A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow

by Brian Fawcett
209 pages,
ISBN: 0889222371

Post Your Opinion
Down the tube
by Mary dl Michele

Brian Fawcett describes his new book as "an essay, a short story, a novella, a harangue, a poem, a rant." Unfortunately it's rather short of poetry or dramatic interest. The pages are divided into two parts: a main text and, below it, as with footnotes, a subtext. We learn through this book that Fawcett hates television, Twinkies, and the devouring franchise culture and politics of the United States.
Television has produced the "Global Village," which Fawcett very nicely describes as something like a computer with a thatched roof. Cambodia, he insists (in the subtext of his book), is the subtext of the Global Village. Television, he argues, keeps people ignorant, bathed in that white light which is like white noise, obliterating consciousness.
Though I sympathize with much of the intent of the book - to educate and to remind us of our history - and agree with Fawcett that literature's job is "to take us into those vortices where the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born are able to meet-and converse," I find that his discourse is often puerile and simplistic, with much irony that is unconscious and more that is grindingly obvious.
In post-modernist style, he intrudes authorially into the text and openly manipulates what character and action he chooses to dramatize. "This is metafiction, in case you didn't know, and I can do anything I want" is the tone. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "Global village," so let's get him talking to Paul, the founder of those Christian franchises known as churches, get them to meet on the road to Damascus. The juxtaposition of these two historical, cultural figures is clever, and the potential for dialogue profound. Unfortunately, neither his Paul nor his "Marsh" is very interesting.
What the reader is given is some slapstick and a monologue thinly disguised as a dialogue. The exchange between the two is lame, with no interaction of ideas. Don't use the word "spiritual" Paul says to Marsh, and don't use the word "interface"; then McLuhan gets to roll his eyes in response. Is this intellectual engagement? There are many cheap tricks throughout the main text, and McLuhan is bashed - literally kicked and attacked by his camel. Fawcett attacks him as if McLuhan were the author of the Global Village and not its interpreter.
Fawcett eschews the conventional attributes of narrative to get closer to what the story is really about. His characters are props. Their situations, whether contemporary or "interviews with history," are satirical, at times funny, but rarely witty.
If the main text is like television, often superficial, what does the subtext which is meant to be the interpretation and not the experience -- resemble? The title of the book suggests you will be given an alternative. Well, you get a lot of cumbersome and abstract commentary, ("As the press and media become increasingly centralized in ownership and editorial orientation, cultural commentators are quietly being disappeared or reduced to the governance of unimportant amateurisms"), you get statistics, you get chest-pounding from this selfprofessed "guerilla" in prose. Or is it pose?
Fawcett claims that "Dramatizing individual episodes will not capture the essentials of Cambodia. Such an approach will inevitably distort the issues by introducing lyric elements of pathos and character that are precisely what is absent from mass reality." So why are they also absent from Fawcett's subtext? He chooses to dramatize local and Western cultural incidents while analysing Cambodia, in statistics. Is Cambodia the subtext to two men at a urinal whose bladder and virility are in question because they eat fast food, "Universal Chicken"? Is this not a trivialization of genocide? At its best it stems rather heavy-handed irony. Processed food is more a symptom than it is a cause.
The problem in writing about genocide makes me think of a poem by Dionne Brand in which she protests that news reports from South Africa are racist, because they merely tally black deaths in numbers, while the few white victims are identified by names, addresses, and family relations. Identifying these numbers - which she does in her poem - restores to those victims their humanity. I would have liked more humanity and less "television" from Fawcett's book.
Fawcett equates emotion with sensation. In our language there should be a distinction between the two. Obviously English doesn't value the affective aspect of consciousness or the word emotion would not also mean Pavlovian reaction. When Fawcett's Lowry describes the novel as "a symbolic landscape in which metaphors can create emotions or release trapped ones," his persona counters with, "Times have changed" - nowadays people "run around having emotions about things like laundry detergents and soft drinks."
Fawcett also skirts the complexity of television as a medium. Not all video is commercial. Governments want to control the tube because it is so intimate and persuasive - that's why the South African government imposed blackouts during its state of emergency. The faces of the victims of apartheid were affecting world opinion.
It is of course easy to manipulate such images. Fawcett is right that television is an art form that creates the news as fiction. It tells lies in the same way that the first novels were thought to tell lies. But to rant about TV as an instrument of obliterating consciousness is too simplistic. Many of those who control programming - and for the crass economic motives the author ascribes may use it to that end. But a kneejerk reaction to television does not interpret "Cambodia." nor does it ask the hard questions that Fawcett, to give him his due, wants to ask.

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