When I was asked to review Eric Larsen’s The Decline and Fall of the American Nation (New York: Olivers Arts & Open Press, 2013), I was intrigued by the title. Now I am firmly of the conviction never to apperceive the contents of a book by its title.
So what did I expect? I expected something like a dystopia from economic collapse caused by the offshoring of much of its manufacturing base, by the ever increasing spending on a military and its wars, and a world that had abandoned the US currency. And maybe this was the case, but this is not what the novel is about.
So what should the novel have been called? I suggest a title that would have better clued in a potential reader to the book’s contents is Crapademia.1
Why Crapademia? Because much of it the novel flows from “a deep fear of the latrines.”
The Decline and Fall of the American Nation takes place in the 22nd century – this after The Collapse which began in 2042. What survived the Collapse was the corporate state, including the corporate, hierarchically based universities. The book is focused around the papers of the literature professor Eric Larsen. This is a fictional Larsen, but one suspects there is a deal of autobiography in the novel. Some of Larsen’s papers were found more-or-less intact among the ashes of the burnt-out city. The papers are said to convey “a candid record of the inside workings and structure of the American university as it existed in the Late Ante-Penultimate [2000-2006] and Early Penultimate [2006-2012]…”
However, The Decline and Fall of the American Nation presents a future-imposed interpretation of the Larsen papers — which include diary, student class lists, advertisements, footnotes, and diagrams — as published by the Universities of Asia Press, Beijing in 2147 under the title The Decline and Fall of the American Nation.
The protagonist Larsen works in a window-less office situated below the latrines of the Actaeon College of Institutional Analysis and Social Control, explaining partially the reason his papers were preserved during the conflagration. The latrines are prominent through Larsen’s scatology-laced novel.
From the latrines, Larsen plumbed the fetidness of academia, provided moments of recoil and ribald humor; he then brought the novel full circle when the recalcitrant professor is summoned to university president Penguin-Duck’s spacious office and comes face-to-ass with a surprising revelation.
Title aside, The Decline and Fall of the American Nation is not what one would usually expect in a novel. The author juxtaposes commentary on the here-and-now with glimpses into the past, along with speculations on future. The book is humorous in parts, and in parts metaphysical. Philosophy, art, literature, and aesthetics weave throughout the book.
As a reader I experienced a kaleidoscope of emotions. At times I was riven by the material, and chuckled out loud at its latrine humor; at other times I was pissed off at the creative/unconventional aspects of the novel. In many places, the fragments of Larsen’s papers are presented in fragmentary form. Thus sentences begin but don’t end, and sentences end with no beginning, or sometimes there is just a floating phrase or word. The patterns formed by such fragments evoked a sense of aesthetics, but they also evoked a deep frustration in this reader. I suspect Larsen, the author (not the protagonist) intended this. To be honest, I consider the class lists to be clutter. I suspect though that they were placed in the book for aesthetic reasons. I looked for a pattern, and in that pattern a meaning; I suspect Larsen, the author (not the protagonist) intended this as well.
Were my pissed off moments because of my writing prejudice? One of the tiny ads interspersed throughout the text read:
In another twist on the conventional, in places the footnotes predominate over the main text.
I suspect there is a seriousness that underlies all this, albeit I suspect that Larsen, the author (not the protagonist), may just be irreverently poking a stick at academia. Often when one searches for latent profound meaning there is none; sometimes a piece of literature or a work of art is merely what one reads or sees at the surface. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible one could dive deeply into the matter and come up with all kinds of esoterica to convey almost anything one wishes through the most fanciful connections as the future researchers of the Larsen papers have done.
The Decline and Fall of the American Nation will take the reader time-travelling in many ways, it will take the reader into the bowels of academia, to a farmer’s field discovering the rudiments of photo composition, onto a beam in a barn loft contemplating the adze markings, and into a tempest triggered by a rude student. It will lead the reader to contemplate the meaning of simplified art and contemplate of the meaning of a professor’s life, as the protagonist Larsen put it:
For me, the point of the undertaking, the towering part of the very truth of life I had chosen was the precise opposite of egalitarian: it was the rudimentary assumption: that my students and I were essentially different from one another and that this difference explained why they were students and I was the professor.
Is being different inegalitarian? No. The meaning of the word “egalitarian” has been corrupted by the protagonist Larsen. A simple browsing in a dictionary will transmit the basic meaning of equal rights across a spectrum. Does a professor have more rights than a student? Was this author Larsen provoking?
In an ad for The Writing Center, questions are posed, among them:
3) Is it best for writers just to learn exactly how a reader reacts to their writing,
4) So they can decide for themselves how good or how bad it is and what to do about it?
If one wants to be provoked and challenged by a novel, then The Decline and Fall of the American Nation certainly fits the bill, provoking and demanding reflection on many levels.
- I am sure I came across this word in reading the novel, but I failed to highlight it or write in my notes. [↩]