The Swing Voter of Staten Island was my last purchase at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I bought it in the interest of variety, having already filled my knapsack full of non-fiction. I figured “Go ahead Lindsey, branch out into the world of contemporary American literature. It will be filled with exciting new things, and maybe even help you relate to your peers.”
The San Francisco Chronicle review quoted on the cover compared the book to Blade Runner and 1984. “Wow, dystopias”, I thought, “I love those!” On the back cover there are even more intriguing comparisons to William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick. “Science-fiction weirdos, I love those too!” So, when I gave my last ten dollars to the Akashic Books table, I was feeling pretty good about my choice, not the least because the publisher’s motto is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world”.
Now I wish I had bought the collection of contemporary Polish women’s poetry instead.
The Swing Voter of Staten Island is indeed a science-fiction dystpopic tale (very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), it’s just not a very good one. It takes place in 1976 Rescue City, Nevada a re-constructed simulacrum of New York City, which was decimated by a nuclear terrorist attack. The refugees and political dissidents of old New York are sent to Rescue City and it quickly devolves into a ghetto battleground between two political parties, the Piggers and the Crappers. Our utterly bland hero Uli finds himself in Rescue City with no memory other than a programmed chant telling him over and over to go assassinate someone named Dropt. Thus plopped into the middle of a political conspiracy, Uli tries to figure out who he is and what the hell is going on in the surreal, uncanny landscape of the New New York City.
Now, remember, I bought The Swing Voter to branch out from books and ideas I usually associate with. I didn’t realize upon purchase that the book is set in the desert. If I hadn’t been in impulse book shopper mode I might have actually opened the book to see the map of Rescue City, which is shaped like a curled up fetus and surrounded by, a helpfully labeled, desert in central Nevada. Whenever modern Americans write science-fiction, fantasy, horror etc in a South Western desert setting you can almost always be sure there is gonna be some talk about Indians, and it will probably be really silly.
And then Bam! On page 97 it happens. Uli and his mentally-disabled companion Oric, are chased by a man who appears to be Oric’s twin. When Uli explains this to his friend Malloy, a political player whose husband was once Mayor of Rescue city, she responds with “’Twins have a great significance here…This is a sacred Indian site. It has something to do with duality. Twins have certain powers.’” Aw, yes, the sacred Indian site. Where would Americans be without the sacred Indian site to validate their far-out ideas?
Mallory goes on to explain that Rescue City is also a site for the government’s psychological tests. Considering that Rescue City is often called “the reservation”, and reservation tribes have historically been the test population for government and pharmaceutical experiments, it might appear Nersesian is crafting some subtext about the status of America’s true refugees. Or could this just be a case of the chimpanzees who eventually write Shakespeare? In other words, is Nersesian trying to connect the fates of Indians and the white characters of his novel in order to bring the reader’s attention to the grave injustices of their colonial government, or is it simply a fluke, details designed only to add layers of intrigue?
Another obscured connection to the exploitation of Native bodies on American reservations occurs when Uli learns about the EGGS epidemic. According to one woman it is “something in the ground water” around Rescue City that has wrecked havoc on women’s reproductive systems. Government experiments, toxic environment, sexual violence? Read some Andrea Smith and Winona La Duke* and you’ll see, these are the realities all too common in the lives of Native peoples in America. As much I’d like to believe Nersesian was consciously working this into the vague political sentiment about the violence of American government, there is never explicit acknowledgment of living Indian people or identification with their struggles in the entire novel making it likely that Indians exist only as a cultural mine for Nersesian’s fantasies.
Later Uli finds himself on Staten Island, with a tribe headed by Timothy Leary and described as “a strange fusion of American Indians and urban homeless”. (Somebody should have told Neresian that this “strange fusion” is a reality in many urban centers such as Seattle, Minneapolis, etc but of course this is his crazy fantasy so ignorance of the facts is on his side.) This Staten Island tribe, also a fringe environmental group that constitutes the “swing vote” of the title, worships Wovoka/Jackie Wilson. This is an allusion to Jack Wilson, the Paiute singer who started the Ghost Dance. While Wilson envisioned the dance as a part of a non-violent campaign for co-existence with anglos, the Lakota incorporated the dance into their militant resistance to the theft of tribal lands, the death of the buffalo and the general violence of white settlement of the West.
Anyway, as you might suspect a vision quest ensues. While I don’t really appreciate Arthur Nersesian theft of a revered movement of pan-Indian history for use in his foolish plot, his description of the white hippie tribe is appropriately satirical. Leary, though supposedly a “chieftan” has to smear his face with a thick layer of sunscreen, signaling that despite his tribal wear he will never truly belong in tribal lands. Then, Uli complicates things when he refers to the tribe’s activity as “Indian mojo” and “hocus pocus”. Are we supposed to interpret tribal beliefs and rituals as simply superstition easily dismissed by the civilized city dweller, or only to recognize the absurdity of white hippies trying to be Indian and always, always failing?
One of the few things I genuinely enjoyed about the novel is Nersesian’s affinity for puns such as the Vampire Stake Building, Rock and Filler Center, Jesus Chrystler Building, Ben Hur (for Bensonhurst), etc. But by the end Nersesian has become much too infatuated with his own contortions of fact and fantasy. Uli goes from one bizarre situation to another, from driving around with Woodward and Bernstein to throwing up cactus souffle on Allen Ginsberg. There are numerous explosions, car chases and torture scenes with nothing behind them except to set up the next cultural reference.
The novel then commits one final, unforgivable offense. It is a move commonly committed in bad, uninspired movies: a final montage quickly explaining both the grand truth of the plot and snipping away the loose strings. Think of The Machinist where it is revealed in the last moments, though to few viewers surprise, that Christian Bale’s character isn’t being haunted by a deranged fishing hobbyist but is actually just insane. He himself wrote the accusatory sticky notes! The romantic interest is an imagined stand in for the woman he killed in a car accident! He’s so skinny because he is being eaten away by guilt!
These cheap endings reveal the ultimate laziness of a creator unable to carry through on their premises. Nersesian certainly isn’t lazy in throwing lots of zany details into The Swing Voter but the manic ideas of his historical revisionist conspiracy are perpetuated in lifeless characters, a plodding writing style and hyper-active plot that leave you weary, not intrigued. Science-fiction, satire and the so-called novel of ideas can be good but they are not excuses to drop any attempts at craft. Call me old-fashioned, but it takes more than cleverness and conspiracy theories to make good fiction.
Book I talked about:
The Swing Voter of Staten Island by Arthur Nersesian. Akashic Books, 2008.
* Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith, and All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona La Duke. Nothing funny about these books.