Category Archives: Shorter Works

Philip Roth, Part 2

For part 1 about Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, see here

I can’t explain why I chose The Plot Against America as my rapprochement. Oddly, it is Roth dipping his toes into alternative history, which is a literary maestro’s way of writing science fiction without condemnation. (There’s also alternative fiction, which might not even be a term, for when you write a new version of an old book- say telling the Jekyll/Hyde story from a new perspective. That may not be science fiction, but rather fantasy, but then again, most people don’t distinguish. Maybe they shouldn’t.)

The book is fantastic, which comes as no surprise to people who read Roth regularly. I’m sure that his followers have that list of writer foibles and tics as well as favorites, just like every reader of King or Updike or Shakespeare. Yet, I can only compare it to that early exposure. Maybe I should have read Portnoy or Columbus from the first page through to the last. No writer ever writes a book thinking “These next few pages should be ideal for skimming.”

What strikes me is how that youthful prejudice proved so lasting. In fact, those experiences with literary bestsellers colored my whole impression of the field and made them look like an insurmountable marathon. I remain a difficult sale, but I think that reflects a changing world as much as the residue from previous reads.

While it seems like people read less and less (which does seem explicitly unverifiable),  the market of books has expanded grotesquely. The democratization of art markets sounds ideal. I like the idea that people have a chance to share their work with the world. I’m also not too sure that the distinction between professional and amateur was ever as clear-cut as self-defined professionals would have consumers believe.

Breaking through the paper ceiling

From a consumer perspective, it becomes difficult to identify quality. What if I don’t exactly want the flavor of the month from the big reviewers (Times, New Yorker, etc.)? After all, those works sometimes seem precious and praised by the same academic circles that produced the books in the first place. I can no longer turn to my friends for suggestions. Nowadays, they read specialty magazines or blogs or flash fiction or their other friend’s self-published memoir. I might like any of those, but they don’t cry out to me like a catered book that has reached cultural critical mass.

I found it difficult to dive into the world of national book award winners, like the Pulitzer, the Booker, and, well, the National Book Award. Should I read Chabon or Ingalls or Johnson? I strongly suspected that any selection would be well-crafted and properly edited. So, the choices boiled down to what looked interesting. And there was my old friend, Philip Roth.

I did read the others, too. Actually, I read them first, as I still carried the early impressions of Roth still. They were well-crafted and properly edited. I want to say that they fell into a pattern, but that would be disingenuous. At best, I could say that they had similar mouth feel, to borrow a term from gastronomy, which people seem to use when they want to refer to a certain something indefinable.

Philip Roth, Part 1

Tracking the fact that you’re reading Roth on Goodreads and then blogging about it feels like one of the first signs of the nerd apocalypse

I’ve started tracking my reading and general book stuff on Goodreads. This does feel like the intersection of two more forms of nerdiness. I don’t know whether to be proud or go lie down and wait until the urge to update Goodreads passes.

By the time this is posted, I hope to be finished with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of the best books that I have read. If you’re surprised by that statement, then you know how I felt before reading the book. I feel like this is a good time to mention that Roth died a couple days ago, when I was about two-thirds of the way through his novel. Life constantly amazes me with coincidences.

My entire experience of Roth prior to this book involved one movie and two books. I saw Goodbye, Columbus about a decade or more ago and thought it was a fun little riff on The Graduate. I like Richard Benjamin, so that was fun. Much longer ago, I received a box of paperback books from my brother and sister-in-law, who were looking for somewhere to dispose of them. I was a very appreciative recipient, especially as the top layer was Stephen King and Peter Straub. I think I skipped right over the whole Flowers in the Attic series, but I remember the covers. Further down, I found Portnoy’s Complaint. The cover blurb made it clear that inside would be found some naughty bits, so I skimmed for those. The same was true of Goodbye, Columbus and some Joseph Heller.

Almost as nerdy as getting a doctorate in creative writing so you can study comic books based on Jane Austen’s works

In effect, I read most of Portnoy’s Complaint. I understood that there were jokes included because some of the situations were ridiculous. The problem was that I read it out of order, so it came across as a series of odd vignettes. I was not impressed to the degree that the cover blurbs suggested that I should be. I had just started to notice that there was more than one great American novel, so I did get the notion of puffery.

Moreover, I was doubtless unprepared for the subject matter. While I was born on the East Coast, I was raised in the Midwest with all the experiences of a suburban life. It wasn’t that the book failed to ring true. The problem was that it rang no truer than any science fiction novel. This may not truly have been an East Coast thing. I didn’t get a lot of stuff back then. (Maybe I don’t now, but at least back then I fell like I was drowning with inexperience.)

The net effect was that I avoided reading any other Roth since those premature days. Sure, I’d tug one of his books off the shelf at the library and skim it for old times sake. All that accomplished was a strange sense of unease coupled with a failure to focus on the writing.

Declassified A-files

1947 Declassified A-files

According to recently declassified A-files, one summer afternoon in 1947, itinerant preacher and civilian pilot, Kenneth Arbogast, was using his plane to search a remote area of the Cascade Mountains for proof of a foreign invasion.  Scanning the ground, he banked his aircraft in a sweeping turn over the town of Mineral.  Arnold saw a brilliant blue-white flash across his plane’s wings.  Desperately looking around, Arbogast saw a tight formation of nine “peculiar-looking babies with wings.”  They were far to the north of him, but they were heading in his direction—very fast.  He later reported: “They didn’t fly like any aircraft I’d seen before.  Maybe it would be best to describe their flight characteristics as being similar to a flock of geese.”  He was certain the United States didn’t have such advanced aircraft, but what about the Soviet Union?

Kenneth Arbogast was, to all outward appearances, a pillar of society. He was a successful minister at a young age and an acting deputy auxiliary police officer for Wichitaw County, Kansas.  In later years, Arbogast reported several more sightings.  Whatever the truth about Arbogast’s story, public reaction was amazing.  Over the coming years, thousands of people have reported encounters with holy beings.

On June 28, 1948, the Air Force gave unexpected support to Arbogast by reporting that a pilot in a P-51 Mustang fighter over Lake Mead in Nevada saw five or six glowing objects hovering in the sky.  According to official military memos, the glow was from “tail-lights or halos.”

The Fifties and Sixties saw Americans moving beyond mere sightings into direct contact with angels.  In the ensuing decades, reports have taken a more sinister turn.

The adumbration phenomenon

The adumbration phenomenon is an umbrella term used to describe a number of assertions stating that angelic creatures kidnap individuals.  Many such encounters are described as transformative or pleasant, but others describe them as terrifying or even humiliating. Reports of angelic contact have been made from around the world and throughout history.

Alleged abductions are usually closely connected to apparition reports, and are supposedly conducted by so-called cherubim: short, pale-skinned humanoids with large heads and enormous, dark eyes. It is possible that some “abductees” may be unstable types or under the influence of illegal substances. Religious beliefs are also cited as the source of angelic abduction delusions, though some commentators argue that it might be more accurate to characterize the phenomenon as a type of modern-day folk myth (like the historic belief in martians).

While some experts contend the field is rife with kooks and pseudoscience, there is little doubt that many apparently sincere persons report angelic abductions they believe are utterly genuine. Stigma and self-doubt may be obstacles to more widespread study and/or reporting.

Some abduction reports are quite detailed. The “terror abduction” experience is reported mainly in the USA, while in the rest of the world, particularly France, the encounters are said to be largely benevolent.  An entire subculture has developed around the subject, with prayer groups and a detailed mythos explaining the reasons for abductions.  Various angels (cherubim, seraphim, “Archangels” and so on) are said to have specific roles, origins, and motivations. Abduction claimants do not always attempt to explain the phenomenon, but some take independent research interest in it themselves, and explain the lack of greater awareness of Angelic Abduction as the result of either governmental or humanistic interest in cover-up.

Possibilities provoke serious thought

Some non-contactees are intrigued by the entire phenomenon, but hesitate in making any definitive conclusions. Former Vice President Dick Cheney asked “How can a person have any firmly held belief about this when it’s so mysterious? The opinions of the true believers are hard to swallow; and the opinions of the die-hard skeptics are not based on reality either. There is some middle ground … It’s clear that this is some sort of powerful subjective experience. But I do not know what the objective reality is. It’s as if the evidence leads us in both directions.”  Similarly, a former Harvard president concluded, “The furthest you can go at this point is to say there’s an authentic mystery here. And that is, I think, as far as anyone ought to go.”


Recently declassified image of misbehaving angels

Putting aside the question of whether abduction reports are literally and objectively “real”, literature professor Terry Matheson argues that their popularity and their intriguing appeal is easily understood. Tales of abduction “are intrinsically absorbing; it is hard to imagine a more vivid description of human powerlessness.” After experiencing the frisson of delightful terror one may feel from reading the Holy Bible or watching The Passion of the Christ, Matheson notes that people “can return to the safe world of their homes, secure in the knowledge that the phenomenon in question cannot follow. But as the contact myth has stated from the outset, there is no avoiding a guardian angel.”

Matheson writes that when compared to the ancient reports, modern accounts are distinguished by their “relative sophistication and subtlety, which enabled them to enjoy an immediately more favorable reception from the public.”

Different cases vary in detail (sometimes significantly). Some argue that there is a broad, fairly consistent sequence and description of events which make up the typical “close encounter of the angelic kind”.


The rest of the world is different

There are however cultural differences in perception of these reported incidents. Although in North America, guardian angels are the most commonly blamed in these incidents, in Europe and other parts of the world, they are as often perceived to be demonic in origin.

The individual(s) concerned are often traveling by automobile at the time of the incident, usually at night or in the early morning hours, and usually in a rural or sparsely populated area. An angel will be seen ahead, (sometimes on the road) and the driver will either deliberately stop to investigate, or the car will stop due to apparent mechanical failure. Other forms of mechanical failure and interference are also common, such as a car radio producing static or behaving abnormally. In the occasions when they have been present, animals such as dogs usually also display a heightened fear response.

Upon getting out of the vehicle, the driver and passenger(s) typically will experience a blank period and amnesia, after which they will find themselves again standing in front of their car. They very often will not consciously remember the experience. In some older cases, there were also occasional reports of abductees exhibiting symptoms consistent with nuclear radiation sickness.

As noted above, the so-called cherubim, are most popularly associated with abduction reports. Again, however, this seems to be a North American paradigm best-known since the 1980s and the appearance of smoking cherubim on the cover of a Van Halen album.

Actual proof?

Dr Dan D. Derriere writes, “In many of these accounts, there is independent confirmation of missing time–emotionally stable people arriving hours late after long or short automobile journeys. For example, my research assistant and I regularly encounter angels near the Motel 6 close by campus.  As my colleagues and family members can attest, we are consistently unable to account for approximately two hours of time most Tuesday afternoons.”

Most intriguing are recently declassified documents demonstrating decades of government investigation into angelic phenomenon. Moreover, government complicity in suppressing legitimate angelic research is indisputable.  For unknown reasons, the Air Force focused a great deal of attention in the Los Angeles area in 1952.  Could this be the rumored Great Angel Manifestation?   Is it possible that the government recovered a live angel?

More recently, some in the angelogical community have suggested that the government has used holy technology to advance U.S. goals.  How else to explain Stealth aircraft, Ipods, or those cool new computerized voting booths?  Some have even suggested that it is not too far a leap to believe that angels sit in on meetings at the highest levels of American government and business.  Members of the White House and Capitol may even have been abducted by angels and subjected to revelations.