Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose American Life?



What is it about Sarah Vowell that makes me cringe when I hear her voice scratching like chalk across the board?  Is it the peculiar dissonance created by her little-girl, monotonous nasal whine and the precocious humor of her observations?  Is it that she never really manages to get beyond that precocity, the precocity of an odd little darling performing for the grownups?  Is it the compulsive reaching for the next flip quip to keep the interest in her rambling and glib essays alive?  Or is it the deceptively broad range of cultural allusions, mixing high and low as every hipster must who would write for the self styled edgy webzines, belied by the callow understanding of human experience which is the inevitable result of her inability to understand anything except through the lens of her own self absorption?  This is a person whose understanding of politics and history is achieved through minor epiphanies bestowed on her via the miracles of yuppie consumerism:

            Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.

That is Vowell to a T  (pardon the pun).  The history of post-Columbian globalization is reduced to a clever aperçu capped off by a glib punchline.  Sarah Vowell is the reductio ad absurdum of the New Journalism that arose just before she was born.  Instead of the punk prose of deranged reporters like Thompson or Herr, who were intent on looking deep down the abyss, we get the urban hipster staring into the froth of her extra grande café mocha and lamenting the unquiet spirits of those who died so that Starbucks customers might live – and pay too much for their overhyped coffee.  In the end the thing about Vowell’s American histories and her sympathies for the downtrodden Other whom History has stomped and kicked aside, is that they are, ultimately, relentlessly self referential.  It is the boomer bourgeoisie at its most annoying – cosseted, precocious, eagerly identifying with whatever Other is in fashion but never actually spanning the gap, a bit guilty about its privileges, but too comfortable to do anything about it, except contemplate its own disquiet.