Malzberg’s reflection on the state of the State in post-Kennedy America (4/5)
Malzberg is one author that defies genre expectations, the result being unknown to the armchair SF reader but a subject of interest to the SF fan, collector, and/or archivist. This is the third Malzberg novel I’ve read and, aside from the occasional indulgent sex scene, nothing feels familiar; Malzberg is a man of many pseudonyms but writes in as many styles as the Ramayana’s Ravana has heads. The Destruction of the Temple is a novel which is difficult to synopsize due to its chronological vagueness and direction of plot. This doesn’t make it a bad novel—not at all—;rather, the odd development of the novel challenges the reader, making it an engaging read where one play on words can change the direction of the novel.
Page-one synopsis (Pocket Books):
“The Director has come to the charred ruins of New York to re-enact a mad dream from the past—the assassination of President Kennedy. As actors, he has the primitive race who inhabit the city. With them and his glamorous, dark-haired lover, he rehearses everything—the motorcade, the shots, the panic.
But at the last moment it all goes wrong. When the flower-filled limousine rounds the bend, the passenger is not Kennedy—but the Director himself.
Shots ring out in a wild explosion of roses…”
It’s the year 2016. The city has been left for rubble to the simple citizens who cling to existence within while the countryside denizens (the Institute) clutch at their remaining years of freedom and peace. It is in this countryside—outside the ruins of the city—where the soon-to-be Director toils under the patriarchal eye of the Committee. Solitary with only a one-man link to the Committee (there may be many, there may be only one man), he aims to quash the assumption that his research is petty and that he is idle. Fixating on the violence of the twentieth century—specifically the 1960, an era outside his domain of knowledge—the man plans a “re-enactment, a simple run-through for research purposes” (25) of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963; yet, rather than for mere research, he plans for filmed project to capture the social importance of the event for future studies:
[L]et me do it so that I can bring back to you a genuine reconstruction of an important historical event. What we have forgotten, living as we do, is that we are sunk in the trap of forgetfulness. We do not recall the seediness of these tragedies! They did not occur in high places among the cleanly garbed and assembled, but were, in fact, stumbling events which enacted very much as life lived in cities today. (32)
Ignorance is highlighted at the end of his statement because he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of how life is lived in the city in 2016, only that the common thought of the city is one of despair, poverty, and vermin with the residents, derogatorily named lumpen (thefreedictionary: pertaining to disfranchised and uprooted individuals or groups, esp. those who have lost status). The commonly held belief that cities are the root of many social upheavals is further expounded by the Director:
[E]very single terrible which occurred in the historical period under review, every single terrible event occurred in the cities or around them, occurred as a direct result of the pressures and tensions of urban existence. The riots, the assassinations, the griefs and slaughters, poverty, filth, disease, decay, all of these were urban-centered and therefore we must conclude in any true study of the urban America of that period that the symptoms were indeed the problem, the cure was the disease! (59)
Here is one of Malzeberg’s offered insights into American culture and the basis for the novel: cities are the cancer of our society. Outside the city, people are at their best in terms of humanity; people are rational, sympathetic, and cognitive in the country while the city folk are detached, superficial, and despondent. The people in the city are also devious,
adapting changing their tack to meet the circumstances’
most profitable outcome: “in America all faces change, the actors don different
masks; in the repertory that is America nothing is quite as it seems but then
again everything is exactly as it seems if we can bear the comprehension” (77).
This masked intent, veiled purpose, extends beyond interpersonal communication and touches upon government action; namely, the war effort in Vietnam. The government’s extended and failing campaign in Vietnam (1955-1975) frustrated the common man; the dispirited and weary soldier’s angst was transferred to the shared American psyche:
They’ve turned the war around … they can’t fight the war over there anymore so they’ve brought it back here …. they had to bring the machinery somewhere else when they couldn’t fight the war anymore out there so they’ve brought it back and don’t you see, we are the enemy. (117)
While the Committee doesn’t exactly agree with his philosophy of urban sociology, the project gets the green light. Along with his misconception of urban sociology, the to-be Director also holds a heavy bias toward the dehumanization the city’s lumpen. He sees them as sub-human, as willing victims of abuse because they are the “filthiest, dirtiest, degraded, least advantaged, malevolent and diseased” (35) segments of the human race; they have no purpose in their lives, they don’t communicate with each other, and move about with boredom. Repressed in their cordoned off ghetto, the people the countryside and the people of the city have a pact which is a mutual understanding that “we [the countryside] will not hurt them, that they [the lumpen] will not devour us” (111). Acts by the Institute had been implemented to limit their numbers—an act of war called The Sweep that took place in 1993.
It is in this city—the decrepit remains of New York City—that the Director hopes to shoot the re-enactment of Kennedy’s assassination, yet “New York makes an inconstant Dallas, the landscape itself is inimical to the sense of the production” (12). He makes due with the city’s terrain and organizes his actors—the same lumpen which he hates, yet he takes one as an unequal lover. To entice the heathens into his project, the Director says he’ll try to grant them leave from the city but his words are marred by his ill-intent; he harbors no feelings for them, wants to offer them nothing in return, and only wants his project seen to completion regardless of hurt feelings (if they have any at all). If they feel hurt, surely it can’t be any more grievous than the deaths in the city as death always lurks “within this city beast and its approach as casual as the scatter of shot from a rifle” (105).
The Director expects his film crew to arrive after he has filmed three run-throughs of the staged assassination, but each time the actors botch their parts or the physical parts of the setting come apart. All of this confusion sets the Director’s nerves on end and he lashes out at the pathetic lumpen, lambasting at their incompetence. To their defense, the lumpen claim they don’t know they context of their acting nor had they been told of why they were staging this assassination; regardless, the Director claims they can remain in their ignorance if were to just play their damned parts. But the wedge has already been driven between the actors and the director. As the Director is alone in the city, the lumpen descend upon him with looks of reprisal and justice, thereby spawning a series of hallucinations based on historical assassinations in the same era: “The edge of hostility … jangles me and makes my narrative somewhat less lucid” (62).
In inherent insanity of lynching and assassinating belong to the era is relived by the Director, through both eyes of the victims and perpetrators. Though the victims’ temples are shot and their brains splattered, their suffering is brief; “You think the victims suffered, do you? …. Then you ought to take a look at the perpetrators” (87). These deaths give the Director perspective on the repercussions of the actions, not just immediate results but long-lasting historical significance. With each death, there is a purpose; with each method of death, there is a portrayal of that person: “Death is the meaning of life. Death gives life structure and purpose and the manner of a man’s death defines everything he has been” (86).
The Director experiences the deaths; his lumpen lover and her city-dwelling cohorts force him to understand their repression, and the Committee remains out of contact, rendering him helpless—a perpetrator and a victim.
And here is Malzberg’s last thought on the state of the state post-Kennedy; writing this novel ten years after Kennedy’s death, Malzberg has seen the progress/regress of American social and government affairs and telescopes his vision of things to come through this novel. Starting from November 22, 1963:
[T]he bullets will impact, neck and temple, and in that hit the country will begin to die. From those entrance wounds will boil the blood of the nation and it will run free and ragged through the corpus and then through the room, all the rooms, the buildings, streets, cities and at last the country will sink underneath these rivers of blood … this country is going to blow up, no way that it could be saved then, no way that it should be saved. (135)
And here, in the above quote, is Malzberg’s genius in two plays on words: corpus/corpse and temple (of head)/temple (of reverence).