The Novel at the Center of the World
The Novel at the Center of the World
John Limon surveys the boundaries of the global novel in this review of John Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World and Naomi Klein’s Fences and Windows. Limon traces the trajectory of plot, character, and argument in the genre, as he reads “perhaps the first great global novel.”
I want to suggest that Robert Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World is an anti-globalization novel without an anti-globalization argument. This is not (or not merely) to say that novels cannot make an argument; it is to say that the anti-globalization cause itself cannot make an argument, and therefore requires, at least for the moment, novels. In a limited sense, a book such as Joseph E. Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents does of course make an argument (though it hovers between condemning IMF globalization as disastrous ideology and condemning it as hypocrisy). But it makes its case only by strictly defining “globalization” as the subtlety-challenged economic system that the IMF (and, to a lesser degree, other international agencies) imposes, and as nothing else.
In Discontents Stiglitz is not centrally interested in aspects of globalization that occupy, for example, Naomi Klein: the privatization of public space in North America, the sweatshops of the Philippines and elsewhere, the globalized street resistance to globalization. Doesn’t Klein, then, make an argument about globalization in a fuller sense? No. She makes an argument, it is true, about the resistance. Her thesis is that global corporations sell life images rather than, primarily, material products; that therefore there are no loyal production workers and no rationally convinced customers; that therefore corporations dependent on images are vulnerable to relentless bad publicity and exposure (in tandem with labor organization). As for globalization itself: you will not find either in the compendious No Logo or the telegraphic Fences and Windows a sustained argument evaluating the IMF, or appraising the stupendous Indian or Chinese experiments in privatized globalization; you will not find an argument against the privatization of public space; you will not find, even, a definition of globalization.
I want to stick with Klein for a moment, because several authorities, including the New York Times, assure us that The Fountain at the Center of the World is the novelistic equivalent of No Logo (Garner 7). If Klein’s method, in her non-fiction, is not argument, what is it? It is the untiring illustration of points that she takes, with good reason, to be beyond argument. I am far from criticizing her on this score. The corporate system that she abhors requires tricky trickle-down support: oligarchy is good for democracy; poverty is good for the poor. Or loony if widely embraced visions: one might contentedly live entirely within the Disney brand; one might discover one’s essence in Nike sneakers.
So let Klein have her method of unflagging common sense. Yet at the heart of her enterprise is neither argument nor common sense: it is a world view that she opposes to another world view. This entails an opportunity and a worry. The opportunity, which Klein celebrates, is that globalized markets and labor will produce globalized resistance. (I don’t think Klein sufficiently lets on whether her hope is merely that globalized resistance will have the power to undo some of the damage of globalized production and markets, or whether she nurses the dream of some sort of Utopian reversal, in the way of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, though the hope is only worth the trouble in the latter case.) The worry is that the project of exposing the imaging of the world (in logos, brands, and life styles) can only be accomplished by re-imagining the world. Granted that I have exacerbated the worry by fudging “image” and “imagination” - but the question of anti-globalization must be: can an authentic imagining of the world undermine a phony imaging of the world?
This means that a novel such as The Fountain at the Center of the World might have better credentials as anti-globalization resistance than a study such as No Logo. There is little benefit, of course, to setting up a competition between them. In fact, to Klein’s credit, she senses the requirements of imagination (as the heart of a common sense enterprise) herself. In her titles, for example, she is alert to the problem of emblems as a literary problem. The title No Logo is brilliant, because it is not clear that the title of No Logo is No Logo. When I requested information about the book at my town library, I was assured that it did not own the book, though it owned No Space. If you look at the cover, the title appears to be No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; but if you look at the title page, the title appears to be No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Klein cleverly avoids the incoherence of creating for herself an anti-logo logo as her introduction to the book market.
Something different and more problematic appears, however, when Klein comes to entitle her post-No Logo collection of dispatches from the anti-globalization or counter-globalization trenches. No Logo, as the name of a book, had worked by asserting a privative phrase (“no logo”) into an apparent series of such phrases (no space, no choice, no jobs, no logo), though three of them are descriptions that produce one renunciation (which thus does and does not stand alone), and the result is self-disentitlement (no title). But Fences and Windows focuses not so much on the privations and attendant renunciations of globalization as on the momentum and triumphs of the counter-movement; Fences and Windows is thus (arguably) a counter-globalization rather than an anti-globalization book, hence the need for a positive (global) identification. The globalized world does not need merely an iconoclasm; it requires re-imaging.
Why Fences and Windows? We are tempted to assume that fences must be evil by nature, and Klein is similarly tempted: what she calls “virtual fences,” for example, Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, are “on trial” because they “shut out” people “from schools, hospitals, workplaces, their own farms, homes, and communities” (Klein xxi), and actual fences keep poor workers and families from richer, freer lands. Unfortunately, the metaphor is abstract and variably allegorical: some fences, Klein grants, are necessary, such as the ones that keep private capital out of public space (Klein xix). Fences may not make good neighbors, but at any rate, as in Frost, they keep out monsters. And what is the opposite of a fence: gaps or gates? Surely not windows. The problem is not merely that the metaphor is mixed; the greater problem is that “fences” is already a mixed category. On the other hand, “windows” are asymmetrically, totally benign in Klein’s metaphor. She does not worry about windows of opportunity for the expansion of capitalism.
We can sympathize with Klein’s difficulty: she is publishing a book of pieces of journalism, which entails some disunity and some redundancy, but readers seek a unified picture of a unifying, if not yet fully integrated, world politics. Thomas Friedman, another globalization theorist, is particularly good at obliging with a catchphrase: The Earth is Flat; The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This is partly a marketing issue, though only Friedman would be happy to conceive it that way; it is also a political issue, because both Friedman and Klein are authentically interested in the mobilizing, not the engrossing, power of words. Neither is a litterateur. But a literary issue is necessarily involved as well, even in the least belletristic globalization non-fiction: the world at this moment is in need of a revolutionary method of regarding itself as a world. If this preamble seems a tangential way of considering Klein on the way towards considering Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World, I want to protest, childishly: she started it. When it comes time for Klein to characterize the anti-globalization or counter-globalization movement as a whole, she takes into account its heterogeneity, which is the reason that an “amusing metaphor industry” (22) works tirelessly if perforce futilely to meet its self-invoking needs: is the movement a school of fish or a swarm of fleas or spiders? Klein flippantly writes, “I’m throwing in my lot with hubs and spokes” (21). Even this nonchalance seems to me rather awkward: Klein has no trouble at all imagining the spokes (this environmental movement, that labor movement, this anarchist rebellion, that consumer revolt, this strike, that street festival) but more trouble imagining the hubs (beyond momentary world congresses and protests), and sometimes does not seem to feel the necessity of imagining them. Perhaps the hubs will always be a kind of epiphenomenon of the momentary mobilizing tactics of the spokes.
If the spokes are specific embodied responses to particular practices and outrages, and the hubs represent improvised occasional alliances where spokes need them, is Klein imagining a de-globalization or a counter-globalization of the world? Klein purports to be quite firm on this point: “The irony of the media-imposed label ‘anti-globalization’ is that we in this movement have been turning globalization into a lived reality, perhaps more so than even the most multinational of corporate executives or the most restless of jet-setters” (xv). Still, the dim or corrupt media may not be entirely culpable of false labeling, because - Klein notes with pride and exasperation - “one of the great strengths” of the “laissez-faire organizing” of the movement is that “it responds to corporate concentrations with fragmentation, to globalization with its own kind of localization, to power consolidation with radical power dispersal” (21).
I concede that I am taking gratuitous potshots at a book that is trying to accomplish something beyond nomenclature and tropes. But as preparation for a review of The Fountain at the Center of the World, the relevant oddity of Fences and Windows is its opening-move literariness, which it wants both to emphasize and shrug off, and which I want only to emphasize, in three ways, for the sake of three comparisons. First: Fences and Windows begins with a search, rather forlorn as I have suggested, for a metaphor. Its incipient event is the climactic event of Fountain - the environmentalist, anarchist, labor protest against a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in late 1999 - and its first gambit, doubled in Fountain, is to seek a metaphor that relates Seattle to a world transcending the world of trade. The shared urgency is to find a way, unlike capitalism’s way, to regard the world as a world. Second: Klein’s inclination is to search for her metaphor in the realm of human manufacture: not fish, fleas, and spiders but fences, windows, and computers (spokes and hubs are really sentimental craft analogies of websites and links). Newman’s “fountain,” on the other hand, is a sort of human visualization of the counterpoint of water power and gravity. This retrospect towards nature as opposed to Klein’s vision of activist cyberspace will have repercussions. And third: Newman wishes us to imagine his fountain as located at the center of the world, but Klein’s world has no center, no permanent hubs, no hub of hubs. For that reason, it is not entirely clear, even to Klein, that her international movement is really a counter-globalization, because globes are defined by their relation to centers. Her world is all ramification: the interrelationships of the world are infinite. On the other hand, we may recall Thomas Kuhn’s point about Aristotle: if Aristotle senses that the earth is the center of the universe, he is compelled to believe that the universe is finite. If Newman senses that a fountain is at the center of his earth, he is compelled to believe that the life of the earth is, in a manner to be defined, circumscribed.
Klein begins Fences and Windows, necessarily but unfortunately, with meta-metaphorics, and this beginning of a review of a different book begins with meta-meta-metaphorics, which may seem a long way to backtrack. But Klein as much as Newman believes that the great historical irony of corporate globalization is that it has envisioned the globe as a globe, the world as a world. The world at its maximum complexity is also the world at its maximum unity. This means that the world has become the subsuming aesthetic work. The race is on, among corporations, activists, and novelists, for the victorious global aesthetics. And the novel as a genre, which from the outset has been given over to individuals, linear narratives, and localities, has also from the beginning been the most dislocated, self-conscious, and recursive of genres; in the world of novels we find, from the start, novels, including often enough the novel we are reading. If a search for the proper metaphor of the globe involutes - if every metaphor of the globe must inevitably become a meta-metaphor, because the globe will include that metaphor - then the global novel is what the counter-globalization movement requires. Newman cannot use his novel to argue a coherent position, but he can use it to do something more basic: he can conceive a world in which his position and his novel are valid. That makes necessary a novel that, in the first place, must reinvent almost everything that the novel has traditionally supplied in the way of plots, characters, and settings.
Plots, first. It would be simple to argue that the plot of The Fountain at the Center of the World is surpassingly clunky. Perhaps a quick summary will reveal this, though the quickness will skim over some of the clunkiness. Evan Hatch, adopted by English parents, has developed the fatal symptoms of a disease contracted in Mexico as a baby; off he flies to Mexico to locate his Mexican brother for a tissue transplant. Coincidentally, Evan works in the public-relations wing of global capitalism, while his healthier brother, Chano, is a local anti-corporate environmental activist just recently returned to activism and, in fact, violence for his cause. Meanwhile, Chano’s son, Daniel, raised away from harm in Costa Rica, returns to Mexico in search of his father. Chano, on the lam, comes into possession of his brother’s travel documents and uses them to flee Mexico, to prevent Daniel’s being used by the police as bait. Thus he arrives in Seattle, where his brother had been scheduled to address a corporate public-relations meeting in advance of the WTO conference, and is forced to give a speech himself. Daniel, finding himself (it’s too complicated to fill in all the gaps) on a boat that has no use for him, gets dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, but is rescued by an English trawler that takes him to England, where he comes into the care of two Englishwomen willing to help him try to find his father in Seattle, where they wish to demonstrate against the WTO, anyway. Evan, having himself been dumped to drown (in the Rio Bravo), survives and continues on to Seattle for the WTO meeting. All three protagonists, in the Seattle demonstration and police attack, keep almost coming into each other’s company.
Much local color along the way is convincing, but the plot is not the least convincing. The plot is unconvincing in two senses: it is unrealistic and it is unrealized. We get from it neither a heightened sense of the mingled patterns and contingencies of the world nor the average satisfactions of a well-crafted action. This is intentional. We infer, for example, that Newman means to discourage our hopes for a professionally managed plot when he forces Chano onto the stage to improvise his brother’s speech in Seattle. This is the sort of gimmick that a professional novelist, if he took the trouble to arrange it, would play for extremes of farce or epiphany: Chano triumphs or Chano is destroyed. What happens instead is that the corporate PR audience is puzzled as to what is transpiring; they laugh at what they take as either a pleasing or a bewildering joke. At the end of the speech, the master of ceremonies says, merely, “Thank you … whoever you were” (185), and leaves the matter at that, presumably with Newman’s blessings. We experience similarly inflated generic expectations when Evan, after much strife, is reunited with his brother soon after the speech. Evan finds out that his disease, Chagas, is incurable. The two brothers have a fairly long, but surprisingly temperate, conversation. They wonder about each other’s lives. They stand up for their ideologies. They part. We do not get what we anticipated: either Evan’s abject ideological conversion or the pathetic triumph of family feeling over ideology. Of course, Newman is right to deny us either reduction, but the price is bathos. Evan and Chano might have said, by way of brotherly farewell: So long, whoever you were.
On the other hand, Newman’s writing is most brilliant in Part IV of the novel, which is divided into “Day 1: Tuesday, November 30,” “Day 2: Wednesday, December 1,” “Day 3, Thursday, December 2,” and “Day 4, Friday, December 3” - the four days in 1999 of the Seattle demonstration. His writing in these sections has a convincing hallucinatory quality that captures the intense desultoriness, the stagnant or manic unplottedness, of the event: the enduring of bad speeches, the boredom of organization, the treachery of the union leadership, the anarchy, the looting, the police violence and the agony of chemicals on skin, the chanting and the music, the falling apart and reassembling, the improvising, the joy. The Seattle protest is unplotted per se, and furthermore does not serve Newman’s book exactly as the climax of a plot. Even readers who did not make a cursory preliminary riffling through the pages will know for certain, if they are intuitive at all, that the narrative with all protagonists in tow will arrive at Seattle. That is an obligation, let us say, of the book quite apart from any plot development - one way or another, it hardly matters how, all central characters must wind up there. All three characters, once arrived, are carried on waves of intention or accident this way or that, and they keep almost meeting. Thus the plot, such as it is, keeps almost climaxing, then anti-climaxing and un-plotting. This is beautifully done. For example:
Evan heard police boots adjust minutely in response to something. From out of the tear-gas smoke there emerged first a leg, then an outline, and then Chano Salgado walking calmly and collectedly out of the cloud. For a moment, it seemed to Evan as though his brother was looking straight at him across the unoccupied zone. Chano slowly brought a hand up to thumb and forefinger his eyes, looked up, reoriented himself, put hands behind back, and sauntered on down the middle of the empty street. Just before the line of cops, he turned right. Women blockading the alley parted wordlessly to let him through. They closed over him again and he was gone, Evan staring after. (259)
Chano stands over a curled-up body in the mist at his feet. A billow rolls between them. He crumples the leaf in his palm. He breathes heavily, gas singeing his nostrils, its spiky air scraping his throat. He crouches. Lower down the smoke is less thick. He can see him clearly now.
Here in this strange other world, in the calm center of chaos, in this place where it seems he alone can walk, time has bent and warped. For so much does his son now look like he looked once before: steam all around him, curled up, crying, coughing, spluttering, wailing, and as if abandoned.
Chano strokes the damp hair.
My baby, he says in a slow, quiet voice. Daniel.
Daniel forces an eye half-open. Pain blurs a petrochemical haze. He sees a face floating above him. The lips smile. The voice says: What have they been doing to my boy?
The apparition flies from Daniel’s view, the side of its head clubbed. A soldier’s leg steps over the crumpled figure who stroked his hair and called him Daniel. (286)
In local terms, we grant that if class differentials have riven the lives of brothers, and if corporate and police power have exiled son from father, we have no cause to demand, on purely readerly grounds, a reunion at the patrolled heart of the corporate world. The protest at Seattle cannot be portrayed as the climax of the plot of a reunion novel if it is only the beginning of a revolution that will make possible, beyond the time of the novel, the settled lives of families. The four days of the demonstration in the fourth section of the book feel like a focusing rather than a climaxing of the action. In the haze of gassed Seattle, family apparitions gather and dissipate, as if the novelist were demonstrating the sort of magic (the magic of reunions and resurrections in Seattle mirrors and smoke) that the corporate world has made passé.
I want to return to the way that the novel has much unpredictable action but nothing exactly like suspense and plot - I want to make a claim, eventually, that the global novel, the novel of counter-globalization, must stage an impossible conflict of two temporal senses. For now, however, I want to make a transition to what happens to the notion of characters in the global novel, and the linking concept is transparency. One oddity of The Fountain at the Center of the World is that Newman has no desire, or nothing beyond a half-hearted desire, to create suspense. The characters arrive in Seattle - we knew they would. They do not meet there beyond momentary recognitions - they had better not. We pick up the book wondering about the meaning of “the fountain at the center of the world.” We guess that Newman will follow the technique of Thomas Pynchon: only a few pages before its end are we informed of the denotation of The Crying of Lot 49. But a few pages into Newman’s novel, we are told that Chano can see “the tip of the Sierra de Cruillas, a mountain range the Mayans had believed the center of the world, because when the snow disappears from its peak the world would end. His mind went back to the wayward fountain at El Café Fuente, which last night had slumped and plumed as if registering sine waves of distant forces” (11-12). This does not tell us all we need to know about that fountain or fountains in general or water in general, but it clarifies both the referent and allegory of the title. We may feel some initial quivering of suspense: will the fountain dry up and the world end? But the world in question is the one we read in, so we know that the fountain will be in much jeopardy but cannot be quite dead yet.
Newman is almost saying: it is the intention of corporations to obscure the truth; an anti-corporate global novel must be as clear as possible at every point. So much for suspense. That would be a fair statement of Klein’s working procedure. Regarding Newman, this is more exact: he is saying, I believe, that the truth of corporate power, despite the obfuscation that Evan is professionally in charge of, is already limpid; there is no call for Pynchonesque paranoia. That is why Evan must be professionally in charge of obfuscation. At the beginning of the novel, Chano, tired and hopeless, tries to discourage direct action against water privatization and depletion. Ayalo responds: “Speak truth to power, pinto? You think power don’t know?” (13). If power knows, surely the poor know better: to whom is the powerfulness of corporate power a revelation? The Fountain at the Center of the World will not pretend that it alone comprehends something that it holds in reserve for an ignorant readership of global winners and global losers.
Newman repudiates one other opportunity for suspense. It might have taken him longer to reveal relationships: that Chano, for example, introduced in Mexico in the second section of the book, is the brother whose tissue is necessary to Evan, introduced in England in the first section. It takes all of eight paragraphs for Newman to give it away. In the third section, an anonymous “boy” is introduced in Costa Rica. But by the seventh paragraph, we are told that the boy is named Daniel, the name of Chano’s lost son. It would have been easy fun for the reader to suspect these identities for a long time before they were revealed - it would have been a gratifying winnable test of our generic expertise. Newman, however, wants us not to be guessing what he knows; he wants us to know what we know.
In one sense, then, Fountain repudiates the available mysteries of character. In other senses, too: Chano, Daniel, and Evan are all, in important ways, the same. (Almost all important characters in the book have “an” in their names, including Yolanda, Ilan, and Blas Mastrangelo, as does Robert Newman.) Evan is, like all the corporate insiders of Fountain, cartoonishly cynical and mocking in the first instance: one-dimensional on purpose. (Corporate insiders in the book spend much of their time laughing at their own evil, which discouraged me from experiencing Fountain, by a former stand-up comedian, as a comic novel.) What depth Evan acquires is a function of his illness - he stays in character, in his corporate character, until death, with a surprising access of anti-quixotic nobility. What identities the three protagonists maintain is the corollary of insecure identities: Chano worries consistently about his courage and self-consistency as he falls away from youthful aspirations; Daniel worries consistently about his courage and self-consistency as he gathers himself for a rite-of-passage to adulthood; Evan, at the final rite-of-passage and beyond all aspirations, holds onto the courage of his already ceded selfhood. There are moments when Chano and Daniel are as one-dimensionally poor as Evan is one-dimensionally rich, for the following reason: poverty means improvised surviving rather than the sort of individuating and deepening one may do against a continuous background. (Readers may find themselves caring most about the ficelle Yolanda, center of communication back at the Café Fuente, who stays in place and despite all losses takes responsibility for the destiny of dispersed others; readerly identification with Yolanda as a correspondent human is possible precisely because her suffering deepens in a place.) The main characters seem like versions of each other not so much because of genetics as because they must manage to suggest, the three of them, the unselving intention of the globalized world. It would be a serious betrayal of his outlook if Newman implied that very much hinged on the reunion of one father and one son or on the survival of one ugly Englishman, though formerly the novel as a genre disguised its social impotency by such implications. The dynamic of the microcosm is what matters.
I don’t want to overstate this point: there are many moments when one believes in Chano and Daniel, and even some late moments when one believes in Evan. But here, in a nutshell, is the character problem that the global novel faces:
In 1866 a single, wacky U.S. Supreme Court case (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad) decided for all time that a private corporation was a natural person. And as modern corporations became transnational they soon enjoyed “the legal right of persons” world-wide. Or rather, what used to be the rights of persons before corporations had them as well. (Newman 151)
The simple solution for a novelist writing in the wake of this ruling would be to insist that only persons are persons. But it can’t be quite that easy for global novelists whose purpose is to counter-globalize our collective material perspective: what guarantees the unity of the globe if not God or free trade? What concept would preclude our assumption that the seven billion persons of the planet must be infinitely competitive and atomized when not globally abused? What sort of embodied yet universal life can be put up against the immortality of corporations, many persons but one timeless substance?
In the vicinity of these questions, it is crucial that Newman’s novel is metaphorically both finite (the world has a center) and natural (at the center is a fountain, and at the center of the fountain is water plus the laws of force). The book’s real protagonist is in fact the fountain: personifying the fountain is the book’s counter-globalizing move against the Supreme Court’s personification of the corporation. The fountain (because it works solely by water pressure and gravity) is representative of the unshaped natural world in human shape; it is both subterranean and superficial, and so may be conceived as possessing a depth psychology in some relation to its public behavior; it has a variable personality (“slumping” and “pluming”), which means it may register “everything going on everywhere in the world,” as if it moods were attuned to the globe (11-12). We follow, throughout the book, the state of the fountain’s health: it should be more immortal than corporations, but it seems to be in the same mortal danger as Evan, and in fact the symptoms of his disease equal the symptoms of the fountain’s. This is the fountain in mortal agony: “Ooze seeps out. She [a girl named Iriate] sees how brown water gets corralled by the tiniest twigs; it is overpowered by dust, grit, stones; has to go the long way round the chewed rims of a paper cup. She watches more dark bilge-water seep from the stem” (332). This is Evan in mortal agony: “He cannot breathe. His airways are choked. Aspirated food has floated up in the night. With a desperate scrabbling hand he tries to unblock his throat. He breaks the seal and unleashes a vacuum-sucking, rasping sound. All at once, he gags, splutters, coughs, heaves, chokes, sobs” (322).
Just as mortality has the effect of personifying Evan, who otherwise is a cartoon, it personifies the fountain, which means that the monster that threatens the natural immortality of the fountain also brings it to mortal life. Newman thus proposes a version of Klein’s point that the unintended consequence of corporate globalization is human globalization. Newman’s stranger version of this comeuppance is that before we can become persons again, we must be personified, on the model of the prior personification of corporations and water. At several moments in the novel, water rebels against its pollution and depletion. Towards the beginning of the book, Evan is caught away from his car, outside of London, in a rainstorm; when he returns to his car, it is submerged. It turns out that the river has overflowed and the drains have burst; one bystander observes: “The river is jumping up in the air. Never seen it so fast when it was in the river as it is now when it’s on the street” (75). The bystander is not exaggerating: something happens, in this book, to water’s spirit when it is liberated, which is when it is disinterred. (Like protesters, it comes to life when it illicitly takes over the streets.) In Mexico, part of the Rio Bravo is “too fucked up to hide its junk-food addiction, its substance abuse, its sinister hoardings of trophy tampons and women’s shoes as its crawls along the ground like an old wasp, a groggy ditch mumbling to itself and breeding jejen mosquitoes.” Yet when the river is one day aroused, “it goes on a bender and is discovered next morning sitting mildly and peaceably in the ruined crops, a clumsy swirl of its reach describing a broad, haphazard domain while slurring the words All mine!” (149).
One final example from central London proves that water’s character has its hidden universal depths: “Sprung from its hydrant, above ground for the first time in centuries, the unleashed River Walbrook has become a fountain, jetting high and strong … City of London cops exit both ways, Monica [benefactor of Daniel] is dancing under the spray of the world’s newest fountain” (291). Water always seeks its level, which is a delight or danger to humans if they have previously tried to repress it; the more it has been repressed, the more spiritedly it reclaims its territory. The strange thing here is that the personification of water is effected entirely by laws of nature - it is impersonally personified. Insofar as water is vengeful, it is vengeful entirely without rage or righteousness or will or ideology. It simply reclaims without any staking of a claim. We might be reminded of the terms of a Puritan’s prayer to Christ for salvation - “If thou wilt plead my Case before the King:/ I’le Waggon Loads of Love, and Glory bring” - which is not a deal or a contract; it is testimony to the lowliness of Puritans that they cannot shine the light of love and glory upon God by any other means than reflecting His own prior love and glory (Stanford 1960). Inversely, revenge comes naturally and automatically to nature: humans cannot ruin nature without compelling nature to ruin them. Thus when, in Newman’s view, his allegorical figures are pressed to their deaths, they return to life with a vengeance. This is a way of saying that depersonalized humans (allegorized by corporations and therefore by novels about corporations) show their spirit only at the point of death; it is at that moment that persons personify. The hope when all spirit is gone is in an automatic reflex. The counter-globalization global novel must be populated not by persons but by last-minute personifications.
The new global novel cannot quite have a plot and cannot quite have characters. Can it have a setting? All the protagonists of Fountain, including the prosperous Evan, are fundamentally homeless persons. Evan, Daniel, and Chano spend much of the novel attempting to return home; in the case of Daniel and Chano, returning home means reuniting as father and son; but the epic returning and reuniting never take place. The global novel seems at first merely an updating of the bourgeois novel, in all its transcendental homelessness, as Lukács conceived it. Homelessness, of course, can be redeemed: if the novel cannot represent the epic unity of a society, it can, according to Bakhtin, represent all the popular voices that the voice of unitary power overwhelms. Does homelessness in Fountain make audible the voices of the homeless, including the uprooted poor and deracinated rich?
Yet international trade, in cahoots with national institutions, is itself homeless, and this entails a strange complication in any incipient theory of the global novel. Here is how, at one moment, The Fountain at the Center of the World describes the homeless interconnectedness of power and the poor. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, in opposition to the international trade in drugs, cooperates with pro-dolphin environmentalists to produce a Congressional ban on dolphin-unfriendly tuna fishing; this ban grounds the privatized Mexican tuna fleet, which is also the Mexican drug cartel’s “fleet of choice,” but only for a time, since international investment is not uniformly opposed to the drug trade; for the interval, there is an opportunity for hopelessly unglobalized Costa Rican fishermen to ply their trade in the Gulf of Mexico; this gives Daniel the opportunity to hitch a ride from Costa Rica back to Mexico, which is hardly home for him but where he can search for his father, though his father, to protect him, decamps for the United States (26).
We would wish to re-value homelessness as borderlessness. The Ur-sin of Chano, we eventually learn in the book’s last pages, is that he tried to build a private home for himself, neglecting his obligations to the world at large. Meanwhile, his son Daniel is giving birth to himself as a new species of human, at home in homelessness itself: “The more that everything else was changing, the less uprooted Daniel felt” (293). The problem for our re-valuing this homelessness is that it is more than caused by corporations; it is a mirror of the homelessness of corporations.
We can pursue hope even in this mirroring; Naomi Klein does. Her hope of course is that the human transcending of borders will undo the corporate transcending of borders; the wider the recognition of transnational logos, the stronger the human solidarity against them. The complicating question raised by Newman, in the wake of Lukács and Bakhtin, is whether the corporations and its victims are speaking essentially the same or different languages. Lukács began by regretting the fall from epic unity inscribed in novels, while Bakhtin saw in the disunified novel an opportunity for multiple popular voices to speak against the monotony of power. What, however, if the power that speaks in a monotone is not merely the cause but also the type of homelessness? What if global homelessness is equal, at its source, to global hegemony? Then epic unity cannot be regretted; but the novel may not have access to heteroglossia as compensation. The global novel, if The Fountain at the Center of the World is its paradigm, may represent the worst of two worlds, homeless yet monoglossic.
There are two languages in the book, and sometimes communication breaks down, but the English-Spanish divide doesn’t seem conceptually essential. In a novel that measures globalization by the thickness of the air and water, the universal language of polluters and anti-polluters alike is chemistry, as this selection of extracts from the novel suggests:
“Sodium metabisulfite, said Chano” (12).
“[You have] the organo-phosphates to make a fertilizer bomb, he said” (13).
“[Yolanda] had worked each day with trichloroethylene, alcohol paste, and solvent MIVK … . Their son Oscar Jr. was born with sindrome de Sturge-Weber, his head swollen by toxic fluid” (62).
“[Campden powder is] the bollocks, said Mark. It’s sodium metabisulfite mixed with five parts water” (242).
“For this is the new gas, the CN gas, the Malmstrom Air Force Base Classic Reserve, the vintage ethylated chloride” (291).
It hardly matters whether these words are English or Spanish. The corporations use chemicals to quicken their profits, but the local Mexican cooperative uses them to ferment local corn beer. Police use chemicals to gas demonstrators, but demonstrators use them to palliate the pain of the gassing, and radical activists use them to make bombs. The corporate polluters make one globe of the globe, with one language spoken in it. A counter-globalist does not admire what a corporate globalist stands for, but it may be possible that they can communicate quite fluently. If they communicate in the language of industrial chemistry, is the alternative a return, somehow or other, not to homes but to nature; not even to any particular hometown fountain in Mexico but to fountains as a type of perpetual organic worldwide recreation?
On this point I am not sure Newman will convince everyone. It is not so much that the return to nature is a hopeless nostalgia; it is that nature itself, in Newman, is as atemporal as corporations. By refusing - through his persistent nurturing attention to the life of the fountain - to allow the idea of nature to be lost forever to the past, Newman treats nature as a perpetual present, a perpetual origin, a fountain. This means that he does not imagine a use for history any better than the capitalists. Naomi Klein, if her “spokes and hubs” are really websites and links, is at least in history, though there is a danger in that; the complementary danger is timelessness. It may take a moment for a company here to respond to a better exchange rate here or tax incentive there, but a perfect corporation or investment bank would be a perfect seismograph, instantly registering changes in the potential flow of capital. The difficulty is that Newman refers to his fountain as a perfect seismograph as well, and so allows us to consider the subterranean connection of all bodies of water in a perfect harmony that is merely equal and opposite to the perfect ideal atemporal fluidity of corporations.
Newman does not end his novel with Daniel; he ends it with Chano. Chano has witnessed the Seattle rebellion as a way, so he explains it to himself, of confirming his pessimism; by novel’s end, though he refuses to invest hope in his own life, he feels he can invest hope in his (perhaps never physically proximate) relation with Daniel’s life. Yet he cannot imagine that life, and the book concludes with a rebuke to Chano’s pessimism coming not from Daniel but from Chano’s imagining of his dead wife’s sarcasm. Hope’s final manifestation is in the present’s reunion with the past, Chano and assassinated wife Marisa, rather than in the present’s reunion with the future, Chano and Daniel. Hope survives in relation to a buried point of origin conceptually unburied: Marisa is the undead fountain at the center of Chano’s world. Even globalized hope is centripetal; in peripheral deracinated death we may discover that the center still lives. By involving characters (who exist in systemic rather than interactive relation to one another) in an action that looks forward but does not have the forward momentum of a plot, Newman synchronizes perhaps the first great global novel; but it is unclear, at its end, what the future of the global novel might be.
Garner, Dwight. “The Battle of Seattle.” Rev. of The Fountain at the Center of the World, by Robert Newman. New York Times, 1 February 2004: A7.
Klein, Naomi. Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. New York: Picador, 2002.
—. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador, 1999.
Newman, Robert. The Fountain at the Center of the World. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2004.
Stiglitz, Joseph E. Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton, 2002.
Taylor, Edward. The Poems of Edward Taylor. Ed. Donald E. Stanford. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.