Thursday, July 28, 2011
Eleven Georges That Don’t Add Up To Much: A Study in Capitalist Fundamentals
The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing, is not what it appears to be. It is a murder mystery where both the reader and the main character know who the murderer is early in the novel. The Big Clock should be a novel of suspense as George Stroud leads the internal investigation for the mystery man, but the edgy mood of anticipation is abandoned exactly in the heat of the action, when the Janoth Building is being searched floor to floor, room by room. This element of suspense is dramatically increased in the first film adaptation of The Big Clock (1948) and also in No Way Out (1987), which is set very successfully in the Pentagon. The novel The Big Clock is ineffective in its suspense. Fearing also experiments, half-heartedly it seems, with multiple narrators to no great purpose; the various perspectives mostly serve to reinforce the viewpoint of George Stroud whose eleven chapters overshadow the other characters. In addition to these problems with the novel, an intelligent and ironic man leading an investigation to find himself should be quite philosophically arousing, but it really isn’t. It’s possible The Big Clock just isn’t a very good book. Is it really more than pulp fiction? Why would a writer want the suspense in his own novel to fail? It doesn’t add up. However, if the artistic choices of the writer are taken seriously, The Big Clock presents a bureaucratic and capitalistic system which produces banality, absurdity, and intellectual mediocrity in the lives of all those who march off to work, under the inexorable authority of the big clock, and this banality is authentically mirrored in the text itself.
The motif of the big clock drives all human affairs in the novel. It is the organizing principle of life itself, in the city and in the suburbs. From the first pages of the novel, it is clear that human beings are completely organized by work and time, time and work: “…this gigantic watch that fixes order and establishes the pattern for chaos itself, it has never changed, it will never change, or be changed.”(p. 15) Fearing blends the Roman god of Janus with the major news corporation of Janoth Enterprises in Manhattan. Though Janoth is a kind of deity for those who toil there, there are other gods that are even bigger, such as Jennett-Donohoe which is lurking nearby, ready for a takeover. The service demanded by this god of beginnings and transitions in modern life is both all-consuming and deeply unimpressive: “…I arrived at the Janoth Building, looming like an eternal stone deity among a forest of its fellows. It seemed to prefer human sacrifices, of the flesh and of the spirit, over any other token of devotion. Daily, we freely made them.”(p. 18) Janoth should be an important place to work because its magazines directly shape American thought and culture, but it does not inspire any devotion or love. Instead its workers must sacrifice time, idealism, virtue, and their lives day by day. Earl Janoth has assembled the best writers and pays them well, but the nature of mass journalism is presented as intellectually numbing and even absurd. The angle of a story is more important than the story itself; selling the story is more important than investigative journalism. In the Crimeways editorial discussion early in the novel, the story of Funded Individuals has the most traction for the editorial staff. It is the next big thing. Funded Individuals is the incomplete idea, yet currently running program, to incorporate gifted people through investment. It is a combination of capitalism and a Utopian dream to get rid of poverty by eventually making everyone a millionaire. The absurdity of Funded Individuals is that no one seems to understand how this poverty Ponzi scheme will actually work, but it still goes forward. The psychological condition of the participants is noted by George Stroud III in the discussion: “Tony Watson took the ball, speaking in abrupt, nervous rushes and occasionally halting altogether for a moment of profound anguish. It seemed to me his neurasthenia could have shown more improvement, if not a complete cure, for the four or five thousand dollars he had spent on psychoanalysis.”(p. 24) Another colleague is described as having “a slight, steady aura of confusion.”(p. 30) The Crimeways staff is also not particularly interested in crime. They may be working for Personalities in this human ant farm tomorrow. Fearing presents a world where otherwise talented people gradually become empty suits with talking points, and people with real ideas and values develop nervous disorders. Irony and absurdity abound in the Fearing novel, yet the product of the editorial discussion is quite real for the American public: “What we decided in this room, more than a million of our fellow-citizens would read three months from now, and what they read they would accept as final.”(p. 27) A sense of purpose or greater meaning has long been absent for George Stroud and the others in their professional lives. Their work is a means to an end: the acquisition of money, which leads to the need to acquire more money. This is the pragmatic choice to make as one continues as a participant in the dehumanizing rat race: “But we were not insane.”(p. 27) George maintains an ironic detachment; he keeps a chilling sanity. George is both aware and complicit in the dehumanizing process of work in a capitalistic bureaucracy selling information and spin. The only other option presented is jumping out of a window: “Down the hall, in Sydney’s office, there was a window out of which an almost forgotten editor had long ago jumped…Just picked up his notes and walked down the corridor to his own room, opened the window, and then stepped out.”(p. 27)
George Stroud also knows how to pick himself up after a day of selling his soul. The real meaning of life is not to be found at work, though George takes his job seriously enough. What really makes George Stroud tick? Like Don Draper in Mad Men, George Stroud appears happiest just prior to committing adultery, when the cocktails are flowing fast late into the night. These moments of escape are the philosophical occasions when George seems to be most existentially gratified. He enters into mystery: “But it would be a very rousing thing to spend an evening with this blonde mystery that certainly ought to be solved.”(p. 38) The many Georges of different times start to talk to each other at the moment of truth: “…I realized I had been having an imaginary argument with a shadow of George Stroud standing just in back of the black nimbus she had become. All the other Strouds seemed to saying was: Why not?” As the timekeeper, Janus looks forward and backward, and so does George in these crucial moments of unity with himself. Adultery and alcohol create the small meaning in George’s void of a life. Of course, philandering means that he has to tell lies to his wife, but lying is what George does best. George Stroud is not indifferent to Georgette, and he seems to genuinely like his daughter who enjoys his stories at breakfast (if he makes it home). Georgette and Georgia and George are tied together, by name and economics, and George takes his responsibilities as a provider seriously. Lying is just a necessary part of the arrangement. It is important for George to make as many memories as he possibly can before the room is needed at 12:00 noon. George arrives late in the afternoon at Janoth, but he is apparently safe after his affair with Pauline Delos: “Everything was the same as it had always been. Everything was all right. I hadn’t done anything. No one had.”(p.42) This statement is absurd and illogical, but it makes perfect sense to anyone who has worked.
There are other attempted escapes from the drudgery of work in The Big Clock. When he is slumming, George’s favorite haunt is Gil’s Bar, a drinking establishment which figures prominently in the investigation for the man who was with Pauline on the night of the murder. Gil’s Bar is a setting seen from more than one point of view, and the bar is a junkyard of sorts, cluttered with random objects and assorted memorabilia. When people play the game at Gil’s, asking for a particular object, he tracks down the item, from steamrollers to pink elephants and Poe’s Raven. Gil then provides an historical connection between the object and his own family history. These historical connections are tenuous, random, and absurd. The attempts to find any meaning in human history may be just as random and absurd as Gil’s intellectual burlesque at the bar, but we go through the motions for a drink. The entire nature of Gil’s game is one of plausible lying, which the owner does better the drunker he is. George likes the game because he knows it well. When sent by George Stroud to investigate Gil’s, Ed Orlin finds the entire scene ludicrous: “It was fantastic. I didn’t see how I’d ever get anything out of this fellow. He was an idiot.”(. 102)
The most developed alternative to the world of capitalism and bureaucracy at Janoth is the motif of art and painting in the novel. Two paintings by the fictional artist Louise Patterson figure prominently in the action. The first painting, found by George and Pauline Delos in an antique shop, is called Study in Fundamentals. It presents a basic economic exchange: “The canvas showed two hands, one giving and the other receiving a coin. That was all. It conveyed the whole feeling, meaning, and drama of money.”(p. 50) Pauline immediately calls it The Temptation of Judas. George sees the same imprint of the biblical traitor as well; the disciple who betrayed Jesus is somehow embodied in the basic economic exchange. With minimalist efficiency, capitalism is presented as a betrayal of our humanity; human relationships are reduced to economic exchanges. Art is by no means a successful escape in The Big Clock, but it the voice of reason and irony that can capture the human problem. Art is the strongest place of conviction in the novel, and the author suggests that capitalism is a betrayal of Christianity. Art shows how deeply human beings are caught in the economic dilemmas of existence. George Stroud mounts a strange defense of Judas in the antique shop: “On the spur of the moment I decided, and told her, that Judas must have been a born conformist, a naturally common-sense, rubber stamp sort of fellow who rose far above himself when he became involved with a group of people who were hardly in society, let alone a profitable business.”(p. 53) Christianity was not a profitable business in the beginning, and Judas was the modern conformist who made the religion get into the black by betraying Jesus.
The second painting by Louise Patterson, Study in Fury, presents the other side of the human economic relationship. The dialectic of commerce is replaced by the binary relationship that leads to violence. This painting hangs in George Stroud’s office: “I had bought it at the Lewis Galleries, the profiles of two faces, showing only the brow eyes, nose, lips, and chin of each. They confronted each other, distinctly Pattersonian. One of them showed an avaricious, the other a skeptical leer.”(p. 97) Sex, money, and power seem to define the human drama of the painting. This painting is a potential commentary on the murder of Pauline Delos. In the novel, Pauline and Earl Janoth seem to be the two most prominent combatants in fury. Rather than being a powerful and impressive man, Janoth is presented as a cog in the machine, like anybody else. He is no Janus: “Who was he? Only another medium-sized wheel in the big clock.”(p. 114) The fury of Janoth and Pauline is aroused with mutual accusations of homosexual conduct. Janoth’s special friendship with Steve Hagens is not invisible to Pauline, and this accusation turns the dialectic of fury to one of violence. Steve Hagens seems to be the character best suited to corporate life as presented by Kenneth Fearing. He is the Machiavellian master of the shadowy hallways and boring intrigues of Janoth Enterprises, and he keeps his eyes on the prize, even during the murder investigation: “By God, he would have to be watched like a hawk and nursed every moment.”(p. 81) Keeping Janoth out of prison and Janoth Enterprises out of the clutches of its competitors is an act of love by Steve, his sublimated erotic fulfillment. Fearing presents a homosexual character as the real master of corporate bureaucracy in the modern age.
The greatest moment of suspense in The Big Clock is not between Janoth and Stroud, nor is the battle of wits between Hagen and Stroud the central climax of fury. The moments of suspense between these characters are extremely successful in the two films, but Fearing goes in a different direction. The great moment of the novel is between Louise Patterson and George Stroud in his office under the painting Study in Fury. The painter knows that George Stroud is the man who was with Pauline Delos the night of her murder, and George Stroud knows that she knows. In a dialectic of both commerce and calmly negotiated fury, George and Louise reach a mutual understanding. He won’t destroy Study in Fundamentals if she won’t reveal his identity. The irony of this moment is that it corrupts Louise Patterson through a moment of perverse integrity for George Stroud. It might cost him his freedom as evidence in his own trial, but George could never bring himself to destroy the work of his favorite artist: “The big clock didn’t like pictures, much. I did. This particular picture it had tossed into the dustbin. I had saved it from oblivion, myself. Why should I throw it back?”(p. 114) It is a moment , however small, where Judas chooses a different path: “What would it get me to conform?”(p. 114) Far from being an idealist on the other side of the arrangement, Louise Patterson is the most openly cynical character in the novel. She is loud and speaks without a filter. She casts a keen eye on all the capitalist Judases around her. Patterson goes to identify Stroud for the money, like Judas with the Romans, but she gets a better deal to stay quiet under her own painting: “It would take something to stay in the same room with a murderer. And at the same time remember that dignity paid, at least in public.”(p. 161) The irony deepens as the capitalist critique Study in Fundamentals skyrockets in value because of a murder investigation. The murder, the investigation, the merger, and the suicide of Janoth become secondary to an ironic awakening between George Stroud and Louise Patterson. It is a moment where the liar maintains his integrity by protecting art, and the artist participates as a capitalist Judas by remaining silent. Fearing doesn’t suggest a real way out of the work world of byzantine bureaucracy, mass media, and dehumanizing capitalism. The irony and the art collecting will have to be enough for George Stroud XII to survive the promotion that is surely coming for him with Jeanette-Donohoe. As Janoth falls to the street, Stroud is headed to the top floor