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Sunday, May 18, 2008


THE AGE OF SINATRA by David Ohle again features the protaganist of his early 70's novel Motorman, Moldenke. While in Motorman we experienced a world wildly divergent, but with startingly similar parallels, to the one we live in, THE AGE OF SINATRA offers an alternative reality teasingly similar to ours. Ohle achieves this mostly by using various powerful words out of context — the Titanic, President Kenny — in addition to adding more "realistic" dialogue.

The characters in the book are quite concerned with temporal eras, which are named according to the year of forgetting that originated them. The first era is The Age of Sinatra. Right before the end of this age an excavation unearths a corpse, with the middle name of Arvey, that all, at least early in the book, are required to worship. The Age of Sinatra came to an end with the Forgetting of '64. We learn little of this time period, because most of the book is set after the Forgetting of '69.

It is thought by many that the apparent leader of the society, Radio Ratt, creates these mass forgettings to keep himself in power. That said, other characters wonder if he is simply a 'semiotic construct'. At one point Ratt is quoted as saying that there have been 12 forgettings, but, like most everything else in this book, we need to take this with a degree of skepticism.

In order to locate some firm ground from which we can begin to make sense of this book, it helps I think to consider what remains stable throughout: the class system; borders between human, machine and animal blurred; laws and the legal system. There seems to be three, possibly four classes, or maybe races, of people: Settlers, Stinkers, and Neutrodynes, or 'Neuts' for short. (I assume that 'normative' characters, such as Moldenke and the characters he spends his time with and treats as equals, are 'settlers', but I could be wrong.) Both the Stinkers and the Neuts seem to be treated more or less like slaves. We frequently see them in cages of one sort or another. They seem to be required to do what the Settlers tell them to. And, probably because it is sometimes taboo to mate with them, many Settlers find them sexually attractive.

That said, the class structure seems to be a cultural construct, for we learn that Ratt himself is part Stinker. In addition, Moldenke begins to grow a flocculus on his chin, which is characteristic of the Neuts. This cruel and arbitrary hierarchy is held together not through any true differentiation, but through violence and the threat of violence.

Categories are furthered blurred by cross-specie surgeries. This book has characters who engage in elective surgery in order to have infected limbs or three eyes. It is thought that these come from animals, but there is evidence that Stinkers are harvested for their parts. This society is one where the boundaries between human, machine, and animal, between healthy and unhealthy, have been blurred and at times completely dissolved. Yet the class system remains.

The final frequent and clear referent is to the legal codes and the criminal justice system. The system is arbitrary in two ways. Laws may be decided on by Ratt about ridiculously random issues. And he often contradicts himself. One day reading on the bus is punishable. The next day people are required to read on the bus.

What's more, guilty people, even those who committed heinous crimes, are considered innocent if the have a 'waiver,' and rumors seem to abound as to where they can be picked up. On top of this, all crimes must be blamed on someone, so if a person has a waiver, another, innocent person is arrested in their place.

Such absurdities go on and on.

So what is this book about? It is about controlling a population as told from the perspective of those being controlled. It is about how people can be distracted by the unimportant. How they are encouraged to sugarcoat cruelty. How they are encouraged to forget what they most need to remember. It is about the narcissism of profoundly confused people.

Sound familiar?

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