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Tuesday, Nov 23, 2004, 2:23 pm

Bringing Dystopia to the Middle East

By Brian Cook
One of my favorite authors, Curtis White, has a new novel coming out soon, America's Magic Mountain. Taking its plot (and little else) from Thomas Mann's masterpiece, it tells the story of young Hans Castorp visiting his "sick" cousin at a "health resort" in downstate Illinois. White's depiction of this country and its pure products gone crazy is deliriously nasty, as well as painfully funny, owing much less to Mann and German metaphysics than to that madcap tradition of American social satirists like Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Gilliam and Frank Zappa. (Talented and imaginative artists like these are the heroes in any culture war, so my advice is: Support the troops. (And unlike the other ones, these will never repay your support by, say, cold-bloodedly shooting unarmed prisoners or cheerfully posing in front of cameras as a gleeful torturer.))

Like all satirists, White turns the hyperbole up a few notches so that what we commonly accept in reality as normal can be identified on the page as literally crazed. (As our "normal" reality is getting more and more crazed, this is becoming a much tougher feat to pull off.) So, for example, in one of the book's opening scenes, White takes a few jabs at America's casual relationship with dishonesty and violence when Hans' cousin Ricky manically pulls a gun on a cabdriver and threatens his life, before calmly paying him the ten dollar fare. To his cousin's worried queries, Ricky coolly assures him that the freakout was not only necessary to make sure that the cabbie didn't rob them, but also allowed the cabbie to save face when his buddies asked why he didn't rob them.

Crazy, huh? A social order in which the "normal" functioning of human relations can only be sustained by hysterical threats of violence? Perhaps domestically we Americans haven't yet allowed our daily reality to trump this fictional rendering, but thanks to our foreign policy, we've done a bang-up job in outsourcing dystopia to Baghdad. Check out this report from the BBC:

A 15-mile stretch between Baghdad airport and the city centre is said to be the world's most expensive taxi ride. Small convoys of armoured cars and Western gunmen charge about ??2,750 ($5,108) for the perilous journey.


How to keep the costs down? One security contractor takes a page directly out of White's savagely satirical novel and offers the lesson taught by Hans' cousin, telling the BBC: "You could jump in an Iraqi taxi with a gun and get there for $20."

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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