Should you ever find yourself on a month-long research trip-slash-wild goose chase in the Midwest in pursuit of a forty-years dead writer from whom your critical distance has lapsed to such an extent that you are convinced that, like Oedipa Maas, you are being subjected to an elaborate web of posthumous booby traps, wherein you remain in almost total isolation for four weeks, attempt to read 47 novels (mostly all at the same time), become addicted to the Food Network whilst eating mainly stale taco shells and wasabi peas and spend much of your time tramping up and down freeways since that’s what you like to do when you are in America, and you find that Glenn Branca plus Fox News does not rouse you sufficiently enough to take it all out on the gym’s elliptical machine, then I recommend silencing the rattling inside your head by listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson which, like alchemy, will soundtrack the up-lit marble atria, limestone and Frank Lloyd Wright-lite of your temporary home into a tense Soderbergh corporate thriller of your very own creation.
So, I’m doing that thing again where I go to the Midwest and gawp at things for a bit. It’s a bit like academic orienteering, or, well, Challenge Anneka. I’m here to dig through the archives of publishers Calder and Boyars, and, you know, seek inner peace in near-total monastic isolation, probably/most likely polish off the 70,000 remaining words of my PhD thesis, concoct half-baked cultural generalisations, complain about the food and the rest. Items in my “America is So Weird” dossier thus far include Deepak Chopra on the Fox News breakfast programme, advising viewers that the best defence against the global financial crisis is to ask oneself: “What makes me a unique human being?”. Yesterday morning I was roused gently from my slumber by a television infomercial for the Brazilian Butt Lift fitness DVD, comprising the “Bum Bum” and the special bonus disc of the “Bum Bum Rapido”. You can imagine the effect the tagline Higher! Tighter! Rounder! Perkier! had on my delicate hypnagogic state.
Spent Easter Sunday like a crochety toddler in flip flops, chewing my editor’s red pen and squirming in my seat. Making a yah-boo-sucks face at Microsoft Word, letting the Chicago Manual of Style “have a rest” in the microwave (I’m a really excellent editor, though. Honestly. Employ me!). Wondering, idly, will this ever end-slash-will this ever start. And, as usual, now it’s past eleven and I’m macro-photographing my extremely picturesque (if, like me, you’re an incorrigible perv for a well-lit staircase) towel rail and thinking, yes, I could probably-definitely re-read the entire oeuvre of Jim Crace before bed. More as it comes in…
Ah! So that’s where the fine minds behind those out-of-town retail developments got their inspiration from. The strip mall, where if you’re on two feet, you’re probably one of those mads fucks with placards on the street corner, yelling about the end of the world. Here, I was honked at for walking. For walking!
Now, I’m really not being all squeamish here, I promise, but it really is completely impossible to be a pedestrian here. In fact, they set you booby traps: footpaths that snake off to nowhere, parking lots that test your long distance fettle and four-lane freeways with no crossing for three miles. It’s megalophobic stuff: just you, a preternaturally enormous sky, and a big, fuck-off Walmart.
So, I’m in the Midwest on what is, ostensibly, a research trip, but might be more truthfully categorised as a four-week long gawping residency. I’m at the marvellous and upstanding Dalkey Archive Press (support ’em, they’re the good ‘uns) at the University of Illinois, spending hot, sticky Midwestern days prying into the personal correspondence of writers too dead to complain about it, and too obscure for any (scratch that, many) other buggers to care. Man, if you only knew the handwriting I’ve caressed these past two weeks. The press itself operates out of what looks like a ship’s container, hoisted into the middle of the university’s Department of Veterinary Sciences. Perhaps this is all a Pygmalian-esque exercise in improving the reading habits of horses, I’m not sure. And, of course, I’m griping about the heat, the humidity, the rare-ass “sharp” cheddar, with all the vigour of a big old limey jonesing for her first shot at being “exotic”.
Anyway, here’s the bit where I note, smugly, that all your worst suspicions about America are true:
#1. Bread. Now, I’m not about to get all precious about crust and olive oil content, but, my God! I have never seen – and made puerile pantomime with – so many flaccid baguettes. Supermarkets here appear to be shilling tawny pillows with delusions of grandeur.
#2. Cars. On the subject of bread, it’s a 45-minute hike for a loaf. Yes, yes, I get it, I’m in a town in the Midwest, what did I expect? However, I still can’t get used to the fine-honed logistical operation required to, you know, buy a cup of coffee. These cities are built to four-wheel dimensions, and it’s making all my urbanist nodes ping. I didn’t see a single other pedestrian for the first four days I was here, and I’ve ended up feeling rather embarrassed about using the pavement, like the gap between the roadside and the verge is here for decorative purposes only, and I’m despoiling it.
#3. The constant imagined threat of tornadoes. The weather is big here, massive. On Memorial Day (in a despair at not receiving a single invite to a festive cook-out from my new friends on the checkouts at Schnucks), I was shaking the torrential rain out my hair outside Walgreens like a fetid Labrador, when a ginormous bolt of lightning came down from the sky directly above. It was quite the Gothic scene. Now, I’ve no doubt my colleagues’ stories of Tornado Terror are in almost completely directed towards, let’s say, “yanking my chain”, but “ominous wind” seems to mean something rather different here. Like a good and cautious Girl Guide, I demanded the pleasant be-slacked men in the Accommodation Office here drill me in What to do in the Event of an Emergency. Apparently you just hide in the cellar.
And with that, and the uncomfortable knowledge that my cultural experience thus far seems to extend as far as bread and cheese, I’m out.