So Desert Burial is going to get republished. I didn’t see that coming. It’s even been optioned for film. Dunn Books snatched it from the memory hole. The first edition came out after 9/11; right after 9/11. The publisher pushed the release date back a few months, to no avail.
The news hole expanded and displaced book reviews with an endless stream of news stories produced as if by algorithm. They conformed to the template of the television melodrama 24: Is the torture going to work? Can the ticking bomb be stopped? State propagandists flew flags from our every protuberance and planted them in every orifice, juxtaposing them with the crucifix, the national anthem, baseball, the troops, puppies, attractive women, and even the I♥NY advertising gimmick until, by the magic of induced mass hysteria, the flag ceased to be the international warning sign for broke low-normal rednecks and became a sort of Cthulhu totem for a nation of maddened H.P. Lovecraft primitives who drolly invaded the wrong country twice. As Richard Clark put it, in a fey and puckish mot, it’s as if the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt invaded Mexico.
The collapse itself was elaborate war propaganda, gussied up with traditional visual absurdities to poke the primitive animal brain parts that make you rage or sweat or shake. There was James Nachtwey’s ash cloud engulfing a crucifix, defiling all you don’t really hold sacred. We saw the Newark Star Ledger’s portrait of ignominious rout, a decompensating policeman with an abrasion on his nose obsessively repeating the catchphrase he heard on TV, “This is war!” We were invited to emote over Tom Franklin’s remake of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, saluting the fake flag when someone stole the yacht flag. abc’s Times Square message board showed a doughty fireman incongruously captioned “the rocket’s red glare.” (They knew not to try our patience with a blow-up of an NYPD gumshoe after they let the Lincoln Tunnel bombers go. ) Shannon Stapleton gave us the pieta of FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge, official Victim 0001, divested of the holiest of his relics, his fire jacket and helmet, which were later found miraculously intact in pulverized rubble.
The book was in no wise too highbrow or profound. Standard algorithms rate it as seventh-grade reading level. It was simply unsuited to its shit-for-brains cultural milieu.
This is not to whine. There are lots of things wrong with my book. As my agents Curtis Brown put it, in a plug for an award there was no way in hell I would get (CIA funded PEN through its CCF slush fund,)
“Desert Burial is a story of global forces impinging on the most remote of places. It draws a desert hermit into an international initiative for peace and environmental safety. The plot arc links the most and least powerful in a realistic continuum of competition, conflict and predation.
“Desert Burial lies largely outside the accepted scope of literary subject matter. It updates social naturalism by examining the technocratic mindset of surveillance and control that underpins international finance, mass marketing, and the military-industrial complex. The lay outsider’s viewpoint is intimate but mistrustful as tensions come to light in authentic documents that dovetail logically and even mathematically…
“Desert Burial challenges the literary convention that plot stems solely from character. Impersonal forces arise spontaneously from a complex institutional environment. Organizing principles interact as characters do: hierarchies conflict with the shifting affiliations spawned by ubiquitous communications. The deus ex machina climax turns on the stability of a widely-used economic forecasting model and ironically undermines personal closure with global consequences. The intricate plot gives the setting motive force. This book creates a world with a lot of moving parts…
“Littlefair’s work is manifestly grounded in experience. As one reviewer wrote, ‘Littlefair has been down in the slime he so richly describes.’ Written between consulting projects for foreign joint ventures in China, India, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, the book drew inspiration from three distinct sources:
– The author’s work in foreign investment and national security; - An aid worker he met in a Balkan war refugee camp; - A World Bank document known as the ‘underpolluted countries memo.’
“Due diligence reports and aides mémoire have shaped his style but moral ambiguity marks his point of view.”
You begin to see the problem. I like to curl up with a good dossier, but not all readers do. Desert Burial verges on the sort of Bolshy social realism CIA spent millions to suppress. Things happen in it. And all those abstract concepts, how are we going to see and touch and taste them? CIA made rules against that in PSB D-33/2. The book simply did not meet the specs set out by CIA hireling Paul Engle and his Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It obtrudes ideas about the world.
Suffice it to say that the months after 9/11 were a rah-rah time. In the literary marketplace – that is, the USA’s consolidated media, Wisner’s mighty wurlitzer – there was not much appetite for stories about fabricated threats or use of refugees as weapons of war. The latter was particularly touchy in light of that puzzling outbreak of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever on Afghanistan’s frontiers with Pakistan and Iran. You don’t remember that? It’s OK, you’re not supposed to. Desperate liquefying zombies teeming at the borders of your country, softening you up. As fiction, CIA’s biowarfare antics would have been too corny.
I had a sinking feeling as publication loomed. It wasn’t just the market crash, although you could see it drying up Time Warner’s money just as they were cornering the market on content. Suspenseful things were drawing our attention like the lengthening ash on Clarence Darrow’s mythical cigar. PNAC was on about its new Pearl Harbor and it was increasingly clear what they had in mind.1
We’re apt to forget how much we disliked the twin towers, Nelson and David, ugly, brutalist, and coarsely phallic as only a parasitic class can make them. The complex swept away 1,300 businesses and 30,000 jobs that people were quite fond of. Worse yet, the two piles started tottering a couple decades after they were built.
Everybody knows about the Port Authority’s code exemptions, lowball costing, and corrupt contracting and inspection. Still, it’s hard to fathom what a sorry blivet they put there. Some people focus on the gimcrack engineering and corrosion.2 But the concrete was getting mealy too. A fellow I worked with surveyed the twin monstrosities to prepare for what we coyly called emergencies. He found that tenants would run cables up to their offices by drilling holes in all the concrete floors below. As gee-whiz technology proliferated, more computer networks needed more and more cables. By the time he got hired to ponder the risks, the floors were like swiss cheese. With a bit of untoward torsion, holes near the edge could crack into a notch and perforate the floors like sheets of stamps. Crumbling concrete crunching on the flexing decks, subsiding underfoot, as if you’re not jumpy enough up there. That’s not on. Lots of big shots were apt to be sued.
Unless of course some befuddled evil-doer can be blamed. A year or so after the survey, Emad Salem helped feckless enthusiasts plant a bomb in the raddled ruin’s parking deck. With his endearing Boy-Scout probity, Emad proposed to substitute something that wouldn’t blow up. He was Egyptian, a clever spook, unlike our pugil-drunk Langley jarheads, so he taped himself covering his ass. You used to be able to listen to it here.
Emad’s FBI handler pulled him off the job and the bomb went off as planned. But the building was still standing when the smoke cleared. Damp squib though it was, it scared off lots of tenants. Pillow talk and bibulous confidences seeped from Skillings Associates, Emery Roth and Associates AIA, detailees and cutouts, the NYC EOC, and all the foreign spooks3 who recognize the slug trail of CIA impunity. I know one poor bastard, a worker, not a technocrat, whose job kept him there in the basement. The foreboding of it made him alcoholic. “All it would take is one plane,” he would say. Everyone knew what was coming, even helpless victims.
When you have impunity, if at first you don’t succeed, you try again. You know no one will stop you. By the time CIA did it right, with competent Saudi and Israeli help, the casualties were mostly apparatchiks, skivers, traders — small fry with no Ivy final or eating club, no Opus Dei or equivalent Zionist order, no kleptocrat to protect them. Nonentities like us. The nomenklatura had been warned. There were plenty of fetching young faces in the Times to make us sniffle and pledge allegiance, but no material loss for your betters. On the contrary, the office proles’ loss was our rulers’ gain. Buzzy Krongard’s old firm made out like a bandit trading puts. War profiteers got not one but two lucrative wars. The totalitarian creeps I worked for got lots of draconian laws: they could spy on your entire life and lock you up forever without charge and torture you and kill you. They always could, but now they can do it openly with no sneaking around.
There wasn’t much in it for me. I lengthened my portfolio duration, unwisely, given market conditions, and reaped a tidy capital gain in the ensuing panic: extraordinary short-term returns, but nothing life-changing. I was out of it then, going straight, you see, and without real-time insider scuttlebutt you can’t take a flyer with options. Timing is everything, and the premium decay can wipe you out if you’re not privy to the latest in the relevant compartments.
Don’t give me that look. You expect me to, What? Burst into the office of an avuncular senator who puts a stop to it? Karate chop my way into the basement and clip the wires as the buzzing digital timer reads 00:02? Or just sound the alarm, warn the world at large? Right. I’d be resting on my laurels in the Abraham Bolden wing of Saint Elizabeth’s neuroleptic sanitarium, darting my tongue like a frog. Ask Susan Lindauer.
Anyway, my ill-gotten gains just about made up for the royalties I didn’t get. The Internet liked the book, here and there, but in those days no one listened to the Internet, and the market buried my little book in the Pet Sematary like Woofy the neighborhood mutt. The market buried it way down deep and tamped it firmly. But here it is, back fetid and slavering, as if possessed by some malignant manitou. The dastardly tricks the book dramatized are now our common knowledge.
It was amusing to see how my baby dystopia held up. The book can stand as a period piece but any film would have to rejigger its world a bit4. The melodramatic outrages of 2001 are humdrum realities today.
As in the book, CIA and DSGE have torn Mali apart on sectarian lines with ethnic militias and al Qaeda clones. NATO’s Libyan aggression touched them off.5 One of the war bands styles itself ‘Masters of the Earth.’ Wish I’d thought of that! For the sake of geologic verisimilitude I took Mali, one of the most vigorous democracies in Africa, and fictionalized it as a hellscape of foreign interference. That part’s not fiction any more.
In the book, revolution in gas-rich Algeria was the MacGuffin. Now, in actuality, Algeria is undergoing the biggest Arab Spring yet, with CIA boogiemen poised to interfere, turning it violent and taking sides. Their jumping-off point looks to be Libya, not Mali as I guessed. The looting of the region’s natural wealth has begun; Booz, Allen is taking Libya’s captured oil fields private, Russian stakes and all. Algeria’s Illizi Basin is just across the border. The CIA agent turns out to be, not the colorful religious fanatic I imagined, but the plump elderly chairborne ranger famous for losing the Toyota War with Chad — you can see how he fits right in at Langley.
Meanwhile my favorite villains vanished into the ethereal realms of make-believe. The treaty parties wrote The Authority out of the Law of the Sea Treaty in a doomed attempt to cajole the US to join, so that splendid entity with its portentous name does not exist.
The industry that pimps out your private life has developed to the point that the intrusions in the book seem mundane. The chancers of Cambridge Analytica brag of their deep psychological profiling for mass manipulation. A couple billion suckers have been collected into Facebook’s terrarium to munch their lettuce and dabble in the pool with Zuckerberg’s nose pressed to the glass. Zuckerberg performs little science projects on his pet humans, making them happy or sad, determining their futile votes. Facebook repackaged the DARPA Lifelog as a status symbol and uses it as DARPA intended, to silence dissent.
The book dramatized CIA smearing and framing political enemies with electronic surveillance, forgery, and fraud. Now, thanks to Wikileaks, we all know they really do it. We know just how they do it. CIA routinely frames critics and dissidents by planting child pornography on their computers. CIA frames entire nations as well, fabricating illegal war propaganda against countries including Russia, China, and North Korea at the risk of general nuclear war.
The world has changed for the better in one important way I didn’t expect. At the time of the book’s publication Russia was prostrate. Its average life expectancy had sunk to African levels amid asset-stripping and destruction of state protective capacity. We stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. Hell, I piled on and helped a bit myself. Everyone got into the act: our sitting president was a junior money-launderer for the CIA agents who looted the Soviet Union. He sold them tacky condos with a wink.
But now Russia has recovered. The peoples of Russia have secured their sovereignty with superior missile technology and turned their resources to progressive fulfillment of economic and social rights. Russia leads the free world, enforcing the rule of law at gunpoint, curbing CIA crimes in Syria and Venezuela6. They’ve even pitched in to fix the Central African Republic, the hell I chose for the novel’s katabasis. Now, on all the most comprehensive measures of world-standard human rights protections, Russia outclasses the US. Russians get a better deal than you do. Don’t take it from me, dig down deep as you please into the meticulously-documented evidence collated from treaty bodies, charter bodies, UN special procedures, and domestic and international civil society groups. You’ll see the Russians are the good guys now. That’s why they’re your designated enemy. If Russia does rig the next election and take over, you’ll know it, because you’ll finally get your human rights.
I forgot about the book myself and got engrossed in the history of the US government’s struggle to keep human rights out of your reach. The resulting samizdat dwarfs Desert Burial’s word count. The dauntless editors of Dissident Voice keep it safe.
Desert Burial was an effort to make sense of my misgivings as I emerged from a compartmented cave into the wider world. In the course of dreaming up that pocket case study I got slapped awake to our contemporary history: the impunity and absolute sovereignty of the criminal enterprise that has ruled this country since 1949, the CIA. Desert Burial was a wistful daydream of how it might be briefly thwarted. The DV essays show me learning how the world is going to stop the CIA regime for good.