We’ll see how long this lasts. I was up at 5 a.m. today, out the driveway at 5:55 a.m., in Lansing for a half-day conference followed by the story-writin’, then home. Did I mention both legs of the drive were made in pouring rain and fog? Yes, and isn’t that fun, knowing that just at the end of your headlights might be the puddle that sends you hydroplaning, while enormous SUVs pass you — on both sides — at 80 or so.
The last part of the trip home, a Mercedes sat in front of me for six miles, right blinker on. Exited, turned left, merged left, merged right. Blink, blink, blink. My tension level was high enough at that point that I would have happily rammed the back of his car to shut the thing off.
The point is, man am I tired.
But I have fortified with pizza, wine and cake, and all is better. And now I’m thinking about what I read yesterday, from the AP:
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The breathtaking model on your magazine cover: Of course she’s not that thin and unblemished. That reality show you never miss? You’re shocked – shocked that its real-life drama isn’t 100 percent unscripted. And that diva who may or may not have mouthed the words to the national anthem to her own prerecorded voice? Yeah, well, so what? It was a big moment, and she wanted to sound her best.
In America these days, in countless tiny ways, much of what we see and experience isn’t exactly what it seems. We know it, too. And often we don’t care, because what we’re getting just seems to “pop” more than its garden-variety, without-the-special-sauce counterpart.
It’s not a dumb essay, but not a particularly smart one, either. Real life has become a cascade of unreal artifice? That’s a revelation that could only occur to the AP. Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing I care about less than whether Beyoncé was singing live at the presidential inauguration. Not one thing. Singing is a more physical act than most of us would expect, and cold air doesn’t go well with it. Even delivering a rocky note or three is asking to get yourself on Gawker or in the late-night monologues or whatever, and who wants to be known as the girl who was flat on the National Anthem on worldwide TV? So she faked it a little. (Or she didn’t.) It was still her.
If you want to talk about fakery in entertainment, then I want to talk about a show that’s becoming one of my very favorites, because it’s so real — “Enlightened,” a half-hour dramedy-ish thing on HBO. What’s it about? So much, and so little, but mainly, it’s about the way many of us work today.
(Somewhere along the way, it became Wednesday morning.)
It’s a tough sell, this show, as it’s hard to even describe. Season one was about the return of Amy Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern, to work at the soulless corporation that helped drive her to a nervous breakdown some months earlier. The pilot introduces Amy in recovery at a posh Hawaiian rehab facility, meditating on the beach, swimming with the sea turtles and returning to Riverside, Calif. a new woman — the sort who gets up in your face at the office coffeepot and says stuff like, “I am speaking to you with my true voice.”
But in the unspooling of the first season, and especially the second, we come to understand why Amy flipped out in the first place, and why her return, upon which she was immediately exiled to a weird new basement cube farm to work on a project called Cogentiva, is leading to an even bigger flip-out. Because this place may well be hell.
Take the name of the corporation — Abaddon. If you lack an encyclopedic knowledge of the book of Revelation, be advised that’s the name of a dark angel, king of an army of locusts. The company seems to make consumer goods that come in bottles; pre-breakdown, Amy worked in health and beauty, and is seen begging for a demotion to cleaning products to avoid the Cogentiva basement gig. (And because this is 21st-century America, there also seems to be a pharmaceutical wing.) Abaddon is housed in a glistening glass tower in one of those office parks that’s the same from Hartford to Cincinnati to Austin to Riverside, but like its namesake, it’s a destroyer — nominally of the environment, but mainly of the poor schmucks who toil behind those glass walls.
Here’s something I noticed a while back: How often the characters in the books I was reading were independently wealthy. Even serious novelists, with aspirations to Pulitzers and Nobels, and yes, I’m looking at you, Jim Harrison, seem to throw in a lot more heiresses and early retired tycoons than the average person might know in real life. It’s an easy way around a problem for writers trying to create fiction about the way we live today; most of us spend most of our waking hours at work, and much of our work sucks ass. I recall reading an interview with Mike Judge, around the time he was trying to sell “Office Space” in Hollywood; none of these zillionaire, Harvard-educated studio heads could understand why the story’s main character didn’t just quit his job and get a better one. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact there are millions of Americans who toil for corporations like Abaddon or Initech, in suburban office parks, and that many of them are quietly being driven insane by their jobs. But the next job is likely to be just as crazy-making, maybe even in the same office park, so why give up the seniority and accrued vacation days?
“Enlightened” brings us into this world, this real world, better than anything I’ve seen since, well, “Office Space.” It’s sharper, meaner but also kinder, if that’s possible. Even the bad bosses are simply the overseers for the unseen slavers in the corporate suites.
And if that isn’t a pivot, from Tuesday to Wednesday, from the AP to HBO, from Beyoncé to Laura Dern, well slap my face and call me Streamy McConsciousness. But right now, I have to get to work.