Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Cover Art

I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

Fearing realized that mass media was a weapon. Propaganda had always been around, of course, and the media had been involved in wars–William Randolph Hearst practically started the Spanish-American War. Radio, though, had a kind of penetration and propaganda value that newspapers couldn’t match, and now there were networks with a national reach.

The introduction to Clark Gifford’s Body cites a 1936 incident in which Spanish Falangists seized a station in Valencia. What if one side in a war took an entire nation of radio stations at once? If they could hold them (it turns out the Committee for Action can’t), they’d control the public’s perception of the conflict. That could be a more powerful weapon than any number of guns. This was the kind of bleeding-edge idea dealt with by the best near-future SF.

John Brown wanted to end slavery. We’re never sure what Clark Gifford wants. We know the Committee for Action opposes the Provisional Government of what used to be the United States, but we don’t know its core beliefs. We don’t know what the Provisional Government is doing, besides fighting a couple of wars in unnamed foreign countries. That might be what the trouble is about. In a scene set three years before the attack, we hear a brief secondhand report on Gifford’s plans. They’re textbook isolationism, an attitude that doesn’t really have a place in today’s liberal-conservative spectrum but was popular in the years after the first World War.

But does Gifford believe in isolationism as an ideal, or is it an excuse? Gifford’s policies–treat all media as public utilities, ban foreign trade with potential enemies–are power grabs the public would never put up with without some serious propaganda to convince them. Or unless they could be convinced not to care about such things at all. And Gifford doesn’t talk about his ideas. The Committee’s broadcasts, while they last, are pure self-promotion. Gifford writes a letter from prison, but it doesn’t help us understand the man; it’s three pages of vague platitudes. This is as close as he gets to an opinion:

A man must value something, his beliefs, his country and its people, his personal honor, something, whatever it may be, so much that he is prepared to die for it if that should be necessary.

Gifford doesn’t care what you value. What matters is publicly demonstrating your commitment. What matters is the pose.

Matt Taibbi, in a recent blog post about the popularity of Sarah Palin, made this observation:

The really beautiful thing about the culture war, from an entertainment standpoint, is that it is fundamentally irresolvable. There isn’t a concrete set of issues involved, where in theory both sides could give in a little and find middle ground, reach some sort of compromise.

That’s because there are no issues at all.

Kenneth Fearing is writing about a world where people have stopped caring about issues. Thirty years after the attack, on the question of just what the hell the trouble was about, the residents of Bonnfield are proudly indifferent:

Today you can turn on the radio any hour of the night or day and, excepting maybe an occasional historical sketch, there won’t be anything about the wars. Neither those wars, or any others. Nothing but entertainment, and news about business, sports, or a bad accident somewhere.

One character we meet fairly late is a man who grew up among six different foreign armies. As a child he picked up whatever language he needed. Now he speaks a weird personal dialect pieced together from all of them, which no one else understands. Over the course of the book, we see people who pick up and discard politics just as easily, choosing sides based not on personal convictions but on personalities, friendships, and their immediate personal circumstances. No wonder no one in Bonnfield wants to hear about issues. They probably have as much trouble talking about them as that first poor guy has just talking.