The literature of decay

| Staff Columnist

Failed presidencies leave the most savory legacies.  From Buchanan to Johnson to Harding to Hoover, there has always been something undeniably appealing in picking through the debris of truly disastrous leadership. It is equal parts an earnest scholarly investigation and simple national rubbernecking, but for better or for worse, we tend to use the personal failures of our chief executive to examine the conditions that allowed them to fall so hard. We marvel at the grim vista of up to eight long years of impressive steady ruination. Oftentimes, like a forest fire, the results set the stage for a later flourishing. Buchanan’s utter failure to keep this country from rupturing ensured that Abraham Lincoln was on hand for our first and (no doubt thanks to him) only civil war. And so it will probably be with George Walker Bush: The election of Barack Obama may be his greatest achievement. But his profligate mishandling of this past decade has left other, subtler boons. Among them is a new cultural movement: Call it the literature of decay.

Exactly one year from now, the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, will release to theaters. It is a terribly beautiful fable of a father and son making their way south in the aftermath of some unknown apocalypse that has left America blanketed in ash. All around them are the rusting vestiges of the country’s heartland in poignant dissipation: They subsist off of scavenged canned goods and packaged foodstuffs and celebrate the discovery of a single can of Coca-Cola in an overturned vending machine. They fend off roving bands of cannibals and armies of marauders armed with taped lengths of pipe. It is not a story fraught with optimism. Nor is Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” published in 2004 and recently reissued in paperback. It is a story whose central conceit is one of the coming diaspora of a Jewish settlement in Alaska. That’s not to say that these writers had a particularly cheery outlook before the current administration took office. But these writers weren’t rightfully proclaimed the oracles of the aught decade because their themes of titanic loss were out of step with the times.

The last decade’s films can also stand as admirable barometers of the national mood. Even Batman morphed from the silly ice-skating, nipple-suited George Clooney of “Batman Forever” into the undeniably awesome, but exceedingly gloomy Christian Bale of the crime thriller “The Dark Knight.” Not to spoil anything, but the movie ends with our hero taking credit for multiple murders, his only victory over evil a symbolic one. And it resonated. Big time.

And then there’s television’s breakout hit “Mad Men,” which is really nothing more than an unabashed love letter to a vanished age. Its main character, the dashingly misogynist Don Draper, makes his living as Madison Avenue advertising executive, drinking and philandering through a lovingly recreated late ’50s New York, all the while subtly making remarks about the growing counterculture and civil rights movement that will soon destroy it utterly. It oozes nostalgia for an age we’ve spent at least 30 years denigrating for its racism, its homophobia and its greed. And it is good television.

Even in the new medium of video games, there can be found a similar pageant, from last year’s “BioShock,” an adventure in an underwater dystopian city where Ayn Randian objectivism has run society into the ground to this year’s “Fallout 3,” which allows players to explore the postapacalyptic wasteland of Washington,  D. C. a hundred years after a devastating nuclear war, to “Resistance 2,” whose story begins with an alien annihilation of most of the United States. All three games take the modernist architecture, big band music and rosy-faced depictions of happy white suburban America that were the hallmarks of our most myopic decade and blow them all to smithereens, letting the player battle through consequences with a shotgun.

Everywhere I see the earnest output of a people trying to forge some national elegy. Perhaps faced with the certainty of waning geopolitical prestige and unpredictable national politics, we would rather fantasize about cataclysm than decline. We would have us die at the hands of something titanic, catastrophic and irreversible, rather than confront an uncertain and pessimistic future. Maybe it’s the baby-boomers getting ready to retire, to hand it all over to us. The days ahead may be better, brighter ones, but they won’t solely belong to America the way last century has. It’s not their world anymore.

Whatever comes of Obama’s presidency, good or ill, it has already begun to make us into something new, and, as many of us hope, maybe something better. But as we take the next 60 days to say goodbye to the president who may have put the final nail in the coffin of the old guard, I thinks it is fitting that we allow those of us unfortunate to have grown up with it a little time to mourn. After all, it is giving us some great ways to kill the time until we take the wheel.

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