Lame Ivy League Fiction and Brilliant Paranoia

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    Tom Paine's first book is Scar Vegas and Other Stories (Harcourt, 215 pages, $22), and I pick on it only as an example. Let's concede that having a story collection published nowadays is in itself an accomplishment, given a commercial publishing environment where short story collections are considered box office death. Paine's bona fides are all in order. He has that great American name, his stories have been appearing in the right places (The New Yorker, Playboy, Harper's), he's won the right prizes (a couple of Pushcarts, an O. Henry), he went to Princeton and Columbia and teaches at Middlebury, he's been in fact to Yaddo, he got good blurbs and pre-pub reviews for this book, his first reading for it is at Temple Bar, he takes a great author's photo (longhaired, cheekboned, like a cross between a surfer dude and the guy who played guitar in the Saturday Night Live band, only he's probably not a runt) and his fictional voice is dreadful. Just awful. He tries on a variety of regular-people characters?soldiers, skatepunks, Haitian refugees, Texas trash?and presumes their thoughts and speech. But he doesn't know any of these characters, and the results are clumsy, phony, faux-demotic, all shopworn characterizational cliches dressed up as insightful observations, a damning tin-earmark of the Ivy League school of contemporary fiction.

    This is supposed to be the teenage skatepunk's voice, opening a story called "The Spoon Children":

    Like a lot of this takes place before me and Nosebone got out there to the Anarchist Convention in Portland in the summer of 1996. Maybe you read about the convention in the newspapers, because of the martial law. For me all this time before the convention is kind of like a foggy blur, because before I met Blue out there on the West Coast, I was like tripping six days a week.

    Before we left Providence for the West Coast I had some serious dreads, and I had just grown this wispy gold thing on my chin, and I used to curl it in my fingers a lot when I was tripping. I don't know, it just felt good in between my thumb and fingers. Maybe because I was like just sixteen and it was the first hair on my face so it was kind of cool and when you're tripping you can get all meditative like these are the first hairs on my face?even if it's not the sort of thing I would've said to Bugeye or Nosebone or any of the other dudes I was skate-boarding with in Providence in those days. If Blue was around in those days, I might have said it to her, but she was still in my future.

    Here's a soldier:

    We landed in the Saudi on this two-lane road up near Ras-al-Mishab, about twenty klicks south of Khafji. People figured Captain Beck would report the screwup ASAP to Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters, and soon we would have our old Sergeant Packer with us. But Captain Beck, he didn't report the screwup to MEF-HQ, he couldn't deal at all.

    I trust you take my point. These aren't the real people in the real world they're supposed to be in this kind of fiction. They're mere characterizations based on observations from too great a distance to be convincing to anyone who doesn't spend too much time on game preserves like Yaddo and Princeton and Middlebury and Harper's. They are placed in not terribly novel situations: the Marine Corps general who wears silk tinies, the cowpoke set loose in Vegas, the zillionaire sailor whose boat capsizes, landing him on a raft crowded with Haitian refugees. It reads like treatments for the kind of short films they show on the Sundance Channel.

    Then again, somebody just handed me an issue of Joe, the Starbucks "literary magazine." I suppose it's nice of Starbucks to support writers and artistes in a fashion that doesn't have them standing behind the counter in foolish uniforms. Instead, Joe pays various names?the over-the-hill Patti Smith, the awful Pagan Kennedy, the whatever-happened-to Mark Leyner, the authentically talented Hanif Kureishi?to phone in no-brainers on hack subjects like "The Cult of Cute" and the put-a-bullet-through-me-before-I-ever-hear-it-referenced-again Antiques Roadshow. Frappuccino journalism.

    Sonic Boom Let's call him Ultra. He says he's in his mid-30s, a computer programmer in Camden County, NJ. Responding to an e-mail query, he won't tell me his name or give any other identifying details, for personal security reasons. That's because, he says, his neighbors, and quite possibly agents of HUD, are out to get him. "For over a year now, a harassment group that has access to extremely advanced surveillance equipment and non-lethal weapons has targeted me," he writes on his web page ( ultra21753/ultra.htm). "I named the harassment group 'UltraSonics' because the group primarily uses weapons that produce powerful ultrasonic sound waves to attack its target." Ultra may be a paranoid schizophrenic, but he's built a thorough and well-organized webpage, with links to some news and governmental sites that are very interesting in their own right. He may be a hoaxer, too, but if so he's writing more arresting fiction, in a more innovative form, than any two dozen New Yorker types.

    He tells me he lives in a nice, neat suburban neighborhood, where he does not fit in. The way he describes it, it sounds like the scrubbed Potemkin neighborhoods in The Prisoner and The Truman Show. You know the kind of neighborhood, and it's not hard to picture feeling paranoid there. From his webpage:

    "Before all the high tech stuff started with me, I would notice my neighbor video taping me with a camcorder as I came and left my house. I really didn't think much of this at the time. My neighbor must have been sending the videotapes to UltraSonics in order to persuade UltraSonics to target me. My neighbors for years have tried everything to persuade me to move. They used conventional methods, such as name-calling, threats, and other psychological tactics in their attempt. I had one neighbor who would run in his house whenever I would walk out of my house. One of my other neighbors would pull down their window shades every time I came home at night. Things took a turn for the worst when I installed one of those earth shaking car stereo systems in my car." (My emphasis.) "The sub woofer could be heard half way down the block. The retired police officer that lives in my neighborhood most likely doesn't like Gangster Rap. I would listen to NWA, Easy-E, and ICE-T and it didn't go over well, I guess. The cop is a big man in town. The cop may have used his influence to persuade UltraSonics to target me. UltraSonics could be doing a 'High Tech Rodney King' on me for the cop. I did start noticing my neighbor videotaping me about the time I started playing the Gangster Rap. It's kind of strange that UltraSonics decided to target me because I've never been arrested before or broken any law. My neighbors always used names like 'Fag' and 'Queer' to address me. This would lead me to believe that I could have been targeted because UltraSonics thinks I'm a homosexual."

    He went to the cops, but of course, "Every time I went to the police station, UltraSonics would seem to know. The UltraSonics agents living in my neighbor's house would put on a show for the police after I went each time. The neighborhood became deserted after UltraSonics began its operation in my neighbor's house, over a year ago. But every time I went to the police station, UltraSonics agents would come outside of their house and work on something around their house, where they would be visible for the police to see them. They would also have children play in the front of the house to create the illusion of normalcy in the neighborhood."

    Bastards. They also started messing with him, he says, on the job:

    "As I would come to work and leave work, I would start noticing the people in the business suite next to my company were coming and leaving with me. It would always happen, at least one would arrive with me in the morning and one would leave with me at night. About six employees worked in that business suite. As I pulled in the parking lot in the morning, one of those six cars would suddenly appear and park in the closest possible parking space to me. At night, when I left for the day, at least one of the employees from that suite would come out and get in their car and leave..."

    All right, so far, so much just another tinfoil-hatter. It's the way Ultra's worked out "all the high tech stuff" that makes his story absorbing reading. He speculates UltraSonics is using advanced acoustical weaponry on him, perhaps a vortex ring generator, maybe microwave guns, experimental equipment like that. For instance, he writes:

    "'Sonic Bullets' and 'Acoustic Bullets' are different names for the same type of sonic wave. These sonic bullets are usually powerful short sonic waves. I've been hit with several types of skull penetrating sonic bullets... A feeling of something slowly moving through the head will occur and then another slight jolt as the sonic bullet exits the skull bone on the other side of the head. This all occurs in around a second."

    He's been hit with a slower-moving sonic wave that they can beam straight through the walls of his house or office. "As this sonic wave passes through the human body, it will produce a strong force applied to the human body because of the bones. This force could produce a strong violent jolt of the human body, as the sonic wave attempts to drag the bones off the body, in the direction of the sonic wave. I've been jolted as much as six inches by the very powerful sonic shock waves. The sonic shock waves are most likely ultrasonic, which means they are above of the human hearing range and can't be heard.

    "Strong sonic waves passing through the human body also affect the nerves of the human body. A choking effect can be produced by passing the right frequency sonic wave through the neck of a human. The vocal chords will resonate, which causes this choking sensation. Passing a sonic wave through the chest can produce a gasping for air. The sonic wave affects the lungs in some way. A shot to the stomach will produce a violent reflex of the stomach muscle. This shot to the stomach will take a person down. This type of weapon was demonstrated on a Discovery Channel show called 'Shoot not to kill.'"

    The Discovery Channel? That's the thing. In the best tradition of paranoid theory, this guy has constructed his persecution complex out of documented fact. And, in the best tradition of the Web, his story is studded with links to that documentation.

    The U.S. military has always been interested in developing "non-lethal weaponry" (NLW), especially for use in riot control or in hostage-type situations where you want to limit your use of force. Some examples we all recognize: the stun gun or taser is an NLW, the rubber bullet, the tear gas canister. Ultra links you to a 1997 U.S. News & World Report cover story that discusses a lot more exotic NLW research. "Wonder Weapons" (with the subhed, "The Pentagon's quest for nonlethal arms is amazing. But is it smart?") described ongoing Pentagon r&d into equipment like sonic cannons that could knock a man down with sheer bursts of sound, and microwave guns that can heat up your intestines until you crap yourself into submission.

    If you don't like U.S. News as a credible enough source, go straight to the Dept. of Defense's site for its Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program , where in the online newsletter you can read wonderful passages like:

    During early FY99, the 66mm Vehicle-Launched Non-Lethal Grenades (VL NLG) Program suffered a setback. The program, which had been accelerated from a five-year to a three-year development effort, laid its hopes on modifying an existing L8 grenade design to achieve the stingball blunt trauma and the flash-bang payloads. During Engineering Design and Lethality Testing, the following discrepancies were discovered: a) The propellant charge necessary to achieve the 100-meter minimum range requirement exceeded the Light Vehicle Obscuration & Smoke System (LVOSS) M7 discharge capacity, which caused fouling of the launcher tubes and erosion of the drain holes. It also caused excessive deformation/stress on the grenade body, which in turn caused inconsistent launch dynamics. b) If the grenade was launched into a crowd, the large bursting charge required for reliable payload dispersion would likely result in permanent hearing loss. In addition, unexploded grenades could cause severe injury to the head, neck or torso. For these reasons, the Joint Service Requirements Team redirected the program away from the L8 design...

    And you call my man Ultra crazy. When he writes, "UltraSonics is in possession of a new type of imaging technology that can see images of people through walls of a house," again you think he's nuts?but follow his link to the article that was filed at last June: "Cops Have Eyes On X-Ray Vision: New Technology Would Let Police See Through Walls," it announces. "Three high-tech labs are in the final stages of developing a new form of radar device that can see through walls by broadcasting radio signals across broad bands of the spectrum to pinpoint a hidden suspect," it explains. One product in development "can detect breathing through wood, plaster or concrete from 20 feet away."

    Why HUD? "I was told that real estate companies and/or a government agency called funding UltraSonics," Ultra writes. "The government agency HUD makes the most sense to me. Local officials of HUD could be illegally diverting funds to purchase the equipment and weapons. HUD also has the ability to rent a house, and they use small businesses for outsourcing work. A lot of people have told me that HUD is an extremely inefficient agency of the federal government. This could be one major reason why HUD is so inefficient."

    Not surprisingly, Ultra's page has elicited e-mail from fellow sufferers of top-secret surveillance and harassment. He advises that "Law enforcement will be of little to no help. I tried the local police and got smart remarks and laughs." He counsels, "If you are ever attacked by UltraSonics, my advice to you would be to keep a cool head." And he says, "Am I a Paranoid Schizophrenic? You decide. I urge you to keep an open mind, though."

    Think of him maybe as a canary in the mineshaft, warning us of the potential?potential?for abuse by powers who seem increasingly interested in domestic surveillance and crowd control. Have a look at the FBI's "Project Megiddo" report , effectively a laundry list of all the potentially subversive types the FBI is feeling paranoid about lately, for an indication.

    Gen. Robert E. Lee famously said, "It is well war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." Welcome to the future of warfare, Gen. Lee. And bear in mind this, from that DoD newsletter:

    Projected Threat Environment: In the future, warfighters will continue to serve in tumultuous environments, and the potential for exposure to the nontraditional battlespace is expected to increase. The ability to apply the appropriate level of force in a controlled, measured manner in a response to a variety of threats will be critical.