is to test out potential ingredients for that recipe.

In the future we’re trying to build, we will have to learn how not to fear the various deprivations. We’ll have to learn to embrace them instead, beginning with our own, very real, human limitations.

Read the story

from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/24/mars-reflections/

Rainy Season

 Amy Parker | Beasts & Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | February 2016 | 30 minutes (7,639 words) 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is “Rainy Season,” a short story from Beasts & ChildrenAmy Parker’s acclaimed debut collection. The book’s interlinked stories unwind the lives of three families, casting a cool eye on the wreckage of childhood and the nuances of family history.

“Rainy Season” is nightmarish but entrancing—two young American sisters living in Thailand sneak out of their diplomatic compound and into the Chiang Mai night with a trio of Korean businessmen who have mistaken them for prostitutes. Parker’s sentences are lyrical and brutal, her gaze both kaleidoscopic and piercingly straightforward. 


The maids are leaving the compound on their scooters. Maizie and Jill watch from the tennis court. The red clay is still hot, and when Jill closes her eyes the white fault lines linger behind her eyelids. Jill lobs a ball, and Maizie misses.

“There’s Neepa!” yells Maizie. Their maid’s nightly transformation — from a self-effacing shadow who sweeps the floors with a handleless broom to a glittering sexpot with flying hair and high-heeled feet — thrills Maizie.

The guards roll back the gates and the maids shoot out into the heat and noise of the city, their laughter high and bright as they perch sidesaddle behind their boyfriends and grip the seats when the scooters go over the potholes, catching air, fishtailing a little before regaining traction on the uneven street outside. The guards wave to the maids; the guards never salute them. Jill and Maizie stand there silently until the gate clangs closed.

“Where do you think they go?” Maizie asks.

“I don’t know,” Jill says. “To nightclubs. The way they’re dressed.”

“Do you think Neepa has sex?”

“Don’t be tacky, Maiz.”

Jill hits another ball, and Maizie ignores it.

“I just want to know.”

“It’s too hot to talk,” says Jill. “Go chase that ball you missed.”

It’s the rainy season in Chiang Mai, but the rains haven’t arrived. Songkran, the New Year’s water festival, has come and gone, and the mountain has yet to pull the stopper from its bath of cloud. Jill hates tropical heat. The heat’s intimacy drives her out of her thirteen-year-old skin.

Jill and her little sister, Maizie, have been in Chiang Mai for three months. Their father works at the consulate; his job is classified. Jill knows it has to do with drugs; they’re close to Burma and the Golden Triangle, and he goes north all the time. But Jill is too self-involved to care what her father does. She’s never had a boyfriend. She wonders what a kiss feels like. Not that she’ll find out here. Not on this compound, where she and Maizie are the only kids. They spend afternoons swatting flies and feeding them to Maizie’s turtle. Evenings they play tennis, sending the balls wild and high, sometimes over the compound gates, where they roll into gutters and are lost in the street.

Jill looks up at the darkening sky. Maizie crawls into the oleander to pick up balls. She’s lithe and her movements are purposeful. At eleven, she has no idea how pretty she’s becoming. In a year or two Maizie will be the pretty one. Her calves are smooth and tan and dusty, and she rattles the bushes, rolling balls out between her legs so that they come at Jill from all directions. Jill doesn’t bother to corral them. “I’m so bored!”

“Dad says only boring people are bored.”

“Easy for him to say, he gets to travel. And maybe it’s true for grownups. If you can do whatever you want, it’s your own fault if you’re bored. But when you’re younger, you’re a prisoner. You can’t do anything. If I could do whatever I wanted, I wouldn’t be bored.”

“What would you do?”

“I don’t know, go places. England. Italy. Someplace nice, with old buildings and museums. Oil paintings. Fountains. Someplace where Americans go to be creative. Not diplomatic. Like Paris. I’d stroll. See things. Go on rendezvous. I wouldn’t stay here.”

Through the netting enclosing the court, Jill can see their entire compound. It’s a box enclosing more boxes. It has high concrete walls tipped with barbed wire and glass, and a square metal gate on rollers. Weird pink flowers spring out at wild angles from the square clipped hedges, and crewcut lawns fight weeds that want to grow into tall flame-tipped trees. There are flippant palms, rosebushes, banana plants, jackfruit, lychee trees, and a strange, spindly bush with leaves that fold shut when you zip a finger down the central vein.

When their father goes away on government trips, Maizie and Jill stay up all night watching Gone with the Wind. They can’t sleep. They usually live with their mother, in various embassy dwellings in various nations. Australia most recently. They still have slight accents. But their mother’s in language training in D.C. for six months, and the government pays for housing only if you live overseas, and she can’t afford an apartment for the three of them. They’ll join her in Georgia (the country, not the state) later. Jill says they got sold down the river, abandoned in the jungle. The horror.

They’re supposed to be lucky. A chance to see the world! Broaden their horizons! Jill is sick of it. She feels dizzy, like a cartoon character treadmilling on a spinning globe. She’s never lived anywhere longer than two years. She’s never gotten used to the gates, the guards, the language she can’t read. Their father learned his parenting moves out of some ancient 1950s handbook. He’s needlessly strict and has blind spots you could parade an elephant through. Maizie and Jill aren’t allowed to pierce their ears until they’re sixteen, he says. But he goes on trips to the Golden Triangle and leaves them alone in the house.

He’s been gone for a week. He’s due back in a couple of days. The kitchen is stocked with sodas and commissary boxes of Tuna Helper. The house has a VCR and plenty of toilet paper. But Maizie and Jill can’t sleep, hence repeated viewings of Gone with the Wind. Jill reads the book on airplanes. It’s the right length for international flights. It blots things out, and there’s
no danger of coming to the end of it, of being stranded with no place to escape. You can board a flight with Scarlett and the Tarletons and be reassured that no matter how fast you read, you won’t hear Rhett not giving a damn until after you land. It’ll get you through unexpected layovers, even an eight-hour layover in the Bangkok airport, where a trumpet version of “The Impossible Dream” plays over and over.

The movie of Gone with the Wind is good too, nice and long. They have it memorized, and Maizie imitating Prissy makes Jill laugh. When the video ends, the two girls sneak out of their house and hop the pool fence. They turn off the pool lights and go skinny-dipping, pretending the guards care enough to enjoy being flashed. The girls’ father, even if he knew, wouldn’t care. There’s nowhere they can go. Maizie says, “Let’s go visit Moon-Face.”

Moon-Face is their favorite guard. He likes Maizie to sit with him in the guard box at night. She’s taught him to play double solitaire. They wait until his partner dozes off, and then they play well into the night. Jill usually comes too, sitting behind her copy of Jane Eyre and peeking over it at the guard intent on his cards. Jill loves his crescent eyebrows and smile, loves the creases at the edges of his eyes and the playful snapsalute he gives them when they leave through the gates with their father. Maizie salutes him back. “Kap!” he says, and she says “Kap!” And that breaks him up, though the other guard glowers because it’s inappropriate for a little farang girl to use
a masculine term of respect, and it’s undignified for a guard to laugh at a consulate car.

Maizie gets away with familiarity because she’s young and cute. Her hair is still blond. Jill feels too tall for Thailand, too dark, and too chunky and uninteresting. Out in the markets, people smile at Maizie and press little gifts on her — embroidered felt vegetables, durian candies, tiny silver rings. The same people point and laugh at Jill, whose feet are so big that the only shoes that fit her in Thailand are men’s.

Just wait until you’re older, Maizie, thinks Jill. You’ll see.

Jill sits with them in the guardhouse, listening to the slap of the laminated cards and the sound of the night frogs. A tokay lizard calls from the bushes, and she counts the hiccupping cries — seven in a row is unlucky: you or someone you know is going to die. She looks at the hat Moon-Face has laid aside. She imagines sniffing the groove of the sweatband where it pressed against his forehead. She drums her fingers. She feels sweaty and her legs itch from a million bug bites. Nothing ever happens, unless she picks a fight with Maizie. Jill sighs. She thinks she hears a rumble of thunder. She sits up — maybe it will finally, finally rain. She can run out in the warm downpour, screaming into the wind. She can lean backwards into a wind so strong, it will hold her up like she is its fainting lover. She can let the rain drill her skull, part her hair, and flay her until she is wet and shining.

The thunder rumbles again, louder this time, but metallic, backed by drunken voices. Not rain, but people banging at the gate. It sounds like they’re kicking it, hitting it with fists. MoonFace’s partner rubs his nose, pulls himself slowly to his feet, and goes out with a flashlight. Moon-Face follows with a fistful of cards, and Maizie and Jill come after. Every once in a while groups of plastered tourists, usually Japanese, mistake their compound for the whorehouse located a few miles down the road. Both are brightly lit all night and have heavy steel gates that give out onto the street and high white walls tipped with broken bottles and razor wire. Moon-Face opens the pedestrian door, and Maizie and Jill crowd against him to get a good look.

Three men lean against one another, tripod style. Their business suits are sopping wet, and their ties are askew.

“Songkran ended two days ago,” Maizie says to Jill.

“Not for these guys.”

Two of the men look old; they have little bellies and their faces are lined. The third, a young man, appears the least drunk. One of the older men raises his head, unhitches a water pistol from his waistband, and squirts Moon-Face’s partner in the eye.

Moon-Face goes through the formalities, explaining the men’s mistake and giving them directions to the whorehouse. They don’t appear to understand any Thai. The youngest keeps bowing sheepishly, and each time he does, a blunt lock of his black hair falls into his eye. The two older men prod him impatiently with the noses of their water guns.

“English?” he asks Moon-Face hopefully.

Maizie muscles her way forward. Jill follows her out.

“He only knows how to say ‘We named the dog Indiana,’” Jill says to the men. The third episode of Indiana Jones is the only English-language movie in theaters. Jill and Maizie have been to see it eleven times, and that line about the dog tickled Maizie so much, she taught it to the guards.

The two older men straighten up and clap the young man on the back. One of them points to Maizie’s blond hair and grins. Jill moves closer and can smell the ferment on the men.

Up close she notices that one has a long, straight nose and a face shaped like a melon seed. The other is worse; his ears stick out and he has bad teeth.

“Wrong place!” shouts Maizie. Her white cotton T-shirt sticks to her back. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Yes, please?” The young man turns to Jill.

“This American compound. No hookers,” says Maizie.

“Hooker?” he asks Jill.

“No . . .” — Maizie hesitates — “pussy.”


“What? He gets it.” She speaks loudly and distinctly, sweeping her arm in a broad arc. “Pussy down the street!”

The two old men vociferate — apparently the one word they catch is “pussy.” The young man’s face lights with comprehension. He looks directly at Jill and says, “Please forgive, I have shame.”

“Oh . . .” Her tongue feels thick and gawky. “It’s okay.”

He turns to his cohorts and explains. They look at Maizie, laughing, and their eyes gleam.

Melon-Head steps forward and takes Maizie’s hand. She twists away, wiping it on her cutoffs. Bad-Teeth says something to the young man. And then the young man looks at Jill.

“You come with us, please?”

Tuk-tuks hung with garlands and colored lights buzz past on the street. The young man’s hands are pale and tame. She looks up at the sky. Clouds race. The moon is a dim smudge.


“Jill! Are you crazy?”

The air outside the compound seems fluid — not cooler, exactly, but less still, and filled with exciting smells — alcohol and motor oil and the lingering smokiness of the fields.

“Drink, some boogie, we not bad men, please.”

He has a way of working his upper lip with his bottom teeth.

The teeth pull and release in a slow drag that brings red to the well-cut wave of his lip.

“Okay,” she says.

“Jill, no!” says Maizie.

The young man’s shirt sticks to him, transparent against his chest. Goose bumps stand out on his neck. He looks at her, and it makes her dizzy.

“I’m going.”

“We’re not supposed to go out alone!”

“So? Dad’s not here. Are you going to tell?”

“They think we’re hookers.”

“No, they don’t. I’m going.”


“You can stay here like a baby if you want. I don’t want you to come, anyway. Go home, Maizie.”

Maizie looks at Jill, and then at the young man.

“Just because you want some guy to kiss you.”

The businessmen giggle. Jill sees the long red shape of a songtao and flags it down. It pulls up and she scrambles aboard, defiant. The men follow.

“Jill!” Maizie stands in the doorway of the pedestrian gate. Her face is white and drawn. She looks very small, and so pretty. Beside her, the guards consult each other. One of them picks up the gatehouse phone.

“You’re so selfish, Jill! Why are you so selfish?”

Jill closes her eyes so she doesn’t have to see the anguish on Maizie’s face. For as long as Jill can remember, Maizie has embarrassed her by being — what’s the word for it? Better. More pure of heart. If Jill is Scarlett, then Maizie is Melanie. She doesn’t tell lies. She never pretends to be someone else, doesn’t change the way she talks according to who is listening. She’s better at everything than Jill and never does anything wrong. And it’s so easy to hurt her. It isn’t fair. Jill grits her teeth.

Moon-Face runs forward, waving his white-gloved hands at the driver. The driver answers back. The Korean men pound on the glass, bounce in their seats, urging the driver to go. The engine revs.

Moon-Face frowns, shouting at the driver. Jill’s dad told her once that if a Thai person shouts, which is almost never, violence is sure to follow. Thais never show anger, he said, unless they’re about to go berserk.

Jill can’t remember how to say stop in Thai. She feels sick.

“Wait for me!” Maizie runs out of the gate and hurls herself into the back of the songtao. The old men clap with glee and reach for her. She holds her hands out like a shield. She’s shaking.

“I hate you, Jill. You’re getting us in trouble.”

“I don’t care.”

Jill is almost relieved when the songtao starts to pull away.

“Dad’s way north. Even if they call him, what can he do? He’s not here. Besides, we’re Americans. Dad says Thai people assume all Americans are immoral, so for all they know, we’re allowed to go out.”

“Moon-Face chased us. Didn’t you see him chasing us?”

“Whatever. The guards probably think we’re both whores waiting to happen.”

“They’re my friends!”

“Not anymore. Now they think you’re a slut, because you came with me.”

Jill hates herself for being cruel to Maizie, but it feels good, too.

They sit on the benches in the back of the red songtao. Every time the truck hits a rut they all bang knees. The two older men hold on to each other and laugh. They’re very drunk.

“This Mr. Yoo. This Mr. Lim,” says the young man. The two older men, Melon-Head and Bad-Teeth, bow.

“My name, Kyung Moon. You know moon?”

Jill nods.

“Someone will come for us,” Maizie insists.

“I doubt it,” says Jill.

“Do you think Moon-Face will get fired?” asks Maizie.

Jill hadn’t thought of that. “I’ll say it’s my fault,” she says.

“They can’t fire him if it’s my fault. Can they?”

Maizie settles back with a frown. “They better not. I’ll really hate you, then.”

The songtao hits a rut and they are lofted. Jill feels the rush of her insides — a swoop of stomach, a flush in each breast. The hairs all over her body tighten, as if she’s stepped into a hot bath.

“Are you Japanese?” Jill asks Kyung, turning away from Maizie as brightly as possible.

Mr. Yoo makes an offensive gesture. Mr. Lim blows a long horse breath through his rubbery lips.

“Korean!” he says.

The conversation jolts along in the careful bad grammar of international English. They piece together that Lim and Yoo own an electronics company and want to set up factories in Thailand. Kyung is an engineer. They live in a sort of bunker in the foothills. Eighty Korean men, sleeping in shifts, working eighty hours a week. They get three days of leave every six weeks. This is the last day of their leave.

Maizie sings under her breath the way she does when she’s nervous. The wind butts through the vents of the songtao and lifts tassels of her hair. It blows Jill’s hair into a sheep’s nest.

“Why are we stopping?” Maizie whispers.

Mr. Lim and Mr. Yoo go to a white gate and negotiate with a guard. They hand over a wad of baht mixed with U.S. dollars. A woman comes outwearing a shiny yellow dress and a boa of blond fur. She squeezes into the truck between Maizie and Jill. This woman is exactly the same size as Maizie. The woman notices this and taps Maizie on the chest conspiratorially. She perches as far forward as she can without falling off the seat. When the truck hits a bump she flies into Mr. Lim’s lap, laughing.

The fur thrown around her neck opens its eyes and bares black gums in a yawn. It’s a monkey, a golden gibbon. The woman unwinds it from her neck and makes it sit on the floor at her feet. It closes long fingers around her ankle while she burrows into her purse and pulls out a miniature diaper. She leans down, showing little breasts that sway inside her dress, and pins the diaper on the gibbon.

Ich heisse Heidi,” she says to them. “Das ist meine Nico. My baby.”

Heidi knocks on the cab window and speaks to the driver. He makes an abrupt U-turn, and they drive past a field of sunflowers under the moon, a huge field, acres deep. Jill recognizes that field: it’s next to their favorite billboard near the compound. It’s hand-painted, sometimes advertising bloody Chinese movies, but this month it’s painted with hypodermic needles and skeletons, a frieze of dancing condoms, erect cocks, and skulls.

“We could hop out right here,” Maizie whispers to Jill.


Jill’s tempted. They could just walk back to the compound and watch Gone with the Wind again. But Kyung catches her eye and smiles, and Jill shrinks. She reaches for Maizie’s hand and squeezes it.

They pull into a dark driveway and stop. Heidi slithers out, Nico knuckling after.

“What’s this?” says Maizie.

The men shrug and follow. Jill hops out and sees light glimmering on greenery — moonlight and shadows. Bamboo rustles.

They’re in a sacred grove. Candles twinkle from a spirit house set up on a stilt. Next to it, life-size, sits a black iron statue of the starving Buddha. Candles gutter at the statue’s base. Broken incense sticks lean at drunken angles in little pots of ash.

The statue shouldn’t be beautiful, but it is. Buddha is skeletal, his sinews caved around curving bones. His ribs stand out, his sternum juts below his corded neck. The expression on his face is one of infinite weariness and pity, but so tender that Jill catches her breath. Visitors have pressed tiny squares of gold leaf onto his body. The gold leaves tremble in the air, bright gold against the black iron, so that the statue appears to vibrate.

Jill ignores her sister, ignores the men. She steps closer. She wants to touch the knob of Buddha’s knee, run her fingers over the concavities of his stomach, chest, and cheek.

Heidi hands Nico to Maizie, and Heidi’s posture changes — she becomes graceful, reverent. She slips off her high heels and glides forward. She drops into a prostration, rises, lights a candle, dips a stick of incense to the flame, touches it to her forehead, and places it in the cup of ashes in front of the Buddha. She puts her palms together, bows, and stands in front of the statue. The men hang back. Maizie strokes Nico’s head. The gibbon hooks one arm around Maizie’s neck and picks through her hair.

Jill, too moved to keep silent, has to spoil it. “I thought Buddhas were fat,” she says.

“Before he Lord Buddha, he no eat, long time, long time,” says Kyung. “He try, try. Old way. Many days, he no eat, and he look like this.”

“Was he on a hunger strike?” Maizie asks.

“He close to dying. Still he sit, no eat. Then a girl come.” Kyung looks at Jill. “Like you.” He smiles. “She give Buddha ice cream.”

“Ice cream?”

“Ice cream. For respect. He holy man, she give respect.”

Jill shakes her head. She can’t follow what he’s saying.

“Lord Buddha not want to hurt feelings, so he quit starving and decide to eat.”

“Why was he starving himself? What was he doing?”

Kyung looks puzzled. “I do not understand.”

“Can you explain what he was doing? Why wouldn’t he eat? Why did he eat ice cream? Why did they make a statue of him starving? Don’t you think it’s kind of sick?”

Kyung frowns. “He eat ice cream. He sit under tree. He awaken. This show determination.”

Mr. Lim and Mr. Yoo squirt Heidi with their guns. She turns on them, furious. But she draws a smile around her fury and leashes it with painted lips. The gibbon chews an incense stick, swinging from tree to tree. Heidi whistles for Nico. They all get back into the songtao.

“Love time!” shouts Mr. Yoo.

“Happy time!” shouts Mr. Lim.

All the nights in Chiang Mai are dreamlike, a rush of scents and neon, soft black mountains, low walls tipped with broken glass, children on bicycles, men selling pinwheels of colored lights, a blur of marionettes on a sidewalk, streetlights, fragments Jill recognizes but can never fit together. Traffic slows. They’re near the Night Bazaar, in the center of town. They idle behind a truck full of pigs. Heidi yips at the driver in an electrifying torrent of Thai, then, digging at Maizie and Jill with her pointy shoes and tugging the men’s ties, she forces them all out.

Jill follows the group into a tiny bar whirling with colored light. She feels Maizie stumbling behind her, gripping the back of her T-shirt so they won’t be separated. The light pulses, strobing and uneven, and the air pulses, too, with the smell of alcohol, cigarettes, air freshener, and perfume. A bank of televisions plays karaoke, a white ball bouncing from word to word, a miked voice wails Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” off-key. Jill’s hip bumps a table and upsets a woman’s drink, and the woman squawks. Kyung bows and grins and flings baht. He steadies Jill’s elbow and then strokes the small of her back with his palm. It makes her legs weak and she stumbles again. Yoo and Lim push them forward to a table near the stage. Maizie sits down and puts her hands over her ears.

Heidi sits in Mr. Yoo’s lap. The gibbon clings to her neck and grabs with its back feet for Mr. Yoo’s hands, which are trawling in Heidi’s dress front.

“You like drink?” asks Mr. Lim.

“Thai iced tea,” says Maizie.

“Me too, please,” says Jill.

“No Thai iced tea here for American girl,” says Mr. Lim.

“Long Island iced tea. You try. You like.”

The tea arrives in schooners spinning with ice. Jill takes a sip.

“It’s okay, Maiz. Tastes like Snapple.” Funny aftertaste, though. But then, Thai drinks are all kind of weird. She should have asked for a Sprite, if only to hear the waitress repeat it, “sa-plite,” which makes her smile.

“I like Thai iced tea better,” says Maizie ungraciously, but she drinks anyway.

“Thirsty!” Mr. Lim says. “Good, you drink.”

Maizie bends forward and sips. Lim orders her another.

“You how old?” asks Kyung.

“Sixteen,” lies Jill.

“I twenty-three,” he says. “You, boyfriend?”

Jill blushes. “No.” She twirls the ice in her tea with the straw.

“Very beautiful, you,” says Kyung.

He puts a hand on her knee, moving his fingers delicately, just under the ruffle of her skirt. His fingers feel cool, deliberate, and mindless. Jill jiggles her leg, tries to scoot closer to Maizie. His fingers lift, return, then settle higher under the skirt.

Mr. Lim mounts the stage. The white ball bounces on the monitors.

“‘Like a Prayer’! I love this song!” Jill says.

Maizie leans in and whispers, “Jill, I want to go.”

“Go, then.”

“I don’t have any money!”

“That’s not my fault. I didn’t ask you to come.”

“Please, Jill. Can we just go? I feel sick, and I’m really sleepy.”

“Oh, boo-hoo.”

“Nico keeps touching my hair, Jill. I’m scared.”

“She’s grooming you. It’s because you’re blond. You and Nico. Two dumb blondes. I’m staying.”

Kyung’s fingers lift, then settle higher up under Jill’s skirt. She doesn’t know if she wants him to stop or continue. She can’t move. She can feel her heart, and every inch of skin. She gulps her drink and glares at Maizie.

“I’m going to find a phone and call Dad,” says Maizie.

Jill glances at Kyung to see if he understands this. He nods to the music, smiling.

“Okay,” Jill says. “We can go, I swear. Just finish your tea, okay? Please? We never have fun.”

“This isn’t fun! They’re old, Jill. And Heidi’s a prostitute.

What if she has AIDS?”

“Shut up, she’ll hear!”

“Do you promise we can go?”

“I promise! I swear.”

Maizie gulps her tea and hoovers the straw around the remaining ice cubes. “There,” she says. “All done.” She stands up, staggers, and crumples back into her chair. “Jill?” Her eyes are squinty and confused.

“Serves you right,” Jill says.

Maizie lays her head on the table.

“Sleepy!” laughs Mr. Yoo. He hauls Maizie upright and pins her with his arms. He shakes her back and forth in time to the music. Heidi straddles her and paints Maizie’s eyes with a glittering green wand. The gibbon eats lychees. Onstage, Mr. Lim is singing surprisingly well. Maizie, Jill sees, is crying. She knows she should go to her, but Kyung’s arm hangs around Jill’s neck and his pale hand inches down toward her breast. One finger traces the little curve by her armpit. Adrenaline detonates her heart. Heidi paints Maizie’s lips and Nico picks through her hair. Maizie struggles. Nico crouches over her and mumbles at the crown of Maizie’s head. Kyung is stroking Jill’s breast now, grazing the nipple with his fingertips, tickling around the sides. Onstage, Mr. Lim brings his song home.

Kyung slides his hand up past the elastic of her underpants and plunges a finger into her. Jill gasps. She is all slippery but it hurts. His finger works deeper. She tries to pull away but Kyung’s other hand squeezes her breast and she can’t move. Inside her is a wave she suspected when touching herself all alone, but this is different because it hurts and she can’t get away. Then Kyung leans in to kiss her, and his tongue, thick with liquor and cold, wraps her tongue and she can’t breathe. She doesn’t know how to kiss back, and she can’t breathe, so she, too panicked to care that they’re in public, she bites him.

Kyung pulls back with a bleeding lip. He swears in Korean and pushes the table, hard. Glasses rattle, ice spills. Heidi dismounts Maizie’s chair and slinks over to Kyung, cooing. She fishes ice up from the table, wraps it in a napkin, and presses it to Kyung’s mouth. She strokes his hair with a free hand, presses her breasts against his arm, which steals out and encircles her. They glare at Jill. Jill stands up. Her legs are shaking and her stomach feels confused and her thighs are damp. Her chair clatters backwards because her legs don’t want to hold her up. She shakes Maizie, who blinks, her eyes gummed green, her lips swollen.

“Let’s go,” Jill says.

Maizie groans.

“What’s wrong with you, Maizie?”

Jill feels dizzy, the lights popping on and off and the karaoke ball bouncing.

Kyung is kissing Heidi, and the gibbon climbs onto Maizie’s shoulders. Mr. Lim gives it a cigarette, which it smokes. The lit end of the cigarette singes Maizie’s hair, and Jill douses it with tea. The gibbon shrieks and shows its teeth.

“Jill,” says Maizie, “get it off me.”

Jill pulls on the gibbon, but it’s much stronger than it looks and she recalls that a monkey is strong enough to break a person’s arm if it wants, so she hauls Maizie to her feet and makes her jump up and down, but the gibbon won’t let go. It hooks its fingers under Maizie’s chin and raises its eyebrows, flashing its eyelids in warning.

Yoo and Lim are on stage together sharing a microphone, and Kyung has buried his face in Heidi’s cleavage.

“Let’s just run,” Jill says. “If we run, it’ll let go.”

Jill pulls Maizie through the crowd, pushing aside chairs and butting against sweaty-backed Australian men who hoot at them, past twinkling women with glittering eyes — so many tiny women in scanty dresses, all of them laughing, the bar roaring with laughter, and dimly, as Jill pushes and burrows into the crowd, hauling her tottering sister, she hears Heidi screaming for Nico, who won’t let go. They stagger out onto the street.

Jill hesitates in the blur of traffic and flashing lights, pedestrians stumbling, tourists laughing, ragged boys, and little girls with babies strapped to their backs approaching with outstretched hands, and why hasn’t it rained? Rain would make everything clear again. Jill tries to flag a tuk-tuk, but none of them stop for her. The crowd drags the sisters down the pavement and into the dark beyond the Night Bazaar.

They’re near the klang, one of the city’s canals, along the old temple wall. It looks familiar, like a place she’s seen through the smoked panes of the consulate car. Maybe they’re closer to home than she thought.

“Jill,” says Maizie, “Nico won’t let go. I can’t breathe.”

The little hands are bruising Maizie’s throat.

“Spin around really fast,” says Jill.

Maizie spins.

“Maybe if you jump in the water?”

“I can’t jump in there! It’s dark. Dad says it’s sewage.”

“No, it isn’t. We see kids swimming in there.”

“It’s dark.”

“You can swim.”

“Jill, don’t make me. It smells like poop.”

“There are water lilies, look.”

There are, a drift of them, spinning in a path of light.

“Just stay in the light. Duck the monkey under. It’ll let go.”

“No!” Maizie sways. The monkey grins.

Jill hears a splash and a cry, and then nothing.


Jill leans out over the bank. Lights gleam on the water, on the lilies with their pale blades closed up for the night.

Maizie cries, “She won’t let go!” She scrabbles at the bank. The water’s shallow but the banks are high. The gibbon pulls at Maizie’s shirt. She shivers, with the golden monkey riding her shoulders.

Jill lies on her stomach and holds out her arms. But she isn’t strong enough to pull Maizie up over the bank. The gibbon makes her heavy.

“Why won’t it let go?” Maizie wails.

“I don’t know! Oh my god. I’m sorry. I’ll go find a phone. I’ll call Dad. I’m sorry, Maizie.”

“Don’t leave me by myself!”

From the shadow of a tree a figure detaches itself. It’s some white tourist guy, punked out with spiky hair and wearing skinny black jeans and a Ramones T-shirt.

She hails him. “Please, do you speak English?”

He wades into the water, Doc Martens and all, and picks up Maizie and hoists her onto the bank. Then he hops it himself and walks off, back to his tree. Wait, Jill wants to say, don’t go, but the man comes back carrying a candy box. He opens it to reveal a nest of white balloons, at least a dozen, uninflated but bulging. He works a finger into the neck of one and his finger emerges dusted with white powder. “What’s her name?” he asks Jill.

“Maizie,” Jill says.

Smoothly, he strokes the gibbon with his undusted hand, murmuring in a high and childlike voice, “Who’s a little baby? Who’s a good little Maizie girl?”

“No, Maizie is my sister. The monkey’s name is Nico.”

He pets Nico. “Actually, gibbons are small apes,” he says. “They’re going extinct. Golden ones are supposed to be protected. But nothing ever is.” He says this without blame, just stating it. “Nico. That’s a perfect name.”

He scratches the gibbon around the neck and shoulders. The gibbon tips its head and smiles, and the man rubs white powder on Nico’s shining black gums. The monkey rolls her eyes, sucks her teeth. The man strokes her.

“That’s it,” he says. “Who’s my good little ape?”

Nico sighs, gurgles, and falls to the ground.

Jill crouches by the fallen gibbon. Her eyes are closed. Her chest rises in little pants, and her lips and eyelids tremble. Nico moans like a baby, then twitches and goes still.

“Is it dying?”

“I think maybe,” says the man.

“This is all my fault.”

Next to them, Maizie curls herself into a ball, shivering. Jill aches all over. Her throat burns. She is so ashamed. There’s no taking Nico back to Heidi, no way to find the bar again in all that dark, bright tangle. But maybe Nico will wake up, climb the flame tree, and spend the rest of its life eating jackfruit and throwing flowers into the klang.

“Poor monkey,” she whispers.

The man gathers Nico in his arms. He squeezes her feet. When she doesn’t respond, he kisses her on the lips. No, not kisses. He’s giving her mouth-to-mouth. Jill wants to giggle, but she can’t. Mouth-to-mouth on a monkey. But Nico doesn’t breathe. He unpins her diaper then, and flings it away. He lays her naked in the grass at the foot of the flame tree.

“There,” he says, “at least you don’t have to be a person anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Jill says.

“Hey, don’t cry,” the man says. “Come on. You can help me. I need someone with me tonight. I don’t want to be alone. You guys can help me now.”

“No more,” Jill says. “I want to go home.”

“You’re drunk. You’ll never get home like that,” he says.

“Come with me. I promise to get you home.”

Maizie is moaning among the tree roots, and at least he understands English, so Jill nods. They braid themselves around Maizie to help her walk.

“Come on,” he says to Jill. “I’ve got a hotel room. We can clean up there. Hold this.”

He gives her the candy box. He doesn’t ask any questions and he speaks English and Jill feels relieved to be rescued by someone who speaks English, in spite of knowing what’s in the box. It has nothing to do with her life, none of it.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“It used to be Peter Pandemonium. Sometimes Peter Panic. I don’t know what it will be when I get back home.”

“I’m Jill.”

“Hi,” he says, with that strange child’s voice again.

In the hotel lobby he presses the elevator button, and the doors open and they lean together in the lifting mirrored space, all three of them, a skeleton man holding up a little girl covered in mud and a third, a girl, standing a little apart, and reasonably clean. She’s holding a candy box and staring at herself as if to reassure herself that she’s real.

They put Maizie under the shower and wash the klang mud from her clothes and the makeup from her face, and while she pukes Peter stirs the puddles so they dissolve down the drain. He gives her a hotel toothbrush and helps her brush her teeth, and then he discreetly shuts the door while Jill undresses Maizie and washes her again, and dries her. He passes clean clothes through the door, skinny black jeans Maizie barely fits into, his Ramones T-shirt, which hangs on her like a dress, and socks with skeletons on them. He tucks Maizie into the big hotel bed and puts the wastebasket next to her in case she pukes again.

Without his shirt he is the thinnest person Jill’s ever seen. There are track marks on his arms.

He asks Jill if she wants to order some food.

“You’re the skinny one,” she says. “You’re the one who’s starving.”

“I can’t eat anything,” he says. “It makes me puke. But I’ll have a beer with you.”

“You should eat ice cream,” she says. “Ice cream is good if you haven’t eaten in a long time.”

“I can’t afford to throw up,” he says. “I have this thing to do.”

White balloons in a pink candy box.

“I have to smuggle them back. Hide them away in this old skin bag,” he says, looking down at himself. This man is someone her father would arrest, if he could, and hand over, if he knew. He’s one of the bad guys. He’s doing what she has only heard about and never really believed.

He tells her he’s doing it because what’s in the balloons creates a bliss so perfect that ordinary life ceases to matter; even sickness, even dying, can’t hold out against the bliss. Weeks ago, back in the States, he faced a mirror and saw he was close to death, but health and the body seemed just an illusion compared to bliss. So he lay down in perfect bliss and died. Then an EMT ungraciously brought him back, and everything was different. He was different, because the bliss was an illusion. The bliss would kill you. The bliss killed bliss.

So he came here to swallow the balloons, to carry the bliss to people who still believe in it, because that’s all he can do, if he wants to start again, if he wants to quit. To start a new life you need money. So he’ll do it just this once. He’ll get fifteen thousand dollars for it, which sounds like a lot to Jill. But she knows the risk. Her father talks about Thai prison. Or capture stateside.

He’ll take the money and hit Mexico, he says, where you can buy opium-based cough syrup to get through the worst of withdrawal. Then he’s going to Santa Fe. He’s heard the vibe there is good. He’ll drink his way through the rest. But you need money to quit. You need money to get by until you’ve quit.

The balloons look like shriveled eggs. Jill nudges one.

“I wish,” he says, “I’d had a chance to see an opium flower before I did this.”

“Are you scared?” Jill asks. “What if they catch you?”

He draws water into a glass.

“You shouldn’t drink local water,” says Jill. “It will make you sick.”

“Just sit with me and make sure I don’t choke.”

So she sits in the chair and watches over him. Maizie snores from the bed, and Jill sits as tense as a stick, willing him ease and peace. The balloon is on his tongue. He tips his head back, and the balloon sticks in his throat. He gulps from the glass and closes his eyes. The balloon moves down his throat and Jill imagines it landing in his stomach. She wonders about the strength of the knot. He swallows a second, and a third. His eyes are watering. His lips are cracked and chapped and he needs a shave.

She jumps up and refills his glass. He drinks and swallows, and drinks again. He jiggles a balloon, testing the knot. He drinks. Finally the box is empty. The balloons are all inside him. But he drank the water. If he got a bad case of the Thailand trots, would the balloons simply slither out of him — in the toilet of the plane, maybe, or in the airport bathroom? And even if he makes it back into the States — then what? He has no gated walls; no one will salute or scold him. He is free.

Jill can’t stand the pity of it. She reaches for him. She holds him tightly in her arms, pressing her cheeks painfully into his spiked hair. I am so selfish, she thinks. And then he kisses her. His mouth is awkward and hungry. It tastes bad, and his lips are so chapped, they scratch and catch on hers. Jill is afraid of all the things she, a virgin, and a good girl, never quite believed in — AIDS, prison, death — but she doesn’t pull away. She kisses him back. More out of shame than anything. And she understands this about herself — that her shame will endanger her again and again. That curiosity and shame will bring her lip to lip with all of it, all the germs and uncertainties and suffering and terror from which nothing, certainly not her nationality, certainly not her virginity, will protect her. And part of her rejoices. But mostly she feels horror, and then a settled dread. She pulls away from him and runs to the bathroom, where she gives in to the urge to rinse her mouth.

Peter is not bad. But he is, she realizes, contagious. He carries the accident of his life and spreads it. And so does she. She buries her head in her hands. And, not for the last time, she prays. Let it be okay. I get it, I understand, you don’t have to punish me; I see it, please, let us be okay. Let us all be okay.

He knocks on the door. Jill opens it.

“You should go home now,” he says. “I’ll be okay.”

He gives Jill a fistful of baht and rouses Maizie, who is groggy and who, in spite of her shower, reeks. Jill wants to stay here, in his clean, cold room with its generic Western lines, its purple orchid bedspread and photograph of the king and queen. It’s safe here. She’s no one. She wants to be no one always, in a cold room where no one would ever dream she’d be, where her life won’t touch anything or hurt anyone or make things spoiled. She doesn’t want to want anything. It no longer seems worth the risk.

“I thought it would be beautiful,” she says. “I thought it would be different from this.”

He paces. She watches his bare feet on the carpet.

“It should add up to more than this. It’s supposed to mean more than this. Isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” he tells her, “but you have to get yourself home.”

He paces the room, rubbing his stomach; he cracks a beer and pours it past cracked lips, and she imagines the balloons in his gut rising to float on the golden foam.


Maizie lists hot and damp against her, and Jill holds her hard because the tuk-tuk bounces and swerves and they could spill out into the traffic. It would be so easy — the seat is slick and gummy and Jill is so tired. Maizie is coming awake now, leaning out of the tuk-tuk to vomit. Remember this, Jill tells herself, remember all of it, don’t let it become a dream, remember it, hold on.

The tuk-tuk slows. The driver gestures at Maizie, looking at the two of them in disgust. He pulls over. Mai di, he says, mai ow. Jill gives their address again, insists. The driver shakes his head. But it’s all right. Jill recognizes the road, the great field of sunflowers beside the AIDS billboard with its skeletons and needles.

The driver stops beside the ditch, and Jill pays him and pulls on Maizie, who wakes up without surprise. They step out beside the field of sunflowers, holding hands. Rows of sunflowers radiate back and back, a thousand bright mandalas wheeling against the line of mountains, where the sun is rising. On the mountains, racing clouds are blue-heavy, and a breeze kicks up and stirs the girls’ hair. Jill hears thunder and smells ozone.

The girls stagger through the bright green grasses in the ditch, following the line of barbed wire that leads back to their compound, where, no doubt, there will be explanations, and punishment, and soda cans in the fridge. Sunflower petals come flying on the wind, damp and torn. They stick to Maizie’s face, cling to Jill’s neck, so the two of them are pasted all over with yellow petals, every inch of their drenched skin.


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from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/23/rainy-season/

The Salmon’s Identity Crisis

We’ve domesticated dogs, chickens, pigs and countless plants. Now we’re doing the same to wild fish. In the science magazine Nautilus, Matthew Berger writes about how cultivation is not only changing the salmon genetically, but about what cultivation means to the idea of salmon, and to humanity’s relationship with nature. Exploring evolution and the history of salmon aquaculture, Berger asks: when does this domesticated crop no longer resemble its wild ancestor, and does it matter?

But salmon have changed, and that change has been more than genetic or morphological or geographic; it’s been a change in vocabulary and perception. Domestication has created a kind of relativity, undermining what makes a salmon a salmon. This generation’s grandkids will probably know salmon as that plentiful fish raised in pens, not as a creature that has evolved to migrate thousands of miles through freshwater, saltwater, over waterfalls, and around dams.

Gross sees domesticated salmon as “a continuation of human agricultural development that began 10,000 years ago.” Today, that agricultural enterprise is touching new species and leaving its mark on not just animals in pens but the ones that remain, to whatever degree, “wild.”

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from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/22/the-salmons-identity-crisis/

Five Stories About Espionage

The life of a spy is supposed to be glamorous. James Bond, right? Fancy cars, hot women, top-of-the line technology, and a signature drink. I went looking for those stories this week, then remembered James Bond isn’t, you know, real. There are no standoffs on the top of moving trains, and Dame Judi Dench does not run a secret government agency, unfortunately. The reality of espionage is still exciting, but it’s more complicated. The good guys and bad guys are not so easily differentiated. Today’s spying relies on social media, surveillance, coercion and ambition.

1. “Welcome to America–Now Spy on Your Friends.” (Talal Ansari & Siraj Datoo, BuzzFeed, January 2016)

Immigrants to the United States—specifically, Muslim immigrants—may find their citizenship process stymied illegally by the FBI unless they act as informants.

2. “Spies, Cash and Fear: Inside Christian Money Guru Dave Ramsey’s Social Media Witch Hunt.” (Matthew Paul Turner, The Daily Beast, May 2014)

Dave Ramsey doles out “biblically based” financial advice in his bestselling books, radio show, and TV spots. He’s beloved by the folks who’ve used his methods to get out of debt and start saving money. But by some accounts, his company is hellish to work for, and Ramsey has done his damndest to suppress said accounts:

As the president of The Lampo Group, the only thing Dave Ramsey hates more than gossip is seemingly when the gossip is about Dave Ramsey. “As a boss, Dave Ramsey was a bully,” said one former employee, who was a member of a secret Facebook group of about 100 former Lampo employees that Ramsey managed to infiltrate without their knowledge last year. “Most of us left Lampo years ago and yet he still haunts us, lurking over our shoulders like he’s the damn Godfather. And many of us are scared of him, unsure of how far he’d go to silence us.”

3. “Suspecting the Smiths.” (Anya Groner, Oxford American, February 2014)

The author’s childhood Harriet-the-Spy-esque shenanigans are vindicated.

4. “Abe Lincoln’s Loveliest Spy.” (Christina Drill, Narratively, May 2014)

A talented actress abandons the stage with a flourish and continues her career behind enemy lines.

5. “Stealing White.” (Del Quentin Wilber, Bloomberg Business, February 2016)

It’s called “economic espionage,” and I’d never heard of it until I read this complex, fascinating essay about Chinese corporations—and one man in particular—intent on stealing a secret formula to make the brightest, cleanest color white in the world.

from Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2016/02/21/five-stories-about-espionage/