Saturday, January 20, 2018

New York 2140, Some notes about form and structure

The novel’s plot unfolds as an opportunistic linking of contingencies. Characters see opportunities and forge links. At first the contingencies and characters are remote from and independent of one another. But as links are made – for example, noticing that they live in the same building ¬–¬ contingencies collide and multiply until their density forces a climax – one that had been desired, envisioned, even planned for, but that is surprising in its realization, thus allowing for the relaxation we call an ending.

This unfolding chaos, with the appearance of emergent self-organization, is set within a novelistic apparatus of almost mechanical exactitude. That’s what I want to look at. New York 2140 is divided into eight main parts, each of which is in turn divided into eight, though in two cases, nine parts. Here’s how the first part lays out:
Part One. The Tyranny of Sunk Costs
a) Mutt and Jeff
b) Inspector Gen
c) Franklin
d) Vlade
e) a citizen
f) Amelia
g) Charlotte
h) Stefan and Roberto
The characters thus named are the central characters in the story, and they come from distinctly different walks of life. Mutt and Jeff – and yes, one rather suspects that KSR is playing off the iconic cartoon strip with those names – are computer programmers in finance. Inspector Gen is just that, a police inspector. She’s a strong tall black woman with an Icelandic (or at least Nordic) last name, Octaviasdottir (Octavia Butler?). Franklin (Goer) is a trader who likes to zip around the canals of Manhattan in his hydrofoil; he’s a protégé of Hector Ramirez, one of the uber-rich financial masters of this universe. Vlade is the superintendent of the Met Life tower, a job requiring the skills of a jack-of-all-trades handyman and a jack-of-all-trades engineer. All these characters live in the Met Life tower – though it takes them awhile to figure that out – except for a citizen, who goes by a different appellation in different parts of the book. The citizen provides Greek chorus commentary and wide-ranging miscellaneous information. Amelia is a media figure who glides around the world in her airship, the Assisted Migration, relocating endangered species; she has a large following, is something of an exhibitionist, but – we learn at the very end – a graceless dancer. Charlotte (Armstrong) is a lawyer and head of something called the Householder’s Union – representing “the renters, the paperless, the homeless, the water rats, the dispossessed”. Her ex-husband is head of the Federal Reserve. [Quick gloss: paperless = without identity documents; water rats = living on, in close proximity to, off of, the water.) Stefan and Roberto, tween-aged water rats who hang out with the old man, Hexter, who has good collection of old maps.

These characters are a quasi-representative sample of the lower 99%, with two connections into the upper 1% (Ramirez, Fed Reserve). They’re the ones who see opportunities among swirling contingencies and make the links out of which KSR constructs his story. That representativeness, along with the KSR’s manifold historical information-drops, gives New York 2140 something of an encyclopedic feel – I’m thinking here of Edward Mendelson, “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon”, MLN 91, 1267-1275 [1]. But then, that’s how you build a world, isn’t it? You craft an encyclopedia.

One more thing. The book is full of quotations, which are on pages between the alphabetical sections, and come from various sources. Part One lists Henry James, Frank Ackerman, Ken Thompson, Ambrose Bierce, Valdimir Mayakovsky, Rem Koolhaus, Carl Van Vechten, Abbie Hoffman, Fran Lebowitz, Herman Melville, and several short passages with no attribution.

Each of the book’s eight parts is constructed on the same plan – I’ve outlined the whole book in an appendix. All the subsections are designated alphabetically and named for one of those eight actors, though here and there one actor names two sections and another actor’s name, correspondingly, must dropped. Of course, the actor named in a section-head isn’t the only one who appears in that section, especially as lifelines become linked and intertwined. Quotations between sections.

So, the constructed narrative is contingent, opportunistic, chaotic, and self-organizing, but the framework is highly ordered and mechanical. What are we to make of that? Is that how we operate in the world, individually and collectively? Are those fortuitous links ultimately imposed though a mechanical superstructure? Inquiring minds want to know.

Finally, worlds within worlds within worlds. The story extends across, around, the whole world. But 95-99% of the action takes place in New York City, and a significant part of that action takes place in the Met Life tower. “Denver” becomes  both metaphor and metonymy for the indifferent and ruling 1%, while “the intertidal” is the major growth region, and locus of rebellion as well. Manhattan below 50th belongs to the intertidal while Manhattan above belongs, more or less, to Denver. The coastal region, the intertidal, is legally ambiguous, and physically precarious. The two things, we know, are linked.

Do you know what Benoit Mandelbrot said about the length of coastlines? He said they’re of fractal dimensionality and hence of infinite length. Look it up.

This is a book steeped in statistical order. In distributions and representativeness. I do not know how steeped KSR is in statistical knowledge – though, come to think of it, I believe he does talk of representation in the statistical sense. But then still, yes, he has to be. He’s alive, aware, and curious. In the 21st century.

An Outline of New York 2140

Part One. The Tyranny of Sunk Costs (page 1)
a) Mutt and Jeff
b) Inspector Gen
c) Franklin
d) Vlade
e) a citizen
f) Amelia
g) Charlotte
h) Stefan and Roberto
Part Two. Expert Overconfidence (p. 63)
a) Franklin
b) Mutt and Jeff
c) that citizen
d) Inspector Gen
e) Vlade
f) Amelia
g) Stefano and Roberto
h) Franklin
[Charlotte doesn’t get her own section]
Part Three. Liquidity Trap (p. 137)
a) the citizen
b) Mutt and Jeff
c) Charlotte
d) Amelia
e) Inspector Gen
f) Mutt and Jeff
g) Stefano and Roberto
h) Vlade
i) that citizen
[Franklin doesn’t get his own section]
Part Four. Expensive of Priceless? (p. 211)
a) Franklin
b) Charlotte
c) Vlade
d) Amelia
e) a citizen
f) Inspector Gen
g) Franklin
h) Mutt and Jeff
[Stefano and Roberto don’t get their own section]
Part Five. Escalation of Commitment (p. 299)
a) Stefano and Roberto
b) Vlade
c) that citizen
d) Inspector Gen
e) Charlotte
f) Franklin
g) Amelia
h) Inspector Gen
[Mutt and Jeff don’t get their own section]
Part Six. Assisted Migration (p. 375)
a) the citizen
b) Stefano and Roberto
c) Mutt and Jeff
d) Vlade
e) Inspector Gen
f) Franklin
g) Charlotte
h) the citizen redux
i) Stefano and Roberto
[Amelia doesn’t get her own section]
Part Seven. The More the Merrier (p. 451)
a) Vlade
b) Inspector Gen
c) Franklin
d) the city smartass again [aka the citizen]
e) Charlotte
f) Inspector Gen
g) Amelia
h) the city
[Neither Stefano and Roberto nor Mutt and Jeff get their own sections]
Part Eight. The Comedy of the Commons (p. 535)
a) Mutt and Jeff
b) Stefano and Roberto
c) Charlotte
d) Vlade
e) Franklin
f) Amelia
g) the citizen
h) Mutt and Jeff
[Inspector Gen doesn’t get her own section]
Reference

[1] I discussed this article in an old post, “Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece”, originally published in 2006 at The Valve and republished to New Savanna in 2013, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2010/11/disneys-fantasia-as-masterpiece.html

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