BooksWeekend

The Future Seen Through a Fragmented Past

Edward McPherson’s collected essays in The History of the Future are a literary kitchen sink in which no event or issue appears more important or relevant than any other.

If Edward McPherson were a filmmaker instead of a writer, The History of the Future might begin with a sublime wide-angle shot — panning the length of an empty desert highway somewhere deep in West Texas — before zooming out to show the desiccated, veritable no-man’s-lands where the first nuclear bomb tests forever burned a hole into the United States’ collective psyche. Old black and white army newsreel footage of the blossoming mushroom clouds would be next; then fast-forward to the ruins and citywide aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in New York. Abraham Zapruder’s iconic vintage 8mm Kodachrome footage of president John F. Kennedy’s assassination could fill in between clips of the television show Dallas — famous for its season-ending cliffhanger in which the character J.R. is shot, parodied with great success in The Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” — before arriving, finally, at Civil War nostalgia. (McPherson was named after an ancestor born near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who became a major deputy of the Commission of Revenue in 1863 under Abraham Lincoln, after serving from 1859 to 1863 as a congressman.)

Edward McPherson (photo by Carly Ann Faye, courtesy Coffee House Press)

The History of the Future is a collection of essays on American history. These essays go down easily enough individually within their native habitat of the magazine — two appeared in Paris Review Daily, two others in Catapult and the American Scholar respectively; McPherson has also written for the New York Times Magazine — but they do not cohere meaningfully as a book. It would be much more resonant and engaging to read in 2017 if it were less ambitious in its scope – for example, the nation-wide, road-trip-style ramble of “Private streets, racism, and the St. Louis World’s Fair; fracking for oil and digging for dinosaurs in North Dakota boomtowns” — but more ambitious in its form and message. The latter half of the excerpt above sounds more like a description of an apocalyptic vacation package than the summary of the contents of a book of essays.

A chapter dedicated to fracking is among the more urgent and timely inclusions. “The idea of fracking isn’t new,” McPherson writes, “just improved upon.” He goes on to explain the process in detail, along with the history of its development. He also paints a bleak picture of a North Dakota town slowly ruined by its’ “booming” energy industry:

Next door is the No Place Bar, which welcomes bikers and today has a pink-and-black baby stroller abandoned out front. On the side of the Salvation Army, across a small parking lot, someone has put up a giant billboard of the Ten Commandments.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of cases of gonorrhea in the western half of the state rose 72 percent. Chlamydia was up 240 percent.

One o’clock in the afternoon and there’s a guy sleeping in the shade of a stunted tree outside the train station. The landscaping smells of urine. In the small waiting room, a TV plays loudly as a train scrapes down the tracks.

All the essays are marked by such jump-cut-like paragraph breaks and present tense narration, which, at times, is weirdly reminiscent of the poet Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that,” but without O’Hara’s lyricism. McPherson’s investigative reporting involves walking around, looking at things, talking to people, and then selecting a sequence of factoids to fill in the gaps amid his reflections. The History of the Future might instead feature more oral history and interviews with those countless Americans who can’t afford to do things like vacation. A variety of voices and opinions beyond that of the author’s, as well as photographs à la Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, would enhance the argument, while decreasing the personal anecdotes and awkward math and statistics would clarify the writing and open up the possibility of a moral.

The ostensible bringing together of “…place, past and future…the popular, the personal, and the political,” as Rebecca Traister blurbs on the dust jacket, results in a literary kitchen sink in which no event or issue appears more important, relevant or newsworthy than any other, with so many proper nouns bobbing up through the non-fiction narrative. When the author highlights facts about segregated housing in St. Louis, right after relating that Judy Garland was forever imprinted upon his imagination after he watched the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), he’s not journalistically plumbing the depths of how, what, where, when and why these two phenomena relate to each other, to reveal something about certain questionable systems of power at work, and what to do about them. He’s juxtaposing them to produce a kind of “info-tainment” dramatics. The author seems more interested in simply holding the readers’ attention for as many pages as possible, when he might instead be identifying the perpetrators of this segregation — maybe greedy real estate developers, politicians who divert funding away from public schools, organized crime — and what is the history of their actions, and what do the people on the receiving end of it all have to say. It is also probably true, for instance, that Hollywood would like to ignore the real plight of the citizens that live in the towns depicted in their make-believe films.

In the St. Louis essay “Open Ye Gates, Swing Wide Ye Portals!” McPherson does quick work of highlighting the many ironies and contrasts inherent in the city’s national identity, as it devolved from hosting the World’s Fair over a century ago to being a contender for “worst ghetto in America” today, according to YouTube. Most ominous about this essay, especially if we are supposed to register it as a political commentary, is its ending. McPherson considers the iconic archway as a metaphor for the city, as he allegorizes its struggles:

The arch has no keystone; the north and south legs are of equal length. You’re either on one side or the other. Arches, it should be noted, hold themselves up: they rise on their own weight, they compress — higher pieces push down and out on those below. Some five hundred tons of pressure where needed to pry the legs apart to install the final four-foot pieces. That’s why the windows are so small: to preserve the structural integrity.

Is McPherson comparing the arch to the monumental and ultimately unfair and oppressive social structures that determine life in our cities, where the rich live in gated communities “push[ing] down and out on those below”? The arch sways some eighteen inches, he adds, like a chain or a gate, when the wind blows. In its presence one worries that it might fall down. McPherson confesses that he finds the arch beautiful, and that “the balance is an illusion.” He adds that “the fact does not comfort him,” alluding to how both the arch and cities are, in effect, held together by “forces great and unseen,” laws of physics and systematic social oppression.

The history of America in general is one of constant race and class oppression, environmental pollution, political corruption and murder. The future promises only more of the same, we read; McPherson opines, while on the set of a new season of Dallas, that we are “watching history being endlessly repeated” and we are complicit. The book is full of “Aha!” moments in which McPherson acknowledges his own complicity. “Fantasizing about the end is a way of sidestepping responsibility,” he writes, “of overlooking the problems, or systems of inequality, that we might actually be contributing to.” This is part of an essay entitled “Three Minutes To Midnight.” Its title is a reference to the Doomsday clock, and the conviction, currently held by a number of scientists and thinkers, that we are now closer to Doomsday — the proverbial midnight — than ever before, at least since the height of the Cold War in 1953. Just short of fantasizing, McPherson lists myriad apocalyptic scenarios: nuclear war, superbugs, climate change, solar flares, bees dying or killer asteroids.

“Three Minutes to Midnight” ends with the author’s somber consideration: “Is that the true final tragedy — to be trapped in our private visions of history?” If he is saying there is no way to escape complicity in America, maybe he’s right, but who wants to read another book about that, especially if the book contains no new ideas for a better possible future, despite the horrors of our history?

The History of the Future (2017) is published by Coffee House Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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