When confronted by the uncertain future, we look to our past. We look to it for answers, for enlightenment, for inspiration. Mostly we look to it because we have nowhere else to look. This is natural, but it's also dangerous, for we have a tendency to romanticize the past: everything was better before we had electricity, urbanization, automation; life was simpler, slower, satisfying. Sometimes we get caught up in that idyllic illusion of a pastoral existence and forget about the disease, the injustice, and the poverty of the past. Yearning for certain elements of the past is quite all right, but let's not pretend the past is a paradise from which we have been expelled.
In Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America the past, present, and future collide against the landscape of an altered America. Brian Francis Slattery presents us with a meditation on the state of the American consciousnesses following a devastating economic collapse. The great machine of the American dream has sputtered and run down, and those who survived the tumultuous revolts in the first days now look back and wonder if it was ever a reality. Slattery captures this feeling perfectly in a passage early in the book:
The hippies knew it then…. They stopped, hey, what's that sound, and knew that the spiny skyscrapers reflected in the river, the chasms of concrete, the wide streets and sidewalks, the power lines cutting into the hills and mountains above missile silos, the highways drawing lines across the blank plains under enormous skies, the pupil of God's eye, would be the ruins that their grandchildren wandered among, the reminders that once there was always water in the faucet, there was electricity all the time, and America was prying off the shackles of its past. The vision opened up to them and winked out again, and those it blinded staggered through their lives unable to see anything else, while the rest of them wondered if they had only dreamed it.
The back cover of my edition describes Liberation as "a heist movie in the style of a hippie novel." I'm too young to have a solid grasp on what being a hippie truly means, but I think I understand what the summary is implying. With its stream-of-consciousness narrative style and a healthy dose of magical realism, Liberation is a very self-aware story that tries to live in the moment and ignore the linearity of its own plot. Scene transitions are nonexistent; past and present mix as flashbacks spill over into the contemporary narrative; death is merely another state of being, and not a very troublesome one at that. It's rather trippy, actually, in a hippie, "everything is connected," sort of way. And normally I don't like such books, because I find them too difficult to read for too little in return. In this case, however, I can make an exception, for this style is quite essential to Liberation's themes. While I was confused, especially at the beginning, I was entertained and moved enough to persevere until the end.
On the subject of this being "a heist movie," I will have to disagree. If you go into this expecting a gang-reunion one-last-job style of story, you're going to be disappointed—I was. I can understand why the back cover is going for this comparison, because Liberation does feature the reunion of the Slick Six, a band of awesome criminals, and their one last job against their most potent enemy, the Aardvark. Frankly though, it's not much of a heist, and its heist elements are incidental to the rest of the story.
The core of Liberation is the dual perspective that Slattery gives us on the collapse of the United States. The proximal cause of the collapse is the economy, or rather, a loss of faith in the economy. The dollar became worthless, people could no longer buy anything, and the United States government crumbled. The ultimate cause, however, is the full weight of America's history finally catching up to it, "history curling up on itself," as Maggot Boy Johnson puts it. In his final confrontation with Marco, the Aardvark says:
We're history's agents and its slaves. It has made us do its bidding, made us go around the wheel again and take the whole country with us. But now it has no more use for us. Kill me. Then kill yourself. Then it's done, we go into a book somewhere, and everyone else can go on living their lives.
Liberation is predicated upon this cyclical view of history. From the resurrection of the slave trade to the marauding of the New Sioux, everything seems to have its origins in the late 19th-century crucible from which sprang the modern United States. The ghosts of American cowboys and Indians and civil war veterans, spectres of a guilt-ridden past that seems chained to the collective American consciousness, constantly interrupt the events of the present day. There are some people who think they are better off after the collapse, people who have built a new society, started over, feel happy. Others, like Jeanette Winderhoek, miss the stability and civilized veneer of pre-collapse America. Both types of people, however, share a profound sense of loss, the idea that something about the United States has definitively ended. It's this vacuum that Marco and the rest of the Slick Six seek to fill with their plan to incite revolution; it's this vacuum to which the Aardvark refers in his fatalistic condemnation of Marco's victory.
And it is a victory, but it's not a very satisfying one for those personally involved. The Slick Six are not a ragtag bunch of criminals with hearts of gold, struggling against a great evil that has overtaken the United States. They are morally dubious at best, confidence tricksters and an assassin. Most of them don't even sign on to Marco's plot out of a sense of civic or patriotic duty; no, they sign up to take down the Aardvark so they can live the rest of their lives free from the threat of his vengeance. Marco himself is haunted by his past, by his own unlikely abilities that have allowed him to survive so long. Marco is more than a man; he's a myth, a legend whispered on the tongues of those who grabbed onto the pulley of America's collapse and rode its descent to the top. The Aardvark, once a client of Marco's, respects his deadliness enough to dispatch after him a nameless assassin who, upon confronting Marco, confesses to a healthy amount of awe for Marco's prowess.
These living, postmodern, post-collapse myths carry over to the rest of the narrative as well. The New Sioux, the Americoids, the Circus of Industrial Destruction, are all kinds of legends set against the backdrop of a failed United States. It is a smörgåsbord of post-apocalyptic enclaves, a choice of presentation that feels very realistic, which is in stark contrast to the more unrealistic aspects of the book.
Indeed, Slattery lathers on the lyrical prose that often accompanies magical realism. It is somewhat reminiscent of Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami in the sense of the former, Liberation is almost a post-colonial ballad for America, the catharsis that the American Revolution never quite brought; of the latter, Slattery captures the tone of a book that has comfortably broken down the barriers between genres. If one wants to get pedantic, Liberation is certainly fantasy, in the sense that the living converse with the dead and some people have preternatural aptitude for killing. But it's fantasy in the sense that the entire story itself is a fable, beginning and ending with Marco and surveying the state of American society in between. When I said Liberation is a meditation by Slattery, I am not exaggerating; that lyrical prose is often too dense, too thoughtful, too much. It contributes to the confounding state sustained by his stream-of-consciousness style, and that is going to turn a lot of people away from this book. Which is a shame, really, because if one gets past this initial resistance, Liberation is completely worthwhile.
The first time Liberation seized me and wouldn't let go is when Slattery began describing the new slave trade. It is depressing even to entertain the notion that we could so quickly slide back into such a violation of human rights and dignity. Not only has slavery been reestablished, but thanks in part to help from the Aardvark, it is flourishing:
Our peculiar institution is everywhere now. The slave markets are social events, with electricity, strings of Christmas lights, girls dressed in a hundred and five colors; bands made of junting guitars, spitting horns, skittering drums; carts with yellow umbrellas selling curried mutton and green beans, tamales with chiles; horses clapping their hooves against the ground, sweating in the heat while clowns on stilts with pump accordions let a flock of balloons escape into the sky. Jeannette Winderhoek is appalled. They should have gone through the proper procedures. They should have had the debates, covered the contingencies, resettled the uninhabited territory between individual and property rights. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of legal questions scream to be answered, and they'll keep screaming for Jeannette Winderhoek until she strangles the law inside her and burns the corpse.
The above quotation is a good example of how Slattery can get carried away with his description, but it also demonstrates why this new slave trade is so sinister. This is not a foreign power that has occupied the United States and enslaved its citizens. Two members of the Slick Six sell themselves into slavery because they are starving. And the slaves are used as disposable labourers meant to be used up and tossed away. It is a harsh, depressing melody that Slattery has composed.
I keep on emphasizing how much I agree with this book's depiction of America's collapse, how much I like the use of history as the ultimate cause. But I do not want to be the haughty Canadian condemning the United States for its mistakes (Canada has made plenty of its own mistakes, believe you me). No big surprise: this book is not all lollipops and rainbows. It is in some ways an indictment of America's past, but because of the way in which Slattery manipulates past, present, and future, that is not all Liberation is. Rather, it is a look at life after the collapse that takes into account the effects of history on our consciousness, our culture, our way of thinking about how we live. The communities and lifestyles that Slattery depicts find their origin somewhere in America's past, whether it is the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the turn of the twentieth century. Because when the future fails you, where else can you turn but the past?
I find this very fascinating, because history and nostalgia are only now beginning to have any meaning for me. I am finally of an age where I can begin to appreciate the significance of events contemporary to my life. I cannot predict—no one can predict—how such events, like the September 11th attacks, will be judged by future generations. But I am old enough now to start glimpsing how these events influence the present day. As individuals, we are very much products of our generation, of the society that raises us and educates us. Slattery extends this to American society in general, proposing that it is a product of its own history.
As a novel Liberation is far from perfect. The structure is sloppy, almost non-existent; the villain is lacklustre; the plot is mostly a framework for Slattery's descriptions and ruminations, which make up most of the book. Yet it still managed to grab me and move me. This is what all fiction should aspire to do, and this is my golden standard of success. I cannot laud Liberation by calling it a masterpiece, or a tour-de-force, or any other of those terms often associated with technical brilliance. However, as I hope this review communicates to you, Liberation made me think and wonder about where we are today, as a society, and where we might be going in the future. That, to me, is an invaluable experience.