Undercover: The Seventies Take Over the Future (05/31/79)

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I like the short stories in Michael Rogers’ Do Not Worry About the Bear (Knopf, 209 pp., $8.95), but if it were not for the quiet, unpretentious authority of the writing, I’d think they were aimed at the movies. Most end with the predictable, ironic twist we associate with bad films, or with the people who are always sending us to stupid movies they think have changed their lives (they probably have). The twist signals less that a real point has been made than that the author is looking for an exit, or lacks the confidence to let his story hold to its rhythm and end itself.

In “Skin’s Art,” a convincingly drawn screwup brings bad trouble upon himself; as the trouble builds, as if to keep it at a distance, he makes a frame for the water bed he shares with his girlfriend. She arrives home, and he tells her about the disaster that has taken place. Still, she’s delighted with the new frame, and they go to bed. Naturally, a splinter punctures the bed; it floods. End.

Up to this point, nothing in the story has seemed contrived, self-conscious or literary. But the too-neat twist exposes the author’s tyranny over his characters, and diminishes them: they’ve been moving prosaically, if fearfully, through ordinary, interesting lives, and the twist cuts the ground right out from under them.

“Skin’s Art”—like “Ruins” and “Fishing,” two strong stories that end similarly—stays in the mind anyway. Rogers’ people are very Seventies people: they don’t talk very well in a way that’s extremely hard to capture, and Rogers has it down cold. When it comes to dialogue he doesn’t miss a beat. It can be painful—embarrassing—to run into so many friends in this book; it can also, of course, be very funny. One of Rogers’ themes seems to be cowardice, a cowardice that Seventies speech sums up: his characters are always pulling back, cutting emotional corners. A lot of them are the sort of people on whom the security industry depends.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Rogers is best known for Biohazard, a study of the politics of recombinant DNA: a study of a version of the future that is already in progress. Some of his characters in Do Not Worry about the Bear live in the future: a future that is menacingly and yet blandly implicit in the present, which we can recognize but not accept, and which thus carries a terrific charge of displacement. These characters, though, are also Seventies people. They vary from ourselves mainly in that they have access to different technologies.

That Rogers hasn’t invented “Nineties people” for the Nineties (or whenever) is not an imaginative failing. It’s as if he’s saying that cultural evolution—a process that depends on art, the nature of relationships between people, the quality of generally available information—is already atrophying. The new technologies in Rogers’ stories determine the shape of the future, but in an utterly flat, un-dramatic way. Thus the future seems enervated, and it is all too believable.

The stories set here—“Crazy Times” (a few years hence), “Klysterman’s Silent Violin” (next year or two decades from now), “The Nub of the Roach” (maybe twenty years off) and “Lilies of the Trench” (1989?)—are delightful and creepy: horror without gimmicks. “Crazy Times” is about a man with a strange, debilitating disease; it ends with a twist no one could have seen coming, and the effect is not irritation, but more like falling through a trapdoor. The hilarious “Lilies of the Trench” concerns a man who deals in contraband technologies the way people today deal in dope. He’s like a black-box fanatic, so intricately involved with his mastery of machines that his personality has shrunk to paranoia and cleverness—and to a sort of playful glee that can turn into a malicious, small-time version of the hubris affecting the big-time scientists in “Klysterman’s Silent Violin,” who, working in a biochemical warfare lab, accidentally develop a strain of carnivorous bacteria. Here again, the ending is a bit of a twist, but as with “Crazy Times,” not one that could have been anticipated—instead of turning the story back on itself, it takes the story past what seemed to be its limits.

The problem with Rogers’ characters—the reason why they are failures as people, even if they are successful as characters—is that they don’t think. They don’t like to, they aren’t used to it. Passivity is their natural state, and when they act, it’s to protect their sphere of passivity. In Do Not Worry about the Bear, such lives seem much more real than they do in the stories of Ann Beattie (in Distortions or the recent Secrets and Surprises), whose concerns are similar. The reason may be that Rogers offers more than well-crafted gloom: his characters may not get the joke, but we do, even if it is very close to being on us.


Rolling Stone, May 31, 1979


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