- Fast Living
In his book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm points out that autonomy can be hollow when it is without a meaningful goal. Even when one does exercise free choice with a purpose in mind, there can be no guarantee of accomplishment. The barrenness of independence without intention is at least as apparent now as it was when Fromm’s book came out in 1941 in a world riven by the most destructive war in history.
The uncertainty of freedom runs through our literature from the late nineteenth century to the present. When Huck Finn decides to tear up his letter to Miss Watson that would deliver Jim back into slavery, he makes his famous pained decision: “‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell.’” The irony of this moment is less that Huck accepts damnation for not sending his friend into slavery than that it has become one of the most cheerfully definitive moments in American fiction. True freedom of choice is not easy in a topsy-turvy moral environment, yet just maybe—somehow—we are better for it.
American realists like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser took a hard look at morality in the excess and madness of materialism that dominated our nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows greed gone to an extreme in the 1920s as his fast-living characters follow meaningless desires that are all lost in the end. The classics of American fiction include several Gatsbyesque characters, extreme antiheroes living in worlds tinged by dreams and delusions yet also questing for meaning. They include existential seekers [End Page 5] like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, Yossarian of Catch-22, Tyrone Slothrop of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or the female seekers in the fantasy Western landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Even novelist Annie Proulx’s gritty, hyperreal characters shade into mythical seekers as they pick through the confusion of change, immured in place and past.
This issue contains its share of the delusions of fast living and the pursuit of meaning or purpose. In his essay “Too Late for the Summer of Love,” John Hales writes about his attempt, after graduating from high school, to become a rebel by hitchhiking from his home in Utah to San Francisco. “Who I wanted to be was the person who would have said, three years earlier, ‘Fuck it, it’s 1967, the Summer of Love,’” Hales writes; yet the young man discovers that he’s too uptight—or sensible—to embrace the bohemian idyll. In her essay “A Shapeless Thief,” Marin Sardy depicts her mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia, which impels her to move from place to place, seeking peace of mind. The mother’s volatility and delusions might make her appear on the surface to be open and liberated, while in fact paranoia holds her in the grip of obsessions. “Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—obstinate positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement,” writes Sardy. The essay takes a deeply empathetic view while also showing how limiting and inhibiting mental illness can be.
Sharon Pomerantz’s “The New Louise” is a fable concerning a pearshaped, overweight, middle-aged woman who wakes up one morning to discover that she has become a young, creamy-skinned, slender blonde of fashion-model height. The transformation allows her to indulge in behavior that she never could in the past: expensive clothes, flirting and manipulation, along with an extramarital affair. When Louise finds out that there are others like her, transformed into flawless “new” versions, she also begins to learn that this new, easy, illusory perfection is replete with pitfalls.
Ben Hoffman’s “The Only Place the Blood Goes” is another story about the ironies of freedom, viewed from the other end of the spectrum. It is told by the older sister of a twenty-something-year-old man with a fatal degenerative disease that makes him wheelchair bound. His sister is congenitally promiscuous—addicted to her freedom but at this juncture trying to put a lid on the wild living. What...